On Wednesday, February 26, Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed S.B. 1062, a bill that would have helped Arizona businesses deny service to gay customers on religious grounds. Brewer’s veto and the political controversy surrounding the bill illustrated several important developments in the gay rights movement.
First, US society is finally beginning to condemn religious opposition to gay rights; most of us now recognize that people who oppose gay equality, for any reason, are bigoted. Though S.B. 1062 lacked explicit references to sexual orientation, most of the bill’s opponents correctly recognized it as an attempt to sanction discrimination against the LGBT population. And while proponents of such discrimination continue to lie about their anti-gay animus and S.B. 1062’s impact, their influence on public perception is dwindling. A recent poll conducted jointly by ABC News and The Washington Post found both that only 28% of Americans support the discrimination allowed by S.B. 1062 and that only 34% of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage. Gay rights have “transformed from being a fringe, politically toxic position just a few years ago to a virtual piety that must be affirmed in decent company. This demonstrates why [defeatism is misguided]: even the most ossified biases and entrenched institutional injustices can be subverted.”
Second, the Republican Party platform is no longer uniformly anti-gay. Not only did Brewer veto the bill, but John McCain and Mitt Romney also spoke out against S.B. 1062. Mainstream Republican politicians at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) “skirted around gay issues during the three-day gathering outside Washington, D.C” and focused on other issues instead. Republican Party operatives seem to understand that opposition to gay rights is becoming more and more politically disadvantageous.
Third, Brewer’s veto indicates the potential impact of voting with our dollars. The Hispanic National Bar Association, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, the NFL, and a plethora of large businesses including Apple, American Airlines, and Intel began to voice opposition to S.B. 1062 as pressure mounted from customers, clients, fans, and nonprofits. Brewer’s anti-gay history suggests she only vetoed the bill because of the intense economic pressure to do so.
These developments are cause for optimism about the future for LGBT rights. I bet a friend seven years ago that gay marriage will be legal in all fifty states by the end of 2023, and I am currently feeling pretty good about my chances. However, proponents of gay rights must avoid calling business interests our “greatest ally in [the] LGBT equality pursuit.”
As Jon Stewart noted recently on The Daily Show, S.B. 1062 was “morally repugnant” and should have been vetoed based on ethical criteria alone. Yet few opponents of the bill made ethics their central argument against it; critics of S.B. 1062 instead focused more on its economic impact. That business interest has begun to align with the interests of the LGBT community is positive, but as Jeffrey Toobin mentioned in a recent piece for The New Yorker, that alignment only achieves the desired outcome “[w]hen, as with expressing opposition to S.B. 1062, it costs business nothing.”
In other words, it’s easy for businesses and politicians to support gay equality and non-discrimination because doing so furthers their economic and political self-interest. Gay rights have become an issue that, like big philanthropy, “allows [politicians and business leaders] to preen as…great liberal champion[s] to…left-leaning voters, all while…simultaneously press[ing] an anti-union, economically conservative agenda that moneyed interests support.” We should certainly celebrate the success of the gay rights movement, but we must simultaneously be careful not to enable what David Sirota calls “a bait and switch whereby social issues are increasingly used to perpetuate the economic status quo.”
So before we extol the virtues of the NFL for its opposition to S.B. 1062, let’s remember that the league and its owners routinely rob taxpayers. Let’s remember, before we get too excited about Jan Brewer, that she supports racial profiling. And let’s remember, before we pat the Arizona Chamber of Commerce on the back for defending the rights of the underprivileged, that the organization frequently lies about the impact of minimum wage laws. Instead, let’s honor the success of the gay rights movement by calling its support what it is – the only ethical choice a business can make. Let’s simultaneously demand that politicians and business leaders elevate ethics over greed in every other policy arena.