Bigotry put to a vote

CAUSE and effect is always an iffy kind of thing, but reasonable people may discern a relationship between Ballot Measure 9 and the firebomb murders of Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock in Salem, Ore.

Four people, barely out of their teens and already devotees of white supremacist groups, have been charged with lobbing a Molotov cocktail into the apartment where the black lesbian and white gay man lived. The murder indictment said motive could be found in "defendants' perception of the race, color and sexual orientation" of the victims.


And maybe part of that perception came from the ballot measure to be decided next Tuesday. The people of Oregon will decide if their state constitution should be amended to "discourage homosexuality" and classify it as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse." In other words, bigotry will be put to a popular vote.

Trickle-down homophobia is what happens when government and community leaders trash gay people crudely or subtly, purse their lips and talk about "life style choice" or open their mouths wide to use Scripture to justify their prejudice. The folks who cooked up the anti-gay referendum let loose a message of hatred and, lo and behold, it turned into a skinhead's firebomb.


That's why leaders of this country have to confront homophobia every chance they get. When the president of the United States is talking about swastikas painted on the walls of synagogues or crosses burned on the lawns of black households, he should include the other great prejudice in America, the one that has led to rampant gay-bashing, both rhetorical and physical.

He should never give a laundry-list speech without completing the list. When the president is talking about justice for all, intoning "young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female," he needs to remember to add "gay and straight."

Trickle-down tolerance is why we have leaders in the first place. It makes a difference that the Catholic Church, which has been no particular friend of gay rights, nevertheless has publicly opposed Ballot Measure 9, with the Oregon Catholic Conference saying it "may contribute to attitudes of intolerance and hostility."

It makes a difference that Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts has given gay state employees the same spousal bereavement rights as heterosexuals. It makes a difference that Gov. Pete Wilson of California has signed a law that protects homosexuals against job discrimination.

The gay-bashers can say what they please about special privileges, but all gay people really want is the right to rent and enlist and work and walk about like the rest of us. To teach if they're qualified; to move in next door if they're financially able. Oh, and they'd like us to remember that they're much, much more than the mechanics of their sex lives, just as we hetero types are.

Silence is not good enough; if you need to remember why, reread the words of the German prelate Martin Niemoller about the Nazis, the ones that begin "They came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist" and end with "Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up." Silence gives consent -- to the bigotry, the bashing and ultimately the firebombings.

In his memoir "Coming Out Conservative," the conservative activist Marvin Liebman recalls Ronald Reagan's distress when his son wanted to become a dancer. "Aren't dancers sort of . . . funny?" he asked. Mr. Reagan was soothed when Mr. Liebman invoked the names of Baryshnikov and Fred Astaire. But Mr. Liebman was ashamed.

He writes: "I had stood quietly and achingly a gay man in the closet, competent to deal with Ronald Reagan's fears about his son, unable to deal openly with the facts of my own life. I had failed to tell him that many of us were 'funny' and that there would be nothing degrading about it if 'unfunny' people, like him, did not make it so."


For too long we dared not speak its name. Now, too often, people speak it and then lie, making monsters where there are only men and women. This puts an enormous responsibility on the leaders of this country. Trickle-down homophobia cannot exist if they speak out, loud and clear, for the rights of all people. If they speak the name, and pronounce it right. Call it gay. Call it human.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.