Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Abomination in My Own Backyard

I've begun reading Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays (NYU Press, 2012), by Bernadette Barton.  It looks promising, since it's evidently based on interviews with gay men and lesbians from the American Bible Belt, and I usually enjoy reading such material.

But Barton got off to what is, to my mind, a bad start.  She told how, soon after she and her partner Anna moved to a small city near Lexington, Kentucky, she had an upsetting conversation with a male neighbor while working in her garden.  The neighbor, whom she calls "Jim," asked her if she was married.
"No," I responded, "I'm involved with someone."  Although not legally married, Anna and I traveled to Vermont in 2002 to be officially joined in a civil union.  I struggled then with Jim, and still struggle at times, to find the best way to answer questions about my marital status.  Heterosexist assumptions and potential homophobia lurk behind this question, depending upon who is doing the asking and why.
So far so good, actually.  I often struggle with the same consideration when I'm asked that question, especially by presumed heterosexuals from other countries.  I am not in any kind of couple and haven't been for a quarter century, so "No, I'm single" should be a sufficient answer.  But questions about marital status, especially from foreigners, tend to be a way of getting to know a person, as well as of classifying them, so I don't really want to shut down the inquiry.  But how soon should I tell them that I'm gay?  It would come up sooner if I were in a couple, since I would then have to explain quickly that my partner was male.  Since I'm single, I can and sometimes have delayed bringing up my homosexuality indefinitely with people I don't expect to be friends with.  Being single and being gay are not equivalent, though even many gay people seem to think they are: many of us have been heterosexually married, many of us still are, many others are in unregistered couples, and increasing numbers of us have formalized our couplehood in church or with the state: civil unions, domestic partners, marriage.  While I have many reservations about marriage, I am enjoying watching the social changes that are occurring as "I'm married" no longer means "I'm heterosexual, or pretending to be."

I used to be surprised when gay friends and other gay acquaintances from other countries asked me if I'm married even though they knew I'm gay.  In their countries, many or most gay people, especially older ones, are heterosexually married.  Among other things, this reflects a different construction of marriage and of homosexuality.  To oversimplify slightly: a marriage is something you get whether you much want to or not, out of duty, the way you get a job.  It's a requirement for adulthood.  But for men especially, it may not be expected to be the defining status of one's sexual life.  Homosexuality is something men may do on the side as long as they avoid scandal; one's homosexual relations are not supposed, even by gays, to be the defining core of one's life.  The same construction prevailed in parts of US society until at least the late 20th century.

But back to Bernadette Barton and her neighbor.
Jim inquired, "Do you go to church?"

"No," I said, and then took my own leap of faith.  "We're gay, and the churches around here aren't very supportive of it."

He paused, looked confused, and examined me closely.  A long moment passed.  He announced, "It's an abomination in the eyes of the Lord."

Stunned, I just stood there looking at him.  The air grew thick.  I felt dazed, afraid, shamed, and weirdly, curious.  "Someone just called me an abomination in my own backyard," I thought.  "This isn't supposed to happen."  I felt like an anthropologist stumbling upon an unexpected and unpleasant finding about my own life.

Jim added, "I'll pray for you," then there was a long pause, "that you grow good vegetables."  We chatted briefly.  Meanwhile, I didn't recognize myself.  I am a very outspoken, some might even say opinionated, person and was surprised by my reticence.  I found that I was reluctant to confront him about his homophobic comment.  What if he decided to burn a cross on our lawn?  Looking at myself from far away, I listened to him pontificated about his relationship to the Lord in the righteous tones of the born again [2].
I like the part about praying for good vegetables, but I'm startled by Barton's reaction to Jim's pronouncement.  I understand her moment of fear about the potential for violence in her situation -- that is all too realistic, unfortunately.  I can even understand her sudden speechlessness in that situation; who hasn't come up dry at times when articulateness is called for?  But I don't get her evident surprise at Jim's statement.  She's living in the Bible Belt, for Cthulhu's sake.  What planet did she live in before, and where did she grow up, that she's never encountered expressions of antigay bigotry before?  Had she never encountered fundamentalist Christians before?

I grew up in rural northern Indiana in the 1950s and 1960s, and encountered surprisingly little explicit antigay bigotry there, partly because the gay movement (and more important, organized opposition to it) hadn't found its way into mass media very much.  While I did encounter some, in mass media, in library books, in day-to-day life, it was almost never directly aimed at me.  That came later, when I moved to southern Indiana, and the sophisticated college town of Bloomington, snugly nestled in Klan country.  When I did encounter it I was never surprised: I knew my society that well, at least.  And perhaps one benefit of having done my homework, and come out under the influence of the radical gay movement of the early 1970s, was that I always took for granted that it was illegitimate and I could answer it.

It often seems to me that we've gone backwards in crucial respects since those days.  I can't help wondering how much of Barton's reaction, as she reports it, is simply typical liberal "Oh, how can you say such awful things!?", which doesn't further discussion, but isn't meant to.  To paraphrase Karl Barth's quip that belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it: Liberalism cannot argue with conservatism, it can only throw hissyfits about it.  It's radicals who talk back, knowing that even if we can't affect the beliefs of the people we debate, there will be impressionable people listening who need to hear what we have to say.  And I must say I'm even more baffled when I observe this kind of panic among academics, because I thought being able to discuss and debate ideas was, y'know, part of their job.  What really bothers me is that so many people who are theoretically on my side in the struggle against bigotry can't be counted on when there is bigotry to be confronted.