GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR—OR NOT
By Steve Kluger
With advocacy groups and state courts pushing for new laws to bar same-gender marriage, gay adoption, and
civil unions—even though other nations are opening their doors (and their hearts) to the same issues—the global
image that the United States has been laundering for well over fifty years seems to have developed ring-around-
the-collar. In fact, the Emperor is stark naked. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying
On Dec. 29, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed America “The Arsenal of Democracy.” And he probably meant
it. After all, he was rich, he was popular, his wife did all the grunt work, he’d just been elected to an
unprecedented third term, and the Republicans detested him. What could be more democratic than that?
On the other hand, it might have been a second martini talking.
When FDR signed Executive Order 9066 just over a year later, The Arsenal of Democracy promptly consigned all
West Coast Americans of Japanese descent to prison camps. These euphemistic “internees” were given 48
hours to dispose of their belongings and to terminate the lives they’d been living for as long as half a century. No
other options were afforded.
African Americans, too, had always encountered a similar paucity of choices: To be set on fire in their own
Oklahoma neighborhoods, to be lynched in the South, to be beaten to a pulp in the North, or to develop hot licks
on a trumpet and change their names to Louis Armstrong.
But that was a long time ago. The Arsenal of Democracy doesn’t visibly hate African Americans or citizens of
Japanese descent any more. That’s because it inadvertently mined the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgen-
dered community—and discovered it had struck the eternal mother lode. Big mistake. Never oppose a minority
that knows how fabulous it is.
The modern gay rights movement was born shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New
York’s West Village, when a bar full of patrons decided they’d had enough of police harassment. Led by a group
of drag queens in high heels, the riots went on for two full days—and it was the cops who finally gave in when they
agreed to stop harassing gay bars.
Credit the gay Baby Boomers who started the ball rolling. Since then, we’ve overcome such formidable enemies
as Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and the Supreme Court; we learned how to take care of ourselves and each other
during the AIDS pandemic when a silent Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the health crisis until thousands
of us were dead; we earned our own martyrs and heroes like openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk
and intrepid writer-activist Larry Kramer; and we’ve re-drafted the book on Respect.
For every same-gender marriage performed in Massachusetts, there are at least as many demands to amend
that state’s constitution to the contrary. For every proposed high school Gay-Straight Alliance designed to
promote understanding amongst the kids, there’s always some crackpot who claims a secret homosexual agenda
to recruit children. Comments such as these can hurt like hell, especially when 37 years of relentless abuse has
worn down your armor.
However, unlike our African American forbears or the Issei and Nisei imprisoned in the World War II internment
camps, none of whom was any more welcome elsewhere than they were here, we may be the first persecuted
minority that has the option to emigrate from the Arsenal of Democracy to other nations where we and our
spouses will be recognized and embraced as the best-dressed refugees you’ve ever seen—much as the hounded
immigrants from Eastern Europe once set their sights on Ellis Island. Indeed, the number of countries that
sanction same-gender marriage or civil unions is becoming its own multiplication table: Denmark. Norway.
Sweden. Iceland. Finland. The Netherlands. Belgium. Great Britain. Spain. France. Luxembourg. Argentina.
New Zealand. And, of course, Canada. Twenty years ago, we were losing our friends to AIDS. These days we’re
losing them to Vancouver and Toronto.
“There’s something to be said for Canadian politeness and that inbred sense of live-and-let-live,” observes
Richard Labonte, a journalist and bookseller who moved from San Francisco to a farm in Ontario with his partner
of 14 years, Dean. “When we went to the nearest small town for a marriage license, the male clerk remarked that
we were the first same-sex couple to apply, and he congratulated us.” Dean, born and raised in the homophobic
Deep South, admits that after two years in Canada, he still finds the friendliness and acceptance unnerving.
To be sure, there’s an ethical dilemma here: In another handful of decades, same-gender marriage and full
equality for non-heterosexual Americans will have been locked into place—and history will regard our one-time
opponents as shamefully as it now views Bull Connor, Orval Faubus, Lester Maddox, and other legendary
Apostates of Hate. But our predecessors had no alternative except to stay put and fight, proving their birth rights
as Americans over and over again until it was no longer necessary—while gay middle-aged Boomers are able to
plan our remaining 20 or 25 years under democracies that actually want us. Are we allowing the gay-bashers to
win? Do we have the moral authority to move on and bequeath the battles to the next generation? Or do we
belong here in the trenches until we drop?
One fact is certain: We still have the freedom to choose. That’s in the Constitution.
Like a lot of things.