Friday, November 26, 2004

No Sex on Main Street


For the past two or three decades, gay rights activists have tried to promote their agenda by making out gays as a quasi-ethnic group. They have staged Gay Pride events modeled after St. Patrick's Day Parades, Columbus Day Festivities and other ethnic celebrations on the American liturgical calendar and compared bans on gay marriage to laws against "miscegenation." One activist I know insists on referring to gays as "Lesbigay People"--reminiscent of Paul Revere and the Raiders' chorus Cherokee People, Cherokee Tribe.

Prima facie this was a promising strategy: Americans are, self-consciously, a nation of immigrants committed to affirming the ethnic heritage of diverse cultural groups; during the past 50 years the civil rights movement has brought blacks into the American mainstream as an ethnic group rather than an untouchable caste. So, it must have looked as if, with a sophisticated publicity strategy, Americans could be sold on the idea that gays were a cultural group rather than people with peculiar sexual tastes, and be persuaded to affirm them as one more ingredient in the ethnic salad bowl. This strategy was a failure for the following reasons:

First the assumption on which it rests is obviously false. Gays are not an ethnic group except in the metaphorical sense that surfers, academics or deaf people are. Surfers, academics and the deaf do form cultural groups--and, like gays, the extent to which individual surfers, academics and deaf people identify with their respective cultures varies widely and is a matter of choice. But none of these cultures is ordinarily transmitted to children through their families and none can claim a history, ancestral homeland or unique cuisine. The idea of a Lesbigay People rings false.

Secondly, comparing gays to women, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities raises people's hackles. Gays are not educationally disadvantaged or, as a group, economically disadvantaged. There is no gay-straight wage gap. The disadvantages gays suffer are largely psychological rather than material. Arguably the role of the state as regards disadvantaged groups is to address material concerns, in particular discrimination in education, employment, housing and access to credit.--not to "affirm" them or persuade people that they are ok.

Finally and perhaps most importantly for practical purposes, whatever other features of gay culture there may be, gays as a group are defined by their sexual tastes and most Americans are not comfortable with the public recognition of a group defined in that way. If I go to a Cinco de Mayo celebration with my kid, and he asks what being Mexican is all about I can point out Mexico on the map and explain that that is where these people or their ancestors came from. If I go to Gay Pride parade with my kid and have to explain what being gay is all about I will have to say that gays are people who prefer to have sex with members of the same sex--there's no way around it. Most Americans are uncomfortable talking about sex with their children and don't want to be put in this position so they resist the public recognition of gays as a cultural group. Gay activists and liberals generally do not seem to get this but I would bet that if they took the trouble to ask the majority of Americans, who oppose anti-sodomy laws and witch-hunts but are also against gay marriage, this is what they would turn up.

Like most good liberals, I like to think I'm more enlightened about sex but maybe I'm not. I don't like the idea that sexuality is a big deal, an important and essential feature of individuals' "identity," rather than a relatively unimportant extra that doesn't have much to do with the person I am. Maybe that's because I grew up during the heyday of the feminine mystique, when we were told in mandatory sex-segregated "hygiene" classes that being female was an important and essential part of our "identities" and that girls who refused to accept their "feminine role" in all departments of life were mentally ill. I don't think that playing sexuality as a matter of importance, much less an essential feature of individual's "identities," benefits anyone and, arguably, the campaign to subsume homosexuality under the aegis of multiculturalism has set back gay rights.

How should those of us who support equal rights for gays play it? Maybe for what it really is: a privacy issue. Sex is a private business: our preferences and activities shouldn't make any difference to the way we're treated in public life or the world of work or undermine equal protection under the law. Gay activists will object that this supports the idea that homosexuality is something shameful, to be hidden in the protected sphere of privacy. Not so. Americans who objected to having a "Gay Pride" parade on Main Street, Disneyland would likely find a "Heterosexual Pride" parade equally objectionable: they just don't want sex of any kind on Main Street.

Ironically, the impulse that generates resistance to gay marriage (by the majority of the American public--not just a minority of conservative Christians), the sense that sex is a private matter, could be turned to promote support for legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays and neutral domestic partnership arrangements.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

All anyone has to do is say that gay people are people who love members of their own sex. Boys fall in love with boys, girls with girls, instead of the usual configuration. I'd think that wouldn't be too hard a point to get across. It has the benefit, also, of being true.

20- and 30-year relationships - "marriages" in all but name - reflect something a bit more than "peculiar sexual tastes."

Anonymous said...

BTW, "gay pride parades" were originally "gay rights marches" - they were political events, not celebrations like St. Patrick's Day. They were marches for rights; in those days, the police still raided gay bars and arrested their patrons; sodomy was still against the law in most places. The marches were protests against discrimination and violence against gay people. This is still part of their function, which I'm not sure is true of ethnic parades - although perhaps in part it is.

And I don't think anyone ever tried to claim that gay people were akin to an "ethnic group." The claim is that gay people suffer discrimination in many areas: we are discharged from the military if found out, can be fired without cause in most states (gay teachers, in particular, are still very worried about being discovered for this reason), we can be tossed out of our living quarters, etc. Now, several states have passed laws forbidding civil unions and even in one case any kind of private contract that approximates the benefits of marriage.

Some good things have happened lately - but this is only within the last five years or so, really. And of course the good things that have happened are in fact the result of political activism.

Anonymous said...

One more thing: I don't believe there has ever been a "Gay Pride Parade" on Main Street at Disneyland.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

You may be right about the marketing issues, but the parallels between gayness an ethnicity are not entirely arbitrary or opportunistic. Let me suggest a case that is intermediate between being gay and being a member of an ethnic minority. The case I have in mind is that of Jews. Nobody objects when certain Jewish people choose to highlight the parallels between the Jews and ethnic minority groups.

There is considerable controversy as to what constitutes Jewishness, both among Jews and in the community at large. If there is a modern-day Jewish-Gentile income gap, I suspect that American Jews come out ahead. Some people argue that being being Jewish is entirely a matter of choice, i.e., the religion you practice and/or the cultural practices you respect. There are Jews and non-Jews on every conceivable side of these issues. Pro-Semites and anti-Semites are distributed more or less equally over the entire intellectual landscape. Is Jewishness inherited (like race, ethnicity, or national heritage)? Is it a personal choice? Can a Jewish identity be successfully combined with an assimilated lifestyle or a conversion to another religion? Is Jewishness an essential part of a person's identity, or is it an arbitrary or distinction imposed from without? I'm not necessarily arguing that these questions are well-framed, but they are certainly going concerns and have been for centuries.

These are exactly the sorts of issues that the gay community wrestles with. Like I said, maybe the activists have made a PR mistake. On the other hand, I don't want to dismiss parallels between ethnic groups and sexual orientations out of hand. Nobody is arguing that gays are literally an ethnicity. On the other hand, there are identifiable gay cultures and gays are subject to discrimination that is no less arbitrary than racism or sexism.

On average gays don't suffer material deprivation for being gay, but individuals face both economic and social oppression. In large metropolitan communities "passing" may just mean not discussing one's personal life at the office. That's deeply unfair and morally outrageous, but, as HE argues, these people aren't necessarily as disadvantaged as some minority groups. Failure to pass is correlated with very real opportunity costs in a number of fields, however. On the other hand, there are other communities in which "passing" involves getting married, having kids and never admitting one's sexuality to anyone for fear of personal or professional reprisals.

It's ambiguous to say that gay identity is a matter of choice. It's an empirical question whether sexual preference is voluntary. It is clearly true that each person can decide how important their sexual choices are to their self-definition. The same case can be made about any national or ethnic identity, though.

Anonymous said...

What's really interesting to me is that from the point of view of the religious right, gay life is deadly and gay people are literally doomed. And from another point of view, it seems, gay people have it all and are simply on top of the world.

The RR likes to trot out statistics that say that our rates of alcoholism and addiction are much higher than those of others; we are subject to more depression; we have much higher rates of suicide and attempted suicide; our life expectancy is much shorter - and of course this last result was obtained by averaging in the deaths of young men from AIDS before it was treatable.

In any case, I don't know how statistics can be relied on to say that there is no "wage gap"; how valid could they possibly be, when many gay people are still in the closet? It would seem that those who are closeted would be far more likely to be far less affluent.

Anonymous said...

(IOW, I think perception on this issue probably has quite a bit to do with the perceiver him/herself, and what he or she knows personally, and who.)

H. E. said...

Lindsay, the question I posed wasn't whether there were analogies between gays and ethnic groups but whether pressing the analogy helped gays achieve their legitimate goals. I suggested that it didn't because Americans weren't buying it and that it would be more fruitful to appeal to privacy rights.

As far as the parallel to the Jews, I thought that the Jews were if anything a paradigmatic ethnic group--with a documented history going back over 3000 years, proprietary languages (Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino), a religious identity, traditions passed down in families through the generations and a distinctive cuisine. In the US white ethnic groups assimilate and intermarry in a generation or two and ethnicity evaporates but so long as people identify as Jewish in a serious way they're identifying as members of an ethnic group.

There is an interesting parallel though when you consider the situation in Germany prior to the Holocaust. Jews were perceived as an economically privileged group. Anti-Semitism was fueled by working class resentment, exacerbated by hard times. Demogogues took advantage of it. Now look at the US. Homophobia is a working class phenomenon being exploited by conservative politicos for their purposes. This means there's a serious difference between homophobia in the US and prejudice against disadvantaged racial, ethnic minorities and recent immigrants where class prejudice enters in. Homophobia is in part inverse class prejudice, so pushing the analogy between gays and disadvantaged groups (e.g. comparing bans on gay marriage to laws against miscegenation) is very bad for PR purposes.

In addition, being immediately visible and identifiable as a member of a "disadvantaged" group is a whole 'nother thing from being a member of an "invisible" minority. The black president of one of the Ivys noted on a TV interview that she gets tailed by security guards when she shops at upscale department stores. Out in the real world there are jobs for which I wouldn't even be seriously considered because I'm female. Another reason why IMHO trying to make out gays as a disadvantaged minority group analogous to women, blacks or visible ethnic minorities just doesn't fly.

Anonymous said...

"Invisible"? How come the gay-bashers can pick us out so readily to beat us up or worse, then? We're the victims of 15-20% of hate crimes - and we're 3% of the population. And those are only the bashings that get reported. As a matter of fact, heterosexuals get beaten up by bashers, too, if they're pegged as gay. Homophobia might affect you directly at some point, too.

Almost every other minority group is protected by Federal hate crimes laws; not gays. Nor are we protected by Federal anti-discrimination laws for the workplace as most other groups are: Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, sex, color, national origin or religion. The ADEA prohibits discrimination based on age (if over forty). Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability.

We all have to live someplace and work someplace; "invisibility" doesn't really apply in either case.

Anonymous said...

You could also make a case that women don't fit all that snugly into the disadvantaged minority or ethnic group category. They're neither a minority, a culture or an ethnic group. Their economic disadvantages are very unevenly distrinuted; women of privileged class and ethnic background tend to lead very comfortable lives despite unequal pay scales at the workplace. This has always been the case. Similarly, women of priveleged background have always wielded power (though often subtly and behind the scenes) that members of disadvantaged minorities had no access to. I don't say this to argue for a rollback of the significant gains made by the women's rights movement. I'm simply wondering why you feel so confident in lumping women and dispossessed ethnic/racial groups together and declaring them to be similarly positioned on the socio-economic map. There are distinctions here just as there are between gays and disadavantaged minorities. Using a purely economic calculus,you could well have argued some decades ago that women had no need to seek greater economic freedom; so long as they married well enough they'd get their car loans.

As I stated in your thread of a few days ago, I'm not averse to rephrasing certain gay rights issues (or moving slowly on gay marriage) for strategic reasons. However, I don't think discomfort with the overall topic should govern our actions if in fact we're not opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds. I think a certain public overcoming of the discomfort is then morally necessary. It is true that social issues such as this seem uniquely, almost strangely, important in American politics and it would be easier for the Democrats if they could focus more on the core economic issues as good European social democrats can. But the inexorable pull of individual liberty distinguishes our society, for good and for ill. It's no accident that these issues have bubbled to the surface here. I don't think they can be ignored, nore can they be made to disappear by better marketing strategies.

Anonymous said...

You could also make a case that women don't fit all that snugly into the disadvantaged minority or ethnic group category. They're neither a minority, a culture or an ethnic group. Their economic disadvantages are very unevenly distrinuted; women of privileged class and ethnic background tend to lead very comfortable lives despite unequal pay scales at the workplace. This has always been the case. Similarly, women of priveleged background have always wielded power (though often subtly and behind the scenes) that members of disadvantaged minorities had no access to. I don't say this to argue for a rollback of the significant gains made by the women's rights movement. I'm simply wondering why you feel so confident in lumping women and dispossessed ethnic/racial groups together and declaring them to be similarly positioned on the socio-economic map. There are distinctions here just as there are between gays and disadavantaged minorities. Using a purely economic calculus,you could well have argued some decades ago that women had no need to seek greater economic freedom; so long as they married well enough they'd get their car loans.

As I stated in your thread of a few days ago, I'm not averse to rephrasing certain gay rights issues (or moving slowly on gay marriage) for strategic reasons. However, I don't think discomfort with the overall topic should govern our actions if in fact we're not opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds. I think a certain public overcoming of the discomfort is then morally necessary. It is true that social issues such as this seem uniquely, almost strangely, important in American politics and it would be easier for the Democrats if they could focus more on the core economic issues as good European social democrats can. But the inexorable pull of individual liberty distinguishes our society, for good and for ill. It's no accident that these issues have bubbled to the surface here. I don't think they can be ignored, nore can they be made to disappear by better marketing strategies.

Anonymous said...

You could also make a case that women don't fit all that snugly into the disadvantaged minority or ethnic group category. They're neither a minority, a culture or an ethnic group. Their economic disadvantages are very unevenly distrinuted; women of privileged class and ethnic background tend to lead very comfortable lives despite unequal pay scales at the workplace. This has always been the case. Similarly, women of priveleged background have always wielded power (though often subtly and behind the scenes) that members of disadvantaged minorities had no access to. I don't say this to argue for a rollback of the significant gains made by the women's rights movement. I'm simply wondering why you feel so confident in lumping women and dispossessed ethnic/racial groups together and declaring them to be similarly positioned on the socio-economic map. There are distinctions here just as there are between gays and disadavantaged minorities. Using a purely economic calculus,you could well have argued some decades ago that women had no need to seek greater economic freedom; so long as they married well enough they'd get their car loans.

As I stated in your thread of a few days ago, I'm not averse to rephrasing certain gay rights issues (or moving slowly on gay marriage) for strategic reasons. However, I don't think discomfort with the overall topic should govern our actions if in fact we're not opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds. I think a certain public overcoming of the discomfort is then morally necessary. It is true that social issues such as this seem uniquely, almost strangely, important in American politics and it would be easier for the Democrats if they could focus more on the core economic issues as good European social democrats can. But the inexorable pull of individual liberty distinguishes our society, for good and for ill. It's no accident that these issues have bubbled to the surface here. I don't think they can be ignored, nore can they be made to disappear by better marketing strategies.

H. E. said...

There is a significant male/female wage gap and it's significantly bigger for non-college educated women vis-a-vis their non-college educated male counterparts--vide, e.g. Robert Cherry Who Gets the Good Jobs? for data and discussion on racial and gender disparities and Barbara Bergmann In Defense of Affirmative Action--for both women and racial minorities.

You're right in noting that the male/female wage gap doesn't translate always translate into lower quality of life because some women can count on husband's wages--and access to credit--to get the goodies. But it usually does, and certainly does much more often than it did 50 years ago because the marriage rate is down, the divorce rate is up and most women, married or not, can't count on male partners for long-term financial support. This isn't typically a matter of women's choices--men don't want to get married, if married most are not willing to support their wives on a long term basis and, with no-fault divorce the norm, can dump women. Alimony is largely a thing of the past and child support is negligible--divorced men typically end up better off economically than when they were married while divorced women end up worse off economically. All and all it's no longer either economically feasible or socially acceptable for women not to work outside the home--so to that extent women are worse off than they were 50 years ago.

Suppose however, contrary to fact, that all women were married and could count on their husbands to give them a share of their wages and negotiate mortgages and car loans. Women would still be significantly disadvantaged relative to men for two reasons:

(1) They would be dependent on their husband's good will for a decent life. I'm watching reruns of The Sopranos right now on which Carmella is trying to get Tony to invest some money to provide security for her and the kids and to put some into a trust so that if he gets whacked they'll have resources. Tony refuses to put the money into an irrevocable trust because, as his financial advisor tells him, it means that if he decides to divorce her she'll get the money. Carmella is, reasonably, upset: she's invested in the marriage but is wholly dependent on Tony's largesse. Bad.

(2) Without decent options in the job market, women's options would be very restricted. The only way to get a decent standard of living would be by snagging a decent man who earned a decent living. Even apart from money, work in and of itself contributes to quality of life and if women don't have the range of job options than men do that in and of itself is a bad thing.

Gays aren't in that position.

Women aren't disadvantaged in the same way that racial minorities are and I don't know whether they're as disadvantaged, but they are disadvantaged. Gays are also disadvantaged but they aren't disadvantaged in the way that either women or members of racial minorities are and, arguably, aren't as disadvantaged.

It's a mistake to imagine that all disadvantage is the same or, more particularly, that unless it can be assimilated to the model of black disadvantage it doesn't count. It's also a mistake to claim that you can't distinguish between greater and lesser disadvantages.

John said...

Prof. Baber,

You might be one of the most intellectually honest scholars out there.

Whether I agree with you or not, I always trust that your ideas are not over-polluted by ideology and rhetoric.

- j

H. E. said...

Thanks! That's what tenure is for--to provide professional security so that we can shoot off our mouths honestly.

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Anonymous said...

The notion of "sexual taste" defining homosexuality begs every biological, philosophical, psychological, ideological and political question that is, or ever has been, in dispute about and between gay people. That said, it is not at all surprising there should be some practical confusion with respect to individual tactical positioning. Or that fundamental factual matters are grossly misunderstood and mis-stated. I am sorry to have to say it, but with (liberal) friends like that, who really needs enemies?

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