When Rev. Jerry Falwell met with a group of gay Christians recently, he found himself in the unusual position of being on the receiving end of anti-gay protests. One protester — the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka — went so far as to say that Falwell would burn in hell for inviting gays to attend Sunday services in his church.
While Falwell was meeting with gays in Virginia, preparations were being made in Wyoming for the trial of one of the men accused of killing Matthew Shepard — a gay college student — in 1998. Shepard’s death spurred calls for the inclusion of violence against homosexuals in anti-hate crimes legislation. Many of those in power, both in Wyoming and in Washington, D.C., ignored or rejected these calls.
What impulse would lead one minister to consign another to hell merely for asking gays into his church? What impulse would lead large numbers of politicians to reject the idea of legal protection for gays?
Perhaps the same impulse — the same combination of religious fervor and fear of social collapse — that led to Prohibition. In the early twentieth century, conservative social and religious groups sought to remove alcohol from American society. Here in the late twentieth century, conservative social and religious groups are seeking to eradicate homosexuality. The crusade against “Demon Rum” has been replaced by a crusade against demonized sex.
This comparison is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In a 1998 interview, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made a similar connection when he compared homosexuals to alcoholics and other addicts. He said that people should try to help homosexuals “learn to control that problem.”
In his 1986 book “Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement,” Joseph Gusfield described Prohibition as an example of “coercive reform.” According to Gusfield, coercive reform “emerges when the object of reform is seen as an intractable defender of another culture, someone who rejects the reformer’s values and really doesn’t want to change.”
This description of American temperance advocates could just as easily be applied to current opponents of homosexuality. The assumption behind many anti-gay attitudes is that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” — a deliberate rejection of “family values” that can be “cured” through prayer and therapy. Gays must be encouraged to change — to “control that problem,” in Senator Lott’s words — and their lifestyle should be denied legal protection in order to make it less appealing.
Another similarity between anti-alcohol and anti-gay activism is an underlying belief that alcohol use or homosexuality is one part of a larger cultural collapse. The American temperance movement was above all a moral crusade. Temperance advocates repeatedly decried moral decay, the dissolution of family life, and the corruption of youth — for all of which they blamed drunkenness.
Opponents of homosexuality frequently sound similar themes. For example, Rev. Falwell himself created an outcry earlier in 1999 when he warned parents that the TV show “Teletubbies” was attempting to corrupt their children by including a character who could be considered gay.
The temperance movement — like today’s anti-gay activism — was an attempt to legislate and enforce public morality. Temperance advocates saw themselves as representatives of the true faith and the dominant culture. When they felt themselves under attack by forces of unbelief and social chaos, they reacted by making their own beliefs into the law of the land. The result was the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and the onset of Prohibition.
Anti-gay advocates have not gone as far as trying to pass a constitutional amendment banning homosexuality, but they have tried to marginalize gays as much as possible. Openly gay men and women cannot serve in the military. Gay teachers can expect to be threatened with dismissal if they reveal their sexual orientation, and if they are fired they have no legal recourse in most states. And as the Shepard case reveals, some people consider homosexuality to be a sufficient reason to kill someone.
Prohibition was eventually repealed, a victim of overzealous enforcement and social change. As laws against the manufacture and possession of alcohol were made stricter in the late 1920s, many people started to rethink the necessity of Prohibition. By the 1930s, alcohol no longer seemed to be a threat to the American way of life, and economic stagnation replaced moral decay as a pressing political issue.
Something similar may happen to anti-gay attitudes in the near future. As homosexuality gradually becomes more accepted, attitudes such as those expressed by Mr. Phelps appear more extreme. Coming generations of American political and social leaders likely will not see homosexuality as a threat to the nation. If the current political and social leaders go too far in their push to marginalize homosexuality, even those without strong feelings on the matter may begin to see gays as sympathetic — more sinned against than sinning.
Anti-gay activists should take the failure of Prohibition to heart and tone down their rhetoric and legal maneuvering. Otherwise, in a few decades, they may find themselves as politically insignificant as temperance activists are today.
Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.
[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail: Stephen.A.Allen2@nd.edu]