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The Gays Are Winning – And the Religious Right is Losing: What Nontheists Can Learn from the Success of the Homosexual Rights Movement

The gays are winning. The culture war. The same culture war that religion is losing. Do not think that the gains of the former are not connected to the loses of the latter. Do realize that atheism is the friend of gay rights in a way that religion can never be, and that the gay cause is to the benefit of secularism. And that the rise in the fortunes of gays has important lessons for the atheist cause.

When I pointed out that the gays are winning a couple of years ago at OpEdNews it did not seem as obvious what with the laws and amendments banning same sex marriage. And hate crimes against homosexuals continue. But the opening of the U.S. military to the service of out of the closet gays for the first time in the nation’s history, the lopsided Senate vote to that effect with major Republican support, and the large majority popular support for the historic change is making the success of the same-sex crowd undeniable. But to get an even better appreciation of how far gays have come let’s conduct a thought experiment.

Get a time machine. Go back to, say, 1958. Destination, any well-populated place in America will serve our purposes. Stand on a heavily traveled sidewalk with a clipboard and pencil and pretend you are doing a survey. Ask folks as they pass by if they think gays, err, homosexuals, will ever be able to get married. Or serve without discrimination in the Army. Here's what will happen. Chances are fair you will get beat up, especially if you are in the south. After all, they are still into lynching the occasional black. Even if you don't get assaulted, people will look at you like you are insane. What's that? Homos carrying guns in the Marines. Getting married? Who could be crazy enough to imagine such a thing? What are you, some sort of pervert? Perhaps a faggot red (back when red meant pinko)? Who did you say you're taking this survey for? Get back on the time machine, quickly. Move forward in time to, say, 1988. Do the same thing. Chances that you'll get beat up will be far less. And remember to say gay, not homosexual. But the ultimate response will be similar. Gays, getting married? Say what?

The right has, of course, skillfully exploited the current situation they find themselves in to the maximum that is possible. In 2004 the GOP may have handed themselves the election by making the issue into a classic wedge issue - had gay marriage not been on the Ohio ballot it is possible Bush would have lost the state and the presidency to boot. And the reaction against the sudden appearance of the issue of married gays is not surprising considering that America was deeply homophobic just a generation or two ago. But that is just the point. The right is making the best of a very bad state of affairs. That the traditionalists find themselves in the mind boggling position of actually having to go to the trouble to get laws and amendments passed to keep homosexuals from, heaven forbid, literally marrying one another, is a circumstance they could not have imagined would ever befall them and the nation. That three state supreme courts have endorsed gay marriage is a reflection of the 21st culture, such decisions would not have been possible back in the 1900s, even the 1990s. That all this has occurred in such a short time only adds to the shock, it makes starkly clear just how much cultural ground they have lost over the last half-century, and the last decade. Could there be a clearer sign that the sodomite end times are nigh and Satan is having his way?

The movement of the gays into the cultural mainstream is a campaign within the culture war that the social and religious right absolutely must win, losing is simply not an option. Conservative Christianity always needs an "enemy" with which to rally the troops. For many years hard core Protestants targeted Catholics, Jews and especially blacks, but that is no longer an option. Many blacks have proven to be theocons, and are a bastion of faith-based homophobia. So are conservative Catholics, who have had to become the theologically perverse allies of the evangelical right. But gays are different. Not only is there no way the same sex crowd are going to be arch-conservative Christians, there is just no way society at large can accept gay persons, culture and sensibilities while embracing traditional, Bible-based piety at the same time. They are just too mutually antagonistic, its like bringing two opposed magnets together, it just won't work. How can America be traditionally religious if same sex couples are wandering about holding hands and – heaven forbid – even kissing in public! It's one or the other that can be mainstream. And not having blacks and Jews to go after anymore, theocons need homosexuals to pick on and demonize as they proclaim their love for all sinners. These reasons are why the right is so zealous and virulent in their opposition to gaydom. It's an absolute must.

And there's the problem for the right. The strides gays have made are truly breathtaking in their scope and swiftness, paralleling those made by blacks a couple of decades earlier. May I offer an illustration?

American Express is not exactly a warren of airy fairy lefty infidels. Back in the 70s and 80s its lead spokesman was Karl (Don't Leave Home Without It) Malden, who had co-starred as WW II General Omar Bradley in Nixon's favorite movie, Patton. But by the 90s straight arrow Americana was out and culturally tolerant youthful hip was in. So the suits at AE got themselves a new main spokesperson. Jerry Seinfeld, co-creator and star of the megasitcom. In the classic episode "The Outing" Jerry and his best buddy George are mistaken for being gay by a cute female reporter from NYU. The news goes national, much to the distress of Jerry and George's folks, one of whom ends up in the hospital with the shock of it all. The two spend the rest of the episode denying that they are so deeply interested in one another while emphasizing "not that there's anything wrong with it."

Pro-gay Seinfeld reigned back in the Clinton years. American Express replaced him as we entered the Bush II era, the age of a Great Awakening by the evangelical movement that is supposedly sweeping the nation. So the suits at AE picked someone to better reflect this traditionalist, post 9/11 age, right? Perhaps a patriarchal Christian authority figure. Certainly a known heterosexual. Not even close. The recent chief spokesperson for the world's premiere credit card company is....

Ellen Degeneres.

Ellen is not merely pro-gay, or even just gay, but she has gone to great lengths to proclaim that she is a flaming proud lesbian, to the point of engaging in the first woman-to-woman kiss on network TV. She is now married to her wife in the great state of California. Nor is Ellen Christian, she is a paganish New Ager. The people at AE are in no way naïve waifs who picked Ellen just because she is the cutest thing. They were not only fully aware of the sexual orientation of Ms Degeneres, but the marketing people - many selected by higher ups for specifically for their youth because they have a valuable generational knowledge base -- concluded that Ellen is a talented and appealing comedic personality who would engage to the cohort of young consumers that AE wants to start using The Card right now because she is the nation’s most popular homosexual. AE calculated not only that Degeneres' gaydom would not be a serious problem, but that it was a major advantage. Because the popular culture has gone pro-gay.

Consider who appears on Ellen's talk show. John McCain for one. This after he won the primary contest to become the GOP contender for President of the USA. Why would the leader of the party of the right go on Ellen's show, where she dressed him down for opposing gay marriage? Because he and his advisors knew that they needed a big portion of the youth vote come November, and Ellen is an opinion maker among younger Americans. Visiting Ellen about the same time where Laura and Jeana Bush. Their purpose was to promote the younger Bush's new book in the all important youth market. Did their father care either way? Probably not.

Contrast the fate of Ellen with that of Anita Bryant. Some three decades ago the former beauty queen was making a nice living as the squeaky clean All-American spokesperson for the Florida orange growers. Then she blew it. A devout theocon, Anita decided to take on the rising gay movement. Why is not entirely clear. Having since taken a less confrontational live-and-let-live attitude towards homosexuality, Anita claims her overbearing husband of the time put her up to it. In any case the results were not ambiguous. Her career was wrecked. Those on the right can claim a bias in favor of the left when comparing the Ellen and Anita stories, but that would be misleading. The folks at the Florida orange growers may have had some sympathy for their spokeperson's anti-homo opinions. But that she had actually gone public with them in a big way left them appalled. She had transformed their refreshing and popular product into a subject of social controversy. If there is one thing that corporations do not want to have happen is to their precious merchandise is for it to become a subject of societal contention. Especially when their spokesperson is being compared to Hitler and boycotts are rearing their ugly heads (in contrast to Anita, Ellen is not attacking anyone else – gays do not want to keep the heteros from getting married or serving in the military -- she is just being who she is). Naïve Anita did not understand that in commerce the bottom-line rules. She had to go, and Anita was quietly shown the door.

Anita did not just lose her career, the cause she promoted is on the losing side of history as well. And it is in part for a reason – that being the free market of ideas and commerce that the radical right she belongs to so adores – that the radical right does not get. The corporations are among the gays’ best friends. The reason for that is simple enough. In the Darwinian struggle that is capitalism the primary aim of the corporate world is to make as much money as possible, and going gay is one way to do so (much as the corporate effort to help bring blacks into the societal mainstream has boosted their bottom line).

It's not just American Express and fruit growers who think its just great when gays use their products and services. According to the Human Rights Campaign the American workplace continues the long-term trend of becoming friendlier to gays and transsexuals as corporations fight in-house discrimination and enhance benefits for nonheteros. When usually socially savvy Microsoft was sufficiently inept to announce that it was backing away from supporting state level improvements in gay rights because of concerns raised by Christian employees they got so much flack that they quickly reinstated their long standing advocacy for homosexuals. And look at the company Henry Ford - an old fashioned cultural traditionalist to the core -- created. A few years Ford Motor was running ads for its Jaguar and Land Rover subdivisions in gay publications, and was receiving praise from nonhetero groups for its pro-gay policies. The arch-evangelical American Family Association decided to put a stop to that sort of thing. AFA owns some 200 radio stations and boosts that it has 3 million members. Who was going to get in their way? In May 2005 they initiated a boycott against Ford for providing marriage benefits for same-sex couples and giving "thousands of dollars to support homosexual groups and their agenda." Late in 05 Ford dropped the ads in the gay publications. A victorious AFA agreed to cease the boycott. Much fury ensued from the gay lobby. They were not about to put up with this sort of nonsense. After Ford executives met with gay activists who announced that the discussions were "incredibly productive" the company reinstated the advertisements, and affirmed that they will continue their other gay friendly policies. So there you have it. Yet another set of corporate suits looked at the culture and after doing the sociological calculations handing another social defeat to the religious right. The gay lobby proved more powerful than the Christian traditionalist lobby. (Ford has since dropped the ads as the company’s implosion has forced massive corporate restructuring.) Bigotry theocon style is eroding, to the degree that the religious right is no longer a serious commercial concern to the free marketeers at American Express, Ford and Microsoft.

And there's Disney. Long gay friendly because so much of its creative talent is oriented thusly, it has taken to brushing off periodic critiques from the right who cannot stand that the all American family values corporation is so anti-traditionalist. Remember how the nation just laughed when Pat Robertson warned that the Disney dominated Orlando area was just asking for the loving God's wrath via one of His righteous hurricanes? God pick on Disneyworld?

On the front page of The Washington Post, in April 2007, they ran an article headlined "Disney's Theme Weddings Come True for Gay Couples" that began with the following news.

Same-sex weddings are coming out at Disneyland. Walt Disney Co. said yesterday [Good Friday] that gay couples can buy the company's high-end Fairy Tale Wedding package that allows them to exchange vows at Disney's theme parks and aboard its cruise ships, starting at about $4000 per wedding.

People, I do not make this stuff up. The company Walt built is offering their lavish wedding package - please, no comments about the inclusion of a certain word in its title -- at its venues to happy couples of any orientation. Why hip gays would wish to go down this tacky path to matrimony might be open to question, but what is important to this tale is that the power of their community grows to the frightened fury of the right. The entertainment industry at large is packed to the gills with gay talent and sensibilities. Always has been, always will be. Getting the gays out of the media is ethically as vile as Goebbel's elimination of Jews from the German culture, but practically it is probably less doable. Instead, openly homosexual characters have suddenly become normal on television and in the movies. Sometimes it is blatant as per Will & Grace. Other times it is more subtle. A couple of years ago there was a nice kids film, MGM's Good Boy!, about how canines are really aliens sent from a distant star system to take over the planet from us mere apes. I could not help noticing that one of the lesser dog characters was owned by two handsome, young, clean cut guys living in the same house. They really seemed to like each other.

General Electric owned NBC, which operates the cable news network MSNBC, which has gone all liberal and gay friendly in its primetime lineup in order to compete with theocon and bash the gays when you can get away with it FoxNews. What follows Chris Matthew’s Hardball and Countdown with Keith Olbermann ? Why The Rachel Maddow Show.

Same sex partners live openly in many communities with little fuss and bother in a manner simply not imaginable in the 50s. Actually criticizing gays and their lifestyles in mainstream media these days is a cultural taboo, it's easier to go after those wacky fundamentalists. Half of Americans think that homosexual behavior is okay. No way that was true when Ike was president, or when Ronnie was in the White House for that matter. Gays are so much a part of the culture that a word once used to describe a happy state of mind now describes a sexual orientation. A 1978 CBS poll found that nearly two thirds of Americans thought homosexual relations were wrong and a quarter did not, these days a strong majority think it is OK. In 1978 a quarter of Americans would have voted for a known homosexual for president. Now 60% say they are willing -- still way below blacks and Jews but a tremendous improvement (bring well above the level of support for atheists). When General Peter Pace was politically incorrect enough to say being gay was immoral he was slapped down pronto. When Bush II was asked by a Fox reporter if he agreed with the general that homosexuality is immoral George declined to give his viewpoint – either being .

A poll of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan found that three quarters had been comfortable interacting with gay comrades. 18 to 29 year olds who favor gays openly serving their county rose by half to over nine in ten in ten years. It is all the more fascinating that youth has become remarkably gay friendly even as many schools in the Bush era taught that same sex is a no-no. Even more remarkable is that PEW finds that levels of tolerance are increasing among older folk. Even in the red states acceptance of gays is rising among the youth. Gays being soldiers, sailors and airmen and women has come to enjoy major majority support. Support for same-sex marriage is also moving into majority territory, it already being strongly so in younger folk.

Why is the propaganda of the right not working nearly as well as they want? Blame the general rise in tolerance for minorities. If blacks are OK, and Jews, etc. too, then why waste the energy going after the homosexuals? Bigotry is hard work. Do dedicated followers of Jesus always have to be mad at someone? So just be nice. Making it even worse is that gays in the main are turning out to be pretty decent folks. Why pick on them? How often do gay men rape women and beat their wives? It's the hetero men who do that. It is turning out that gay marriages are more equitable than the hetero versions – when the partners are the same sex they are not likely to have problems sorting out who does most of the housework. What happened in Massachusetts when they allowed gays to wed. Did folks start having sex in the streets? Did heterosexual couples start divorcing so they could hitch up with their new same-sex lovers? Actually marriage and divorce rates have remained stable.

The Rodney King effect is so strong it is not just youth in general that is going pro-gay, young theocons are too. On a PBS News Hour segment young evangelicals discussed how they found their conservative values challenged as some of their Christian friends came out, and they did not seem to be the depraved, Satan guided sinners church doctrine claims they are. While only one in ten older evangelicals support gay marriage, about a third of those under 20 do.

Here's the theocon elite's problem. They cannot outright condemn homosexuals because that sort of thing won't fly in these tolerant times. It's not like when you could burn deviants alive, or stone them to death. So they have to tell the flocks to "hate the sin, not the sinner." That's as wimpy as it is muddled. If gays are not evil per se, then why give them such a hard time in the first place? Live and let live.

Nothing better reveals how Christian traditionalism is shooting itself in the foot as it loses the culture is the gay experience since the events at Stonewall in 1969, when patrons of the Greenwich Village gay bar battled with the raiding police because they figured they just were not going to take it anymore -- of course the Big Apple now adores its gays. When AIDs showed up many theocons presumed it was the Lord's just punishment for the wicked, and predicted an end to the rise of the sodomizers. That did not happen. Yet again the right over reached with vindictive slurs against the victims of a vicious disease whose courage in facing the epidemic improved their image in the eyes of the mainstream. The astonishingly swift rise in the fortunes of Amerohomosexuals is another example of how things can turn in an instant against the essential interests of the right, and why they have excellent reason to be trembling in their boots considering that even Christian America can make such a profound secular style switch in a historical blink of an eye. Look what happened in Spain. Not so long ago the devout Catholic buddy of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco, ruled the nation; it was during the first year of Saturday Night Live that faux news anchor Chevy Chase repeatedly poked fun at the dictator's lingering death. Now Spain is a progressive democracy where gays can get hitched. And divorced. A few months ago I enjoyed some time in a rural Spain – dinners at 10 PM, the food, it was great. The towns have one or two Catholic churches. Built centuries ago. Not enough pews to accommodate the locals, few of whom bother to turn out for mass. No other churches, much less mega versions. They like most Euros have moved on.

About divorce, that brings up Anita Bryant again. She was not able to switch from promoting juice to right wing causes because her divorce ruined her credibility with conservative Christians. This was ironically unfair – the Ronald Reagan the conserves made Prez was a divorcee, the McCain they tried to make Prez is an adulterous divorcee, the Gingerich who will run for Prez is a serial adulterer divorcess, and born-again Christians split up at very high rates. Evangelicals have done so much damage to holy matrimony that their attempt to slander gay marriage as a threat to the heterosexual version of the institution comes across as laughably hypocritical, further damaging the credibility of the anti-gay movement.

The broader trends are against the American right as well (articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/27/opinion/la-oew-paul-religion-secularism-20101027). The conservative Christian minority has peaked and is in decline as major right wing sects such as the Southern Baptists report that "evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration." Of course, Christian homophobia is based upon scripture. The thing about that is that according to Gallup Bible literalists made up about four in ten Americans back in the 1970s, but have been steadily slipping and are now approaching a quarter. Meanwhile the folks who think the Bible is more legend than reality and think gays are a fine lot are gaining fast and will soon match and surpass the literalists. That can't be good for the bigots. Neither is how youth is markedly less religious than prior generations as church membership and attendance continue a decades long slide to new lows. Meanwhile those who do not believe in a supreme being have ballooned from a couple of million in the 1950s to some 60 million today, rivaling evangelicals in numbers. Atheists and agnostics are not known for picking on gays.

There is no choice for fervent Christianity. Gays without fail must be stopped, and stopped really soon or the traditionalist movement and ardent faith will shrivel into pathetic impotence. The hard right knows this. And looking at the big picture many theocons sense, correctly, that they are losing. The recent success in passing bans on same-sex marriage is better than the failure to do the same, but it is no great victory for the right. It is a frantic rear guard action intended to stem a tsunami of culturo-sexual tolerance that patriarchal faith cannot survive. That gay marriage is now permanently ensconced in a number of states means that the institution is not going away. All the more so since gays are flocking to states that allow them to get hitched, where they boost the local economy as they spend their hard earned cash. The Republicans can no longer use gay marriage as an election determining wedge issue, and they fear that the right of homosexuals to die for our country will shift the majority opinion towards gays having the corresponding right to marry – the shift seems to be happening to Obama. The rise of the gays is contributing to the decline of hard-core religion, and it looks like things are only going to get worse for the Bible believers.

Here's the trouble. For the right wing bigots that is. The theocon elites have no viable mechanism for actually reversing the ascent of the gays and put them back in their apartheid closet. How is that going to work? Gays are no more willing to be driven back out of the mainstream society than blacks are going to resubmit to Jim Crow. This has been made apparent by the reaction of the gay community to the spiteful bigotry of the withdrawal of gay marriage in California. They are not going to lie down and take it anymore. Nor are evangelical groups that convert gays to the straight side convincing more than a diminutive fraction of homosexuals to switch teams -- as Elaine and Kramer each tried in Seinfeld. As one of the gay characters proudly proclaimed at the end of HBO's Angels in America it's too late, the gay cat is out of the bag and is not going back.

So what do gays have to teach the secular movement? A lot. There are still those out there -- Chris Mooney comes to mind -- who contend that atheists should be good and behave themselves and not risk offending the religious majority lest we suffer blowback for daring pointing out the fact that religion has no clothes as have impolitic upstarts like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens. The all-nontheists-must- be-wimpy thesis has no particular psychosociological support. Check out the chapter in Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s UnScientific America arguing that atheists should not be strongly assertive. Not a single scientific study is cited – i. e. the chapter is unscientific. The lack of citations is not surprising because there is no science that backs the belief.

Gays stand as a classic example of how getting in the face of the opposition works. At Stonewall gays were not polite, they beat up the police that had been beating them up. For years flamboyant gays were urged to tone it down lest they offend the straights. So they kept offending the straights and gays have made tremendous gains. It is basic psychology that the base of a movement needs to be encouraged and rallied by uncompromising and strong calls for action that those it makes uncomfortable label strident. Like when blacks started saying they had had enough and told off the white bigots. Being strident worked for them too. It is also an elemental sociopolitical strategy to redefine the debate in your direction by making hard-hitting, uncompromising declarations. Right up to the overturn of the don't ask don’t tell policy homosexuals were putting on the pressure and getting the results.

If there is an American group that suffers even more bigotry than gays it is atheists. Most Americans won’t marry or elect one. What is needed is a multi-pronged approach with secularists adopting the degree of forcefulness they feel most comfortable with on an individual and organizational basis (rather than futilely lecturing everyone else to conform to the level they happen to prefer). To speed up the fine day that nonsupernaturalists can – as is already true in Europe -- get elected to offices as or more easily than supernaturalists requires that a cohort of assertive atheists be in the faces of the theists. It worked for blacks, it is working for gays, and it will work for atheists.

Freeman, Shoenn. “Ford Faces Renewed Conservative Boycott," The Washington Post 3/14 (2006).

Joyce, Amy. "Majority of Large Firms Offer Employees Domestic Partner Benefits." The Washington Post 6/30 (2006).

"Young People Express Views on Religion, Politics." PBS Newshour 1/2/07.

Edgell, Penny, Gertels, J. and Hartmann, D. Atheists s "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society. American Sociological Review 71: 211-234, (2006) show the discriminatory attitudes most Americans have towards the atheist minority.

TAGGED: COMMENTARY, HUMAN RIGHTS


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