“How many of you think being gay is a sin?” I asked my Literature Across Cultures class in 2007. We were reading Brokeback Mountain. Nearly half raised their hands, and they stared with righteous fury. A few squirmed in their seats. Over the years, when I asked that question in every class and each year, the hands going up dwindled to a third, to just a few and today, no one.
A sweeping change has transformed our nation. Surprisingly, during the “war on terror,” the LGBT community has gone from social pariah to a symbol of global progress. Millennials especially support gay rights. An unseen feedback loop has propelled them into a progressivism: The more evangelicals demanded holy law in public spaces, the more they reflected Al Qaeda. In the eyes of many US youth, the face of the Muslim extremists routinely demonized by political leaders and the Christian extremists in their own back yards overlapped into one.
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The zeal of Christian conservatives pushed millennials away from homophobic forms of faith. In the overall struggle for gay rights, same-sex marriage has become the mainstream flashpoint. And it is what youths, many Republican as well as Democrat, overwhelmingly support. It is a great historical irony that same-sex marriage may be the one lasting victory of the “war on terror.”
“Why do they hate us?” President Bush asked rhetorically on September 20, two weeks after the September 11 attacks. He stood at the podium and talked of good versus evil to the sitting members of Congress, the watching nation and, beyond our borders, a world anxious about the coming war.
“They hate our freedoms,” he said and drew a line between our freedoms – such as the right to vote, to speak and to worship – and the Taliban’s medieval Islam, in which women were banned from school and religion was imposed. And yet within Bush’s own Republican Party, a fervent base of the Christian right fought at every turn to fuse church and state. Nearly every tenet of radical Islam had a warped reflection in the US religious right. Gay rights? No. Women’s rights? No. Separation of church and state? No.
The political contradiction was that even as Republican leaders painted Al Qaeda as the face of evil, the Republicans were driven by a similar theology. The hypocrisy was evaded and instead channeled into extreme conservatism. Bush won re-election by posing as a defender against enemies to “our” way of life, whether those be Islamic terrorists or gays who wanted equal rights. Anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives were on 11 states’ ballots and each one passed. They brought out masses of conservative voters like a magnet, solidifying Bush’s victory.
The momentum towards conservatism at first outpaced the contradiction of his own party’s religious extremism. Eventually, the nation learned to recognize the rampancy of homophobia and transphobia, often specifically perpetuated by Christians. The religious right consistently framed LGBT people as unrepentant sinners, who glamorized “transgression.” In their eyes, Satan’s world was parading itself proudly before them.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals and the perverts and the liberals and the leftists and the Communists coming out of the closet,” preacher James Robison said in a 1980 rally in Dallas. “It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet.”
When he shouted those words, it had been 11 years since the Stonewall riots. After generations of brutal repression, LGBT people fought with fists and bottles, fought with marches and art, fought with their votes. It was turning a tide until 1981, when men in New York and San Francisco stumbled into emergency rooms, dying.
The disease was first called Gay Related Immune Deficiency and was stamped on gay men and women like a scarlet letter. It was renamed AIDS but the stigma held. In the 1980s and 90s, the LGBT community and many straight people watched lovers, friends and family die of a virus that no one knew how to cure.
The Reagan administration ignored the disease. It did not fund research. It did not publicize AIDS as a health crisis and its victims as needing help. It ignored the crisis to avoid losing the support of the Christian Right, who saw the disease as divine revenge for flagrant sin.
The first time President Reagan acknowledged it was during the 1986 rededication of the Statue of Liberty. Comedian Bob Hope joked, “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.”
The camera swept over the gilded audience – many were stiff faced, appalled – but the Reagans were laughing. In that year, 1986, nearly 37,061 cases of AIDS were reported and 16,301 people had already died.
In 1987, ACT UP, a direct action group founded by writer Larry Kramer, began to stage protests. Against them was a homophobia deep and wide. From the bully pulpit of the evangelical world, leaders echoed televangelist Jerry Falwell, who said, “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” But even in the youth culture of early MTV, one could see musician Sebastian Bach wore a T-shirt that read, “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.”
ACT UP and other groups forced the US to acknowledge the reality of their lives. They shut down Wall Street. They carried coffins though New York City. In 1992, they threw the ashes of loved ones who died from AIDS onto the White House lawn. In a scene from the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, a man climbed on the fence, threw his loved one’s remains and yelled, “I love you, Mike!”
It was this immense amount of suffering that set the stage for a culture-wide transformation of how gay people were represented. Images of gay men and women cradling sick, barely breathing victims contrasted against the bellicose shouting of Christian extremists. Slowly, many American youths began to see religious fundamentalists as the danger and gays as martyrs; like martyrs, they did not renounce or refuse their true selves but acted on their desires in defiance of a homophobic world. Of course, the frame of martyrdom was questionable: those who died of AIDS weren’t choosing their deaths, but it served a political purpose.
This particular aspect of the perception shift came at a high cost. As of this writing, in the US alone, at least 659,000 people have died of AIDS. We are only now discovering a cure. Thankfully, the treatment is extending the lives of those infected.
The Martyr’s Discourse
In my classes, I sometimes showed the documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and one scene in particular moved the students. After Milk was killed, thousands of San Franciscans poured into the street with candles and marched to City Hall. It seemed as if stars were wrapped around the building like a blanket. A young man in my class said, “I want to be loved like that.”
I could see how, in his eyes, the image of the faggot-sissy or HIV leper had been replaced by the image of a heroic martyr. The archetype of the martyr is pivotal for liberal politics. They are the figures who faces injustice with dignity. When the martyr suffers and inevitably is killed, it allows us to grieve at the loss of a nobility that transcends their difference from us. We grow from their death, and our sense of self expands to include them in their wake.
At first, the HIV crisis simply scared much of straight America. But as the death toll mounted and activist groups like ACT UP staged direct action protests, a shift in media portrayal began.
First, public sympathy was channeled through similarity. Since HIV was framed as a disease of marginalized people, national empathy was given to “innocent” straight victims. Ryan White, a young boy in 1990 who caught the virus from a transfusion, was the poster child. And then basketball star Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive.
Once the panic ebbed and sympathy rose, the image of gay people in the media shifted from the infectious pariah to the martyr. It began small. A “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode titled “The Outcast” aired in 1992 that was an allegory of homophobia. Next year, the Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington legal drama Philadelphia was released. Three years later, Ellen DeGeneres came out on her self-titled show, indicating that beyond the martyr image, an increasing number of people knew someone (either a friend, family member or at least a celebrity) who was openly gay.
Meanwhile, horrific, constant and often invisible anti-gay violence was finally highlighted when in Wyoming, a young Matthew Shepard was killed in 1998. Next year, Boys Don’t Cry came out and resonated against the backdrop of Shepard’s death. In 2005 the film Brokeback Mountain was released, followed by Milk in 2008. The thread running through all of these narratives was the image of the gay man or woman as a martyr for a larger freedom to love and ultimately a victim of straight, homophobic violence.
The millennials inherited the cultural work of the generation before. It shaped their response to the “war on terror.” The terrorist attacks had made them vulnerable and the face of the enemy was a religious extremist. Straight youth came to maturity with an awareness of homophobia, particularly of the overt variety perpetrated by bigots, specifically religious ones. Inevitably, they shared space with gay youth who were fighting more and more openly for their lives. In the quiet, often unreadable work of everyday culture, a transference of sympathy was made.
The New Americans
“The United States conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” President Obama said and that night, outside the White House, throngs of youth cheered. For those of us who are older, it was a curious sight to see young adults, who were children when 9/11 happened, in patriotic mosh pits in the streets. In response, Millennial writers said the attacks had cut their childhood, forced them to know about the jarring reality of mass tragedy, and they grew up fearing Osama bin Laden. And now he was dead.
Four years later, in June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal. Instantly, straight allies joined gay friends and family to cheer in the streets. Many “rainbowed” their Facebook cover photo.
These two nights of joy, one at the death of a religious terrorist and the other at civil rights granted to gay people, showed the poles of this generation’s politics. On one end was a celebration of ostensible opposition to religious extremism, and on the other, a celebration of state recognition of gay love. Is it possible that the millennials inherited the image of gay people as targets of oppression, shaped by the struggle over the AIDS crisis the decade before, and now saw in them people who also were being attacked by religious figures?
If so, it explains why millennials are leaving churches with anti-gay policies. The support for same-sex marriage may be a condensation point where a complex of ideas are held together. American youths can identify with those vulnerable to religious extremism, see themselves as agents of progress and feel patriotic at the United States’ assumed cultural superiority.
The fear and rage of the “war on terror” pulses through the nation like an ember that burns when you touch it. It is the apocalyptic frame through which the religious right sees the world. After the legalization of gay marriage, a Christian radio host named Bryan Fischer said, “From a moral standpoint, 6/26 is the new 9/11, because it was on this day that five Justices of the United States Supreme Court became … rainbow jihadists, and they blasted the twin pillars of truth and righteousness into rubble.”
On September 8, days before this past anniversary of 9/11, Raw Story reported that, in Chicago, a man cut off a Sikh driving his car. The Sikh pulled over. The man walked up and punched him until he blacked out. When he awoke, Inderjit Singh Mukker remembered the attacker yelling, “Terrorist! Go back to your country, bin Laden!”
The once well-known theologian Ronald Niebuhr would say we are children of light and children of darkness, groping in the limbo between. In our stumbling efforts we sometimes find grace and we sometimes cause suffering. Today in the US there is gay couple kissing in joy at a wedding. And there is a man named Mukker, wearing a shirt stained with his own blood, staring at the camera, asking silently: Why? Why? Why?