In an interview with 60 Minutes that was broadcast on March 20, Archbishop Timothy Dolan was asked about his opposition to gay marriage. He said of gay and lesbian couples “We will stand up for other rights with you, we will treat you with love and reverence, but we cannot ever tamper with the necessary attributes of what we consider to be one of the pillars of society, namely the very definition of marriage.”
Dolan leads the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York that is comprised of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx as well as seven upstate counties and he is the leading American Roman Catholic voice so his conciliatory comments were notable. His tone notwithstanding, Dolan’s comments met with derision on gay blogs such as queerty.com, joemygod.blogspot.com, and towleroad.com. Those posters should have been in New York City on March 19, 1986 if they wanted to hear hate speech.
“Members of the same sex not only should not make love because it is immoral, they cannot make love because it is impossible,” said Bishop Patrick V. Ahern at a rally that was held that day outside New York City’s City Hall.
The City Council was scheduled to vote the next day on Intro. 2, a bill that added sexual orientation to the city’s anti-discrimination law. Intro. 2 was first proposed in 1971, but was repeatedly stalled. The community would finally prevail with the March 20 vote. Attendees at the rally knew that and they were angry.
“Sodomy is both hygienically and morally repulsive and it’s because nature has made it that way,” said Ahern who died on March 24 of this year. “To place the homosexual lifestyle on the same plane as the heterosexual lifestyle is to make homosexual marriage equal in dignity to heterosexual marriage and this is subversive of the society that we belong to, whose basic unit is the family”
Monsignor Vincent D. Breen was, like Ahern, a senior player in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Breen, who died in 2003, told the crowd “We believe that all people in New York City are protected from discrimination by existing federal and state statutes. We further believe that the Intro. 2 legislation...would establish the homosexual, lesbian and bisexual lifestyles as equal to and as authentic as the heterosexual lifestyle. Intro. 2 is an assault on the traditional family values of both Christian and Judaic society.”
Their comments were captured by filmmaker Phil Zwickler who, with Jane Lippman, produced “Rights and Reactions: Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial,” a 1987 film that documented that 1986 debate.
The podium at that rally was packed with Roman Catholic priests, Orthodox Jews, Salvation Army staffers, politicians, and taxpayers. Members of The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a group of lay Catholics, also attended. Robert W. Peters, the founder of Morality in Media, a conservative media watchdog group, is seen chanting “A moral wrong cannot be a civil right” while holding a sign that says the same thing. Zwickler filmed one anonymous man employing an argument that is still used by the right today.
“I as a parent will have to be able to accept that they want to teach homosexuality to my children as an alternate lifestyle,” the man said. “That is totally unacceptable to me and I am willing to go to jail so that my children will not have those values, immoral values, forced upon them.”
The language inside City Hall during the debate over Intro. 2 was just as ugly. Andy Humm, a longtime gay activist and then a member of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, quoted the Bible chapter Leviticus saying “If a man lie with a man as with a woman both of them have committed an abomination they shall be put to death.”
That drew cheers and applause from some of the Intro. 2 opponents and Humm stood at a podium gesturing to those who were cheering while saying sarcastically “Nice, nice, nice.”
Twenty-five years later, the opponents of advances sought by the lesbian, transgender, gay, and bisexual community have clearly decided that the sort of rhetoric they used in 1986 no longer works and might even harm their efforts. There are exceptions, of course.
In 2008, during the fight over California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that overturned same sex marriage in that state, proponents avoided attacking the gay community and even pointed out in some ads that gay and lesbian couples could enter into domestic partnerships that had the same rights as marriage.
In a 2008 story, the New York Times cited a yes side training document that read “It is not our goal in this campaign to attack the homosexual lifestyle or to convince gays and lesbians that their behavior is wrong -- the less we refer to homosexuality, the better...We are pro-marriage, not anti-gay.”
It is not evident that this changed language reflects a change of heart and clearly most, if not all, people in the bisexual, gay, transgender, and lesbian community do not believe that it does. It may reflect changed demographics. Many of the people who used that harsher language have died or retired from politics. Their children grew up seeing gays on TV, having gay friends, and regularly hearing about the community so they would be less likely to be shrill.
“To a large extent, we’re not talking to those people anymore,” said Steve Ashkinazy, a longtime gay activist, at a March 31 screening of the Zwickler documentary held at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. “We’re talking to their children who grew up in a world that we created.”
Allen Roskoff, also a longtime gay activist, saw the community’s increasing strength over time as a factor in the right toning down its attacks.
“It’s my belief that a lot of it has to do with the power of the community,” Roskoff said at the screening, which was sponsored by the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, a gay political group.