By now, just about every living creature in America has heard about the latest political firestorm out of Kansas.
Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, issued an executive order rescinding protections for state workers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Brownback is all but proclaiming that LGBT people should have fewer rights. The order lifts protections against firing, discriminating against or harassing a state worker for being anything but straight. Under Brownback's administration, that person now has no right to file a complaint as a member of a legally protected class of people.
Comedian Jon Stewart seized on the governor’s order and, making the obligatory connection between Kansas and "The Wizard of Oz," quipped that there’s "no place like homophobia." Meanwhile, on Twitter the hashtag #Brownbackwards quickly began trending. The governor should not have been surprised about the response.
One would think that Brownback had enough on his plate without inviting more controversy. Kansas is in fiscal turmoil, reeling in the face of a projected $600 million budget deficit next year. A major reason for this pickle is the massive tax cuts Brownback and his party enacted. Kansans have not warmly appreciated the $28 million in cuts to elementary and secondary schools the governor’s office announced earlier in the month. Rural and suburban school districts are testily fighting for their piece of the shrinking pie as Kansas’ public school funding formula must be rewritten following a state supreme court ruling.
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So what was Brownback thinking with this ill-advised — not to mention plain mean — executive order? Was this a desperate appeal to his base to shore up popularity?
Perhaps. After all, he’s flailing. But the move just highlights his desperation, not to mention how out of touch he is with America. He’s seriously misjudging just how far public sentiment has shifted in recent years to ensure that LGBT people have the same rights and protections as everyone else. Contrary to what Brownback may want to believe, those attitudes have evolved among Republicans, too. He’s toying with dividing his base, which includes fiscal conservatives with more liberal moral attitudes.
Brownback and the choir he’s preaching to have lost this battle. They know it, whether or not they admit it. Workplaces across America already offer such protections for LGBT workers. The same-sex marriage bans in state after state are falling like dominoes.
Some critics decry the executive order as a cynical attempt to sidetrack attention from pertinent issues of the day. But reasonable people — including many Republicans and fiscal conservatives — have decided to take a live-and-let-live approach to issues like gay marriage. They accept that society has changed, and they will change with it. For a governor, amid such a sea change, to claw back measures that protect the right for people from being fired for their sexual orientation — it’s enough to call into question his moral decency and judgment on other matters.
In fact, that’s already happening in Kansas. The budget mess is brought into virtually every conversation about state government or Brownback. The executive order invites more attention and more scrutiny of his other failures in office. It seems like a Hail Mary pass to drive media/public attention away from issues that matter in voters’ daily lives. And it doesn’t matter whether or not those voters share Brownback’s views on sexuality and morality.
Kansans, perhaps more than citizens of any other state, know how discrimination targeted at homosexuals looks when it is flaunted on a national media platform. We faced it for years. The now deceased Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka paraded his hatred toward gay people around the globe. The state was ashamed that Phelps’ foolishness germinated in our soil. And many people of faith, including deeply conservative ones, were forced to analyze how the personal views they’d learned as children about homosexuality contributed to the harm of others.
The good news is that enlightenment about sexual orientation, and the determination to protect the rights of those who are not heterosexual, is gathering momentum. The progress of the past five years has been stunning.
Some will try to roll back these gains, and they will fail. More importantly, they will reap diminishing political returns from mounting these forays into culture warfare. Like Kansas, the United States has dug a deep hole for itself in the economy, in education, in public safety and foreign policy. We’ve got a lot of problems that need focus, and the sex lives of consenting adults isn’t one of them.