Uphill battle or slippery slope? Depends on which side you’re on…
Slippery slope arguments get thrown around a lot. As a queer man I’ve been on the receiving end of more ridiculous slippery slope accusations than I can count. A surprisingly large number of them always end in something about man on dog sex (though the wingnut who kept typing in all caps about lesbian witches eating babies was actually giggle-worthy!).
The reason the slippery slope is considered a logical fallacy is because the predicted end result is usually an extreme event which would require a rather large number of increasingly improbable steps to get to from whatever current proposal is under discussion.
One of the reasons the slippery slope is so attractive to the anti-gay folks is because if you look at the struggle for queer equality from a very specific narrow angle, it has been a slide down a slope…
From our perspective, we had a fairly simple agenda: full legal and civil equality, and nothing less. But society was so far from that ideal (and still has quite a ways to go), that even getting to the point where that request was comprehensible to most people took a lot of education.
So, from their perspective, what happened first was that we demanded that they admit we existed, at all. And that was quite a step. Oh, they admitted that sick, evil people whose depravities included homosexuality existed. The legal penalty in England was death until fairly late in the 19th Century (and as a former British Colony, the U.S. legal system had followed suit). But the fundamental assumption behind criminalizing homosexuality is that it was a behavior, rather than an inherent trait. So just getting people to conceive of the notion that maybe sexual orientation was an actual thing was a big deal.
Getting the death penalty removed didn’t change things much at all. There were a bunch of little steps that had to happen after that. But the 1940s and 1950s there were still criminal penalties in place, and virtually no one was an “admitted homosexual” because it was virtually impossible to get a job, rent an apartment, et cetera, if people knew. Movies of the era still didn’t admit we existed, except in heavily-coded form. Either comedically as sissies (for men), or mannish women. Dramatically, even when the entire point of the story was to show how evil we were, and would end in our rather gruesome murder or suicide, the portrayals were oblique. There were odd references to “unnatural desires” or “shameful pasts,” but no actual portrayal.
From their perspective we had demanded that they stop legally executing us when we caught us, and in many jurisdictions they had given in to that demand. We were still criminalized, and people who took it upon themselves to beat us or even kill us generally got a free pass (seriously, the police indifference was amazing). Then we had the temerity to ask for more!
So by the 60s and 70s, after gay liberation started, from their perspective, we were demanding that maybe instead of being creatures to be reviled or pitied, that maybe we could be grudgingly acknowledged as people who sometimes had redeeming qualities. Popular culture of the time started occasionally admitting that a particular character was homosexual. And they weren’t always the one being murdered or committing suicide because our lives were so sad and lonely and destructive!
And they hated it! They threatened boycotts and banned books and movies. They realized that some of us were teachers, and started campaigns to pass laws that barred us from being teachers, or holding all sorts of jobs that were deemed inappropriate. So, even though they were the ones making the moves to ban us, from their perspective, we were demanding the right to hold regular jobs without being fired or harassed. How dare we?! Hadn’t they already given us so much?
Every little inch that we shoved that boulder of rights up the hill toward equality, they complained and resisted. And each time we won something substantial, they reacted as if this was going to usher in armageddon. When the Supreme Court finally ruled that laws which criminalized private, consensual sex acts between adults were unconstitutional, that was what made then-Senator Rick Santorum go off on tirade that included his comparing committed relationships between lesbian or gay couples to “man on dog” sex, but that wasn’t the only thing he was ranting about. He was just as angry about the fact that the ruling meant that he couldn’t pass laws prohibiting private “unsavory” sexual practices between straight married people. And he was angry because the logic of the ruling meant that he couldn’t ban birth control for everyone.
To them, the ruling that you couldn’t throw us in jail for having (private consensual) sex was another slide down that slippery slope to utter societal chaos.
And still we weren’t happy! We wanted to have specific civil rights protections. We wanted to be able to designate who our partners were so that our homophobic relatives couldn’t kick them out and prevent them from visiting us in the hospital if we became medically incapacitated! And when it turned out that the very weak, watered down civil unions or domestic partnerships that some jurisdictions offered us didn’t always hold up in court, or weren’t recognized by some institutions, we wanted real legal recognition.
For us, each step was a tiny crumb. We’d asked for full equality, and society had offered a fragment more. We accepted the gains we made, but since those weren’t full equality, we kept pushing that boulder. Whereas to the rightwing anti-gay folks, each move forward was a giant concession on their part. Each time they thought that surely we would finally be satisfied and stop bothering them.
So now, in the U.S., we have marriage equality (except for one county in Kentucky, anyway). In some states we have civil rights protections. In some states we have full adoption rights. But not in every state, and not every state includes all the same protections. It is still the case that you can get legally married one day, and fired for being gay the next in a lot of states. That’s not full equality, so of course we aren’t finished, yet.
All this came to mind this week while I was reading about yet another bunch of republican presidential hopefuls talk about how various ways to undo the supreme court ruling. Not to mention seeing a flurry of activity on some of my relatives’ Facebook walls being angry at “the gays” for not being happy with civil unions. Never mind that those same people were angrily opposing civil unions just a few years ago.
So I can understand why it seems like a slippery slope when looked at from their narrow-minded and frightened perspective. Whereas to us it has been a many decades long battle trying to climb that hill to equality. The thing is, it is just as dangerous for us to forget what a hard won climb it has been so far, as it is to give any credence to their more extreme claims. As quickly as the marriage equality tide turned, it is easy for the folks on our side to start feeling like the rest is inevitable. It’s too easy to say, “We can rest easy now!” We’re going to not only get civil right protections for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, think, but we’ll easily get trans people included, too! And surely the rest of the states will see the wisdom of banning “conversion therapy” for children, right? Now that marriage equality is here, authorities won’t sit idly by while parents abuse their children because they think the children are gay, or throw those children out of the home. Surely those parents are being charged with child abuse and neglect even as we speak!
But those battles still have to be won. It was really fun to cheer and clap and see a million rainbows being shared by a lot of our straight friends on every social media outlet at the end of June. It was.
But we haven’t achieved that one goal yet: full legal and civil equality, and nothing less.
That boulder isn’t going to push itself up the rest of the way up the hill!