Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Challenges to Outliers, Part III: Sometimes one needs to learn jealousy

I just want to pick up on a couple of points from yesterday’s discussion.

It seems very striking to me that from the 1970s all the way to the beginning of the Clinton years, I accepted my “double life” as normal and I actually had gotten used to a “separate but equal” paradigm. I was not experiencing discrimination in my own work environment since I was in a technical area, and I often found that I had more disposable income than contemporaries with families.  Yes, I had noticed that I paid school taxes on my condo (in Texas, they were broken out that way so you saw it) for “people with kids”, but it seemed fair enough:  everybody benefits from education (and one day, school systems would employ me).  “Having a family” was by and large seen as a “private choice”.  I had escaped all the jealousies and messy entanglements (like worrying about the quality of “marriage” in an existential way) of the straight world.

I was even a bit hawkish in my own attitudes about foreign policy.  I remember an Adventuring camping trip in late 1990 when some of us talked about the coming war against Saddam Hussein. No one thought then of the irony about the “ban”.  In fact, on an earlier weekend trip we had an active duty Army member, stationed at Walter Reed, with us, and no one thought about it.

My perception of this started to change in 1992 as “gays in the military” surfaced as not only a credible but possibly a real wedge issue.  I had heard of Keith Meinhold’s ABC appearance, and in the early fall (of 1992) I had read Joe Steffan’s riveting book “Honor Bound” about his expulsion from the Naval Academy just before graduation near the top of his class.  Then, of course, the issue “erupted” as President Clinton took office in early 1993.  I thought that the debate over “barracks privacy”, as Nunn and Moskos put it, had corresponded to my own dorm and roommate problems at William and Mary more than three decades before.  That seemed ironic.  But it was also ironic that at the time, this seemed to be about “privacy” in an opposing sense.  Having served in the Army without incident even though others suspected I was gay (from 1968-1970), I knew that normally career military people had “private lives” at home when not deployed; and at the time, it seemed that the key issue was leaving people alone when off base and on their own. Even Barney Frank had said that (even though that later was like “stabbing us in the back”).  If everyone could lead his own life as I did, that, in my perception at the time, amounted to a kind of “virtual equality”.

The critical issue, in my view, was that if someone like me could be barred from military service because of “private choices” (otherwise harmless), then I could be driven into second class status in other ways because I could not share the risks and burdens of others if called upon to do so.  I came into this issue from the experience of dealing with the draft and student deferments in the 1960s.  I thought the same sorts of arguments could come back in other areas where shared community service is involved, such as firefighters (even volunteers).  In fact, this issue had been raised in fire departments back in the 1970s as opposition to employment discrimination ordinances.  I also thought about the HIV issues., which had “calmed down” politically to a remarkable degree by 1993 (compared to how they had been perceived in, say, 1986).  But if giving blood could be seen as a community responsibility, again MSM could be perceived as second-class in that way. (I was once approached rudely about a workplace blood drive by someone without proper sensitivity on the issue.)

The marriage issue did not attract “existential notice” at that time either. At the time of the huge March on Washington in 1993, it was little mentioned, even though military ban was widely discussed.  By 1995, the situations in Hawaii and then Vermont were attracting attention, and in 1996 President Clinton lamely signed DOMA.  I thought at the time it was a rather trivial matter; if anything, it could be read as indirectly telling the states, “go ahead and experiment with civil unions and domestic partnership benefits; it just won’t impact federal law or be binding on other states.”  I was more interested in the fact that in 1995, Clinton had finally signed an order protecting gays in security clearance investigations (how that would work in the military was murky, given DADT).

There was still, in the 1990s, a social attitude that “renaissance men” (and women) didn’t have to depend on others for support, and therefore marriage didn’t matter much.  A Clark Kent look-a-like on the disco floor hardly needed “marriage”.   Call it a twist on Ayn Rand’s hyper-individualism.  Or maybe call it a return of the “Golden Calf”.

As long as the economy boomed (which it did in the late 1990s, thanks to the growth of the Internet abd because of Republicrat Clinton’s fiscal controls and budget surpluses), this sort of attitude was likely to persist.  But slowly the Internet was challenging the “double life” paradigm, making a “don’t ask don’t tell” attitude less tenable.  That would really become apparent by 2005 or so with social media. But more important, harder times came back, with 9/11, and then various policies of the Bush administration, and most of all with another economic crash.  People needed to learn the lessons of interdependence again.
By 2004, with the Massachusetts decision, gay marriage—and not just civil unions – was making surprising progress.  What had once seemed like a harmless tautology  -- “marriage is a social unit created by one man and one woman” – now was taking on existential significance.  Because of  (post 9/11) more attention in the media to people in need, the notion that children and other dependents of gay couples suffered discrimination had real meaning, as did the idea that anyone could suddenly become dependent on others.

What gave me a case of “twisted pictures” was my own experience with eldercare, the parameters of which were not exactly on my terms.  Along with this, I was getting bizarre calls from employers wanting me to hucksterize for them, as well as finding kids in classrooms (when I substitute taught) expected me to play “father” when I had no experience with marriage and fatherhood and had always found competing for it to be frankly humiliating.  Everyone can be called upon to be responsible for others, so one doesn’t want to do this on other people’s terms, or wind up mainly subsidizing other people’s “pleasures”.

What strikes me, in the culture wars, more than anything else, is that people (according to conservative thought) generally are pressured to bond with and care about people in their own “neighborhoods” (including families) regardless of their choices.  Forming a marriage (even same-sex) to last a lifetime, as partners age and experience various difficulties that reduce the obvious chemistry of “turn-on”, and keeping that marital or lifelong partnership bond, depends on a belief that others “visible in the neighborhood” are going to do the same (and may be practically compelled to do the same).   Some people do feel that their marital experience, of a lifetime, is diluted if others get some of the same benefits without the same levels of commitment and “qualification”. Therefore, they may have less incentive to form and keep it.  This observation may help explain Vatican moral philosophies that “sex is for married people” (to quote “Seventh Heaven”) and Roman Catholic claims that non-procreative sex (homosexual or with contraception) reduces the incentive of couples to form and keep marital commitments.  So in marriage areas, our concept of “personal responsibility” can be severely tested by the ways it actually works in a social system.

I look at this from some distance, almost like an alien anthropologist, who never “joined the system” until coerced to do so (at least partially).  The coercion certainly taught me a lesson.  It’s curious that this would come my way. I’ve never experienced the jealousies of characters in soap operas.  And I’ve never thought I could ever be in a position to expect someone to be “faithful” to me.  What an irony.

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