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|Chapter 26. Learning from the gay rights movement.
The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen
without recognizing an obligation to God. . . . The recognition of God as the ruling and
leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings
are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of
the growing members. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this
fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America .
. . is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Declaration of
Religious Principle, Bylaws of Boy Scouts of America
We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath
that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed,
and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts. Because of these
beliefs, the Boy Scouts of America does not accept homosexuals as members or as leaders,
whether in volunteer or professional capacities. Boy Scouts of America Position Statement:
Homosexuality and the BSA.
The parallels between atheists and gays are many. Both atheists and gays can “pass” as
heterosexuals or religionists if they do not identify themselves. Absent that self-identification, they will
often be assumed to be heterosexual or religious, as the case may be. Further, both gays and
atheists are raised in a society where most presume they will grow up to be heterosexual or religious.
An atheist child in a religious family may feel a similar sense of isolation and loneliness to that of a
gay child. Growing up, the gay or atheist child must often learn to reject the assumptions of the
dominant culture and to stand on his own with pride.
Both “gay” and “atheist” are affirmative identities. There are many people who have homosexual
relations (Ted Haggard for example, see Chapter 17) who do not assume the identity of being gay.
Similarly, there are many more people who do not believe in religion than the few who affirmatively
identify themselves as atheists. One of the distinguishing elements of identity is pride. Gays have
been building their pride for more than 40 years, atheists have some catching up to do.
Additionally, both gays and atheists suffer from social stigma and discrimination. Five hundred years
ago, both atheism and homosexuality were crimes punishable by death. Even in some countries
today, both homosexual activity and apostasy (specifically, renouncing the Muslim faith) remain
punishable by death. The Boy Scouts of America singles out both gays and atheists as people unfit
for membership. The Christian right attacks gays and atheists with equal fervor. The general public
views gay and atheist candidates as the least desirable to serve as president. An old proverb
counsels, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are natural parallels between the gay and
The path of the gay rights movement over the past 50 years has lessons for atheists. Think about it,
50 years ago, gay relations were illegal in all states. However, gays have taken concrete steps to
improve their lot. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirms their right to relationships, 21 states
prohibit discrimination against gays, 8 states have domestic partnership laws and 5 states plus the
District of Colombia recognize gay marriage. Gays, once a horribly stigmatized minority, are now
ranked ahead of atheists in a poll asking who the electorate might choose to be president.
Fighting for gay rights.
The birth of the modern gay rights movement, the Stonewall Rebellion, was marked by three days of
riots which started when police tried to harass the patrons of a New York City gay bar, the Stonewall
Inn, on June 28, 1969. The patrons and protestors labeled themselves “homosexuals.” But that was
about to change.
In the fertile civil rights environment of the era, the Gay Liberation movement began. On the first
anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, thousands of New Yorkers marched in a gay pride parade.
Parades were also held in Chicago and Los Angeles. Each year the number of cities and countries
conducting “pride” parades has grown–all on or around the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.
The world’s largest celebration occurs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with over 3 million attending, the largest
celebration in the U.S. is in San Francisco, with over a million attending.
The people previously known as “homosexuals” adopted a new name, “gay.” Formerly a derisive
term, it became both a name and an identity. Slogans like “gay is good” and “gay and proud” were
Gay Liberation also used symbols. One early symbol was the Greek letter lambda (λ), for liberation.
Some gay organizations still have “lambda” in their names. Others used an inverted pink triangle (▼)–
the symbol used by Nazis to identify gays in the concentration camps where they were exterminated
along with the Jews. But in 1978 a San Francisco artist designed the rainbow flag, which has become
the most recognized symbol of gay pride. If you live in a larger city, you will likely see rainbow flags, or
variations of rainbow flags, on many vehicles and businesses.
The gay rights movement identified itself from its inception as a civil rights movement. As such, it built
coalitions with other groups. Women’s liberation was a natural ally, but other coalitions formed as
well. For example, in San Francisco, unions wished to boycott Coors beer. Gay politician Harvey Milk
worked to get Coors removed from gay bars, thereby earning him union support in his run for political
Gay Liberation worked with the political system to recognize gay rights. From ending police
harassment, the movement quickly moved to affirmative rights. Policies and laws against
discrimination were promoted in businesses and cities. San Francisco, Ann Arbor and East Lansing
first adopted gay rights ordinances in 1972. In 1974 AT&T became the first major national company
to adopt an equal opportunity policy for gays. Such small steps have led to statewide anti-
discrimination laws in 21 states, plus anti-discrimination laws and policies in countless cities and
Gays and their allies have also worked in the fields of art and entertainment to create more positive
gay images. One of the first Hollywood movies with central gay characters, 1970’s The Boys in the
Band, opened the floodgates for numerous others that followed. Ellen DeGeneres’ disclosure she
was a lesbian in 1997, and the incorporation of her character as a lesbian on the Ellen show were big
news. Gay characters are now so common in television and movies that the review I read before
seeing the 2009 movie Taking Woodstock did not even mention that the main character was gay.
And on TV, talk show host Wanda Sykes speaks of her wife without anyone blinking an eye. Even the
all-American comic book, Archie has added a gay character. Gays have come a long way and the
media has helped.
The gay rights movement has not only worked on the social side of the spectrum, but on the legal side
as well. Victories include the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, overruling the
few state laws that still prohibited gay sex, as well as state court decisions in Vermont,
Massachusetts, Iowa and California authorizing gay marriage.
The gay rights movement has also become an economic force. In the early days, activists marked
their bills “gay money” to make the point that gays are a strong economic force. Some advertisers
caught on early–Subaru successfully marketed its automobiles to lesbians. The liquor industry was a
pioneer in advertising to the gay market. Coors beer, once subject to a boycott by unions and gay
rights activists, later began sponsoring gay events and advertising in the gay media. Today,
advertising to the gay market is frequent and occurs without much notice or comment. The power of
the gay dollar has been recognized.
Many strategies have worked effectively for the gay rights movement, but probably the most effective
is “coming out.” Within the gay world, not disclosing your status is known as “being in the closet,” while
becoming open is known as “coming out of the closet,” or simply “coming out.” Early in the gay rights
movement, activists insisted that being “out” was essential to recognition of gay rights. They reasoned
that everyone knows someone gay, even if they do not realize it. It would be easy to oppose gay rights
if you had never met a gay person, but if you know your favorite elementary school teacher is gay, your
grocer is gay, your barber is gay, your neighbor is gay, and each of them is a fine and likeable
person, then it is much harder to oppose gay rights. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say they
know a gay person, an increase of 35 percentage points since 1992.
The gay rights movement established a “national coming out day,” October 11, to encourage gay
people to be more open. A coming out brochure reads, “Gay . . . Americans are sons and daughters,
doctors and lawyers, teachers and construction workers. We serve in Congress, protect our country
on the front lines and contribute to the well-being of the nation at every level. In all that diversity, we
have one thing in common: we each make deeply personal decisions to be open about who we are
with ourselves and others--even when it isn’t easy. We express that openness by telling our friends,
family, co-workers and even strangers that--among all the other things we are--we’re also gay.”
The brochure lists advantages of coming out:
• Living an open and whole life.
• Developing closer, more genuine relationships.
• Building self-esteem from being known and loved for who we really are.
• Reducing the stress of hiding our identity.
• Connecting with others who are GLBT.
• Being part of a strong and vibrant community.
• Helping to dispel myths and stereotypes about who GLBT people are and what our lives are like.
• Becoming a role model for others.
• Making it easier for younger GLBT people who will follow in our footsteps.
If you reread the preceding paragraphs about coming out and substitute “atheist” for “gay,” almost
every provision applies to atheists as well.
Over the years, you probably have met a gay person who takes the coming out strategy quite
seriously. He will have a rainbow flag on his car, a gay button on his jacket, a T-shirt that says “how
dare you presume I am straight,” and still he will find a way to speak about being gay in just about
every conversation. It can be a bit amusing, but it is a necessary process, and it is a process that
atheists should consider. How many times have you heard of a loud, out and proud atheist? We need
more of them.
At one point, openly gay celebrities were few and far between. Quentin Crisp’s publication of The
Naked Civil Servant in 1968 pushed him to the fore, and Elton John’s public declaration he was
bisexual in 1988 was big news. Now, entire books and Websites contain seemingly endless lists of
gay celebrities. But the impact of role models is important. Celebrities who are open about their
status help to reduce discrimination and serve as role models for younger people. Atheist celebrities
currently seem more secretive about their lack of religion than they do about their sexuality.
Of course, the analogy between gays and atheists has its limits. To a large degree, gays need each
other to find love and support. Gay bars have been a gathering point for centuries. But to be honest, I
have never heard of an atheist bar. Also, living honestly with one’s sexual orientation may be more
key to the happiness of an individual than atheism. At first this seemed obvious to me. But the more I
think about it, the more I am unsure. Atheism is a key element of my personality and I could no more
comfortably attend church, sing hymns and pray, than a gay person could marry a spouse of the
opposite sex. Nonetheless, I do think that sexual orientation is a more core distinguishing factor than
the lack of religion.
That said, the number of gay people in the world is relatively fixed. Heterosexuals, despite the claims
of the Christian right, do not convert to homosexuals and homosexuals do not convert into
heterosexuals. Religion, however, can be changed. A large number of atheists were once religious
and each year the number of atheists grows. We are not limited to remaining 1% or 20% of the
population. Eventually, we will be the majority.
The correlation between the gay rights movement and the atheist movement is not complete.
Nonetheless, the movements are similar. Gays have significantly improved their rights and societal
standing in America over the past 40 years, while atheists have not. The gay rights movement has
adopted valuable strategies that the atheist movement can use as well; strategies like agreeing on a
name, choosing a symbol, developing an identity and most importantly, coming out. The next chapter
discusses actions atheists may wish to consider to improve the effectiveness of the atheist movement.
|Update: Although religionists have not abandoned their battle against gays, society has
changed significantly in the years since I wrote Born Atheist. On June 26, 2015, the
United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, held that American gays and
lesbians have a Constitutional right to marry in every American state. The progress
gays and lesbians have made to secure the right to marry should be inspirational and
instructive for atheists.