The passage of a draconian, stealthily worded anti-gay bill set to become law in Arkansas, with little resistance from the national business community, and muted response from even national LGBT leaders and figures such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, raises two very important questions: 1) Have gay leaders become so cocky, so deluded by victories that they don't see the backlash organizing right in front of them (or do they see it, but have some foolish, toothless plan to battle it that is equally fed by their delusions)?; 2) Has the anti-gay right found its gay "version" of "partial birth abortion," or is it at least coming close to it as it tries out various strategies through trial and error?
Last fall at the conservative Values Voters Summit, I sat in on a panel of anti-LGBT leaders titled "The Future of Marriage." On the panel, Frank Schubert, the mastermind strategist of the Proposition 8 campaign and other same-sex marriage ban campaigns across the country, pondered what conservatives would do if the Supreme Court eventually struck down gay marriage bans in every state, which is how things look now.
The solution the panelists agreed upon? They would have to go the route they did with abortion after Roe v. Wade. They'd have to seek "incremental" wins for their side. On abortion, they chipped away slowly at women's freedom of choice, making abortion difficult to obtain and passing laws to restrict women's rights even if some were and are later overturned. Some laws would stick, helping to limit abortion (often affecting poor women). And even when they ultimately lose, the right temporarily shuts down clinics or restricts access, creating a constant state of instability and keeping its agenda -- and the often hateful rhetoric -- in the national spotlight. They force women and progressives to keep fighting, even when many had already thought the war was over and disengaged. The right's goal is in fact to just tire out the other side -- they really have nothing better to do with their time -- and they take advantage of burn out, complacency and apathy.
On the Values Voter Summit panel, discussing the comparison of LGBT rights to abortion, Frank Schubert went on to say they'd have to the find the gay "version" of "partial birth abortion." Obviously, he meant something with regard to gay rights that would be met with less resistance, among even some Democratic politicians, the business community and the public at large. Later, I asked him about it. He talked about "conscience clauses" and "religious liberties" bills and said they'd be exploring other things.
That's what the right does: Test something out, see what works, and move on to something else if it doesn't work. Last year, they sent up a trial balloon with a bill in Arizona that would have allowed businesses to turn away gays, and it bombed big time, as the national media and the business community came out against it. Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill. But LGBT activists deluded themselves if they thought that this meant we'd "won" the battle, which is part of the backlash to marriage equality. Arizona's bill got such resistance because the wording of the bill made it dangerous to all religious minorities. Suddenly it was not just about LGBT poeple -- who, yes, have much more support among the public than before -- but theoretically everyone.
So, that didn't fly, and the right moved on, and they've had -- and have -- a few other things in the works. The Arkansas bill -- which the anti-gay Family Research Council's Tony Perkins says is a "roadmap" for states across the country -- is much more stealth, and much more wide-ranging and dangerous. GOP Governor Asa Hutchinson said he won't veto it and thus will let it become law next week. It bans cities, towns and counties in the state from enacting laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in housing, employment or public accommodation. But because it never mentions these groups -- it simply says no law shall protect a group not already protected under state law -- and presents itself as pro-business and trying to maintain consistencies for businesses throughout the state, it has traveled under the radar.
Because of the wording it may also withstand court scrutiny. The Supreme Court has ruled that a state can't single out gays with this kind of law, but Arkansas can argue, as Tennessee successfully did after a similar law it passed was challenged in the courts, that no group is targeted specifically. This kind of bill could be used to take away LGBT protections in cities and towns in the 29 states that don't have statewide protections but where municipalities have passed such laws, affecting millions of LGBT Americans.
And whether it holds up in court or not it means years of discrimination, uncertainly and ugly rhetoric in the political environment, which also then feeds the gay-bashers on the streets. And it's part of the right's plan to roll back LGBT rights while many LGBT people become complacent or apathetic, buying into this idea that full civil rights are inevitable, pointing, for example, to polling about young people being more accepting, and, well, doing pretty much what many women foolishly did in the early years of the backlash against women's liberation.
We've already seen national LGBT leaders putting on a face of victory, as if they can just will away continued bigotry. Fred Sainz, vice president for communications of the Human Rights Campaign, praised Jeb Bush when Bush said we should respect the law (after gay marriage began in Florida after a federal judge's ruling), even as Bush in the same breath then dog-whistled to the right, saying we must respect "religious liberty." Giving any credence to this language is dangerous, and so is praising Bush for an even remotely pro-gay statement when he's still dog-whistling and you don't call out that part. Sainz days later had no comment to Governor Bobby Jindal's call for a federal marriage amendment when the Washington Blade asked him for a response, bizarrely saying, "We're not going to comment every time they say something."
It's perplexing, but this seems to be part of a cocky strategy to act like winners and not give credence or attention to the haters. But when a state successfully passes an abhorrent, dangerous bill like the one in Arkansas, the only response is a loud, public condemnation, and demands that all your allies, including your business and political allies, speak out and condemn it. No matter if you lose, you must always show the opposition you will put up a nasty fight. Instead, HRC's Sainz and its President Chad Griffin, who hails from Arkansas and has thought nothing of rushing back for a photo op when local activists have had wins in the past, have said absolutely nothing about it. Nor have they clearly put the pressure on business leaders like Walmart, headquartered in Arkansas, and which likes its 90% HRC Corporate Equality Index score, to speak out. And we haven't seen any comment from Bill Clinton, for whom Griffin used to work in the White House, or Hillary Clinton, for whom Griffin will raise millions of dollars in a presumed presidential race, as he did for Obama. This, despite grass roots activists like Scott Wooledge and others calling out HRC and doing the work HRC should be doing.
Is it all part of a horrendously foolish strategy to just ignore the losses, and not bring attention to them at this point? Or is it because of HRC's increasing reliance on GOP money and advisors -- such as the millions that GOP hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer has given the group, in addition to his giving lots of money to Arkansas's governor through the millions he gave to the Republican Governor's Association? Is HRC following those GOPers advice? (Sainz recently described himself in an in interview as having been formerly active in the GOP, a neighbor of Jeb Bush and former advisor to San Diego GOP mayor Jerry Sanders, whose daughter is gay but whom Sainz had advised not to come out for gay marriage or it would hurt him politically. Sanders did anyway; Sainz has since said he regrets having said that.)
Or is it more about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats? Griffin has been close to the Clintons, and, as stated, HRC will surely back Hillary Clinton in a presidential race as soon as she announces, even if it is giving cover to some GOPers at this point for Singer's and others' sake. Do the Clintons simply not want to alienate many Democrats and independents in their home state, many of them still horrendously anti-gay no matter the change nationally, as Hillary pursues the presidency, and is HRC just helping to not bring the issue to the national spotlight? Let's not forget, Bill Clinton ran anti-gay radio ads in '96 all throughout the South, touting his having signed the Defense of Marriage Act after he'd called it "unnecessary and divisive" gay-baiting and said he had signed it reluctantly because it had a veto-proof majority in Congress.
Whatever the reasons, many LGBT national leaders are nowhere on this terrible and potentially enormously impactful law. They continually trumpet the big wins such as marriage equality, staying focused on the Supreme Court, planning their cocktail parties and their celebrations, while the anti-gay right is working furiously, strategizing, having success and readying for battle.
Michelangelo Signorile's next book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, will be published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.