This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

In Perspective: Jon Meacham on the gay rights movement

The late American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. used to say — usually over martinis, and always over a steak — that self-righteousness in retrospect was easy, and cheap.

As a southerner born after the epic events of the civil rights movement, I’ve always wondered how on earth people of good will could have conceivably lived with Jim Crow — with the daily degradations, the lynchings in plain sight, and, as the movement gathered force, with the fire hoses and the police dogs and the billy clubs.

But live with it they did. Someone like me, looking back from the perch of the present, could still shake his head and wonder what took so long. We would never allow such an evil to stand, we tell ourselves.

Except that we are now in the midst of a crisis of conscience every bit as significant as the struggle against segregation, and too many of us are repeating the mistakes of the past and allowing the worst kind of discrimination, a culture of anti-gay hatred, not merely to endure but to flourish. You don’t have to look far to see the evidence. There is a rising number of suicides of young gay people, often preceded by public humiliation because they are gay. It took a California court this week to order the military to stop enforcing its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. And arguments over marriage equality are roiling midterm elections.

Here’s, Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor in New York: “I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family. And I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t.”

He later apologized, but remarks like Paladino’s presuppose that there are two legitimate sides to the debate: that somehow homosexuality is anything other than a part of some people’s identity and humanity in the way skin color or gender is. I believe that my children, who are young, will look back on the early years of the 21st century in rather the same way I look back on the middle of the 20th: as a time when seemingly respectable people supported discrimination against Americans simply because those Americans were different from themselves.

So I am checking my self-righteousness about Jim Crow. We have plenty of work to do in our own time — right now — to live up to the most basic standards of human decency.