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Unintended consequences

by Paul Varnell

Religious and social conservatives generally present themselves as vigorous opponents of homosexual sex, gay visibility, gay equality and “the gay identity.”

They attack the political left for encouraging gays to become more visible and providing an incentive to adopt a “gay identity” by passing gay non-discrimination legislation, supporting gay marriage and creating “special protections” for gays that create a safer space for them to come out of the closet and promote their own equality.

Yet, one of the ironies of politics is that the Law of Unintended Consequences means that people’s efforts often have results directly contrary to their goals. In this instance, religious and social conservatives turn out to be among the primary generators and firmest support of gay visibility and “gay identity.”

Here’s why.
Christian churches for centuries have condemned, persecuted and promoted hatred of homosexuals. This meant that homosexuals had to disguise their fundamental erotic and emotional nature from church, state, neighbors and blackmailers, evade detection and prejudice, yet contrive somehow to find partners who shared their desires. So instead of being just another moderately interesting minority attribute, a person’s homosexuality became a very significant part of his or her life and self-concept.

In the same way, current attacks on gays and gay equality by religious or political leaders are an affront to every gay person’s sense of his own dignity and self-worth. And eventually they make most gays realize that their homosexuality is an important part of their lives, induce closeted gays to come out and make gays who were not politically involved become more assertive.

Social conservatives still haven’t quite grasped after more than 40 years of gay liberation that gays are not going back into the closet, abandoning their dignity and self-esteem, or succumbing to political suppression or religious calumny. The more they attack gays, the more they increase our visible numbers.

Some empirical evidence for this is provided in a new study by researcher Gary Gates of the UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute based on data from the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey sample of 1.4 million Americans.

The survey found that 30 percent more gay and lesbian couples identified themselves to the Census Bureau in 2005 than in 2000: 594,000 in 2000, and an estimated 777,000 in 2005, a remarkable increase. Gates allows the possibility that more gays are forming committed same-sex relationships, but says that even if so, it hardly explains such an increase.

Gates says a more likely explanation is a greater willingness of existing same-sex couples in 2005 to acknowledge their relationship — and thus their sexual orientation — to the Census Bureau.

Even more significant for our purpose is the fact that states which have or had in 2004 and 2006 battles over Constitutional amendments to prohibit gay marriage had greater than average percentage increases in gay couples. Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Missouri all had increases above the national average. Wisconsin showed a stunning 81 percent increase in the number of acknowledged same-sex couples.

People can get used to a certain level of discrimination, but the breaking point seems to be when someone tries to take away something people already have — as the state constitutional bans of gay marriage do. It is not true that they change nothing: They remove the possibility of electing sympathetic officials and lobbying the legislature for the right to marry. In other words, they make it much harder to achieve one of our ultimate goals — as they are intended to do. That plus the indignity of having their relationships designated as not equal to heterosexual relationships made a lot of people angry enough to stand up and acknowledge themselves.

I am far from asserting that the more gays are attacked, the better it is. Obviously verbal and political attacks can fuel hostility and even promote hate crimes. In politics, however, any attack can produce a counter-reaction, and that reaction may turn out to be more significant in the long run.

If in virtue of being attacked and insulted more gays come out, then more people will get to know gays. More skeptics will gradually decide that we are decent people who should be treated equally and, little by little, prejudice will be chipped away.

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