Monday, September 16, 2013

Uganda, Russia make us ask what really causes homophobia?

Yesterday (Sept. 15), I reviewed a BBC film “The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay” on my Movies blog. It’s an hour-long BBC documentary by gay British DJ Scott Mills.  In the film, Mills journeys to Uganda to talk to people on the streets, and the hatred of gay people is even worse than reported.  Tabloid newspapers deliberately hunt down closeted gays.  The situation seems much worse than it is in Russia, where technically “only” public speech about gays is prohibited.   When quizzed about the basis of their beliefs, Ugandans seem to be unable to answer other than by referring to shallow religious ideas, and vague ideas of being “African.”  They believe what they are told to believe by politicians and preachers.  The exportation of this sort of hate to rural sub-Saharan (and not necessarily Muslim) Africa seems deliberate. BBC's link is here
  
This leads to the same questions, about why these things used to happen to gay people in this country, certainly into the early 1960’s;  after Stonewall in 1969, things rapidly improved.  
  
To answer these questions usefully, it’s useful to work inductively and look at my own life.  But my own experience is embedded in a larger controversy about how others saw my life strategy as someone who analyzed problems, often working alone, and then wrote and published content.  Looking at my own sexuality does not completely cover these problems, some of which are often more common with “heterosexuals.”  But once the subject of homosexuality came up, at least around 1961 or so, it would take over and dominate everything.
  
So I ask, why did people make my own “private interests” and intended private life their business?   Why was my being a homosexual a bigger deal than the opposite, getting a woman pregnant or committing some crime in the ordinary sense?  It’s both simple and complicated. Let me add here, I've never been satisfied with the "third down" punting inherent in immutability arguments (which do have some scientific validity).  That doesn't obviate the need to look at the ethical questions, from both sides.  "They" need to tell me what they really need.  And I have to answer for my own hidden karrma.  
   
But the world I grew up in, while saying it celebrated freedom over communism and fascism, was indeed still a bit authoritarian.  In a world where there were real identifiable enemies (and in the midst of the Cold War and not long after the “Greatest Generation” won WWII) there was a belief that everyone owed a basic loyalty to the common good.  It was important that people be able to perform well according to their natural gender if called upon to take risks and possibly make sacrifices for the good of others, starting with one’s own family.  If one did not “step up” when it was necessary, additional sacrifice might be borne by others. This sort of feeling could seem to justify bullying and teasing of those who needed to be “brought in line” protect the welfare of the group.

The human brain tends to give great importance to discovery of sexual interest in another person.  The person wants to believe that following up will serve some metaphysical purpose (if not having a baby). I may want to believe that some person is, in some way, angelic.  If I believe that, the apparent nature of this belief may say a lot about how I perceive and value others and may have an eventual effect on others. But of course this general observation is quite possible in the heterosexual world, too.
Over time, people have often expressed opinions of what they expect of me and of what they need from me.  But this presents a “Would’a-C ould’a-Should’a” problem. “What others want” from me may not add up to a coherent whole.  I have to cancel out the contradictions.
  
I can work this question from inside out.  One stark fact, from conversations with my roommate at William and Mary that occurred about two weeks before my expulsion late in 1961 was that he feared becoming impotent if he continued rooming with me, even though I never threatened or approached or expressed any direct “interest” in him particularly.  His language in one conversation was quite graphic (it’s in my first book).  An individualist today would ask, why isn’t that his problem, not mine?  But in those days people were indeed more likely to view some things collectively. I think that the fear was more that, as someone who was likely not to seek relations with women, I was likely to set myself up as able to sit in judgment (like an “alien anthropologist”) on the suitability of those who would.
  
Then, there was also the issue that I was an only child.  In the days that colleges acted “in loco parentis”, they might have felt this information of great urgency for my parents, because it would mean that there would be no future family descending from their committed marriage.  It seems odd to hold me responsible for the outcome of my parents’ relationship at a time in my life when that significance could not have seemed real to me.
  
Once I became a patient at NIH, the nature of my “fantasies” and the way I could produce mental “pleasure” from them seemed to be of great concern to the therapists (in the fall of 1962).  (My father's idea that "one day blue eyes will confuse you" had proved to be rather naive.) Much was made of my process of upward affiliation, of my interest in comparing my peers to some mental model of the ideal man, and then to become concerned that some particular “idol” might stumble and have a flaw, wind up with “clay feet”.  That would mean that were I to start a permanent relationship, it could fall apart if something happened, even superficially, to the other person.  Some of my fantasy material, as it pertained to the “external trappings” of manhood, related to the fact that I had grown up in a largely segregated world, where the while male was the only visible role model (for me).   This matter of sexual attractiveness can obviously be important to heterosexual marriage.  My parents had, after all, been faithful “in sickness and in health”.  Sometimes women have enormous weight gains after a first pregnancy, and their husbands have to deal with loss of interest.  Partners of both genders could get various cancers, or suffer traumatic disfiguring injury by accident, crime, or war.  All of these potential challenges could be bypassed in a fantasy life.  A potential partner was seen “as is”, without regard to time or any actions of others that might have contributed to a person’s appearance and performance. 

The therapists said that I wanted to “step on people’s toes” and remind them that they could be just as inadequate (particularly as eventual marriage partners) as me.   All of this had developed from my own inability to perform competitively according to my biological gender.  In the view of others, if this life strategy, once publicly recognized, was acceptable (even though “private” and “consensual” in the normal use of these terms), others might imitate it.  If too many people believed in this sort of thing, society socially and politically could someday go down the route of the Nazism we had just defeated, viewing some people who “didn’t make it” as expendable.  
  
One might think that these sorts of concerns could be distracting to “unit cohesion” in the military, and it sounds like it.  But the course of “don’t ask don’t tell” for seventeen years shows that this psychological tension was much less of an issue than feared.  I would take the draft physical three times in the 1960’s, going from 4-F to 1-A, and serve “without incident”.  But in Basic Training it was apparent that my education would protect me, while other more aggressive men would be making the sacrifices in combat.  There was a bit of banter about sort of thing when I was stationed at Ft. Eustis, but it was mostly harmless fun.  Two men (one a conventionally married colonel) did make passes at me while in the Army, but nothing happened either time.
  
Once I became a working adult, attention gradually shifted to the idea that men with families to support had less discretionary income and took on more debt than I did, which provided the other side of the equality debate.  I could sometimes lowball others because I could afford to work for a little but less (back in the 90s, activists used to claim that LGBT people, without the possibility to marry and with less visibility as parents than now) could be hired at a discount.  But so were women. In salaried work, I sometimes took nighcall (uncompensated) for people with families.

A Midwestern prosecutor used to tell me that he felt that anti-gay bias (and sometimes bullying or hate crimes) were more an expression of a need to prove one’s superiority to others in what they perceive as inevitable social competition. But a variation on this idea would be the need to see others compelled to live up to the same standards of "virtue" as "me", giving otherwise unwelcome permanent  intimate commitment enough "meaning" to make it exciting. It;s the sort of thing that works if everyone has to do it, and if people on the edge (like me) don't get to take advantage of irony.  The Vatican tries to set up a uniform standard of morality -- as if this could rectify all other unfairness in life -- by saying that sexuality should only be experienced in heterosexual marriage with openness to having and raising (more) children -- taking on more responsibility with unpredictable personal and emotional risk.  In these views, a man is defined first by his capacity as a husband, father and protector before he makes any other mark of his own on the world.  
  
One has to mention also that in the 1980’s, the extreme right tried to present gay men as a threat to public health, which could then spill over into the population at large.  This did not play out the way the doomsday theories on the far right then predicted.

I would wonder, if “upward affiliation” is such a bad deal for society (if emulated), why was it considered such a virtue to give up everything and follow Jesus?  After all, during the time of my upbringing, Jesus was depicted as the perfect (white) young adult male. I would find that if I “followed someone” too much, I could resent the dependency and need a new period of independence.  That fact certainly contributed to my relocation to Dallas at the beginning of 1979 (after a possible preview of the AIDS storm to come).  
  
I have to get so some idea of what all this adds up to.  A lot of it has to do with being able to value people for what they are, and form and build relationships on the basic of something organic or earthy and not just fantasy.  (This involves the process of "family first" which may not always work.)  That can certain apply to the world of gay marriage now.  But the values that I grew up with emphasized the ability to “step up” and show real courage in the face of real needs of others, even if that required sacrifice.  This idea could be expressed, for example, in considering the military draft at that time.  If one could deal with this (as I did not), one could then form permanent, stable relationships and be able to keep passion and initiative in their marriages, and idea that many people see as burdensome (particularly in chat rooms).  Marriage, in this view, was the result of virtue and self-giving, not the cause of it.  So lack of heterosexual function, in old time thinking, could mean a character failure in one’s development.   The world that I grew up in did not show a lot of respect for the rights and potential of the disabled, and this has always presented a paradox.
  
I got involved in the issue of the military gay ban, in 1993, because it seemed to be a test of whether I really did fit into my civilization.  As we came out of the 1980’s and as the political impact of the AIDS crisis calmed down, I was grateful to be able to live my own private life in some sort of separation.  It was a bit like living on another planet, maybe.  But “separate and unequal” could not last forever.   If I could demand real respect as an equal person, I needed the legal right to step up when occasion called for it, so I needed the “right” to enlist in the military if otherwise qualified, as a way of proving my equal worthiness.   I did not yet see marriage this way, because I still though that adults should be able to support themselves first.  The personal demands made of me in more recent years have certainly changed my perspective on the importance of marriage, commitment, and having some sort of personal stake in the generations to follow.  So why do people come knocking?  Well, life isn't fair to start with.

Update: Sept, 19

Pope Francis has criticized  the Catholic Church for its obsession with gays, contraception and abortion, as in a New York Times story today by Laurie Goodstein, here. The Church shouldn't talk about these all the time, he said.


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