Pride against Prejudice
Winning progress in the face of conservatism.
I was in high school when gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court. When the decision came down — complete with a rainbow-colored Whitehouse and media fanfare — it felt like a confirmation of the story I had been told my entire life: progress is inevitable. Young and unengaged in the gay rights movement as I was, it looked to me that a younger more enlightened generation had leveraged the Obama presidency (itself proof of progress) along with social media (the Facebook page Have a Gay Day exploded on Facebook my Freshman year) to win an easy victory.
This (mis)understanding was only magnified by my personal experiences at the time. I, cis-het, went from having only a passive awareness that gay people existed to being active in the LGBT club, having multiple LGBTQ+ friends, and correcting adults on their outdated terminology. I went to high school in Colorado Springs — one of the most conservative cities in the country — and saw shockingly little intolerance of queer students after that year. I did witness injustices, like a trans friend being forced to move schools by conservative Christian parents, but these always seemed like the last desperate cruelties of a dying bigotry. In the news, the failure of homophobic clerks to personally refuse to certify gay marriages only cemented this idea.
Gay rights had been won. It was only upwards from here.
Of course, it was never that simple. As Yasmin Nair brilliantly outlined in her article Where the Gay Things Are, the achievement of gay marriage was not only an insufficient step in achieving equality, it was also primarily advanced by wealthy gay couples who were concerned with protecting themselves from inheritance taxes (from which spouses, and not civil partners, are exempt). To Nair and others, the achievement of “gay rights” is not marked by inheritance law but by social acceptance and legal protections. More than simply ending laws banning homosexuality and gay marriage, but also in the form of new resources dedicated to protecting gay people and communities from hate crimes.
The gulf between my teenage impression of progress on gay rights and the current wave of bigotry against LGBTQ+ people (ranging from accusations of pedophilia, to promises to re-ban gay marriage, laws making it difficult or impossible for trans people to get healthcare, or even outright violence) makes much more sense in light of Nair’s argument. As much as gay rights and acceptance have backslid in the last few years, they were also never particularly strong in the first place. Media representation and legal marriage are progress, but they can only do so much against a fundamentalist Christian far-right.
Conservatives do not have a coherent set of policy positions across cultures and times. Instead, their general beliefs and specific policies fluctuate in response to change. To the extent that conservatism can even be called an ideology, it is simply the ideology of hierarchies, be they racial, social, religious, or economic. Conservatives seek to defend hierarchies when they are threatened and expand them when they are not. In other words: conservatism is by nature reactionary.
This is not a new idea. A wide range of political theorists, from the “father of conservatism” Edmond Burke to Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, have agreed on this basic definition. In France, Burke saw conservatism as a necessary reaction to (what he called) the “chaos” of the revolution. The abolition of hierarchies in France created a reactionary force of conservatives who ultimately ended the first Republic, and in doing so, reinstated hierarchies. In Italy, Fascism rose after an aging monarchy organized with a floundering capitalist class to prevent the rise of socialist parties and the abolition of hierarchies they promised.
And, of course, today, the progress of lgbtq rights, the resurgence of a real American left, and the election of a black president has spurred on a fascist, Christian-nationalist far right which won the presidency, attempted to overturn the election, will likely end abortion rights, and which will do far worse if they are allowed.
A stark lesson to my teenage self, I have learned in the last decade that progress is not some law of nature. Instead, it is a constant battle.
The growing visibility of trans people does genuinely threaten the hierarchies that define conservative life. Conservative gender norms require the belief that men and women are not only entirely different creatures with few shared qualities, it also relies on the belief that the unpaid labor women are forced into (from child rearing to cooking to cleaning and even to emotional support) is written into their very DNA. To conservatives, it’s bad enough that women can hold jobs and vote. But the idea that people could be raised and socially recognized as one gender and freely choose to identify and live as another not only rejects gender hierarchies, it attacks their very foundations.
While this is important to note, we also need to acknowledge that trans people are not unique in the “threat” they represent to conservative hierarchies. Feminists, queer people in general, labor organizers, and immigrants are just some groups conservatives see as the enemy and have attacked in the past. The fact that trans people are being targeted by a moral panic today is because their struggle for rights, respect, and dignity is very simply the most recent(ly publicized) struggle of its kind.
Conservatism, at its very core, is composed of uninspired reaction. There is no conservative project other than the creation and expansion of hierarchies, and they use social change (and fear of social change) to market that uninspired reaction to the masses. Even if they win this battle and trans people are forced into the closet once again, it will do nothing to deter conservatives. They will systematically seek out each and every group threatening their hierarchies and, literally, put them in their place.
Unless we stop them.
Having lived through the flourishing and floundering of LGBTQ rights in America I have learned that we cannot afford rest or distraction. Whether it’s 1990 or 2010 or 2020 or 2050 the so-called “culture war” can never be won. No amount of changed hearts and minds will guarantee human rights once and for all. Only organized communities armed with support networks, political advocacy groups, and often, weapons, can protect those rights.
History is a long struggle. We have a world to win.