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Why the Boycott Against Ted Cruz's Gay Hosts Is a Watershed Moment

05/04/2015 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016
AP Photo/Richard Drew

For almost two weeks a boycott has been in full force against two gay hoteliers, Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass, who hosted anti-gay U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), now running for the 2016 GOP nomination for the presidency, at their Central Park South apartment. One of them boasted about it on Facebook a couple of days later, seemingly oblivious to the backlash he'd face. In a matter of days, Cruz, one of the most vocally anti-gay members of the U.S. Senate, introduced two bills aimed at blunting same-sex marriage, including a constitutional amendment. Organizations such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the New York City Gay Men's Chorus have canceled fundraisers at the men's hotel, Out NYC, and the Fire Island Property Owners Association is under pressure to take a stand against the men, who own businesses in the Fire Island Pines, including a nightclub, bars and a hotel.

The most telling thing that Reisner said at the outset, quoted by The New York Times in response to the backlash, perhaps hoping the entire affair would blow over, was that marriage equality is "done -- it's just going to happen," as if it doesn't matter anymore and the men could pursue support of Cruz on other issues upon which they agree, such as his right-wing policies toward Israel. As the uproar grew, the men released a statement, changing course, saying that the evening provided "the opportunity to have a candid conversation with Senator Ted Cruz on why he should rethink his view on gay marriage," as if this was all about reaching out to the other side. When that didn't quell the outrage, and with a protest by LGBT activists soon to happen in front of their hotel on 42nd Street last week, the men offered a full-blown but insincere apology that was all about trying to save their businesses, with Reisner declaring he was "shaken to the bone." Indeed.

Reisner's first words revealed his true belief, and they've been echoed by some gay activists and some gay pundits in the media in recent days. Jamie Kirchick of The Daily Beast called those who support the boycott "illiberal" for enforcing "groupthink" and criticized Reisner and Weiderpass for apologizing. And he used Reisner's same initial logic as the excuse for hosting Cruz: "Gays have won the cultural argument and are likely about to win the legal argument definitively this summer, when the Supreme Court is expected to find in favor of a national right to same-sex marriage."

This is what I call, in the first chapter of my new book, "victory blindness," and many LGBT people, including even many activists, often succumb to it in this heady time of big wins. In fact, every one of us can and does succumb at various moments, wanting to only see the victories and not face the deeply embedded homophobia and transphobia still pervading our culture, and slough off the decades-old political movement still organizing against us and still quite determined. After all these years of callous indifference and outright hatred, it's easy to become spellbound by the wins, telling ourselves a bedtime story about how we've reached the promised land.

But Ted Cruz and other anti-gay conservatives are fighting us at every turn to keep us from getting full civil rights, and every other announced or would-be GOP presidential contender publicly supports the effort. There are no federal protections for LGBT people, as we see stories every day of people thrown out of restaurants, shops, and taxis, or fired from their jobs, simply for being gay or transgender. And our enemies are now on a "religious freedom" crusade, casting themselves as victims, intent on pushing bills to create exemptions to any laws that do ban discrimination. Just looking at Texas, Cruz's home state, there are more than 20 anti-gay bills that conservatives are intent on getting out of committees in the legislature in the next three weeks. The goal is to try out many differently worded bills, hoping some will stick and get support from the larger public.

The most pernicious thing about victory blindness is that it inspires a change in tactic. We hear calls that we should be "magnanimous" in our wins, and that full equality is "inevitable." We're told to change our "tone" and be gracious. New York Times columnist David Brooks scolded us to do just that back during the Indiana debacle a few weeks ago. And gay writer Andrew Sullivan and even some progressive gay activists did the same last year when anti-gay Brendan Eich resigned from Mozilla, developer of the Firefox Web browser, under pressure because he refused to disavow his donations to the Prop 8 campaign and even to virulently anti-gay Pat Buchanan. That criticism was launched against LGBT activists even though not one LGBT group or prominent individual had actually called for Eich to resign; the pressure came mostly from other, gay-friendly companies with which Mozilla does business, and from developers who work with the company. Nonetheless, Sullivan helped the right wing whip up a campaign against what Newt Gingrich called "the new fascism."

And now still others succumbing to victory blindness are doing the same thing again. In the Washington Blade Mark Lee chastised activists for "attempting to outlaw political opinion," with the headline of his opinion piece charging that many of us are really "not ready to win," because we should be embracing those who would reach out and work with Ted Cruz and should be fostering "an appropriate sense of communal celebration and circumspect congeniality."

But that is the fallacy that victory blindness promotes. It makes people believe the best strategy moving forward is to be nice and respectful -- just when we actually need to be as confrontational as ever. And that allows the backlash to organize, giving it a space to grow, allowing our enemies to use some of us as cover. This has happened to other movements, and it will happen to us if we allow it to happen. A week before the Ted Cruz event, Weiderpass organized a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), another vocal anti-gay Republican. As long as people like Johnson and Cruz are working against LGBT equality, none of us should be giving them any cover, let alone raising money for them. We surely don't have the luxury to join them on other issues with which some of us may agree, not when they're trying to make us second-class citizens.

And that's why the boycott against the hoteliers is so important and really is a watershed moment. We've got to make it clear to the enemies of equality that we are a force with increasing public support, moving full speed ahead and accepting nothing less than equality. We've demanded and received support from major corporations, who've put pressure on politicians to refrain from an anti-gay agenda. There thus can be no double standards. Now we must send a message to those among our own -- particularly those of enormous privilege -- who've succumbed to victory blindness and let them know that they too cannot support our enemies. No abject apology can undo the message that Reisner and Weiderpass have telegraphed to anti-LGBT forces in the GOP. And we have to make sure no one does it again. This is not the time for any of us to pull back.

Michelangelo Signorile's new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.