First published at 365gay.com on February 18, 2008
The late food critic Craig Claiborne used to tell a story of a woman who received a ham but didn’t own a saw. Although she had never cooked a whole ham, she knew that her mother always prepared hams for cooking by sawing off the end, and she assumed it had to be done this way.
So the woman called her mother for instruction. The mother explained that she learned to cook from her mother, who always did it that way—she had no idea why. So the mother called the grandmother and asked: “Why did you always saw the ends off of hams before roasting them?”
“Because I never had a roasting pan large enough to hold a whole ham,” came the surprised reply.
Such is the case with some of our moral beliefs. We hold them because our parents did, who held them because their parents did, and so on, even though no one is quite sure of the original rationale, and those who try to articulate it tend to fumble around a lot. It’s certainly true of much opposition to homosexuality, which frequently boils down to “we just don’t do things that way.” Even those who claim to base their opposition in the bible often don’t know what it says or why it says it.
Recently, I’ve become interested in a related but distinct problem: not people’s forgetting WHY they object to homosexuality, but their forgetting THAT they do. More precisely, their forgetting that many people around them do. I was thinking of this recently as I sat waiting to lecture at a university in rural Illinois and anticipating The Shrug.
“The Shrug” is how I characterize the reaction many college students have to GLBT issues these days. It gets voiced in various ways: “I don’t understand what the problem is.” “Live and let live.” “Do people really still have an issue with this?” So many of these kids knew openly gay students in their high schools, and they assume that homosexuality is now a non-issue.
If only they were right.
The same day as my talk, I received an e-mail from a student at my own university recounting an unpleasant (but not uncommon) experience in one of her psychology classes. The topic of homosexuality had come up, and a barrage of negative and ill-informed comments ensued: being gay is a mental illness; it’s a result of child sexual abuse; it’s a biological error. The professor did little to correct the students’ misinformation, and even exacerbated the problem with degrading references to the gay “lifestyle.” This, in an institution of higher learning in a major urban center.
Of course, that incident pales in comparison to what happened the day before, when fifteen-year old Lawrence King was fatally shot in a California classroom for being gay. Try telling King’s friends that homosexuality has become a non-issue.
King’s murder is an extreme example, and every decent person recognizes that it’s a tragedy. Unfortunately, these same decent people often miss the subtler (but nevertheless powerful) tragedy of everyday homophobia. They ignore how the closet continues to undermine human dignity—even among educated, friendly, “enlightened” people. They underestimate homophobia’s deep personal and social costs.
I don’t wish to deny the tremendous progress we’ve made. We are, like the woman with the ham, asking the right questions and uncovering deep-rooted fallacies. The taboo is crumbling. But this success has a way of obscuring the fact that we’re not there yet. Instead, we enjoy a sort of mezzanine-level acceptance—close enough to rub elbows with the highbrow folks in the front, but not so close as to avoid the riff-raff in the cheap seats.
The current presidential race provides a nice example. The Democrats are openly courting the gay vote, and even Republicans are warming up to civil unions and other more modest measures. This is progress! On the other hand, in a year where we’ve had a plausible African-American, female, and Mormon candidate for president, no one imagines that a gay person could get even close—not anytime soon. This is reality.
This dual position presents gay-rights advocates with a challenge. On the one hand, by treating homosexuality as a “non-issue,” we help to make it so. We model the environment that we want, and we hope that the reality soon catches up to the rhetoric. On the other hand, by treating it as a non-issue, we gloss over the many ways in which we fall short. We unwittingly promote the myth that being gay is a cakewalk. It isn’t—yet.