Editorial: For National Coming Out Day: Straight (or Sobering) Talk about Gay Equality
Things have come along way, to say the least, for lesbians
and gay men during most of my adult life.
Today, I see the blue car stickers with the equality sign, from
In the 1950s and early 1960s, McCartyhism ruled, during a time when homosexuals were hunted down. Police would raid gay bars and publish the names of the arrested the next day. Government agencies would purge their rolls of known homosexuals, and with Civil Service rules at the time, “sexual perversion” was cause for “removal.” I got caught up in this with my William and Mary expulsion in 1961 and attempted reparative therapy at NIH in 1962. As late as 1967 Mike Wallace presented that horrible black-and-white documentary “The Homosexuals” on CBS. All of this seemed irrational and nonsensical to me. Why was it such a big deal? It did seem to have something to do with getting most men to compete with each other to provide for or defend women and children, something that seemed duplicitous and that I wasn’t good at.
After the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Stonewall riots of 1969 (about the same time as the first Walk on the Moon), things rapidly got better. Adult sexuality was seen more often as a private choice, beyond the reach of most employers, landlords, and other “stakeholders” of an adult’s life. But this change in attitude occurred not just as a byproduct of the racial civil rights movement, but more as an increasing spirit of individualism and laissez-faire. “Equality” was not so important an idea in the late 1970s, when the main point for gay people was to explore living their own personal lives of “private choice” for their own purposes and adult happiness, apart from social supports that go with conventional family and procreation, often in separate spaces like urban enclaves in a few large cities, often economically vulnerable.
The privacy rights of gay men underwent serious challenge in the 1980s with the sudden appearance and geometric explosion of the AIDS epidemic. The right wing could argue that gay male behavior, while “private,” constituted and eventual and unknown public health threat for the entire world. Changes in gay behavior, culture, volunteer caretaking, and most of all rapid (in historical terms) advances in medicine made AIDS come to be seen as a manageable problem for the gay community by the 1990s, if tragic for many and if out of control in the third world—this all despite the diabolical nature of the HIV virus.
My own experience of all of this came down to what appeared to others as a lack of socialization and family responsibility. In the workplace, coworkers sometimes resented the fact that I did not have the same degree of “responsibility” of them and could work for less, but sometimes they expected me to work for less and do more of their on-call duty.
When President Clinton won election in 1992, he promised to
lift the outright ban on gays in the military. In 1993 he would run into stiff
resistance with arguments about “unit cohesion” and (ironically) “privacy” in
the barracks. My personal experience, of ouster from a civilian college but (in
On its heels would follow the debate on gay marriage and gay parenting, which continues to this day. We finally saw sodomy laws declared unconstitutional in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas, even as we determined the equal right to marry adults of our own choosing, and the equal responsibility that goes with marriage. The right wing would respond with calls for constitutional amendments to preserve the “sanctity of marriage.” Other smaller debates would continue, in custody cases, adoption, blood donation (even HIV negative gay men [who have had homosexual sex at least once since 1977] are still banned from donating blood), and even, sometimes, teaching. The emphasis on special education (with “no child left behind”) could mean that teachers could more often find themselves suddenly having to deal with custodial care issues, a situation that (following the military example as a precedent) might present legal risks for openly gay teachers.
In the mean time, debate over the military ban and gay marriage would incorporate debate over older issues about employment discrimination (ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was introduced in 1993), housing, hate crimes, and other tradition issues more rooted in the notion of private choice. These seem more achievable politically and may provide practical protection for many, even if a bit less than perfect in terms of intellectual honesty because they do not secure theoretical equality. Following the military, some issues seem to spill over. Some civilian jobs can require forced intimacy (like living on a ship), and other areas, like child care and some teaching areas, are problematical for persons who have not had any inclination to try to have and raise their own biological children. Teaching, for example, sometimes requires the ability to communicate with children in a differential manner, a skill usually learned in the family and often by becoming a parent.
In the post 9/11 world, I think most of us are seeing the potential perils of naively relying on an laissez-faire or “me generation” mentality. Freedom must be used in good faith, and must subsume some ability to take responsibility for others as well as oneself. Therefore “equality” has to mean “equal responsibility” also. In this line of thinking, as pointed out by some conservative writers like Jonathan Rauch, equal gay responsibility becomes compelling. Why, then, is it still resisted?
There are a couple of big reasons that the gay establishment doesn’t discuss enough. One of these reasons has to do with the investment that many more “old fashioned” people—especially those who did not benefit enough from modernism to develop a strong drive for self-expression--put in lineage, blood and kin relationships, and the whole meaning attached to heterosexual courtship and marriage (and where the ideal of abstinence before marriage fits in). The homosexual, in fact, comes across as having denied loyalty to his own blood or lineage (enough to want to continue it), preferring instead to affiliate upwardly with someone else who fits one’s expressive purposes. Of course, “blood family” is built into religious teaching (and can be read into the Bible, okay) but it is the psychological effect that matters. Many societies have demanded a Confucian style loyalty to family of every member, and depend on this loyalty to make sure that families can take care of their weakest members. The freedom of a member to leave may threaten more than the (patriarchal) “power structure,” it may jeopardize the very survival of other members. Liberal efforts to give individuals more freedom have often included the notion that the government should provide the safety net for society’s least competitive members—and all of this tends to undermine the importance of lineage as most people understand it. Of course, though, with adoption and other arrangements one can construct artificial extended families and lineages. The idea of replacing or augmenting the biological family with various social constructs to meet the psychological needs of those who are different seem like an anathema to many. Yet, children who grow up in homes where parents “know who they are” as individuals apart from the monolithic family often do much better in school and in life.
The second reason comes from this and comes out of looking at free speech issues. Gay issues have become much more visible in the past two decades (even more so now in the Internet age), and now a gay identity seems to require openness, even publication and self-promotion and not just “privacy.” Yet, for some people, the easy availability of gay-oriented materials (especially to minors) seems to present a particular “moral” challenge. Today, Hollywood studios know that they can make their movies or television series richer in content by adding gay and lesbian characters but often fear driving away viewers and ratings. Why?
Human sexual commitment, especially from men who must, after all, “perform,” seems particularly vulnerable to distraction. Perhaps that is one reason why most societies have public nudity laws (and try to control pornography). I recall being handed a religious tract saying this at LAX back in 1986, and thought it curious but predictive. “Keep your mind out of the gutter.” The marriage partners are called upon to retain a committed sexual interest, “till death do us part, in sickness and in health” under many unpredictable calamities that would destroy sexual interest grounded just in fantasy. Such a monumental commitment is taken as proof of adulthood, or emergence from adolescence. The natural fear is, when sexual self-interest is “rationalized” (like in algebra class, have you!), the incentive to marry and have children (let alone stay in existing marriages already with children) will diminish or disappear, and this may well be happening. This effect is more pronounced with less sexually self-confident men, who may feel distracted by knowledge that homosexual men can celebrate their own abasement—but these “androgynous” men, not necessarily homosexual themselves—may simply drift—again, religious communities often feel a duty to “protect” such men. This is, after all, all about collective good. Parallel to this is religious commitment: many people do not believe that they have a choice in what to believe and do not appreciate or even tolerate religious distraction.
There is even a bit of a psychological paradox here. Gay male sexual values could be perceived as a ritualized expression of choice of which men are “superior” potential bearers of children, even if they never actually have children. I know that this kind of thinking leads into some ugly directions. But the sexual component almost seems to feed on the idea of “ranking” and would contradict the idea of “equality.” Yet, a more flexible sense of equality in our society would allow gays to participate in sharing social obligations to provide role models and caring for others.
I recall, before my expulsion, being taunted by odd fears of my roommate and others in the dorm, that I would attack other men in my sleep with some kind of (Clark-Kent-like) super-strength. Stories were told of teenage boys being “ruined” at summer camp be people like me. I was the enemy. It seems strange that “normal” men would brag about physical vulnerability in order to attack me as a homosexual, but what this does point out is how precarious they feel their sexual lives may become and therefore that there are some things they do not want to “know.” (Even I don’t particularly relish drag – the payoff of Rocky Picture Horror Show-- or seeing shaved male bodies peaked for swimming or cycling.) Hence we wind up with “don’t ask don’t tell” at best. Even so, there is a difference between openness about one’s identity and self-promotion based on it, which may be inappropriate from people who are paid to make decisions about others. Understand, though, the distracting effect that many “average Joe” people believe homosexuality has on a community’s less competitive members is probably the single biggest reason for homophobia or “homohatred.” Call this the “ick factor” or “yuck factor” if you want. This is what politicians play on (with considerable intellectual dishonesty) with anti-gay-marriage amendments. That is why homosexuals often or not just not equal, often they have lost their freedom altogether.
Logic is merciless here, at least if the psycho-sexual world is seen as a zero-sum game. If homosexuals are fully equal first-class citizens, then the biological marriage and parenting commitment is, after all is said and done, a personal choice with personal responsibility and rather circumscribed support from the culture as a whole. Families may fear that they will not fare well in such a world (even given the preferred tax, legal and social treatment for conventional families based on legal heterosexual marriage). Therefore, some conservative imply, gays must play society’s “capitalist” competitive games by mainstream rules, which include successful participation in the dating-courtship-marriage-parenthood process as normally a prerequisite for full adulthood and equal rights—lest “second-class citizenship” occur by default. But “second class citizens,” as we all know, can be called upon, in a stressed world, to make sacrifices for others. The “non-marrying kind” used to stay close to home and take care of elderly or disabled extended family members, without much expectation of personal independence. Indeed, we are likely to see increasing calls for more compulsory support for “families with children.” And with a “don’t ask don’t tell” attitude, we are expected to remain quiet about the sacrifices. Even after Lawrence v. Texas, we face a dangerous world. As for myself, I have known loss of freedom for no rational purpose other than to protect the thin skins of others.
Our community probably does not grasp the undertow of common thought about all this. Forty years ago, people did believe in an ideal where sexual expression was reserved for marriage and particularly providing the next generation, open to anyone (however unattractive) willing to compete by the “rules.” Of course, the stakes in finding and keeping a marital partner were very high, and soap-opera jealousy was a big problem. Today sex is an expressive personal choice, still communicative of what we feel is love, but still owned by the individual—and not just for homosexuals!. Then that choice becomes publicized and celebrated, even on network television or, say, movies all the way to PG-13. People of ordinary talents and abilities (or less) are left with feeling that there is no point in playing by the “abstinence” and “fidelity” rules anymore, and less individually competitive people get left our in the cold, either to die or be picked up by welfare. It is a question of psychological fairness. Gay marriage and parenting certainly fit into this analysis. Politicians play on this with buzzwords (“sanctity of marriage”) and stir divisions among constituents without having to explain what all this means.
Many people, I think, believe that one only gains full “equality” by exiting adolescence, marrying, and becoming committed to a (usually) biological family of one’s own. I am not to be listened to, in this view, unless I am willing to commit myself to this particular family responsibility before venturing out to help others my own way or vent my own ideas. This is not what the law says, but it is what many people perceive as “moral,” although there was a time when early Christians though that the world would end and that lineage family was superfluous. Freedom, applied in this view with good faith, implies more that contractual self-promotion, and requires loyalty to an immediate family and community before building further. Gay marriage and parenting would logically provide a bridge to family responsibility, but many people feel that the biological courtship and consummation process (and the “myth” of abstinence until marriage and the inclination to expropriate one’s sexuality for community purposes of providing the next generation and forgo narcissistic expression) is indispensable in making the passage from “me centeredness” to family responsibility transparent to the young adult—especially the eagerness to make the emotional commitment to family (even “the family bed”) with all of its chaotic risks. Falling birth rates among the more affluent may strengthen this kind of moral perception. I escaped this kind of motivational commitment, and many people would see me as less credible or deserving as a result. These are disturbing but necessary observations.
Some of the recent state-level proposals (laws and amendments) to put down civil unions (let alone gay marriage) seem designed to take away opportunities even from people not expecting legal recognition of a same-sex partnership but only some practical individual rights of self-determination. “Equal rights” and “second class citizenship” may sound like abstractions when one is in the middle of one’s own productive life, but become real if the needs of others (such as relatives, or coworkers with heavy family obligations) start compelling differential sacrifices or goal redirection for the benefit of others or if one is compelled to have more proactive involvement with others against one’s own personal choices. I have sometimes experienced loss of freedom myself, and I can understand why some people would feel this is appropriate if I did not “pay my dues,” or would feel that full equality for me could prove undermining to them. After all, I compete in the same economic and contractual system apparently without the same willingness to make certain kinds of blood-based commitments to others. Yet, this comes across to me as a guarded tolerance: “We will let you live your private life at our pleasure, but we expect, when things get tough, for you to do our bidding without complaining.” That means, please stay in the closet and don’t expose yourself—or us. Furthermore, some disparate inequality can happen because of demographic changes affecting the job market. Today, jobs in child care and special education may be more plentiful, and older homosexuals like myself may be unsuitable for them not because of “inequality” and direct discrimination but because of the lack of experience that comes from having children in a family and being a parent (gay marriage and gay adoption re-enter the debate here).
Cultural conservatives may have been cornered by rationalism and individualism, as they react by insisting that traditional marriage and family comprises an experience that transcends integrating the individuals who experience it. It is, they admit, a peculiarly collective need. Marriage, they finally concede, means far more than the love that binds the partners together or even to their children. It must be preferred and supported even by those who do not practice it, for to allow non-participants (like me) full “equality” would be to snub the experience for the vast majority of people who depend on family solidarity from others. Quickly, on an individual level, family life would become something no one would want out of narrow self interest. This seems like a startling, and perhaps whiney confession, but one which reflects the difficulty of family life for many averagely abled people in a competitive society.
After all, most people relish the belief that their activities matter to others. Gay freedom, and especially gay equality (most of all gay marriage) would seem to send a message that biological procreation and family, which most people (even according to their own confessional statements) live for, should not mean so much in and of itself, and otherwise unappealing or unattractive people who depend on simple fidelity to marriage for their own psychic valuation might indeed have a lot (of meaning) to lose when they view the images of perfection parades in public by the gay male community (and often of women by the commercial straight world as well). This is a battle over meaning.
It’s understandable, then, that political correctness would
benefit from the notion that homosexuality is innate, possible genetic (as discussed
in Chandler Burr’s monumental 1996 book A Separate Creation,
whose very existence caused protests against Disney, which owns the publisher).
Whether supported by hard science or not, I’ve always seen this kind of
argument as a copout. The “homosexuality and biology” argument implies that gay
behavior is ultimately pejorative, especially because the competitive effect
that it seems to have on older family values as a motivational and socializing
force—so it can only be “tolerated” by presuming that gays are a “different
subspecies” needing special protections to get basic civil equality (that is,
“special rights”). I’d rather live with the consequences of it’s being a choice
(as expressed in the 1998 movie The Object of My Affection). Paul Rosenfels (Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process) of the
One point I cannot stress enough: much of the energy driving my own life derives from my disinclination to court a nubile woman, marry, and even form a family at all, when compared to my enjoyment of a certain focus on upward affiliation and fantasy, all of which was very satisfying to me. The right wing may, after all, view procreativity as an item of personal merit. Mathematical logic is merciless here, as there are three possible outcomes: (1) the law tries to give me completely equal individual rights and freedom from discrimination, when others will complain that I compete in their economic and cultural space without taking on the same responsibilities (to raise a family) and where my activities may even seem contemptuous of those with such responsibilities; (2) I am encouraged to share these responsibilities once I am allowed to “marry” my own way (gay marriage), become a parent, and take on other common responsibilities like military service, but some people see this as an intrusion on the lineage-based meaning of their own institutionalized heterosexuality; (3) I remain a second class citizen, an alien with a “secret” perhaps, but at the beckon and call to back up people with “real” family responsibility. By life has bounced between alternatives (3) and (1) but (3) is coming back. Personal adult relationships are completely privatized in a libertarian society, and not themselves the subject of an assessment of a person’s “merit”; however the capacity to enter into committed relationships (which may include conventional procreative heterosexual marriage) does affect the ability of someone to do various jobs that affects his “merit.” Actually, the “religious right” looks at procreativity as so essential that it lies outside of the bounds of usual rational self-interest: if you make abstinence-until-marriage/monogamy mandatory and unquestionable for everyone, then the idea of merit factors out. It’s not easy to dismiss their argument, but one does regret the conformity and loss of personal expressive freedom that would follow.
There was a time, from the 1970s into the 1980s, when personal privacy was the major goal, and in a practical sense “exile” to urban “dominions” (that is, ghettos) could beget a satisfying life for gays. Indeed, we had our paradise ghettos. The AIDS epidemic threatened our privacy and receded somewhat politically. But in the 1990s, when the good times rolled along the surface, and early 21st Century, different communities have become reconciled both by communications technology (the Internet) and by the emergence of enormous global threats (terrorism, climate change, energy shortages, pandemics) that portend of major political questions over who will make personal sacrifices. It’s important to be able to share family responsibility and accountability to others, as well as participation on common defense and welfare activities like the military. When gays are denied the opportunity to take equal responsibility, they become sitting ducks to have their freedoms expropriated for the welfare of those appearing needy and capable of garnering political sympathy. We have long seen this inequity in the workplace in the matter of tension among families and the childless. We can only expect this tension tog grow.
I certain experienced the twists of inequality in my recent stint in substitute public school teaching. On the surface, there was not supposed to be employment discrimination against gays in the school district. Now, sometimes lower income or immature students did not respect me and were difficult to discipline or control. Although I don’t “tell” I think that many of them would “suspect.” In their eyes, being man enough to have a family is a big deal and a measure of a man. Why should they respect a man who doesn’t do these things to take leadership of others? At least, lifting the military the military ban and allowing gay marriage and gay adoption would make it easier for me, at least indirectly, to participate in socialization and reaching out to others without second class status. In that kind of climate, difficult students would have been easier to reach and might have respected me.
The calls for equal rights for gays, particularly family areas like marriage, have more than abstract or symbolic importance. In the 1970s, gays tended to live more in their own separated urban communities and wanted just to be left alone, they thought; but in time the interconnectedness and “reconciliation” of peoples with different values became apparent. We all do have to share common responsibilities and burdens for defending freedom and caring for other generations. When someone does not have equal rights, he can be forced to make personal sacrifices at the leisure of others, and become the “second class citizen.” Examples range from working the bad shifts and unpaid overtime to help those “with families” to seeing your job moved out to the suburbs to make it easier on “families.” Today the notion of equality is important to everyone.
Can gays really achieve complete equality and does this make sense as a goal? In one sense, creating and raising a family is something that matters and “counts” and is confounded by the need for community socialization, which can make demands upon those who are disinclined to participate. There is an inherent ethical and philosophical contradiction between “meritocracy” implemented by a free market and instilling individual dignity and value to those who are less competitive – family responsibility (and various forms of service) is supposed to be the bridge. Social and moral virtues like equality, diversity, shared family responsibility, two-parent opposite gendered families, and merit as a component of freedom are all important, but they cannot be achieved with perfection simultaneously, and there needs to be a lot more of consciousness of this logical problem, beyond having demagogues, pastors and politicians throw slogans around. Even as these values would affect me personally, there is no logical perfect solution. Something has to give, baby! What really matters is that people have the freedom to use their own gifts, without the risk of corruption from just having to please the expectations of others whose goals are more communal. That has become more complicated as the world becomes more interdependent and separate worlds come into constant contact and mutual influence, what author Clive Barker calls “reconciliation.”
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