Driving a VW Beetle from Denver to Buffalo, Wyo., over the weekend, I found myself with six hours to think. Since it was just two days after the state of Indiana enacted its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), I had plenty on my mind. In spite of all the recent advances in gay rights, Indiana had seemingly just made LGBT discrimination official.
In awe of the snowcapped mountains and vast open spaces of the West, I was jarred from my reverie when I saw a sign for the Laramie exit. Instantly, I recalled Matthew Shepard, the 22-year-old who was savagely attacked, tied to a fence rail and left to die in Laramie in 1998 because he was gay. A chill hit my spine. Not five minutes later, a police officer pulled me over. “Do you know why I stopped you?” he said. I didn’t. Then he told me I’d been going 95 mph. Really, in a Beetle? On cruise control? Should I challenge him? Spooked and alone on Interstate 25 a few miles from Laramie, I knew better than to argue.
The next morning, while finishing breakfast at Buffalo’s Busy Bee Cafe, a chatty local asked me what I did for a living. His tone wasn’t menacing, and his iron claw prosthetic hand could have been the result of a farm accident or military service, but I was still unnerved from the day before and hyper-aware of being gay in a state with no LGBT legal protections — not even a hate crimes law despite vast efforts after Shepard’s murder. I answered that I report on health for The Washington Post (which I also do), self-censoring that I write this column covering LGBT issues or that I’m gay. I was mortified that I had stepped back into the closet, but, as with the officer, an abundance of caution seemed prudent.
I was also angry. Not at this man, but at the situation in Indiana — and now Arkansas and maybe Wyoming — where new laws seem designed to protect Christian florists, bakers and innkeepers from having to serve their gay customers, even though these businesses are all public accommodations. This feels very much like lunch-counter managers 50 years ago not allowing African Americans to sit on the restaurants’ stools.
The backlash has been loud, far-reaching and somewhat successful with Thursday’s news that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a bill with a “clarification” lessening the harms to gays and transgender people but falling short of equal protection.
Still, even some of the LGBT community’s usual allies have abandoned logical thinking. One of them, New York Times columnist David Brooks, wrote in a column about Indiana: “While there are many bigots, there are also many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage. These people are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion.”
Brooks then went on to suggest that it’s bad manners for the LGBT community to protest this bigotry, especially after the streak of recent wins.
“Deep politeness means we make accommodations,” he wrote in the vein of the annoying aphorism that proper etiquette means “doing things in ways that make people feel comfortable.” Allow me to point out that discrimination against any group is about as “bad manners” as it can get, and there is a time and place to make folks feel the heat.
But make no mistake, I have no patience for those who retaliated against the owners of an Indiana pizza parlor who said that their religious beliefs would prevent them from catering a same-sex wedding. Mocking is one thing — really, how many gays have served pizza as their wedding entree? But then the response turned ugly. Harassing phone calls, angry comments on Twitter and a suggestion by a high school coach, who has been suspended, that the pizza joint be burned down is also bad behavior.
Certainly the firestorm in Indiana is evidence that we’re not as close as most people think to guaranteeing equal rights for LGBT people — even if the Supreme Court makes same-sex marriage legal nationwide this year. Michelangelo Signorile argues in his new book, “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality,” that such thinking is “victory blindness,” which is to say, it ain’t over till it’s over.
Readers know that I often suggest taking the high road, which implies turning the other cheek, acting with integrity or being the “bigger” person. The clash over Indiana’s new law is a good time to clarify that making that choice means standing up for your principles and not allowing yourself to be bullied or discriminated against. And, as I recall, the high road is also the one that leads past that awful hillside in Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was left to die.
Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments section.