Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Colbert: Prove you're gay

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 10:14 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mississippi is the latest state to consider a "gay Jim Crow" law
  • Sutter: Ignorance and fear promote that sort of legislation
  • He says proponents would rather think of gay people as invisible

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- One backward notion that has been used to differentiate the 1960s Civil Rights movement from today's struggle for LGBT equality in the United States is the idea that gay people are somehow "invisible" and can hide who they are.

This, in theory, makes them immune to discrimination.

"How do you know who to discriminate against ...?" Iowa Rep. Steve King asked in an interview that was rebroadcast this week by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

I wish that, too, was satire, but King went on in the March 3 interview with a TV station in Des Moines to explain that characteristics that aren't "specifically protected in the Constitution" must be "immutable," meaning "a characteristic that can be independently verified and can't be willfully changed."

The insinuation there is that a person's gayness must be verified for that person to be protected from discrimination. (Keep in mind that a person's religious freedom is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and religious beliefs are not always permanent and identifiable visually). Or that, because LGBT people can't be readily branded as gay, they don't deserve special protections under the law.

Logical conclusion: Gay-labeling laws!

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Colbert, bless him, went on to instruct his viewers to mail photos of themselves proving their gayness to King's office address, which is 2210 Rayburn Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. (Don't send anything pornographic, but I think that stunt is pretty hilarious).

All of this comes up in reference to the so-called "gay Jim Crow" bills that are popping in up in several states, most recently in Mississippi. These bills vary, but the undercurrent is that some religious groups want protection so that they could, in some instances, deny services to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs.

That's outrageous, obviously, as even Arizona's hyperconservative governor, Jan Brewer, realized when she vetoed one such bill in her state late last month.

Mississippi's bill already has been toned down some, but activists say the current version is still discriminatory.

I'm not that interested in the politics of these laws. What's more important are the sentiments -- fear and ignorance, it seems to me -- that drive this legislation.

These sentiments may seem isolated, but they're not.

The reality is that gay people, especially in sometimes-hostile states like Mississippi, which I visited last year to report on LGBT rights, spend a lot of their time trying to cover up who they are because they fear discrimination. And they fear discrimination not because they're litigious but because they see discrimination all around them, all the time, even in 2014 America.

It shows up in comments like those from King, in comments from friends and family, and, most crucially, in America's broken legal protections for LGBT people.

How could a person expect to live free of discrimination in a country where a majority of states don't protect gay people from being fired or evicted because of who they are? Those issues aren't the subject of soundbites this week, but they're equally important.

America is quick, and right, to judge the actions of countries such as Uganda and Russia, with deplorable records of persecuting LGBT people. Uganda last month passed a law intensifying criminal penalties for homosexual acts. But our judgment, as long as we continue to support discriminatory policies back home, stinks of hypocrisy.

That King would argue in 2014 that being gay is a "self-professed behavior," and therefore one not worthy of explicit protection, is deeply troubling, but I'm comforted to know antiquated views such as that are moving toward the fringe of the discourse.

That's true even in Mississippi, where one of these "religious freedom" bills is currently being debated and where activists have been staging demonstrations.

Gay people -- verified or not -- have increasingly stepped out into the public spotlight in Mississippi to tell their stories. That's what I found when I visited the state last year.

I met a prison guard who sued his employer after he was fired, he said, because he's gay. He won. I met lesbian couples in Hattiesburg who marched into a courthouse and demanded marriage licenses even though they would be denied under the law. And I met brave openly gay people who live proudly in the most remote of places.

By sharing their stories, I'm optimistic they'll eventually get through to people like King who, for now at least, seems to need some proof of their existence.

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT