Gay Rights As Civil Rights

Forget the culture war, Ann Friedman argues in the latest issue of the American Prospect. Gay rights are a civil-rights issue. And that means the fight can’t wait around for culture to catch up.

The proof came on November 4th. Amidst hosannas from progressives celebrating Barack Obama’s victory, four state ballot initiatives successfully blasted gay rights in California, Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas.

In the wake of those votes, Friedman launches an eloquent call to action: 

Culture changes slowly. This is something I’ve heard a lot in the wake of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. “History is on our side! Don’t worry, the demographic trends are with us!”

I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough. These are the kind of conciliatory comments that go part and parcel with the culture-war frame. Civil-rights era activists knew history was on their side. But their goal was not to make every white American comfortable with the idea of sharing public spaces and power with people of color. It was to guarantee people of color those rights, regardless of where the culture stood. That’s the thing about rights. You have to claim them.

We won’t win victories on LGBT rights as long as we see the issue as part of a liberal–versus-conservative war. If we’re at war, it’s not with conservatives. Our enemy is not James Dobson or Sarah Palin. It is the sadly accepted notion that anti-gay measures are shoo-ins on the ballot, and that same-sex couples just have to sit tight for a decade or two and wait for public opinion to catch up.

A civil-rights frame is not only more proactive — because it doesn’t allow progressives to swaddle themselves in comforting demographic trends — it is more persuasive. It is also less divisive. The very act of invoking the term “culture war” signals that we think something is controversial, when in fact, equal rights should be the furthest thing from it.

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