Our new straight allies (are right next door)

  • by Abby Dees
  • Wednesday June 8, 2011
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Attorney and author Abby Dees
Attorney and author Abby Dees

One Sunday, while I was doing my usual shopping at the local farmers market, I got into a yelling match with a scary homophobe. I had stopped to chat with a guy collecting signatures for same-sex marriage, when suddenly a large man stepped between us, shoved a finger in Signature Guy's chest, and loudly called him a child-recruiting pervert. I lost it, and started shouting random agog things, being otherwise speechless except for the yelling: "What is wrong with you?!" and "What the hell are you doing here?!" I couldn't believe that a threatening bully homophobe was in my neighborhood, poking my people. Fury overwhelmed any more thoughtful, perhaps more constructive, response I could have offered.

Both the homophobe and I retreated in opposite directions after a few more useless invectives and by the time I passed my favorite artichoke monger a wave of regret and defeat came over me. Couldn't I have used my (clearly) superior mind and vocabulary to coolly vaporize the homophobe? Shouldn't I have thought a moment about the safety of Signature Guy? Will hateful people ever go away and how will I stay sane in the meantime?

So I walked back to Signature Guy to apologize for making things worse. He was now surrounded by a dozen or so concerned-looking shoppers and as soon as I said, "Hey, I'm really sorry..." they all seemed to interrupt me at once. "You don't have anything to apologize for," I heard, while a few other people agreed, "Absolutely" and "He was an a--hole." A man, there with his wife and toddler, shook his head and said solemnly, "I hope we can look back one day and wonder what the big deal was about gay rights." Signature Guy agreed and I appreciated the kindness after such an ugly scene.

But for hours I still had the sensation of being slimed. Then I realized that I'd been focusing on the wrong thing. The homophobe wasn't the meaningful encounter that morning – after all, there have always been hateful bigots in the world – the important thing was that my straight neighbors were there for me too, people who were as offended by the homophobe as I was. I had taken them for granted.

Twenty-five years ago I don't believe that so many people would have instantly stepped up on behalf of a gay signature collector (and a blathering lesbian with her jaw unhinged), even in my upscale urban neighborhood. Instead, the whole thing would have gone down more like Jerry Springer in the open air. Ooh, a fight by the beeswax candles!

Sometime in the last few years – I'm not sure exactly when – a critical mass of straight people went from being on the sidelines of our struggle to taking it personally. Even in the time between Proposition 8 and now, enough straight people have shifted their thinking about LGBT people that if it were put to a vote today, Prop 8 likely wouldn't pass.

Again, it's easy to take this for granted when we see the homophobes still in our communities, on TV, dismantling our rights. We can feel utterly without allies when 39 states have outright banned same-sex marriage, and many places have stripped LGBT people of all legal protections.

But let's shift our attention for a moment.

Americans who support marriage equality are now in the majority for the first time – 53 percent, according to a May Gallup poll. This is a 9 percent increase in the last year. As you'd guess, attitudes are split predominantly along generational lines. A cynical view would be that this change is only because people are dying. I'd argue the converse, that young people are increasingly of the "what is the big deal" school of thought, which I'll take, even if it means they have no idea how hard the struggle's been so far.

These new supporters of our rights (I'll assume that if they support marriage, they support LGBT rights generally, but there could be some wacky exceptions) aren't just the people who limply punch out a chad every few years. These are our next allies – the people who are offended by an a--hole spouting hatred in our communities and willing to stand up about it. They may not all march on Washington; or be Gavin Newsom; or Ted Olson, the Bush-defending attorney who is also defending LGBT rights in federal court as I write; but we shouldn't ignore their role in our unfolding history.

While I despair at news of a proposed Tennessee law that bans all references to homosexuality in the school curriculum, I remember, too, that there are PFLAG moms in that good state taking on those bigoted legislators. In Texas, the land where everything is big except for LGBT rights, Atticus Circle, an organization of straight allies, is promoting the "Gay? Fine by Me" campaign to increase LGBT awareness on college campuses. And last week, my slightly insane Marine veteran neighbor proudly stood up for all of us at his barbershop when a fellow patron squealed about the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

I'll take it all. When you're in a minority, you can't win the fight without allies, as our civil rights forbears well knew. While we still have so much work ahead, it is time to expect our straight allies to be alongside us – and to let them know how much it matters.

Abby Dees is a Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney, editor, and author. She has been involved in lesbian, gay and bisexual rights and awareness work for 25 years. She has written a book called Queer Questions Straight Talk. For more information, please visit http://www.queerquestionsstraighttalk.com.