Monday, December 16, 2013

Reconciliation over Gay Rights?: Some Reasons for Skepticism

Friday, the Atlantic ran an article by Brandon Ambrosino, a proponent of gay marriage, arguing that the marriage equality movement has unfairly maligned its opponents by equating their position to "homophobia."  I agree with some of the specific points Ambrosino makes, but I want to call a halt to a larger narrative I can see emerging here: the narrative in which the gay marriage movement has been unduly harsh toward its opponents and unwilling to listen to their arguments.  I think some larger historical perspective is in order.

When I think back to where our society stood on gay rights issues even five years ago, I feel as if I'm peering into a different world.  Part of the reason is that in those five years, I myself have physically swapped worlds: graduating from high school at a Christian private institution in Florida, going to college in the Midwest, and now attending a liberal divinity school in New England which is a haven-- among other things-- for aspiring ministers who would be made to feel uncomfortable at other seminaries because of their sexuality.  The people we see every day always become our unconscious models for what "everyone" is now thinking or doing, no matter how many times the statistics disconfirm the idea (I remember when I recently learned that Apple still only has a tiny share of the market in laptops-- that can't be true!, I thought, everyone I know has a Mac.  It had not occurred to me that this is because everyone I know is a student and liberal artsy type: what else are they going to use?)  "Everyone" may think a certain way about an issue at liberal New England divinity schools, and "everyone" may still feel precisely the way they did five years ago at the private Christian schools in Florida.  Perhaps "society" has not changed-- I have.

I don't quite think so, however.  I could quote the usual statistics about the ways in which attitudes nationwide have shifted in recent years on gay marriage and related issues, but I think it would be more telling to remind readers of what the attitudes were like at the high school I attended growing up, and they can tell me whether there has been a sea-change in a very short space of time.

One thing people my age may recall is that in middle and high school, "gay" (like "retarded") was widely used as an all-purpose synonym for "bad," "wrongheaded," "gross," "misinformed," "annoying," and much else.  If the revisionist historian of the future is tempted to ask whether the gay rights movement was born out of the cultural left's obsession with finding new identities to politicize, she would do well to observe that the "obsession" here went in entirely the other direction.  I can think of few other minorities in history who have been so much the object of the fascinated terror and prejudice-- as well as the unbidden sexual idées fixes -- of the media to have stood as a codeword for everything bad and wrong and rotten in life.  I can't begin to imagine what it is like to have a trait you regard as an important part of your identity routinely treated in this way.

Of course, it did not stop with this abstract equation of "gayness" with badness.  There were also individuals who were accused of being "gay" and made to suffer for it.  Partly this resulted in teasing and name-calling.  I was not aware of any physical bullying in my school but that doesn't mean it didn't happen or wasn't going on elsewhere.  Most of the bullying was on the initiative of fellow students, but I have no doubt it was abetted by the attitudes of their parents and other authority figures.  For instance, there were some kids who were discovered to be gay by their parents and promptly yanked out of school as a result, after which they were sent to Christian summer camps where they would be trained to "pray the gay away"-- ("reeducation facilities," as I morbidly joked at the time.  Oh, that intolerable smug moral precocity that comes from seeing yourself as "left-wing" and an "intellectual' when you are in high school.  But I had a point: this was "thought reform"-- an attempt by external authority to turn someone against a piece of her or his true self).  This is the stuff that future generations-- probably our own children-- will almost certainly call us to account for.

I have put most of this in an agent-less passive voice.  "There was bullying"-- "'gay' was widely used..." etc.  This is a rather evasive tactic in a piece of autobiography like this one.  Was I an agent in this bullying? An abettor and collaborator and accommodator?  Hell, I was thirteen.  I was all of that and worse.

That's not to say that intellectually I didn't know better.  I was raised by parents who taught me differently.  I remember the first time my parents explained to me what being "gay" meant-- it was after church on a Sunday in Texas.  At the UU Church we attended there are any number of possible contexts that might have precipitated the conversation, but I don't remember specifically which it might have been.  My dad explained the matter to me and said in no uncertain terms that gay relationships were an expression of love just like heterosexual ones and were of equal moral value.  I don't think I had any visceral reaction to the news: being attracted to other men was incomprehensible to me, but no more so at that age than any other sexual or romantic feeling: it was simply added to my list of things adults were inclined to do for utterly inscrutable reasons.

By middle school, a new attitude had emerged on my part: not a hostile one, but hardly an admirable one either.  In short, the idea that some people were gay had suddenly become intolerably, spasmodically, and breath-suckingly funny.  It was not "wrong" in my eyes in the slightest that they were, and I had no deep fear that I might turn out to be gay myself-- or even the vaguest conviction that this would be a misfortune if I did.  But gayness was clearly hilarious-- a belief confirmed by the pop culture of the early '00s, which-- you may recall-- had settled on gays and lesbians as the only remaining minority which could be consistently mocked and belittled and stereotyped without triggering public opprobrium.

Because of the evident hilarity of gayness and the absence of any real animus on my part, I suppose I thought it was "okay" to play along in some of the teasing.  I don't remember many specific occasions when I did, but this may not be because it didn't happen, but because the casual mockery of one's classmates' supposed effeminacy and "gayness" was so much a part of the daily texture of interactions that these occasions all blend together.  Besides, if you had no great machismo yourself (like me) you stood perennially on the cusp of becoming the next victim of teasing, and going after someone else at times seemed like the only escape from this fate, however dishonorable and morally humiliating to all involved it might be.

I knew as a thirteen year old that our church taught us differently, that my parents believed that gay relationships had just as much value as straight ones.  I too would have assented to the belief if you asked me.  (Even as a thirteen year old I recall debating a classmate on the bus on the way to school over the question of whether the Bible's injunctions against homosexuality were authoritative.  "But the Bible also says women are inferior to men.  Do you believe that?"  "No," said my classmate-- "but that was just a product of its time."  "Well, how do you know the stuff about gay people isn't just a product of its time then?" I asked.  Christ-- I'm still stuck in that conversation to this day.  Plus ça change...)

But I was at that age when parents and ministers on the one hand and classmates and pop culture on the other seemed like roughly equivalent sources of moral authority.  And since both sources of authority were ubiquitous, all-powerful, and all-seeing, their dictates could not possibly come into conflict with one another, no more than an omnipotent God could be the author of evil.  Any apparent contradictions between them must be the product of an illusion or shortsightedness on my part.  This was my thirteen-year-old theodicy.

Obviously, when I hit adolescence in earnest, the contradictions implicit in this belief system became increasingly evident and intolerable.  By age 14 or 15 I had switched over to smug crusading moralist on the hunt for oppressions to combat.  The back bumper of my car became a frontline in the culture wars and did double duty for the anti-war and gay rights movements.  I started to delight in challenging classmates over homophobic remarks (and over racist and sexist ones too).  Who knows if this was any less an expression of my teenage "will to power" than my earlier silent complicity, but I look back on it with at least slightly more pride.

At my high school, every graduating senior gave a speech to the school at some point in their final year-- I used mine as a chance to ask for an end to the War on Terror, land reform in the Third World (don't ask why that one was in there-- I couldn't tell you what made me think I or my audience was going to have an impact on this issue), and finally, for the legalization of gay marriage.  This last one was the most "controversial" of the three.  The word "gay" had never been uttered in our school chapel before, I was told, and I got the impression it was thought to be faintly polluting of that sacred space-- but they let me give the speech anyways.  I rushed and mumbled my way through it to such an extent that I'm not sure anyone heard the fateful word anyways, but it was there.

It's possible that all of this: the teasing, the name-calling, the creepy Jesus camps, the hushed silence around the mere word "gay"-- is still going on in the South just as it was five years ago.  But even if it is, I doubt it happens as openly, as brazenly, and as shamelessly as it did that very short time ago.  And for half a decade of history, that's an extraordinary achievement.  That's a real cultural overhaul.

And then think about this: the gay rights movement not only achieved these massive results in such an incredibly short time, it did so without bloodshed or violence, without the polarizing culture war antics that made the '70s and '80s such an interminable morass of "consciousness-raising" and P.C. chest-thumping.  It achieved its results most of all by confronting Americans with a simple moral truth: that gay relationships are loving and of equal moral worth to straight relationships.  Therefore, ethical consistency demands that they be publicly recognized as such.

That doesn't mean the chest-thumping and "consciousness-raising" aren't still coming down the pipeline.  It is often the case that the most belligerent phase of a reformist or revolutionary movement comes after it has achieved its political aims-- because it is at this point that it becomes a magnet for various "johnny-come-latelies" who want to jump on the bandwagon of sanctimony now that everyone else is doing it.  Orwell (I think) remarks somewhere that in France after the war, it was some of the abettors of the Nazi occupation who most delighted in hunting down and stringing up former "collaborators."  It is rarely the people who actually had to make sacrifices on behalf of a cause who take the most joy in rooting out former adversaries once they have the upper hand: it is, rather, the people who are late to the show and want to make up for lost time.

I think we can see the outlines of this ugly Jacobin phase of the gay rights revolution emerging in some of the public sacrifices that have already been made to our social hypocrisy: the Rutgers student, for instance, who was threatened with 10 years in prison for what was clearly immature and cruel-- but not criminal --behavior.  The "anti-bullying" movement has so far hewed to a fairly positive message, but it could take a similarly sadistic turn in future.

But there is a second future trend coming down the pipeline as well: the attempt on the part of opponents of gay rights to rewrite history so that they were never "anti-gay."  And Ambrosino's argument, with which I began, seems to take this claim altogether too seriously.  A Church which continues to teach that "homosexual acts" are "sins" but still wishes to maintain that it is not "anti-gay" is simply making a cowardly lie.  It is a lie because engaging in "homosexual acts" is what it means to be "gay."  If you view the former as evils, you are anti-gay.  It is cowardly, moreover, because it is not based on intellectual honesty, but on a fear of the label of "anti-gay," which is rapidly becoming little more than a swear word.

I understand the value of reconciling with one's political opponents and seeing the best in their outlooks.  Nor is the gay rights movement above reproach, by any stretch of the imagination.  As I have written before on this blog, I think the left in general and the gay rights movement in particular should do infinitely more than it does currently to understand the type of Burkean skepticism which leads many Americans to feel wary about any changes to the marriage institution, because it-- and the American family-- are already threatened by so many forces.  Reconciliation of left and right in the culture wars should be the goal.

However, this ultimate reconciliation with the anti-gay rights camp cannot result from swallowing propagandistic lies made on its behalf.  Nor can we look back with condescension on recent history and say that the gay rights movement was "correct on the whole" but that it was too "strident" and "belligerent" in its claims.  Because from any historical perspective, the gay rights movement has been astonishingly fair-minded and even-handed.  Given the changes it has wrought in so short a time against so great a burden of historical prejudice, it has been a profoundly decent and effective and pragmatic movement.  We have the privilege now of living in a kinder and more civilized society today than we did five years ago, and we owe this in part to the gay rights movement.  But as Doris Lessing wrote of the women's movement in the introduction to the Golden Notebook:
"All kinds of people previously hostile or indifferent say: 'I support their aims but I don't like their shrill voices and heir nasty ill-mannered ways.'  This is an inevitable and easily recognizable stage in every revolutionary movement: reformers must expect to be disowned by those who are only too happy to enjoy what has been won for them."
I'm very happy indeed to enjoy what has been won for me-- to live day to day in a world where no one has to police themselves for "gay thoughts" or monitor their behavior for things that don't conform to gender roles and thereby risk exposing themselves to ridicule.  We should not be ungrateful toward the movement that played such a large part in bringing this world into being.

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