In Arizona, Is Brown the New Gay?
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It is easy to be cowed by mere numbers in the immigration debate. More than 12 million undocumented people reside in the United States. But whether you are a conservative who insists on small government, a progressive who prizes due process and nondiscrimination, or someone who steers by all these principles, there is no excuse for anti-immigrant laws like SB1070 in Arizona or for losing your compass in the face of it.
But that's exactly the danger that Republican lawmakers in Arizona have set for the rest of the country, and why Americans of conscience must rise to the challenge. Strong-armed to power in a sad display of one-party control of state governance, the law compels police to investigate the citizenship status of ordinary Arizonans. For advocates of LGBT rights, in and outside the gay community, the law holds troubling parallels with some of the worst chapters of recent U.S. history. It also recalls a lesson from an important gay-rights battle in Cincinnati that may sharpen coordinated resistance.
In its perversion of the professed conservative desire for checks on government intrusion, the law evokes the McCarthy era's war on so-called sex deviants. That reign of error in the early Cold War, as historian David Johnson documents in his 2004 book Lavender Scare, focused the resources of the federal state on thousands of trained and taxpaying workers. It succeeded in ferreting out hundreds of homosexuals and served them up as trophies to placate the prejudice and grand-standing ambitions of a few Congressional overseers.
The purge took on a life of its own, unchecked by large-scale outcry and gaining steam with an Eisenhower executive order in 1953. For more than a decade, it drained and diverted the talents of an entire class of people, especially in the D.C. area. In a welcome reference to the havoc and insecurity this prolonged probe unleashed, allegedly in the name of law and order, the hit film "Julie and Julia" depicted chef Julia Child's husband Paul being recalled from his foreign service post in Paris in the 1950s to face a stateside inquiry into whether he was homosexual.
The trauma from this antigay purge cost hundreds their careers and some, amidst prurient inquiries or intense pressure to divulge friends and colleagues, their very lives. If estimates from the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953 are any guide, the homosexual population of the nation at the time may have reached or exceeded 12 million.
Still, despite the casualties of the purge and its far-reaching fallout in personnel filters in the professions, it took nearly 40 years to repudiate such wasteful and disgraceful misuse of government authority. In some ways, the era could be said to have ended only last year, when the Obama administration restored earlier interpretations of policies protecting federal civil-service workers as definitively covering sexual orientation. But Congress has yet to add comprehensive anti-bias protections into federal law.
The past is not the only guide toward greater solidarity with immigrants. One would think an entire decade of antigay ballot measures that played on stigma and bigotry to ban recognition of same-sex partners' freedom to marry would make the gay community staunch foes of anti-immigrant bias and its deployment in state law. That is mostly the case, in part because thousands of LGBT people are themselves immigrants or have partners or family members who must navigate the exploitation, suspicion, ignorance, and outright hate that greets immigrants, undocumented and otherwise.
Yet gay people are not immune from fecklessness in the face of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy-making. In a well-publicized essay from 2006, lesbian commentator Jasmyne Cannick from Los Angeles all but told immigrants then denouncing a hostile bill in Congress and demanding reform that provides a path to legal citizenship, to wait in line behind the native-born. "It's a slap in the face to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to take up the debate on whether or not to give people who are in this country illegally any rights when we haven't even given the people who are here legally all of their rights," Cannick wrote.