That Media Circus That Was Supposed to Be Following Jason Collins? It Doesn’t Exist.
One of the most heartening things about Jason Collins’ signing with the Brooklyn Nets was that everyone on his new team instantly embraced the backup center. The only word of caution came from guard Deron Williams, who noted, “I think it’s definitely going to be a media circus.” Williams continued by saying it wasn’t Collins’ fault, but “it’s just the media coming along with it, because every city you go to, it’s not just like you answer a question once and then it’s over with. It’s a recurring thing.”
Oh, that distracting media circus. Lions! Tigers! Digital recorders! Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News wrote that by signing Collins, the Nets are “going to be inviting the media circus to come their way. Do they really need that?” Dan Levy of Bleacher Report also invoked the big top, arguing that “the media circus that was certain to follow [Collins’] signing very well may have precluded teams from taking a serious look at signing him in the offseason.”
Dallas Buyers Club Oscar Winners: It’s “People With AIDS,” Not “Victims”
Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews’ utterances from the Oscar podium Sunday night were among the most spontaneous of the entire ceremony. Actors and directors have agents, business managers, and countless retainers to help them polish their acceptance speeches to a high-buff finish. They’re public figures used to speaking to journalists and investors, while nominees in the makeup and hairstyling category—in which Lee and Mathews triumphed for their work on Dallas Buyers Club—are not.
So, when a very excited Mathews casually used a term that was once considered verboten, it didn’t seem disrespectful. Instead, it was a sign of how much we’ve forgotten about the early days of the AIDS crisis.
Ross Douthat’s Canny (and Utterly Dishonest) Defense of Homophobia
A married lesbian couple bring their children to a restaurant. The host refuses to seat them because, as he explains, interaction with gay people violates his religious beliefs. The mothers speak to the manager, who reminds the host of the restaurant’s non-discrimination policy and demands that he seat the family. Who is the victim? The mothers, who must explain to their children why their parents’ mere existence is, for some, a despicable sin? The children, who were forced to watch their parents shamed and humiliated in public?
None of the above, according to New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat: By his moral calculus, the host would be the true victim, the family the “victors,” and the hypothetical—which is far from fanciful—demonstrates not the continuing threat of discrimination in America, but, rather, the marginalization of devout Christians at the hands of bellicose pro-gay forces.*
In his most recent column, Douthat strives to reframe the current debate about anti-gay discrimination (and even segregation) into one about sincere believers being brutally trampled by gay rights activists eager to bury religious freedom. It’s a failed effort, but a useful failure nonetheless. Arizona’s anti-gay bill may be dead, but several more are alive and kicking, and Douthat neatly anticipates the many straw men, euphemisms, and verbal chicanery anti-gay forces will deploy to make their case.
In fact, Douthat’s column is such an effective piece of homophobic apologia that I expect many red state politicians to borrow from its playbook in the coming months and years. To make their job easier, I’ve laid out the most effective means of disguising raw hatred as religious liberty and rounding discrimination down to “dissent.” If you’re thinking about introducing an anti-gay discrimination bill to your own state’s legislature, you should pay close attention.
Step 1: Put your tail between your legs.
Douthat’s piece is so self-pitying that he actually has to spend a paragraph explaining why he doesn’t mean to be self-pitying. This is a brilliant move. By conceding straightaway that nationwide gay marriage is basically inevitable, and describing anti-gay conservatives “negotiat[ing] surrender,” Douthat immediately earns our sympathy. This pity distracts us from the absurdity of his claims: That the “national debate” over gay rights is nearly over, that gays will soon have won, and that what’s left of the anti-gay “religious subculture” could be crushed by “state power” in the near future. Given the horrifying ubiquity of LGBT workplace discrimination, the jarring lack of state and federal laws protecting gay people, and the continuing lack of marriage equality in most states, Douthat’s theory is ludicrous at best and insulting at worst. But because he waves the white flag so early on, we’re tempted to accept his premise as realistic pragmatism.
Step 2: Make homophobes the real victims.
Only a tiny handful of business owners have been sued under LGBT anti-discrimination laws in the minority of states that have them. Douthat, like most state legislators who have defended “religious liberty” bills, explicitly cites that infamous trio: a florist, a photographer, and a baker, who claimed their Christianity required that they deny service to gay couples. There’s a reason these same three cases pop up time and time again: They tell a very human story of a small-business owner suddenly trapped in the labyrinth of a lawsuit, the victim of the gay rights movement run amok. Never mind that the real victim isn’t the business owner who acted on his hatred, but the customer who suffered from his discriminatory policies. If you tilt the looking glass just right, you can reverse these roles, turning a bigot into a principled entrepreneur and a wronged minority into entitled bullies.
Step 3: Find an audience-appropriate euphemism for “discrimination.”
Douthat knows the typical Times reader is sophisticated enough to see past the hackneyed doublespeak of “religious liberty,” so he lands on a clever new euphemism for anti-gay discrimination: “dissent.” According to Douthat, the Arizona bill was just a way for “religious conservatives” to “carv[e] out protections for dissent.” He refers to anti-gay Christians as “a dissenting subculture,” and hopes more states pass Arizona-style laws that “let the dissenters opt out.” By rebranding anti-gay bigots as dissenters, Douthat transforms them from retrograde homophobes to virtuous objectors, unwilling to bend their beliefs to match public opinion. This makes them seem appealing—until you remember that their “dissent” is a hatred of gay people so vehement that they’ll violate non-discrimination laws just to make sure they never, ever have to provide a gay person with a basic service. That’s not the kind of righteous political dissent Times readers like to see, but Douthat shows us that with enough elisions of logic, the two can be made to bear some spurious resemblance.
Step 4: Dog whistle to homophobes.
How can Douthat distinguish religious homophobia from religious racism? He can’t, of course: As ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser explained, racists across America raised analogous—indeed, often nearly identical—objections to non-discrimination protections for blacks, which were definitively struck down by a near-unanimous Supreme Court in 1981. Yet Douthat scoffs at these comparisons, labeling them “mendacious and hysterical.” I’d love to hear a strong argument as to why religious homophobia is so much more acceptable than religious racism, but sadly, Douthat doesn’t even attempt to give us one.
Since this argument—that there’s no parallel between 2014 Kansas and 1960 North Carolina—is really the crux of Douthat’s column, I wish he’d given us even a glimpse into his rationale. But I have a decent idea of why he didn’t. At the core of Douthat’s argument is a tacit shrug that, well, obviously anti-gay discrimination isn’t as bad as racism: The Bible’s hostility toward gays is a good deal clearer than its distaste for blacks. But Times readers would have no truck with such base bigotry, and so Douthat slips it between the lines, embedding it in the scaffolding that holds up his central premise. By the internal logic of Douthat’s piece, homophobia is simply more defensible than racism. Nothing else could explain why denying gay customers is OK while denying black customers isn’t.
What’s scary about Douthat’s column is how easily a casual reader can inadvertently consent to this implicit thesis. And as more and more states consider bills like Arizona’s, we’ll learn whether the rest of America is ready to concede that businesses turning away gays at the door is an evil this country can live with.
*Correction, March 4, 2014: This post originally linked the words "far from fanciful" to a TopekasNews article that claimed a restaurant had ejected a gay man telling him "no gay eating here." The article is a hoax. The words now link to a Chickasha Express-Star article about a gay man who alleges he was ejected from a Walmart store.
Evaluating Jared Leto’s Oscars Speech
Jared Leto won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar tonight for his role as Rayon, a transgender woman, in Dallas Buyers Club—and given his bracing performance in a wonderfully queer movie, the accolade was well-deserved. It was also unsurprising, as Oscar predictors had long had Leto as the winner.
What was less predictable was Leto’s speech. When he took home the Golden Globe for Rayon back in January, I called his remarks “self-centered and juvenile” and joined many critics in finding his jokes about the difficulties of Brazilian waxing in very poor taste, considering the true physical struggles transgender people like his character can endure. I ended that assessment hoping that next time, Leto would have “basic notes prepared that won’t mock the very people of whom you’re supposedly a champion.”
So did he? Well, it didn’t look good at first. Earlier on the red carpet, Leto was thanked for bringing Rayon to the screen, and he responded by saying he felt “really lucky to have been a part of this movie” essentially because it represented a come-back for him. In other words, self-centeredness still promised to be a theme of the night.
The actual acceptance speech, which was preceded by a noticeable cheer for the nomination itself, started off questionably, with Leto offering a rather lengthy and banal tribute to his mother for encouraging him to be creative, etc. Then, with the orchestra no doubt tuning up to play him off, Leto made an awkward (if well-meaning) nod to the ongoing crises in Venezuela and Ukraine before thanking Focus Features and other parts of the film team. Time seemed to be running out to express a little gratitude to the community he was being feted for representing, but then, just before the buzzer, Leto acknowledged the “36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS” and, most importantly, dedicated his statuette “to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love,” adding “I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.”
It wasn’t much in the context of a lengthy speech, considering that a significant percentage of this win should be attributed to the Academy's desire to make a social statement. And the relevant lines could have been less vague (the word transgender did not appear). But then, waxing jokes were avoided and the relevant lines seemed heart-felt, so I say we call it a net improvement.
Dallas Buyers Club Is a Great Queer Movie ... So Why Are So Many Criticizing It?
When I first saw Dallas Buyers Club back in October, my screening companion and I (both of us queers) went in with a fair amount of trepidation: On paper, the movie seemed like the kind of thing cinema scholars would deem “problematic.” For starters, DBC, which tells the true story of Ron Woodruff’s founding of an buyers club from which AIDS sufferers could get unapproved drug, approaches the crisis from a homophobic straight man’s point-of-view—a risky, though not categorically bad, choice.* And then there’s Rayon, a “composite” transgender character who acts as Woodruff’s unlikely business partner. Obviously, trans representation remains a fraught exercise given the group’s history of being played for disgust or laughs, and casting a cisgender actor—especially a rather inarticulate one like Jared Leto—in the role didn’t bode well. However, as the film went on, we were won over, so much so that by the end I was convinced thatDBC was one of the best queer films I had ever seen.
That specific opinion, I should note, was not widely shared. While mainstream critics have generally praised the film—so much so that it’s up for six Academy Awards, including Matthew McConaughey for Woodruff and Leto in the Supporting Actor category—criticism in queerland has been less glowing. A handful of writers have condemned Leto’s portrayal of Rayon as offensive or “pandering,” and others have taken issue with the very existence of an AIDS film that focuses on a straight person. As writing about the movie has ramped up in anticipation Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, these and other critiques have returned with such vigor that I’ve started to wonder if we’re talking about the same movie.
So this week, I watched DBC again: I remain convinced that it is not only a good film, but also one that is “good for the community” in ways both obvious and subtle. In fact, I think DBC is so good on queer issues that I’m beginning to suspect it’s the assumptions and motives of the detractors that are problematic. A few questions for those folks:
“Are You Like This?” The Complicated Ethics of Traveling While Gay.
In the middle of last year, on assignment for a newspaper, I found myself sitting next to a Maasai woman in Samburu National Park, Kenya, watching an elephant on the banks of Ewaso Ngiro. Everlyn was my minder from Nairobi. She was also a refutation of the canard that women in traditional Africa are powerless to help themselves: After escaping an abusive, polygamous marriage in her village, Everlyn secured an enviable government job, put her brother through medical school, and now made a habit of visiting remote communities to spread education about AIDS prevention. I liked her tremendously. We were chatting over gin and tonics, talking about her life, and then suddenly she wrinkled her nose and asked me an unexpected question: “Do you have when a man and a man go together in your home?”
I froze. “In Kenya, it is bad, I think. In Nairobi you see the clubs and lesbians,” she said. “I think it is a new thing, this choice people are making. We never used to have these people in Kenya.” If “these people” had appeared in her old village they would have been beaten, she explained; she also struggled to accept a colleague who had come out as a lesbian. “If my daughter told me she was choosing this I would be …” She puffed out her cheeks and let out a nervous laugh.
I’m hardly the first person to be blind-sided in this fashion. David Smith, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent, put it well when he noted recently that “anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on the continent is likely to encounter a warm, friendly, decent human being who will stop them short with an outburst of homophobic prejudice.” Everlyn was a good person; but how to navigate this sudden hostility, springing unseen from the grass?
Uganda’s Anti-Gay Law Endangers the Health of the Entire Nation
There are few aspirations that almost all of the globe’s human population shares. Good health is one, and I believe healthcare to be a fundamental human right. Illness impedes individuals from supporting themselves, their families, and their communities. Without health and good access to healthcare, a society cannot function.
But decisions such as the Ugandan parliament’s—with support from President Yoweri Museveni—to criminalize homosexuality, pose incredible barriers to health and human rights in Uganda and consequently around the world. Anti-gay legislation is unfortunately not new in Uganda or elsewhere, but the severity of the recent law is alarming. Any effort to outlaw or push lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender Ugandans out of sight, either through legislation or through outing them in the media, hurts the country, the health of all its people, and the ability to honor all its citizens with the fundamental rights and dignity they deserve.
Arizona’s Anti-Gay Bill Was Vetoed, but the State—Like Many Others—Still Discriminates Against Gays
Wednesday brought exciting news from Arizona. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, the bill that would have permitted religious individuals and businesses in the state to discriminate against gay and lesbian individuals and same-sex couples.
In this case, the political process worked, as a huge national outcry arose in the short time since the bill passed both houses of the Arizona legislature. Business leaders including Delta Air Lines and Apple, athletic organizations including Major League Baseball and the Super Bowl host committee, and politicians including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and both Republican senators from Arizona spoke out against the bill. Fox News also got in on the act, with several of its highest-profile commentators arguing against the bill. Even three of the Arizona state senators who voted for the bill when it was before them urged Gov. Brewer to veto it.
Yes, Gay Activists Failed in Sochi. Here’s Why.
From an LGBTQ standpoint, many are describing Sochi as a flop. Whether it's Masha Gessen lambasting inappropriate and ineffectual actions from U.S. organizations more used to promoting marriage equality than international activism, or Canada's Denise Sheppard deploring the lack of media coverage of human rights abuses during the Olympics, there are plenty of disappointed gays.
Count me among them.
Eat, Sashay, Love: An American Drag Queen Finds Romance in Dakar
A gay boy chasing love in West Africa—considering my reputation as a foul-mouthed drag queen, my friends didn’t think it was a good idea. But in early February, I did it anyway. I took time off from my nightmare job, packed lash curlers and a Summer’s Eve douche, and went to see a boy in Dakar. I wanted to forget what I’d heard about the recent anti-gay violence in Senegal, Cameroon, and Nigeria; I wanted to start living my damn life. But even as I boarded my plane, I still wondered: Would a homo like me—one who wears a hint of makeup even when she’s out of drag—be safe in “the most homophobic continent” on earth?