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.