When the request from Shawn Fettig came to write about what the post-election future holds for the LBGTQ community, my first thought was to say that I had hung up my predictor hat, having been, like so many others, wrong about the 2016 election. Or to respond that Trump himself is not predictable: he doesn’t seem to remember his position on any given day or even five minutes before. Did anyone expect him to say during his 60 Minutes interview that he was “okay” with same-sex marriage? Will that stick? I concluded that my only response to Shawn about the future could be “who knows?”
But, as it happens, I’ve spent the last month sorting through old files from the last fifty-five years of my life, and had just finished with folders labeled “sexual preference fight, 1973,” and “recall election, 1974.” I was one of the five Boulder city council members who voted to amend the local Human Rights Ordinance to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual preference, a term of art at the time, now archaic and even offensive. As I read through constituent letters from more than forty years ago, I was stunned. I had forgotten just how viciously people had reacted to the vote, the referendum that overturned the council’s vote by more than two to one, and the recall that broke the council’s progressive majority. The vitriol, the screed, the threats of retribution, much of it apparently sent by the divine, reminded me that in the early 1970s, a majority of liberal Boulderites thought we were simply out of our minds.
And, forty years ago, no one, but no one, uttered the phrase same-sex marriage or marriage equality. Thus, while I have little to say about the future – except organize – I am passionate about history and what it teaches us. Without sounding (hopefully) like a Pollyanna, and recognizing the pain and struggle of the LBGTQ community over the past decades, the change in attitudes has been astounding. The latest Pew Foundation poll shows strong majorities in favor of same-sex marriage and other LBGTQ rights. By contrast, consider that the women’s movement was never able to achieve its goal of passing an Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923. What the Pew polls highlight is that LBGTQ activists are winning the hardest, most important, political battle of all – hearts and minds.
But, of course, history never marches forward in a straight line. Electoral politics can occasionally leapfrog cultural change but, more commonly, it reflects the cultural and social change. San Francisco Mayor, Gavin Newsome, for example, used his liberal base to leap into the future on Valentine’s day, 2004, by defying state law and issuing more than 4,000 same-sex marriage licenses. Initially overturned, just four years later, the California Supreme Court found the prohibition unconstitutional. More recently, who would have imagined that a conservative lawyer and a liberal lawyer would team up to win a similar victory in the U.S. Supreme Court? Or, that by 2015, three dozen states had already made same-sex marriage legal.
Reviewing the last forty years, I think that the LBGTQ community has been particularly brilliant in its organizing strategies and alliances, forming support networks like PFLAG or Boulder’s Open Door. In 2015, I attended the Open Door banquet that honored my daughter-in-law, Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall, who issued same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of Colorado law. (For the record, we never conferred ahead of time: she knew what was right and did it.) A few of us at the banquet, veterans of the old sexual preference fights/losses, watched as the Chamber of Commerce Director emceed the awards. Oh, how symbolic of the changed attitudes, we marveled, for at one time the Chamber had been an archenemy of gay rights. If this sounds celebratory, it is meant to be. The confidence, strength and strategic ingenuity of the LBGTQ community is an enormous asset for the future and may offer lessons to other groups who are currently under attack, fearful of what lies ahead, and who are not so strong.
Still, the fight ahead will not be easy, the rhetoric alone is abhorrent, even though, historically, it is more difficult to take rights away than to win them. I hope that those of us who live in liberal enclaves or in deep blue states can find ways to support activists in rural and red states. For example, using the abortion rights fight as a parallel, tithing a monthly donation to a Planned Parenthood Clinic based in a rural area is one way to reach out. We have “sister cities” in foreign countries; perhaps the principle could apply to cities and states where activists still feel very much alone, still rogue, and where the hearts and minds fight has yet to be won.
Karen M. Paget’s latest book is Patriotic Betrayal