The Gay Generation Gap: Reflections on the National Equality March

Marching today in Washington with tens of thousands of other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people, and tens of thousands more straight allies, it was easy to see reflected on a large scale what I've known on a smaller scale for years: the gay generation gap is widening.

In my work as a GLBT religious activist, I've seen this quite clearly. Gay people over 40 or so, particularly men, tend as a group to be deeply wounded by decades of homophobia, AIDS, and repression. This is, of course, understandable. My elders have endured rejection, abuse, scorn, decades of lying and shame, a hideous epidemic that brutally killed their lovers and friends, and criminal indifference to that epidemic on the part of our leaders.

Gays under 40 or so -- and at 38, I see myself as somewhere between these two groups -- tend not to have this baggage. As a group, they tend to have suffered less, and come out earlier. And we have little if any firsthand experience with AIDS killing our peers and being stigmatized by our government. Gays under 40, and even more so those under 30 or under 20, do not see their sexual orientation as something that needs defense or explanation.

This was in abundant evidence today in Washington. David Mixner, the 63-year-old political insider who helped organize the march, began and ended his speech with "I am a gay man, and I am proud." The statement was moving, but also jarring. None of the younger speakers felt the need to "come out" in this way, perhaps because doing so held no power for them. What for Mixner was an act of courage and defiance is, for younger GLBT people, taken for granted.

This sharp difference in self-regard leads to a sharp difference in how GLBT rights are perceived -- the personal (even the spiritual) is political. And in my view, the kids have the better argument.

On the one hand, there is the patient incrementalism of the so-called "gay establishment," which seeks to enact legislation and effect social change patiently, pragmatically, and in a politically careful way. This older generation of activists are the giants whose shoulders we stand upon -- and as a younger activist, I hope never to forget that they had to walk through mud and blood and the spit of those who hated them.

But they bear the wounds of that journey, and now the younger generation is impatient. Part of this, of course, is that young people are impatient -- in some ways, younger gays are not unlike Yippies who hated liberals, or Black Militants who scorned accommodationists. But not in all ways. In this case, I think there's a meaningful substantive difference between old gays and new, one which reflects their differences in self-perception and differences in history.

Younger gays are not arguing that it's okay to be gay. More confident in who they are and in the rightness of their modes of loving, they begin from that premise and ask why they should not be treated equally under the law. What is in question is not their deviance from the majority, but the majority's deviance from its own principles of liberty and equality.

Which is the better argument? Of course, social change movements always need both strong voices of moral certitude, and roll-up-the-sleeves pragmatists who get the work done -- every MLK needs an LBJ. But so far, as has been well observed, the gay rights movement has lacked its MLK entirely. We do have our Bill Cosbys -- celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres who allow the majority to feel comfortable around the minority -- and that's important. But where are the GLBT prophets who call us all to account? If it is true that denying marriage to gays is a moral deficiency, why haven't gay leaders framed it that way?

And why the timidity, and the embrace of ridiculous claims about President Obama "having a lot on his desk" or "wanting to focus all his political energy on health care"? What nonsense! It's not as if the president can't find the time to squeeze this item onto his to-do list; he's choosing not to. Nor is the white/right rage-ocracy going easy on him anyway. Are we supposed to believe they will be somehow more enraged or more apoplectic if Don't Ask/Don't Tell is repealed? They are already enraged and apoplectic. If anything, this issue might give them something to yell about other than death panels and socialism. These excuses are BS.

The over-pragmatism, incrementalism, and timidity are all of a piece with the elder generation's trauma, uncertainty, and pain. And while I honor my elders for living through decades of repression and the AIDS catastrophe, their wounds are now getting in the way of progress. The civil rights movement did not move forward because Dr. King worked within the realities of prejudice, or the parameters of reasonable compromise. It worked because he challenged them.

Particularly given where public opinion regarding same-sex marriage is today, gay rights must be framed as an ethical, moral issue if it is to succeed politically. And that means the persuasion required is not that of beltway wheeling and dealing, but of the hearts and minds on Main Street. Gay rights advocates can ill afford to cede the "values" ground to our opponents, for it is we who stand for American values of liberty, equality, and fairness.

In Washington today, young gays and straights, confident in who they are, demanded that our nation live up to these ideals. They did not engage with the far right's claims that homosexuality does not exist, or is some kind of lifestyle choice. They did not state their pride in who they are, because they did not feel they needed to. And they spoke in moral terms, not political ones. And while GLBT people still need the beltway insiders to do the hard work of policy -- and more power to them! -- we need these new voices of moral clarity even more.