Masterpiece Cakeshop theater

Painting the crosswalks in Uptown Kingston. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

It’s Pride Month, in the Catskills and around the world. Rainbow crosswalks in Uptown Kingston. Joyous celebrations in New Paltz’s Hasbrouck Park. (Nothing’s happening here in Margaretville, but what else is new. People don’t move to Margaretville for the vibrant counterculture.)

This year, the parade kicked off in the rain: With exquisitely terrible timing, the Supreme Court put a damper on the 2018 Pride festivities with a decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In a narrow, nitpicky 7-2 ruling, the court sided with Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding back in 2012. Hate won, sort of.

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Phillips and his lawyers argued that as an artist, the cakemaker had a First Amendment right to decide what kind of weddings he would bake for. Cake is speech, they claimed. The court rejected that reasoning, but held that the Civil Rights Commission had improperly expressed hostility to religion in deciding Phillips’s fate. The question at the heart of Masterpiece — whether or not businesses can opt out of serving LGBTQ customers on religious grounds — remains unresolved.

It wasn’t the decision Phillips wanted. It wasn’t the one we wanted, either — “we” meaning any of us who have felt the dread of being tossed out of a business, or a place of worship, or a family, for not following the arcane and unwritten laws of gender. 

Much is being made in the discussion around this ruling of how narrow it is. To my LGBTQ friends and family, it’s a frightening decision anyway. For those who fear that their basic humanity is conditional, and might be revoked at any moment, Masterpiece looks like a foot in the door. Today, it’s a cake. Tomorrow, it might be a lunch counter. 

I’m not a lawyer, but I do know something about how capriciously the law treats LGBTQ people. I’ve been out of the closet for a good 25 years — so long, I hardly remember how dark it was in there. In my experience, even the most educated and well-meaning straight people simply have no idea how many obstacles the law throws in front of us and our families. Legal marriage has helped tremendously, but we are still second-class citizens in many arenas, and our victories on that front feel vulnerable.

There is a prominent school of thought that holds that we ought to let states decide these things for themselves. In theory, that sounds like a sort of benign cultural relativism; in practice, it’s cruel. I don’t much like guns, but when my gun-owning friend talks about how frightening it is to cross state lines not knowing whether some arcane state law might trip you up and make a felon of you, I get it. Before the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned in 2015, I fretted that we ought to take our daughter’s adoption papers along with us on road trips, in case tragedy struck us in some state that was disinclined to recognize my wife as her mother.

The ongoing battle over what rights society owes LGBTQ people is being fought on two fronts at once, legal and cultural. The battle for “hearts and minds” is arguably more important, at least in a practical sense. The legal right to walk into any business and be served means little if the community you live in decides en masse that you don’t belong there. And if your local culture has your back — as mine generally does, these days — the real-world weight of legal discrimination will be a lot more bearable.

But without the law on your side, being socially tolerated is flimsy armor. The winds of culture have shifted fast, and they could shift back again. 

Rainbow stickers in business windows have reached even my remote corner of rural America. But what has been won can be lost. I’m old enough to remember when straight people thought that thousands of us dying in pain and terror was hilarious. No queer American who was alive and conscious in the 80s can forget it. 

Society has chilled out a lot over the years since I came out, and so have I. It’s rare that anybody gets up in my face about my openly Bieberific haircut these days, or gives me grief for holding hands with my wife. But legal battles like Masterpiece really bring out that old Reagan-era Silence Equals Death paranoia in me. It’s infuriating being forever cast as the heel in a wrestling match with God, as though “religion” weren’t something queer people sometimes need, too. It’s insufferably hard to watch nice articulate people in suits calmly debating how much respect the law ought to give to the idea that you are disgusting. 

I’m aware that this fight is painful for the other side, too. There is a palpable sense among certain kinds of religious people that their society does not share their deepest values, and that their own government is out to get them. 

As a queer American, all I can say is: Welcome to the club.

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