In doing research for this issue’s cover story, “Culture War (reprise),” I found myself browsing through the Q-Notes archives. Being the history geek I am, I didn’t much mind what others might call a menial, humdrum task; in fact, it was quite interesting.

The “Angels in America” controversy in Charlotte took place in 1996. At exactly the same time in history, states around the nation, including North Carolina, and legislators at the federal level were debating and passing so-called “Defense of Marriage” legislation. It was on June 20, 1996, that North Carolina joined the still-growing list of states defining “marriage” and its civil and legal benefits and privileges to heterosexual couples only.

I wasn’t surprised by the history lesson. I’ve long known about the drawn-out legal and political battles of the 1990s. It all started with Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruling against that state’s decision to deny marriage to gay or lesbian couples. In the aftermath, conservative legislators around the nation hurried to jam through anti-gay legislation protecting citizens from something that wasn’t even legal yet.

Wrote Q-Notes staff member Eagle White in the June 29, 1996 issue, “State Senator James Forrester and the rest of the General Assembly can finally relax a bit — North Carolina now has a law on the books which says that marriages performed in other states between persons of the same gender will not be recognized as legally valid in this state. Since no state currently allows unions between same-sex partners, Forrester may take great pride in knowing that he has skillfully sponsored and nurtured a bill which essentially accomplishes…nothing.”

By the way, I’m sure that name sounded familiar. James Forrester is still around and up to his usual anti-gay tricks. For the past several legislative sessions, he’s been the primary force behind another anti-family measure. Ten years later it seems Forrester still isn’t happy with the state of marriage in North Carolina. Unlike the legislation in the 1990s, this time the stakes are much higher. If Forrester gets his way, the Old North State will enshrine the Defense of Marriage Act language and discrimination into our Constitution.

What else didn’t surprise me when looking through our archives was how similar the past is to the present. The same elected officials, conservative groups and advocacy groups were all involved then as they are now. The language used by both sides of the argument were the same then as they are now.

It seems we somehow lost the chance to learn valuable lessons in the 1990s. According to a poll conducted by the Human Rights Campaign in the midst of the fight over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, an overwhelming majority of the Americans surveyed thought there were “more pressing issues facing Congress” than that of same-sex marriage. We hear the same arguments now and they still don’t work.

Speaking on the results of the 1996 poll, the Human Rights Campaign Communications Director David M. Smith said, “These results indicate the Republican strategy of using the gay marriage issue as a political strategy is failing to gain traction with voters and has the potential to backfire.”

Except, the strategy did gain traction and it didn’t backfire.

Flash forward to 2004, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of several same-sex couple’s desires to be married in that state. All the groundwork and anti-gay legislation laid down across the nation in the 1990s fully enabled the religious right to swing back into action. Thus began our national LGBT community’s failing fight to keep anti-family, anti-gay marriage amendments out of state legislatures and off election ballots.

Then: A state court ruling sparks the DOMA craze.

Now: Several state court rulings result in immediate, anti-gay backlash.

It’s not as if this easily apparent lesson wasn’t known to our community’s leaders. Most of them are well older than me — they knew full well what happened in the 1990s and didn’t have to be reminded of it by looking through some old newspapers. Why weren’t the lessons from then utilized to stave off danger now? Pushes for marriage equality resulted in huge losses for our community in the 1990s. The same legal pushes for marriage resulted in much of the same setbacks again in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

I think it’s time to lay low on the marriage issue. The lawsuits need to stop and the Prop. 8-inspired “Join the Impact”-style activism and advocacy focus on more important, more easily attainable matters. Let’s focus on employment non-discrimination, hate crimes, safe schools, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and health care.

We’d do well for ourselves to take a look at our history every now and then. That’s what history is for: learning and not repeating the same mistakes over and over, expecting a different result.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

One reply on “Revisiting our past could help us now”

  1. I commented in our Reconciling Methodists Network meeting several years ago that the backlash against gay marriage would set the movement back several years, and as you said, that is what has happened. It is less a question of morality and refusal to “compromise” than an exercise in practical politics and what goals are realistically possible. We need to focus on ENDA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to immediately stop the damage that is being done to millions of lives. The emotional activism of “all or nothing” is self-defeating and one of the failings of the GLBT national organizations.

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