If there’s one word to describe the progress of gay rights in this country, ‘frustrating” captures the gist of it. In March, the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, which rescinded the rights for gay people to marry. A state-wide referendum to legalize gay marriage failed in Maine two weeks ago, making it the 31st state in the Union to oppose same-sex marriages in a popular vote.

And last Tuesday, the State Senate in New York which is so dysfunctional its members probably couldn’t approve pay raises for themselves postponed a vote on gay marriage because it couldn’t round up 32 votes.

It was by mistake that I stumbled upon the profile of State Senator Ruben Diaz in the New Yorker last Tuesday. The piece described Diaz as the Senate’s most outspoken advocate against gay marriage; as a senator who was forced to resign from the Civilian Complaint Review Board for suggesting that the Gay Games would spread HIV and encourage homosexuality; as a Senator who sued New York City to shut down a high school for gay and transgender students; and as a senator who has two gay brothers, a gay granddaughter and multiple gay colleagues, all of whom he has expressed candid love and support for.

This Senator’s logic is mind-boggling.

Why did I describe the evolution of gay rights as frustrating? History. We fought hard for women’s rights in the ’20s and African-American rights in the ’60s. In hindsight, separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites were dumb. Not letting women vote? That was stupid too.

And yet here we are in 2009. You, Mr. Diaz, a 67-year-old African American, who undoubtedly saw the bigotry of the ’60s and experienced the triumphs of African American equality. Your leader, and my leader, President Barack Obama, is a 48-year-old African American who wouldn’t be in office if it weren’t for the long civil rights struggle one that continues in various forms today.

But Mr. Diaz, it isn’t just the failed history. We’re all to blame. Before I befriended anyone or knew of anyone who was gay, my attitude toward the LGBT community was apathetic. I could care less whether same-sex marriage was outlawed or not. ‘Not my problem.”
My language, Mr. Diaz, was insulting. Bad grade on my math test?… ‘Ahh, that’s gay.” My beloved Cleveland Cavaliers lost a close game?… ‘The ref made a gay call.”

It wasn’t until I realized that some of the most important people in my life were gay, Mr. Diaz, that I realized how out of line I really was. Ask me now whether I’m apathetic toward gay marriage or whether my language was insulting.

Many of my friends and I have learned our lessons. Many more have not. But a growing number of us, your constituents of New York, know now that anyone in the LGBT community has absolutely no reason to be treated differently. Mr. Diaz, it was the last civil rights struggle that enabled you to run for office. The thousands of poor people in the Bronx who you tirelessly advocate for are more than appreciative of that.

But it’s your obligation, as a beneficiary of the advancement of civil rights, to help advance the rights of others. And if you think I’m wrong, Mr. Diaz, go home and ask your brother.

Willis is a member of
the class of 2011.

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