November 26, 2003
By The Plaid Adder
It is unfortunately a tradition at the Plaidder ancestral home for my mother to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday by formally posing what the rest of the family affectionately refers to as "high gainers." These are questions designed to force the guests to reach deep into their souls and produce answers that will stimulate interesting conversation, such as, "What quality do you think is most important in a significant other?" or "Who were your heroes when you were growing up?" And every year at Thanksgiving, we can count on having to respond to the question, "What are you thankful for?"
I will face the high gainer this year with a tremendous amount of ambivalence. While the country heads toward hell in its handbasket, the truth is that I personally have a lot to be thankful for. I am still with the best woman in the world. She and I are still gainfully employed. The suburban neighborhood we moved into two years ago with some trepidation has turned out to be very welcoming. If we didn't care about anything but our own little world, our lives would not really have had to change that much since Bush took office. And the immediate answer that comes to mind, when I think about what I'm thankful for this year, is "Lawrence v. Texas and Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health." The first one is the Supreme Court decision that struck down sodomy laws; the second is the Massachusets Supreme Judicial Court decision that found it unconstitutional for Massachusetts to deny same-sex couples the legal benefits of marriage.
It's a very strange thing. Every single other issue that I care about is in flames, belching smoke, and taking a steep nose dive straight toward the center of Hell, and at the same time the one that affects me most directly is making more progress than I would ever have dreamed possible.
Now, it's not hard to understand why: it's because right now the equal rights battles are being fought in the courts, and not in Congress. The legislative branch, apparently, trembles before the might of the Bush juggernaut; but Bush has no direct control over the judicial system, and cannot prevent judges from, once in a while, doing the right thing in spite of him. Except, you know, by appointing judges who are so ideologically blinded that they will never do the right thing even when the law of the land supports it - which has been one of his little projects since he got into office. So our newfound freedom is liable to be short-lived; but we'll enjoy it while we can.
But it's hard to enjoy this windfall knowing how much the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, is suffering this year. And it's hard to enjoy it knowing that Bush's party is licking its chops, hoping that the issue of same-sex marriage is going to become their newest, most powerful weapon against the Democratic contenders. So this Thanksgiving, I'd like to at least try to even the score by giving something back.
I've been a lesbian for almost 15 years now, and I've had a lot of experience defending myself and what I love against the religious right. For my Thanksgiving special, I would like to give the Democratic Party and its presidential hopefuls the benefit of that experience, and offer them some advice about how to make this issue an asset instead of a liability. Because if the party approaches this problem the right way, it could actually turn out to be the beginning of a very important party makeover. And God knows we need it. So may I humbly suggest that the Democratic Party, when it heads out to the battlefield, considers fighting by Plaidder's:
Eight Simple Rules For Not Getting Your Ass Kicked
Rule #1. Forget the fundamentalists.
I don't mean literally forget them; that will be impossible to do, what with the shouting and the frothing and the calling down of hellfire and brimstone upon everyone's heads. What I mean is that you cannot waste good time and money trying to bring them around to your point of view. You can argue the Bible up one side and down the other and it will not make a damn bit of difference to them, because from a fundamentalist's point of view, the fundamentalist's reading of the Bible is always right, and anyone else's reading is always wrong. And as for arguing anything else, well, forget that, because the fundamentalist's reading of the Bible always trumps science, nature, community standards, compassion, tolerance, civil rights, and common sense. There is no way to win an argument with a fundamentalist and there is no point in trying.
Rule #2. Dignity is sweet, and appeasement gets beat.
There is nothing more humiliating or self-destructive than sacrificing your own freedom, identity, and emotional health in a futile quest for the approval of people who will not only never give it to you, but will ruthlessly exploit your own desire for acceptance. If you make decisions based on what will gain the approval of people who hate everything you stand for, all that happens is that you end up living all the misery they have wished on you. When you're hated by the extreme right as much as we are, it makes absolutely no sense to concede, because they will only be satisfied when you have been totally silenced. If the Marriage Protection Amendment passes, and same-sex marriage is no longer an issue, that is not going to get the extreme right off our backs; it will merely embolden them to go after the next protection, and the next, until we are back in the pre-Stonewall era. Because as long as the enemy thinks you're retreating, they're going to keep taking more and more territory.
The thing to remember is that while we cannot - and I emphasize, this is not unlikely, it is impossible - make any headway amongst the religious right, the way we fight the battle will have an enormous impact on the spectators watching from the safety of the trees. If we don't act like we believe in ourselves, nobody else is going to believe in us either. So please, guys, either show up ready to fight, or don't show up at all. Commitment is always going to beat cowardice. If we want to win on this, we have to be as passionate and powerful in our defense of our position as the religious right is in theirs. We have to get as fired up about equality and justice as they are about hellfire and damnation. It can be done. And indeed, it must.
Whether it's on the dating scene or in the voting booth, nothing is more attractive to people than confidence. And if you want to project confidence, then you are a lot better off learning to love what you are than trying to be what you aren't. I'm having a much better time now that I'm not trying to pretend I'm a size 10 straight woman, and you Democratic candidates will be a lot better off once you stop trying to pretend you're moderate Republicans. Pride talks, and bullshit walks.
Rule #3. The mainstream doesn't know how extreme the religious right really is, and we can do ourselves a huge favor by helping them find out.
We realize it because we have to deal with it all the time. But the great straight American public by and large are not paying attention to groups like the American Family Association, and for them a lot of the right-wing fundamentalist agenda is going right under the radar. If you are, for instance, Christian yourself, you may well not see anything too terribly wrong with putting a giant statue of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse; after all, what's wrong with the Ten Commandments? They're sensible rules, and it couldn't hurt our politicians to pay more attention to them, especially the parts about not killing and not coveting and not bearing false witness. They don't get the significance because the erosion of the church/state separation does not appear to threaten them personally. But the same-sex marriage issue is going to bring that into focus in a whole new way, and if we are smart we can make that a huge advantage for our side.
In my humble opinion, the major reason that most religious right-wing groups are so frightened by the prospect of same-sex marriage is that it will weaken the Christian church's power in this country by separating civil marriage from religious marriage. Once we do that, the Christian right no longer gets to dictate the structure and shape of the basic American family unit. When the Christian right talks about trying to keep marriage sacred, what they are really talking about is keeping marriage under their jurisdiction. After all, if sanctity was what they really cared about, shouldn't they all be picketing the set of The Bachelor?
Well, it is at that point that the Christian right's agenda starts to rub a lot of straight America the wrong way. A lot of the right's anti-same-sex marriage propaganda is just as offensive to a single parent as it is to a gay couple. When they stray from Leviticus and Romans, the argument the religious right's family defense brigade always makes against gay marriage is that the only truly healthy environment for a child is an intact nuclear family with one mother and one father who are still married to each other. Now that rhetoric ought to make a lot of hardworking divorced and single parents pretty fucking angry. Why doesn't it? Because they don't know it's out there.
Don't believe me? Try this simple experiment: next time you're clustered around the water cooler with your fellow straight co-workers, ask them how they celebrated National Marriage Protection Week.
I will bet you a cool $20 right now that unless you have gay co-workers, nobody at your place of business will even know that President Bush declared National Marriage Protection Week back in October. If they do know, they probably will not have bothered to go beyond the relatively reasonable-sounding announcement on the White House website to check out www.marriageprotectionweek.com, which will lead them to the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and the other right-wing Christian groups whose idea this was. So they won't know that their nice "regular guy" is regularly catering to religious fanatics who, if they thought they could do it, would probably like to outlaw divorce, and then perhaps introduce stoning legislation to deal with the problem of adultery.
I was startled last week to discover that my own brother, who after all is a lifetime Republican, had never heard of the Marriage Protection Amendment. Now, my brother is not a Christian; he is a Republican because he is an affluent white guy whose big thing is hating taxes and big government. Once I had explained to him what the Marriage Protection Amendment was, he refused to believe it would ever have a chance of passing, because in his view trying to get the Constitution amended over something like this was much too "aggressive." Well, there are lots of Republicans out there like my brother, and I figure it can only help our cause to wake them up to the fact that for the crowd in charge now, "aggressive" has become such a laughable understatement that it is high time to start auditioning a different word.
I have seen this happen over and over in my own life: straight people who have never had a reason to educate themselves about GBLT rights routinely assume that things are better for us than they really are. When my partner talked to her co-workers about the Massachusetts decision she discovered that some of them thought that same-sex marriage was already legal in some states. My own family refuses to believe that it is legal to fire someone for being gay. (This is partly a labor issue - a lot of Americans don't understand the whole concept of 'employment at will' - but that's another rant for another time.) And many of them have never really paid attention to the right-wing nuts who demonize us for fun and profit. The Christian right has, since the 1980s, made most of its progress by operating through stealth. The same-sex marriage issue, if we use it right, will finally force the phantom menace to reveal themselves to the Jedi; and that is going to be a big problem for Republican moderates, because...
Rule #4: Nobody wants their friends to get hurt.
And in the end, this is the thing that makes this issue our wedge, and their nightmare. The 1950s are coming back in every other area of American life, but for some reason GBLT America has escaped the regression. More of us are living honest and open lives than ever before, and that means that there are more people in this country than ever before who know that they have gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered friends, family, colleagues, children, neighbors, and classmates. Popular culture is finally catching up, largely because they have discovered that they can make money off us - and that means that straight people all over America are now used to identifying and sympathizing with gay people, whether it's the fab five from Queer Eye or the characters on Will & Grace. And the more hysterical the right gets about the evil we represent, the more straight Americans they are going to alarm and anger. I've got neighbors who probably do not agree with me on a single political issue, but would still jump to defend me from someone who was attacking me because that's just what neighbors do for each other. And once people realize that this issue is not about us attacking marriage, but about the extreme religious right attacking the people they care about, it's going to be working for us and not them.
But, that will not happen unless we remember...
Rule #5: You cannot win a debate if you let your opponent set the terms.
We have to be the ones framing this issue. To allow ourselves to be defined into the defensive position, from which we merely try to defend ourselves against the right's attacks, is disastrous. We have to give them something to defend themselves against. We have to start asking them the questions. And we have to stop treating every single piece of claptrap they come up with as if it is worthy of rebuttal. We should not be in the humiliating position of having to prove to people that we are not child molesters, that we are not mentally deranged, that we are not unnatural and unfit and incapable of real love. That whole line of argument should be treated like the steaming pile of crap that it is, and flushed without a second glance. We need to take the position that no matter what twisted reading of the Bible it's founded on, this kind of bigotry has no place in a civil society devoted to liberty and justice for all, and anyone spouting it is not to be given a place at the negotiating table.
Rule #6: There is no rule six.
Rule #7: Don't throw people to the wolves, cause it won't really slow them down that much.
The GBLT community is finally learning this, but we'd have made more progress if we'd accepted it earlier: you can't protect yourself from hatred and prejudice by offering one of your own as a scapegoat. To argue that you deserve to be treated well because you are Just Like Straight People and Not At All Like That Guy With The Feather Boa is to give away the argument before you even get started. Because let's face it, either our society is going to value tolerance and respect difference, or it's not, and taking refuge in protective coloring may allow you personally to ride out the storm, but it is not going to advance the cause. All it does is divide and demoralize your constituency, and turn you into the kind of morally corrupt selfish weasel who will sell anyone downriver if it advances your personal interests. Nobody wants to vote for that. Got it?
Rule #8: Failure is not an option.
With the crowd currently in power there is no such thing as a conditional surrender. If you give them an inch, they just keep on taking; and even if you don't give them an inch, even if you stand there and say, "Hey, that's my inch, let go," they'll take it anyway. If you don't press forward, you will be beaten back.
In the months to come, I hope to see the Democrats profiting from some of this wisdom -all of it accumulated, I promise you, through years of failed attempts at conciliation and compromise. If we want to win over the people who can be reasonable about this, we can't make ourselves the prisoners of the people who can't. There are signs that the Democratic minority in Congress is finally starting to realize that they can't negotiate with an administration that is not interested in collegiality, bipartisanship, or even what is good for the country; that the Republicans' only goal or consideration is their own power, and that the only thing that will matter is coming together to make a stand for what's right. And if that happens, then next year, we will all have something to be thankful for.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.