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Lesbian Notions

Crashing Symbols

Paula Martinac | July 30, 2003

Lamda Defense team after Supreme Court victory (AFP) One of the most striking stories I read in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas was about the San Francisco gay activists who lowered the Castro district's rainbow flag and raised the Stars and Stripes in its place. One mainstream paper reported the incident as "a gesture of gratitude" on the part of the gay community, but I think that interpretation isn't accurate. To me, it seemed more like a symbolic nod to a mostly symbolic ruling - that is, the Supreme Court's acknowledgment that gay Americans have the same right to liberty and respect for privacy afforded heterosexuals.

Because of the Lawrence decision's symbolic nature, there have been a few gay commentators who've derided it as meaningless and chided our community for being so giddy about the outcome. After all, sodomy laws have rarely been enforced, and most of us have never paid attention to them; and post-Lawrence, we still face long, difficult battles in the areas of gay marriage, employment discrimination, and the military. In Time magazine, writer John Cloud complained that "dignity is not the court's to give," so the decision is simply "condescension cast as liberation."

But the naysayers miss the point of why Lawrence rendered many gay people, myself included, teary-eyed and gave us a boost of hope. Symbolic victories are vital to any fight for civil rights, and without them no real progress can be made. Attaining civil rights isn't simply a question of changing a law here and another law there, and presto, we're liberated. If it were that simple, racism would have been obliterated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some of the biggest hurdles facing gay people are in the courts of public opinion, since many ordinary Americans still attach stigma and shame to homosexuality, feel free to admit their disapproval of it, and often vote for political candidates accordingly.

One of several remarkable things about the Lawrence decision was that it addressed the issue of homosexual stigma directly, asserting that when the state criminalizes consensual gay sex, it invites discrimination and demeans gay people. And by stating that lesbians and gay men deserve respect for our private lives, the majority justices weren't really talking to us (or bestowing on us the dignity we already possess); they were addressing the rest of America.

Of course, you might conclude, as some gay activists have, that the high court wasn't trying to educate America at all but simply following public opinion, which has evolved in the last two decades to be more accepting of gay people. But in fact, the many Americans who tell pollsters they believe gays and lesbians deserve equal employment rights are probably pretty much like my mother, who wouldn't want anyone denying her lesbian daughter a job, but who still feels pretty squeamish about what she imagines goes on in my bedroom. Now, in effect, the nation's highest court has suggested the radical notion that maybe consensual lesbian and gay sex is not such a big deal.

Whenever governments take positive, symbolic actions like this, whether large or small, it can only help the gay movement. For example, officials who sign Gay Pride Month proclamations - unlike those who refuse to - are actually saying to the public that they reject the shame attached to homosexuality. Local jurisdictions that establish domestic partner registries, even if the lists carry no concrete benefits for those who sign up, are indicating that same-sex relationships are worthy of some sort of acknowledgment. And even while Bill Clinton's administration produced "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, it still symbolized a notable degree of gay-friendliness, since the former president made history through such "firsts" as appointing more than 150 openly gay officials and attending a gala gay fundraising event.

If these kinds of symbolic actions didn't carry the weight and power of authority, the religious right wouldn't fuss and fume about them so much. The right knows perfectly well how important symbolism is in politics. The heinous Bowers v. Hardwick decision of 1986, with its religious invocation of "millennia of moral teaching," was the ultimate symbol of antigay intolerance, giving right-wingers free reign to launch repeated political attacks on gay people on so-called "moral" grounds. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist surely knew the powerful significance of announcing his support of the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment within days after the Lawrence decision came down.

Symbolic actions can be for the good or the bad, but either way, they should never be taken too lightly. When they're victories for us, like Lawrence, they help create a climate of tolerance in which concrete civil rights gains are gradually able to occur.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.



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