TV & Radio
A Straight Perspective
Do heterosexuals have a role in the increasingly politicized battle for gay rights?
By Kathryn Williams
Updated: 2:32 p.m. ET July 22, 2005
Members of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG) marched in St. Louis last month
July 22 - Between the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court nomination battle and next year’s midterm elections, the battle over gay rights isn’t going to go away any time soon. Heterosexuals may think they have little part to play, but ultimately it is they—the majority of the population--who will have a decisive say in the struggle.
While most Americans favor equal employment opportunity for lesbians and gay men, a recent Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans oppose marriage for same-sex couples, with 39 percent in favor and 5 percent unsure. The debate continues around the world, with the first gay male couple being married recently in Spain, the third country to legally recognize such relationships over strong objections by the Roman Catholic Church and other groups. Canada, where a similarly fierce political battle has played out, this week became the fourth nation on this list.
But when it comes to the conflict over gay marriage and other issues, most people aren’t more involved than having an opinion. Husband and wife Ian Ayres and Jennifer Gerarda Brown, both law professors, hope to change that--at least among those who agree with their point of view. In their new book, “Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights,” the couple suggests ways that heterosexual allies can support lesbians and gay men. NEWSWEEK’s Kathryn Williams recently spoke with the duo about their ideas. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How would you characterize the current political climate toward gay men and lesbians in the United States?
Jennifer Gerarda Brown: We certainly, in the fall of 2004, saw the expression of some pretty strong anti-gay sentiment in the form of those 11 state amendments [outlawing gay marriage]. On the other hand, polling shows very high levels of support for equal employment rights for gay people and some discrimination protections for them.
Ian Ayres: We think that particularly the time is right to push forward for employment equality. We got employment equality on the books with regard to African-Americans before we got marriage equality.
What lessons can gay-rights activists take from the movement for racial equality?
Ayres: There are a lot of people who wouldn’t consider joining an all-white county club or drinking from an all-whites water fountain, but they are willing to marry when their gay and lesbian friends cannot marry, or to join a club that does not accept gay members, such as the Boy Scouts. Just making the analogy sometimes changes their behavior.
Brown: Non-gay people need to become more active, just as white people were active in the civil-rights movement and men were active in the women’s movement of the 1970s.
Has the gay-rights movement suffered since the religious right has extended its political influence?
Brown: Well, certainly that is the common wisdom. On the other hand, I think within those religious communities there has been some really constructive conversation.
Ayres: The United Church of Christ [last] week embraced same-sex marriage. Spain, a traditionally Catholic country, embraced same-sex marriage.
Brown: The Episcopal Church U.S.A., though it has been under tremendous pressure globally for its stance with respect to homosexuality, has been standing pretty firm on this issue.
If the Republicans hold Congress in 2006, is that a setback for gay activists?
Brown: It does make it harder to put progressive policies in place at the federal level, and it may make it harder to hold off something like the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Do you think Canada’s decision to officially recognize same-sex marriages will influence Americans?
Brown: I think a lot of Americans perceive Canada to be very similar to us. It’s going to help Americans imagine what marriage equality might look like in the United States.
How do you feel about civil unions as a compromise?
Brown: It is just exactly that. It’s a compromise between people who really want full marriage equality for same-sex couples and those who, for one reason or another, have discomfort about that. It’s a step forward, but it’s not equality. It’s a separate status, and we know from our constitutional history in this country that separate is not equal.
Your book talks a lot about using economic incentives versus just moral arguments to affect change. One example you use is a “vacation pledge.”
Brown: There are a lot of states that depend heavily upon tourism. People can go to vacationpledge.org, and they can promise to vacation in the first state that legislatively adopts marriage for same-sex couples.
One of the more radical strategies you advocate is for heterosexuals to “disable their privilege” by leaving their own sexual orientation ambiguous. But you’re openly heterosexual in your book.
Brown: We thought, “Well, sexual orientation really is relevant to the discussion, so we better be clear about the perspective that we’re coming from.”
Ayres: There are actually times a heterosexual perspective gets missed in arguing [for gay marriage].
By encouraging people to be ambiguous about their sexuality, aren’t you reinforcing taboos? Suggesting people hide their sexuality?
Brown: No. I think it’s great for gay-lesbian-bisexual people to be proud of their sexuality. What is more problematic sometimes is for heterosexuals to be proud of their sexuality because their sexuality is so empowered and it’s so privileged, so maybe to downplay that a little bit is a good thing.
Ayres: Some places ambiguation’s appropriate; some places it’s not. The [straight] neighbors of this lesbian woman whose [gay pride] flag was burned came to her and said, “We’ll fly the flag on our homes too.”
Brown: A lot of heterosexuals really don’t want to be perceived as gay. We’re at least trying to get them to think about that, to think, “Well, what would be so bad if somebody perceived you to be gay?”
Do you have any friends or family who oppose gay rights?
Brown: I’m sure we do. We certainly have people in our neighborhood, at church, who feel differently from the way we do. I think most of the time people are willing to have constructive conversations about these issues. For heterosexual people, it’s sometimes hard to speak up. You don’t want to be seen as a rabble-rouser.
You discuss “heterosexual holdouts,” straight couples who boycott marriage. Can this be done on a scale that would pressure politicians?
Ayres: When you ask somebody would you drink from a whites-only water fountain, people say “No!” Well, your not drinking isn’t going to cause the legislature to change a water fountain. “Well, I don’t care if it changes it or not, I’m just not willing to do that,” [they might respond] … But I’m standing here right now with a wedding ring on my hand! It is reasonable for people to go ahead and take the benefits of discrimination, but it then calls upon you to do something to share some of those benefits, to make amends for taking these ill-gotten goods.
Brown: Rather than boycotting marriage, heterosexual couples can say, “OK, we will marry, but let us do something to help this movement. Let us ask our guests to donate money to one of the gay-rights advocacy organizations in lieu of gifts, or let us say a prayer at our service that we hope one day for greater equality for couples who want to commit in this loving way.” There are so many things that people can be doing that are affirmative.
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