The Limits of Law

In a unanimous ruling last week, the Iowa supreme court held, "Perhaps the ultimate disadvantage expressed in the testimony of the plaintiffs," challenging the state statute limiting marriage to one man and one woman, "is the inability to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage." While gay rights advocates are right to celebrate this landmark decision - a major victory given Iowa's place in the socially conservative American heartland - the court's sweeping claim here should give them pause.

Ever since same-sex marriage emerged on the national agenda, the most convincing point in its favor has been the argument that barring gays from marrying someone of the same gender violates the bedrock American constitutional principle of equality before the law. Equal Protection is not limited to the federal Constitution; this legal reasoning was paramount in bringing about pro-gay marriage decisions in Massachusetts, California, and Iowa, where supreme courts all ruled that statutes barring same-sex marriage violated state constitutional equal protection clauses. All of these courts recognized the discrimination inherent in preventing gay people from enjoying the same rights and privileges that the government bestows to heterosexuals.

Yet the Iowa court ruling, at least rhetorically, suggests another rationale for why gay marriage should be legalized: because without it, gay people are unable "to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage." In other words, without official government recognition of their romantic unions, gays cannot gain social acceptance. While it is an admirable aspiration on the part of the Iowa justices to correct this malady, it elides a distinction between what the law can and cannot accomplish.

In its decision, the court readily acknowledged the various legal abasements to which gays in Iowa are subjected, from the "inability to make many life and death decisions affecting their partner" to the "inability to share in their partners' state-provided health insurance, public-employee pension benefits, and many private-employer-provided benefits and protections." In addition to the bestowal of these benefits, the altering of public attitudes in a more "progressive" direction may be another positive side effect, but a court decision will not be the panacea for entrenched homophobia.

To think otherwise risks complacency. The vast amount of effort that has already been poured into passing hate-crimes and antidiscrimination statutes is evidence of the proclivity to assume that laws are enough to change popularly held attitudes. A person harboring so much ingrained homophobic animus that he would physically attack a gay person is unlikely to be persuaded from doing so because of a law imposing stiffer penalties on such assault. While an employment nondiscrimination ordinance banning sexual-orientation bias as cause for termination will no doubt protect some gays from being fired, it is not as if the existence of such a regulation will make homophobic employers more enlightened in their attitudes. Likewise, newly legal gay marriage in Iowa won't help the closeted teenager in Des Moines whose parents will throw him out of the house if he tells them he's gay. Alleviating these dire situations is far harder than passing a law or winning a strategic legal victory.

None of this should be construed as an argument against the Iowa court's decision, which I applaud. But, at the same time, I worry that by investing so much energy in winning court decisions and not working to win marriage equality through popularly elected legislatures, the gay rights movement is shunting aside the harder - but no less important - work of convincing the American people that there is nothing unhealthy, morally wrong, or threatening about homosexuality.

Social conservatives worry that court decisions like the ones in Massachusetts, California, and Iowa will lead to greater cultural acceptance of homosexuality, and in the end, they have a right to be anxious. As the Civil Rights Act of 1965 played a role in altering the way Americans think about race, the Iowa supreme court's decision will change the way Iowans view their fellow gay citizens, at least over time. But legal decisions written by a handful of lawyers form only a part of the struggle for the hearts and minds of the public. It wasn't lawyers and legislators who won the struggle for black equality, but rather the moral suasion, physical sacrifice, and humility of the everyday participants in the African-American civil rights movement that convinced Americans of the immorality and intolerability of the racial status quo.

Disputing the notion that marriage should remain heterosexuals-only because that's the way it's always been, the Iowa justices wrote that such reasoning can "allow discrimination to become acceptable as tradition and helps to explain how discrimination can exist for such a long time." The Iowa supreme court put a chink in the armor of the deeply ensconced antigay animus that bedevils so much of this country. Reveling in this victory, however, gays should not expect court decisions to be a substitute for the widespread social acceptance that we have sought for so long but have yet to achieve.

Quitters Don’t Win, but Winners Quit

Just in time for spring wedding season, gay marriage activists are celebrating a triumphant few weeks. Last Tuesday, the Vermont legislature effectively legalized same-sex unions in that state. Days earlier, the Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that a statute barring gay marriage was unconstitutional. And here in the nation's capital, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

But amid all the history being made, one gay rights organization did something really historic: It announced that it would shut its doors at the end of the year, because its mission was complete.

Formed in 1999 to lobby for the right of gay couples to adopt children in Connecticut, Love Makes a Family was the lead organization advocating for same-sex marriage in that state. It successfully lobbied lawmakers to pass a civil unions bill in 2005, but fell short of achieving its ultimate goal until last October, when the state supreme court ruled that the Connecticut constitution endows same-sex couples with the right to marry.

"Mission accomplished" is one of the most difficult things to say when your organization depends on working toward a cause, but Love Makes a Family did it. And other gay groups may soon need to follow suit. If the gay community truly wants to achieve equality, it will have to overcome a victim mindset that is slowly becoming obsolete.

After the thrill of the October ruling in Connecticut, Love Makes a Family executive director Anne Stanback said that she and her staff took stock of where the organization stood: They conducted surveys, focus groups and interviews with supporters and donors. No one really knew where to go from there. "There was no clear consensus about what our mission should be," she says. So she and her colleagues decided to shift course, writing in an open letter released April 1: "We have accomplished our mission, and now we want to conclude our work on a high note." The organization's political action committee will continue to raise funds and support candidates, but as of Dec. 31, Love Makes a Family's lobbying and educational divisions will become inoperative.

Contrast the decision of Love Makes a Family with that of MassEquality, a Massachusetts organization that won equal marriage rights through a state supreme court decision in 2003. It fought off successive attempts to repeal that ruling, a battle that ended conclusively in 2007 when legislators blocked an effort to put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot. Massachusetts' gay citizens are now equal under state law in every way, which would seem to undermine the organization's eponymous raison d'etre. Yet MassEquality continues to operate and raises money that could be directed to gay rights organizations fighting more pressing battles in other parts of the country. Today, its agenda has less to do with supporting gay rights than it does with lobbying the state government to pour more money into pre-existing, already generously funded programs such as anti-bullying measures, senior services and others.

Once the goals of an organization with a specific mission are achieved, as Love Makes a Family's were last October, it should relish its victory, cease operations and move on. This is the sign of communal maturity. The continued operation of a gay rights organization in the state that was the first to institute marriage equality and that has the most progressive gay rights laws in the country reflects a sense of eternal victimhood.

Of course, gay rights are not just about the right to adopt children or the right to marry. There remain the ongoing campaigns to end the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy and to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to fire someone on the grounds of sexual orientation. But given the overwhelming support for these moves among younger Americans, these victories are not far off, and gay rights organizations should start facing the prospect that in the near future, their missions will be superfluous.

This is a realization that comes easier to younger gays like me (I'm 25) than to older ones. For people who grew up in a time when being open about one's homosexuality could result in being fired or thrown into prison, it's harder to move out of a mindset that sees the plight of gay people as one of perpetual struggle. This attitude is all the more pronounced in those who hold leadership positions in the gay rights movement, as their life's work depends upon the notion that we are always and everywhere oppressed.

It's in the culture of any institution to justify its existence. This is especially so with civil rights groups, which thrive on a sense of persecution, real or perceived. Take the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, for instance. GLAAD was established in the mid-1980s, when, as its Web site correctly states, "representations of lesbians and gay men tended to fall into one of two categories: defamatory or non-existent." The situation today, however, is dramatically improved, as gays have essentially won the fight over popular culture. Countless television shows and movies feature positive portrayals of gay characters, and it's a career faux pas for people in the entertainment industry to say anything that could be remotely construed as hostile to gays (see what happened to superagent Michael Ovitz when he alleged that a "gay mafia" ran Hollywood).

Rather than rest on its laurels, however, GLAAD raises millions of dollars from media companies and wealthy donors to subsidize a bloated national staff. Its work seems to consist of little more than issuing hypersensitive press releases complaining about purportedly anti-gay content in television commercials and throwing extravagant parties to honor straight celebrities for talking about their gay friends. Far from demonstrating the increasing political power of the gay community and the acceptance it has won, GLAAD is the epitome of neediness and vulnerability.

Gay civil rights groups have a tendency to minimize victories and exaggerate threats. When President Obama chose the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, those groups complained loudly. Although Warren had campaigned in favor of Proposition 8, the California measure banning same-sex marriage, the decision to include him in a purely ceremonial position signaled no change in administration policy on gay rights. Nevertheless, his mere reading of a two-minute prayer drove gay organizations apoplectic. After all, bogeymen like Warren help with fundraising appeals.

Of course, the passage of Proposition 8 last fall highlights the fact that the struggle today remains real and that love only makes a family within clearly defined state borders. There is still important work to be done nationwide, and none of this is to downplay the daily efforts put forth by gay organizations in socially conservative parts of the country. But if the ultimate goal of the movement is to achieve equality for homosexuals, then those leading it should appropriately acknowledge progress along the way. That means accepting victory when it's achieved, rather than trumping up opposition at every opportunity.

When I asked Stanback how Connecticut's gay community reacted to Love Makes a Family's announcement, she said that the response had been overwhelmingly positive but was also characterized by sadness. "There was a sense of community," she says. "It was exciting to be a part of a movement."

It's understandable that a civil rights organization's decision to shut down would induce nostalgia for struggles gone by. But the underlying reason for the move represents a step forward. Arriving days before Iowa and Vermont legalized gay marriage, it points to the day, hard as it may be to imagine now, when civil rights groups will no longer be necessary.

God Hates Censorship!

"God hates the queen Mary's College, the fag-infested U.K., England, and all having to do with spreading sodomite lies via The Laramie Project, this tacky bit of cheap fag propaganda masquerading as legitimate theater." Thus spake the Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., a man far more famous than he deserves to be. Founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, the bigot preacher's condemnations of homosexuality are so outrageous - and have become the subject of such abundant coverage by the media - that the man has become a punch line.

At least once a day, transmissions from the Westboro Baptist Church pour forth from the fax machine near my desk at The New Republic - all of them declaring God's hate for some municipality or institution due to its not taking the same zero-tolerance position on "faggotry" as the Reverend Fred. As I presume the case is elsewhere in Washington (Phelps claims to fax every U.S. congressman and senator, the White House, and many major media organizations on a daily basis), these missives are deposited directly into the trash or, as in my office, taped to a door for the general bemusement of one's coworkers.

Marginal and mad as Phelps and his followers may be, however, many see the Westboro Baptist Church as a growing and actual threat to democratic society, rather than a bizarre coven of traveling performance artists. Those who have given Phelps such undue attention have tended to be either opportunistic journalists looking for a good story or gay groups trying to scare the bejesus out of donors; in other words, they've had understandable, if not exactly justifiable, reasons for obsessing over this silly man. But now an authority no less prestigious than the government of the United Kingdom joins those who are making a mountain out of a molehill.

Earlier this year Phelps, along with his shrew of a daughter Shirley, announced plans to protest a production of The Laramie Project at Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, a town about 50 miles outside of London. The play, which has become a required performance in the drama department of practically every right-thinking liberal high school and university in the United States, tells the story of Matthew Shepard from the perspective of dozens of people involved in his life and untimely death. Phelps, his daughter, and whatever followers they could muster were planning to stand outside the production space with their well-worn neon poster-board signs, which depict stick figures in all manner of compromising, sodomitic positions, while shouting "God hates fags!"

"Both these individuals have engaged in unacceptable behavior by inciting hatred against a number of communities," an official with the U.K. Border Agency said in an attempt to justify the decision to bar the Phelpses from entering the country. "The government has made it clear it opposes extremism in all its forms." Never mind the speciousness of this claim (the U.K. government has not been nearly as discriminating in its treatment of foreign radical Muslim preachers, many of whom have ties to terrorist organizations and have called on their British coreligionists to wage jihad against the British state). Are governments justified in banning or otherwise hindering the speech of individuals who "incite hatred" of minority groups, and if so, should gays be cheering this particular decision?

On its face, barring the likes of Fred Phelps and those who engage in such rhetorical brutality seems like a simple, catchall solution to an obnoxious problem. There's no question that Phelps is a hatemonger whose most flamboyant words might be construed as a call to violence. And given Europe's history with fascism and popular susceptibility to demagogues, one can understand how the British government would be particularly sensitive about a seeming crossbreed of Adolf Hitler and Elmer Gantry setting foot on English soil so as to shout bigoted insults about a once-oppressed minority group.

Ultimately, however, punishing Phelps for what he says is not just wrongheaded but self-defeating. One of the most fundamental aspects of a free society is freedom of speech. And that freedom extends to everyone, even the most pernicious. It means freedom for nasty, evil men like Phelps.

The decision to bar Phelps is counterproductive as it bestows far too much credit on the man's persuasive capacities. In explaining the rule under which his entry was barred - a nebulous law that prohibits the incitement of religious and/or racial "hatred" - the British government stated, "The exclusions policy is targeted at all those who seek to stir up tension and provoke others to violence, regardless of their origins and beliefs." Like most regulations aimed at suppressing hate speech, the British law is useless, and the Phelps imbroglio demonstrates its ultimate futility.

It's naive to think that everyday heterosexual British citizens with ambivalent views about homosexuality would, by dint of hearing the words of Fred Phelps, not only transform into raging homophobes but acquire a hatred of gays so intense that it would compel them to commit violence against the first homosexual to cross their paths. Moreover, treating Phelps as a genuine security threat along the lines of a terrorist gives him the attention he so desperately seeks. Perhaps if Phelps's congregation were not made up largely of his immediate family, he would be worth worrying about. But Phelps makes a living by seeking publicity, and by turning him into a martyr for free speech, the British government has unwittingly connected him with a cause he only besmirches.

Banning the speech of those with whom we disagree, even those who lie about us and condemn us to hell, betrays a fundamental principle of the gay rights movement: the notion that individuals should be free to live as they like provided their actions do not impinge on the freedom of others. Freedom is an expansive concept, including not just the right to love a consenting adult of the same gender but the right to speak and write what one believes. Phelps's words may be hateful, and many gay people undoubtedly take offense at what he has to say, but in a free society, nobody has the right to not be offended.

Indeed, the gay rights movement would not be where it is today were it not for freedom of speech. It wasn't so long ago that gay people could not meet at a bar without fear that the police would raid the premises, assault the patrons, and cart them off to jail in paddy wagons while carefully tipped-off news photographers documented the scene for the next day's front page. Early gay publications were confiscated in the mail and their publishers were prosecuted for distributing "obscene material." Gay rights pioneers cited the freedoms elucidated in America's founding documents to defend their right to peacefully assemble, protest, and express their views, often facing fierce resistance from the government and society at large.

But ultimately, gay people prevailed. Allowed to speak freely and honestly, they have effectively made their case, and today the majority of Americans support some form of legal recognition for gay couples, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and the right of gays to adopt children. And while many Americans - perhaps most - still view homosexuality as immoral, they are increasingly repelled by the rhetoric of the Fred Phelpses of this world. The culture is now overwhelmingly supportive of gay equality, and it's those who would hold us back who are on the rhetorical defensive. The case for gay rights has proven itself resilient over the past half century and has gained strength with time. It does not require the shuttering of opposing views - no matter how malicious, misleading, or unfair - to win the day, which it eventually will.

The Reverend Phelps may think we're going to hell. Let him say it until he's blue in the face.

Rusted Steele

Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, was supposed to be a breath of fresh air for the moribund Grand Old Party. Not only has the first African-American leader of the GOP put a more diverse face on an organization that consists largely of older white men, but more substantively, his moderate conservatism was promised to be the saving grace of a party in desperate need of reform. Steele had been a member of the Republican Liberty Council, a group of socially moderate Republicans founded by former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman that tried to make pro-choice and pro-gay politicos feel more comfortable in the party. Steele was also unafraid to criticize the excesses of the GOP; when he ran for Maryland senator in 2006 he joked that the "R" in Republican was akin to a "scarlet letter."

In his campaign to become party chair, Steele ran as a moderate. Not long after he won a contentious leadership election that necessitated six ballots, Steele acknowledged that his ascension presented an "important opportunity" to reach out to pro-choice and pro-gay voters. But since taking the helm of the RNC in January, Steele has proven himself thus far to be a disappointment to those hoping that he would move the party towards the center, especially on issues of concern to gay voters.

First, there was Steele's well-publicized row with conservative talk radio king Rush Limbaugh. Attempting to neutralize a coordinated Democratic strategy of painting Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party, Steele referred to Limbaugh as occasionally "incendiary" and "ugly" in an interview with CNN's D.L. Hughley. It didn't matter that this remark was made in passing, or, for that matter, that it was true (even Limbaugh's army of unreflective "dittoheads" cannot deny it). The increasingly shrinking conservative movement will brook no criticism of its loudmouth standard-bearer, and essentially proved the Democratic analysis correct by rushing to Limbaugh's defense and pressuring Steele to prostrate himself at the host's feet, which he did posthaste.

But a more dispiriting example of Steele's captivity to outdated social conservative ideology was a little-noticed remark he made in an exchange with another right-wing talk radio host, Mike Gallagher, about a week before his spat with Limbaugh. Asked by Gallagher if he favored civil unions for gay couples, Steele responded:

"No, no no. What would we do that for? What are you, crazy? No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country. I mean, this isn't something that you just kind of like, 'Oh, well, today I feel, you know, loosey-goosey on marriage.' I mean, this is a foundational principle of this country. It is a foundational principle of organized society. It isn't something that, you know, in America we decided, 'Let's make it between a man and a woman; oh, well, now let's change our mind and make it between anyone and anyone.' "


Never mind the callous way in which he treated the issue - certainly, the mere question of whether or not committed gay couples should continue to be legally discriminated against deserves a more measured response than an inquiry into whether the person posing it should have his head examined - Steele's reply was firmly out of step with the American electorate. A succession of recently conducted polls have found that over 60% of Americans support either civil unions or full marriage rights for gay couples. (Even George W. Bush, who led the effort to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, came out in support of civil unions in 2004 and expressed disagreement with the GOP platform.) Most analysts of social trends agree that this figure will increase significantly over time as older Americans with more conservative views on homosexuality die, while younger and more tolerant Americans begin voting in higher proportions, and general attitudes on homosexuality liberalize across the board.

So it is not the conservatives urging their movement to moderate itself on the defining civil rights issue of the day who are "crazy." Put aside the debate about the desirability of gay marriage; antigay politics will soon become anachronistic and a surefire electoral loser. Some, like the reform-minded former Bush speechwriter David Frum, have realized this fact and called for a softer approach to social issues, particularly gay marriage (full disclosure: I'm a contributor to Frum's website, But those conservatives willing to question their party's position on gay rights have been viciously attacked, and there's little indication that their views are influencing a critical mass of the Republican Party leadership.

Last November, according to exit polling, 27% of self-identified gay voters chose McCain over Obama (the actual number of gays who voted GOP was probably far higher, given that many presumably did not out themselves to pollsters). In a dismal year for Republicans, gays were the only group whose support for the Republican nominee rose from its 2004 level. There was good reason for this increase considering the fact that McCain courageously opposed the FMA, was the first Republican presidential nominee to grant an interview with a gay news outlet, and seemed more amenable than his predecessors on other gay issues. Yet in exchange for this support, gays now see a Republican Party chairman who, while promising a bigger tent, has just shrunk it. The decline of the GOP as a national party continues apace.

Bill Moyers, Gay-Baiter

Being a homosexual in America in 1964 was not easy, and one of the more difficult places to be one was Washington, D.C. While the nation's capital has long since become the setting for some of the most important gay rights battles (and home to a vibrant gay scene), it was also the site of routine antigay witch hunts. At the time, gays were officially barred from working in government and their livelihood depended on the secreting of their sexuality. Indeed, the mere suspicion of homosexuality could get a person fired, and the consequences of losing one's job due to what was then known as a "morals charge" were long-lasting.

It's in this context that recent revelations about Bill Moyers are so disturbing. Before he became the self-righteous scold of the liberal television commentariat, Moyers served as a special assistant to Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. This was at the height of J. Edgar Hoover's reign over the Federal Bureau of Investigation, during which time the FBI director spied on a vast array of public and private citizens in order to gather information for potential blackmail.

According to documents obtained last week by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, one of these individuals was former Johnson aide Jack Valenti, later head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Hoover, according to the Post, was "consumed" by the question of whether Valenti was gay, and deployed his agents to investigate the man's sex life.

They turned up nothing.

Valenti, however, was not the only White House official to be investigated by the FBI for suspected homosexuality. In late 1964, just weeks before the presidential election, senior White House adviser Walter Jenkins was arrested in a YMCA men's room for performing oral sex on another man. Under extreme mental duress, Jenkins checked into a hospital and resigned his position. Moyers wasted no time in trying to discover how much more potential trouble the Johnson administration might have with gays in its midst, and went out of his way to ask Hoover's FBI to investigate two other administration officials "suspected as having homosexual tendencies," according to the recently released documents.

In an e-mail response to an article written by Slate's Jack Shafer, Moyers complains about Hoover, but does not bother to address the matter of his ordering the FBI to snoop on his colleagues.

These revelations once again remind us that empathy for the dignity of gay people does not always fall along partisan political lines. Whereas Barry Goldwater, one of the crucial figures in the birth of the conservative movement, could have easily exploited the Jenkins scandal in the presidential campaign, he refused to discuss it. In his memoir Goldwater wrote, "It was a sad time for Jenkins and his family. Winning isn't everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends, or lasting principle, are more important."

Goldwater, today remembered by most liberals as a fire-breathing Neanderthal, later became an outspoken opponent of the ban on gays in the military.

Contrast Goldwater's behavior to that of Moyers, who abused his power in office to hunt down and expose the gays in his midst. (Here it should be noted that rooting out gays in government wasn't the only dirty task Moyers conducted while working in the Johnson White House. He also oversaw the FBI's wiretapping of Martin Luther King and successfully prevented the civil rights activist from challenging Mississippi's all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. "You know you have only to call on us when a similar situation arises," he encouraged the FBI agent in charge of the domestic espionage.)

To be sure, Moyers's behavior at the time took place within a social milieu far more repressive than today's. It wasn't until 1973, after all, that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders. Gays were banned from working in the federal civil service until 1975. And gays were barred from having security clearances, amazingly, until 1995. That Moyers engaged in Nixonian dirty tricks with the aim of embarrassing and ruining the careers of gay people, while despicable, was something that many officials in his position probably would have done, given the mores of the era.

But what makes Moyers's contemptible behavior relevant is that even to this day he has yet to acknowledge wrongdoing, never mind apologize. That Moyers has since become a supporter of gay rights is irrelevant. None of that erases the fact that he used his power as a senior White House official to pry into the private lives of his own colleagues.

Today, he has the gall to excoriate other public figures and lecture the rest of us on virtue. After leaving government, Moyers became a journalist and subsequently produced PBS documentaries excoriating Richard Nixon over Watergate and Ronald Reagan over Iran-Contra. In the early 1990s, his star was so high and his reputation so pristine that he publicly considered running for president. His sanctimony rivals that of the pope.

Given his own history of snooping into the private lives of American citizens with the intent to publicly humiliate them, Moyers's latter-day sermonizing on the evils of the Bush administration and conservatives in general rings more than a little hollow. And the fact that he has been getting rich off the public trough for decades - earning millions of dollars in production deals from his documentaries and television programs aired on Public Broadcasting - makes a full explanation of his activities in government service all the more necessary.

Moyers didn't just seek dirt on his own colleagues but his political enemies as well. In 1975, then-deputy attorney general Laurence Silberman was tasked with the job of reviewing a raft of secret files once belonging to J. Edgar Hoover. Amid "nasty bits of information on various political figures," Silberman found a letter drafted by Moyers requesting an FBI investigation of suspected gays on Goldwater's campaign staff. When the press reported on this document, Silberman received an angry phone call from Moyers, who alleged that the report was a CIA forgery. When Silberman offered to conduct an investigation so as to exonerate Moyers, the former presidential aide demurred. "I was very young," Moyers confessed to Silberman. "How will I explain this to my children?"

It's a good question. And one that we're still waiting for Bill Moyers to answer.

Would Sam Adams No Longer Be Mayor If He Were Straight?

That's the question posed by the Portland-based writer Taylor Clark over at Slate. The sex scandal currently roiling the Pacific Coast city has all the makings of a steamy soap opera (and then some -- I mean, really, Beau Breedlove?). It's attracted an inordinate amount of attention not only because of the dramatic nature of the charges (kissing in the City Hall bathroom!) but because the individuals involved happen to be gay.

Clark argues that were Adams straight, he would have resigned long ago. She makes the extra special effort to make clear that she's not the sort of person who believes that one's sexuality should affect the way we view these matters. Rather, in liberal Portland, "When you look out on the pro-Adams crowds," you don't just see gays and political hacks dependent upon the mayor's patronage championing his cause. The bulk of the people coming to his public defense are "young, educated liberals who feel unqualified to spit venom about Adams' sex life-despite the fact that they'd be far less restrained with a straight politician." That liberals would hold gays to a favorable double-standard when it comes to sexual behavior is probably true and troublesome. But it's the topic of another column. Yet as far as explaining why Adams hasn't yet departed office, I'd say it's logically sound. L'affair Adams could only play out in a handful of cities across America, Portland being near the top of the list. But Clark leaves unexplored another angle to the world of gay sex scandals that might explain why Adams is still in office.

A look at past sex scandals involving gay politicians would be instructive. Barney Frank, who was censured by his colleagues in the House of Representatives for fixing an the parking tickets of an erstwhile lover who was simultaneously running a brothel out of Frank's home, ultimately survived, in spite of many calls for his resignation. The scandal had little effect on Frank's political fortunes; he's since risen to become one of the most visible and powerful Democrats in the House. Perhaps were it not for his scandal Frank would be speaker by now, but there's really no way of knowing. After all, Frank's prostitute/parking ticket problems didn't stop him from becoming Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee nor the most visible (and eloquent) defender of Bill Clinton during the impeachment process.

The other prominent gay political scandal in recent memory was that of Mark Foley. Unlike Adams, Foley never touched the objects of his illicit affection, never mind carry on an affair with them and then lie about it to the media.Yet literally within minutes of the dirty instant messages hitting headlines, Foley had already resigned, hitched a flight out of DC, and announced he was entering rehab. It wasn't until last year that Florida and federal officials announced that Foley hadn't broken any law. What can explain the different ways in which Adams, Frank and Foley were treated?

Party affiliation. Sam Adams and Barney Frank are both Democrats, whereas Mark Foley is a Republican. It didn't matter that Foley had a rather sterling record on gay rights issues, the mere fact that he was a member of the GOP was enough to garner the outrage of the Gay Left. Perhaps the fact that Adams is just a mayor, whereas Foley a congressman, explains the different responses. But Barney Frank, after all, was a congressman during his own brouhaha. Moreover, in this internet-driven world, the details of the love life of Sam Adams and Beau Breedlove are available to anyone in the country and have been scrutinized by major national media.

Sure, Foley wasn't exactly open about being gay (nor was he exactly closeted), yet I see little reason why a semi-closeted, pro-gay politician mired in a pseudo-sex scandal should be the recipient of such massive levels of hostility and ridicule whereas an openly gay politician mired in a real one ought earn largely unmitigated sympathy. In other words, if every aspect of the saga of Sam Adams were the same save his party affiliation he would have flown the coop yesterday.

Queers for Palestine?

Of all the slogans chanted and displayed at anti-Israel rallies over the past month, surely "Queers for Palestine" ranks as the most oxymoronic. It is the motto of the San Francisco-based Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT), a group advocating financial divestment from the Jewish State. QUIT contends that Zionism is racism, regularly demonstrates at gay pride marches, organizes with far-right Muslim organizations, and successfully lobbied the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to boycott the 2006 World Pride Conference due to its location that year in Jerusalem.

What makes QUIT oxymoronic is that their affinity for Palestine isn't reciprocated. There may be queers for Palestine, but Palestine certainly isn't for queers, either in the livable or empathetic sense. Like all Islamic polities, the Palestinian Authority systematically harasses gay people. Under the cloak of rooting out Israeli "collaborators," P.A. officials extort, imprison, and torture gays. But Palestinian oppression of homosexuality isn't merely a matter of state policy, it's one firmly rooted in Palestinian society, where hatred of gays surpasses even that of Jews. Last October, a gay Palestinian man with an Israeli lover petitioned Israel's high court of justice for asylum, claiming that his family threatened to kill him if he did not "reform." He's one of the few lucky Palestinians to be able to challenge his plight.

And that"s only in the relatively benign West Bank. The Gaza Strip, which has stagnated under the heel of Hamas"s Islamofascist rule since 2007, is an even more dangerous place for gays, 'a minority of perverts and the mentally and morally sick,' in the words of a senior Hamas leader. As in Iran, Hamas"s patron and the chief sponsor of international terrorism, even the mere suspicion of homosexuality will get one killed in Gaza, being hurled from the roof of a tall building the method of choice.

It's these facts that make the notion of "Queers for Palestine" so bizarre. Contrary to what some gay activists might have you believe, there really are not that many political subjects where one's sexuality ought influence an opinion. Aside from the obvious issues related to civic equality (recognition of partnerships, open service in the military, etc.), how does homosexuality imply a particular viewpoint on complicated matters like Social Security Reform, health care policy, or the war in Iraq?

The answer, at least for some of those on the left side of the spectrum, is one found in the early rhetoric of the Gay Liberation Front, the leading gay rights organization to emerge after the Stonewall riots. The GLF was, in the words of historian Paul Berman, the "gay wing of the revolutionary alliance" that in the 1970s challenged the liberal consensus and came to be known as the "New Left."

GLF leaders, for instance, played an instrumental role in the creation of the Venceremos Brigade, which dispatched starry-eyed American radicals to pick sugar cane in Cuba as a show of solidarity with the regime of Fidel Castro. (Like the Palestinian Authority, Communist Cuba didn't exactly return the kindness of its gay sympathizers; for decades it interned gays and HIV-positive individuals in prison labor camps). The GLF allied itself with a whole host of radical organizations (like the murderous Black Panthers) whose role in the struggle for gay equality was tenuous at best. And the very name of the GLF was adopted from the National Liberation Front, the moniker of the Vietnamese Communists.

Why does this history matter now? Although you will find few out-and-out Marxists in the leadership of gay organizations today, most gay activists still view the world with the same sort of "oppression" complex epitomized by the early radicals who led the GLF. They believe gay people to be "oppressed," and hold that any other group claiming the same victim status should earn the support of gays.

It's for this reason that every major gay organization was so hesitant to talk about the overwhelming support among African-Americans to ban gay marriage in California, and why the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force went so far as to commission a bogus study ostensibly refuting that disturbing statistic itself. In the estimation of the gay rights establishment, African-Americans, like gays, are "oppressed," and there is no room for enemies on the left.

But gays will never get anywhere as long as they view the world in this constrictive and counterproductive way. Indeed, if one wanted to construe a "gay" position on the Arab-Israeli conflict - that is, examine the issue purely through the prism of the welfare of gay people - the inescapable stance is nothing less than partiality for Israel. Israel, after all, is the only state in the Middle East that legally enshrines the rights of gay people. Gays serve openly in the military and occupy high-profile positions in business and public life, and Tel Aviv is an international gay mecca. As cliched as it may sound, Israel is an oasis of liberal tolerance in a reactionary religious backwater, and if gay people want to stand with the "oppressed" of the region, it is the Palestinians seeking a peaceful, two-state solution, not the murderers of Hamas or their backers in Tehran, who merit support.

None of this is to say that gay people are wrong for sympathizing with the downtrodden and genuinely oppressed; on the contrary, it's an admirable quality. But all too often, ideologues with ulterior motives and radical agendas pervert this worthy instinct.

It's one thing to express concern about the humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories. But to stand alongside the enthusiasts of religious fascism isn't "progressive." It's obscene.

Orientation Isn’t a Qualification

When the rumor first surfaced that President-elect Barack Obama's transition team was strongly considering union activist Mary Beth Maxwell for secretary of Labor, gay ears perked up. Gay news outlets across the country and around the world covered the story with marked interest. Gay blogs covered every hint and rumor about the selection process. The Human Rights Campaign, which had already endorsed Rep. Linda Sanchez for the job, announced that it would simultaneously endorse Maxwell. Why such fascination? Maxwell, you see, is a lesbian, which is apparently a very important qualification when it comes to the study of ergonomics, implementation of the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act, and compliance with the Office of Labor-Management Standards.

My reaction to the news that Maxwell was under serious consideration was less enthusiastic. Whereas the gay press focused almost entirely on Maxwell's attraction to women, the mainstream media was more interested in her ardent support for a deceptively titled bill called the Employee Free Choice Act. Under current labor law, if a union wishes to organize a workplace, it must first win the consent of a simple majority of workers who vote the same way the rest of Americans do biennially on the first Tuesday of November - by secret ballot.

The Employee Free Choice Act would change this. Instead, all a union would need to secure the right of representation is collect cards signed by a bare majority of employees. Armed with a list of workers' names, union organizers would know who has - and who has not - publicly indicated their support for the union. Such a system clearly lends itself to abuse, as union bosses can pressure and intimidate workers into supporting unionization. Maxwell, a longtime union activist, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of the measure.

That Maxwell is sexually attracted to women is all well and good, but her support for the Employee Free Choice Act ought to be more significant. And while it would be nice to have an openly gay cabinet secretary, I'd rather have a straight one who doesn't support this legislation - barring that, anyone who isn't as zealous a proponent of it as Maxwell. Should this opposition to the appointment of an openly gay person - opposition based not a whit on said person's sexuality but rather my sincere beliefs about the damage she could inflict upon the nation's economy - make me a pariah among gays?

Ultimately, Obama passed over Maxwell in favor of Rep. Hilda Solis, who is no less devoted to the Employee Free Choice Act. But in the weeks since this decision was made, gays have grown more vocal in their demand that someone, anyone, gay get a high-level cabinet appointment.

Attention soon turned to Fred Hochberg, a gay man who served in the Small Business Administration under President Clinton, whom gay activists favored for Commerce secretary after the scandal-plagued Bill Richardson withdrew himself from consideration.

"We're not pushing his name just because he's gay," insisted Phil Sousa, the creator of the website EqualRep, which is pressuring the Obama administration into appointing the first openly gay cabinet secretary. "We're pushing his name because he's highly qualified and the fact that he's openly gay is kind of icing on the cake there."

In other words, they're pushing Hochberg because he's gay. Were he not, they wouldn't be pushing him.

While it's important to have openly gay public figures as advocates for equality, role models for the young, and living proof that we are not the depraved perverts our adversaries portray us as, the near-singular focus on obtaining an openly gay cabinet nominee comes at the expense of more important gay rights causes. It essentializes gay people down to their sexual preference.

Inaugurated in 1993 after the nostrums of identity politics had successfully pervaded the media, universities, and popular culture, Bill Clinton was the first president to appoint cabinet secretaries under the rubric of a racial and gender spoils system. Soon after his election, for instance, it was revealed that Clinton would consider only women for the job of attorney general. This poisoned the opening months of his presidency, as insufficient vetting resulted in the scotching of several nominees over a variety of damaging revelations.

It's understandable that gay activists would want openly gay people in high levels of government, and I stand with them. But there's something a bit pathetic in the way gay organizations and the gay media have fixated on the appointment of openly gay individuals. By focusing so heavily on the sexual orientations of the people under consideration, it seems like we're fighting for scraps off the table of the incoming Obama administration. We're looking for a singular trophy when we ought to be fighting for a turkey in every pot, and it reeks of desperation.

According to a recent report by Kerry Eleveld, the leaders of the nation's major gay organizations spent the "bulk of a two-hour meeting" with transition officials last month pressing for the appointment of an openly gay cabinet secretary. Wouldn't their time have been better spent talking about how to pass pro-gay legislation in the upcoming congressional term?

While a cabinet appointment would be a breakthrough, it's hardly the impressive accomplishment that gay groups are portraying it as. Openly gay elected officials like Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin had to fight their way up the congressional food chain to earn national prominence; they didn't get their jobs thanks to a well-moneyed gay lobby pressuring for their selection.

Indeed, a cabinet appointment is not always a sign of merit; it's often as much, if not more, a result of political favors, a desire to please an important political constituency or a mixture of the two.

But at this point, thanks to the blatant way gay rights groups have gone about campaigning for it, such a selection would be perceived as cynical tokenism. And given all the public pressure directed at Obama to appoint a gay person to a high-profile job, the appointee would automatically be viewed as the recipient of preferential treatment. With so much attention devoted to that appointee's sexuality - as opposed to their actual qualifications - the first openly gay cabinet secretary would be robbed of their individuality, and their accomplishments in office would come second to their sexual orientation.

Like everyone else, gays should be judged by their abilities. This quest for homosexual affirmative action is a throwback to the mau-mauing of women's and ethnic groups during the Clinton administration. As with racial and gender preferences, when important positions are "set aside" for a certain class rather than the most qualified individuals, everyone loses out, not least of which the intended beneficiaries. The obsessive focus on openly gay cabinet appointees risks further ghettoization of gays, as we are compelled to "support" whatever gay figure is foisted upon us by gay organizations irrespective of whether or not we agree with that person's political views.

Gay people have every right to lobby the government to address their concerns. But by demanding that Obama prioritize sexual orientation in the hiring of employees, we diminish ourselves, not just collectively but as individuals.

Sean Penn’s Blind Spot

It's not surprising that Sean Penn, thanks to his star turn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, is becoming a hero to gays. His performance is moving and, judging by the archival film footage, flawless; Penn simultaneously renders Milk as a figure of historic importance and a vulnerable individual with a sparkling sense of humor. Aside from the acting prizes he will surely win (and deservingly), Penn is likely to earn himself the iconic status of "straight ally," a heterosexual who goes out of his way to take a stand for gay rights and is thus showered with praise from gays. A GLAAD Media Award, honors from the Human Rights Campaign, and a slew of prizes from other prominent gay rights organizations are only a matter of time.

Which is a shame, because Penn's political activism, irrespective of his views on gay rights, negates the values for which a movement based upon individual freedom must stand.

The same week that Milk premiered in theaters, The Nation published a cover story by Penn based on interviews he conducted recently with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, the dictators of Venezuela and Cuba respectively. The article is a love letter to the two men, defending them against all manner of Western "propaganda." It hearkens back to the notorious dispatches penned by Westerners fresh from the Soviet Union who reported on the amazing progress of the workers' paradise. These worshipful epistles, often published in The Nation, neglected to mention anything about the gulag, the "disappearance" of political dissidents, the Ukrainian famine, or any other such inconvenient truths about communism. Lenin termed the individuals who delivered these apologetics "useful idiots," and Penn and his enablers are nothing if not that.

Penn traveled to the region with the polemicist Christopher Hitchens, and while the loquacious Chavez was happy to entertain both men, the reclusive Castro was a harder get. Penn's long-standing defense of the communist regime in Cuba, however, must have endeared him to the Castro brothers, as Raul decided to grant an interview only with the actor. The import of a communist dictator purposely deciding to sit for an interview with Penn and not Hitchens, who would have been less - how to put it? - deferential in his line of questioning, was apparently lost on the movie star and his readers. Reporting on his dinnertime conversation, Penn dutifully made all the standard arguments in defense of the Cuban regime, from pointing out that the Communist Party would win 80% of the vote in an open election to morally equating the United States' Guantanamo Bay prison to Cuban jails that house the Castro brothers' political enemies.

It's only in the closing moments of his otherwise adulatory, seven-hour interview that Penn bothers to ask about human rights abuses on the island, and just the "allegations" of abuses at that. The lack of interest in individual liberty, hardly surprising for a far-left fellow traveler like Penn, is nonetheless ironic given the Cuban regime's treatment of gay people, a subject that one suspects Penn might have some interest in given his critically acclaimed performance in Milk. Not long after the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the internment of gay people in prison labor camps, where they were murdered or worked to death for their "counterrevolutionary tendencies."

Over the gate of one of these camps were the words "Work Will Make Men Out of You," an eerie homage to the welcome sign at Auschwitz instructing Jews on their way to the gas chambers that "Work Will Make You Free." (The plight of gays in the Cuban revolution is movingly told in the novel Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, made into a film starring Javier Bardem. Playing a gay character in a film that has both an antitotalitarian and pro-gay message, Bardem is an "ally" less morally compromised than Penn.) In the early years of the regime, Raul Castro was notorious for ordering the summary execution of its opponents, including people whose only crime was their homosexuality. This is the man with whom Penn was "in stitches" knocking back glasses of red wine.

While homosexuality has since been decriminalized in Cuba, the communist government bans gay organizations, as it does any organization critical of the regime.

"There isn't a single individual that is taken seriously in the human rights community - whether you're talking about Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Freedom House - that would describe the Castro brothers and their regime as anything other than a police state run by thugs and murderers," says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, which focuses on Latin America. "That Sean Penn would be honored by anyone, let alone the gay community, for having stood by a dictator that put gays into concentration camps is mind-boggling."

Penn's credibility as an effective advocate for gay rights is also weakened by the generally illiberal policies of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes. Chavez, in spite of Penn's apologetics to the contrary, is no democrat; the record of his rule is unmistakably authoritarian. The latest State Department human rights report cites the following government infringements in just the past few years: "unlawful killings; disappearances reportedly involving security forces; torture and abuse of detainees; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; searches without warrants of private homes; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; government-promoted anti-Semitism; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers' right of association."

Chavez has also cavorted on the world stage with individuals like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, trying to form a bloc of third-world, authoritarian regimes to stand in opposition to the West. Penn, playing the role of the apparatchik almost as well as he did the former San Francisco supervisor, doesn't bother to ask Chavez about any of these manifold abuses or associations, preferring to repeat without skepticism the crazed dictator's claim that the United States is plotting an invasion of his country. "It's true, Chavez may not be a good man," Penn declares. "But he may well be a great one."

That Penn would write an homage to Latin American caudillos is nothing new, as both he and The Nation have sung the praises of anti-American dictators for quite some time. Indeed, Penn fancies himself something of a foreign correspondent.

In December 2002 he traveled to Baghdad to meet with cronies of Saddam Hussein - the killer of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million people - to defend the Ba'athist regime against impending war. Penn hobnobbed with notorious individuals like Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister infamous as the public face of the Hussein regime, and pleaded on their behalf. This is not to condemn the notion of antiwar activism, but there were principled arguments to be made against the Iraq War and means of arguing against it that didn't require the knowing exploitation of oneself as a propaganda tool for a totalitarian regime. While Penn nary has a word of criticism about genuine tyrants and terrorists, last year he delivered a speech naming senior American government officials as "villainously and criminally obscene people" (Chavez proudly read the letter on state television).

Why should anyone care about an actor's politics? The bloviations of Hollywood stars tend to be ignorant and irrelevant to those interested in serious debate about the issues of the day, but Penn's grandstanding matters due to both his role in Milk and the film's political relevance in the context of Proposition 8 and the nationwide campaign for gay rights. Gay rights are human rights, as Milk said, and Penn discredits both when he rationalizes illiberal ideologies as "anti-imperialist" and rushes to the defense of thugs who posture as victims of the West. Penn's ignoble political side projects taint a noble cause.

Don’t Expect Too Much from Obama

Soon after Barack Obama earned his place in history last Tuesday, the praise from gay rights organizations was effusive. "This is the dawn of a new political era of hope and engagement in the life of this country," proclaimed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "This election represents a paradigm shift," said Joe Solomonese of the Human Rights Campaign.

One can understand why these organizations feel reason for celebration. The last eight years have seen the passage of more than 20 anti-gay state marriage amendments, an attempt by the President of the United States to write discrimination into the Constitution, and congressional foot-dragging on bills ranging from employment nondiscrimination to hate crimes. Barack Obama, meanwhile, supports everything on the gay rights agenda short of marriage equality.

But even as the state fights continue - with Wednesday's Connecticut court ruling opening the door to gay marriage there - at the federal level, the gay rights movement can expect to feel some serious cognitive dissonance in its enthusiasm for Obama. Even if our new President has a "mandate," with the economy in the tank, two ongoing wars and widespread demand for major new initiatives on health care and energy, gay rights are hardly a priority. Especially for a man who is politically strategic - or careful - to a fault, and will go to great lengths to avoid repeating the Clinton "don't ask, don't tell" debacle.

While Obama's success is on balance a good thing for gay rights, contrast that to what was lost on Tuesday. In California, thanks to the passage of Proposition 8, 18,000 already-married gay couples may lose that status and no gay person will be getting married in the country's most populous state for the foreseeable future. Same goes for Florida and Arizona, which also passed marriage amendments. In Arkansas, gay couples lost the right to adopt children. And it's worth noting that many of the voters in Obama's winning coalition, notably blacks, remain culturally conservative - and helped those referenda prevail.

Gay groups acknowledge the setbacks, but say they're outweighed by the legislation that will come with a President Obama and a Democratic Congress. The three major items they cite are a hate crimes statute that would punish anti-gay violence more harshly than other violent crimes, legislation to ban anti-gay employment discrimination and repeal of the law barring openly gay people from serving in the military.

All these bills are significant, but are they truly likely to get off the back burner, with so many other things at full boil? Perhaps. If so, would their passage trump anti-gay marriage amendments in three states? No. There are principled reasons for those considering themselves "pro-gay" to oppose hate crimes laws as they criminalize thought, not action. Nor is there evidence that they reduce anti-gay violence. Regarding employment discrimination, there are no reliable statistics determining the actual number of people who have been fired or denied a job because of their sexual orientation. And change isn't likely to come on gays in the military until the military leadership advises it. Moreover, during the campaign, John McCain said that he'd be open to a "review" of the policy should the brass recommend it.

In 1993, gays similarly welcomed Bill Clinton into office with much enthusiasm. Their fervent support was answered with the President's gays-in-the-military misstep, (the first misjudgment of the Clinton presidency), and was followed with his signing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

To avoid the disappointments of the Clinton era, gays should keep trying to win hearts and minds at the state level - without investing too much hope or energy in Obama. While the President-elect has spoken inclusively about gay people, he does not have a legislative record on gay rights and has displayed the same knack for political opportunism as our last Democratic President. Obama was more than happy to employ "ex-gay" gospel singer Donnie McClurkin in an attempt to win the votes of socially conservative blacks in the South Carolina Democratic primary. And while he nominally opposed Proposition 8 in California, that opposition consisted of nothing more than a letter sent to a gay Democratic group in San Francisco.

To be sure, having a President who speaks empathetically about gay people - and Obama has done this more than any presidential candidate in history - will, in and of itself, change the national tone on homosexuality. Obama will probably also hire a liaison to the gay community, a post that Clinton inaugurated and that President Bush left vacant, and invite gay leaders to the White House. All together, that may help tear down homophobia, the last acceptable societal prejudice. Indeed, the mere fact of having a black man in the White House may lessen Americans' anxiety when it comes to thinking about another minority. All these positive outcomes are possible, but last Tuesday's losses, and cold political reality, are too great for gays to get their hopes up.