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Jamie Stiehm
Past and Present
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Gay Rights: Our Velvet Social Revolution

Comment

The Pentagon front-page decision to extend benefits to same-sex spouses is extraordinary if you consider gays could not serve openly in the military until way back in 2011. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) was cobbled together by President Clinton as a policy compromise only 20 years ago.

Fancy the military leading the march of social progress — as it did in integrating the forces in the '40s and admitting women in the '70s.

Marriage equality, or more broadly gay rights, is the American velvet social revolution, forging swiftly forward. But it's a conversation we were not having at our kitchen and dinner tables when Barack Obama took office in 2009. He wasn't even for it until late last year.

It's clearly the coolest cause in social change, embraced by the Hollywood, Harvard and New York sets — and even the Washington elites, including the National Cathedral dean. It gained ground in New England and states across the nation, as seen in the fashionable wedding pages. In a spirit of tolerance that can't be legislated, most Americans are fine with it.

Now, why? Future historians need to know why this is the most civil of our civil rights movements — except for the Stonewall riots, the 1969 clash when police raided a gay bar in New York's West Village. That was more than 40 years ago.

Obama elevated Stonewall, not organized as a political assembly, in the second inaugural address. He put it in the same sentence as Seneca Falls (the first women's rights convention) and Selma (the bloody civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr.). That was almost like a coming-out in our dialogue of democracy.

For one thing, gay rights is not a social cost or sacrifice to everyone else. In a time of national anxiety and economic struggle, people don't like to share their gruel.

Social change doesn't usually come easy, but this came at a price all can afford — free.

This is what has gone unsaid: White men are the major element in the social chemistry of the movement, both gay and straight.

The gay rights movement hasn't had one clear leader, but well-off white men were at the forefront of the recent wave pressing for change. Completely out of the closet, they were in the network of large donors to Democratic candidates. The searing crisis of demonstrating for more funds dedicated to AIDS medical research was behind them, and they were looking for the next mountain to climb after George W. Bush left office.

About six years ago, gay supporters prodded Obama on lifting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which he took to heart as a campaign promise on the next frontier of civil rights.

That conversation was conducted quietly. Instead of clamoring or crusading in public, influence was leveraged privately to lift the hated DADT military policy, which was wielded as an instrument of control and fear. It was struck down by the Senate in 2010.

Soon after, the marriage equality movement acquired momentum. Same-sex marriages are now legal in nine states and counting. This is where the almighty social faction — straight white men — are significant for what they have not done.

What's strikingly new about this case: Straight white men have nothing to lose in an expansion of gay civil rights. In the civil rights and women's movements, countless white men saw social change as a threat to their authority, status, power, and place in the world and at home. This was especially true in the brutally segregated Jim Crow South.

Compared to times past in American history, full civil rights for gays is like a summer day, going beautifully. No letter from a Birmingham jail. No young men found murdered in Mississippi. No force-feeding in jail.

Nonviolent social change is most lasting and meaningful. Keep up the good work, America.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com

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