Genteel Slander

Commentary: Center Field

A Washington Post puff piece lends its subject respectability. Last Friday’s was titled, ”Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile.” The subject was Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which is moving to the nation’s capital. Reporter Monica Hesse wrote that Brown sounds more reasonable than incendiary types like Pat Robertson. That is true — and that is what makes him dangerous.

Hesse wrote of Brown, ”He means nothing personal. He is never accusatory or belittling. His arguments are based on his understanding of history, not on messages from God that gays caused Hurricane Katrina.” Well of course it’s not personal for Brown; his marriage is not at stake.

Brown said, ”It’s all about the way things have always been done.” In other words, the future should resemble the past. Why on earth should we accept this? Our republic began with a revolution — as Lincoln put it, ”conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Our history has been a long struggle to fulfill that promise. Saying ”I’m not homophobic, I’m just defending the traditional values of this country,” merely repackages dogma. America’s strength is in challenging the past, not enshrining it.

Ex-gay advocates are another example. They remind me of a journalist friend’s comment that one of the most pleasant and genteel people he ever interviewed was David Duke, ”but despite his quiet and courteous demeanor, he was spewing racial hatred.” Ex-gay advocates talk of love, but in the context of wanting to save us from the ”affliction” of homosexuality. They talk as if all gay people were molested as children and are repressing terrible memories. Stating such slanders politely does not make them any less pernicious.

Countering the lies does not require nastiness, just firmness. On July 8, the day Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sued the U.S. government over discrimination against same-sex married couples by the application of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, I debated Bishop Harry Jackson on the local CBS television affiliate. Jackson, who had unsuccessfully sought a referendum on D.C.’s new marriage-recognition law, was all smiles. I said that his position amounted to a denial of gay people’s existence, and pointed out that there are 16,000 same-sex married couples in Massachusetts. The children of those couples, I said, deserve equal protection of the law.

Jackson expressed concern that children learn of homosexuality at too young an age. I said that as a child I figured out that I was gay despite being inundated by recruitment efforts on behalf of heterosexuality. He said that gay activists have been clever in our ”gamesmanship” around the country with our use of the legal system to advance our cause. I replied that when he uses the legal system, he considers it exercising his rights, yet when we do it he accuses us of playing games. ”That’s insulting and it’s absurd,” I said.

Afterward, Jackson graciously offered me a lift home. On the way, I told him that my colleagues and I in the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance had noticed that his lawyers, in a brief, made extensive use of information on domestic partnerships from our Web site. He said his lawyers know good legal work when they see it. I said that his complaint that D.C. voters had been denied a voice on marriage recognition was contradicted by the fact that D.C.’s 13 councilmembers and Mayor Fenty were all elected by D.C. voters. I added that his seeking a vote on my marriage struck me as an affront. He said he understood how it would appear that way from my point of view. That was nice, but in fact he conceded nothing.

We must be civil toward our opponents if we seek to persuade the public instead of merely venting our anger. But in the face of a relentless assault on the legitimacy of our lives, some indignation is in order. Effective activism is not a brawl, but neither is it a dinner party. Creating change requires sharpness and clarity. Marshal your key points in succinct, vivid phrases. Don’t insult your opponents but dispute their assumptions. Point out with specificity the harm they seek to do to our families, and make it clear — including to journalists like Ms. Hesse — that denying our rights is not the least bit decent.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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