In an article last weekend, Jonathan Chait took on Ross Douthat, Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument. Overall, it is very good; he’s right: Douthat’s argument against same sex marriage is stupid — and he’s the best the conservatives have. But it shocks me that smart people like Chait don’t understand why LGBT rights have made such quick progress in this country. Chait noted, “The movement owes its success to any number of things, but surely preeminent among them is the clarity of its core rationale.” Not really — not a number of things, and the clarity of its core rationale surely doesn’t have much if anything to do with it.
If you want to understand why LGBT rights have had such unbelievably great success compared to other civil rights causes, all you have to do is look at Dick and Lynne Cheney. They are two of the most conservative people on the planet. But they were among the majority of Americans who were happy to see marriage equality be the law of the land. This is not because they are evolved on this particular topic. It is because they have a daughter Mary Cheney, who is a lesbian. It is hard to maintain your hatred for “the other” when that “other” is your own daughter.
The smartest thing the LGBT community ever did was decide that they had to destroy the closet. As long as people thought that “gays” were just horrible men having unprotected sex in the bath houses of San Francisco, it was trivial for people to vilify them. But once the LGBT community was everywhere — our sons and daughters, our friends and acquaintances, our postal delivery people and the bag boy at the supermarket — it was impossible to discount it as “those people” who show up only in our fever dreams.
What’s sad is that most groups do not have the luxury that the LGBT community has. Trans-gender people are born everywhere. But our society has done an outstanding job of keeping African Americans and Latinos cut off — living in their own ghettos. The fact that there is the occasional African American and Latino outside the ghettos only highlights the difference. Unless these outliers knew the “rules” of the ruling class, they wouldn’t be allowed outside the ghettos — even though everyone could learn the “rules” if given the chance.
I’ve said it before a lot, “The Cheneys could never give birth to a poor child.” They will never have direct access to the inequities of poverty. So they will never know what it is like and they will never care to find out. It’s great that the LGBT community has the special attribute of being equally distributed throughout society. That has made the recent search for equality easier. But there is no special lesson to be learned from its success. Other groups — poor groups — must try to engender empathy from afar. And that is a far harder sale. Just look at any of the Republican presidential candidates.