Gather round, young post-millennials who’ve grown up feeling like social progress is an inevitable onrushing tide and are therefore prone to “liking” Facebook posts about Feminism Going Too Far and The Left-Wing Outrage Machine.
Gather round, everyone who says dumb shit about how everyone’s just too darn mean to marriage equality opponents and proclaiming that it takes no courage to stand up and celebrate marriage equality because that battle was won “more than a decade ago.”
Gather round, all you well-meaning liberals simultaneously preaching the same sanctimonious sermon about how the “social justice left” is too uncompromising, too zealous, too mean. Gather round especially you concern trolls talking about how “we’re winning” and therefore should be magnanimous in our inevitable, God-ordained victories rather than struggling in the unseemly manner of people who are actually afraid of losing.
Listen to what this old codger at the age of 31 -- which in Internet terms might as well be 81 -- has to tell you about what was actually happening a decade ago in the Gay Marriage Wars.
It might surprise you to hear this, but in 2005, most of the places you’re seeing waving rainbow flags now weren’t saying a damn thing about same-sex marriage being a fundamental human right. Not the corporations, not the politicians, not the media, not the bloggers, not the Facebook pages. (We had those back then -- we didn’t do “status updates” quite the same way, we had these things called “Walls” and “poking” and … I’ll explain later.)
In 2005, all of the “respectable” voices -- what Paul Krugman would later dub the Very Serious People -- were pretty fucking anti-gay marriage. Not on the right, on the left. Not out of any serious principle, but as a matter of craven tactical calculation.
Oh, it’s hard to dig up those old archived Op-Eds now. Now, everyone is trying to blur the historical record and pretend they were always down for the cause, even brands on Twitter that literally hadn’t said one damn word about gay rights ever until the ruling on Friday.
But you know the hardcore left-wing identity-politics rag Salon? Well, here they are in 2004, with the clickbaiting headline “Did this man cost the Democrats the election?”
“This man” is Gavin Newsom, the then-mayor of San Francisco. This editorial is in the context of Newsom becoming the new Ralph Nader (I’ll tell you that story another time), getting blasted and bruised by liberal Democrats blaming him for tanking John Kerry’s chances in the 2004 presidential election by standing up for gay couples’ right to get married.
To her credit, Joan Walsh, Salon’s editor-at-large, defends Newsom in that Op-Ed. But she does it tentatively and treats it as a courageous act. People were fucking furious at Newsom. People were yelling and lecturing “radical” gay activists to sit down and get out of the way and stop ruining things for us. “Liberals” were saying this. Democrats were saying this.
I was saying it.
It’s been taken down, but I’m sure if you scour the Wayback Machine you can find a copy of my LiveJournal post from January 2005. (That reference in "The Social Network" all the old people laughed at, kids? That was a real thing that we used before Facebook.) I’m not going to do the work of digging it up, mainly because seeing my old LiveJournal makes me cringe and break out in hives all over.
But it’s not like I was a Republican back then, or even a “moderate” Democrat. I was, like most of the population of Swarthmore College, an “SJW” (we didn’t have that word back then but we had many others, spoken in the same dismissive tone of voice). I totally believed in gay rights, I believed, in the abstract, that marriage equality was a basic right and that stories of gay people being kept from their partners’ deathbeds were a travesty.
But you can find me ranting, with all the self-assurance of an obnoxious college student, that gay activists needed to shut up, sit down and go to the back of the bus -- that “now is not the time,” that people like Gavin Newsom were the scourge of the left. That we needed to set marriage equality aside for the sake of winning the “bigger picture” battles - -to get the troops back from Iraq, to save the American middle class, to stop global warming. To do all the wonderful things we’d been assured would magically happen if Kerry-Edwards had won in ‘04. To make sure Our Guy beat Their Guy.
Because we were spooked by the idea that we’d “underestimated the religious vote.” Because we saw Newsom’s famous “Whether you like it or not” quoted in Republican attack ad after attack ad and we retreated in disarray, crying disaster.
Because, in a word, we were chickenshit.
To be fair, our opponents were very scary. They were screaming literal hellfire and damnation if same-sex marriage passed. They said that gay sex caused Hurricane Katrina. They threatened to grab their guns and overthrow the U.S. government rather than let the gays marry.
Yes, sure, respectable liberal Democrats in the media disagreed with these people. We even made fun of these people and talked about how crazy they were. But by and large the support of gay marriage wasn’t anywhere near as fervent, as committed, as serious as the opposition.
And not being as serious, it wasn’t taken seriously.
Looking at the orgiastic explosion of rainbows everywhere, especially on Hillary Clinton’s campaign merchandise, it’s surreal to think that it was required for Democratic politicians on the national stage to publicly disavow any support of same-sex marriage to be “serious” candidates -- not just avoid weighing in on same-sex marriage but actively say “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” in the same tone as “I am not a member of the Communist Party.” Kerry did it. Obama did it. Clinton did it. Her husband signed a federal law against same-sex marriage, to bipartisan applause.
The first time President Obama -- or any U.S. president -- spoke in favor of same-sex marriage was in 2012, recent history even by Internet standards. I highly doubt he did that because of some idiosyncratic personal epiphany -- it just happened to be the same year that polling finally showed consistent majorities for same-sex marriage nationwide. (And if you think opinion polling has no effect on the Supreme Court’s decisions -- or on their decision to grant cert to a case in the first place -- I have a bridge to sell you.)
The “momentum” around same-sex marriage was weak to nonexistent. The big news of 2004 was the wave of 11 states all passing anti-same-sex-marriage constitutional amendments by large margins, followed by seven more states doing it in 2006. When Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, Yes on 8 voters waved it in our faces that same-sex marriage had come up for a vote 30 times and lost decisively each time.
This air of inevitability around marriage equality is very new. There are kids born when gay marriage became “inevitable” who are still in diapers. This yarn they’re feeding us about an onrushing tide of tolerance and love sweeping America for “over a decade” is a big fat fucking lie.
So what changed? And when?
No, it was not that gay activists just didn’t have any good, persuasive arguments up until the late 2000s and people finally heard the message and the scales fell from their eyes. The classic reasoned, civil argument for same-sex marriage is Andrew Sullivan’s “Here Comes the Groom” in the New Republic.
I’ve read it. It’s very good. It came out in 1989, when I was 5 years old. With all due respect, the amount of progress it made toward marriage equality can be described as “jack shit” -- it came before a decade -- two decades! -- of backlash, of DOMA, of “marriage protection” amendments, of Westboro Baptist Church protests, of Matthew Shepard being beaten to death, and of liberal Democrats who were theoretically pro-gay being generally and repeatedly chickenshit.
You can’t give credit to a 1989 essay for turning a tide that only really turned starting in 2009, 20 years later. You can’t trace it to any essay.
Here’s what happened, from the perspective of someone who was there, “there” as in on the ground in California knocking on doors and attending protests and working with the No on 8 campaign.
People played ball, they carefully followed instructions in November 2008 based on the abject terror of the left after November 2004 to be non-confrontational and inoffensive, to avoid even saying the word “gay” when describing the No on 8 campaign, to avoid engaging the Yes on 8 voters directly and just be positive.
We saw that strategy fail, as it had failed in 18 other states before. We saw everyone celebrating “hope” and “change” over a president who’d once again thrown LGBT Americans under the bus in the mealy-mouthed, evasive manner of all Establishment Democrats.
And people got mad.
Getting mad isn’t nice. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t always completely fair.
But after having your dream deferred enough times, it’s inevitable.
Yes, in the wake of Prop 8, gay rights activists took off the gloves, threw out the rulebook against confrontations and recriminations, and started combing through voting records and donor records to name and shame.
Yes, they made some poor restaurateur cry and resign her job for making the mistake of donating to an anti-gay cause when she had a predominantly gay clientele. Yes, they got a bigoted CEO to resign from Mozilla. Yes, they dragged the good old family-friendly brand of Chik-Fil-A through the mud.
Yes, they brought back the practice of shouting “bigot!” and “homophobe!” at protests after being chided for several years not to anger the right. Yes, they were abrasive, and harsh, and very very mean.
In other words, they showed that the homophobes weren’t the only ones who were serious. They made it clear to the undecideds and the neutrals and the wait-and-see votes -- to the politicians constantly triangulating toward the center -- that they had something to fear from both the left and the right.
They made it clear that placating the nice, reasonable, cuddly gay activists with “Wait and see” while constantly fleeing toward the right in terror of the scary fundamentalist Christians was no longer a viable strategy.
And here we are today.
When you put up the schmaltzy #LoveWins messages on social media and share the heartwarming photos of couples finally allowed to solemnize their relationships under the law -- remember that it wasn’t singing songs and holding hands that got us here, nor rational arguments and pleas for compassion.
The gay community had plenty of all of that for the past 30 years and more. The rest of the world met it with a cold shoulder or a raised fist.
Anger got us here. Outrage got us here. And yes, public shaming got us here: drawing a line in the sand and making it clear that the status quo was not OK, was not tolerable because it had been tolerated long enough.
Enough with the shame-shaming. There’s nothing wrong with shaming people. Sometimes it’s the only way to help them.
I, the former Let’s-Be-Reasonable-And-Talk-Long-Term-Strategy mansplaining windbag, was not persuaded or cajoled or Kumbaya’ed into changing my position.
I stood there in the No on 8 local campaign headquarters watching people burst into tears at the news that their rights had been cruelly snatched away, again. Watching happy straight Democratic “allies” dancing and singing on the news, cheerful that the clever strategy of reaching across the aisle by kicking a marginalized group to the curb had worked and Obama’s vote was safe.
And I saw the naked betrayal on people’s faces as they stomached loved ones telling them they’d voted Yes on 8 “but we still love you.” And I heard the rage, the pain, the raw bleeding wounds that were being salted again and again by the crocodile tears of well-meaning allies advising they wait for a “more convenient season.”
And I was ashamed.
Now, in 2015, on Pride weekend, the main thing I, as a “straight ally,” feel proud of is that seven years ago, I felt ashamed. It was gay activists’ willingness to shame us and our capacity to be shamed that brought us here.
These things can change suddenly and unpredictably. They change not because of the positive, safe, comfortable emotions--they change because of the painful, difficult, uncomfortable negative ones, because of fear and guilt, because of rage and shame.
Never doubt that an outcry of rage from those who’ve had enough of the bullshit, and a torrent of shame against those who’ve enabled the bullshit too long -- never doubt these things can change the world.
Sometimes I think they’re the only things that ever have.