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