Those ker-azy homophobes

Before I get into the meat of this post, I just want to say that I really wish there was a different word to describe anti-gay prejudice.  I know there’s heterosexism, but that’s usually used to mean a more low-key belief that heterosexuality is the best form of sexuality.  I want a different word to describe the rabid, foam-at-the-mouth, hatred-filled-ranting kind of prejudice.  People with genuine phobias (agoraphobia, claustrophobia etc) I tend to feel sorry for: homophobes, not so much.

Anyway, it turns out that an English teacher in Blanchardville, Wisconsin (population 806) has upset at least one parent with a discussion exercise she set for her senior (i.e., over 16 years old) high school students.  The original story is here, on World Net Daily, which appears to be a christian-conservative news source (it might help you get an idea of what kind of site it is if I mention that it features a prominent advert for a book called The Audacity of Deceit: Barack Obama’s War on American Values as an ideal Christmas gift).  If you would prefer to send your web traffic in a different direction, the Feministing community blog also has a post discussing the issue from a rather more liberal perspective.

It seems as though the discussion exercise was based around a fairly common strategy for stimulating debate: looking at an issue from an unusual angle.  In order to facilitate this approach, the students were sent home with a set of questions to read and think about for their next session.  These were the questions (as reported by World Net Daily):

  • What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
  • When and how did you decide you were a heterosexual?
  • Is it possible that your heterosexuality is a phase you may grow out of?
  • Is it possible that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
  • Do your parents know that you are straight?  Do your friends and/or roommate(s) know?  How did they react?
  • Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality?  Can’t you just be who you are and keep it quiet?
  • Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyles?
  • A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual.  So you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual teachers?
  • With all the societal support marriage receives, divorce is spiralling.  Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?
  • Statistics show that lesbians have the lowest incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.  Is it really safe for a woman to maintain a heterosexual lifestyle and run the risk of disease and pregnancy?
  • Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?
  • Would you want your child to be heterosexual, knowing the problems that s/he would face?

If you’re like me, you probably found the list of questions mildly amusing.  If you’re gay, you probably recognise an awful lot of them, except, obviously, with the sexual orientation reversed.  Certainly, a lot of the basics of the standard ‘case’ against homosexuality are represented – homosexuality is a choice; it’s a phase; it’s a psychological disorder; homosexuals flaunt their lifestyles; they proselytise; they’re child abusers; they have short and unsuccessful relationships; they’re at greater risk of STIs; the homosexual ‘agenda’ presents a threat to the long-term viability of the human race.  Over the course of my life, I’ve personally encountered all of these arguments.

I don’t really want to go into all the ins-and-outs of the various arguments.  In some places they’re factually accurate, but with a negative ‘spin’ (as in the ‘instability’ of gay relationships, with no consideration given to the possible causes of that instability).  In other places they’re totally nonsensical (there’s a clear distinction between encouraging gay people to come out, and urging straight people to turn gay, and the distinction remains, no matter how loudly some conservative groups try to insist that it doesn’t).  I will say that I think the ‘heterosexualised’ version above is a reasonably fair mirror image, in that it contains a similar mix of accurate-but-misinterpreted statements and others that fit much more neatly into the ‘clearly nonsensical’ category.

It’s also apparent (to me, anyway) that the list of questions is pretty ridiculous.  Of course straight people aren’t neurotically afraid of their own gender.  Clearly I can’t speak from personal experience, but it seems highly unlikely to me that straight people make a conscious decision to be straight, either. I’m sure I could raise similar objections for every question on the list.  This is, of course, the point (or one of the points) that the exercise was attempting to demonstrate – that there are obvious logical inconsistencies in a number of the arguments deployed against homosexuality.  Reversing the argument is simply a way of shedding a different light on those inconsistencies.

The exercise was clearly aimed at encouraging the students to think for themselves, rather than simply accepting at face value second-hand arguments.  It’s entirely appropriate that this sort of ‘critical thinking’ is being taught in a high school – the ability to think for yourself, and to challenge the things you are told, is more or less a prerequisite for a citizen in a democracy.  It also seems to me that it’s entirely reasonable for it to be taught in an English class, because it serves as a practical demonstration of the way in which rhetoric is used to persuade audiences to a particular point of view.  Reversing the familiar content of the argument while preserving its form is a very good way of exposing the way in which the rhetoric itself functions.  It seems to me that studying it in this way is better than the dry-as-dust sessions I had to endure, with their frequent references to largely unnecessary technical terms like pathos and bathos, litotes and hyperbole.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but those ker-azy homophobes don’t see it that way.  Marilyn Hanson, the mother of one of the students who was sent home with the list of questions, is reported by World Net Daily to have said:

I really think this was outright indoctrination to the homosexual viewpoint.  I could see this being discussed in a debate class, where both sides were presented, but the other side was not presented. […]  I think they’re trying to shove [homosexuality] down our throats.

To be fair to Ms Hanson, she is open to the idea that issues such as this could be discussed in school, but it’s also fairly obvious that she has misunderstood the intended aim of the discussion.  She is clearly envisaging a debate along the lines of ‘Heterosexuality – Right or Wrong?’, and sees the list of questions as a gambit that might be used by those who had been assigned to defend the anti-heterosexual position.  (It’s revealing that she assumes that being anti-heterosexual and being homosexual are the same thing.)  In other words, it would appear that she sees the questions as valid (or potentially valid), and so worthy of debate.

This is, of course, precisely the ‘debate’ that right-wing fundamentalist christians (or theocons, as I’m going to call them from here on in, for reasons of brevity) have been trying to have for years.  They try to insist that there is a ‘gay agenda’, and that it is dedicated to the overthrow of heterosexuality.  So, for example, the campaign for an equal right to marry is presented in some quarters as an attack on heterosexual marriage.  Sex education programmes that take account of the fact that there are gay students, and that they also need information, are presented as an attempt to indoctrinate children into ‘the gay lifestyle’ (whatever that is – I’ve been out for well over a decade, and I’ve yet to come across a unified ‘gay lifestyle’).  To be fair to theocons, many of them of course object just as vociferously to heterosexual sex education classes, on the equally spurious grounds that they ‘promote promiscuity.’  It’s in this context that Marilyn Hanson’s conflation of anti-heterosexuality and homosexuality is so revealing.

If it were to be taken at face value – which it shouldn’t be, but even if it were – the list of questions doesn’t promote homosexuality, but questions the validity and desirability of heterosexuality.  There are, of course, other options on the table – one obvious one is celibacy, which theocons are always very keen to promote to homosexuals who are unable to ‘change’ their orientation.  The fact of the matter is, though, that there are very few homosexuals who are opposed to heterosexuality.  Certainly I have no problem with it.  I do have a problem with narrow-minded people who try to preach that heterosexuality is the best form of sexuality, but I don’t make the mistake of assuming that all heterosexuals are anti-homosexual.  Heterosexuals themselves are just fine by me.  To appropriate a well-worn phrase, some of my best friends are heterosexual.  Unlike most people who use that sort of phrase, I mean it genuinely, and not as a justification for prejudice.

The only people in this ‘debate’ who are trying to attack, and promote, and proselytise are, of course, the theocons.  The huge sums of money spent by the mormon church to campaign in favour of a ban on same-sex marriage in California was nothing if it was not an attack on gay people, an assertion that they are not deserving of equal treatment under the laws of that state.  All the myriad christian groups that seek to ‘convert’ homosexuals into heterosexuals are nothing if they are not attempts to promote and proselytise on behalf of a particular sexual lifestyle.  Most homosexuals are seeking only a level playing field, a legal and social situation in which people have the same rights and opportunities irrespective of their sexual orientation.  It’s theocons who believe in unfairness and unequal treatment on the basis of sexuality, no matter how vociferously they try to claim it’s their opponents who do.

Commenters on the Feministing blog have pointed out that, in addition to their standard knee-jerk reactions to any discussion of homosexuality that doesn’t involve outright condemnation, theocons are also likely to object to the fact that ‘critical thinking’ is being taught at all.  Religious faith in general, and fundamentalist faith in particular, relies to a large extent on an absence of critical thinking, on the propensity to believe that something is true either because it was written down in a big book a long time ago (‘And on the sixth day…’), or because you wish that it was true (‘dead people aren’t gone forever, they’re just moved on to the next life’).  Anything that disrupts such simple-minded credulity is a problem for those who want to encourage fundamentalism.  That’s why theocons resist the teaching of scientific explanations for natural phenomena, because they’re aware that once people have started on the process of thinking rationally about things it can be hard to get them to stop.  A run-away outbreak of rationality among the followers of any religion would clearly decimate its membership.

Just before I put this post to bed, I want to write about one other aspect to this issue.  I dislike all religious and ‘spiritual’ beliefs (though not necessarily the people who hold them), but I particularly dislike those, like christianity, that are based on an exclusive, ‘them and us’ mentality.  Christians, for example, live in hope/fear of the last judgement, when they believe god will separate the holy from the unholy.  This ‘them and us’ thinking infects the world-view of all christians, but it’s particularly obvious in fundamentalists.  It’s why they spend their lives looking for representatives of ‘them,’ partly because they genuinely (and ridiculously) believe they are involved in a real, ongoing battle with ‘the forces of satan,’ and partly because a strong sense of a common enemy is always a good way of keeping your own side loyal.

During the cold war, American theocons had it easy – communists were atheistic, sometimes aggressively so, and that made them an easily identifiable ‘evil other’, against which theocons could ‘fight the good fight’.  Since 1989 it’s been much harder to identify the ‘evil other’.  Islamic extremists are an obvious contender – they are opposed to christianity, and most people are already scared of them – but it’s a slightly awkward one for theocons because islamists share so many of their social goals (banning contraception, banning abortion, banning homosexuality, enforcing the different ‘natural’ roles of the genders, and so on).

It’s in this context that homosexuals have been picked on by theocons as the ideal whipping boys (and girls).  Homosexuals can be made to seem scary, because you could be living next door to one and you’d never know it.  The parallels between the scare-mongering tales about ‘hidden homosexuals’ and their ‘secret agenda,’ and earlier panics about ‘reds under the beds,’ are not, I think, coincidental.  Homosexuals can also be made to look scary because they campaign for social change, and this can be spun as ‘an attack on our way of life’ in general, and ‘an attack on christian values’ in particular.  Finally, they can be made to look scary in a way that whips up patriotic fervour because the campaign for change has been somewhat more successful elsewhere (most notably Canada and western Europe) than it has been in the conservative heartlands of America.  This raises the possibility of being able to describe homosexuals (and those parts of the US that take a more liberal approach to gay rights) as ‘un-American’.

One of the possible effects of the discussion exercise carried out by high school students in Blanchardville is that it will encourage some of the students to take a more empathetic approach towards gay people.  Some of the straight students may think to themselves ‘How would I feel if I was being constantly asked to justify and explain my sexuality?’, and having gone through the exercise may decide to be less hostile and less unthinkingly inquisitive when they meet someone who’s gay.  Clearly not every student will be affected in this way – some will see the homosexual versions of the questions as entirely justified, and will fail to recognise any parallels between the two situations – but the potential this has to increase genuine tolerance has clearly worried some people, perhaps because it reduces the likelihood that homosexuals will continue to be seen as the ‘evil other.’  This is Marilyn Hanson, the concerned mother, again:

As I was talking to the principal I told him tolerance is fine.  We shouldn’t be mean or call people names.  We want to love homosexuals, but I think this goes beyond tolerance.

Once again, Ms Hanson is due some credit – she seems to have recognised that having people be ‘mean’ to them and being called names are among the problems that gay teenagers face, and that it’s wrong that this treatment is meted out to them.  But it’s also clear that the sort of tolerance she envisages is a situation in which homosexuals are barely tolerated, but their heterosexual counterparts are not encouraged to have any compassion or empathy for them.  When she says that she wants to ‘love’ homosexuals (stop sniggering at the back there…), it’s clear that she doesn’t envisage that love preventing her from telling homosexuals that they and everything they stand for are wrong.  This is the one point on which I agree wholeheartedly with Marilyn Hanson – this kind of ‘love’ has nothing to do with tolerance.

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11 Responses to Those ker-azy homophobes

  1. cellar_door says:

    I love those questions…should be on the syllabus in England.

    I have occasionally wished I was gay, as men are a bloody hassle sometimes. But since I have not magically turned overnight, I feel it safe to say that homosexuality is not a choice. No matter how hard you guys ‘advertise’ ;0)

    Just curious, and tell me to fuck off if you like :0) But if sexuality was a choice, would you come over to the other side (as it were)? Or if you could go back, would you have been born straight?

  2. Mariah says:

    I wish my high school teachers would do something that interesting.

    Blanchardsville is not too far away from where I live. That area’s known for having a disporportionate number of fundementalist Christians.

    Admittedly, for the form to be entirely neutral it would have to go along the lines of:

    What is your current sexuality?

    What caused it?

    When and how did you first begin to identify with your current sexuality?

    And so on. This would however eliminate the last five or so questions, which are the most interesting.

    I personally see it as an effective method to put heterosexual teenagers in a minority situation. I think it would help prevent asking gays stupid questions, and just foster a better understanding. I can see how an anti-homosexual someone would misinterpret the questions to promote homosexuality, but for most people all they would see is a list of questions about themselves and social issues.

  3. This was precisely how I approached being the “guest gay speaker” for psychology courses in the 80’s. I simply switched genders and orientations to their own questions, and asked them the same things.

    Seems kinda like, “duh”, but I was surprised how many lightbulbs went off during those kinds of discussions.

  4. Alex says:

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, WorldNetDaily. My advice is to stay away from American conservative websites, it’s not worth the rise in blood pressure.
    Kudos to the teacher, though, those questions are genius. None of my teachers would have even contemplated something like that.
    Anyway, I agree completely with everything you’ve said, although it’s worth pointing out that targeting homosexuals was a major sideline of the very same ‘reds under the bed’ people. I think we can blame Roy Cohn and his self-loathing for that one.

  5. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    cellar_door – it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the excercise in UK schools, would it? I think homophobia is less ‘respectable’ over here than it is in some parts of the states, but there’s still plenty of it around, especially among teenagers. And anyway, encouraging people to think is never a bad idea, is it?

    As to your question – i’m going to have stab at working my answer to that up into a post, i think. So, watch this space… ;o)

    Mariah – i never got anything that interesting when i was in school, either. Mind you, that was back in the 80s (and just slightly into the 90s), and in those days homosexuality was only ever mentioned in a sentence that also contained the word ‘AIDS’. Some people might find the phrase ‘current sexuality’ a bit controversial (and not entirely neutral) because it seems to imply that sexuality can change. Personally, i don’t have an absolute view on that, except to say that so far my own orientation has shown no signs of shifting. I do think it’s not susceptible to conscious attempts to change it, though. :o)

    johnbisceglia – welcome to my blog (or at least welcome to the comments field of my blog…) :o) Sorry for the delay in your comment appearing – for some reason it was flagged as potential spam. I have no idea why – usually it happens if someone includes a link in their comment, but that’s obviously not the case with yours. Anyway, it certainly sounds as though it was an effective teaching technique when you used it. I should think you did a lot of good by illuminating all those lightbulbs. :o)

    Alex – that WND story was actually quite weird, in that the main body of the article was pretty neutral, and gave as much scope for the principal of the school to explain his case as they did Marilyn Hanson, but the headline (‘Teacher forces teens to question their heterosexuality’, from memory) and the ‘Other suggested articles’ section definitely weren’t. I found myself wondering if they’re a reasonably ‘fair’ news organisation, or if it was just that they’d picked up the story from a wire service and had only bothered to re-headline it.

    Ah ‘dear’ old Roy Cohn, he has a lot to answer for. Still, he did make for a fantastic baddie in the play/ film Angels in America… ;o)

  6. smith says:

    Without getting to detailed, I’m hip-deep in this mess. The WND article is shallow; there’s so much more to this than mets the eye. The original article gets re-published ad nauseum, but no one calls for verification or depth. Hanson’s comments are very one-sided, and not representative of the community at all. Just one hot head that went to an Evangelical “news” organization for exposure. Its mushroomed from there. The beauty is the kids are so incredibly cool with this. They are checking the web, seeing religious sites advocating violence, seeing their parents implode, experiencing first hand intolerance (there is essentially no minority population in this community). And the kids are fighting back! I am so proud of them, and I hope we survive.

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi smith, and thanks for commenting.

    I didn’t mean to say that everyone in Blanchardville was homophobic, so i’m sorry if it came across that way. I realised when i was reading the original story that there seemed to be only one parent involved in the protest, and i assumed that if there had been more WND would have mentioned them, because it would help to further their cause. My post was really focussing more on the wider reaction (and the comments of that one parent) than criticising the community itself. From over here in the UK, anyway, it seems that these kinds of story are always less to do with genuine protest in a particular locality, and much more to do with events being manipulated into a firestorm by elements of the media. (Exactly the same thing happens over here, by the way.)

    It’s really encouraging to know that the students themselves are reacting to the negative things that are being said about this story. It reflects really well on the students, and it also makes it sound as though the High School has done an excellent job in educating them.

    I really hope you survive, too – I’m sure you will. If there’s anything i can do from this side of the Atlantic to help out then just let me know.

    Take care,

  8. Pingback: If you could choose your sexuality… « Aethelread the Unread

  9. J.Wibble says:

    I used to have that list of questions up on my bedroom wall, along with a similar set on gay marriage (you may have seen it, the one that starts “Homosexuality is not natural, just like contact lenses and polyester”). I’m tired of arguing with people who think being gay is wrong, and like Alex said it’s best to just stay away from the fundie websites unless you’re feeling very calm and collected and just fancy a laugh (e.g. Fundies say the darndest things).

    An interesting turn on this is that gay trans people frequently get asked “why can’t you just be a straight man/a lesbian woman?” I swear if one more person tells me that me and my partner should “just be lesbians” I’m gunna swing for ’em. As well as being incredibly belittling and offensive, it also shows just how far the trans rights movement is behind the gay rights movement – and we all know the battle for gay rights is hardly won.

  10. Those questions are great.

    On the subject of the gay agenda, you may enjoy this youtube video by a friend of mine on that subject (warning, contains much comedy):

  11. Pingback: Those ker-azy homophobes (2) « Aethelread the Unread

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