IN ONE OF THOSE cosmic coincidences that make life fascinating, Sen. Strom Thurmond died June 26, the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Bowers v.


The Death of Bigotry

IN ONE OF THOSE cosmic coincidences that make life fascinating, Sen. Strom Thurmond died June 26, the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, the infamous (to queers) ruling that had upheld the laws of Georgia and two dozen other states banning oral-genital contact, aka sodomy. The vast majority of people who engage in oral sex in America are heterosexual. However, such laws have invariably been used as a tool for the legal harassment of homosexuals.

One of the highlights of my checkered activist past came in 1987, a year after Hardwick, in helping organize civil disobedience on the steps of the Supreme Court. A thousand of us got arrested by AIDS-terrified cops in by far the liveliest and most creative protest I saw that decade. The S&M-ers brought their own handcuffs; Radical Faeries mocked the police with chants of "Your gloves don't match your shoes! Your gloves don't match your shoes!" It was undoubtedly the only time that Dykes on Bikes rode their Harleys up the steps (or at least a few of them) of the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time, there were no further legal challenges on the horizon; state legislatures weren't likely to change, either. The point, as with the exhilarating 750,000-person march two days previous, was to help reclaim our pride and dignity in a decade when many of my generation's young, gay men died, while the Reagan administration sneered. Several of the finest activists I ever worked with, people with whom I spent months planning that event, were dead within the year.

Such efforts worked. Cultural conservatives may fume and rail, but slowly, inexorably, gays have won the chance to live as they please. Television characters who are gay but not caricatures are now a staple. "Out" queers are now present throughout American life, including in Congress. Exceptions, like the military and men's sports, are only a matter of time.

When bigotry ends, it's the triumph not of demonstrations or of new laws or court rulings, but of replacing one generation's beliefs with newer, more inclusive ones. America's pot has melted this way for two centuries.

This was the difference between the Supreme Court's views on sodomy in 1986 and its 2003 mind-set. It's also what made Strom Thurmond's life so remarkable.

LOVE OR HATE his politics, Thurmond might have been the last of the Dixiecrats, a generation now mostly forgotten outside their home states: now-anachronistic names like Eastland and Stennis and Maddox, bitter advocates of Dixie's segregated ways. As Trent Lott recently helped us remember, outrage over World War II integration of the military helped inspire Thurmond's segregationist split from the Democrats to run for president in 1948.

For decades, Thurmond fought Negroes and championed bigots. A quarter-century after his presidential run, as a kid in South Carolina during desegregation, I knew Thurmond as our state's revenge on Yankees and their ways. Like the War Between the States itself, Thurmond would never die.

And for another 25 years, he remained a Senate fixture. But the reason he kept getting re-elected was because, somehow, he changed. He learned to respect, even admire, civil-rights leaders he'd fought so fiercely. Thurmond was a staunch conservative, but unlike fellow segregationist Jesse Helms, he ended his war with his state's blacks. He changed, and he admitted, in ways large and small, that his old ways had been wrong.

For social-justice advocates, these are often grim days. It seems as though Dubya and his fellow travelers are winning a concerted campaign to roll back a hundred years of progress. Suddenly, bullying is chic, and compassion, as Desmond Tutu famously observed of American politics, is a dirty word.

BUT FOR ALL the power neocons now wield in Washington and state capitals, they're losing their fight to preserve bigotry. Victories in cultural wars can't be documented in history books as to time and place. They come in people's hearts. Whatever America's future faults, blacks and other nonwhites will never return to the isolation and subservience hardwired into American society only half a century ago. Women will never be forced back into the kitchen. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, queers can be sexual without risking prison. That, too, could happen only because society itself changed.

Such cultural shifts enrage many neoconspaeans to individualism notwithstandingbecause they cannot be legislated, or controlled, or even much influenced by hate talk on the radio. Whichever moral code encourages their closed-mindedness, people who would rather stand in judgment than in solidarity cannot prevent the rest of us from exercising our hearts.

And sometimes, if they're courageous, the heartless discover that their hearts were there all along. Farewell, Sen. Thurmond.

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