This past weekend, my husband and I hosted a relative and his family for brunch. This family member is a like-minded, politically-focused, Upper West Side writer who has contributed to several major papers and magazines, as well as penned a few well-received books on matters of the day. As a thinker on pertinent political issues, I greatly respect his views, and I'm confident the feeling is mutual.
We talked shop, as we do, and when attention turned to my work, at it does, this fellow traveler with an aligned political sensibility had one upfront question for me. He asked me quite simply but directly, "Why do LGBT rights debates now seem to be so focused on such silly things? Reality TV? Fast food? Come on! What's that about?!"
I kind of sighed at his assessment. I sighed because I didn't necessarily want to unpack all this on a Saturday away from politics, sure. But I also sighed because he was right. Or at least he wasn't wrong. And that frustrates me.
However frustrating it was, being put on the spot like this and having to offer up a response did force me to think about why this does keep happening. And it occurred to me that there are many more people out there who, despite being up on the news and in touch with the equality fight, are confused about why we seem to spend so much time talking about nonsense. I thought it'd be good to explore the how and why behind it.
PHASE ONE: Someone says something crappy, and we respond to said crappiness
It all starts off organically enough. A person says or does something that is offensive to a great many people. From equating people's sex lives with those who sleep with animals to suggesting God is going to destroy America because of same-sex marriage, people who oppose certain kinds of human rights (if not existences themselves) choose, of their own free will, give voice to hostile views. When these people are themselves notable names, for whatever reason, there is more attention on them than there is on the everyday person, because we in America love following everything, good or bad, about celebrities.
People who are personally hurt, offended, or outraged by the comments or actions (or who are allied with those who are) then step up and respond. Let me stop here and say that it doesn't matter if the speaker or doer in question is an influential thought leader or a reality TV star. When an anti-gay political figure says something offensive, we speak out. When an entertainer says something terrible, we speak out. When a business owner lends her cash to a cause that hurts our families, we speak out. LGBT activists are quite evenhanded in this way. We speak out against all injustices, minor and major.
PHASE TWO: The people at the center and/or their employers respond to the outcry
When there is community outcry, obviously there will come a response from the parties at the focus on the debate. This response might involve a TV network that decides to put a star on leave or even cancel the series outright. It might be a fast food chain that distances the company from the controversial and outspoken executive. It could be a local TV station that makes it clear that its employees are free to express whatever views, even while making it clear that those views don't necessarily coincide with management's beliefs. It might be a tech company whose board presses an incoming CEO to reconsider whether he is the best person for the job.
The people who said the terrible things also tend to offer responses. Some walk back their comments a bit. Some staunchly stand by their actions. Some prefer an artful blend of those two approaches. But typically, the people in the eyes of these storms have something to say as well. As they should. Free speech and all.
People say and do things; businesses make decisions based on employee performance, customer reaction, and various factors related to both. This is the market at work. This is all part of a fair and free democracy. At this point in the conversation, the debate is still quite pure
PHASE THREE: The opportunistic crowd jumps in and muddies the debate; the debate turns rotten
Here is where it gets all messed up. Once LGBT activists react to something crappy that happens and then the interested parties at the center have their say, a band of people who have an interest in furthering the anti-equality cause for their own personal or political gain enter into the mix and start going after those who did nothing more than stand up for LGBT lives. Rather than address the merits of what the anti-LGBT person actually said or did and host a nuanced conversation about how we should engage with each other in this ongoing debate over human rights, these opportunistic parties go into all-out exploitation mode—always, every time, with a rabid fervor—as they attempt to turn an instance of hostility directed at LGBT people into a supposed act of hostility against the anti-LGBT-minded American. They also love
Who are these people? Think the local TV reporter who frames the NFL draftee as threatening to children simply because he celebrated with his partner, and who is then invited onto Fox News to share how she—SHE!—is supposedly under attack. Or think about the fast food CEO who uses his free speech to say that a large swatch of potential customers is engaged in a "lifestyle" that supposedly angers God, only to then be turned into a supposed "victim" of people who are against free speech rights. Or there is the beauty queen who aligns herself with the very hostile National Organization For Marriage in order to promote herself as the one who is supposedly suffering under the cruel weight of discrimination (and score a book deal with a conservative publisher). Etcetera, etcetera. These days, you can just swap out any of the anti-LGBT people whose comments are outrageous enough and whose profile is high enough to make it to national debate with any of the transcripts from their guaranteed Fox News primetime appearance. It's always the same set up, with the same names and media outlets working overtime to twist (and/or overlook) the facts to suit their agenda.
PHASE FOUR: Beat the drum and beat and beat it and beat it...
Once this opportunistic crowd sets up the false "victim" narrative in a way that does a truly disgusting (and quite deliberate) disservice to fair debate, they then obsess about it for days and weeks on end. Those of us who simply reacted to the anti-LGBT comments and actions that started the whole thing are more than ready to move on, but the other side refuses to let that happen. That's because they are hellbent on creating a whole roster of supposed "culture war" casualties whose have supposedly suffered great injury at the hands of those mean LGBT people and their refusal to let people attack them for sport. They think that if they keep talking about this stuff, always on message in an oddly committed way, then they will wear us down.
The people at the center of the controversy are almost always quite willing to play this game. Many of them start seeing stars in their eyes. Whether its because they want a book deal, punditry gigs, or simply a larger following, alot of these folks seem to become quite starstruck by the outsized attention. They don't realize how temporary (and overdone) it all is.
Take the most recent example of the Benham brothers. They said and did anti-LGBT things, HGTV caught wind of the facts about their advocacy, and then the network decided they didn't want to be in the Benham business. Done. Over. Nothing more to see here. Except, of course, on the anti-LGBT side, where they have spent the past two weeks trying to turn the Benhams into media stars—and the Benhams have eaten up the role. Which is fine, on its face. If a likeminded network wants to give these brothers a show, they have every right to do that. But ya see, that's neither the game nor the goal, at least not for those on the periphery who are more concerned about the politics than they are the potential TV fame of two siblings from North Carolina. That crowd doesn't want to move on from the fake controversy that they'd riled up because that fake controversy is the new bully club they are using in order to convince America that LGBT people—the same LGBT people that this crowd fights to deny of basic rights, let's remember—are the real bullies at work.
PHASE FIVE: Message out this charade until it's somewhat accepted truth
It's an old axiom: Tell a lie long enough and it becomes truth. That's basically what these opportunistic anti-equality-minded folks do in these aforementioned situations.
Once they've flooded willing media channels with the contrived debate, they believe (and rightly so, in fact) that they have inscribed this version of "reality" into the public record. This fake debate, with its unbalanced "balance" and its false equivalency between basic acceptance and chosen hostility, becomes truth to many. Even mainstream media outlets pick up and promote the false setup. And that's precisely what the opportunistic crowd wanted. Had they left the debate what it was and should've been (i.e. person says anti-LGBT thing; people and businesses in an increasinly pro-LGBT nation aren't having it), then it would be damaging to those who do, in fact, want to promote anti-LGBT interests. They muddied the waters of the debate because those muddied waters help keep their boat afloat.
They capitalize on these fake realities in fundraising ("Did you see what the homosexual radicals did to here? Give us money to stop them!"), at marriage rallies ("You loved her on Hannity. Now listen to her tell you why you should take your neighbors rights away!"), and anywhere else they hope to make a point. For a movement with virtually no support from Hollywood, these "victims" are their brightest stars.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Carrie Prejean, Duck Dynasty, Chick-fil-A, Amy Kushnir, Mozilla—it's all the same. It's always the same. When one peters out, they raise up another. They use them in ads, in fundraising, in speeches, in testimony—just about anywhere they want to make a case against equality.
And going back to the silliness of the stories that make it to this level, let's be 100% clear: that is also by design. The opportunistic anti-LGBT movement loves it when it's something homespun and relatable. They love the low-hanging fruit. When they can tell a supporter to boycott a TV network or go eat a chicken sandwich, that is the perfect space for them. That is where the like to live. They thrive on the "least you could do" scenario.
Let me say again that those of us who advocate for LGBT rights and push back against anti-LGBT voices do not pick and choose. We respond to the high and the low, the cultural and the political, the elite and the populist, the relatable and the niche. The reason the reality TV and fast food stories become the causes célèbres on the other side, and therefore become things that we are forced to focus on as well, is because those are the debates the anti-LGBT movement wants to have. Those are the ones they are belaboring. It's all an attempt to make their script-flipping relatable to their base.
So how do we change it? How do you force a movement to take ownership for their views rather than pretend it's worse to be called anti-LGBT than it is to actually be anti-LGBT? How do we get back to a debate, if we must have one, that is focused on citizens, their rights under law, and a spectrum of speech rights that very much includes the right to criticize and push back against words designed to slight a minority population?
Frankly, I'm not sure we can control the way our opposition movement, desperate as they are for something that might change their fates, attempts to alter a reality that they know makes them look bad. Since we are not the ones forcing these contrived debates, I'm not sure that understanding why these situations come about will stop the next one from happening. I have no delusions that the next time a TV personality connects our movement to Satan, groups like the American Family Association and crap-stirrers like Fox News' Todd Starnes will note that it was a nasty thing to say and offer up some measured words about why a corporation might, in fact, want to make a business decision based on it. That would be far too reasonable for our current state of political discourse.
I also don't think we can just ignore their attempts whenever they arise. The media can be quite malleable. If we don't say anything, more people might buy the twisted version of events that they are selling. If we don't push back, they could gain some ground. They are hoping we forfeit our free speech rights; we simply cannot do that, even when it gets frustrating to dignify the abject spin.
However, if we better understand what's going on on the other side, then I do think we can be sharper about getting in front of it and eventually beyond these truly silly and deliberately obfuscated debates. If we understand how and why they are baiting us, then more us can throw it back rather than take it.