Unreasonable Expectations
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Bay Windows
May 4, 2006


Unreasonable Expectations

If I worked in the service industry, I am afraid I would be like John Cleese’s perpetually exasperated hotel owner Basil Fawlty in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, as in this exchange with a hard-of-hearing woman complaining about the view from her room in the English coastal resort of Torquay:

“When I pay for a view, I expect something more interesting than that.” “But that is Torquay, madam.” “Well it’s not good enough.” “Well may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain?”

With spring here and the political season heating up, a lot of people are bringing out the Basil Fawlty in me. The worst offenders are people who drive gas-guzzling vehicles yet expect an exemption from the law of supply and demand when prices rise, but that’s not gay-related. Here are a few examples closer to home:

Catholic Charities in Boston says it will stop doing adoptions as long as it is required to judge same-sex couples in adoption applications by the same standards as others. Governor Romney promptly proposes carving out an exemption. This church trump card is frequently played, of course. In Washington, D.C., where I live, some churchgoers who drive in from the suburbs on Sundays (and who object to gays having moved into the inner-city homes they abandoned) claim that the First Amendment prohibits the government from issuing parking tickets to them. So on the one hand, right wingers insist that the First Amendment does not require the separation of church and state, but on the other hand it protects the right of the godly to double park.

Those Sunday drivers are not the only ones with a penchant for mangling the First Amendment. Some gay activists feel perfectly entitled to defend their own free speech rights while curtailing those of others. In the most famous such case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was a “public accommodation” and that refusing to allow a GLBT group to march in it under their own banner was illegal discrimination. In the 1995 Hurley case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the SJC ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice David Souter correctly noted that the parade was an expressive event, and that its organizers had the right to control the expressions in their own parade. Though I myself am a proud gay Irish-American (my mother was born to a Gildea and a Fitzgerald), I respect the right of the homophobic parade organizers to exclude gay messages, because gay groups have a similar right to exclude anti-gay messages from our own parades.

Nationally, many Democrats expect to retake both houses of Congress this year. One well-heeled gay Democrat even explained to me how a Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would succeed to the presidency in early 2007 after Dick Cheney is indicted and convicted and George Bush is impeached and removed from office. Regarding the somewhat more plausible Democratic takeover, don’t bet the farm based on recent polls. Cloud gazing on the beach affects the political process about as much as people’s general views of Congress affect how they vote in their own congressional district.

Achieving victory requires planning and assembling the right ingredients. Looking over the current crop of Congressional Democrats, I’d say we need to keep shopping. This was made clear the day Dr. Frist was disgracing both of his professions last year by diagnosing Terry Schiavo from the floor of the United States Senate, when congressional Democrats, except for a few stalwarts like Barney Frank and John Lewis, were hiding under their desks. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s phone is unlikely to be ringing off the hook any time soon with nominations for the next Profiles In Courage.

Changing minds sufficiently to affect public policy requires more than confidence and marketing. It requires challenging people. One of the problems with our politics is that there is so much calculating and pandering and so little leading. To be sure, merely telling people things they don’t want to hear does not constitute leadership nor win elections, but avoiding controversy is a defensive strategy, not a strategy for gaining power.

Sooner or later, we have to make our case to people who do not already agree with us. Sooner or later, we have to break it to the Bible beaters that the first chapter of Romans does not supersede the civil law. And sooner or later, those of us fighting for gay freedom have to learn that defending our rights does not entitle us to trample those of others.

Each of these confrontations with reality is frequently put off because the news is unwelcome to different constituencies and the resulting confrontations are unpleasant. But sitting back and hoping that someone else will do the right thing is no way to live one’s life, and certainly not an effective approach to political activism.

You will not get what you want if you don’t ask for it and work for it. So speak up, get organized, think strategically, write letters and emails, and put your money where your mouth is. Rallies can be lots of fun, but they are no substitute for playing the game or for the long, hard job of preparing for the game. Don’t just expect victory – make it happen.

Copyright © 2006 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.