Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Women's Rights, Gay Rights: Snapshot of an Ongoing Conversation

We've been having a conversation here of late about recent much-ballyhooed statements of performers Patricia Arquette and Madonna that gay rights are more "advanced" than women's rights, and that gays (in particular, gay men, it's implied) need to step up and support women's rights. I recently wrote

I'm baffled by the suggestion of prominent members of the performing arts community like Madonna and Patricia Arquette that gay folks have somehow made it in American society, and that the success of gay rights in the U.S. has overshadowed the struggle for women's rights. 
In the part of the U.S. in which I live, it's perfectly clear that the rights of women, African Americans, and gay folks are all under attack. And that if we do not stand together, we will fall together.

And yesterday I posted a footnote to those observations, noting that a version of this conversation goes on constantly in American Catholicism, and that there's a discernible subset of American Catholic women (most of these white and socioeconomically secure, like Arquette and Madonna) who persist in playing the rights of women against the rights of gays (gay men, in particular) in an invidious way, with the suggestion that the misogyny of the Catholic church is due to the significant presence of closeted gay men in the priesthood and hierarchy. 

This progressive-liberal stance of some Catholic women works against the movement for gay rights in society as a whole, since it engenders animosity within Catholic movements for women's rights against gays (gay men, in particular) as the enemy. I met this animosity frequently in my years teaching theology in Catholic universities, where I was informed on more than one occasion by colleagues that gay men enjoy far more entrĂ©e in the Catholic academy than women do, because of the presumed proclivities of the hierarchy.

A colleague who informed me of this in my first full-time teaching stint at a Catholic university was a former nun married to a former priest, a Jesuit. Both had stepped from religious life into cushy full-time teaching positions at Catholic universities in the same city. To all outward appearances, neither was suffering very much at all in the Catholic academy due to his or her choice to leave religious life and marry.

And yet this colleague thought of herself (and her husband) as seriously disadvantaged in the Catholic academy because, so she claimed, the Catholic hierarchy was full of "abnormal" men who gave breaks to other gay men teaching in Catholic universities, but penalized "normal" people like herself and her husband, who left religious life and the priestood as these became more and more populated by gay men and lesbians. Despite her claim that she and her husband had been targeted by the hierarchy, along with other former priests and nuns who had heterosexually married and were working in the Catholic academy, both this former nun and her husband retained their cushy jobs in the Catholic academy up to the time of their retirement — unlike every person in my graduate theology program who came out of the closet after graduation, and who was unable to keep a job in the Catholic academy after that point. Unable, in fact, ever again to find a job teaching theology in the Catholic academy after their coming out . . . . 

I've been having a version of this same conversation — about gay rights as antithetical to women's rights, and about the twisted intra-Catholic discussion of these issues that pits the rights of women against the rights of LGBT folks — on my Facebook page. I thought I'd share with you some snippets of that conversation. A Facebook friend of mine has pushed me on these issues. Her position appears to be that many gay men refuse solidarity with women in their struggle for justice. Here's a reply I made to her yesterday about that contention:

Gay men enjoy privilege due to their gender that all women lack. And as I've repeatedly said, it's imperative that gay men recognize this. I also continue to think, though, that drawing the lines between these groups in the very same way that those who want to marginalize both women and gay folks do is political nonsense—though I'm certainly not saying that there should not be honest, real conversation within these communities about these issues. 
I'd also note that all women everywhere in this country are covered by federal civil rights laws that do not cover any gay people anywhere in this country, and in a large percentage of states, there are no state laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. I think that the claim of privileged white women that gay people have made it and have secured their rights while women haven't is not only a false claim, but a dangerous one, since it glosses over the very real challenges many LGBT folks face throughout the U.S. 
Ultimately, I've never been convinced that playing the victim card, group to group within marginalized communities, is anything but dysfunctional, when all of us face such serious challenges and such powerful opponents—and when the only way any of us will achieve our goals is to band together with the rest of us. That's how I see things.

In response, another Facebook friend who has been following this conversation has written this morning,

An unholy trinity of evil 'isms, namely sexism, racism and homophobia, does a heck of damage to both people and society as a whole. And that is why it is vitally critical that women, no matter their race and sexual orientation, form important alliances with various racial and ethnic groups and with GLBT groups in order that all groups together can more effectively combat prejudice and discrimination. Yeah it does seem unattainable and impossible but you don't know until everyone together at least gives it a try.
To which I just replied,

I completely agree. I think that the reason Martin Luther King was assassinated was that he had begun to build such a movement of poor people that transcended racial lines at the end of his life. As long as he confined his advocacy to the single community of African Americans, he was tolerated. Once he spoke out against the Vietnam War and began to draw poor people together across racial boundary lines, he became a serious threat to the status quo. There is tremendous power for change when we stop allowing those who pull the strings to pit us one against the other.

To my way of thinking, this is an important conversation for people concerned about issues of justice and social transformation in American culture to have — as well as for people to have within faith communities, where a "liberal" stance that gay rights are antithetical to women's rights often impedes the response of progressive-liberal types within churches to the rights of LGBT people.

The graphic: a photo from the Poor People's March on Washington, D.C., in June 1968. Martin Luther King was planning this event when he was assassinated in April 1968. The photo is from the Library of Congress and in the public domain, and has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for sharing.

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