Wednesday, October 28, 2015

“all this straight support”

In the 1970s Barney Frank was a closeted state legislator in Massachusetts. He knew he was gay; he’d sought political office knowing he was gay and knowing he would hide it. But, even if he didn’t feel he could be elected as an out gay man, Barney Frank resolved not only never to do anything to harm gay people but to be a forthright advocate once in office.

Says Barney Frank:
I was delighted when the activist Steve Endean was elected to the board of one of the leading liberal organizations in the country, Americans for Democratic Action, as its first openly gay member in 1974. … [When I] confide[d] to him that I was also gay — one of the very first times I admitted this to anyone[, h]is reaction at first disappointed me … ‘Shit,’ he said, ‘you’re the third sponsor of a state gay rights bill to come out to me this year. Here I’ve been bragging about all this straight support we have, but it turns out to be mostly from closet cases!’”

Most hets don’t really think about gays. To them the treatment of gay people doesn’t much matter. Not until the gay rights movement did most hets even realize they counted gay people among their acquaintances. This is not to say the average het isn’t deeply complicit in the policing of gender norms nor the expectation that the people around them behave in a manner that doesn’t challenge what they’ve been led to take for granted.

But the people with passion for a subject usually have a stake in it. The most egregious homophobes are typically battling their own proclivities, demanding society help them to suppress the behavior (even the thoughts) they are sure are unacceptable, sinful, horrifying. The most passionate seekers of justice want to be able to take advantage of the freedoms they see their peers flaunting.

It is certainly true that people without same sex attraction can advocate for equal treatment or demand what they see as immoral be punished accordingly. But it’s exceedingly rare to find people fighting with real passion merely out of principle. This is a truism. Everybody knows it. There are always going to be exceptions. But the person passionately advocating for or against something knows everyone else will, with good reason, at least suspect them of a more than academic interest. It’s long been known among gay people that the most excitable homophobes are queer inside. This assumption has only recently, however, become more general in the body public. Used to be shouting as the nastiest hater was great camouflage. Used to be nobody would think the biggest opponent to fairness would be crying out for that unfairness to be applied to self. That seems so weird.

It’s long been assumed that those most committed to gay freedom want that freedom for themselves, of course. Only natural. That’s why it took courage to push for a good thing that most people considered bad.

One of the unexpected advantages of the gay movement has been this disengagement by the majority. It’s been easy for the majority to agree to keep the gays down because it’s always been so, why change, things are okay as they are, who cares. Yet once gay people started pushing, change came quickly. Het legislators listened to reasonable arguments and figured, well, no skin off my nose, why not, and the first gay rights legislation was enacted.

Change ran into the roadblock of the hulking closets of those who had invested huge amounts of resources in self-denial and hiding. You don’t just abandon bad investments. You defend them, you put more energy into them. Thus the gay movement has, in a sense, been an internal battle. Convention has long favored the status quo and pushback to change was easily mounted.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled for marriage equality the undoing of that decision will take more work, it seems, than there is passion for. Convention hasn’t overturned completely. Justice is never assured. But the complacency of the majority, the indifference of most hets to gay matters, can be an advantage. Who cares, no skin off my nose. why change, things are okay as they are.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

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