Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chronicles Of The Backlash, Episode The Second

As often happens, I didn’t know what title I’d use for yesterday’s post until the last moment, when it was ready to post and I had to decide what to put in the title box. And then, suddenly, it was obvious.

I’ve never been terribly concerned about an antigay backlash, though I seem to be fairly unusual in this. In the first place, as Michael Sherry and other scholars have documented, the “backlash” was there before there was a gay movement, with hysterical ranting about homosexuals undermining morality, taking over, and so on. I still regard the radical gay movement of the 1970s as a gay backlash against bigotry, just as the Civil Rights movement was an African-American backlash against continued white American racism and the Second Wave of feminism was a women’s backlash against persistent American sexism. The term “Second Wave” should be a reminder that women had first begun to organize against sexism (though they didn’t originally call it that) more than a century before the Miss America protests of 1969. Similarly, the Civil Rights movement began long before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

In the second place, unlike most gay people I’ve known, I did not expect everything to be easy when I came out. There’s a weird paradox there: most people who, like me, made a conscious move to come out to straights, seem to have delayed that move as long as we did because we feared the consequences: that our friends, our families, random strangers would hate and despise us for being queer. And yet, after coming out, a good many gay people express shock and dismay that not everyone treats them with respect, let alone acceptance. I’m deliberately echoing Captain Renault’s famous line from Casablanca: I am shocked! shocked, I tell you! to find that there is homophobia going on here. Their shock may be as theatrical, as fake, as Captain Renault's; what I don't get is what it's supposed to achieve.

I myself was not at all surprised when I did encounter bigotry. But being openly gay, I could usually confront it, and with such pleasure. Sometimes a bigot would try to fag-bait me, insinuating slyly that I must be a homosexual. Are you just now figuring that out? I'd counter derisively. A lot of bigots expect the accusation of homosexuality to send anyone, gay or straight, scurrying to the shadows. The accusation of lesbianism was used by straights, including their media, with considerable success in the 70s, and I’ve encountered male supremacists who still try to use it. There are also men (and some women, like A** C**lter) who think there’s nothing worse than being called a fag, and there are still men who react with horror that anyone would stoop so low. Hence the recent hysteria when C**lter called John Edwards a faggot: Edwards was shocked! shocked to find that anyone could stoop so low. What I find mildly shocking is that the word still has so much power, but it’s good to be reminded. It’s a sign of how far the gay movement still has to go. Straight and gay liberals make liberal noises about diversity and acceptance, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to be queer, or thought queer. Far from it.

Another benefit of the gay movement of the 70s, and the reason why I felt able to confront bigotry when I encountered it, was that even if I was the only person in a given place at a given time making rude noises at the bigot who’d incautiously revealed his or her true colors, I didn’t feel that I was alone. I was one of a sizable number of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and straight allies who didn’t think that being queer is shameful; rather, being a bigot is shameful, worthy of mockery and ostracism. (C**lter not only has gay friends, she’s reportedly a major fag hag. Why? Even if she behaves differently when she’s with them, her public remarks should be grounds for ostracism. Where’s that fabled gay male misogyny when it could really be useful?)

All this seems obvious to me, but it’s not obvious to so many queerfolk. One lesbian student I know came out in high school and wrote an article for her school newspaper. A teacher she had respected either blocked the article’s publication or said unkind things about it after it had been published, I’m not sure. My acquaintance was shattered. How could this teacher be so negative? I regard this sort of response as the classic liberal move: It really hurts me when you say things like that. And even more, You shouldn’t be allowed to say things like that, or even think them. It really hurts me to know that there are people out there thinking hateful, exclusionary things like that. In this respect, the liberals I know are intriguingly similar to the Christian Right, who also don’t want certain thoughts to be thought anywhere. It hurts them, and it hurts God, and it shouldn’t oughta be allowed.

None of this is particularly new. As I noted, the bigotry has been there, largely unchanged, since I can remember, and for decades before. Since the 1980s I’ve heard recurring reports of a conservative backlash, which generally seems to be the same old nonsense. The Reagan Presidency especially made it possible for many liberals to crabwalk rightwards, sniping at blacks and feminists and gays for having gone too far, darn it all to heck. I recall an article in The Village Voice, I think it was, soon after Reagan’s inauguration, in which some white male liberal proclaimed the salutary effects of social pressure. If most people think that homosexuality (or divorce, or unwed motherhood, or abortion) is wrong, he argued, they have a right to exclude and shame gays (or divorces, or unwed mothers, or women who’ve had abortions). I couldn’t really argue with that, but what immediately occurred to me was that it works both ways: if people feel that bigotry is wrong, we have a right to exclude and shame bigots. And I began wondering when we’d get the liberal backlash, in which liberals were going to get up on their hind legs and strike back at all the racism and male chauvinism and homophobia, because they were mad as heck and weren’t going to take it anymore, doggone it!

It’s a quarter century later, and I've pretty much given up on the possibility of a liberal backlash. The Democrats retook Congress in 2006 and have sat on it for the past year like the dog in the manger, growling at any extremists who might demand that they carry out the mandate they were given. I expect they’ll do the same with the White House if they manage to take it this November. I don’t really feel like a one-man queer / feminist / antiracist backlash – there are too many other people out there doing their best to make both the far (Republican) and near (Democratic) right uncomfortable, jeering at bigots and reactionaries and foot-dragging libs who want change the way St. Augustine wanted chastity (“… but not just yet, O Lord!”). But it might help if we all saw ourselves as a backlash, a long-overdue social reaction. We’re not hurt, and we don't care whether God is hurt, that bigots think such awful things; we just want to make them squirm and cower and whine a little. Remember, you've always told us that suffering builds character; now it's your turn.