A 1997 prediction encounters 2017 turbulence

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Twenty years ago this past week, The Gazette’s editorial board issued a bold forecast.

“We predict that 20 years hence, late 20th century abuse of homosexuals and denial of their rights will seem as amazing as the earlier denigration of racial minorities and women,” an editorial opined July 12, 1997, prompted by pride parades happening around the globe.

“Deny one group its liberties and you risk ultimate curtailment of your own. Those who deplore the loud, often confrontational Gay Pride celebrations should keep that in mind,” the editorial argued.

Sure, the editorial’s use of “homosexuals” is dated, but its message was gutsy for its time.

In 1997, Disney’s pro-equality stance toward employees and patrons earned it a high-profile boycott by Southern Baptists. Episcopalians voted against allowing same-sex marriages, although narrowly. The notion of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military sparked debate.

According to Gallup polling, in 1996, 47 percent of Americans surveyed said gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be illegal. In 1997, 68 percent of Americans polled said same-sex marriages should not be legally valid. Just 37 percent of those polled in 1998 reported having openly gay or lesbian friends, relatives or co-workers.

So The Gazette’s forward-looking view was not shared by all.

“It’s astounding … to see The Gazette continue its editorial policy of promoting sodomy rights. The Gazette should be ashamed of this policy and reverse it, because the vast majority of its readers and employees deserve better than hearing it parrot this politics of perversion,” a reader wrote in a letter published four days later.

“Defending homosexual relations is the same as defending pedophilia, adultery and bestiality,” wrote another reader.

Times and attitudes, thankfully, have changed. But how about that prediction?

Clearly, progress over the last 20 years has been real and remarkable.

The Gallup Poll now shows 72 percent of Americans believe gay or lesbian relations should be legal, with 64 percent supporting legal same-sex marriages — a 20-point jump in seven years. By 2013, the respondents who knew gay or lesbian relatives, friends or co-workers climbed to 75 percent.

In 2007, Iowa added sexual orientation and gender identity to its civil rights code. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriages as unconstitutional. Sure, in 2010, religious conservatives angered by the court’s decision succeeded in voting three justices off the court. But in 2012, the push to oust a fourth justice failed.

By 2016, the remaining justices who took part in the Varnum marriage ruling faced no serious opposition. Opposition to marriage equality in Iowa steadily has been drained of its political potency.

A string of state and federal rulings followed in the years after Iowa’s ruling, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark June 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, making marriage equality the law of the land in all 50 states.

The military is no longer tangled up in “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Progressive businesses and institutions, instead of fearing boycotts, now use their clout to press for equality and against discriminatory state and local laws.

And yet, given our current national moment of cultural outrage, political division and backhanded backlash, The Gazette’s 1997 hope now rings overly optimistic on all fronts, including racial minorities and women. Folks in 1997 might be amazed at denigration’s stunning comeback in the 21st century.

And those gains described above now seem disturbingly fragile. President Donald Trump has said encouraging things about LGBT rights and his support for equality. But beyond the talk, his administration swiftly rescinded guidance to the nation’s schools on rights for transgender students. He’s stocked his administration with Republican officials who have been openly hostile to equality, from Vice President Mike Pence to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and beyond.

He gave a U.S. Supreme Court seat to Neil Gorsuch, who seemed to encourage state-level resistance to Obergefell in his dissent from a recent ruling striking at Arkansas’ refusal to name both same-sex spouses on birth certificates. If rumors of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement prove true, the conservative court’s swing vote on equality will become Chief Justice John Roberts, who strongly dissented on Obergefell.

LGBT Americans still are not covered by protections against discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act because Congress refuses to act. Opposition to equality remains dug in, in our nation’s capital and our statehouse. Forces pulling us backward have been emboldened by the Trumpian notion of turning back America’s cultural clock.

Polling suggests gay, bisexual and transgender people now feel less safe in America and less certain progress will continue.

So that soaring 1997 prediction couldn’t envision our 2017 turbulence.

But I still think its optimistic prognostication simply has been delayed, not denied. Clouds have gathered and the threats are real, but I remain convinced progress gained will endure, with more to come.

What will the picture look like 20 years from now? Heck, I can’t even predict what it will look like a week from now. We can only hope, sooner than later, we’ll again realize denigration, denial of civil rights and perpetuation of inequality are no formula for making America great, now or ever. It’s a recipe for ruin.

And we can hope, in 20 years, people will be amazed we almost forgot.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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