Denis Leary’s New Sitcom, Sirens, and the Five Stages of Gay TV Watching
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the second decade of the 21st century, we can now say that gay viewers have responded to television with those same emotions. We just experienced them in a different order.
First came bargaining, when we would look at an unmarried career woman—say, The Beverly Hillbillies’ Miss Hathaway—and talk ourselves into seeing her as a stealth lesbian. Then we moved on to denial, a painful stage in which we were so desperate for representation that we told ourselves that mediocre sitcoms like Ellen or Will & Grace were good, and that ground-breaking (which they were) was more important than funny (which they often weren’t). A few years later, we drifted into acceptance: The L Word was a nightmare, but at least its presence on the TV schedule proved that the straight world knew we existed. (Though judging from the show’s sex scenes, it didn’t have a clue what we do in bed.) When The L Word morphed into The Real L Word, we tasted anger. Like straight consumers of reality television before us, we looked at the tortured souls chosen to represent us to the world at large and cried out: I’m not like that! Now, we seem finally to have reached depression: There are quite a few homosexuals on television, but we find them boring.
A Polite Homophobe Is Still a Homophobe
On Wednesday, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf penned a lively response to my recent piece explaining Ross Douthat’s canny and dishonest defense of homophobia. In my original post, I casually noted that when a business owner denies gay people service because they’re gay, he qualifies as a bigot. Friedersdorf takes issue with this claim, which he believes “is itself prejudice rooted in ignorance.” I beg to differ.
At the heart of Friedersdorf’s article is an insistence that there are reasons other than homophobia that explain why a business owner might refuse service to gay people. But he doesn’t actually name any; instead, he justifies his assertion by pointing out that Elaine Huguenin, the now-infamous photographer who refused to shoot a lesbian wedding, is exceedingly polite over email. Friedersdorf excerpts an exchange between Huguenin and the would-be lesbian client, Vanessa Willock, highlighting how courteously Huguenin phrased her rejection of Willock’s request for service. As Friedersdorf puts it:
Willock was wrong to perceive “hatred,” which doesn't come across in the exchange, or even “blatant” opposition to same-sex marriage—it was so subtle that a followup email was required to clarify—this all happened in a state, New Mexico, that didn't permit gay weddings. (The event was technically a commitment ceremony for the lesbian couple.)
U.S. v. Windsor Must Be This Generation’s Brown v. Board of Education, Not Its Roe v. Wade
Recent judicial decisions have made one thing very clear: Gay and lesbian couples will soon be able to marry in all 50 states. Even Maggie Gallagher, one of the staunchest opponents of marriage equality, has admitted defeat—sort of. As she’s said, the only remaining question is whether the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor will be this generation’s Brown v. Board of Education or its Roe v. Wade. In other words, will the ruling come to be broadly accepted as an affirmation of basic equality and fairness (Brown), or will it become a flashpoint for serious and sustained pushback (Roe)?
A recent spate of anti-gay bills in red states (including Kansas, Idaho, Mississippi, and—most famously—Arizona), which use the mantle of religious freedom to counter the march toward equality, has planted a flag firmly in the soil of Roe v. Wade. If passed, these laws would have undermined the promise of Windsor by allowing a wide range of folks to opt out of having anything to do with gay and lesbian unions simply by claiming that forcing them to be involved would run counter to their religious beliefs.
Why Doesn’t Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade Allow Gay Groups to March?
Until yesterday, it looked like gay groups would be allowed to march in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time in two decades. Under pressure from a new mayor who announced that he won’t participate in the parade unless the gay exclusion ends, the Allied War Veterans Council, which sponsors the event, had agreed to allow an LGBTQ veteran’s group to participate—but only if the word gay was absent from their clothing and signs. (By that logic, they might as well hold the parade in rural Tennessee.) On Monday, the deal fell apart when AWVC claimed the gay group was trying “to enter this parade under false pretenses.”
This green-tinted anti-gay animosity isn’t limited to Boston, of course: New York City’s new mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would boycott the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade
Does Pope Francis Support Gay Civil Unions?
The pope’s statement could easily be interpreted to mean the extension of legal rights to a caregiver living with a terminally ill loved one. Some civil unions also allow widows who wish to remarry to keep Social Security survivor’s benefits. To give you an idea of how slow things are moving here, this itself represents progress: Church leaders previously suggested that widows should “have consecrated to God their remaining years in the unmarried state.” Being exceedingly careful not to issue any errant endorsements of a loving commitment between same-sex partners, the pope only suggests that the Vatican should examine and evaluate the circumstances of governmentally recognized relationships.
Bigoted lawmakers in many U.S. jurisdictions used similar logic when drafting anti-marriage equality amendments during the mid-aughts. In 2006, focusing on the perceived illegitimacy of same-sex marriages, Virginia voters approved a referendum that prohibited the “[recognition of] a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.” In other words, lawmakers made sure that civil unions (including those entered into in other states) didn’t provide a backdoor method for recognizing same-sex partnerships. By denying the very legitimacy of certain relationships, one may also deny the legal rights associated with them. The Catholic Church uses the same logic today.
The Shamelessness of Professor Mark Regnerus
The state of Michigan this week paid Mark Regnerus to testify in defense of its ban on same-sex marriage. A sociologist at University of Texas at Austin, Regnerus gained notoriety after publishing a 2012 journal article arguing that children of same-sex parents faced substantial disadvantages compared to those of different-sex parents. The study catapulted him into conservative stardom, making him a credentialed mouthpiece for the claim that LGBTQ equality harms kids and can be blocked not because of anti-gay bias but out of noble concern for children and families.
Regnerus’ article made waves because it appeared to buck the trend of three decades of research showing kids with gay parents fare just as well as others. In his study and accompanying articles—including one Regnerus wrote for Slate—he touted his large, nationally representative sample size, which he said trumped the quality of research of the numerous prior studies finding that the kids are all right.
Abusing Foucault: How Conservatives and Liberals Misunderstand “Social Construct” Sexuality
Where does sexual orientation come from? It’s a tired question and, frankly, a tiresome one, since it always seems to lead us back to the same familiar (and likely inextricable) tangle of science, culture, and ideology. That said, it’s at least worth trying to keep the terms of the debate, well, straight, and “social construct”—the notion that sexual orientation is a modern invention, with which a person might or might not choose to affiliate—is a concept that has been greatly misunderstood.
To wit: last month, the religious journal First Things published a controversial essay by Michael W. Hannon called “Against Heterosexuality,” which offers an ultra-conservative take on the issue of whether our sexual orientations are natural conditions or chosen constructs. Hannon’s piece is just the latest in a number of recent articles in the “choice wars.” Brandon Ambrosino, writing for theNew Republic, set off a small firestorm in January when he described his homosexuality as a choice, not a biological fact. His article provoked vitriolic responses from, among others, Gabriel Arana andSlate’s own Mark Joseph Stern. Clearly, the biology vs. choice (or nature vs. culture) debate remains a point of serious contention within the LGBTQ community and beyond.
But does “construct” mean what these new adopters think it does?
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.