The ick factor

Fear & loathing

The other day a relative emailed me from Norway. He was thinking of me, he said. There were quite a few gay couples there and it was quite normal.

“So that’s how you think of me,” I thought. “The gay one.”

Like most self-respecting homos of a certain age and experience, I think of myself as a weird, conflicted, mixed-up person first, a gay only second. Sure, I write about gay issues, and yes, being gay is a huge part of who I am, but it’s hardly the only arrow in my quiver.

Yet for many people outside my immediate circle (and downtown Toronto), I suspect my gay identity trumps all other facets of my being. I am gay first, an individual second, and the problem with being part of a group, of course, is that you’re vulnerable to scapegoating and targeted persecution.

I disagree with Gore Vidal on most aspects of sexual identity, but he’s got a point when he says that it’s folly to use race, religion or sex as a basis for identity. “After all, once you isolate yourself in a category, Adolf Hitler will come along and say, ‘I don’t like this category. They’re not voting right so we better get rid of them.’”

Minorities are a magnet for irrational fears and anxieties, and defusing those feelings can be difficult.

Just look at the struggle for gay marriage in the US, a struggle that reached a major turning point on Aug 4, in San Francisco, when a federal judge ruled the ban on gay marriage in California initiated by Proposition 8 unconstitutional. It’s a major victory and it may yet be ratified by the Supreme Court. But even if it’s allowed to stand, gays still have to deal with public opinion, and that remains just plain weird.

Just look at some of the “arguments” being used against gay marriage: gay men are prone to pedophilia, kids do better with heterosexual parents, gay marriage devalues traditional marriage.

You’d think the rightwingers would be rushing to embrace the pro-marriage crowd. This, after all, is the most conservative group of gays to come along since the 1950s. They’d like nothing better than to embrace exactly the same values beloved of middle America — commitment, the sanctity of the family, the importance of children and the appearance (at least) of monogamy.

Instead, the family-values types seem to have lost themselves in a fog of fear. In a way, this is understandable. Homosexuality remains deeply foreign to many people, and what is unknown — particularly, as I say, large groups — is threatening. I can still remember the shock I felt the first time I saw two men dancing together, and if I felt that way, lord knows what the folks in rural Buttfuck think.


Call it irrational or maybe just the ick factor. But whatever you call it, it’s darn difficult to combat.

So I’m a little concerned that American gay libbers have put so much emphasis on a legal battle that rests on supposedly rational arguments. Even if the Supreme Court eventually makes a final and definitive decision in their favour — which is unlikely, given a right-leaning court — they’ll still have to contend with public opinion. And public opinion is a wildly irrational beast, more easily swayed by emotion and experience than by any sense of abstract justice.

The judge in the California case noted that “Moral disapproval, without any other asserted state interest… has never been a rational basis for legislation.” But it has, of course, been the basis of a great deal of personal and social enmity, and defusing some of it ought to be one of the main tasks of gay liberation. It’s not enough to make jokes about it or mock the beliefs of the opposition. Sooner or later, you have to penetrate to the emotional core. And that probably means what it has meant for most of the modern gay era: coming out. People who know lots of openly gay people think differently than those who (think they) don’t.

If attitudes to gays have improved — five states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage — it’s probably purely and simply because people know more gays than they did even a few years ago. Queers are more visible, and that makes the idea, if not quite perfect or “normal,” then at least reassuringly familiar.

So maybe we need to get out there and let them find out just how dreary and boring and conventional we are. (On a related note: wedding planners are reportedly delighted by the defeat of Prop 8 — it means more kitsch catering for them.)

So wander into a small American town and introduce yourselves. Show ‘em how friendly you can be. Might want to wear your Kevlar vest, though.

Tongue Lashing appears in every second issue of Xtra.

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