Gay rights vote shows battle not yet won

September 15, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Six percent.

One tends to be a bit skeptical about the number, considering that it came from Florida election officials, otherwise known as The Gang That Couldn't Count Straight.

But, assuming that digit survives the inevitable recount and court challenge, it will go down as the margin by which Miami-Dade County voters just defeated a proposal to repeal a section of the county's human-rights ordinance banning discrimination against gays.

Respect for human dignity ekes out a disturbingly narrow victory.

One is mindful of the warning against studying the gift horse's dental work too closely. A win is, after all, a win. And yet, you'd like to think a community that is, in so many ways, on the forward edge of American life, would have been able to muster a more emphatic rejection of small-mindedness and backward thinking.

But maybe in a paradoxical sense, that slender victory is a gift of sorts, a reminder that there is nothing foregone about our journey toward what Martin Luther King famously called "the beloved community." Such reminders are sometimes necessary, I think. As with issues of racial and gender equity, sexual orientation is one of those arenas where a few high-profile success stories sometimes convince us that we've made more progress than we have.

The fact that Will and Grace is a hit is interpreted as proof that, where gay issues are concerned, we have overcome. And, with apologies to English teachers everywhere, that just ain't so.

Indeed, every poll I've seen paints Americans as strikingly conflicted on this subject. They tend to suggest that, while the nation is not yet completely accepting of gay rights, we are also not ready to see a person denied a job or a place to live simply because of his or her sexual orientation.

And that, let's be clear, is precisely what was at stake here. Not some airy abstract about freedom and justice for all, but a pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts question of whether it should be OK for the boss or the landlord to send you packing for the sole reason that he or she disapproves of your sex life. Granted, the backers of the repeal measure put out a great deal of rhetoric about "special rights" and protecting children.

But for all their gaseous babblespeak, I'd contend that their real motive and mindset are best captured in something one of their supporters, a voter named James Mortensen, told a Miami Herald reporter. "If I want to discriminate, I think I should be able to," he said. "Put them back in the closet."

Kind of wipes the lipstick off the pig, doesn't it? Makes the ugliness impossible to miss.

And yet, even at that, some folks will miss it. Will try to defend what is not defensible, or seek moral cover for that which is not moral.

They will whine piously that, in preventing them from mistreating gays, the law violates their right of free association. They will say that they are prevented from expressing their deeply held moral objections to homosexuality.

Fans of historical parallelism will note that similar arguments were once made to justify keeping Jews out of the community pool and Irish out of the boarding houses. They are still made to keep women off the golf course and blacks out of the private club. And they are as wrong now as they ever were, as offensive as ever before to core American ideals.

But you know what? Eventually, Jewish kids were able to swim in the community pool and Irish men to find room at the boarding house. Women are making inroads on the golf course, and every now and then, some black guy plays the Jackie Robinson role in the local private club. Progress comes by fits and starts.

And I guess it's one of those things that, like sausage, you don't particularly want to watch being made. History books present change as a grand sweep unfolding in epoch time with reassuring inevitability.

But it is in hairsbreadth moments like these that you see it as it really is and understand why progress must always be attended by vigilance.

Some victories are too close for comfort.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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