OPINION: Ignorance and Acquiescence — Two Obstacles in the Fight for Gay Rights

The resignation last week of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla, the parent of the Firefox web browser, has sparked a heated debate about whether some gay people were wrong in demanding his ouster because of his opposition to same sex-marriage.

Brendan Eich
Brendan Eich

“The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society,” wrote gay blogger Andrew Sullivan. “If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.” On a recent episode of Larry Mantle’s “Air Talk” on KPCC, most of the on air conversation focused on free speech rights and some of it on whether gay activists were hurting their campaign for equal rights by advocating Eich’s resignation

What few people are discussing is how this debate illustrates the profound ignorance of most Americans about the First Amendment and, despite great advances in the fight for gay rights, the gay community’s continued willingness to settle for less.

Let’s start with free speech. The First Amendment to the Constitution is pretty clear:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment bars the government from restricting the speech of its citizens, with certain limitations to guarantee public safety and prevent slander. The First Amendment does not require that companies, schools, non-profit institutions or organizations of any kind employ people who voice opinions that might hurt the reputation of their employers.

This ignorance of the First Amendment among gay people became apparent for me a few years ago, when I publicly called out Mitchell Ivers, a gay editor at Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions, who had recruited Jerome Corsi, author of “The Obama Nation,” widely criticized for the inaccuracy of its attacks on Barack Obama; edited several books by Glenn Beck, who praised Ivers in the preface, and edited “Obama Zombies” by Jason Mattera, known for his published attacks on Judy Shepard in a student newspaper he edited that also featured stories about homosexual rape. Ivers supporters argued that Beck, Corsi and Mattera had a right, under the First Amendment, to express their opinions. They certainly did. But Simon & Schuster didn’t have an obligation to publish them. Nor did Ivers, who presented himself publicly as a progressive gay man, have an obligation to solicit and edit them.

For me, there’s an even bigger concern than the ignorance about the First Amendment. I’m bothered that some in the gay community seem to believe equal rights for us are a subject for negotiation and debate. Brendan Eich made a $1,000 contribution to a campaign in support of Prop 8, the California initiative to ban same-sex marriage. Andrew Sullivan says Eich’s gay opponents are attempting to intimidate the free speech evidenced by that donation.

Eich certainly has a First Amendment right to take a stand against gay marriage. But then many of the people I grew up with in North Carolina in the 1950s had the right under the First Amendment, which they exercised, to oppose interracial marriage, to argue against letting black women use public restrooms reserved for white women and to object to letting black people sit in movie theatres reserved for whites (in Fayetteville, N.C., my hometown, the black people had to sit in the balcony).

Thank God, that sort of racism, while it does still exist, is as unacceptable in civilized society today as opposition to full and equal rights for gay people should be. (Would Andrew Sullivan be arguing for Brendan Eich’s right to speak his mind while remaining CEO of Mozilla if Eich had donated to a movement to ban interracial marriage or to require black people to use different bathrooms than white people?)

Until the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped forward, many black people also settled for less. I well remember the “Uncle Toms” in my community, who would doff their hats, bow slightly and smile at any white person who deigned to toss them a dime or call them out by first name. In many ways, gay people are the last “Uncle Toms” of the Western world. We are the ones who quickly forgave Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act and imposed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay people in the military. We are the ones whose leaders in the Human Rights Campaign and other gay organizations scurried to the White House a few years ago for a cocktail reception with Barack Obama, even though he had stated his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Gay people will not win our fight for equality until we recognize that having the same rights as everyone else isn’t negotiable, until we realize that “steppin’ and fetchin” isn’t a path to equality, until we understand that we have every right to take a strong stand against people who argue for bias and bigotry.

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