Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Prop 8 Decision: Homophobia on Trial, Engaging Irrational "Arguments" on Which It Rests

Imagine, for a moment, that we are now down the road of history, and the dust of the journey has begun to settle with Judge Walker’s recent prop 8 decision.  (We’re not there yet: as yesterday’s decision to continue the stay on same-sex marriage in California indicates, the prop 8 ruling is, at most, a penultimate answer to the vexed cultural question with which we’ve been dealing on our journey—the question of where, in our cultural interstices, to place the particular demeaned minority of human beings who happen to be gay).  But for the sake of argumentation here, let’s pretend: we’ve now arrived.

And so, looking back, as people inevitably do, we ask: what was it all about, in the final analysis?  What was it about, this long, protracted, pain-filled journey that consumed so much of people’s valuable energy in the last half of the 20th century and the start of the next, the journey to grudging acceptance of the humanity of their gay and lesbian fellow citizens?

Why did it take so long?  It’s so obvious now: there was never any rational basis for the years of pain inflicted, for the savage dehumanization of gay brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles.  Savage dehumanization (frequently in the name of God) simply because they were not mirror images of us.  We who are the norm and the ideal.

These are, in fact, the questions Judge Walker’s ruling implicitly challenges us to ask about our presuppositions and behavior.  Walker’s decision turns on the question of rationality: in a pluralistic democratic society, the burden of proof lies with those who wish to relegate others to the margins due to innate characteristics that should have no bearing on how we assess the human worth of these stigmatized others.  If no rational basis can be given for excluding a targeted minority group from the same rights and privileges everyone else enjoys in a pluralistic secular democracy, then that exclusion undermines the core assertions that the democracy in question makes about itself qua democracy.

It’s about rationality, in the end.  Religious groups may continue to hold any and every irrational position they choose to hold about any matter under the sun: that the world is some 4,000 years old; that humans and dinosaurs co-existed; that God chooses some nations and even some political parties as unique vehicles of the divine will in the world; that each and every genital act not open and oriented to procreation, including masturbation and use of artificial contraceptives, merits condemnation to hell, etc.

But those groups do not have the right to impose these peculiar beliefs on the body politic, unless they can present a credible rational case for doing so—in the secular, public forum of courts and legislative bodies.  There, what counts is reason: do these beliefs mesh with the parameters established for our democracy by our foundational documents; and do they enact or diminish the democracy we claim to uphold?

In my view (and I read Judge Walker to be saying this), those making the case for excluding gays and lesbians from the rights and privileges of civil marriage in the prop 8 trial and in the culture at large failed the threshold test of rationality because their case rests, ultimately, on unproven, discriminatory, and strongly irrational hunches about where LGBT persons ought to fit in the scheme of things, and, in particular, why they ought to be excluded from the social mainstream.

I call these positions hunches because they do not reach the level of rational argumentation.  It is precisely that test of rational argumentation that these hunches failed in the prop 8 trial.  They are, as it were, symbolic gestures that have been permitted to carry tremendous cultural weight in our recent history, precisely because the systems that distribute and protect power in our society have not previously permitted their irrationality to be put to the test in open court.  One of the most important developments of the prop 8 trial is that, despite the embittered resistance of many powerful groups—notably (and sadly and shockingly) faith communities—to an open, reasoned court discussion of the rational basis for homophobic exclusion, homophobia has finally been put on trial in an American court.

The anti-gay hunches on which I am focusing here are, to use another term, suspicions about what it will mean for our pluralistic democracy, if gay and lesbian people have the same rights and privileges as straight people—if they are allowed to enter and be integrated into public life without the fetters of legal enactments designed, above all, to stigmatize and demean.  Fetters designed to tag those who are gay as inferior in their humanity and undeserving of the same respect that other human beings deserve simply because they are human . . . .

The first of the two suspicions on which I want to focus, which continue to energize opposition to the full inclusion of LGBT people in our society, is the following: if I permit the demeaning legal shackles attached to the lives of gay persons to be removed, I lose my own status as better than this dehumanized social group.

My status depends on keeping you in your place.

Unfortunately, this suspicion often energizes, in particular, the opposition of other marginalized minority groups to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our society.  During my fifteen years teaching and doing administrative work in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), I met this sub-rational “argument” for continued exclusion of LGBT persons from our social networks constantly.  It is a powerful social script within many parts of the African-American community, as well as in other minority communities.

I don’t intend to focus much attention here on this irrational suspicion about what it will mean if our society finally permits LGBT persons to enter the public arena as fully human citizens with the same rights and privileges accorded to everyone else.  I’ve written about this approach to gay persons frequently on this blog, and won’t rehash now what I’ve already written.

Two points about this sub-rational suspicion do deserve continued attention, however.  The first is that it holds waning power, even in minority communities many of whose members imagine that their self-worth depends on demeaning their gay brothers and sisters.  It does so because it is so clearly, well, to be blunt, un-American.  It is not the kind of argument one would wish to advance in the rational space of a public forum—in a court, for instance—precisely because it is clearly irrational.  It is all about prejudice and my belief that keeping prejudice against you alive is good for me.

The second point I’d like to make is that it is far too easy to blame the minority communities that permit this irrational prejudice to proliferate within their community.  Such blame misses the point that our society is constructed as a pyramid of power and privilege in which only the small elite at the top of the pyramid have the kind of unfettered power and privilege about which all the rest of us only dream, as citizens of a democracy.

And the power and privilege of the elite that stands at the top of the pyramid is maintained by pitting one minority group against another.  By sowing seeds of suspicion within one marginalized group re: another marginalized group.  By inculcating among minority groups the suspicion that there are only so many goods to go around, and if group X demands more of those goods, then group Y will suffer.

One of the phrases that my African-American students in the HBCUs in which I have taught frequently used to describe the subtle, hidden, but nonetheless clearly apparent racism of the controlling elite of American society is this: they like to throw rocks while they hide their hands.  Many of my students assured me that they saw clearly that, while working-class Southern whites have often received blame for the problem of anti-black prejudice in our society, that prejudice was deliberately engineered among déclassé whites by Southern whites of higher social standing, who professed to deplore the raw racism and racial violence of the working classes.  While pulling the strings that makes this violence possible . . . .

This is a narrative familiar to anyone who has studied the history of racial relations in the American South (and it is hardly confined to the South, since racism is an endemic problem everywhere in American society, despite the attempts of some areas of the country to pin blame for this problem on Southerners).  It’s a narrative central to Diane McWhorter’s powerful study of the Civil Rights struggle in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, entitled Carry Me Home.  As McWhorter notes, she began her research into the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed African-American children with the assumption that whites of lower social standing—“typical” Klan members—were responsible for this bombing.

She ended her research with the shocking discovery that her own father and his cronies, members of the country-club set of Birmingham, were implicated in the bombing.  Though they may not actually have lobbed the bomb that destroyed the church and murdered children, they were actively involved behind the scenes in fostering the violence that issued in these horrific events.

They were throwing rocks and hiding their hands.

And it is precisely the same with the I’m-better-than-you argument vs. gays and lesbians and its prominence in other minority communities that, on the face of it, have every reason in the world to find solidarity with gays and lesbians as another marginalized community.  Though this irrational suspicion about what it means to bring gays and lesbians into the social mainstream appears to predominate (at least in an open way) in minority communities, the seeds of the suspicion are actively sown by social elites that do everything possible to disguise their own investment in the raw prejudice on which this “argument” rests.

In the next section of this essay, I want to look at what has now become the primary irrational suspicion masquerading as rational argument about what the full inclusion of the LGBT community will mean for American society as a whole, if it is allowed to happen: this is the argument that our social institutions depend on maintaining male-female complementarity, along with gender roles we imagine to be attached to such complementarity.  And that any tinkering with the arrangement of gender complementarity spells doom because it undermines the symbolic center out of which we have to operate if we expect to remain a healthy society.