Columns » Max Brantley

Choosing sides

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I left for vacation just about the time a gay rights group announced a website — www.knowtheyneighbor.org — with the names of the 84,000 people who signed petitions to put Act 1 on the ballot.

Arkansas voters approved the anti-gay initiative, which punished children and both gay and straight families by banning adoption and foster parenting in homes with unmarried couples.

The website is old news now, but recent events prove its continuing relevance. The information is open to public inspection for good reason, including to check for fraud in petition gathering. The effort to publicize it didn't offend me. It's a healthy reminder that actions have consequences. It is one thing to unthinkingly sign a petition circulated in church Sunday morning (as many of these petitions were), another thing to find yourself potentially in a position to have to explain your thinking, even if only to yourself.

The gay rights group was criticized by some commentators who said the tactic would harden opponents of gay rights. Time is the universal solvent of calcified hearts, they argued.

Yes, and the same argument was used in 1957 — and still is employed in 2009 — by apologists for Orval Faubus, George Wallace, et al. We mustn't rile oppressors by public protest, demonstrations and calls to conscience. Or so goes the reasoning. But this theory applies only if you believe, as commentators suggested, that the electorate is essentially binary. That is, voters are either for or against gay rights based on deep-rooted cultural influences. Appeals to reason are doomed. The only hope is that the recalcitrant might someday meet a well-behaved gay person and understand he is a human being, too.

The continuum of thinking on this, or any issue, is, of course, much more nuanced than that. It ranges from homophobia  to warm embrace with a wide range of sentiment, including disinterest, in between.

Another great civil rights struggle — for racial equality — illustrates the error of presuming time is a cure for prejudice. More people voted for gay adoption in Arkansas than voted for Barack Obama. Race was a factor, maybe THE factor in our anti-Obama vote. It would be nice if hearts could be changed about race, but at least it is no longer acceptable in polite society to express racial bigotry publicly. More important, it is no longer legal to deprive Barack Obama of full citizenship on account of his skin color. These welcome advances owe little thanks to those who counseled silence and patience.

Oppressors must be challenged. Silence only reinforces prevailing prejudices, even strengthening presumptions about the influence of the prejudiced.  How else to explain how Doyle Webb, the chairman of the state Republican Party, could proudly confirm that he was rousing the Republican base with speeches about the presumed evil of a lesbian legislator making law in the Arkansas Capitol? How else to explain how a local assisted living center could summarily dismiss from its care an elderly man who happened to be HIV positive?

Fear and ignorance aren't cured by the clock.  But they can be overcome by witness, reason, personal reflection and law. It is brave witness — the increasing decision of gay people to step out of the shadows — that has produced a world increasingly more accepting of sexual differentness.

Don't like it? Then, by all means, stand up and be counted. Sign whatever gay-bashing petition the Family Council devises next. Join Doyle Webb's Republican Party. Just don't be surprised if credit is given where due for your choices.

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