This summer I took my sons on a civil rights tour of the South. I wanted them to see the best of our history, how we rose above the institutionalized evil of slavery and segregation to form a more perfect union. If I'd planned it better, we would have stopped in San Antonio, where the debate about extending anti-discrimination law to gays and lesbians has taken an ugly, if paradoxically encouraging, turn.
The city already outlaws discriminating against anyone in employment, housing and public accommodations based on gender, race, age, disability or religion. The proposed change would add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list. Austin, Dallas, and Houston have already done so without utterly ruining Texas. Houston even elected an openly lesbian mayor, and somehow the city has not fallen into the Gulf of Mexico. Next thing you know, gays will want to drink from the same water fountains as the rest of us.
The antisocial social conservatives can't allow this, of course. Publicly, they call it a "transgendered bathroom law" and worry that the law will restrict religious liberties, as though telling a same-sex couple that there's no room at the inn were a core expression of Christianity.
Privately, it's much worse. Thanks to a leaked recording of a staff meeting, we know that San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan is opposing the anti-discrimination law because of something she would rather not talk about publicly. She thinks gays and lesbians are, in her words, "so disgusting." The recording offered a rare and uncensored look behind the façade of reasons conservatives use to perpetuate sexual segregation.
When it comes down to it, anti-gay conservatives really don't believe gays should have equal rights -- to hold a job, to get married, to stay in a hotel, or to adopt.
"I don't think homosexual people should do adoption," said Chan. "They should be banned by adoption. You're going to confuse those kids. They should be banned."
"If you wanted to choose that lifestyle, we don't want to discriminate you, but you shouldn't affect the young people," she went on. "How terrible. ... They're going to be confused. You see two men go into a bedroom. You see two women kissing. Is that not confusing? It's confusing."
To Chan and those like her who were apparently born with sexual disorientation, the idea that some people are just gay violates the natural order of things. And that's dangerous, you know, because of the kids.
"It is actually what you call suggestive for the kids to be corrupt, which is against nature. I'm telling you anything that is against nature is not right," said Chan, who proposes a simple test to determine whom you should be sleeping with.
"I will say, 'Strip down! What equipment do you have?'" she said. "I'm telling you. Crazy. We're getting to crazy realm." At last we agree.
"You know, to be quite honest -- I know this is not politically correct -- I never bought in that you are born gay," she said. "I can't imagine it.
Like most people, I remember the day I chose to be sexually attracted to women. It was when I first saw the Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster.
The encouraging bit in Chan's unguarded comments is her awareness that her views are not fit for public consumption. She knows calling gays "so disgusting" is not "politically correct." When an aide cautions that "the newspaper will get you" if she reveals what she really thinks, she answers, "That's why I never would say that outside, because they'd kill me."
This is progress. Not too long ago, Texas Republican politicians unabashedly shared their views of gays and lesbians as subhumans who should be kept from children. Now they plot in secret, as Chan did, to sow confusion about the legal ramifications in public in order to mask their private prejudice.
America will never be perfect. We can only make it more perfect. Like a family road trip, there will be conflict, and the journey will take a long time, but we'll get there together. And when bigoted politicians know that they have to hide their prejudice, we are surely making progress.