Queers and Liberals


Discussion in comments below reminded me of an interesting and unfortunate phenomenon that I've encountered in studying 20th century American history and politics. It's a tendency you notice in people who are largely on the tolerant side of social politics, and is quite prominent in the field of gay rights. You encounter comedians, politicians, celebrities, and others in the 50s and 60s who are all for civil rights, women's liberation, equality for all, etc. but who see nothing wrong with throwing in an off-color joke about gay people, or who treat discrimination on the basis of sexual preferance as a goofy issue of no real concern.

My favorite example of this is the Supreme Court case of Bowers v. Hardwick. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy laws, which explicitly banned male-on-male oral and anal sex, but had nothing to say about heterosexual sex. The case went to the court, and the justices ruled the Georgia statute constitutional in a 5-4 split.

What's interesting is that among the majority, along with the traditionally conservative justices, was Chief Justice Warren Burger. Burger, who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade and was the primary mover in getting all the justices to agree to a right to abortion, wrote a separate concurring opinion that stated, in essence, "There's no possible way anyone could construe a right to sodomy in the constitution. It's plainly and fragrantly un-biblical, and it would be grossly immoral for us to prohibit states from banning such a thing."

Also interesting is Justice Blackmun. Blackmun wrote the dissent in Hardwick, but was on the opposite side of a prior case attacking a state sodomy law. Blackmun had always been a liberal justice, and his decision to side with the anti-sodomy part of the court was a bit unusual. The reason for it, as he later explained, was that he simply didn't know there were all that many queers out there. He thought, in writing the decision, that there were a few hundred, perhaps a thousand deviants who enjoyed sexual relations with members of the same sex. After siding with the majority in the earlier case, he got scads of letters on the subject, did some research, and discovered that, by gosh!, there actually ARE a lot of queers out there! And our society treats them pretty unfairly! He switched sides and from that point became one of the most pro-gay rights justices on the Court.

The larger point is that you also find a lot of generally liberal people who, in retrospect, were surprisingly conservative on other liberal issues that weren't of much concern yet. Union organizers who think a woman's place is in the home. Suffragists who don't mind Jim Crow laws. Civil Rights leaders who hate gay people.

Part of this is a form of historian's bias. There are two types of historian's bias, as I see it. The kind here is the temptation to use present values to judge people in the past. Washington owned slaves, so he was evil, that sort of thing. It's a bit unfair to those figures, because they existed in a time with different social norms than ours and it's unreasonable to expect them to derive for themselves modern schemes of values. At the same time, I think it is safe to assert that these people did hold inconsistent views even with respect to their own values, and that they were blinded to this inconsistency. We can excuse them for their views, but we need not declare their views justified.

(The other type of historian's bias works in the opposite direction: It declares that things used to be so much better than they are now, and uses nostalgia for these simpler times to attack the way things are now. But that's an entirely separate subject)

In saying all this, I realize that it's quite possible (perhaps even likely) that I hold knee-jerk conservative positions that will mark me as an intolerant neanderthal to future generations. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see people who dedicated their lives to advancing the cause of underserved and unequal communities jokingly dismiss other such communities. I think it shows the importance of periodically re-examine your beliefs to make sure you haven't slipped into laziness or stereotyping.


I have two comments about this.

One, I just stumbled across something along these lines today. I found it in this UrbanDictionary entry; scroll down a couple of posts until you see the quote from the Boondocks. I'm not the most regular comic reader, but I do think of the Boondocks as liberally-oriented and, in a cranky political comic kind of way, tolerant. But not above gay jokes, evidently.

Two, I believe you meant to say "flagrantly un-biblical", and not fragrantly. For additional hilarity, I refer you to an excerpt from yet another of my LGBT Studies readings (this time "Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?" by Edmund Bergler), in which the author considers:

"Every passive-feminine homosexual is paired with an active-masculine homosexual. How can the latter, who compromise 50 per cent of all homosexuals, be explained by the alleged existence of biological femininity?"

This, folks, is the danger of getting confused between compose and comprise and trying to split the difference.

Gah, stupid typos. This is what I get for hitting Publish before without carefully editing.

The other interesting show, in this respect, is Will and Grace. It's not really an anti-gay show, per se, but all of its humor trades on gay stereotypes. I had a roommate who used to ask about the show whether 50 years from now we would look on it the same way that we look on minstrel shows now. I can't help but think that we will, to some degree. It's mitigated by the fact that it's fundamentally got a queer-friendly bent, whereas making fun of black people was the purpose of minstrel shows. But I still think most of the humor in the show comes from certain conceptions of how gay people act that we'll find very uncomfortable in the future.

Hey Zach, I just found your blog from your comments on my blog. I'm TAing a class right now on 19th century US popular culture, and we started off the quarter with several weeks' readings and lectures on minstrel shows. In response to a number of students' questions about how people could actively partake of such a fucked-up form of entertainment, the best explanation-by-way-of-example I could find was the obvious pleasure that people take now in watching over-the-top portrayals of effeminate gay men.

I think the comparison is totally apt, Zach. Minstrel shows were put on (almost wholly) by white performers blacking up and performing the most caricatured version they could find of both the "appealing" and "revolting" sides of black slave masculinity. Audiences found the minstrels' lazy carefree attitude both enviable and evidence of their own suspicions about slaves' stubborn temperaments. The minstrels' sexual innuendoes were both outlets for the sexuality that white audiences weren't allowed to express as openly, and also reinforced stereotypes about black men as hypersexual animals - which was again both enviable and frightening. By ultimately reducing the black male to a hilarious caricature, minstrel shows took all of the white audiences' anxiety both about the blacks themselves, and about their subjugation under the system of race slavery, and contained those anxieties by allowing everyone to laugh them off.

I think the parallels to the now-ubiquitous caricature of the hyper-effeminate gay man are really clear. The "gayed-up" character does the same work in terms of allowing a straight audience to project certain fears and desires onto that character, and also contain them within that character. Gay caricatures on TV and in movies tend to be hypersexual too, confirming everyone's worst images about gay men, but it's a weak, effeminate kind of sexuality, so it's not threatening or competitive to straight men. They tend to be sympathetic characters up to a point - they're people, they have (often really fragile) feelings -- so just like with images of the slave, the audience can feel bad up to a point about the bad state of gay civil rights, or about the dangers these characters' real-life counterparts face, and can even feel like they're doing something about that by seeing and recognizing these characters' feelings -- but then, when everything ultimately plays for a laugh, it negates all of that understanding and removes any need for real-world action or sympathy.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I think gay media caricature does exactly the same work of containment that minstrelsy did 160 years ago.

Also, I've read a lot about Bowers v Hardwick from queer theorists, but I realized I don't know much about how that decision is now regarded from a constitutionality perspective.

I'd need to look up Lawrence v. Texas to confirm this, but I believe the Supreme Court outright overturned Bowers v. Hardwick when they decided Lawrence.

Ah, yes. Lawrence is an interesting decision. A majority of the court (Kennedy, Souter, Ginsberg, Stevens, and Breyer) joined a decision that overturned Bowers. So Bowers is now officially Bad Law. If a lawyer cited it, she would be laughed out of court. That majority declared Texas's sodomy laws, and other state sodomy laws, unconstitutional on privacy grounds. Essentially, they said that there's a right to privacy derived from various amendments to the Constitution, and these sexual practices, performed behind closed doors, are beyond the purview of any government, Federal, state, or local, to regulate.

Justice O'Connor wrote a separate concurrence, in which she argued that Texas's law should be declared unconstitutional, but that Bowers should not be overturned. She argued that state governments should be allowed to regulate sexual acts such as sodomy, and therefore Bowers should stand. However, she argued that the Texas statute should nonetheless be thrown out because it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, insofar as it discriminates against homosexuals. It would have been very interesting if the Court had adopted O'Connor's line of reasoning; on the one hand, it would allow states to re-write their sodomy laws to be written in sexual-preference neutral language, and thereby continue to regulate private sexual activity. At the same time, O'Connor's reasoning would have extended Equal Protection guarantees to cover of sexual preference for the first time. As Scalia points out in his (bitter) dissent, this would open the door for lawsuits alleging that failure to allow gay marriage constitutes a violation of Federal Equal Protection rights (as it stands, all of the gay marriage-legalizing law suits have been predicated on provisions of state constitutions, not the US Constitution).

I can see why the Court wouldn't have wanted to take O'Connor's position, though; for one, it would have been fairly controversial, and the distinguishing characteristic of the Rhenquist Court, particularly after Bush v. Gore, was a willingness to go to great lengths to avoid controversy. For another, allowing states to keep sodomy laws provided they fall equally on people of all sexual preferences is an invitation to write laws with neutral language that are enforced in a discriminatory manner (which is how must of the neutral-language sodomy laws were enforced, anyway). Of course, de facto discriminatory laws are just as unconstitutional as de jure discriminatory laws, so a ruling along O'Connor's lines would have lead to all sorts of new challenges to how sodomy laws are enforced, which would require careful scrutiny of state law enforcement practices, injunctions to stop discriminatory enforcement, etc. Given a choice between a decision that will multiply the number of lawsuits being filed and a decision that will cut off all lawsuits on the subject, the Court generally prefers to lighten its caseload.

Also (perhaps) worthy of note: O'Connor was in the original majority in Bowers that declared Georgia's sodomy laws constitutional. And it should be noted that, despite changes in the membership of the court, the 5 who wrote Lawrence are all still there, so regardless of whatever other crazy decisions the Court might make in the near future, Lawrence appears to be safe unless there's another change in the Court's personnel.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on February 4, 2006 1:54 PM.

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