Columns » Max Brantley

Brantley: Gay equality now

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Thanks to court rulings and changing public sentiment, gradualism has disappeared from the vocabulary of advocates for gay equality.

That has certain adverse consequences in the darker corners of the world. Places like Arkansas.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he'd schedule a vote before Thanksgiving on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It passed the House once in 2007, but hung up in the Senate. Now advocates think they can produce the 60 votes to break a filibuster.

Until right at deadline for this column, all but two Democratic senators were sponsors of the proposal to outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Just as I went to press came word that one of the two, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas also would vote for ENDA.

Pryor faces a Republican challenge from the far right, Rep. Tom Cotton, in 2014. It's an article of Republican faith that Arkansans are deeply antagonistic to gay rights, what with our constitutional and statutory bans on gay marriage. In fact, though, the latest Arkansas poll shows slightly less than a majority opposes legal recognition — marriage or civil union — for gay people. The Arkansas legislature, prodded by a lesbian lawmaker, also passed an anti-bullying bill over Religious Right opposition.

Two recent polls are even more hopeful. National polling by a Republican pollster showed that the majority of people in every state, including 61 percent in Arkansas, support workplace equality. The recent Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas found that more than 80 percent of the "very likely voters" polled said gays and lesbians should "have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?"

You wonder, of course, if they meant it.

Consider the recent firing of a teacher at Mount St. Mary Academy because she married her lesbian partner. The school's religious underpinning gave it some legal basis for punishing a woman for availing herself of the law of New Mexico to qualify for federal legal benefits. Many rose in sympathy with the women. But many did not and they made it clear that religious prerogatives had little to do with it. Several spoke angrily and loudly that homosexuality was a disorder that should be banned from a school workplace.

Even if those voices are in the minority, they are nonetheless shrill. Determined, angry voices have a disproportionate impact on nervous politicians. See the Tea Party.

The tide is changing. Marriage is legal for gays in many states. Many states and cities have non-discrimination laws. Walmart, the country's biggest employer, has had a non-discrimination policy on sexual orientation for a decade and extended it two years ago to gender identity.

The Republican Party punch list in Arkansas remains black-and-white on gay equality, no matter what Dick Cheney and his lesbian daughter might say. The haters finesse the workplace issue so as not to appear mean-spirited. Sen. John Boozman, for example, claims he's afraid ENDA might spur lawsuits against businesses.

Indeed it might, just as other laws have allowed lawsuits against businesses that discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, age, religion or disability.

Pryor's change of heart might become an issue. Cotton might presume the continuing benefits of enmity toward gay people in Arkansas.

If Pryor's vote hurts him, it won't be the first time Arkansas has been the last to be seated at the table of equality. Happily, it won't delay the arrival of a better world elsewhere.

The growing number of out gay people and their friends, co-workers and family know what they want. They want equality. And they want it now.

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