The End of Gay Victimhood

Ten years after Massachusetts, we've moved from a gay-rights agenda to a gay-responsibility agenda — and we should never look back

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Bryan White joins other supporters of same-sex marriage at a rally on Nov. 7, 2013, in Chicago to celebrate Illinois General Assembly's passing of a gay-marriage bill

Like most gay Americans, I still remember the shock of hope colliding with fear when I heard that Massachusetts’ high court had ordered same-sex marriage. I dreaded a national backlash against gay marriage and gay people; I hoped for a chance to show that married same-sex couples pose no threat.

The backlash materialized and brought an outpouring of state laws and constitutional amendments that banned gay marriage and, often, partnership programs too. But the sky did not fall in Massachusetts, and 10 years to the day after the state Supreme Judicial Court handed down Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, more than a third of the U.S. population lives in states recognizing marriage equality. The federal government also recognizes same-sex marriages, and everyone can see which way the trend is pointing.

So Goodridge launched the gay-marriage era. But it also had an effect that none of us foresaw. It ended the gay-rights era.

(MORE: Pride and Prejudice: An Interactive Timeline of the Fight for Gay Rights)

Consider an odd juxtaposition. Same-sex marriage remains controversial, supported by only a slender majority of the public. Yet its momentum is undeniable. Young people take marriage equality as a given. Even most of its opponents tell pollsters they expect to lose.

By contrast, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) is stalled in Congress. Again. First proposed as long ago as 1974 and now having been introduced in every Congress but one since 1994, it recently won passage in the Senate but will go nowhere in the House. ENDA enjoys broader public support than gay marriage; properly explained, it is barely even controversial. (Most Americans believe, incorrectly, that federal law already protects gay people from discrimination.) But no one seems to care enough to pass it.

I think I understand the public’s indifference to ENDA because, to be honest, I share it. ENDA was an outgrowth of the gay civil rights movement of the 1970s and ’80s, which in turn mimicked the black civil rights movement’s emphasis on discrimination in private employment and public accommodations — never first-order problems for gay Americans, who suffered far more from government discrimination and religious intolerance.

(MORE: These Are the Next Gay-Marriage Battlegrounds)

In another respect, too, the civil rights model was an imperfect fit for gays. It cast us as victims who need the state’s protection, and it encouraged us to think of ourselves that way. In doing so, it bolstered the stereotype of the weak homosexual.

In the 1990s, a younger generation brought forward a different agenda, one that focused on the two most egregious forms of governmental discrimination: the bans on gay marriage and military service. Around the same time, the “gayby boom” took off, as openly gay couples became parents. Marriage, military service and child rearing: these were not extensions of the 1970s gay-rights agenda but departures from it. Taken together, they constituted a gay-responsibility agenda. We were seeking the burdens of adulthood instead of running to Mommy; asking to serve our communities and country instead of demanding that they serve us; declaring our strength instead of our perennial weakness.

The responsibility agenda has been a hard slog — harder, ironically, than the rights agenda. The anti-gay lobby was more alarmed by strong, independent homosexuals than with weak, victimized ones. Over time, though, the responsibility agenda has done for gays what Israel has done for Jews. It has retired the stereotype of weakness. The country has responded by seeing us in a new and more positive light: one in which oppressed-minority status makes less sense by the day.

(MORE: Why Massachusetts Was So Important to Marriage Equality)

I would never deny the continuing and often harsh reality of anti-gay discrimination, especially for kids. And I would agree with anyone who points out that allowing gays to sue discriminators in federal court is fair and reasonable. (Federal antidiscrimination law, after all, already protects other groups, like Christians, that endure far less social hostility.) But at this point, the right to file federal lawsuits is unlikely to make a big difference in gay people’s lives, and the 1970s civil rights model has become a warhorse in need of retirement.

The next Congress should be the second since 1994 when ENDA is not introduced — this time because gays ourselves have decided to move on. A country of gay spouses and parents and service members and veterans is a country of gay citizens, not gay victims. Ten years after Goodridge is a good time to recognize and celebrate that change.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America

18 comments
PracticalAcumen
PracticalAcumen

Reading this article I'm struck with deja vu for the Equal Rights Amendment arguments a few decades back. Too many women believed as you do about ENDA, Mr. Rauch, that the ERA was more of a weak, whiny attempt to coerce the US government into fighting all of our fights for us.

Fact is, until Anita Hill stood up and sacrificed herself (by sacrifice, I refer to her public humiliation before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and the rest of the world via the media), for many of us it was commonplace to be taunted, harassed, or even assaulted at our places of employment and not even feel comfortable enough to discuss it with our families or partners. Trying to stop it was unthinkable for far too many women caught between the fear of reprisal and the likelihood of disbelief, even laughter.

The US still needs an Equal Rights amendment to the constitution, although it should cover LGBT, etc., people as well, in my opinion. ENDA 's main problem is not going far enough, not not being necessary.

NoBigGovDuh
NoBigGovDuh

1. We do not classify ourselves as "victims"

2. We reject everything you are and in fact the very way your skewed lead addled mind works.

3. We fight not only for ourselves, and we intend to change the culture in many more ways.

On a side note, hope you never meet me, and TIME apparently wants to loose all readership. You have a responsibility about who you empower to speak.

BenKim1
BenKim1

This article strikes me as incredibly pedantic and self-righteous. Any gay person who says that "the right to file federal lawsuits is unlikely to make a big difference in gay people’s lives" is either delusional or voluntarily out of touch with the state of LGBTQ culture in this country. Newsflash, not every queer person is a middle class yuppie white guy who already has the social and cultural capital necessary to survive. I don't understand how any educated queer person can believe that the lack of marriage equality and the right to serve in the military are the most egregious obstacles in our way right now. Open your eyes to the suffering of our queer youth, queers of color, trans* individuals, working class queers. They are the ones needing institutional reform behind their backs and under their feet the most out of all of us.

BillJones
BillJones

I am embarrassed that Mr. Rauch is a part of my tribe.

kurt20008
kurt20008

Rauch has half a point that unlike race, ethnicity and often religion, in which one suffers from the economic injustice imposed upon one's forebearers, being gay is not a trait of family.  Some gays are raised in well off families and come into life with the advantages that allow them to escape the burdens fo discrimination.  It is among blue collar lgbt people that employment protections have the most meaning.  Rauch seems to have tired of them as a meaningful part of our community.  Fortunately, others have not.

joyoflife11
joyoflife11

Rauch is being revisionist at best. I daresay most folk never heard of the "gay-responsibility agenda" before this article. Furthermore the stereotype of gay-as-weak and gay-as-victim has never ceased and remains popular. Finally, the advocacy of the 1990s was not the result of a new generation of activists but the effect of the previous one's more open and popularized presence. As gay folk became more visible we were viewed as less bizarre by the gen-pop. Hollywood took advantage of the edgier theme and began showing more appealing gay characters. The movie "Making Love" along with sit-coms like "All in the Family" and "Soap" some years later come to mind. Conservative politicians took short term advantage and began working the "gay-threat" issue. After an impressive number of iterations, voters tired of it and recognized it as a red herring. Meanwhile the ploy resonated with America's youth who recognized that gays were being scapegoated.  The hypocrisy or pedophile priests, anti-gay religious leaders, and some politicians sunk in during this period. PC culture took hold and eventually a critical mass of young adults who did not run screaming from the presence of a gay person hit voting age. That's when the tides of war began to turn, not from our own efforts, but from our allies.


It would be nice if gays weren't viewed as weak or as victims or in terms of stereotypes. Alas, not yet. Still, our 'weak" is now the sort that many straights might choose to protect, our victims are viewed as the sort who deserve some justice, and our stereotypes are FAR more positive.

greguab
greguab

Rauch is slightly ahistorical when he discusses gay activism from the 90s.  Indeed it was a new type of activism, but it did not come from nowhere to advocating for parenthood and marriage rights.  The 90s gay activism was fueled by the success, energy and youth of HIV/AIDS activism.  In a relatively short period of time, due to political indifference, gay men lesbians formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) quickened the sluggish FDA drug approval process, accelerated research that revolutionized scientific understanding of immunology and cancer,  and ushered in a new era of patient empowerment and advocacy.  Because of these activists, millions of people around the world now have access to lifesaving medications. Bizarre that Rauch ignored this critical period in gay activism.

BobSF_94117
BobSF_94117

"But no one seems to care enough to pass it."

This is also B.S.  DEMOCRATS care to pass it.  GOP politicians -- Rauch's side -- refuse to pass a law 80% of the public supports.  I wonder why...

BobSF_94117
BobSF_94117

What a bunch of baloney.  DADT didn't fall because a new generation took the reigns from a bunch of (apparently to Rauch) whiny old-timers focused on being victims.  SSM didn't pass because a new generation took the reigns from a bunch of (apparently to Rauch) libidinous old-timers who didn't give a damn about adult responsibilities.


Folks like Rauch don't like anti-discrimination law but don't have the gonadal strength to go after laws on race and religion, so they take the practical approach and just try to deny it for gay people. 


WalterPinkmanHyzenburrg
WalterPinkmanHyzenburrg

All groups want to present themselves as victims, and the reason is simple:  the more perceived "downtrodden" a group is, failures are diminished and successes are bolstered.  They like having that cushion, just like all minorities.  Whites want it too but that's a no go at this point.   In other words, a black male graduating college will get huge pats on the back, much much more than a white grad, but if he becomes a dealer or something, he's got an excuse "I'm black, which means I'm downtrodden."  

pandemicsoul
pandemicsoul

I don't even understand what's being suggested here. Stop fighting for equality because we don't want to be "victims"? And what about all those gay and transgender folks who are fired every year because of their gender identity or sexual orientation? Screw 'em because they're too stupid to get a "real" job in a coastal city? 

etseq97
etseq97

Ugh....Uncle Tom Rauch is at it again...Rich white gay dude says "I got mine - screw you" like a good log cabin republican.  

BorisIII
BorisIII

One thing the anti-gay movement did to help support gay people was by them failing with so much effort to make gay people straight.  That it proved gay is irreversable.

SWalkerTTU
SWalkerTTU

@BobSF_94117 The 20% that don't support ENDA absolutely hate it and make up more than half of Republican primary voters.

BobSF_94117
BobSF_94117

@pandemicsoul Indeed.  Once everyone has Rauch's educational level and a secure job with tenure, everything will be OK.  I suspect he opposed the minimum wage, too, so it might be a while...

joyoflife11
joyoflife11

@etseq97, not as benign nor as helpless as you might think. Perhaps you see Rauch (and myself) as beggars. I think we're more like thieves - different marks perhaps.

joyoflife11
joyoflife11

@BorisIII, LOL. More to the point, they made absolute jacka$$e$ of themselves at every turn. That probably helped more than anything else to turn fair-minded folk against them.