Older LGBTQ advocates watch the current culture war with a sense of dread

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Vic Basile recalls the time a reporter asked him if, as the first executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, he would push for same-sex marriage to be legalized.

“Oh, no, we’re not interested,” he recalled telling the reporter in the mid-1980s.

The idea that Americans would widely accept same-sex marriage seemed inconceivable to him at the time, and demanding equality on that front seemed strategically unwise. “I wanted to deflect the whole issue, because I thought it would really set us back,” Basil says now. But then Ellen DeGeneres appeared on national television, pride parades became widespread, and the Supreme Court affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry. Basil was stunned by the progress.

Lately, Basile – who is 76 years old and, according to his LinkedIn page, “Retired!!!” — was stunned by something else: the constant headlines about conservative political attacks on the LGBTQ community. Books featuring LGBTQ characters have been banned from libraries. In February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (right) issued a directive ordering child protective services agencies to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming medical treatment to their transgender children . Two months later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) signed the Parental Rights in Education Bill, known to opponents as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill, which attempts to limit discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools. Lawmakers in a dozen other states have proposed copycat laws. Those who oppose such bills have found themselves characterized as supporting child “grooming,” a term associated with child sexual predators.

Not so long ago, openly homophobic politics seemed to be fading, at least in the mainstream. In 2021, a Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, including 55% Republicans. However, as conservatives have regrouped after losing control of Washington, there has been a resurgence of rhetoric suggesting that talking about gay and transgender issues is a threat to children.

“It’s scary,” Basile said from the sofa of his Chevy Chase apartment on a recent afternoon, and he’s not the only longtime LGBTQ activist watching with concern.

“Devastating” is the word used by Hilary Rosen, the first lobbyist Basile hired at the Human Rights Campaign.

“Scary,” says Imani Woody, a longtime activist for older black and gay rights.

“Terrifying,” says Vivian Shapiro, veteran campaigner and former co-chair of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which raises money for the organization.

“It makes me sad,” said Elizabeth Birch, who served as HRC’s executive director from 1995 to 2004. “We’ve really, really won the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans – it’s a desperate setback.”

Basile, who grew up Catholic and spent 10 years married to a woman, began advocating for LGBTQ rights as a labor organizer even before he came out of the closet. In the 1970s, he was working at a federal agency, then known as ACTION, when he heard of a transgender woman in the agency who had been fired after trying to use the women’s bathroom. . Basil took the matter to civil rights leader and future congressman John Lewis, then director of the agency, and in a letter likened the prejudice faced by this woman to the discrimination faced by people of color. Lewis quickly rehired the woman.

After coming out, Basil began to fight for his civil servants union to pass a resolution in favor of anti-discrimination legislation. And in 1983, he was tapped to lead the HRC, which was originally created as a political action committee that would raise money for candidates who pledged to support a civil rights bill for women. homosexuals. Soon there was a more pressing priority: AIDS. One of Basil’s biggest professional wins came in 1986, after evidence emerged that the drug AZT showed promise as a treatment for AIDS. Despite this good news, there was no money to distribute the medicine. So Basil, Rosen and another associate secured an 11 a.m. meeting with Lowell Weicker, a Connecticut senator who was chairman of the subcommittee responsible for funding. “I don’t know what I can do,” Basile recalls saying Weicker, but the next day the senator brought up their meeting in the Senate and asked for $47 million to be included in the budget to distribute AZT. . The money has been approved.

“It’s always moving for me,” Basile said, choking back tears under his black-rimmed glasses. “It was the first big win.” It was as if the federal government was finally answering the calls of the gay community after years of neglect. More and more people began to come out, and before long Basil and his fellow advocates were once again fighting for recognition and fair treatment outside of the context of a public health crisis.

“It was a walk in the middle,” Rosen says, “to encourage the perception that there are gay people in every family, in every party, and in every religion.” In 2011, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy was repealed. LGBTQ celebrities and shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” have gained huge followings. In 1985, 89% of people said they would be upset if a child told them they were gay or lesbian, according to a Los Angeles Times poll; by 2015, the year the Supreme Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry, that share had dropped to 39% in a Pew Research Center poll. “The fight for gay rights is over,” proclaimed the title of a 2019 Atlantic essay, and while not everyone agreed with the idea, the fact that someone felt they had enough evidence to make this point was a sign of significant gains.

“We’ve gone from the gutter to glory, culturally, from the 1950s to today — a complete transformation in how LGBTQ people are viewed,” says Birch.

The embrace of transgender people has lagged, especially on the right. A July Pew Research poll found that 32% of Americans — including 54% of Republicans and those leaning Republicans — thought greater acceptance of transgender people was bad for society. Some activists say fears surrounding transgender issues have been used to fan the flames of a renewed culture war.

Birch had been despairing for months over the drumbeat of attacks on LGBTQ rights from conservative politicians when the Supreme Court’s draft opinion that could overturn Roe vs. Wade leak. “My militant heart exploded once again when I saw this draft notice,” she said.

She sees Roe’s possible overthrow as the start of an “era of disintegrating individual liberty” that could jeopardize not just abortion rights, but also gay marriage, interracial marriage and other rights. reproductive. As written, the leaked Supreme Court opinion says the ruling would not apply to any rights except abortion, but it has reassured legal scholars who see it as a potential precedent that could be exploited to nullify other rights that are not specifically referenced in the constitution.

Vivian Shapiro, former co-chair of the HRC Fund, worries about a rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiment will be more difficult for young people today than for his generation. “We know the struggle. We know what it’s like to lose your job when you come out in the 1970s as a lesbian, or to lose an apartment. They didn’t know any of that.

For Imani Woody, the anti-gay rhetoric already feels like an attempt to push the movement back to the 1970s. The longtime black and older gay rights activist worries about a return to the days when she and his wife used to carry power of attorney papers with them everywhere – so that if one of them was injured, the other would be allowed into the hospital. “My grandsons understand that ‘Nana is gay,'” Woody says. “It’s just a fact of life. Now people can’t say “gay”? It’s like 12 steps back. What what ? My heart is broken.”

What infuriates Basil most is that he sees the renewed attacks on LGBTQ rights as purely strategic. “I don’t think any of them really believe in these things,” he says of conservative politicians pushing legislation such as the Parental Rights in Education Bill. Either way, Basil fears an increase in hate crimes and widespread discrimination. “It’s going to hurt people physically and emotionally,” he says. “They’re going to be demonized, and they’re going to be humiliated.”

It’s a hard thing to watch from retirement. Basil’s days of activism are mostly over. Now, he says, “I donate money” to LGBTQ causes. He is working on a memoir titled “Bending Toward Justice”, a reference to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He still believes in it, even in this dark moment. The good side of the AIDS crisis, for Basile, is that it has brought thousands of people out of the closet. They got angry and they acted. He hopes it will be the same now.

“The pendulum will eventually swing back,” Basil says. “But God knows how long it will take for that to happen and how much more damage will be done in the meantime.”

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