Some time around the sixth season of Will & Grace, a funny thing happened: The love that dare not speak its name became the love that could not shut up for a second and maybe talk about something else for a while.
Mike Pence has been cast as the purse-lipped Roger Chillingsworth of the Trump administration — the narrative of every Republican administration must include at least one grim puritan (John Ashcroft, Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer) and even the New York Times cannot transmute Donald J. Trump into one of those. And so the vice president has been made into the personification of one of the silliest purported scandals of the Trump administration.
This is Pride Month, during which organized homosexuality does its very best to remind the nation that some people have nonstandard sexual proclivities, that for some reason some people choose to organize both their personal identities and their communities around this fact, and to demand . . . well, that turns out to be a moving target, as surely is understood by anybody who remembers how fast we went from “Nobody is talking about gay marriage, you hysterical ninnies!” to “Gay marriage is a constitutionally mandatory thing, as James Madison obviously intended!” In the pre-Lawrence era, the urgent question was whether states could (and would) enforce the sodomy laws that made a crime of certain consensual sexual acts.
In 2019, the urgent question is whether U.S. embassies around the world will run the rainbow flag up the pole and see who salutes it.
Mike Pence said no. Not that anybody asked him, really. The matter was resolved within the State Department, through the usual processes. A few ambassadors asked for permission to fly the pride flag, and State declined to grant that permission. Others simply flew the flag on their own authority, acting in accord with the proverbial wisdom that it is easier to beg forgiveness than secure permission. But NBC News asked the vice president about the situation, and he affirmed that he believed the decision to have been correct. His argument contained no reference to scripture or moral theology, but rather relied on the straightforward belief that where sovereign U.S. diplomatic outposts are concerned, the only flag that should be flown is the one with the 50 stars and 13 stripes.
The Trump administration itself observes Pride Month, and Pence insisted that “we’re proud to be able to serve every American.” But: “The State Department indicated that on the flagpole of our American embassies that one flag should fly, and that’s the American flag, and I support that.” Not exactly Savonarola, there.
But, of course, there is outrage, and the outrage is directed at Pence, because that is what he is there for. So it’s “Pence backs ban” at the Washington Blade and “Pence defends Trump’s ban on pride flags at U.S. embassies” in the Guardian. Neither of those headlines is quite true, inasmuch as pride flags have not been banned, categorically. They simply will not be flown from the flagpole designed for the American flag, which is entirely appropriate.
The question of social attitudes and political arrangements regarding gay people (and the others represented by the rainbow flag) is an inherently political question, and embassies abroad are not a fitting venue for advertising, adjudicating, and contesting domestic political controversies. This would be as true if the ambassadors had requested to fly a banner advertising the right to life or the Second Amendment. Some things are properly reserved to other purposes.
The United States is a remarkably tolerant society; even before they were struck down by the Supreme Court, the laws criminalizing homosexual relations were an anachronism in a society which is broadly welcoming and accommodating of sexual differences. It is not universally so — the homicide rate among transgender African Americans is astounding. But the broad movement oriented toward advocacy for sexual minorities has become more hysterical and more insistent as the stakes have in general declined. This is characteristic of many similar political movements: We have much cleaner air and water today than we did a generation ago, but the environmental movement is six times as hysterical as it once was. It is a curious thing.
The gay-rights movement conceives of itself as a civil-rights movement patterned on the one that grew to prominence in the United States in the postwar era. It is not entirely wrong to do so. But there were, in effect, two civil-rights movements: The one led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. demanded the full integration of African Americans as Americans and an end to the social, economic, and political separation that had marked American society and marks it still; the other one, led by Malcolm X, conceived of African Americans as a separate people with separate aspirations, a loosely nationalistic movement that not only accepted separation but demanded more of it. The more fruitful of those movements recognized one flag and demanded that the republic for which it stands live up to its best principles. The less productive one flew many other flags.
Perhaps pride in one flag is enough, for all of our failures, as we move toward a still more perfect union.