Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


Sympathy for the Vanquished

“And I know that I needed changes
But not this, this is not painless
Oh no, this is not painless…” –Army of Me

a softer world_modernprometheus 1066 (not perfect)

“Live and be happy, and make others so.”

The British show Skins is a singularly beautiful attempt at reckoning with the tumultuous friction of modern life. Through interwoven tales, the audience is engaged in a hauntingly familiar yet comfortably distant simulacrum of the brokenness woven deeply into the ordinary, well-to-do humanity of the developed world. On the surface, it’s a show about sex, drugs, and teenagers, yes, but it’s also a compelling exploration of longing, pain, hypocrisy, self-loathing, cynicism, abandonment, terror, self-discovery joy, hatred, identity, redemption, and self-worth—all the glorious and hideous contradictions of the multitudes we each contain in our phenomenal largeness.

As good art does, the stories of Skins engender sympathy for characters whose many actions we know we should (and do) find remarkably unsympathetic. In one episode, a Lesbian character, Emily Fitch, lashes out against her homophobic mother after they are forced together because the family’s world has suddenly imploded. Beyond Emily’s exceedingly understandable fury and Mrs. Fitch’s awful behavior, my first and strongest reaction to the mother’s pain was sadness. A less kind soul might call it sympathy for the devil, but it reminded me that even at our worst, we are human, and deep down we’re often clawing all too desperately at the threads of a world we see unraveling, in the vain hope we might weave a comforter to protect all that we love.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way, so we often behave destructively precisely when we would like to think we are doing the opposite. (I am reminded of that old adage: the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.) In that homophobic mother I could see every loved one who fought to love and support me notwithstanding their struggles with my identity as a gay man. And as I have fought to love and support them, in turn, I could not help but think that Mrs. Fitch of Skins no more deserved her daughter Emily’s cruelty than my loved ones of “evolving” views would merit mine.

All of which brings us to the recent controversy surrounding the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO and cofounder Brendan Eich. In light of much discomfort over his support for California’s Prop 8, Eich reasonably pleaded for time to demonstrate his “personal commitment” to treating LGBT employees fairly and professionally—as he had presumably been doing for years, given the lack of any substantive evidence or claims to the contrary. That his pleas did not avail raises an essential question that must, eventually, confront every advocate for justice: what is the point of all this?

Early last year, I wrote about the controversy of gay Boy Scouts and Chick-fil-a’s Dan Cathy with the conclusion:

“In an ideal world, people from various perspectives will find new occasions and opportunities to understand one another, to everyone’s benefit. Even if not all minds ever fully change, there is hope in the possibility of harmony emerging from where once there thrived grievance and resentment.

Wherever you fall on this or any issue, there is often a world of difference between being wrong and being evil. We don’t have to all agree on the content or path to a better world of enduring fulfillment and mutual respect, but we can at least acknowledge that we each strive for one. If nothing else, may we always have at least that much in common.

We can agree to disagree.”

In reflecting on the late unpleasantness, my friend (and fellow LGBT writer) Leah Libresco makes an astutely concurring observation:

“If the gay rights movement wants to change Brendan Eich’s mind, it’s to their advantage to keep him enmeshed in mainstream culture; after all, gay friends and acquaintances are one of the strongest predictors of support for same-sex marriage.

Balkanized businesses, which only hire employees or leaders that are politically palatable to their donors and customers aren’t economically or socially efficient. Instead of creating weak-tie relationships across ideological divides, they segregate people who disagree, fostering a fear of contamination by association. This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high. When the losing side of a debate is blacklisted, all disputes become wars of annihilation.”

It had once been a rallying cry of gay rights activists—like other civil rights proponents—that we were not out to harm anybody else but striving merely to secure the civil liberties and freedoms we have been cruelly denied. Those who meant this knew that for every Pharaoh or Pharisee that conspired to break us over the malice of their hardened hearts, there were parents, friends, or neighbors whose frustrating opposition was more the stuff of misguided love, worry, fear, or confusion. Thus, what we’ve been rightfully seeking is progress against injustice, not vengeance against those who were wrong, however painful their wrongness.

Most of us have known gay-rights skeptics who “meant well” but did not grasp the harm they caused or else were honestly conflicted about how best to resolve circumstances that confounded their understanding. Many of these people have since come around—or will, in time—as their eyes have opened to a new wisdom of the mysteries of love, grace, and the human condition. But all of these people—me included—will always have been closed-minded, anti-gay “bigots” and “troglodytes” once.

Some minority of our neighbors and coworkers may never quite embrace the “new normal” to our full satisfaction. But that unqualified embrace in every quarter is not required for the tide of equal rights to wash away the desiccated relics of discrimination. What will win us the day in small-town homes as in urban markets is the wholesome charity with which we encourage and nurture relationships between people of profoundly different backgrounds, perspectives, circumstances, and metaphysical commitments, that we might better engage each other through respect that allows at the very least for some abeyance of condemnation, if not total absolution for past wrongs and conflicts.

The past and contemporary opponents of gay rights are already beyond any hope of victory. Those on the right side of history should be as magnanimous in sociopolitical strength as we were persistent in our prior weakness. To do so may be uncomfortable at times, but it is the kind of discomfort that strengthens and informs in accordance with our principles rather than degrades in resignation to spite. We should allow and encourage people like Branden Eich to demonstrate a real commitment to equality and diversity in the workplace—which, for the record, Eich had been doing for years—if only because we want to be the kind of people who want to coexist peacefully.

It is, in short, the kind of discomfort we need.

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The Silence of the Elephants

“Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” – Job 38:11

Is it still a majority if most folks disagree?

“I value your votes and vote your values. What more is there to say?”

Sometime last month, I was at a party full of energetic young conservatives from various parts of the country. The topic of the recent government shutdown arose. Everybody agreed that Obamacare is a nightmare and that the general public would soon come to see that liberal pipe-dream-big-government reforms are dark and full of terrors. But as the government was, at the moment, shut down, we all felt obliged to comment on that particular tactic.

In order to avoid a tedious dispute over the merits (or lack thereof) of either side—and to resist the enduring conflation of anecdotes with data—I will elide the conclusions we reached in favor of a simpler observation. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke for nigh a full day to make his grand stand against the Democrats’ not-so-affordable-or-caring reform. In the process, he was joined or supported by many Republicans eager to signal their willingness to die on the hill of opposition to a bad law before God and man.

I point this out not because I mean to argue whether Cruz and his supporters accomplished anything substantial in all those 21 hours. I point it out only to compare it to Ted Cruz’s words on the Senate floor on Monday defending his opposition to a bill that would outlaw discrimination against LGBT Americans.

He said nothing.

It is remarkable to think that not even a decade ago, a bipartisan coalition opposed gay rights loudly and often in an era where prohibitions on gay unions were passed from Oregon to Virginia. Today, however, Ken Cuccinelli seems poised to lose a winnable election in a swing state with a marriage ban primarily because of his extremist reputation on “social issues” (including an inconveniently relevant attempt to eliminate LGBT employment protections at Virginia universities). And yesterday, not one of 30 Republicans who voted against cloture used floor time to speak against the Employee Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate.

Ted Cruz said nothing. Mike Lee said nothing. Marco Rubio said nothing. Jeff Sessions said nothing.

This isn’t to say that no Republicans spoke on the matter. To the contrary, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois gave his first floor speech in the two years since his stroke to urge support for the bill. He was joined in his affirmation by other Republicans including moderate Susan Collins, staunch red-state conservative Orrin Hatch, and Tea Party favorites Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey (former president of the notoriously primary-challenging Club for Growth)—none of whom, for what it’s worth, have expressed support for gay marriage.

Contrast this to the House, where Speaker Boehner joined his peculiarly silent Senate colleagues by announcing his opposition to ENDA through a spokesman. While the Ohioan did not step in front of a camera to explain why the law doesn’t deserve a vote, he did take pains to lie about whether current federal law already protects an American worker from being fired for being gay, as many people think it does. (It does not.)

If one weren’t careful, one might think there was no argument to be made as to why LGBT Americans should be subject to unjust discrimination.

Of course, there are plenty of actors willing to say a great deal about why ENDA is supposedly bad law. Some are sensible. Others, less so. And I suspect at least a few Senate opponents will find their tongues, if only for a moment, before the final votes are cast. The duo from Kentucky is even offering an amendment to attach right-to-work protections to the bill. Imagine that: with the passage of a single law, American workers could be free from unjust discrimination for being who they are or for refusing union coercion. (While I do dare to dream, I won’t hold my breath on that one.) But whether or not Boehner eventually yields to a position favored by a majority of voters in every state, it is time to take stock of how the tides have broadly shifted on social politics.

If any prominent elected official is willing to make a fiery denunciation of anti-discrimination protections for our neighbors and loved ones, let them do so openly and proudly. If there are sound objections to be heard, let us hear them in both chambers, and allow the American people to reach their conclusions. Opponents of gay rights will certainly find some wizened applause in certain quarters. Those understandably leery of anti-discrimination laws more broadly will have to weigh the options and effects. But whatever happens, allies of gay Americans may at least take some solace in watching how the remnant of anti-gay politics whimpers into a resentful and weakening crouch as a new generation of conservatives moves on to modern challenges worthy of our energy and effort.

The era of anti-gay political dominance—or even parity—in the national scene is over. The silence on the floor of the ENDA opposition merely shows that, finally, everybody knows it.