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Anti-gay backlash a stage on the way to social justice

By Jane Velez-Mitchell, Special to CNN
  • Jane Velez-Mitchell says recent anti-gay violence and remarks point up surge in homophobia
  • But, she says, the "social cancer" of such views is revealed in subtle ways, too
  • Gay issues are in the news; people are forced to face their biases. It can get ugly, she says
  • Writer: Backlash a stage toward social justice; we should ensure we're not complicit in hate

Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell hosts "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell," a topical event-driven show with a wide range of viewpoints that airs every night at 7 p.m. ET on HLN.

(CNN) -- A Rutgers University student commits suicide after being emotionally violated when his sexual encounter with another man is secretly streamed online. Tyler Clementi jumps in the Hudson River, and there is a general outcry accompanied by a superficial soul searching.

Why is this happening? Where did this come from?

Really? Seriously? Isn't it rather obvious that this cruel prank is but a reflection of a much larger social cancer? Just turn on the TV or check out a newspaper headline.

"Alarm Over Homosexual 'Brainwash' " screamed Monday's New York Post. It was quoting Carl Paladino, a mainstream Republican candidate for governor of New York who said homosexuality is not an "equally valid" option and attacking his opponent for marching in a gay pride parade.

A few articles in, another headline reads "Anti-Gay Riot Hits Serbia Parade" about Serbians who threw Molotov cocktails and stun grenades to disrupt a gay pride parade in Belgrade.

I look up from the newspaper to see my TV broadcasting a perp walk of teenage men from the Bronx accused in a gay-bashing rampage. Cops say during the hate crime, two men suspected of being gay were sodomized with a wooden stick.

All of this came on the heels of a homophobic attack, allegedly by two Staten Island men, in the restroom of the famed Stonewall Inn in the West Village of Manhattan.

That's the very spot where the gay rights movement was born after a so-called "morals raid" by cops back in 1969 inspired gays to take to the streets in outrage. I have been to the Stonewall several times, and this attack gave me chills. They all do.

It's easy to point in horror at these over-the-top expressions of hate. It's a lot harder to take an honest inventory of troubling attitudes toward gays, which some Americans reveal in more subtle ways such as the ubiquitous putdown "that's so gay!"

I click on my BlackBerry, and a friend writes about her fears of revealing her sexual orientation while on a job interview. She writes, "I paused right before I said the word 'gay.' Yes, I was scared. I want this job badly, I do. I need this job. I said to myself, though, if they aren't going to accept me for my truth, then it isn't for me. I said the word gay and felt good about it."

I don't know whether she got the job. But her fear is real, and sadly it is justified.

I'm shocked at what's happening lately because I came out as gay late in life -- just a few years ago -- at a time when it seemed there was much more acceptance.

I encountered no discrimination from any quarters as a result and was thrilled and filled with hope that human beings might actually be evolving to the point where they can apply that wonderful notion of "don't tread on me" to sexual orientation.

Clearly this new wave of violence comes partly because equality for gays is a subject that's dominating the news.

"Don't ask, don't tell," gay marriage: These issues have put the situation in everyone's face and, therefore, biases that might have been uttered only behind closed doors are now surfacing with a vengeance.

Paladino used anti-gay remarks for politics

The backlash may also be in response to the enormous strides the LGBT community has made in recent years. The success of Ellen DeGeneres, who came out more than 10 years ago and remains very popular, is one example. It's inspired a growing number of Americans to come out of the closet, too.

Today, it seems almost everyone knows a friend or relative who is gay. Our former vice president, Dick Cheney, whose daughter is a lesbian. That has caused a lot of Americans to open their minds and hearts. But, for others, it's turned a hypothetical antagonism into something very personal and visceral.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill said every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption. I would make that last one: acceptance. Clearly we are in the anger stage of the social justice movement for gays. I can't wait for us to move past it.

To that end, I would urge everyone upset over Clementi's suicide or any of the recent violent attacks to ask themselves: Do my attitudes also need an adjustment on this issue?

Do I look askance if I see two people of the same sex holding hands? Would I feel uncomfortable if my child's teacher was gay? Would I be annoyed if my child's college roommate was gay? Would I be less likely to hire a person who is openly gay? Do I make jokes about people being gay? Have I talked to my child about the perils of intolerance?

Why did Tyler Clementi die?

If you've detected prejudice on your part after this self-analysis, you can do something about it.

You can acknowledge it and perhaps realize that it's irrational.

For example, the states that have approved gay marriage have not seen a social breakdown or any negative repercussions. Just because something makes one uncomfortable because it's different doesn't mean it's morally wrong.

We can all learn to coexist. It's not those with extreme views, but rather those in the middle who will ultimately decide whether America's gays get to become first-class citizens or whether we will continue to be sidelined by prejudice.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Velez-Mitchell.