Last edited: February 06, 2005

Are We Seeing a New ‘Tipping Point’?

Recent events suggest good changes for the gay community.

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 6, 2003
PO Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101
Fax: 215-854-4483

By Malcolm Lazin

According to author Malcolm Gladwell, a “tipping point” occurs when gradual trends of social change cross a certain threshold and become widespread social consensus.

If so, 2003 could be the year the tipping point comes for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) civil-rights movement.

For such movements, tipping points come when a social construct called prejudice—or, more specifically, homophobia—for the GLBT community undergoes significant change. Forty years ago, politicians such as Lester Maddox, George Wallace, and Strom Thurmond got elected by being overt racists. In 2003, a suggestion of a supposedly better bygone day got Trent Lott banished from Senate leadership.

Thirty years ago, opportunities for women were largely limited to the careers of teacher, nurse, secretary and wife. A tipping point changed a 2,000-year-old social construct of woman as a husband’s property.

Now we have signs of significant change for the GLBT community. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned laws that criminalized same-sex consenting intimacy. In a 6-to-3 decision, the court concluded that gay Americans deserve respect and have a constitutional right to personal liberty.

Canada, which shares with us a dominant language and a continent, has authorized gay marriage. New Hampshire’s Episcopalians selected as their bishop an openly gay man in a long-term relationship. Family-marketed Wal-Mart joined more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies in offering workplace discrimination protection to its GLBT employees.

CBS received only 10 calls and 46 e-mails out of 8 million viewers about a kiss between songwriters Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman at this year’s Tony Awards. Bravo has announced Boy Meets Boy, a gay reality show to compete with CBS’ new series Charlie Lawrence, which includes Nathan Lane as a gay congressman. Ratings for Will and Grace, Six Feet Under, Queer As Folk, among other programs with gay themes and characters, remain high. All are watched by a diverse gay and mainstream audience.

As recently as an April interview with the Associated Press, Sen. Rick Santorum was questioning whether Americans had a constitutional right of privacy in their bedroom. Two months later, the Supreme Court affirmed that constitutional right for all Americans.

Clearly, GLBT civil rights remain an uphill battle. Even though 28 states, including Pennsylvania, offer hate-crime legislation, even after Matthew Shepard and many other murders and assaults, no federal laws provide such protection to gays. Neither Pennsylvania nor federal law provides workplace discrimination protection, even though recent polls demonstrate that 88 percent of Americans and 83 percent of Pennsylvanians favor GLBT inclusion.

The Boy Scouts insists on policies that exclude GLBT youth. In too many public schools across the land, students and teachers can use the word faggot without any discipline. The Department of Defense, the nation’s largest employer, sanctions and facilitates homophobia by prohibiting gays in the military. This is clearly blind prejudice, especially when all of our NATO allies except Turkey have openly gay personnel without problem.

The ultimate absurdity of the don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy was exposed when our commander-in-chief and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld welcomed British military personnel with their gay soldiers to fight side-by-side with our service members in Iraq. Israel’s military has gay personnel. Only gay Americans are statutorily denigrated as they bear arms for their nation.

Vermont stands alone among the states in allowing gay civil unions. Thus, GLBT citizens are deprived of a fundamental liberty: the right to choose, and have civil law affirm, one’s life partner. Such homophobia causes patent discrimination in custody, adoption, immigration, Social Security and pension benefits, hospital visitation, and inheritance, to name but a few deprivations. Gays do not ask for special rights—merely the same rights enjoyed by all other Americans.

Congress has overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the implication of which is that homosexuality endangers heterosexual marriage. But I know of no American who has one child fewer, no heterosexual husband or wife who abandoned a spouse because a gay or lesbian couple was living in the neighborhood.

As for child-rearing, studies strongly demonstrate that gays and lesbians make good parents. Yet Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) recently pandered to the far right by calling for a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex civil unions. If enacted, that amendment would trump states’ rights by eliminating the right of each state to make that choice.

As we approach the 2004 presidential election, President Bush needs to prove himself a leader. Leaders unite. They call on us to fulfill the American dream. As Texas governor, Bush opposed hate- crime protection for gays. After he became president, the measure swiftly passed in Texas and was signed by his successor, also a Republican.

Patrick Guerriero, former mayor of Melrose, Mass., and now executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, has opined that President Bush needs to decide whether gays are part of the American family and Republican Party. The President needs to state—and demonstrate by his actions—that homophobia and compassionate conservatism are incompatible. In 2004, presidential candidates will not be allowed to hide in a political closet.

That’s because gay Americans are a growing political force. In exit polls in recent federal elections, about 5 percent of voters identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. We are being joined by our parents, families, neighbors, co-workers and friends. With gays coming out of the closet, and with the benefits of positive media coverage, the tipping point will be reached. The question is not if, but when. When engaged by a civil-rights movement, Americans have recognized again and again that our inalienable rights are the birthright of all Americans.

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