In Arizona, Is Brown the New Gay?

Arizona's new anti-immigrant law finds echos in the anti-gay laws of the past. It's time for immigration and LGBT activists to step up for each others' causes.

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.

Whether callousness or merely lack of foresight, one chilling consequence of what Cannick voiced came to life just two years later in the outcome of California's voting on Proposition 8, which eliminated access to civil marriage for same-sex couples. Many California immigrants, Latino and otherwise, ignored gay people's pleas for justice and against being singled out by the policy-making process and voted to add Prop 8 to the state constitution. Thanks to that ballot measure, it is now embedded there. The lesson may be clear in retrospect. Turning away from unfairness, and spurning a chance for coalition, can cause reciprocal injury.

Lessons aren't limited to California. Flash forward to the current calls for trade and labor organizations, artists and sports teams, and municipalities to limit or withdraw their conference and tourist travel from Arizona as a way to condemn SB1070, compel its removal, and prevent its spread beyond state borders. Allies of LGBT rights have an instructive example from the Midwest to share and shape the community's response. It indicates not only the wisdom of strategic counter-measures but also the need to augment and publicize them so they have quick effect.

In 1993, Cincinnati voters responded to a citywide campaign steeped in religious messages and antigay slurs by passing an amendment to the city charter that became known as Article XII. The provision rescinded parts of the city's human rights ordinance that protected gay people from bias and, going forward, barred any public response to antigay discrimination. Like the Colorado amendment passed a year earlier, the law essentially made local government complicit in whatever private acts of cruelty or exclusion might be aimed at an entire class of people. Unlike the Colorado amendment, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1996 on the grounds that it rendered gay people "strangers to the law," the federal courts allowed the one-of-a-kind Cincinnati amendment to stay in place.

And so it did until 2004. During that peculiar 11-year period, some gay activists in and outside southwest Ohio sought to trigger a boycott of the city's convention hotels and highlight the black eye they claimed the amendment's passage dealt to the local business climate. The boycott sputtered. But by touting some specific event cancelations and disqualifications affecting the city, it succeeded in strengthening the hand of local faith and business leaders who were waging the argument within their own sectors about the dangers of the ordinance. Such dialogue eventually prompted local business giant Procter & Gamble to signal its opposition to the measure and invest in efforts to repeal Article XII. Backed up by a growing interfaith coalition and a large army of volunteer petition circulators, gay-rights supporters put the repeal measure on the Nov. 2004 ballot and secured the amendment's abolition by majority vote.

The Cincinnati story speaks to both the long-term power of targeted outrage and the need to cultivate alliances--across racial, religious, and partisan boundaries. Such coalitions allow allies to express and communicate their displeasure in their own lingua franca and as widely as possible. It also speaks to the need for swift action, lest Arizona's law endure and spark copycats' mischief. If Republican lawmakers in other states like Texas, similarly afflicted by one-party GOP control of the legislature and governor's office, shoot themselves in the feet by rushing to replicate Arizona's attack on the basic standards of freedom they claim to cherish, it might distract the critical gaze of mobilized outrage away from Arizona.

SB1070 is doing more than just increasing the pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The Arizona law shows signs of galvanizing a broad cross-section of society, from pro sports fans and fitness buffs to theatergoers and clergy, against the scapegoating and mistreatment of immigrants in ways that make them grasp the human rights issues involved in the struggle. They should not stop there. Supporters of LGBT equality, in particular, should take a leading role in efforts to undo the Arizona law. Aimed at so-called outsiders, its attack on basic fairness hits home and strikes at our own hearts. We must join in taking it down. It's as simple as that.


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Hans Johnson is a contributing editor to In These Times, and president of Progressive Victory, based in Washington, D.C.