My friend Phil owns a hair salon in Minnesota.
I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. When the Mormon mother in Angels in America, seeing Prior as a “stereotypical homosexual,” asks if he’s a hairdresser, his quick reply is, “Well, it’d be your lucky day if I was!”
That wasn’t the case for another woman at Phil’s salon recently. As you may know, Minnesota—one of the first states in the union to pass nondiscrimination legislation for gays—has a referendum on the ballot this year that would amend the state constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage.
So when someone walked into Phil’s salon the other day sporting a “Yes on 1” button, he threw her out.
This incident was simply the straw that broke Phil’s otherwise flexible back. He’s been debating the issue right and left for weeks now, and inviting those who disagree to unfriend him on Facebook.
But somehow the message doesn’t always get through. Some people tell him he’s overreacting. Apparently they don’t understand why he’s so emotional at the prospect of losing his civil rights. When he tells the homophobes to fuck off, he’s accused of destroying civil discourse. In the spirit of “getting along,” he’s being asked to respect the fact that other people have different opinions on the subject. The way, I suppose, we have different opinions on whether the tax rate for the rich should be 35% or 37%, or whether trash should be collected on Wednesday or Thursday.
As someone whose civil rights were dismantled 4 years ago by the respectable voters of California, I know where my friend is coming from. A few days after the 2008 election, when I was marching in the streets with my friend Patrick to protest Prop 8, a woman leaned her head out a car window and said, sympathy dripping like treacle from her voice, “Why be so angry about it?” Oddly enough, I think she might have been on our side, but even she didn’t get why we were so pissed. She thought our anger was hurting us, and that we should just get over it. Patrick told her to fuck off, and she drove calmly away, no doubt toward some more hospitable hole in the sand.
I wonder if that woman—or Phil’s would-be client—would have been marching in the streets if the voters had outlawed her right to abortion, or her right to marry a man of a different race, or her right to vote. A hundred years ago, women in this country had none of those rights. I wonder if she would have been furious. I wonder if she would have understood the value of anger. I wonder if she would have understood the limits of civil discourse.
While I disagree with conservatives on a lot of things, I’m willing to engage with them on economic issues, or defense, or climate change. In my mind, those issues are all complex; they’re not black and white. There is room for compromise, room for assessment of theories, room for unexpected variables. Those positions are not founded upon hatred. Greed, perhaps, but not hatred.
Civil rights are a different story. They’re not about a gamble on results. If you choose one economic policy over another, the value of your choice will be seen down the road: either the economy gets better, or it doesn’t. Civil rights aren’t about the future; they’re about now. The consequences of women’s suffrage, or same-sex marriage, or color-blind hiring are not the point. The point is respect for human beings. Not their opinions, but their humanity.
So I’m with Phil and the rest of those in Minnesota who are fighting the good fight. If you don’t respect his humanity, then you don’t respect mine. And, in this one area at least, you don’t deserve civil discourse. You don’t get civil discourse unless all the parties engaged have civil rights.
Or, as Tony Soprano said when his mother put out a hit on him, “She’s dead to me.”
So let that woman with the hate button on her lapel search the streets for a hairdresser. May her hair grow greasier and stringier by the day. And for her sake, let’s hope her drugstore has a big supply of Miss Clairol. She’s on her own now.