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LGBT Activists Should Seek To Win Debates, Not Coercive Court Cases


America is convulsing in pain. We’re just over halfway through 2020 and the world has experienced a crippling pandemic, a debilitated economy, and mass outrage over the murder of George Floyd. Amid the chaos, however, a recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court has given hope to many in the LGBT community.

In mid-June, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch shocked the nation by authoring the majority opinion of a 6-3 vote that banned employers from discriminating against LGBT employees. Needless to say, LGBT activists across the country rejoiced over this gift — which happened to occur during Pride month, no less. Meanwhile, several conservatives scorned Gorsuch for a flawed textualist interpretation of the Constitution.

But the general consensus is clear, even from voices like dissenting conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who said gay Americans can “take pride” in the ruling’s result. The ruling is heralded as a win for LGBT tolerance. But still, I’m left asking: Is it? Is tolerance truly best achieved by force or by persuasion?

Naturally, I’m happy that my continued professional livelihood as a gay man just became a bit more certain. Yet, if we think about it, the recent SCOTUS decision in Bostock v. Clayton County does very little to address genuine instances of homophobic biases.

After all, it can’t. All it has done is buried these prejudices under legalese. SCOTUS’s ruling may have excited LGBT allies, but it certainly didn’t change the hearts and minds of homophobic business owners.

Ultimately, we have to acknowledge how this ruling will be detrimental to LGBT folks. Now, instead of having a clear idea of what their employer thinks, gay folks will be subject to latent discrimination that will be quite difficult to prove, much less fight. Whereas a homophobic business owner could be boycotted if her views came to light, they’re now much more likely to flourish in the dark, and I might unknowingly become employed by one of them.

History can be a great teacher here if we listen to her. The Stonewall Riots, for example, were the precursor to several social organizations that advocate for tolerance. In the late 1960s, Stonewall Inn was a haven for socially marginalized individuals who sought companionship. In a world that despised them, gay people found comfort among like-minded souls.

Their peace was routinely interrupted, however, by vile police raids, which provoked Stonewall’s patrons to yell “Enough!” Thus, the Stonewall Riots were born.

Observers of the Stonewall incident often focus on the riots. What is not often discussed, however, is the sophisticated network of social organizations from Stonewall’s example that advanced perspectives on LGBT matters.

On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, everything changed. The first gay pride parade — which was more of a political statement than a celebration — ricocheted through the cultural landscape of the 1970s. The parade marched from the solemn grounds of Stonewall down to Central Park and straight into the media limelight, with the headline “Thousands of Homosexuals Hold A Protest Rally in Central Park” splashed across the front page of The New York Times.

Shortly thereafter, pride movements popped up around the nation. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, hundreds of gay demonstrators had one unifying message: We will be treated equally.

This gospel of acceptance and equality persisted, and ultimately changed perspectives. A 2019 study conducted by the Annual Review of Sociology shows the relationship between persuasion and this ideological shift.

In 1973, for example, only 10 percent of Americans thought homosexual relations were not wrong. By the 2000s, the study found, that perspective had doubled. Similarly, in 1989, only 42 percent of Americans supported hiring homosexuals as elementary school teachers. In 2007, 70 percent of Americans supported that proposition — a figure that’s certainly grown even more over the years. I really would rather work for someone in that 70 percent.

None of these perspectives were delivered by the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval or by significant governmental support. Quite the opposite, in fact, as during the first part of the 2000s, political actors in the federal government sought to constitutionally prohibit gay marriage.

Ultimately, the social acceptance of gay individuals emerged from years of dedicated social messaging and nonprofit work. Regular people — not justices and certainly not government bureaucrats — created a safer world for gay men like me. In the final analysis, that’s a strategy gay activists must pursue in the future if we want genuine change.

So, go ahead, celebrate the court’s sentiments and its recent Bostock pronouncement. But, in that jubilation, let’s not forget that we have the power to shape our world. It’ll take a lot more than a gavel slam from a judge to change the minds of the remaining bigots in society. In the meantime, I don’t want to unwittingly work for one.