Well that timing couldn’t have been better. When I walked out of my house Saturday morning I was surprised to see so many rainbow flags in shop windows. I wasn’t expecting as big an outpouring of support for New York State’s legalization of gay marriage. It was only when I made it down to Broadway, the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood, and stumbled into the middle of a block party that I remembered, oh yeah, it’s Pride weekend.
I’m happy about the outcome in New York. Mostly on behalf of friends who are already married in every sense except the legal one who may now be able to enjoy the benefits of state sanction. Here in Washington we have domestic partnership that is statutorily defined to be equal to marriage in all but name. (If you sign up, they issue wallet-sized IDs. A year ago a friend showed me his. “Hey look,” he said, “now I’m a card-carrying homo!”) I actually like this arrangement better than in-name equality, because it undermines the notion of one-size-fits-all marriage as an exalted state that you only attain when some clerk down at city hall gives you the thumbs up. Marriage laws in general offend me because they discriminate against single people. Seriously. But that’s for another time. Today I’ll just celebrate.
And by celebrate I mean gloat at the thought of religious conservatives blowing blood vessels all around the U.S.A. You know, I just don’t get the popularity of homophobia. I mean, I get it. You talk a lot of drivel about tradition, natural order, the Bible, and social decay as a way of avoiding saying what really bugs you: which is that the thought of one guy fucking another guy up the ass is really, really gross. (I’m actually with the homophobes on that one, and for that reason will never fuck another guy up the ass. Problem solved.) That’s enough to gin up a lot of private scorn, but doesn’t seem like it should be a tenet of cultural faith for pretty much the whole damn Republican party, many of whose partisans are sincerely opposed to the minute regulation of personal life. I have some ideas on why sexual taboos would appeal to a particular kind of jihadist, but again I don’t think there are enough of those people in America. And they can’t all be self-hating closet cases. The numbers just don’t add up.
I find it useful to approach the question from a different angle–namely why I, as a married straight guy, take it all so personally. It’s not just common decency, or loyalty to friends. Nor is it some Niemölleresque chain of self-interest that ends with “…and when they came for the balding hipster computer programmers there was no one to speak up for me” because I know that’s not how it’s going to play out. No, I’m responding to broader insinuations. Take, for example, the classic schoolyard taunt, “Hey, faggot”. Sometimes that is literally an attack on a person’s sexuality, but it’s often instead a general warning to those who threaten to stray outside the adolescent herd. (Sometimes it also means, “I realize all too well that gym class is the only time a blue collar guy like me is going to be able to exert any kind of power over a white collar guy like you, so I’m going to make the best of it while I can, faggot” but that too is a story for another time.) Sexual conformism sure, but really more about the conformism than the sex.
Conformity grades naturally over into conservatism. And I don’t mean the mom-and-apple-pie sentimentality that mainstream Republicans pay lip service to while working to create the kind of go-go free-market economies that enable liberal elites like myself to leave working-class saps behind in the dust. I mean the real thing–the deep touchstones of family, God, country, and tradition sunk like rebar into the earth. There are people who believe that you just don’t fuck with these things lest the whole structure come tumbling down. This whole gay business that big city intellectual types like me are so fond of–it’s just one more unwarranted risk. And there are others who say, no, it’s fine, go ahead and toss whatever worked for your grandfather’s generation over the side and renegotiate something new. It’s all just improvisation anyway. Have a little faith. This is a profound ideological division with no easy answers, and it runs so deep that we can often only discuss it obliquely, through stereotypes and scapegoats.
Two generations ago everyone would have agreed that homosexuals were a bunch of perverts, but we would be having a similar debate about Jews. Once upon a time–before they proved their mettle by taking and holding territory in the eastern Mediterranean by force of arms–Jews were portrayed in the west in terms very similar to contemporary gays and their liberal elitist fellow travelers. They too were emasculated, religiously suspect, big city drifters, cut off from the deep wellspring of national authenticity. Jews even controlled the media, just like us liberals do now! I don’t want to push the analogy too far–every form of mass hatred is historically specific, and has its own particularly situated character. Still there are patterns, and tropes that repeat. If we were in the Ottoman empire we’d be talking about Armenians–anywhere in east Asia outside China, we’d be talking about the Chinese. (And crucially this has nothing to do with white hostility towards blacks. That was always an entirely different kind of prejudice.) The stereotypes may change over time (the American right’s embrace of Jews is one of the more interesting political realignments of the past fifty years), but the tension between authenticity and reinvention remains the same. Under Stalin, the code word for Jews was “rootless cosmopolitans”. If to you that slur sounds like a compliment, you already know whose side you’re on.