Sunday, June 19, 2005

Gay marriage and all that stuff

What's Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (It's the Gay Part) - New York Times

''Lifestyle'' is a buzzword in conservative Christian circles. It's a signal of the belief, and the policy position, that homosexuality is not an innate condition but a hedonistic way of living, one devoted to partying, drugs and wanton sex that ends, often, in illness and early death...As the landscape of fear fills in, the picture comes into view. It is Hieronymus Bosch's ''Garden of Earthly Delights,'' a phantasmagoria of sin and a complete breakdown of the social order.

Remarkably, after producing a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggesting that religion per se isn't the source of anti-gay sentiment the author piously concludes that it is the source of anti-gay sentiment.

Anti-gay activists want exactly the same thing that gay activists want--basic respect and support for the life they choose to live. For the past 30 years they haven't been getting it and this NYTimes article is more of the same. The cues are hard to miss--from the description of the Family Research Council's headquarters in a "small but grandiose building" that looks as if it might have been the "onetime home of Rutherford B. Hayes or some other historical personage heavy with Victorian-era dignity" but turns out to have been built in 1996, to the rendition of anti-gay activist Laura Clark's tacky tract house in Catonsville replete with "wall-to-wall carpeting and hand-me-down furnishings." (Locals will appreciate the reference to Catonsville and Towson State, from which Laura dropped out).

The Clark's counterparts, lesbian couple Lisa Polyak and Bita Deane have hardwood floors covered with Oriental rugs and we know that if they were entertaining they wouldn't set out a buffet like the one Laura arranged for the author--"sliced lunch meats, hamburger buns, tomato and onion slices, bowls of pretzels and chips, cookies and several two-quart plastic bottles of soda"--reminiscent of a picture of Judy Agnew the Times ran long ago that showed her standing in front of an open refrigerator door holding a bowl of jello. I wonder if Laura, who has certainly read the article, gets it. I strongly suspect she does, even if she wouldn't admit it.

I'm ambivalent and, as they say, conflicted about all this. On the one hand I wonder why, even if Laura has to live in Catonsville, she can't at least strip off the wall-to-wall carpeting and get some Oriental rugs. They aren't that expensive at IKEA (and even in Baltimore there is an IKEA). And if she's doing a spread for a NYTimes reporter, why can't she hit the gourmet section at Giant and get something a little more tasty than hamburger buns and potato chips.

On the other hand. Laura likes her wall-to-wall carpeting--makes a good play area for the kids and resists stains--and pretzels, chips and cookies are what her family and friends like to eat. She likes being a housewife and homeschooling her kids. Her traditional suburban family likes being a traditional suburban family--she and her husband glory in their four kids on the porch "riding tricycles and training-wheeled bicycles in a tight circle around the adults, bashing into one another, performing for their parents and the visitor."

I've always been ambivalent: I wanted that kind of life, what I thought of as a "real Dick and Jane family" and I got it--with modifications. It seemed like an impossible dream. No one I knew in my 20s seriously considered the possibility of getting married much less having children--and most never did. No one wanted to live in the burbs--it was something they dreaded, something they were afraid they would envelop them against their will--and any sort of religious involvement was simply off the map.

I can empathize with the Clarks' worries. They sense, with good reason, that people with prestige and power are contemptuous of them or at the very least regard them as anthropological specimens--when, after reporting on the Clarks, Shorto visits the Polyak-Deane menage we get the sense that he's come back from an expedition to another country, where he's extended himself to take the local culture on its own terms, and can now relax. They also worry, with less reason, that the "lifestyle" they like and believe to be good will disappear--they imagine a chaotic, competitive, sexual free-for-all, all the world turned into the beach on Spring Break, the Garden of Earthly Delights. I can understand that too: I'm all for earthly delights but in large doses they're stressful and boring. No one wants to trade in that sexual meat market indefinitely. It's like the bazaars I've been to in Kenya and China--interesting to try out but I wouldn't want to spend my time fighting off sales people and haggling on a regular basis.

I suppose I'm intrigued by the Cultural Divide because I recognize it in my own soul. I'm every bit as awful as that NYTimes reporter--I see the Clarks and their friends as anthropological specimens and I see their culture as exotic. In fact I'm worse because I've tried to go native, or at least to fake it. And I couldn't cut it, maybe because at bottom I don't like it. I'm intrigued by the aesthetic surface--the happy families in the park, the church ice cream social, driving the kids around in a van and seeing myself as a soccer mom, the world of sunshine, the sitcom world. But I don't like real guts of the culture: the boring conversation, conventions, restrictions, boring busy work, sex roles, and pure tedium.

I don't see any resolution in the offing. This culture, like all "traditional societies" is crumby, but it isn't without value and if it disappears something will be lost, just as something will be lost if tribal warrior societies in the Muslim world disintegrate--as we can only hope they do. Of course the alternative isn't the Garden of Earthly Delights though you won't be able to convince conservatives in Catonsville or Kabul of that. But it will still be a world that's more homogeneous, colder and duller.

But there is no free ride. You can't have individualism, opportunity, freedom and equity in a traditional society; you can't have self-critical reflection or serious education. Maybe in the end to come to terms with it is just to recognize there there is something of value there while at the same time facing the fact that the costs greatly outweigh the benefits.


acb said...

You're falling, slightly, into what must be called Rowan's Fallacy: supposing that social changes come about for the general good. If these lifestyles disappear, it will be because they no longer seem profitable to those involved. What does Laura Clark's husband do, that she can afford to homeschool four children in Baltimore?

H. E. said...

This assumes people are fully rational and that markets are perfectly efficient--in the short-run, before we're all dead.

This lifestyle isn't profitable and they can't afford it. Laura's husband "works for the government": not clear in what capacity--but they're living in a crumby suburb with hand-me-down furniture. It would hardly pay Laura to go back to work though--as a Towson State drop-out with no recent work experience she couldn't expect much more than minimum wage, which would scarcely cover the costs of child care and after school programs for her 4 kids aged 3 to 7.

Anyway, this lifestyle is dying out, and they know it--but it isn't the "homosexuals, feminists, and abortionists" Falwell blamed for 9/11 that are taking it down. In the end it will collapse, like the slave system and then Jim Crow in the South that we like to think went down because of growing enlightenment and moral crusades, but which ultimately disintegrated because they were unprofitable, uncompetitive and unsustainable. And I don't think it's going to be a soft landing on this one either.

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