The Idaho Legislature may have had its say about gay marriage--a resounding "let the voters figure it out"--but Boise's gay community isn't ready to admit defeat.
Early Monday morning, a tiny group of activists fanned out across downtown Boise to spread a message that they knew would be misunderstood by many, and would undoubtedly piss off people near and dear to their cause. These activists adhered over 150 small white signs, each reading "Heterosexuals Only," to every bench and fountain they could find, and put one in each bathroom in the Idaho Statehouse. From the color to the typeface--sans serif, if you're interested--these signs were made to resemble the "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs that were a common sight in the American south just a few decades ago. The date of the act was also significant--it was the 41st anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Alabama, where hundreds of police officers wielding bullwhips and nightsticks tore into peaceful civil-rights protesters who were trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On Monday afternoon, the exhausted planners of this local demonstration, a man and a woman who wish only to be known as "D" and "J," sat down with BW to discuss the historical significance of their signage, the implications of the Legislature's decision, and to challenge the local gay community and its friends to rise up.
Boise Weekly: Explain for me the inspiration for this particular demonstration.
D: If you think about it, what it seems to me is that the Legislature has decided that they're going to allow a majority of people to victimize a minority. There is a historical model for that in this country. It wasn't right in that time, but we did it in that time. And the Legislature has decided to do not what is right, not what is just, but to do what would be the most expedient thing for them, which would be to let a majority, a simple majority, discriminate.
J: And in terms of timing, today is the 41st anniversary of a civil rights movement milestone, the march to Selma. That's certainly not a new correlation.
D: The analogy to that historical period functions well, but I think people resist it because that issue is not completely settled in this country. There is not race-based equity in this country. And because it is an ongoing struggle, it feels personal to some people, and it might feel that we're stepping on some toes by adopting a language that's already established. I would say that this language doesn't belong exclusively to that struggle, although the icon that we selected, the sign and the letterforms, certainly belong to that period.
You can find many overt images of text-based discrimination. I'm from Texas, and one point in Texas, people older than me would have seen signs in bars and stores saying, "No Mexicans." My parents are from Massachusetts, and my mother's family, because they're Irish, would gladly tell you there were signs saying, "No dogs and no Irish." There is a broad history of that kind of discrimination in this country. This is a time when you'd think we'd be all past that, but the Legislature has just operated in that historical model.
J: And the proponents of this legislation use a slippery slope theory, saying, "If we allow gay people to marry, what's next? Then they're going to start marrying dogs and automobiles"--which is ridiculous. But this is a slippery slope theory on the other end. If we're denied the right to marry, what's next? What rights will we then be denied?
D: We can find a model for how this will happen in other states. Already there are proposals to bar adoption by gay people. There's no end of harm that can come by establishing this precedent.
So when someone who is opposed to gay marriage sees this, what response do you envision them having?
J: I would hope that they would see this and say, "That's just going too far." Then it might cause them to consider that the point we're already at--maybe that's too far. I mean, clearly, segregating bus benches and bathrooms is going too far. That's preposterous. At least I hope that's what they're thinking. I hope no one saw the sign and thought, "Well, that's a good idea!"
D: But there is a language that it's very effective for one side of this discussion to use. They would say that they're not discriminating at all, they're just trying to preserve an institution. So that allows a kind of language that is very dangerous. In my mind, there is no harm from human beings being allowed to love people. It doesn't diminish someone else's institution. So when people use that kind of language, and they feel like they're protecting something, I hope that when they see this text-based information, and they see that model, and they see themselves in relation to that, I hope they choose to step back from that. Because it really is a precipice. It's a dangerous place to leap into, and I don't want this place to go into that place.
When I was in graduate school, every time someone would meet me, the first thing they'd say is, "I've never met anyone from Idaho." Then they'd say the only thing they knew about Idaho is that there are potatoes and hate groups--because of the Aryan organizations. And I'd tell people all the time, "It's not true. It's an amazing place. It's beautiful. The people are lovely. And I feel like when things like this happen, I would be less sure in answering. If Idaho goes that way, if we go that far, it kind of validates the idea that the world has about us.
J: As I came down here for lunch, I saw that most of the signs had already been removed. Very few of them were remaining, and we had put them on all the benches downtown. I imagine that many of the signs were removed by queer-friendly organizations or individuals because they didn't understand the messaging, and it could have galvanized them. That's not what we wanted to do, but we knew that would probably occur. Mostly, we just wanted to open up a dialogue and encourage thoughts and encourage action.
D: It really is fine with me if somebody who is gay or gay-friendly looked at that sign and said, "No way in hell," and took it off. I feel good about that, because I think that it would be easy to be passive, since we don't have the right to marry now. It would be easy to say, "They're going to insult us a bit more, so what?" But really, I think that we, the people who have more to risk, have to take a stand. We have to understand that it is an attack, based on who we are as individuals, and that can't be allowed. And our allies have to do the same thing. Straight people need to come out of the closet and say, "I've got a gay brother, or sister, or father, or mother, or daughter, or friends or co-workers. And this attacks them, so it attacks me. We're a small minority as homos. We're not gong to able to fight this ourselves. We need our friends.
Is this the end, or do you have more action planned?
D: It's not the end of it. I think you're going to see a variety of above-ground actions--and by action, I mean, when a straight ally writes a letter to the editor, or when gay people out themselves and say, "Yes, you work with me, and you're attacking me." I think those are actions, and we want to empower that kind of action. And I think there are going to be some more interesting, covert actions as well.
Is this sort of underground action going to be more prevalent than it was 12 years ago, when Proposition 1 was creating a similar kind of anti-gay dialogue in Idaho?
D: I hope so, because this is a more insidious attack. It's dressed up in really challenging language, so we're gong to have to work a lot harder. That's the maddening thing: Why should you have to fight for your life? I have a busy life, and the idea of interjecting this into my existence is just painful to me. But what choice do I have? If this city or state started attacking people of color, or overtly legislating against women, we couldn't go along with our daily lives. We have to respond.