By Jay Michaelson
Author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality
LGBT people awoke with a sense of dread to the news of Rick Santorum’s near-tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum is not just the butt (pun intended) of a deservingly dirty joke; he has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to bashing gay people for political gain. He is the poster child for political homophobia.
And yet, this near-win is different, because America is different. Santorum represents not the resurgence of gay-baiting, but its last, self-defeating gasp.
Only a few years ago, homophobia was a great uniter. Short on campaign cash? Need to fire up the base? Why, flash a few images of the latest pride parade, compare same-sex marriage to bestiality, and the checks and self-rightous blog posts would flow like milk and honey. And while religiously-soaked gay-bashing wasn’t the rhetoric of choice for neo-conservatives and fiscal conservatives, they went along with it, building a strong coalition between corporate capitalists and Christian conservatives.
Indeed, it has been remarked that this was Reaganism’s great innovation: using social issues to convince working class people to vote against their economic interests. At first, it was the “Southern strategy,” making use of coded racism. Later, it grew into gay-baiting, making use of overt homophobia. For at least twenty years, it was the winning formula for the Republican party. Enrich the rich by enraging the working poor.
Only now, things are different. Last May, a Gallup poll found a majority of Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage. Last September, a large majority supported the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy. And over the last year, we’ve seen a dramatic increase of LGBT (including T) people in the media, in politics, and in our communities.
As a result of these dramatic changes, Santorum’s homophobia is more a liability than an asset. Gay people may be horrified at his near-win in Iowa, but we needn’t be. His bigotry still plays to his base — but it’s only the base, only the extremists, who still soak it up.
Of course, public opinion could always turn against gay people. But I don’t think that’s likely, because it changed, over time, due to a very resilient and powerful force: truth. Straight folks have seen, in their own personal experience, that gay people are no more or less ethical than they are. There are lusty, libertine gays, and quiet, conservative ones. Gay people are atheist and religious, of all ethnic backgrounds, young and old, wild and mild. The stereotypes that all gay people are a certain way (lewd, anti-family, demonic, whatever) are simply not true, and anyone who bothers to — no, allows themselves to — get to know their gay neighbors realizes this.
And they’ve seen, too, that sexual orientation is a trait, not (as it has been variously labeled) a sin, pathology, “lifestyle choice,” neurosis, or dysfunction. Sexuality is just part of who we are — a good part.
That kind of truth isn’t subject to the whims of political opinion. Once you see that stereotypes are lies, you don’t go back to them later, especially when — as poll after poll has shown us — that knowledge comes first-hand. The lesbian couple in church, or the gay man raising a child, is far more potent an opinion-shifter than the latest fundraising santorum from the likes of Rick Santorum.
And by the way, this is even true within Santorum’s base itself. In evangelical communities across the country, there are moderate voices questioning the way in which gay people have been singled out by the so-called Christian Right. While most evangelicals remain committed to a broad reading of Scripture regarding homosexuality, increasing numbers are voicing misgivings about whether it’s really Christian to stigmatize gay people. Who Would Jesus Hate, after all?
Given the money and the races ahead in the Republican primary, there’s no way Rick Santorum will be the party’s nominee. Mitt Romney’s PACs will destroy him just as they destroyed Newt Gingrich in Iowa, burying him under an avalanche of negative ads. But as depressing as Santorum’s rise may seem to LGBT folks, this time really is different. We are not about to be victims again. On the contrary, if the polling data is accurate, the biggest victim of Santorum’s homophobia will be Santorum himself.