Monday, February 20, 2012
Challenges to those who are different, Part II; "Outlierage": When does sexual orientation "really matter" to people, and why?
In the past twenty years or so, a significant minority of the LGBT community, including myself, have embraced libertarianism as the best political philosophy, as exemplified by Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty (GLIL), which was quite visible in the 1990s.
In general, I still like the idea that the best government is the one that does the least, at least in terms of setting preferences, making regulations, and trying to play Robin Hood. One hopes that with little regulation, market forces will encourage everyone to “do the right thing” with respect to diversity and discrimination.
At the same time, I know that there are many issues that societies and communities must face “together” and that some issues work in a non-linear way with respect to individual choices.
So, for example, when the GOP today makes the “libertarian” claim that employers should be free to follow their own religious conscience in setting personnel and health coverage policy for their own employees and when these same candidates say (with some credibility) that most mainstream employers can’t afford to discriminate (with churches the main exception), we still have to wonder, why do people believe that they need to regulate the sex and personal lives of others?
One strategy of the “liberal Left” on LGBT issues has been to aggregate people by sexual orientation (or “preferences”) into classes, and invoke the idea of immutability to then demand “equality” based on consideration as membership in a “suspect class” of people. This may sometimes work politically, but it is intellectually and morally unsatisfying and suggests that, left to themselves as individuals, people may not have all the “fundamental rights” that they need or want. (My father had once noted that I was so preoccupied with “rights”.)
I think an important question is to ask, why have, historically, many people held homosexuals – those who have private homosexual behaviors or appear to have an interest in having them – in contempt. While on the surface, many of the reasons sound “obvious” (starting with religion), if you ask an individual person about his harboring of these attitudes, he or she will probably have trouble explaining them in an acceptable manner. Even if he resorts to "You chose this" (denying immutability or the "who you are" argument), he won't be able to explain why it's "his business".
I can apply the same question to myself, my own life history. Why have I indeed sometimes met severe rebuke, with harmful consequences, from some parties because of my admitting sexual orientation, even (when a college freshman) as “latent”?
It’s important to put the “Equality” debate, as HRC pushes it, into a certain perspective.
On a certain level, it’s appropriate. Yes, children or dependents on a couple should not face disadvantage because of the social approval of their parents. Partners should always have visitation rights, and so forth.
With gays in the military (the “equality” debate will apply to military spouses) the underlying concept, as I saw it, was that gays needed to be able to serve with a limited openness appropriate for a very sensitive environment. That, for the outer society, meant “equality”, because everyone (in a post-conscription society) was still at least capable of serving when needed.
But the “equality” debate said something else to me, personally. It goes like this: if I did not succeed in having a relationship with a female where I performed sexually to a level normally expected, my rights and interests could sometimes be sacrificed to meet the needs of those who did.
I might well go for decades and lead my own life in a way of my choosing. But I was vulnerable. My own history is that I had serious problems from the objections of others early (in my teen and college years), and again during my eldercare experience. This went much deeper into my life than the “equality” debate, as usually phrased, can convey. So, why did others behave this way?
It is true that people have often grown up in a localized familial or quasi “tribal” environment, where they perceive that their own well-being, or even survival, is tied to that of their families, regardless of their own choices. They are expected to “be there” for the families that their parents have set up for them and step in, as for siblings, when necessary. They are expected to “love people as people” within the family unit, and respect some different levels of personal ability within the family. Going outside the family, in terms of giving attention to people, provided a much more mixed situation morally speaking. Parents have both a right and responsibility to socialize their children into generalized family responsibility as trumping over other personal choices, at least sometimes. Parents, for example, expect adult children to be able to step in to help siblings' children after family tragedies; this is not a matter of simple choice and consequentialism; it's a matter of a whole family's future.
So people come to learn that having and raising children and continuing their families is an important obligation (formerly, an economic necessity in a farm economy), more or less synonymous with the idea that sexuality belongs within marriage, that “sex is for married people only”. But if that is so, then their own choices actually mean a bit less, and many men will come to expect the right to a double standard, and some sex “on the side” as a naturally occurring entitlement.
Men, especially, come to understand that they will have to share their entire sexual lives with one partner for life, and maintain an interest in “actively” doing so. (I could put it in much more blunt terms.) They will have to provide for others. They will have to become fungible and give themselves up for their kids or sometimes for other people’s kids. This becomes difficult to take unless one believes everyone else is going to have to do the same thing.
At William and Mary, in the Fall of 1961, my roommate acted as if he feared that continuing to room or be around someone “not interested in girls” could make him impotent. He actually put his fears in very graphic terms one night. I was astonished at what he said; it sounded self-deprecating. I was the non-human, extraterrestrial, all powerful alien to be feared, watching over others and deciding who was fit to reproduce, since I would not do so myself. In a way, I felt strangely flattered. I could not understand then that others could view me as another potential Hitler, as shocking as that sounds now. Another important observation, in retrospect, is that the College knew that I was an only child. For me to announce “latent homosexuality” to a Dean, even in a clandestine private meeting, was to pronounce a death sentence for my parent’s lineage, for the possibility that their own marital relationship could have meaning forever. I might have owned the power to destroy their marriage (which is an odd notion of responsibility for something I cannot engage in yet). That did not happen, and my parents came around and funded my education at GWU after all, maybe sensing the injustice.
At the same time, when I was forced to leave WM in late November 1961, the college, my parents, and everyone else, played the psychiatry and “mental illness” card. (Wasn’t denial of the reproductive instinct a kind of illness, destructive to family if not self? That’s the kind of thinking that actually permeates Uganda today.) In fact, I have since learned since that in fall 1962 there was another case at WM, with different facts, where the student was actually put in the “infirmary” for a while and allowed to return to school, as if the school thought it was covering its behind by listening to the “illness” model.
I would spend my six months as an “inpatient” at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, MD) starting in the summer of 1962. The therapists were very concerned about my “fantasies” and what part-objects in my fantasies gave me pleasure. The short of it is that they were concerned that I would never respond to women and their “needs” (to be provided for as future mothers) enough to be able to have normal sexual intercourse and have a family myself. They were concerned about my “upward affiliation” (the antithesis of “aesthetic realism”) and my focus on the ways people could fail or “lose it”. They were concerned about what my thoughts and feelings -- attitudes, once they could be detected by others -- would "mean". I could even see this in the (often handwritten) staff notes, which I obtained through FOIA in the 1990s when I was working on my first book. (It’s ironic that socially conservative therapist Joseph Nicolosi [he promotes his “Thomas Aquinas Clinic” online, which the reader can check], in a 2002 book telling parents how to “prevent homosexuality”, writes that “masculinity is an achievement”, and it’s a double irony that I concur.) There were other potentially “gay” or even TS patients, including females. There was a general pattern that the people, deemed “mentally ill” and eligible for the studies, were there because they could not or would not “perform” in a manner consistent with society’s demands and expectations, often related to gender.
So, people were concerned about what turned me on, the wrong things. And the upshot was that this was a bigger moral issue for them than the 180-degree opposite, which would be something like getting a girl pregnant. It strikes me as ironic that I, as a gay man, was a greater threat to his own masculinity than I would have been as a direct rival for a girl friend (in an environment where there were more men than women on campus, no longer the case).
Eventually, I would break free, and spend most of my working life in relative “privacy”, leading a rich double life, but living one of the lives on “another planet” (effectively end-rounding the speed of light barrier every day) so that “equality” didn’t really matter. An important observation, however, is the effort I had to expend just on my own “needs” to be able to get the logistics for my “space travel” set up. Even then, my parents, even once they started to accept “reality”, feared that I would be “followed” and “blackmailed”.
But in the early days, we did indeed have to worry about bar raids and the possibility of legal run-ins (with sodomy laws on the books), however remote. The potential legal climate became much more tense with the coming of AIDS, which inspired the right wing in Texas to propose very draconian anti-gay laws, based on a new “public health threat” from “private” gay activity (the so called “chain-letter” and “amplification” arguments). That settled down, and today this episode (at least in Texas) is little remembered despite the legal catastrophe it could have caused.
In retrospect, the “political” recovery of the gay community in a post-epidemic environment seems remarkable. By 1993, with Clinton as president, it had become credible to debate lifting the ban on gays in the military, a process that would take until 2011 (with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy). At first focused on Hawaii and Vermont, and then Massachusetts, and quickly other states, the debate (and constitutional battles) over gay marriage would take off in the mid 1990s, too. DOMA, while forbidding gay marriage recognition at a federal level, at least seemed to have to indirect message of telling the states, go ahead and experiment.
Writers like Andrew Sullivan were finally explaining cogently anti-gay bias, such as with his New Republic piece that appeared right before the massive 1993 March on Washington. (There would be another such event in 2000.)
Today, in a world that is post-9/11 and post 2008-Crisis, we’re at a very schizophrenic point. On the one hand, we have made historic changes in our military policy and in marriage policy in several states. At the same time, in the Internet age, cyberbullying and in-person bullying of gays in some school districts seems out of control. The kids and school administrators seemed to be ignorant of current events. How can this anomaly be?
My own experience comes back into focus. What I have found is that ultimately, the debate on “equality” matters for everybody, eventually (which is mathematically different from “frequently”, or “all the time”). It mattered for me, once family pressures came back and changes were brought to bear on me that questioned my own diffidence with other people, as I explained on my main blog today. If I don’t have a “marital relationship” of my own, I don’t want someone to be able to force another relationship on me (whether eldercare, or some sort of role-modeling for other people’s children), whatever the level of need, particularly the shame associated with my “competitive history” of the distant past. I don’t want to give up my own goals or life for someone else’s ends. But if I’m not an equal in the relationships I form, I’m vulnerable to that kind of pressure. It can prove fatal.
And, what does so much of this come down to? For some people, the social supports for “traditional” marital sex are necessary for it to flourish within a marriage lifelong. So, it “make sense” to support for the common good. But then, those who don’t engage in “traditional marital sex” subsidize those who do, and are sometimes vulnerable to making real sacrifices, “eventually”, with a great deal of coercion. Libertarian values can at least eliminate the coerced “sacrifice” (although it could exist within the confines of private spaces, especially faith-based employers and services). A quasi-libertarian position might be to recognize or provide the perks of marriage only when there are real dependents (children, elderly, or disabled adults) and maybe for only one relationship in a lifetime, maybe with a maximum age differential; treat all other relationships as simple contracts.
But gay marriage (and to a large extent, “gay rights”) opponents are left in a position of saying that society needs to support normal procreative way actively, sometimes in a way that can seem punitive to those who eschew it, to compensate for the tremendous cost of having a family, raising children, and to recognize the personal lifelong “sacrifice” involved in marriage which gays and determined bachelors refuse to make. It used to be that family was its own reward. But maybe not enough, given the anti-gay attitudes of the distant past.