Thursday, February 11, 2010

Like a train wreck, I can’t look away ...

God love Rachel Maddow. Need any more evidence for the hypocrisy of the current Republican party? Watch:

I hope Obama watches this.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Putting “alternative lifestyle” to bed (so to speak)

I have been following two fairly momentous events in gay rights south of the border—the trial in California challenging "Proposition Eight"—the California injunction passed in the last election against gay marriage—and the Senate hearings on the deeply flawed Clinton measure "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which prohibits gay servicemen and –women from being open about their sexuality while in the military. Both of these events have been notable for the way in which the anti-gay factions in government and society have been forced into increasingly untenable positions to justify their prohibitions, as the standard lines about the dangers of homosexuality to the institutions of marriage and the military have their illogical and indeed irrational bases exposed.

I will not rehash the various arguments being thrown back and forth (some summaries here and here); what's got me thinking about this today is the pernicious quality of the term "alternative lifestyle," which has become synonymous with "gay." I've always disliked the term, both for its implied decadence, and for the suggestion that homosexuality—or any sexuality—is somehow a choice. It's been some time since I've argued this question with someone (one of the benefits/drawbacks of the university life is a radical reduction in the number of people with socially conservative perspectives you encounter on a regular basis), but the idea that individuals "choose" homosexuality is completely at odds with common sense. Let's be clear here: I'm talking not about experimentation or private fantasy, or those fortunate enough to find themselves in accepting and open families and communities. If one's sexuality were genuinely a matter of choice, gays and lesbians would be exclusive to urban and progressive enclaves. To put it another way: I went to a Catholic high school in the late 1980s, and that school remains the most overtly homophobic milieu I have ever experienced; teachers could hold forth on the sinfulness of homosexuality with impunity, and opine that AIDS was God's punishment; one teacher characterized gay sex as "dirty and furtive anonymous encounters in gas station bathrooms." (I hasten to add that this is not a sweeping characterization of the entire teaching staff, but of a very vocal minority, who nevertheless set the broader tone as a loud few often can. Many of my teachers were open-minded and generous in temperament and character, and bore, in hindsight, obvious antipathy to the handful of religious bigots).

If there was a group of people less tolerant than the teachers, it was the student body (or large segments of it, at any rate). The greatest insult was to be labelled a fag; the easiest way to destroy someone's reputation was to spread rumours he or she was gay; homophobic language was common, as was the suggestion of violence where gays were concerned.

When arguing against the suggestion that homosexuality is a choice, I have always related my own high school experience, and asked who, in the midst of this homophobic nightmare, would actively choose to be vilified, ostracized, and possibly subjected to violence? And yet I know of more than a few people with whom I went to high school who came out of the closet years later. I can only imagine the private hells they endured, and the courage it took to finally overcome the years in which their ostensible perfidy was preached at them.

Hence, when I see or hear the phrase "alternative lifestyle," it irks me. More properly, "alternative lifestyle" should really mean any lifestyle choice that deviates from the norm, and here as well the concept is deeply problematic. The question is: alternative to what? If the LGTB community and the prospect of gay marriage finds itself getting increasing cultural traction, I do think it has as much to do as anything else with the concomitant awareness that the idea of "normality" is itself something of a fallacy. "Alternative" family structures involving divorced parents, unmarried parents, multiple households, stepchildren and stepsiblings, have been eroding the myth of the Cleavers and their white picket fencery for some time. I'm not the first to wonder why those vociferous defenders of marriage are so upset about gays wanting to wed—shouldn't they be welcoming any movement toward re-establishing marriage as desirable in the face of all these other "alternative" arrangements? Shouldn't they be happy that these putative sexual degenerates want to embrace commitment, monogamy, and the comfortable tedium of married life?

These questions, of course, are entirely disingenuous, but offer an insight into why "alternative lifestyle" has become effectively synonymous with "gay." That anti-gay proponents frame gayness as a "lifestyle choice" betrays their own particular bigotry; that is, their resentment that anyone would lead a lifestyle alternative to their own. To argue from a cultural studies perspective, the term more appropriate is "subculture." The images animating anti-gay discourse—those who, for example, claim that gays serving opening in the military will lead to cross-dressing, body art, and overt display of "exotic forms of sexual expression"—are more or less the same images conservative newspapers splash across their front pages the day after a Gay Pride March. Anyone who has celebrated Gay Pride knows this frustration: no images of parents marching in solidarity with their gay children (or vice versa), no images evoking the general sense of joy or celebration that pervades the event, no images of people dressed innocuously; rather, we are treated to a slew of those images most calibrated to shock staid sensibilities. Not that this is in itself a bad thing (after all, the sixty-year old men in the assless chaps and the transgendered float in homage to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert likely want to shock staid sensibilities); but what gets lost in translation is that this is the pageantry of a specific subculture (or rather, a diverse set of subcultures) that has developed in defiance of exactly the kind of cultural forces determined to prevent gay marriage in California and the repeal of DADT in the U.S. military. It is not a lifestyle, any more than the denizens of New Orleans exchange beads for casual nudity 365 days a year.

One of the frequent analogies made to the repeal of DADT is that of Truman's desegregation of the military in 1948. Similar arguments were made then, about unit cohesion and the disruptive effects of having black and white soldiers serving side by each. This, I think, is a useful comparison to make, especially considering that the political forces organized against anything resembling civil rights legislation in the 50s and 60s were far more pervasive and vociferous than the outliers denouncing homosexuality today—and the integration of the U.S. armed forces was a slow and arduous process that paralleled the integration of the country more generally. Then as now however the greatest fears tended to be stoked by that catalyst that always inspires fear—the unknown. The average personal journey from prejudice to understanding only really happens through experience. I say "understanding" rather than "acceptance," because the latter has a quality of condescension. One arrives rather at an understanding of the other, ideally, through familiarity. This was indeed my own experience: I won't be disingenuous and suggest that I was somehow above the homophobic milieu of my high school, was more enlightened and progressive. I was a product of that context as much as anyone else. But when one of my best friends came out to me, I had to make a choice. It wasn't easy, but that friendship was more important to me than my own fears and misgivings.

It is for this reason that I look at the repeal of DADT as a crucial milestone—whatever the brave stands being taken by the higher command against congressional anti-gay forces, I have little doubt that the broader portion of the rank and file is at least ambivalent and at most hostile to openly-serving gays and lesbians—just as they were to integrating the forces in the 50s. But both history and personal experience tell me that the first step in social progress is simple contact, which forces people to confront prejudices and, more often than not, teaches them that common humanity outweighs what differentiates them.

It's worth noting that the original formulation of the policy was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Flaunt"—which echoes the typical "I'm not homophobic, but ..." disclaimer that states "I don't care what you do in your own life, just don't flaunt it in front of me." Of course, one person's flaunting is another person's simple living. This is the pernicious aspect of DADT, for it requires silence about one of the crucial defining aspects of self. Andrew Sullivan, in his blog "The Daily Dish" at The Atlantic online, responds to those who dismiss the difficulty of concealing one's sexual orientation with this simple thought experiment: "If you're straight, try it for one day. Try never mentioning your spouse, your family, your home, your girlfriend or boyfriend to anyone you know or work with – just for one day. Take that photo off your desk at work, change the pronoun you use for your spouse to the opposite gender, guard everything you might say or do so that no one could know you're straight, shut the door in your office if you have a personal conversation if it might come up. Try it. Now imagine doing it for a lifetime. It's crippling; it warps your mind; it destroys your self-esteem."

Seriously. Imagine it. Think you could pull that off?

Monday, February 08, 2010

A post to embarrass my father

So, the Super Bowl was yesterday, and apparently one team beat another. One team did more of the thing that they were supposed to do and took home a trophy of some description. Well done. Well done, I say!

(Make you a dead, Dad -- I'll take real football seriously when you finally get around to watching the DVDs of season one of Friday Night Lights I loaned you in November).

And on the topic of fictional football -- Slate imagined what the Super Bowl would be like if it were directed by a bunch of cinema auteurs. Watch: