Opinion: The Myth of Gay Progress

What's the sign of a successful civil rights movement? People start telling you to compromise and to be polite.

Indiana's new religious freedom law is driving a conversation about the state of gay progress. (Photo: Brook Pifer/Getty Images)

Apr 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

“See?” they say. “We gave you a seat at the table. Now do you have to be so…angry?”

In the wake of the backlash against Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which legal observers say would allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, these voices are already beginning to creep out of the woodwork.

Their argument rests on an impressive ignorance of the recent history of this country. They seem to believe that true equality is best measured simply by the number of gay characters on prime-time television and the covers of magazines. They seem to overlook a bundle of statistics that show LGBT people still regularly face physical harm, are more likely to be murdered, and are more likely to commit suicide. They seem to ignore the data that shows that in many states, we can still be fired for our sexual orientation—and we still earn less. To those who say the LGBT rights movement has gone far enough, because we’re in danger of tipping the scales to some kind of “reverse discrimination,” I say, again: Look at the numbers.

Here’s the truth: If you’re a gay person driving across America, your right to dignity is like a radio station fading in and out. In many areas, there is just a vast silence, or a blaring wall of static. At best, your basic humanity is somewhat written into law and is accepted by most people. At worst—well, I’m sure some Hoosiers could tell us horror stories.

This idea that the LGBT movement—or any other civil rights movement, for that matter—was given anything is laughable. We fought for that seat at the table, and we’re still fighting for it. “Progress” is not a static state, and change is not an on-off switch. Without vigilance, we lose the gains we’ve made. To believe that polite conversation is the best way to drive change, one must ignore the battles that previous generations fought for the rights we have, whether it was at Selma or Stonewall.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his supporters like to summon the scary image of good Christians being punished for not baking a cake for a same-sex wedding. Rarely do they publicly discuss the pediatrician who stopped seeing a child after she discovered her parents were lesbians.

The practice of denying LGBT people everything from routine to lifesaving services is alive and well in this country, as the 2012 case of Shaun Smith shows. Smith, a 30-year-old transgender woman of color in Brooklyn, New York, died after paramedics responding to a 911 call did nothing on finding her unresponsive body. Her death calls up the chilling ghost of Tyra Hunter, who died in 1995 after a car accident in Washington, D.C. When emergency responders discovered she was transgender, they stopped giving treatment and watched her die.

But most discrimination is more insidious, if no less dangerous. Indiana has written into law what’s long been a common punishment practiced by some communities of faith: shunning. It is a powerful, terrible thing to have your community turn its back on you. It is a way of saying you don’t belong here, you are not one of us. And it has real-world consequences. What happens when the only doctor in your town refuses to treat your illness? When the only gas station says it won’t put its straight gas in your gay car?

Thankfully, this time around, we’re not going quietly. You say shut up—we say speak up. Around the country, thousands upon thousands of people have. Gov. Pence, let’s see how well you like being the one who gets shunned.