There I go again. From the day I introduced a gay rights bill in 1972 in Massachusetts, I continually underestimated the progress we would make in ending anti-gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender prejudice. But by 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, I thought I had it figured out. We would face only one tough obstacle to full legal equality.

The use of religious freedom is a way to allow some biased people to continue to discriminate against us, even where a law protected us. I was strategizing with others active in the fight about how best to overcome what seemed to be a potent political argument.

Then came Indiana. And I’m happy to admit I was wrong one more time – and, I think, for the last time. When a conservative Republican governor in a culturally conservative state is reduced to self-pitying incoherence in trying to defend the invocation of religious freedom as a license for anti-gay discrimination, the end of legally sanctioned homophobia is in sight.

Two months ago, LGBT leaders feared that this tactic would be a serious problem for us. But last week, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence started by claiming in effect that he was the only person in the state – or country, or world – who knew what the bill really meant. (My practice of giving credit to people whose lines I have borrowed is especially important here because this one comes from my husband, Jim.) Unfortunately for Pence, he was unable to tell us. His unexplained claim that a bill passed to protect those who wanted to discriminate against LGBT people would not allow discrimination against LGBT people left him in a position in which no politician wants to be: saying something that no one believes.

What is important about Pence’s about-face, and the refusal of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to wade into that swamp, is not just the widespread opposition to the bill, but also how broadly based the opposing coalition was.

Specifically, Pence was forced to retreat by the strong objections to the bill voiced by a wide range of businesses. This included not just arguably culturally liberal high-tech companies like Apple, but also Cummins and Eli Lilly. And in Arkansas, Wal-Mart led the fight. I am pleased when people voice moral objections to bigotry, but that’s not always a big enough group. When Adlai Stevenson was told by a fan that a speech he gave would win him the votes of “all the thinking people,” he replied, “Thanks, madam. But I need a majority.” (Remarks like that were funny but probably explain in part why he lost to Dwight Eisenhower.)

It is essential that any fight for fairness be led by those with a moral commitment. But to win decisively – to drive a stake through bigotry’s heart – we need allies who make the practical case as well.

In this instance, one of the most powerful forces in American society – the business community – is saying no to prejudice, not simply because it is wrong, but because it is costly. When Wal-Mart, Apple, the NCAA, Angie’s List, Sales Force and NASCAR say loudly that hatred is inefficient, that it interferes with their ability to produce the goods and services we need for our well-being, the fight is close to over. Indeed, not only has the outcry of “knock it off” from corporate America to the bigots stopped this latest effort, the result is a greater recognition of the legitimacy of laws that ban discrimination rather than protect it, this is clearly a fight that the anti-LGBT faction must wish they had never started.

And I thank them for curing me of my habitual pessimism.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank

 


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