Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why the gay panic? Or, why the right still smears the queer.

Just why is it that gays and lesbians loom so large in the heterosexual imagination? Why does such a tiny minority—somewhere between two and ten percent, but surely closer to two—figure in culture wars again and again?

It can’t be a fear that we will somehow take over. Unlike racial or ethnic minorities, we don’t increase by reproduction. And, given our presence in almost every historical society in always the same relatively small numbers—even in Classical Greece, the number of exclusive homosexuals was notably small—it isn’t that we attract others to join our ranks. We have always been present and always will be, barring attempts to find and remove whatever genetic dispositions there might be, but we will always be a permanent and small minority. So, what exactly is the fear?
I have a few different, though not mutually exclusive theories. Because I believe that it is gay men rather than lesbians who tend to be more feared, at least by the men who largely still run our world, and because I myself am a gay man, I am going to focus on the fear of gay men, though I will say something about the fear of the lesbian at the end.
Many heterosexual men objectify women. That is, they treat them as something other than real, full human beings. Women aren’t subjects, they are merely objects. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone. So, those men at least believe that this is the way men always think of sexual partners. And, if that’s the way that men think, then there are men, gay men, who want to objectify them. There are men who want to treat them the way that they treat women, and that is absolutely horrible! Horrible, I say.

I think there is an interesting parallel to this line of thought in the way that some feminist scholars think about gay porn. I have heard it argued that even gay porn is discriminatory to women, because even when no women are present, someone is taking the role of the woman and being objectified. But, just like the fear of objectification that underlies much anti-gay animus, this anti-porn thought gets things wrong. It may well be that gay men objectify one another and that gay porn does the same thing, but this is an objectification that, to use the parlance of de Beauvoir, doesn’t make the objectified into the Other.

There’s no objectification of something or someone significantly different, so no separation between the subject and the object. That this is possible, that one can objectify in the moment of sex someone that is still a subject, a real living human being, for you, is a matter of surprise both for the fearful heterosexual man and for a certain kind of theorist.
Many men—and some of those same theorists, for what it’s worth—view penetration as violence, as really tantamount to rape, and as the assertion of power over a weak and vulnerable victim.

This leads to a two-fold problem with gay men corresponding to two of the stereotypes of gay men: dangerous predator and effeminate target of ridicule.

In the first place, if all penetration is rape and violence, then gay men are not only dangerous predators (part of this relates to my third point below) but they also are so dangerous that they attack not only the weaker sex, in the eyes of the heterosexual man I have in mind, but the dominant one. Very little could be more frightening than this.

But, since some gay men allow themselves to be penetrated, they are themselves victims and have given up—horror of horrors, willingly—their position as the dominant sex. Thus, they are even worse, in this view, than women. They have chosen to let themselves be used and penetrated, and so they are rightful targets of ridicule as faggots and fairies.

On both these views, it is beyond the pale of conception that being penetrated does not alone make one a victim, that the penetrated could be partly or wholly in control, or that it could be enjoyed. Again, there is an explicit sexism is both these views, and so this is not so different to my first point above.

Homosexual men are often criticized by others and themselves as being narcissistic. And, we are. But a certain type of heterosexual man—the sort who argued that the repeal of DADT would lead to the ogling of poor helpless Marines by gay comrades in the showers—is even more narcissistic. He cannot imagine that any gay man in existence would fail to desire him as his prey.

Whether this is simply because these straight men have such a high estimation of themselves or because they themselves want every woman they see or believe they could have every woman they desire, I don’t know. But, this belief that the gays are out for every heterosexual man combines with the other fears to make gay men loom larger in the imagination than we ever could in the world and increases worries about the ubiquitous and nefarious gay agenda.

At our best, gay men and lesbians lead lives that are not exactly like everyone else’s.  We lead lives that are experiments in other ways of living, that don’t have to conform to the general form of life constrained by traditional marriage and family. If gays and lesbians have ever been more creative or added a special flavor to culture, it is largely because we have lived outside the normal boundaries of social life.

I know that the largest and most successful parts of the gay-movement industry have done as much as they can to claim that we are indistinguishable in every way from heterosexuals and many in the gay community have done all they can to “normalize” themselves. This is why we have the spectacle of GOProud demanding entry into CPAC claiming to be no less conservative and no different to the Heritage Foundation or the Eagle Forum and why mainstream gay rights groups do all they can to marginalize the queer, the effeminate, the transsexual, the drag queen, the butch dyke, the non-monogamous, etc. It is also why the acceptable gays are the married couples with children on sitcoms.

But , the fact that we can—whether we do or not—live outside those traditional forms of life that many people feel as burdens is a challenge. And, it can lead to ressentiment, a feeling that it isn’t fair that others can lead a queer life, when I can’t. And, ressentiment is hostile. If they can lead a life that is different, that is queer, that is not, I think, open to me, then that life must be bad and immoral and unnatural and it must be stopped.

It is not just different, but it is a contagion, a danger to rest of respectable society. The different is always a danger.
This has gone on long enough, but I want to say a word about lesbians. I think much of what I have said above applies to the way much of society feels about lesbians, as well.

But, two of the major drivers of opposition to lesbians, apart from those I have addressed above, are, first, the inability of heterosexual men to place lesbians. They don’t fit into any of the functional categories that a certain type of man places women. They are not the wife or the mother—except when they are—or the real or potential lover. Without a cubby in which to place them, lesbians are a challenge to a particular kind of heterosexual picture of the world. (The same can be said of gay men; apart from those who attempt to be “straight-acting”, gay men fail to fall either fully within or fully outside the stereotypes of masculinity.) And, no one like a challenge to his worldview.

And, lesbians provide a picture of relationships and a life in which intimate relationships with men are not necessary to happiness. If you are even the slightest bit insecure—and, if you are concerned so heavily with the way others lead their lives, you might have some worries about your own—the idea that any group of persons could live fully without you and do so without being incomplete or unhappy is a challenge. So, clearly, they can’t really be happy; their lives can’t really be complete. They surely need to be cured.