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Innocent and Executed
Posted on Jun 29, 2011
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer and I’m in the studio with [Truthdig Associate Editor] Kasia Anderson and we are joined by Larry Gross, who is the director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and also one of the founders of the field of queer studies, and we are speaking to him this week about the historic vote in New York to legalize gay marriage. Welcome, Larry.
Larry Gross: It’s nice to be with you.
Peter Scheer: So, you wrote two pieces for Truthdig. One is sort of a sidebar but it really stands on its own as a piece of history looking back at Stonewall, the Stonewall rights [controversy] in 1969, it really kicked off a militant gay rights movement, and you also wrote really an epic, sweeping look at where we’ve come from Stonewall to this [New York] decision. Can you just give us a sense of the trajectory of the movement and what this means historically?
Larry Gross: Well, yeah, the Stonewall connection is kind of unavoidable partially because of the New York aspect of it and as most people probably noticed in the news report of the recent vote to legalize same-sex marriage, everyone seemed to be standing around in front of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and the Stonewall Inn is often cited as the birthplace of the sort of modern gay moment, which isn’t exactly accurate but serves the purpose of giving us a marker in history that you then can move from, and it was a point in which the gay movement became a lot more visible and militant and public then it had been up until then. But at the time of the Stonewall riots, and Stonewall basically refers to a police raid on a gay bar, that kind of thing [the police raid] was fairly routine, but this time the people in the bar fought back. It sparked street riots that went on in Greenwich Village for several evenings on a hot June in 1969. At that time homosexual acts were criminal, were illegal in every state in the United States except Illinois, and that’s a kind of odd story in itself—Illinois decriminalized homosexuality. But basically it was a crime in every state—you had no protection against being fired or discriminated against in other ways on the grounds of sexual orientation, so the distance between 1969 and now is really rather enormous on many grounds, and this latest action by New York state is simply one of the most dramatic but far from the only milestones that reflect that change.
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Larry Gross: Yes, up until now the states that have permitted same-sex marriage are basically Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, you know sort of a New England cluster. [The] New England scene in many ways is a kind of liberal extreme. Iowa, which I think many people might be surprised by, but if you know Iowa, you know that it too has a history of being somewhat more sort of liberal and equality-oriented than one might expect from its Midwestern location. But New York is a big state, New York is a diverse state, New York is one of the most important and powerful political locations in the country. In that sense it’s comparable to California, where as I hope your listeners know, same-sex marriage was first enacted and then repealed by Proposition 8 in 2008, although I think it is widely expected that the next time, at the next go-around, same-sex marriage will win again in California. And in fact, Proposition 8 itself was thrown out, was ruled unconstitutional in the federal courts in this area, this part of the country, and we’ll see where that one goes. I think the original assumption is that it would go to the [U.S.] Supreme Court and make it do that.
Kasia Anderson: What surprised you, if anything, the most in the New York Senate vote, in that sort of drama that unfolded?
Larry Gross: Well, what happened in New York, and I think it really is an interesting indication of where things are and where things are going, and a lot of the news accounts of this have kind of spelt it out, is that they got four Republican votes—that’s unusual. And in fact, when it held back a previous attempt to achieve this in New York state, it was not only a unified Republican opposition, but one or two Democrats who would not vote for same-sex marriage. And in fact, even in this last vote, one Democratic legislator on sort of religious fundamentalist grounds voted no. But four Republicans voted yes, and in fact they even had a vote to spare there. So the fact that this has moved from a Republican-vs.-Democrat to a more split kind of issue is an important sign, and it has shown up in other places as well. The California court case that I mentioned earlier, as is I think well known, is a case that was argued by this legal team of Ted Olson and David Boies. Ted Olson being a former Republican solicitor general, and Olson versus Boies were the opposing lawyers in the …
Peter Scheer: Bush v. Gore.
Larry Gross: … Bush v. Gore in the Supreme Court. So for them to unite on this is a sign that the issue is transcending party politics and becoming really an issue understood in terms of basic civil rights.
Another aspect that has been detailed in news accounts is that a lot of the funding to support this effort in New York state came from very rich Republicans. Typically, it would be, you know, say Republican billionaire with a gay son or something of that sort—people with personal connections that move in to see the issue in that light. And this has happened in a number of other high-profile ways as well. Most notably possibly Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian. And on this issue at least Cheney, while not exactly out leading the parade, is at least making clear that opposition to same-sex marriage shouldn’t be part of the Republican or conservative creed anymore.
Kasia Anderson: Larry … you’ve mentioned that this trend might have ramifications in other states, but do you think that what happened in New York suggests that the story that’s been kind of dominant in culture about generational differences between how younger and older people view and would vote on the issue. Do you think that this kind of complicates that story a little bit, that it’s not so cut and dry in terms of the generational divide?
Larry Gross: No, I think it really is the generational story that is the biggest part of it. And I think that what happens in some of these instances that get talked about are the generational divide manifesting itself. So when you talk about a Republican billionaire whose son is gay, that son is likely to be part of this younger portion of the population for whom this issue is just seen in completely different terms. And who often in individual ways influence older folks like their parents or their relatives in that sense. I think the change that is most important here certainly in looking forward is the generational change, is the demographic change … is that essentially for younger people this issue is not falling along party lines or ideological lines. It simply is not going to play the role that it has played in the past, and, you know, people can begin to figure out the consequences of that. It used to be that the best predictor of people’s attitudes on a whole array of what we call social issues was education. The more education they had the more liberal they were on social issues. It’s now become the case that age is becoming a better predictor even than education. Younger people simply see things in a different way.
Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with Larry Gross, one of the founders of queer studies and the director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, about the recent development in New York. Larry, let me ask you: Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog on New York Times, had a post saying, the headline was “Cuomo’s presidential moment forms contrast with Obama.” And his argument was that although there are obvious differences between federal government and the politics of New York, that Gov. Andrew Cuomo really took Obama’s model of trying to work with the opposition you mentioned as Republicans that have voted for the bill, and really did him [Obama] one better. And his argument was that he stuck to his guns, he drew a line, he continued working at the problem, he didn’t just give away the store to Republicans. You know, as much as this is a social change, is it also political strategy paying off?
Larry Gross: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that Cuomo demonstrated that you can do what Obama seems unwilling to do, or to try. And frankly [Bill] Clinton was the same. Obama and Clinton would both make pronouncements and then waiver and falter and concede in the face of opposition. I mean, Obama has been doing it across the board in many different areas, and at least in this instance Cuomo demonstrated that you can in fact succeed by holding to the principle and working creatively in a political fashion. I don’t know whether you could generalize from that, but I would have to say it does put Cuomo in a very distinct class of political leaders in this country, and that may or may not sort of have implications for 2016.
Kasia Anderson: Larry, one more question for you. Do you see the fact that this legislation is being passed kind of getting a jump on the presidential electoral cycle? Does that change in your mind the ability for certain political operatives to trot it out as kind of a wedge issue, culture-war-type setup that they have?
Larry Gross: Well, I think they will no matter what because they’ve done it in the past and it worked. The problem is they run out of states to pass anti-same-sex marriage propositions in. I think they’ve pretty much done it everywhere. So that issue is now going to turn on what happens with the Defense of Marriage Act, with DOMA. Which again Obama says should be repealed but unlike Cuomo hasn’t done anything to actually get down in the trenches and make it happen. I mean, that’s the challenge now to Obama that Cuomo in effect represents, which is a “don’t just say it, do it.” And Cuomo did it with same-sex marriage, and Obama has not [made] any visible effort to do it on DOMA. But DOMA is where the action is now on the national level. I think California will move back, but it will really come down to DOMA.
The problem we have, I mean the problem that politicians will face in 2012, is that the tea party bloc, which is being really influential on the Republican side right now, is likely to be one on which this same-sex marriage issue will come into play. I think the current crop of candidates are pretty uniformly aligned on the anti-same-sex marriage side, except possibly [Jon] Huntsman, who I think has been a little vague around that—it probably says civil union, but not marriage. And Obama, at least in his convoluted way, will be seen as on the other side of the issue. I suspect given the state of the economy and the increasingly unpopular wars and all of that, this issue is not going to play the way it did in previous election cycles. But you never can predict; just as with reproductive rights, every time you think the issue’s settled, it comes back again.
Peter Scheer: We’re running out of time, but you mentioned Obama, and I just can’t end this interview without mentioning the bizarre scene where as this bill is passed Obama is at a fundraiser for gay and lesbian New Yorkers, or a gay- and lesbian-themed fundraiser, where he is simultaneously celebrating the passage of this legalization of gay marriage and not mentioning that he continues to oppose gay marriage.
Larry Gross: I think his ability to work both sides of this issue is fast running out. I think that, you know I’ve seen editorials in The New York Times and elsewhere saying “all right, enough, enough already, you can’t keep having it both ways.” If you really are in favor of equality for everybody then you have to follow the logic where it leads and you can’t keep trying to sort of split the hair. Particularly when by now everybody who pays any attention is aware that back in 1996 he made a very clear statement in favor of gay marriage before he discovered that God was in the mix.
Kasia Anderson: Well, we are having to wrap up on that note. We’ve been speaking with Larry Gross, who’s the director of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and an expert in the field of queer studies. Thanks, Larry, from Kasia Anderson and Peter Scheer.
Larry Gross: Sure thing, bye.
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