Making Ourselves Feel Better

Many years ago, when working with suicidal children, I was in a staff meeting in which children who were in our program were referred to as having “failed.” They were said to have “failed” in their placements or in their family. Even though I had been at my position for less than a few weeks, I raised my hand to object to this sort of characterization. The Executive Director argued the legitimacy of his point with an attitude of you’ll feel the same way once you’ve been around the block a bit more. More than fifteen years later (and having been around the block, albeit not in the field of direct care) I still hold that those kids were not failures at all.

We hear some of the same language being applied to members of the underclass. That they have somehow failed to avail themselves of all the great opportunities for success that America holds. Or we are told that poor folks are that way because of pathological behaviors, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, that are somehow innate in just these people.

What this language of failure is really meant to do, though, is not to describe (at least accurately) the plight of either of these groups. Rather, it is a way to make ourselves (adults, non-poor) feel better, to let ourselves off the hook and to collectively demonize others for what are often failures of our society, its structure and its values. It mischaracterizes reality and makes very complex matters into simplistic good/bad narratives.

When we label children who try to take their own lives, or are in danger of harming themselves, as “failures” we shift blame away from adults, our mental health system, and our values as a society. Take a moment to think about what on earth would make a four year old child want to run in front of a car or an eight year old try to cut her wrist. It’s chilling, to say the least. These were children who had been abused, molested and neglected. They sought an escape from the pain they were faced with every day. And yet, we want to say they failed? No, it is we who have failed.

And we fail in myriad ways, as adults, as a society, to nurture and protect our children. But we also fail to truly help the needy. We provide a meager social safety net, because we are too busy blaming poor people for being poor.

We refuse to be introspective and thoughtful, because to do so would lead to the inexorable conclusion that we are a sick society. We turn a blind eye to child molestation when it is carried out by someone who wears a collar or who coaches a football team. We ignore sexual assault when it’s the star quarterback. We drug test public assistance recipients because we would rather believe they are all shiftless junkies than examine the role that class and white privilege play in our society. We dismiss domestic violence when it’s someone whose records are platinum. We sweep vicious bullying under the rug because those gay kids probably just brought it on themselves.

It is far, far easier to either ignore our very real problems than to account for our shortcomings. God forbid, we might actually even try to remedy some of them. Instead we will continue to worship at the shrine of the dollar, label all those who have needs as failures, and entertain ourselves to death. After all, that is the new American way.

Ken Mehlman Is Not a Real Man

And not because he is a homosexual. Rather, Mehlman is not a real man because he stood by while members of the Party he led not merely bashed homosexuals. No, the Party he led compared homosexuals to alcoholics, pedophiles, bestiality and an array of other very bad things. A real man would have stood up and shouted, “this is not right!”, regardless of the professional consequences. And regardless of his own sexuality.

Ken Mehlman is not a real man, he is just a coward.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Getting Off

Despite the lessening anti-gay rhetoric coming from the political right this election season, as discussed below, there are still a great many vigilant cultural warriors engaging in the battle for sex. These anti-sex warriors decry all sex that is not at least hetero-normative, and would prefer that all sex be procreative. They oppose any sexual pleasure, and one wonders whether they all do it on Saturday night, with the lights off, whilst wearing socks. And, if any pleasure should occur, do they self-flagellate?

I refer to this group of people as anti-sex because they oppose things like contraception, abortion and equal rights for the LGBT community. For these folks, sex is nothing but an animalistic procreative act. Animalistic in that it is done solely for the preservation of the species. Thus things like contraception, anal sex, sodomy and other sexual acts that cannot result in pregnancy are verboten.

Certainly, some animals do engage in sexual activity for pleasure. However, they are rare. In permitting procreative sex only, the anti-sex warriors undermine what to them is a central organizing principle- that humans are, by the grace of God, special among God’s creatures. This begs the question of what is so special about an animal that only copulates according to some unwilled desire to preserve the species. In other words, the anti-sex people, who are near universally religious, have taken away free will over one of our core abilities.

Much has been written, particularly by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and other places, about the Right’s anti-woman, anti-sex agenda. And I think Amada is entirely correct in her critique. However, I would add that its agenda is also anti-man in some respects. Let’s take the example of abortion. While some prolife individuals and groups really do focus their opposition to abortion on their belief that it is tantamount to murder, looking beneath some of that rhetoric reveals a very strong anti-woman bias.

It’s best encapsulated by the following- “we need to punish those dirty little whores.” This is part of the anti-sex crowds desire to make sex something more than just getting off. They want it to be something that has CONSEQUENCES. And so, they think forcing a woman to carry to term a fetus and then, presumably, mother that child for 18+ years will teach her some sort of lesson about keeping her legs closed. Or something. Never mind that of all the industrialized countries we have some of the worst birth control options and availability, because the anti-sexers want it that way. Again, consequences.

But consequences also flow to the father of the fetus and child. No matter how much paternal responsibility has diminished in our society, there are still fairly strong societal pressures for fathers to live up their responsibilities. So not only does forcing a woman to carry to term her fetus provide consequences to her, but also to the male in the reproduction equation. Perhaps we should punish all the sluts- male and female.

What’s underlying all of these positions (prolife, anti-equality, no contraception) is the notion that sex ought to have meaning. Of course, for the vast majority of anti-sexers, meaning is rooted in religious notions of morality. They are, in a manner of speaking, sexual ascetics. Unlike other ascetics, they seek not only to deny themselves pleasure, but the rest of us, too.

And that is where the problem lies. Sex is something so inherently personal that we might each attach different levels and types of meaning to sexual activities. Or maybe no meaning at all. I might even argue that the anti-sexers are, on some level, stripping meaning away from sex. Taking it out of the realm of pleasure and feeling and making it a mechanical operation.

It is certainly their right to conduct their sex lives in a manner that fits with their desires and values. Just as it surely is my, and your, right to have what we consider to be healthy and fulfilling sex lives. There really is nothing wrong with getting off.

A Profound Sadness

The revelation that Religious Right/anti-gay bigot George Rekers hired a traveling/sex companion from rentboy.com has brought about much of the usual ridicule and fun-making. And while that is all well and good (I like a good stab at hypocrisy as much as the next person), what gets lost is the profound sadness that we ought to feel for Rekers and others like him.

Perhaps George Rekers and Ted Haggard are not the most sympathetic folks. Their crusades against the LGBT community are many, and their work has produced untold suffering for gays and lesbians. People like Rekers and Haggard use Christianity, a religion that teaches love, acceptance and forgiveness, as a cudgel to impose their own twisted morality on others. And for that, we might rightly condemn them.

But when a Rekers or a Haggard are exposed for being homosexuals themselves, might we not show them some compassion? Sure, they demonized fellow homosexuals for their own advancement in Religious Right politics. But how much of that was motivated by a deep sense of self-loathing.

I do not claim to be know what is in these men’s hearts or souls. But I can imagine that for someone who grew up in a certain environment, in a certain time period, coming to terms with their homosexuality could have been beyond difficult. Though we have made strides towards a more inclusive culture, even today countless LGBT children and adolescents suffer from bullying and worse. And some suffer so much so that suicide becomes a way out of that nightmare.

So imagine what it must have been like decades ago, coming of age in a conservative Christian household, where being gay or lesbian was a one way ticket to the fiery depths of hell. The societal and familial pressures to be hetero-normative must have been enormous. Maybe so much so that denying one’s own sexuality led to bitterness, resentment and despair. Which in turn may have lead to persecuting others gays and lesbians as some sort of sick self-punishment.

My point is not that Rekers or Haggard or Craig or any of the numerous other anti-gay homosexuals should be excused for what they have done to our community. Rather, it is that we ought to extend, in a way that they were never willing to, a bit of forgiveness, acceptance and love to these deeply flawed humans.

Why Equality Matters

(I think that all too often we tend to talk, or shout, past each other when speaking of values issues. I would like to use my own personal story to explain why marriage equality (and gay rights, generally) matter to me. Hopefully I can inspire others to speak candidly about their own feelings.)

I would like to believe that I had a fairly typical suburban childhood. Two parents, dog, Little League, etc. Like many (most?) kids of my generation (b. 1970), I did not know any gays or lesbians growing up. What I knew about homosexuality came from the media. As lots of young boys do, I thought being gay was weird, different and peculiar. I cannot say that I had any animosity towards homosexuals, but I made the usual jokes and slurs.

I did not encounter my first openly gay person until I was in my late teens/early twenties in, of all places, Republican politics. You see, gays were very well represented in the Massachusetts GOP, especially during the Weld administration. Around that same time, I was also told that a former classmate had come out. But he didn’t come out to me, so I cannot say for certain whether or not he was gay, though it would not be surprising to me.

Anyway, this exposure to openly gay men did not shock or disturb me. Nor did it make me feel uncomfortable. I was approached by some gay men that wondered about my interest, but I never once felt pressured or put upon. I would tell them that I was not gay and that would end that part of the discussion. I certainly did not feel as though I could no longer trust them or that our working relationship had been affected in any way.

I would say that at that point, I was fairly comfortable with gay men generally. I was not really close to any of them, but that was not a product of our different sexual preferences. But when I moved out to St. Louis to attend law school I met a really nice guy at school who I immediately bonded with (I won’t use his real name here, because even though he is out, I want to respect his privacy). We were friendly around the campus and decided to hang out one Friday night. He came out to me that night and mentioned that he was interested in me (I had horrible gaydar when I was younger). It was a bit of a surprise, but I would like to think that I handled myself well. I told him that I was straight, but that I was flattered at his interest. It was all rather nonchalant.

We remained very close friends. We’d go out to dinner together, hang out, grab coffee, etc. I would also go to one of the local gay/lesbian nightclubs in the city with him. I met his boyfriend at the time, who also became a good friend to me while I was in St. Louis. I spent a lot of time with the two of them and some of their friends. I never once felt uncomfortable or pressured. Contrary to what some believe, gays are not recruiting!

From that point on, I have always had gay and lesbian friends. Not because I go out seeking some diverse group of friends to make me feel more liberal or tolerant. My friendships are all founded upon shared interests, beliefs, values, etc. A person’s sexual preference simply does not enter into my friendship decisions. I cannot imagine why it ever would, anymore so than someone’s hair color or eye color.

Over time my views on gay rights and marriage equality have evolved. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of discrimination and so I was never one who labeled gay rights as some sort of quest for special rights. I truly believe that a just society is one that is as free from prejudice as possible. Anyway, shortly after returning to Massachusetts from St. Louis, I spoke out against DADT and in favor of civil unions. At that time (1995), I thought civil unions were just as good as marriage, so long as the rights and privileges were the same as heterosexual marriage.

As I said, my views over time have changed. I am now not willing to accept civil unions. I view them the same way we view segregated schools. There is no such thing as separate but equal. The only way to fully enfranchise gays and lesbians is to extend the institution of civil marriage to include them. To me, there is no good reason to deny two loving people the right to have society recognize their relationship.

Stable, monogamous relationships are the foundation of society. And, anything we can do to promote the forming of these relationships is a net benefit to society. Gays and lesbians do not love their spouse any less than heterosexuals. They want the same things as heterosexuals want- good schools, safe streets, economic opportunity, etc. They pay their taxes, as does everyone else. They volunteer in their communities. I could go on forever. Suffice to say that gays and lesbians are no different than heterosexuals, except in terms of who they love.

But isn’t love what really matters? Why should it matter if Steve loves John or Maggie loves Kate? What matters is that people form a loving relationship and contribute to society.

I look around at the mess that heterosexuals have made of marriage and wonder- what the hell do these people think two loving gays or lesbians are going to do to diminish marriage? It’s silly to me. I quite literally can not and do not understand people’s objections.

My friend from law school has been with his partner for over ten years. They even have a little family (dog) and recently bought their own house. All they want is to be able to have their commitment recognized. But they can’t because the people of California voted to strip them of that right. In doing so, they have consigned my friend and his partner to second class citizenship. And that is simply wrong.