January 20, 2020

A Gay President?




 

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN


Should Pete Buttigieg be our next president? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: The simple fact that he’s under consideration shows how much America has changed, and for the better.
Mr. Buttigieg is gay.
That might not seem like such a big deal in this day and age. But until the very recent past, it was simply unimaginable that an out-of-the-closet homosexual would compete for the highest office of the land. So we should all pause a moment and look backward, to see how just how far we have come.
Start with World War II, when the U.S. military issued its first regulation to screen out gay men. It listed three telltale signs of homosexuality: “feminine bodily characteristics,” “effeminacy in dress and manner” and a “patulous rectum.” In case you’re wondering, patulous means “expanded.” And yes, the regulation really said that.
From 1941 to 1945, about 9,000 American servicemen were discharged for being gay. Those suspected of homosexuality were sometimes forced to submit to a “gag test” with a tongue depressor. If you didn’t gag, it was assumed that you performed oral sex on other men.
After the war, 21 states and the District of Columbia enacted so-called “sex psychopath” laws, allowing indefinite detention of homosexuals. And the federal government barred gays from the civil service in 1953, ostensibly on the grounds that they could be blackmailed by Soviet agents.
Across American cities, meanwhile, gays were routinely harassed and beaten by police. That’s what led to New York’s now-famous Stonewall Riot of 1969, which began when cross-dressing patrons at a gay bar refused to go to the bathroom with police officers to “verify” their gender.
Stonewall jump-started the movement for gay rights, which brought more American homosexuals out of the closet. The most prominent was San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who declared that "every gay person must come out" in a now-famous speech three weeks before he was murdered in 1978.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s sparked another round of homophobia, including periodic calls for the quarantine of HIV-positive people. But it brought still more gays into politics and more coverage of gay issues in the mass media, which would help normalize homosexuality for everyone else.
The change was slow. Backtracking on his pledge to end the prohibition on gays in the military, President Bill Clinton substituted the notorious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that was still in place when Pete Buttigieg entered the U.S. Navy Reserve. And Mr. Clinton also signed into the law the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which said that the federal government wouldn’t recognize same-sex marriages conducted at the state level.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell wasn’t repealed until 2010, under President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama opposed gay marriage when he took office in 2008 but shifted course (or “evolved," in his delicate telling) four years later. The catalyst was a gaffe by none other than Joe Biden, his vice president, who caught the White House unawares by announcing in a TV interview that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. That sent aides scrambling to clarify that Mr. Biden wasn’t speaking for Mr. Obama until the president himself weighed in on the same side.
In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage. And two years later, when Mr. Obama’s second term ended, 64% of Americans supported the right of gays to marry. That was up from 40% in 2009, one of the sharpest attitudinal shifts in American political history.
But that still means that millions of Americans are opposed to gay rights. And not all of them are Republicans, as people on the left sometimes assume. Among African Americans, a critical part of the Democratic coalition, only 51% of voters support same-sex marriage.
And surely that helps explain the almost negligible black support for Mr. Buttigieg, who married a man in 2015. In the key primary state of South Carolina, at least one black participant told a recent focus group that Mr. Buttigieg was “flaunting” his homosexuality. Many of them said he should keep it on the down-low, lest he alienates churchgoers and other conservative voters.
That’s very different advice than what Mr. Buttigieg received from Rev. Al Sharpton, who told him to campaign forthrightly as a gay man and “break down this barrier.” And history suggests that Rev. Sharpton — whose sister is gay — is right. The reason that attitudes about homosexuality changed in the United States is that gay people made themselves heard. And the more the rest of us got to know them, the more tolerant and accepting we became.
So fight on, Mayor Pete, and bring your very cute husband with you. At a moment of national darkness, including the impeachment mess and the conflict with Iran, Mr. Buttigieg’s improbable candidacy provides a small ray of light. It illuminates how far we have traveled, and how much farther we all have to go.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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