The Dangerous Illusion That We’ve Almost Won
Imagine a group of people who have spent decades—generations, centuries—in fear, invisibility, struggle, and silence. Imagine they find their voice, only to be decimated by an era of death and unthinkable loss made more bitter by crushing societal indifference to their predicament.
Now imagine that, in a matter of a few short years, everything seems to change. At what feels like light speed, they make momentous gains. The world begins to open its arms to them in ways they had never thought possible. The experience is powerful, exhilarating, spellbinding even. It feels like they are living in a dream. But behind that dream is a reality more treacherous than many of them may vaguely imagine.
Over the past few years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans have been living in that dream. In 2011 the onerous “don’t ask, don’t tell” law banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military was repealed. The destructive force of the Defense of Marriage Act disintegrated in 2013 when a thunderous Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Windsor struck it down. In rapid succession, state after state, from the coasts well into the heartland, transformed into what appeared to be bastions of full equality as thousands of gay and lesbian couples marched down the aisle. Even deep in Mormon Utah and in Oklahoma, the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” federal judges threw out hateful bans on gay marriage, and the issue worked its way back up to an apparently sympathetic Supreme Court.
We saw LGBT people represented in movies, in music, and on TV in ways we’d not experienced before. Not only were gay and transgender characters more visible than ever, but also openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender actors were more and more often invited to play these roles. A mass wedding occurred at the Grammy Awards. Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian comedian, made an enormous comeback after her sitcom was canceled the year following her coming out in the 1990s, to become a daytime television sensation. Rosie O’Donnell was back on The View and more outspoken than ever. A transgender actress, Laverne Cox, stood tall on the cover of Time magazine. Apple’s Tim Cook made a huge impact in the business world, becoming the most high-profile CEO—and the only one among the Fortune 500 companies—to come out, proclaiming he is “proud to be gay.”
Since the mid-’90s many people with HIV were no longer suffering and dying; they were increasingly thriving and the picture of good health because of life-saving drug treatments. Gay–straight alliance groups were formed in schools across the country, and LGBT people began to come out of the closet at ever-younger ages. Even in the world of sports, visibility arrived in unprecedented ways. A midcareer NBA player, Jason Collins, came out as gay, and even the barrier of the macho world of football broke when Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL and shared his happiness by expressing his love, kissing his boyfriend for all of America to see.
In seductive ways, it started to feel as if we had almost finally “made it,” that we were just about equal in the eyes of most of the American people. The media reported on dizzying poll results that seemed to point to acceptance. We heard cheering and huge sighs of relief as many soaked up the success that now seemed so evident. Like many people, I even noticed my Facebook feed regularly erupting with posts expressing congratulations or disbelief about seeing these great strides in our lifetime.
Yet it was—and is—a dangerous moment. It’s a moment in which all of us, LGBT and straight, who support equality risk falling prey to what I’ve come to call victory blindness. We’re overcome by the heady whirl of a narrative of victory, a kind of bedtime story that tells us we’ve reached the promised land, that can make everything else seem like a blur. Even with the enormously positive developments—and, as this book will show, sometimes perhaps as a reaction to them—homophobia rages on in America, as sports stars are practically rewarded after spouting hate, as TV sitcoms still make gay and transgender people the insulting punch line, as the media respects and airs bigoted views of the “other side,” as businesses now brazenly flaunt a “no gays allowed” policy, as many workers fear coming out on the job more than ever, as federal civil rights protections seem further away than before, and as we are often not well served by a gay establishment that apologizes for and lauds political leaders rather than demanding action. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the bedtime story and wake up from the dream.
I say it’s a “dangerous” moment because at the same time that all the great strides have occurred, discrimination, violence, and tragic horror stories—in addition to the daily slights that all of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender have experienced for years—have not only continued, they’ve sometimes become more blatant. Rather than dissipating, reports of violence against LGBT people have surged, even in the most liberal, gay-accepting cities, spiking 27% in New York City alone from 2013 to 2014, according to the Anti-Violence Project. In Seattle, where an increase in hate crimes had also been seen since 2013, a man pleaded guilty in 2014 to setting a gay bar on fire on New Year’s Eve, saying in a statement that homosexuals should be “exterminated.” And nationally, homicides motivated by hatred against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are themselves outnumbered by hate-motivated killings of transgender women by a factor of almost 3 to 1. These attacks, the vast majority of which have been perpetrated against transgender women of color, have reached what one advocate called “epidemic” levels.
In Philadelphia, in September 2014, onlookers were stunned when, according to several reports, a group of between eight and twelve “well-dressed” men and women in their twenties hurled what witnesses described as homophobic slurs—“dirty faggot” and “fucking faggot”—at a gay male couple walking by. One of the gay men was knocked unconscious, sustaining severe damage to his face, requiring surgery and the wiring of his jaw. Three people were later arrested and charged with assault, but, outrageously, they couldn’t be charged with a hate crime because Pennsylvania lacked a hate-crimes law protecting LGBT people. In Georgia a twenty-year-old man captured video on his phone of a scene that could have taken place in the ’80s or ’90s: his family tried to perform an “intervention” to take him to an “ex-gay” program. The video shows family members beating him and his father calling him a “queer.” This took place in August 2014.
Wrenching reports about suicides of gay and transgender teens, which exploded in the media beginning several years ago, only escalated. It could be that these stories are being reported more rather than actually rising in number. Perhaps it’s both. Either way, LGBT teens, who are believed to make up fewer than 10% of all teens, still account for between 30% and 40% of teen suicides, according to several studies. As shocking as they are, these statistics fail to capture the very real pain and suffering. In December 2014, an Ohio transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, took her own life after posting a suicide note online in which she described torment and despair because her parents and “Christian therapists...