A steady theme of my weekly column this year is the notion that the LGBT community has reached a tipping point and is winning the war. While the trajectory of history is clear, there will be another 10 to 20 years of hard-fought battles ahead. During this period, life for LGBT people will gradually improve, punctuated by unsettling instances of violence caused by the increased desperation of anti-gay activists.
The only way the LGBT community can lose is if America is overcome by extremism. Thus, it is disturbing to see the radicalization of our opponents, and watch as these once semi-nuanced organizations have simply gone nuts.
This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a landmark report on anti-gay defamation. The SPLC certified several new hate groups, including well-known organizations, such as The Family Research Council and The American Family Association.
A perfect example of alarming rhetoric came from FRC spokesman Peter Sprigg. Responding to a question about uniting gay partners during the immigration process, Sprigg said, "I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them."
Last February, Sprigg appeared on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews and said, "I think there would be a place for criminal sanctions on homosexual behavior."
"So we should outlaw gay behavior?" Matthews asked.
"Yes," Sprigg replied.
The American Family Association's Bryan Fischer claimed in a May 27 blog post that "homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews."
The Traditional Values Coalition, which was already an SPLC hate group, has a page on its website headlined "Homosexual Urban Legends," which ridiculously asserts without evidence that, "[t]he cold, hard fact is that teens who are struggling with homosexual feelings are more likely to be sexually molested by a homosexual school counselor or teacher than to commit suicide over their feelings of despair."
The words spewed by these organizations can create a climate that leads to violence, as they give unstable people a way to rationalize their aggression. "Hey, I'm just cleansing my community of immoral perverts," the deranged thug might think after being exposed to the hate speech disseminated by these organizations.
In its report, SPLC analyzed hate crime statistics based on FBI figures. The SPLC compared the rate of victimization for gay people to that of the other groups. The figures show that homosexuals are 2.4 times more likely to suffer a violent hate crime attack than Jews. In the same way, gays are 2.6 times more likely to be attacked than blacks; 4.4 times more likely than Muslims; 13.8 times more likely than Latinos; and 41.5 times more likely than whites. The bottom line, according to SPLC is that, "Homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime."
So, while life is improving for LGBT people, particularly in large cities and college towns, there is always the looming threat of random and capricious violence. Unlike heterosexuals, same-sex couples cannot enjoy holding hands in public without scanning their surroundings and analyzing, if only subconsciously, the risk of attack. If a person -- gay or straight -- does not fit gender norms, trouble is always lurking, fueled by the rhetoric of hate groups that inflame ignoble passions.
What truly concerns me are external issues that can lead to demagoguery and scapegoating. The high unemployment rate, a decaying infrastructure, the slow death of the American Dream, and political instability in Washington are factors that could undercut the hard-fought gains of the LGBT movement.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes that, "inequality in the United States has soared to levels comparable to those in Argentina six decades ago -- with 1 percent controlling 24 percent of American income in 2007."
Another Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, quoted a Nov. 4 speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said, "One-quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time. Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year. ... America's youth are now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment."
Even in the areas the United States is thought to excel in, we are falling behind. For example, the U.S. is ranked 22nd worldwide in Internet connection speed.
As many Americans grow angrier, poorer and fall further behind, they may begin to look for answers in the wrong places. Stepping in to fill the dangerous vacuum are political extremists who will point fingers and blame minorities to increase their grip on power.
The SPLC report is a sober reminder that we must remain vigilant in combating extremism. There are well-organized and wealthy hate machines waiting in the wings, poised to cause tremendous harm to LGBT people if the opportunity ever presents itself.