In 2002, a large gay rights organization was hosting a luncheon that featured a transgender speaker. During the Q&A, there was discussion of the merits of adding "gender identity" to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) – which, if passed, would protect people from being fired because of their sexual orientation.
In the middle of a serious debate, a new staffer, who was just hired from the bluest city in a blue state, earnestly rose to his feet. He proclaimed that he "couldn't comprehend" anti-trans attitudes and was dumbfounded that average people still held deep-seated prejudices against such non-conforming individuals.
"Why was this out-of-touch person hired for a GLBT movement job?" I thought to myself, upon hearing his assertion. It was one thing to believe that transgender Americans deserve equality – which I do – and quite another to be "perplexed" that some conservatives are still freaked out by transgender (and, yes, gay) people.
If we are really interested in change, employees of GLBT groups should be as comfortable in the Waffle House as they are in the U.S. House of Representatives. If you can't speak the language of the American people, then you aren't much help to the cause.
Workers at our major GLBT organizations should be encouraged to get out of their sterile cubicles and visit places where discrimination is still a daily part of life. It is easy to lose touch with the very people we are trying to persuade, and get a false sense of security when living inside an insular world.
I know this to be true, because I live in New York City, and previously resided in Miami Beach and Washington, DC. Without frequent travel to other regions, it would be easy to confuse the echo chamber of Chelsea with the thoughts and values of Middle America.
Unfortunately, there are some activists who are living in a bubble. This was made clear to me on a liberal GLBT list serve last week when some advocates claimed that it did not matter whether Americans thought homosexuality was inborn or a choice. Nothing, of course could be further from the truth.
To mainstream America, the question of nature vs. nurture is the only one that matters. In most of the country, when a person comes out they get asked three questions:
1) When did you know you were gay?
2) Are you sure it's not a phase?
3) Are you able to change?
Of course, the answers most often given are:
1) I've always known I was gay.
2) It definitely isn't a phase.
3) I believe I was born gay and there is no way I could change.
When a person comes out to people they care about, these straightforward answers are enough to turn many people from anti-gay to pro-gay. These responses help people realize:
1) Sexual orientation is often fixed at a very young age, if not in the womb
2) A person's coming out is not some sort of rebellion or attempt to mock their religion and values
3) Attempts to go straight are a waste of time and quite possibly harmful, so why try?
The rise in acceptance of GLBT people directly correlates with the understanding that sexual orientation is a natural phenomenon. A May 2007 Gallup Poll showed that 42 percent of Americans believe that homosexuality is inborn, compared with 13 percent in 1977. The number who say upbringing and environment fell from 56 percent in 1977 to 35 percent today.
Residual opposition primarily comes from those who still believe that homosexuality is a casual choice that can be altered through therapy and prayer. A November 2004 Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates poll shows that 79 percent of people who think homosexuality is inborn support civil unions or marriage equality. Among those who believe sexual orientation is a choice, only 22 percent support civil unions or marriage rights.
In a perfect world, it would not matter whether sexual orientation was a product of nature or nurture. But, this is the nation that twice elected George W. Bush. Clearly, the issue of "choice" matters and activists who deny this reality are doing so at their own peril and that of the GLBT movement.
Of course, the message should not be shame-based, such as, "we can't help being gay." It is perfectly fine for homosexuals to point out that they are happy and would not change if they could. We should also say that homosexuality is a natural and normal orientation – and the moral equivalent of heterosexuality. In doing so, we blunt the right wing's pseudo-science where they claim being gay can only come from poor parental neglect or abuse.
Obviously, bisexuals have some choice in partners. However, they have no more choice in the fact they are bisexual than heterosexuals or homosexuals have in their uni-polar attractions.
While we don't choose our attractions, we can choose to be effective activists by telling the truth about sexual orientation and not promoting bizarre ideas that are a distraction and anathema to mainstream Americans.