Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Equal rights for gays" -- not everyone gets the abstraction


“Equal rights for gays” is very much an abstraction and, in practice, very much a matter of one’s own perception, experience, and balance between intellect and emotion. The yellow and blue HRC trademark boils down to a symbol something that is complex in practice, and meaningless to a lot of people.

Ever since Stonewall, at least the period starting in the early 1970s, much of the world of business and employment accepted the idea of individuals as “equals” and that private lives should le left home. This was particularly the case as technology and information-based jobs, very dependent on individual contribution, care and performance, became more visible in the economy. Perhaps this experience reached its apex in the pre-Y2K 1990s with the “war for talent” and with businesses extolling the virtues of cultural pluralism and diversity in the workplace. They had to.

Even so, cracks appeared. Some (although by no means all) workers with larger families tended to expect singles and childless people to do some of their share of oncall coverage, which was not always compensated. Brian McNaught wrote about this in his 1993 book from St. Martins, Gays Issues in the Workplace. Organizations like LLDEF added to rhetoric already known from women’s issues: “equal pay for equal work.”

At the same time, two major political issues were underscoring the lack of legal equality: gays in the military and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, and gay marriage (and the sub-issue civil unions and domestic partnerships) and the lack of equal benefits for same-sex partners. Yet the rhetoric, however well-intended and carefully spun, of gay rights organizations like HRC seemed to miss the deeper points of what was starting to happen.

Two (or more) big things started to happen. First, the Internet (and other media expansion) made society more “open.” (Think how Google can shred “don’t ask don’t tell.”) The information explosion goes bird-in-hand with “flat world” globalization, and all of the economic dislocations and sometimes exploitations. But, second, a combination of adverse events, centered around 9/11 but including accounting scandals and natural disasters, as well as more reporting about global warming and potential pandemics, has made us more aware of the potential external threats to the way we live as autonomous, expressive individuals. Add to that is much wider media reporting of constant hardships faced by many families (many of these are medical), conveying the moral notion that hardships should be shared. Finally, demographics, with longer lives and fewer children, is making eldercare and family solidarity are more visible issue than ever before, especially for the childless and, very often, GLBT people.

I’ve often written about the tension between “public morality” and “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy” and that dichotomy gets addressed by libertarian speakers. “Public morality” deferred to blood family loyalty and was accepted as a virtue by earlier generations without much intellectual speculation. In retrospect, much of what we accepted intuitively as "moral immutable" protected the capacity of people to become and remain intimate with marital partners who were far from "perfect." It was easy for politicians and businessmen to exploit, and that led to much of the activism (particularly from the Left) starting with the Civil Rights movement. It also led to a new view where the individual was to be viewed on his own merits, not just as part of a family. That can leave a lot of people deserted, who in the older "system" of morality had been told that they had an "equal" chance for a lifelong monogamous marriage with family as long as everyone, besides remaining abstinent outside marriage and faithful within it, conformed to their need for emotional loyalty.

And that’s the rub. This view of things can strand some people. The natural reaction (in justifying an individualistic, "no fault" and "no harm principle" of gay equal rights) is to extend the definition of personal responsibility as the ability to take care of others when one is called upon or needed to do so. Equal rights and equal responsibilities go hand in hand. And it’s not hard to see how past discrimination drove gays away from family responsibility, and the circular arguments that are used to prevent gays from accepting responsibility (whether in the military or with gay marriage and adoption).

But they are arguments, and that is also part of the rub. Many people “experience” family in an organic way where they presume the blood loyalty of others (including giving them grandchildren -- is providing them part of "moral payback" when it doesn't come from one's own love?), and where that presumption gets deeply encoded into what they experience and enables them to remain faithful and active (this has a very biological component – sleep -- just think about it, no details here). Abstract intellectual notions just get in the way. That seems to create an impasse. But it's interesting how the deepest moments of interpersonal emotion in any relationship (marriage or not) seem to have more impact on others than we think.

Yet, we have to work this out, and we have to start talking about intergenerational fairness in new ways. This involves the childless, and we all should realize that family responsibility does not necessarily depend on having had one’s own children. Filial responsibility laws are starting to get attention from conservatives (check my Profile for link to my retirement blog for details), and they can be used to invade the lives of single adults who may have never experienced this kind of responsibility that families take for granted. It’s hard to see why gay organizations have missed the boat on this, unless they are afraid to mention them for fear that that debate will goad states, anxious to save Medicaid money, into enforcing them. Imagine the complicated issues that could come up with only children, or among siblings where one is gay and/or childless.

One particularly disturbing aspect of the growing “involuntary family responsibility” problem concerns how young gay men feel about the societal role expected of them as “protector” and “provider.” In deeper recesses of the Internet, on various message boards, some of them say pretty horrifying things about what they would go through to be relieved of this “responsibility.” (No, I won’t give the explicit links here.) They have grown into a society that looks at male aggressive and competitiveness as an essential virtue. But much of the socialization demanded of “differently wired” young men seems to relate to the belief that the external world cannot be taken for granted and that everyone must take part in protecting the family as a whole.

Further, it's become apparent in the past few years that the civilian job market (not just the military) and well as volunteer needs place much more emphasis on intimate interaction with others and the possibility of personal care, than it did before. There is a certain irony, the male community got a lot of specialized experience with caregiving when the AIDS epidemic exploded in the 80s, but it was specialized and limited in nature, compared to the epidemic needs for caregiving today (including Alzheimer's Disease). One thing I can say from experience in the school systems: there is no way someone like me can be respected as a "male role model" by inquisitive and immature or disadvantaged students without formal public equality in the legal system.

It’s not hard to see how the social conflicts between the individual and family map out into other social and political conflicts that are more often covered by conventional accounts of history. Conflicts of individualism and religion, so much an issue since 9/11, make a good place to start the comparison.

It does seem that Western European countries may have done more to soften the conflicts between individualism and family responsibility, as many of them now have pro-maternity and pro-family support policies (including eldercare) without infringing on the rights of gays. I’m not sure we understand how they do it, and it may be deceptive, given the demographic problems that some countries (like Britain, France and the Netherlands) are experiencing with their Muslim populations.

Of course, external factors transcend the way people are treated "equally or not" in taking responsibility for others. The way medicine progresses is relevant: with the elderly, it is doing a "better" job in prolonging biological life than in keeping people from becoming infirm (whereas with PWA's it made excellent progress in restoring full activity). The way the economy works is also important: employers need to be able to keep people working and productive longer. But, given trends, some families may insist that they demand loyalty and solidarity of purpose like that common a half century ago.

Lifting the military ban (ending “don’t ask don’t tell”), allowing gay marriage and adoption, and at the same time strengthening filial responsibility laws could be the best way to have “equal rights” and “equal responsibilities. The danger in even suggesting this is, of course, is that we could wind up with the last of these but not the former.

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