Deb Price | A Cheat Sheet for Straight Allies

“So what’s the big deal?”

That was the question from a young colleague when the issue of gays in the military came back up.

Those of us who’re gay hear that response more and more often from heterosexual coworkers, relatives and friends.

What’s the big deal about gays in the military? Marriage? Gay people being out at work? Telling kids not to call other kids anti-gay names at school?

“So what’s the big deal?” The question sounds like a low-key declaration of gay-friendliness. Many of today’s young adults have grown up so comfortable with openly gay people that they take our equality for granted. That’s great.

What’s not great is our heterosexual supporters’ passivity about the fact that our country’s laws don’t yet reflect their progressive attitudes. Ten years into the 21st century, the federal government refuses to recognize same-sex marriages; gay men and lesbians are dying on the battlefield but forbidden to tell the truth about their lives; and in most states it’s perfectly legal to fire workers simply because they are gay, bisexual or transgender.

In 50 years, gay Americans will be fully protected from discrimination. What happens in the meantime depends largely on what kind of country our young heterosexual supporters decide they want to live in. Our allies tend to be quiet. So plenty of lawmakers and judges still write off gay people as a whiny special interest group whose basic constitutional rights aren’t worth worrying about.

Progress will keep traveling at a turtle’s pace unless gay-friendly heterosexuals turn up their volume and voice a passion for full equality powerful enough to counter the energy long displayed by the other side.

So how about speaking out when talk turns to gay rights, whether at the water cooler or in line at the grocery store? While the help of straight allies is needed everywhere, here’s a cheat sheet on where your efforts can really pay off:

— Don’t write off grandma: A recent Pew Research Center poll is a roadmap for where sharing about your support for gay rights is most needed. Overall, by 57 percent to 37 percent, Americans embrace the idea of civil unions for gay couples.

Women are more supportive than men, 60 percent compared to 54 percent. So consider starting a conversation with a brother or a male buddy.

A majority of Americans of all ages, except the 65-plus crowd, supports civil unions. But support among older Americans has already risen to 49 percent. Don’t assume your grandmother is too old-fashioned to hear that the piano teacher you like so much is gay.

— Grab those loudspeakers: Although we live in a democracy, some people’s opinions carry a lot more weight. On gay issues, that list includes veterans, Republicans of all flavors, parents with children in public schools, churchgoers and members of Congress. Any encounter with them offers an opportunity to mention, for example, that it’s wrong for gay soldiers to be forced to lie.

— Pick your location: Pull out a map showing where gay and transgender Americans have secured job protections and other basic rights. You’ll see that gains have largely been in the Northeast and on the West Coast. If you live anywhere else, you have endless opportunities.

None of this means that you can’t make a difference by talking with, say, college-educated women in New England. But straight allies can make a huge difference by coaxing along an uncle in the Texas legislature or a granddad who served in Korea.

Ever hear yourself asking, “What’s the big deal?” because you already know that gay people deserve to be treated like everyone else? Then help speed the day when full equality really will be no big deal.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

Copyright 2010