Every great movement for social change has its pivotal events, iconic moments of terrible clarity that capture the nation’s attention, shift the momentum and alter the course of the struggle. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a turning point in the rise of the labor movement. The triple murder of the three civil-rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, 40 years ago this summer was just such a moment in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice. Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 played a similar role in the struggle to break the silence over AIDS.
The spectacular downfall of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey may prove to be such an event in the struggle for the rights of gay Americans — but not, we fear, in the direction that gay-rights activists would have hoped.
McGreevey initially earned nationwide sympathy and admiration for the dignity and seeming candor with which he announced his resignation from office and the personal crisis that had triggered it. With each passing day, however, new disclosures pile up that only deepen the public’s confusion over what actually happened and widen the circles of pain and shame rippling out from the governor’s office.
In consequence, what began as sympathy for McGreevey’s private agonies, and understanding of the bigotry that forced him to live as he did, are rapidly giving way to disgust over the affair’s tawdry deceptions and allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Talk of human rights and tortured families slides quickly into whisperings over New Jersey political culture and smutty jokes about “Jimmy’s problem.” Add in the months-long partisan battle now shaping up for control of the Trenton statehouse, and what looms ahead is not clarity but contempt, and perhaps backlash.
This would be a tragedy. Americans need more clarity, not less, in our national debate over gay rights. While it has emerged as the most important civil-rights issue of the current decade, the gay rights struggle has suffered since its beginnings in the 1960s from a perception gap that sets it apart from other minority-rights campaigns. Where blacks faced a straightforward, brutal bigotry that most Americans easily grasped — once they were forced to, at least — gays face a murky tangle of challenges that collide and confuse: plain bigotry, widespread, deep-set gender insecurity and genuine philosophical disagreement over mainstream readings of theology.
All that makes the gay struggle far more complicated than its predecessors, and its eventual outcome less obvious. Blacks were asking no more than for Americans to face up to our conscience. Gays are asking that we re-examine it.
Thanks to the determination and savvy of gay activists, awareness is growing nationwide, penetrating even into conservative religious circles, that the right of gay people to live in dignity is an urgent priority for all of us. We do not yet know precisely how we will settle disputes over gay marriage, workplace rights and the rest, but we have finally begun to understand that we must settle them. Real lives are in the balance.
The McGreevey affair, as it lingers in the public mind, will only make that dialogue more difficult. In the end it will be remembered not as an iconic moment, but as a dirty joke — on all of us.