Challenges for the gay rights movement in America

The United States of America is renowned for the rights and freedoms that it endows upon its citizens.  But what is not well recognized is the fact that such rights and privileges are seldom offered the citizens on a platter.  Behind every progressive legislative achievement is a long and hard struggle, usually led by the masses.  This was true of the abolition of slavery, the New Deal measures of 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and more.  In recent decades, with the gradual acceptance of homosexuality as a normal sexual orientation, its members have made demands for legal recognition.  While public perception of homosexuality has improved over the years, there are strong political and religious forces that are endeavoring to curtail this progress.  As a result, despite nominal changes to the status of homosexuals, there is widespread discrimination and harassment of members of the community.  In the year 2004 alone, “sexual orientation bias motivated 15.6 percent of the 9021 reported offenses within single-bias hate crime incidents in the Unites States.  In 1998, Matthew Shepard died after he was tied to a split-rail fence, tortured, beaten and pistol-whipped by his attackers, while he begged for his life.”  (Brammer, 2006, p.996)  In this context, many of the gay rights movement’s efforts attempt to address legitimate concerns such as anti-gay violence, anti-gay derogatory speech, discrimination at the workplace and unjust, unconstitutional laws that have held back the community.

The gay rights movement has not a gained mass support the way the civil rights movement and anti-war agitations against Vietnam and Iraq wars did.  This is because of a few reasons.  Firstly, homosexuality is still a taboo in some parts of the country, especially those dominated by Christian orthodoxy.  Secondly, gays and lesbians in America only comprise a minority of the population, not amounting to more than 10 percent (which makes their strength as a voting block less than that of blacks and Hispanics).  Hence, the push for rights and recognition for homosexuality has happened in a sporadic, uncoordinated manner.  The North East region of the United States, which is known for its liberal culture, has been at the forefront of gay emancipation.  Some of the landmark legislations and verdicts that would act as legal precedents in the future were issued here.  Yet, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-genders in the country continue to face discrimination and oppression in many areas of life.  A case in point is the Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask policy adopted by the U.S. Military in 1992.  Although this is a step forward compared to the policy of total banning of gay people from the military that existed previously, it does disservice to the gay community.  Despite a federal district court declaring the policy unconstitutional and issuing an injunction prohibiting the Military from complying with this policy, it continues to be followed pending appeal.  This is a good example of the legal challenges facing the gay community.  If such is the protection offered them in government institutions, then their experience with corporate employers tend to be even tougher.  (Moats, 2004, p.186)

While progress for the LGBT cause is happening slowly, one can take heart from some positive developments.  In some states, gay-marriage and child-adoption by same-sex partners is given serious consideration.  It should be remembered though that

“these developments are, in some sense, indicative of the current and future conflict between religious rights and the gay rights movement. On one side, the gay rights movement has sought not only to secure rights, but also to attain societal acceptance, which they seek by way of two major fronts-the law and public opinion.  On the other side, many religious groups remain unwilling to back away from their stance against homosexuality. Several major religions in America teach that homosexuality is wrong by divine mandate and conclude that they cannot support social and legal trends favorable to homosexuals without ignoring the commands of the God they worship.” (Brammer, 2006, p.996)

The dislike of gay people by religious, conservative institutions has recently taken a more blatant manifestation.  There has been a slew of documentary movies, which have attempted to paint the gay community darkly, under a veneer of presenting objective facts and genuine concerns.  Movies such as ‘Gay Rights, Special Rights’ and ‘The Gay Agenda’ project the demands for gay civil rights as excessive.  They also indicate that the gay community is clamouring for ‘more than equal’ rights in the guise of asking for ‘special rights.  Ioannis Mookas, who is a gay activist and author, poignantly notes of the psychological damage caused by such false propaganda:

“The psychic toll taken by homophobic propaganda upon lesbians and gay men goes far deeper than activist discourse admits. The incendiary rhetoric and images of Gay Rights, Special Rights have traumatized many lesbians and gay men who have viewed it. Bombarded with the concentrated pressure of its images, our ever-fragile self-esteem begins to bifurcate. We shudder at the “spoiled” images of our collective selves, in that the the cumulative force of having virtually every awful thing straight society has ever said about us – “sick,” “guilty,” “worthless,” “doomed” – amalgamated into one terrific wallop.” (Mookas, 1995, p.15)

It is as a response to such continued harassment, discrimination and negative propaganda faced by the gay community that groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,  Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, etc are organizing and gathering political support for the LGBT cause.  But at this point, given the strong political and monetary power of the Conservative Right, the gay community faces a gargantuan task in winning over long-overdue rights on par with heterosexuals.  (Mookas, 1995, p.16)

Works Cited:

Brammer, J. Brady. “Religious Groups and the Gay Rights Movement: Recognizing Common Ground.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2006.4 (2006): 995+.

Moats, David. “Fear Itself: Meditations on Gay Marriage.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 80.4 (2004): 186+.

Mookas, Ioannis. “Faultlines: Homophobic Innovation in Gay Rights, Special Rights.” Afterimage 22.7-8 (1995): 14+.

Rayside, David, and Scott Bowler. “Public Opinion and Gay Rights.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 25.4 (1988): 649-660.