Free To Be

Free speech deserves to be defended, especially when it offends us

The recent advertisement on Metrobuses calling for a referendum to repeal the District’s hard-won legislation guaranteeing marriage equality was many things.

It was an egregious attack on equality motivated by some of the rankest homophobia. It was a political assault on home rule for D.C. and civil rights for all Washingtonians. It was an offensive attempt to relegate the city’s LGBT citizens to second-class status.

But there was one thing it was not: obscene.

Unfortunately, it’s that last word that’s been bandied about by leaders of Full Equality Now DC!, a group affiliated with last fall’s National Equality March, who over the holidays not only spoke out against the anti-gay bus ads but advocated the idea that the ads should have been refused by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) because the ads were obscene and advocated for a referendum that had already been rejected by the District as illegal under the city’s human rights law.

Everyone should be clear about the word ”obscene” and its long history as a weapon used against LGBT equality — there are those today who oppose LGBT rights who consider our very existence obscene. In the nascent days of the gay movement, one of the earliest victories was ending the U.S. Postal Service’s policy of not mailing gay materials that it deemed ”obscene.”

The idea that an offensive political argument against LGBT equality is obscene and deserving of government censorship is a — for lack of a better word — perversion of the concept of obscenity. Worse, it is exactly the type of tactic that anti-gay groups have continually harped about in connection with hate-crimes legislation and other pro-LGBT advances.

Given our own movement’s debt to the First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech, it’s more than a little unwise to entangle the city’s LGBT population in a fight to deny those same guarantees to others — no matter how offensive, or even vile, they may be.

While we rightly argue that our civil rights should not be decided by majority vote, LGBT equality still remains a political question that has to be decided through the political process. That means everyone, whether for us or against, must be able to exercise their free-speech rights.

Some argue that prominent LGBT people are doing a disservice to our community by defending our enemies. I would say that we do a disservice to our community if we don’t defend the fundamental principles that form the basis of our rights as citizens and the equal rights we seek as LGBT people.

And those rights don’t include a right not to be offended by public political arguments. While I’m generally loathe to make slippery-slope arguments, if the purpose is to cleanse the government-subsidized WMATA bus and subway system of anti-gay political messages that make us uncomfortable or angry, why stop there? The Postal Service is government subsidized; perhaps it shouldn’t be sending bigoted anti-gay political ads and fundraising appeals.

It can be tempting to adopt the tactics and techniques once used against us in our efforts to achieve equality. After all, unlike our opponents, we have noble goals and pure intentions. We believe we’re justified because we want to right the wrongs that were done to us.

When it’s us, it’s different.

And the day we convince ourselves of that is the day we look in the mirror and see we’ve become exactly what we’ve fought against.

Sean Bugg can be reached at .

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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