Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
More than a dozen speakers mentioned LGBT equality on the first two nights of the Democratic convention, including Michelle Obama, who positioned marriage equality as a new ingredient of American greatness: “If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.” Openly gay speakers are getting primetime billing. A record-setting 8 percent of delegates are LGBT. The party’s unprecedented embrace of gay equality comes a week after Joe Biden thanked gay rights advocates in Provincetown for “freeing the soul of the American people.” The gay rights movement, said the vice president, was advancing the “civil rights of every straight American.” For gay people’s “courage,” he said, “We owe you.”
There you have it: For the first time ever, Democrats at their most public, high-profile moment are treating gay rights as a political winner. They’re moving along with public opinion: In the latest Harris Interactive poll, 52 percent of likely voters favored same-sex marriage, including 70 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents.
If the gay love affair is part political calculation, it also reflects a lesson from both American history and queer theory: minorities need not always conform to the majority, and their advances can actually make things better for everyone. This message helps rewrite the false script conservatives have created (with too much help from liberals) that representing the needs of minorities is mere interest-group politics, the doling out of goodies in exchange for votes.
Instead, equality is increasingly—and correctly—cast as a means of improving not only the lot of minorities, but the country for us all. New York magazine recently reported the trend of a growing number of straight couples quoting gay marriage court decisions in their own wedding ceremonies. Expanding access appears to be rejuvenating rather than destroying the institution. As Slate reported earlier this year, statistics bear this out. The marriage rate in Massachusetts, the first state to allow gay couples to wed, actually went up in the years same-sex marriage became legal, even adjusting for the initial 16 percent increase caused by pent-up demand by gay couples waiting to wed. What’s more, in each of the five states that legalized same-sex marriage starting in 2004, divorce rates dropped even while the average rate across the country rose. These figures give the lie to breathless warnings that same-sex marriage will harm marriage. Also, an estimated 2 million kids have a parent who is LGBT, and a subset of them have two gay parents who are raising them together—for all the reasons conservatives praise marriage, these kids benefit when their parents can make their commitments legal, another benefit to LGBT equality that goes beyond the rights of gays themselves.
Add to the list the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The policy deprived the nation of thousands of capable service members across its 17 years—on average, two were kicked out every day, at a taxpayer cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Many were mission-critical specialists with skills like Arabic translation and counterterrorism expertise. Today our military can harness that talent. And now that the controversy has been resolved, elite colleges that used to supply our military with top talent are again welcoming recruiters whom they’d moved off campus due to their discriminatory policy.
Equal rights fosters openness, which has positive fallout of its own. There are no doubt fewer sham marriages than there were in the 1950s. Gay-straight friendships are more authentic without a lifelong secret blocking discussion about love and intimacy. Straight men are likely more forgiving of their own nonconformist impulses—perhaps including passing same-sex desires. Parents have fewer estranged relations with sons and daughters whose deepest secrets and fears they once could never know, and whose struggles with depression and loneliness they sought in vain to understand. And the nation has embarked on an important discussion about bullying and youth suicide that stands to have real benefits for all young people, not just LGBT ones, who feel despair because they sense they are different or alone.
The principle that minority equality helps the majority was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most important insights during the black civil rights movement. “The stirring lesson of this age,” King declared, “is that mass nonviolent direct action is not a peculiar device for Negro agitation,” but a “method for defending freedom and democracy, and for enlarging these values for the benefit of the whole society.” As the historian, Taylor Branch has explained, “The civil rights movement liberated segregationists themselves,” just as King had theorized. Racial terrorism dropped and integration led to business growth and a decline in poverty. Enfranchised black voters helped revive a genuine two-party political system in the South as the politics of white supremacy faded. Meritocracy replaced arbitrary exclusion.
In 2009, Brent Childers, a Southern Baptist and onetime anti-gay bigot, wrote movingly in Newsweek of the kind of personal liberation that both King and Biden described: “Once I walked away from the Church’s teachings of rejection and condemnation [of gay people], my relationship with God transcended to a higher spiritual plateau.” Childers’ religious transformation is a secular experience for many others. But the point is the same. Americans suffer for holding prejudices that we know enough to shed. The souls of Americans really do need freeing. And the battle for gay rights is helping. It’s good for the Democrats that they’ve figured this out. More importantly, it's good for the country.