22 June 2005

Two LGBT Times articles

The cover story this week in The New York Times Magazine is about the "culture war" over gay marriage, and specifically on the religious conservatives who are fueling the battle. It's an interesting article, and I suggest you read it. It might remind you that the front-line anti-gay-marriage activists are real, thoughtful, intelligent people, who are doing what they think is right. It might give you moral, philosophical, and political questions on which to chew — the article reminds me that my agenda, actively encouraging gender liberation and non-heterosexuality, is exactly what most scares these conservatives, and as a moral non-relativist, I find interesting that conservatives are sure that only they believe there to be absolute truths: "Once you start this, you could have a 45-year-old man wanting to marry a 9-year-old boy. That could be O.K. in 20 years. That's what you get with relative moral truth. Whereas with absolute moral truth, what was O.K. 50 years ago will still be O.K. 20 years from now."

The stated thesis of the article is to display the extreme homophobia among anti-gay-marriage activists. Those who follow gay marriage battles know about this homophobia already, and understand that any rhetoric of the form "I don't mind homosexuality, I just think marriage should be between a man and a woman" disguises a terrible agenda. Although the article is not newsworthy in the conventional sense, I am glad that Times Magazine decided to run it, because I think that most people do not support the homophobia of the anti-gay-marriage crusaders.

Read the whole article, because the last two paragraphs are especially powerful. In case you don't have time (or perhaps you are not registered with the Times), I quote it here:
That means changing hearts. How difficult that will be was illustrated by a single vignette. When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why she was ''doing this'' to the woman's children and grandchildren. Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray's Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren. ''Then I hugged her neck,'' she said, ''and I said, 'We love you.' I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of compassion.''

I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That's a hard gap to bridge.

Another Times article, also from Sunday, interested me. In the Fashion & Style section, the article, Gay or Straight? Hard to Tell, discusses changes in men's fashion that have made gaydar less effective. In particular, at least in urban environments like New York, both gay and straight men are dressing with more, according to the Times, ambiguity: there's less stigma attached to being gay, so straight men are becoming more comfortable remaining ambiguous, and it is no longer as important to "affirm your identity" if you're gay.

Ian Ayres over at Balkinization has written extensively about the benifits of ambiguation, especially arguing that heterosexuals can actively advance LGBT causes by ambiguating. (He and his partner, Jennifer Brown, both professors at Yale Law School, have just published a new book, Straightforward, in which they propose a number of ways that heterosexuals can be successful allies.) I don't doubt that any move towards "gay-vague" styles, as the Times calls them, is a positive development — assimilation, since it goes both ways, will mean a healthier culture for gay and straight men, and hopefully eventually we will move to a culture where not only sexual orientation but gender too is not a culturally significant dimension. (I was about to say that gender will not be a good quantum number, that eigenstates will have higher degeneracy, but I think that only some of my readers will find such a description transparent.)

What interested me most in the article was a brief discussion at the top of the second page about who in society act as fashion and style innovators:
For years gay men were the ones to first adopt a style trend - flat-front pants, motorcycle jackets, crew cuts - and straight men would pick up on it more or less as gay men tired of it. Now gays and straights are embracing new styles almost simultaneously.
I remember remarking to a friend of mine at school that you don't see the stereotypical "limp wrist" worn by as many gay guys any more — now it's primarily a marker of "metrosexuals". (I put "metrosexual" in quotes because I see it as a passing fad, and one I'm not as fond of, because I understand it as too affected and two tied to an urban cigarette-and-martini lifestyle.)

Compare the gay-innovation-straight-appropriation model with the older dynamics between men and women. Clothing, activities, and even names shift primarily from men to women — Morgan and Meredith, for instance, were boys' names in the 16th Century, and skirts and frocks have fallen out of fashion for male dress — because women can adopt masculine attributes and move towards the more-valued masculinity (think of the favored "tom-boy"), whereas men who adopt feminine attributes risk censure (my heart goes out to all the "sissies" who were bullied and beaten as kids). Femininity has always, in the West, been of lower status overall than masculinity, and so masculine women are much more socially acceptable than feminine men. Straight men tend to be less threatened by lesbianism than by male homosexuality, for instance, and it's easier for a woman to hold a job than for a man to stay home with the kids. Names show a recurring "contamination" pattern: as more girls adopt a name traditionally used by boys, it becomes harder for parents to give it to their male infants.

If the standard model, in which cultural trade is understood as the borrowing by less powerful groups of the cultural norms of more powerful groups, held universally, then queer men and women would continue to borrow fashion and style ideas from their straight counterparts. But, says the Times, this has not traditionally been the relationship between straight and gay urban males. (Of course, extremely closeted gays are renowned for their adeptness at adopting the dress and mannerisms of the most traditionally masculine, homophobic parts of society.) And so society must be more interesting and complicated. Whites in America have always looked to Black musical innovation, and white young men have identified Black and Hispanic gang-born styles as the most macho. And being gay, or at least gay-vague, will soon be just as "in" for men as being bi is for women.