Commentary

LGBTQ history is repeating itself. That’s not necessarily a bad thing

rainbow fist in front of capitol
Photo: Shutterstock

Let’s face it, this year’s Pride comes at a time when many in our community are feeling a sense of doom. The passage of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill this spring was a shock, not to mention the gut punch of the Supreme Court’s likely Roe vs. Wade decision and its deeply concerning implications for our rights and freedoms.

So if you’re feeling threatened, there’s good reason — and it’s not just because of what happened in Florida. This year, over 230 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures aimed at sports, libraries, and curricula, all with the aim of protecting children from what is seen as a growing LGBTQ menace. It feels like a new assault. But sadly we’ve been here before. For many of a certain generation, the present moment feels like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra famously said.

Related: “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott was a transgender man

During the 1970s, in the years after Stonewall as gay men and women started becoming loud, out, and proud there was a similar backlash. In 1977, after Florida’s Dade County passed a gay rights bill, born-again Christian and singer Anita Bryant launched a campaign called “Save Our Children.” The language she used and her faith-based appeal are similar to what we’re seeing today, all in a desperate attempt to save kids from exposure to the “evil of homosexuality,” “perversion,” and the newest fear-buzzword “grooming.”

Hearts And Minds

The massive difference between then and now is that this message of hate falls on many more deaf ears. Despite the latest assault on our hard-earned freedoms, the American public is overwhelmingly supportive of LGBTQ rights. Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans support laws that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodations. Almost 70 percent support same-sex marriage, up considerably from 54 percent in 2014.

And the most important part? This support is up from what was essentially zero in the 1970s.

Just remember the context back then: homosexuality was considered both a mental illness and a crime. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, being gay was equated with a deadly, physical illness — a modern day plague. The conservative Reagan-era politics pushed many people back into the closet and LGBTQ progress slowed.

But we owe everything to those who resisted — the ACT-UP protestors who paved the way for major progress in the 1990s by national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and GLAAD. These were real victories on the battlefield of public opinion which ultimately created the context for acceptance, culminating in federal marriage equality in 2015.

At the time it seemed like a gay “end of history,” with many feeling the fight had been won. So what happened? How is it that in 2022 despite overwhelming changes in public opinion, and when coming out and living out is so much more common and accepted, we are back to the same old attacks of the ‘70s? There are a number of reasons.

First, the galvanization of the evangelical Christian right — a political juggernaut that has only gained momentum. Second, the “normalization” of hate facilitated by Donald Trump; there’s a permission structure for a vocal minority of haters to speak — inaccurately — for the majority of Americans. And, of course, 2022 is an election year. In many recent election cycles, LGBTQ rights have become weaponized by the right into a potent and useful wedge issue to drive their voters to the polls.

The Fight Isn’t Over

So what can we do? There are no silver bullets. That means we have to do what we’ve always done — fight back. If the voices of hate and fear are loud, then all of us have to speak up and be even louder. The only reason the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a diagnosis in 1973 was because of years of protests. (There’s an excellent film out now called “Cured” which explores this battle in depth.)

Activism works. Loud voices get heard. And protest sparks change: Anita Bryant, California’s Prop 8, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell were all defeated by relentless activism and passionate protest.

Another major difference between now and the 1970s is representation. Across the country, there are now many members of the LGBTQ community serving on city councils, state legislatures, and even occupying the governor’s office. While there’s less representation in states like Tennessee, which not coincidentally has the highest number of these proposed anti-LGBTQ+ bills, there are certainly allies there who can make a difference even if it’s just by voting.

So, while it would be nice to sit back on our laurels, have a few margaritas, and watch this year’s gay Pride parade pass by, that’s not an option. The fight is not over. Sure, we can celebrate this month — after all, that is what Pride is all about. But let’s not forget Pride started as a protest and not a parade. It was a march; a march for visibility that had a vision for a future in which there was no stigma or shame in being gay.

We have arrived at that future in many respects. Now we need to take the next step forward, which is to live openly and advocate for ourselves so that those who are driven by fear can see the truth.

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” I like to think that history actually can repeat itself and that’s not always a bad thing. In the same way that Anita Bryant’s campaign was ultimately a failure, I believe the current spate of hate-based legislation trying to save children from a threat that doesn’t exist will also falter. We’re sorry, haters: the gay genie is out of the bottle and the effort to try to reverse that is destined to fail because we’re not hiding anymore. Not only are we here and queer these days, but we are also aware and active and fighting for our very lives.

To those in our community who are maybe less vocal or more resigned, this moment is the wake-up call to speak up, fight back, and make the right kind of history repeat itself again.

Alex Slater is the founder and CEO of Clyde Group, a mid-sized PR and marketing firm based in Washington, DC.

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