Monday, May 11, 2009

Spin, Spin, Spin: Disguising Homphobia in an Increasingly Gay-Accepting Culture

Speaking of analyzing how a teaching is being received by a religious body, in order to understand the truth claims of that teaching: it’s fascinating to follow the twists and turns of cultural debates about how to fit gay human beings into social pictures, in light of the recent spate of pro-gay marriage decisions in New England states.

One of my barometers for how such developments are being “received” in my little state is the blog of our statewide free paper Arkansas Times. Though I follow this blog, I hardly ever participate in its discussions, because the discussions have a way of turning, well, bizarre and often nasty, particularly if one is an unwelcome newcomer.

When I taught in North Carolina, one of my students once said to me, “We have a saying in North Carolina. It goes like this: ‘Po’ folks has po’ ways’.” I’ve never forgotten that statement, because it so perfectly sums up a dynamic I’ve met in my own little state—and in many “small” communities I’ve encountered in the course of my life.

People of restricted means and constricted outlooks often try to restrict and constrict others—sometimes, without even intending to do so. Small, claustrophobic, tight-knit communities have a way of adroitly identifying and weeding out the outsider, the person who asks the uncomfortable question, the one whose very presence makes others uncomfortable, because that presence is interpreted as an implicit challenge to the norms that govern the closely monitored behavior of other community members.

These dynamics are hardly confined to my little state and my little city, but they are definitely at play here. They have much to do with generations of poverty, with economic conditions in which a tiny handful of families control the bulk of the state's wealth, while the rest of us do without. Those conditions tend to make people resentful if anyone experiences a bit of fortune, and scornful of those who go off, get educations, and expect to come home and, well, continue reading, thinking, and talking.

All this as background to my reluctance to weigh into discussions at the Arkansas Times blogs (as with discussions at other blogs, including Catholic ones, in which the community of bloggers seems to be thickly affiliated, with similar worldviews, in a rather small world in which outsiders are received with suspicion): this weekend, there was a fascinating discussion of last Friday’s Washington Post op-ed piece by Eugene Robinson calling on President Obama to be a leader and endorse gay marriage.

What interests me in the response of those who posted about Robinson’s wonderful statement is where we’ve come, in places like Arkansas, with the discussion of how to fit gay people into our lives. Not surprisingly, we haven’t come far. We’re a state that went even more Republican in the last election than it did in 2004. We voted overwhelmingly in the last election to outlaw adoption by unmarried couples, so that we could make a statement about how unwelcome gay people and gay lives are in our state.

We are and will remain backwards in this area, as we are and will remain backwards in just about any area measuring progress and decency, including education, healthcare, protections of the rights of workers, care for infants and newborns (particularly those of single mothers and/or poor mothers), women’s rights, and on. We will enter the 21st century as the 22nd breaks, kicking and screaming against necessary change, spouting bible verses to justify our stupidity and stolidity, as is our wont.

Still, we’re changing—ever so slowly. And it’s that change that fascinates me in discussions like the discussion of Eugene Robinson’s op-ed piece at the Arkansas Times blog this weekend.

What strikes me in particular is the unwillingness of some people who are essentially uncomfortable with gay folks and gay lives to admit that discomfort openly now. This reluctance is, to me, a significant barometer indicator pointing to a growing new consensus in American society, which will eventually make open, unabashed homophobia socially unacceptable. In the same way that overt, unapologetic racism has long since been made socially impermissible in our society . . . .

Of course, the ranters and ravers, the defiant homophobes, are still there, and they still post on blogs like this, with their taunts and leers, their phallic Confederate flags waving proudly in the background of every taunt, oblivious as ever to the fact that their professed disgust with gays may mask a preoccupation pointing to same-sex erotic attraction in their own hearts. Interestingly, too—but not surprisingly—there are also African-American bloggers taking part in such discussions, who oppose both the president and Eugene Robinson (who happens to be African-American), and who are determined to continue resisting gay people and gay rights as long as they possibly can in our state.

One of these bloggers blogged in recently to tell us that American democracy is something like a soup-kitchen line in which groups line up and wait their turn for rights. The implication of the statement was that blacks are now reaching the head of the line and he, for one, as an African American, has no intent of seeing soup doled out to gay folks, who haven’t waited their turn as he has and who are making a big mess for Mr. Obama by expecting to be treated with dignity. Democracy as a big squabble for rights that are too scarce to go around . . . .

But I’m intrigued, in particular, with the comments of several bloggers who think that they have come through biblically based homophobia to the other side, but who cannot and will not endorse gay marriage. And who see no contradiction between their repudiation of homophobia and their resistance to gay marriage.

What’s very clear in the case of these bloggers is that they don’t get it and don’t intend to get it. Getting it would require a revision of their world that they’re not about to undertake. It would require them to let go of their heterosexist male-dominated reading of the scriptures and entertain other viewpoints from other perspectives.

It would require them to admit that maybe, just maybe, they have been wrong about many things they believe, as they cling to what they imagine is a literalist reading of scripture, but is really a projection of their own heterosexist male fantasies onto the bible, so that they select and defend a handful of passages that defend their power and privilege while ignoring the vast majority that point in another direction.

These bloggers claim to be hung up on the word “marriage.” They claim to have come around to the validity of civil unions. But marriage is off-limits. That would require churches to buy into gay marriage, and churches can’t do that and be faithful to the bible.

Though other bloggers have patiently explained to these men that marriage has always been a civil ceremony in our society, as well as a religious one, and nothing in any gay-marriage law compels churches to perform or recognize a gay marriage, the anti-gay marriage bloggers won’t get the point through their heads. And though other bloggers have pointed out to them the numerous ways in which civil unions are not at all equal to marriage, they still resist.

We can’t have gay marriage, because we can’t let go of the bible, which clearly condemns homosexuality and mandates one-man, one-woman marriage for life.

These bloggers can’t get the point, because they don’t want to get the point. And they don’t want to get the point because the point is not marriage or civil unions at all: it’s willingness to accept real-life gay human beings into their social networks and families and churches, as equals—as human beings—and not as despised others. It's willingness to change their world so that small worlds become large worlds, unwelcoming communities welcome places.

That’s the real sticking point. The claim of those who, until recently, opposed all gay rights, that they now accept gay civil unions while they resist gay marriage, is really all about wanting a world in which gay people just aren't there—and, if there, are out of sight and out of mind. Those now claiming to support gay civil unions while rejecting gay marriage are seeking new socially acceptable ways to cling to regressive anti-gay views, while refusing to come to terms with the homophobia in which those views are embedded.