Wednesday, November 28, 2012

LGBT equality and sustainability: What did they want from me then? And now? Watch for those spin-down tornadoes!


Today, the buzzword for LGBT people is “equality” – in opportunity, benefits and responsibilities.  It wasn’t  always so. A few decades ago, during my own coming of age, it was about being left alone at all, about “private lives”.  There has indeed developed a progression that many younger LGBT adults probably don’t fully grasp. They didn’t experience the changes in focus; older men did.

A couple of geographical metaphors come to mind as a prelude.  One of these is to recall what you see when driving west from Kansas into Colorado.  For a while, you see only flat plains.  Then the mountains gradually grow on a distant horizon, and change your perception about what matters.

Or consider weather.  The recent superstorm Sandy had two components: a tropical “core” or eye, and a huge surrounding field more like a cold “Noreaster”.  The storm represented two interrelated meteorological issues, that overlapped but weren’t equivalent.  Or think about what happens along a cold front dragged by low pressure.  At some point, there is a sudden wind shift, a change in priorities, sometimes causing local spindowns like tornadoes.  Low pressure systems are like illustrations of self-serving, circular reasoning in social and political issues, spinning forever, going nowhere.

“Gay rights” (to use the term loosely) overlaps but does  not maintain congruence with the broader questions about hyper-individualism, and whether our western society can sustain itself forever without strong expectations of social capital and cohesion.  There’s your hybrid storm. And as social attitudes toward LGBT people (to use the term with laxity, again) develop, there are sudden changes (like microbursts in thunderstorms) about what should be expected of “us”.

When I wrote my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997, I presented what seemed like a pivot in understanding anti-gay attitude – playing up the metaphor of Ayn Rand’s character Wesley Mouch. On page 14 of the Introduction I wrote, “cultural conservatives see gays as freeloaders, who ‘cheat’ by leading adult lives that apparently allow them to spend all of their resources upon themselves without the adaptive psychological sacrifices (particularly from men) necessary to become providers of wives and children. They really don’t care what gay men ‘do’ …, as what they  ‘don’t do’ to validate the supposed male responsibilities , domain over, and protection of women and children.”  I played up the last scene of Titanic, released about the same time. There was indeed, in this formulation, a certain emphasis on economic mapping:  in the 1990s, as the debate on gay marriage (and civil unions) was just starting (lagging just beyond gays in the military), it seemed that gay people, who were still usually single, seemed to have a lot more disposable income than “families with children” – despite the supposed discriminatory treatment in taxes and benefits (offset by the “marriage penalty”).  What we knew intellectually but hadn’t personally yet experienced yet was the notion that the sharing and sacrifice expected in family life went way beyond economics (the emotional aspect became the distant mountain range in a Tolkien landscape).   I have covered (on a posting here Oct. 8, 2012) why in 1993 I perceived the issue of gays in the military (leading to “don’t ask don’t tell”) as a test of the way individuals in a democratic society share risks and common obligations – and the marriage and parenthood issues would quickly follow.

Of course, such a viewpoint assumes that people wouldn’t take the risk of having families if they could do well in expressive life without doing so.  I believe that cultural conservatives fear that this is so.  We see everything, from women who “want it all” to women who feel that motherhood has been undermined by individualism.  It’s easy to see how gay equality tracks closely to economic equality for women in general.  Looking ahead to modern concerns over sustainability, this anticipates the “demographic winter” beyond those mountainous, barely visible horizons.

Indeed, LGBT people – particularly the men – had developed a segregated (separate and not quite equal) existence since the time of Stonewall.  You lived your own life, usually in a large city, and it was your own circumstances (job, expression, and love life) that mattered, not the rest of the world.  You lived in an urban exile, in an enclave, which you hoped to maintain stability and an employment base.  And big cities in the 70s were starting to unravel.  The “real life world” of families was fleeing to more distant suburbs, borrowing too much money, spreading out, and employers followed.  The male community would be seriously challenged politically by AIDS (below) but the same pattern survived into the 90s, until about the time of Bill Clinton.
But some of the worst homophobia, that affected me, lived during earlier generations, before many of the challenges of the post-modern world were even known.  So, I ask the question, in the world as it was in 1961, why would the College of William and Mary chase me down , get me to admit being gay, and toss me out?  What did “they” really want?

 I could say that it’s procreation: it’s as simple and difficult as that. We all know those Vatican pronouncements to the effect that "reproduction rules." But it struck me as indeed a paradox (and a first “wind shift”) that it was a bigger problem, to hint that you would probably never father any children at all than to get a girl into trouble (the “opposite” sin  -- in the soap “Days of our Lives”, the kid Will Horton accomplishes both).   In my circumstances the idea was even more pressing – I am an only child.  That means that my parents’ marriage dead-ends with no lineage into the future.  In fact, it is indeed this belief system that is driving vicious anti-gay laws in Uganda now.  The outcome – my parents put me through college education at home (with work) under strict supervision – may have turned out well, and positioned me to lead “a  different life” when the world became tolerant enough (by about 1970) – but I lost my best chance to become socially competitive as a college-aged man.

The world in the 1950s  (maybe “According to Garp”) had evolved as a hierarchal society, built from old families and “tribes”, often abused by leadershi[p. In earlier times, a “tribe” or extended family indeed was very concerned about its collective future.  Any individual challenge to this future “human capital” (which used to have direct economic significance on the family farm) could not be tolerated.  It was not acceptable to pursue ends that implied that future children would not be born, or that the optimal familial environment for raising them (if somehow conceived anyway) could be compromised.  Of course, the understanding of the subtlety of nature and biological communities could eventually be shown to be incomplete.  What was previously thought as “illness” was later understood as a mere variation of nature;  “treating” if might serve tribal goals but not be right for the individual.  Not many people then understood “polarity” as a key concept that swallowed “gender”.

Part of the common good in those days was the capacity of men to collaborate to defend their women and children. On the surface, people thought that homosexuals would compromise the forced intimacy that becomes necessary in military life.  This all was found to be a most unreliable idea when there was a draft, and when the debate on the military ban broke open in 1993, the whole idea of "privacy" turned into a more subtle point about "unit cohesion" -- an idea that can become important again with regard to sustainability. 

When I was an inpatient at the National Institutes of Health in the latter half of 1962, I was confronted with my first couple of windshifts.  My “problem” was not homosexuality – but then it was.  Why were the therapists so concerned about what “part-objects”  excited me sexually?  It was all too passive a process. They quickly assessed me as a bookish, self-preoccupied boy (maybe the foreshadow of the modern nerd, but then very much the “sissy boy”) who hadn’t measured up when compared physically to other boys. But then why were they so surprised that I (having lived through physical body shame) wasn’t interested in girls, whom I saw just as “weak” and “dependent”, but instead affiliated upward, to more competitive male companionship?  Two micro tornadoes in my storm tracker count already. I had a feeling that they saw me as having access to secret reactive pleasure that could tempt anyone, since sexual drive tends to take on an existential importance within the "brain belief system".  

The NIH experience underscored another aspect of “individual rights” as we perceived them in the early 1960s, before the Civil Rights movement. You could summarize it with Judge Robert Bork’s phrase, “Freedom to do what?”  The therapists were concerned about what emotional benefit I gained from my fantasies.  If these fantasies could take on a sadistic (however defensively motivated) character, then others had a valid reason to be concerned about my future intentions and purposes. If this became an acceptable way for people to develop when unconventionally challenged, indifference could beget hostility, and social and political stability could be undermined, as it has before in history.  

But I can certainly read between the lines as to what "they" really "needed" or wanted from me.  I needed to belong to the group, to a family, to have its best interests at heart, become socialized.  My homosexuality was seen then as a failure to join in the daily life of family, to having the skills to step in and take care of other people when necessary.  In larger families, people were expected to learn to take care of younger siblings, or even (as adults) step in and raise their kids after family tragedies.  I had no sense of that.

The “wind shifts” in moral expectations do help explain why people look to religion to solve moral paradoxes that come up in contemplating human ends and behaviors.  What happens is that they look to religious establishment figures to interpret scripture to achieve some circular end.  (Pastor Rick Warren talked about this on Piers Morgan when he said that scripture has civil, ceremonial, and moral aspects, and only the last part matters now.) There is a new windshift in the “love the sinner but hate the sin” paradox.  If someone is a “sinner”, he must become unworthy of real affection from others.  This situation becomes so psychologically threatening that the person himself becomes the object of hate, and then bullying.  Pretty soon the next paradox occurs – people for get about the charity inherent in “natural family” life and turned to focus on social combat.  People simply need to find others to feel superior to (as a gay prosecutor in the Midwest explains it). 

I did escape all this, by focusing entirely on myself as a young adult, and placing myself in an urban situation where I could find what I “wanted”. The succor of my own castle, after I adapted to separate city life as a young adult (and worked in an area that required “only” technical performance, not salesmanship or social persuasion) would seem to migrate toward atomized individualism (of the beginnings of the Reagan era) , to be threatened by AIDS.  I would not become infected myself, but have to deal with friends who became ill, and with a dire threat to our rights in Dallas, where I was living then.  It wasn’t just about “quarantine”.  The far right tried to push through an almost Ugandan bill in the Texas legislature, banning gays from most occupations (and remember the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978, before HIV, which had tried to impose a military-style ban on gay teachers). The far right (like a group called the “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS”) had promoted a theory  that the “chain letter” behavior in the gay male population had “amplified” a bizarre virus in such a way that it could mutate and threaten the general population.  Charles Ortleb’s rag “The New York Native” fed gasoline to the fire by speculating that AIDS had been caused by an arbovirus like African swine fever.  These sci-fi scenarios did not come to pass; there are many good reasons that make them unlikely. But today, we find similar discussions of public health in other areas, like bird flu and the agricultural practices of poor countries, and more recently, West Nile.  It’s not so easy to dismiss such hostile speculation completely.

In the 1990s, the idea of living privately and separately would start to break down, as new political debates about “equality”, previously thought inconceivable, arose, and communications developed with the Internet.   Previously, gay men had often scoffed at the idea of family and children as straight institutions; they had wanted to be left alone to follow their own scents.  Getting married and having children had come to be seen as a "private choice" that one took responsibility for, with little public consequence, almost an afterthought to one's own professional or expressive (or public) life.  That would change first with AIDS, where monogamy was suddenly a desired thing, and then with the more open communications in the 1990s.  The economic differences between families and singles (including most gays then) was one thing, but so were the emotional gaps.  The world was becoming wired together, and lives (and fates) were becoming more interconnected. 
   
What would make this real for me was my own experience with eldercare, which took a big jump in 1999 when my mother needed coronary bypass surgery, and might demand real changes in my own life.  I explained some of the details in the Oct. 8 posting.  In time, I did come back “home” to look after her care.  I also substitute-taught.  I found myself confronted with interpersonal challenges that I had not expected.  I was supposed to take initiative and bond with people who would in very recent years have rejected connection with me.  I found this new “wind shift” really difficult.  I began to grasp that most people made emotional connections with much less critical attitudes toward others than I had.  I was perceived as aloof (which I had thought was a good thing, and which some gay therapists – especially a boy friend in Dallas -- had thought of as good), but suddenly this closure was seen as self-serving.  I was unable to appreciate emotional bonding with anyone who would actually need to “depend” on me for very basic things – an idea that had crawled out of the woodwork at NIH. I had never experienced the idea that I should “protect” anyone socially since I had been a boy. But that sort of local compassion is supposed to make up the essence of "family", even for the childless. 

There is a policy aspect of eldercare – filial responsibility is legally driven in most states, and it confounds the idea that family responsibility waits until you procreate.  That can indeed have an effect on the debate about marriage.  It also plays into a basic aspect of conservative “ideology”: if people take care of each other personally (and this goes way beyond just the children you sire), then they don’t have to let the government intrude to take care of them.
  
But ethically it’s even more.  There is more that can be done to extend lives than there was when I was growing up, and there is more that can be done for the disabled.  But that demands more for others in the “society environment”  (a term from my old manuscript “The Proles”)  – both family, and strangers.  It is again another windshift.  In earlier times, the concern was more about the core of the family; the more dependent people stayed home (and depended on “family slaves” – unmarried women – to look after them)  and probably didn’t live as long.  But in the new world of longevity, family cohesion seems more critical than ever.  The right wing is correct to point out that lower birth rates and longer life spans are creating an sustainability issue, and that sheds light on why some smaller religious cultures place so much emphasis on families having children.

As a “singleton”, I benefited from global infrastructure.  That’s obvious from the way I have leveraged the Internet, but that was true in the decades before, where personal  geographical mobility was such a critical individual issue for me given the energy crisis as it was seen then.   But the infrastructure was stable and efficient enough (despite all the threats of disruption) that I could be effective on my own, without needing others except on my own terms.  Future generations may not be able to count on this.

That brings me to a couple more big points.  Yes, my own “life expression” is very dependent on the stability of a global technological infrastructure which can be destroyed or seriously disrupted by nature (superstorms or even solar storms) or by enemies (terror threats, including nuclear and EMP).   I would amount to nothing in a  post-technological world (like in the show “Revolution”) and that observation and indeed invite attacks; social isolation (the prevalence of individuals who don't contribute to "social capital")  gradually becomes a national security problem.  Indeed, one of the relevant issues of my earlier young manhood was the idea that I could have to live with people whether I wanted to or not.  In the Army, ironically, I had managed to do that once.  Another issue is that personal mobility and expression are vital to me exactly because I resist being “coerced” (by circumstance) into closeness with someone I would not choose.

 This begs the next obvious question: how does climate change play out with personal lifestyles?  Indeed, the disproportionate use of energy and emission of carbon by individual people in the west becomes a flash point attracting enemies and becomes unsustainable.  This certainly gets into an area that affects everyone – not just LGBT people (and again, I go back to the “hybrid storm” analogy).

But it does bear on the question of procreation. The climate change issue shows that we can no longer afford a world in which people believe it doesn’t matter what happens after they pass away.  That’s already apparent with other issues (like the national debt).  The new moral concept is “generativity”  -- that everyone has his own personal skin in the future that follows him.  The unborn get extended to the unconceived.

Of course, this bears on the current debate on gay marriage and parenting.  As in the past, one argument against these developments is the notion that the optimal environment for raising children – effectively a responsibility of everyone now – is undermined.  But the notion of “optimal environment” may need extension.  Is it better that millions of children (as reported on NBC Washington’s “Wednesday’s Child”) remain orphans or in poverty if they could be adopted by singles or same-sex couples?  I suspect that delving into that question would change the perception of “optimum” – with a dose of reality.  Maybe there really is a moral question about deliberately conceiving a baby with a surrogate and then taking it from its mother.  But another practical cultural question becomes this: if other forms of families are viewed publicly as strong and even “optimal”, does the lifelong bond of man and wife start to mean less?  People seem to fear this. I’ve always sensed that sexual morality has an unwelcome collective component: I can thrive under the rules if I believe everyone else has to follow them, too.

I remained aloof and a singleton  (successfully and with a lot of stability) perhaps because no legitimate opportunity to connect was available.  Had gay relationships been acceptable when I was 18, would I have married and been able to adopt and raise children?  Maybe.  Would I have stayed with someone as he aged and no longer met my fantasies?  That sounds like a daunting question.  But a few ironic flash-back incidents in my life (some of them connected to the AIDS epidemic) do give me some confidence that I could have.  The irony in the story behind these sounds like a movie plot.

I haven’t said much about immutability, but depending on it as an “argument” has always sounded like a copout, evading any opportunity to get "the majority" to articulate what it wants and understand it.  Ultimately, people have to do “what they have to do” and have to be responsible for whether they “make it”.  It’s much more relevant to look at what people really expect of one another and sometimes people need to become coercive.  As for my part, I still wonder why I fell behind physically.  No clear medical explanation was available during the days of my coming of age, but it may be appropriate for me to find out now.

Ultimately, though, all these issues really do seem to have not so much to do with LGBT identity, but with personal freedom for everyone, and what people want to use it “for”.  

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