This week’s election was a major coup for LGBT civil rights. Richard Socarides, former White House Special Assistant to President Clinton (and gay son of the late Charles Socarides, one of the founders of NARTH and champion of reparative therapy), billed it as “The Gay Rights Election.” Four states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – approved marriage equality ballot initiatives, a big first in American history. Several openly gay members have been added to the House of Representatives, and a number of gay candidates won a seat in their respective state legislatures. And Tommy Thompson, a major player in American politics, was defeated in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race by Tammy Baldwin, making her the first female to represent Wisconsin in the Senate, and the first openly gay person to be elected to the Senate. This was, clearly, an election of firsts.
However, now that we’re in the post-election phase, I think it’s important to prepare for the realities of groundbreaking change. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – and that’s just as true in politics as it is in Newtonian physics. In the social science and political world, this aspect of Newton’s laws of motion is referred to as a backlash – a negative, often angry, reaction to any significant progressive change. The Little Rock Crisis, the blocking of nine African-American students from entering a Little Rock, Arkansas high school, is a good example of a backlash in response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Susan Faludi’s bestselling book Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women characterizes the extreme right-wing conservatism of the 1980s as a backlash against the gains made by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. In fact, the ridiculous charges Barack Obama’s had to face regarding his birth certificate – along with numerous other racist acts directed towards him – suggest a backlash, in my opinion. Backlashes tend to erase the strides made by a progressive movement in an attempt to preserve the status quo. And the more significant the progressive changes are, the more violent the backlashes tend to be. So even though marriage equality rights (and other LGBTQ issues) may have reached a tipping point, the game’s not over yet. In fact, the game might have gotten more interesting.
The game certainly isn’t over in the U.S. Senate, either. In fact, one specific type of backlash is likely to manifest itself as a result of Tammy Baldwin’s election. By winning the U.S. Senate seat representing Wisconsin, Baldwin broke the gender glass ceiling in her state – and she broke the sexual glass ceiling by being the first openly gay person to be elected to that body. When a person from a particular minority group breaks the glass ceiling and joins the ranks of the majority, that person is likely to experience tokenism. Hiring (or electing, in this case) “token” members of a minority group usually creates a false appearance of inclusion. If an employer is accused of being discriminatory, it’s easy for that employer to deflect those accusations by saying, “What do you mean, I’m discriminatory? Look over there! I hired her, didn’t I?” The same is true in American politics – it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we live in a post-racist society because of Barack Obama’s election, or that we live in a post-sexist society because the 113th Congress will have more women than ever before. Or that we live in a non-homophobic society because, well, look over there! There’s Tammy Baldwin!
Of course, Tammy Baldwin’s sexual orientation (probably more so than her gender) makes her stand out from her peers. And that, I imagine, could potentially be quite stressful.
The stresses associated with being a token in the workplace are well described by “tokenism theory.” First articulated in 1977 by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, tokenism theory identifies a number of significant problems associated with being a workplace token. For one thing, because Tammy Baldwin is openly gay, she’ll certainly be a novelty in the U.S. Senate – and because of the “novelty factor,” she may have to deal with higher-than-average levels of pressure and scrutiny. Did she get elected because of her skills and qualifications, or did she get elected because she’s gay? This question, lurking in the back of people’s minds, may put pressure on her to go above and beyond the achievements of her peers. Moreover, because of her status as “the first openly gay U.S. Senator,” Baldwin faces a choice: She can establish herself as “the gay Senator,” using her position to advocate for LGBTQ issues (and possibly be considered an “activist Senator” with an axe to grind); or she can distance herself from her gay identity and try to assimilate, or to “just be like everyone else” (and potentially be viewed as a traitor by the LGBTQ community).
So we’ve got the potential for an even stronger anti-gay backlash than what we’ve already been experiencing – which could be directed towards specific individuals (like Tammy Baldwin) or towards broader social goals (like same-sex marriage). But another possibility exists – the possibility that we’ve reached a tipping point, a point where the walls of institutional homophobia begin to crumble like a falling house of cards. It could be that we’re on the brink of massive social change, and that no reactionary responses will be strong enough to stop it.
Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, “Forward,” wasn’t met with the fervor and enthusiasm of his 2008 slogan, “Yes We Can.” But, in hindsight, “Forward” was the perfect slogan. Because, in this election, we moved forward. And backlash or not, that’s what the LGBTQ community will continue to do.