In its perpetual race to catch-up with expressed ideals of liberty and inclusiveness, the American culture has not had an easy time of it. This country has absorbed waves of new influences across its history as a nation; not so much by welcome assimilation as by the forced addition of new flavors into an evolving mix. Nothing has been given -- each new seasoning has had to push its way into the fusion, over the objections of earlier staples. So it has been with a series of immigrant, race and gender-based interests that have pursued their rightful places as full participants in the promises of this society.
Movements are messy and only directional, and too much can be made of individual events, but there comes a point of maturity in the progress of each successful crusade. The March on Washington may have been an event with such meaning, in terms of a declaration that it was here to stay and commanded nationwide respect. Two recent occurrences and their very different responses suggest that the gay rights movement has reached that point I believe the correct, very different result was achieved in each case.
The first was the recent demise of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. He was a dedicated hate-monger, whose followers famously brandished those "God Hates Fags!" placards. That tiny band of Kansans picketed various events across the country, most notably military funerals ("Thank God for IEDs" read another favorite sign), to provoke media coverage of their message about America having lost its way in terms of tolerance.
Phelps' passing might have been cause for celebration in the gay community, and for turn-about picketing of his interment rites. Instead, the response was muted "Sorry for your loss" was the only funereal placard message widely circulated. This post from George Takei (Mr. Sulu to you Trekkies) seems to have captured the spirit of the response: "I take no solace or joy in this man's passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral .… He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end."
The second event was the abrupt resignation of Brian Eich, who had been very recently appointed CEO of Mozilla (maker of the Firefox browser program). A furious storm of protest had erupted on social media regarding his 2008 donation to the successful 'Yes on Prop 8' initiative campaign that briefly read marriage limitations into the CA state constitution.
That outcome provoked a backlash against "the intolerance and hypocrisy of gays who demand our tolerance," and concerns over a presumed "abridgment of Mr. Eich's freedom of speech." Leading gay pundit Andrew Sullivan joined the fray, inveighing against the "mob rule" that led to Eich's likely-forced departure. All those objections get it wrong.
As to the intolerance point, we're not talking here about symmetrical viewpoints. This isn't a matter of poTAYto versus poTAHto. It is a civil rights struggle, in which there are right and wrong answers. Those who call on the gay rights community to 'accept' Mr. Eich's vote-with-his-dollars fail to appreciate that crucial distinction.
Put it this way if Mr. Eich had contributed instead to the Klan, or even to Westboro Baptist Church, would his expression have been equally deserving of tolerance? If you can say 'no' to that, but 'yes' to his opposition to marriage equality, then congratulations: you have achieved the enlightenment of those who once declared that 'some of their best friends were black' (but would cloister their daughters before contemplating racial intermarriage).
The fault here lies not in anyone's intolerance of what is wrong, but in some other folks' ongoing under-appreciation of what is wrong.
Further, there is simply no application of any "free speech" argument here. None. Our hallowed Free Speech guarantees only apply as against Government actions that might limit expressions of various kinds (including intensely unpopular or reprehensible ones). Government must mind-and-tend a free marketplace of ideas; individual people (organic OR corporate, my friend) have no such duties. The difference is fundamental there has never been a "free speech" right in the private sector that makes it immune from consequences (If you don't believe that, try exercising those sacred rights by telling your boss what you REALLY think of her).
Here, the consequences of Mr. Eich's Prop 8 expression (for, as we all know by now, money = speech) led to his resignation under pressure. His ability to lead the company was as compromised as if some other personal background matter had come to light that was not directly relevant to his technical facility with software (like, I don't know maybe devil-worship, or a dog-fighting hobby -- or maybe he's even a Yankees fan). Would anyone question that the Board might look askance that those things as disqualifying him from any important leadership position, much less CEO?
Or, again put another way, we are all aware (aren't we?) that in states where sexual orientation is not protected against job discrimination, his at-will employment could have been terminated with no consequences for homosexuality, or even making an anti-Prop-8 donation? Businesses often put restrictions on the off-duty activities of their employees, lest they reflect poorly on the company. It is freedom of contract, not freedom of speech that is implicated here and if the Mozilla Board forced him out, it is nearly certain that they had a right to do so.
Finally, I think Sullivan is off-the-mark, too. A big reason that both the Phelps and Eich outcomes demonstrate a mature gay rights movement is that one situation looks to the past, and the other to the future. Fred Phelps was gone, and most of his group's ardor will die with him. A celebration would amount to a mean-spirited flogging of a dead lout. He does not matter. Eich's tenure, however, was just about to begin. Those who believed strongly that they did not want to report to a leader who would devalue their lives did move swiftly the 'web'll do that but not hysterically.
This was not a mob, but an exercise of new, hard-won power by a resolute group who reminded us that they, and their evolving rights to full participation in the American culture, both matter.