We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.
In a recent conversation, I had the bad fortune to be re-exposed to an argument I’ve heard time and again since middle-school: gay men can’t be trusted to be moral members of society, because of some inherent flaw or dysfunction. The line of argument typically goes that “childless homosexuals” (either trait logically following from the other) are by their nature promiscuous and hedonistic. Meaning, of course, that gay men as a group have no stake in the defense and preservation of traditional Western values, like Mom, apple pie, and Christianity – which is ridiculous, because gay men love their mothers, are culinary connoisseurs, and built the Vatican. After all, if we’re going to go by one stereotype, why not go by them all, even if they contradict? Because stereotypes are nothing more than the traits of a cultural group turned into eternal and essential characteristics, and redeployed as bigots’ talking points. Like, for instance, gay men’s widely discussed (and wildly misunderstood) sluttiness. Whatever the truth about our famed sexual appetites, there’s something more sinister at work here: the systematic oppression of anyone markedly different through the naturalization of cultural differences.
But you are sluts!
It’s true. Gay guys are the ho-bags of the human race, or so Republican politicians love to tell us. Like I said in my previous post, homophobic rhetoric continues to be a problem in conservative and libertarian circles. Brad DeLong went to the trouble of detailing a small part of the grand history of conservatives’ economic gay-baiting. Considering how long they’ve been at it, you’d think that these Ivy-educated straight men would have found a better epithet than “childless homosexual” to fling at their gay male opponents. The association of childlessness with male homosexuality is quite useful, though, because it has a grain of truth to it. Historically, gay men haven’t been allowed to adopt. Among non-gay people, not having children isn’t a crime, but being gay adds a whole new dimension to childlessness, at least according to a society which puts a premium on reproductive sex. The perpetuation of this particular stereotype about gay men (or stereotypes about any minority, really) helps to reframe this group as a separate species, with its own distinct, essential characteristics, completely unlike “normal” people.
This can be useful for all sorts of purposes. It can justify the dismissal of the most important economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, without any significant debate of his ideas. It can provide reasons not to trust gay men and other minorities with the same rights that everyone else enjoys. It can even, in extreme cases, justify their extermination. The same stereotype that made these economists’ prejudices socially acceptable also allowed Hans Hoppe to preach to a college economics class on his apparently extensive knowledge of what I guess are gay men’s attitudes on the philosophy of time (“homosexuals as a group…are more present-oriented,” he writes) without much fuss in right-libertarian circles. Hoppe also used this same stereotype to defend his belief in “discriminating against…habitual advocates of alternative, non-family centered lifestyles, including homosexuals.” All this because of the purported promiscuity of gay men. Honestly, I wish I were getting laid half as often as people like Hoppe seem to fantasize that I am. Maybe then I would care less about the ways stereotypes impact and shape my life.
Just because it is doesn’t mean it always was
Merely noticing the existence of a cultural trait, whether good or bad (as much as that can be measured), isn’t enough to understand where that trait came from. It’s intellectually lazy to chalk it up to some sort of biological or psychological “fact of reality” and leave it at that. For anyone queer, the arguments behind the purported truth of stereotypes, whether from “nature” or “nurture,” always just end up blaming your mom and calling you a congenital freak. So bear with me as I take a third route.
Frédéric Bastiat famously wrote, “In the economic sphere an act…produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen….” Bastiat intended this as an admonishment toward economic foresight, but his advice can be just as useful when working backward: a visible effect might have invisible causes, requiring us to look beyond the present and the superficial. Today’s “nature” was yesterday’s “culture,” but thanks to years of incremental change, people who are born now see biology or psychology at work, not larger social forces. This is what your snobby post-modernist friend in college might have called a “paradigm shift.” But whatever name you pick, conservatives hate it, because it’s difficult to make categorical claims about the eternal essentials of human nature when that nature always seems to be changing, at least according to the authorities of each age. This applies to practically everything. It especially applies to gay male culture, as David Halperin recently proposed in How To Be Gay. So let’s try it out on one small aspect of that culture: promiscuity.
What happens when you stigmatize and even ban a certain form of sexual relationship for literally centuries? Libertarians should know best that making a law against something doesn’t make it disappear; it just creates an alternative, underground market or community. And when a good is made illicit, buyers and vendors don’t have the protection of their government in the case of fraud or theft, making them especially vulnerable to the violence of black markets. This applies equally to sex, except “fraud” and “theft” are supplanted by rape and blackmail. Trust becomes difficult to come by in such situations, and lasting relationships aren’t especially prevalent when you risk being imprisoned, beaten to death, or denied housing or medical services because of your particular desires. That, roughly, is what occurs when you have a civilization predicated on the criminalization of certain pleasures. Imagine what other cultural peculiarities might occur as the result of state violence.
Keynes loved economics, long walks on the beach, and sex with hot German men
Hopefully you have an idea why using stereotypes to justify state action (or inaction) might be harmful. But rhetoric itself can be damaging, by creating a discourse of prejudice that makes it easier for governments to discriminate and oppress. Joking about black people and high crime rates, women and math skills, or gay men and promiscuity contributes to a system of oppression by naturalizing that which is cultural in origin, and indirectly teaching future generations that change or deviation from the norm is not only undesirable, but impossible. Regardless of whether Keynes’s “libertine” lifestyle prior to marriage merits disapproval, it is dishonest and irresponsible to use his life as an excuse to perpetuate an economics of homophobia which dictates that gay men, by their “nature,” are incapable of seeing beyond the immediate financial present. We need to question what cultural legacies have shaped us, and be sensitive to the myriad cultural forces that have shaped others – without fetishizing or obsessing over those differences.
Brendan Moore is a current undergraduate at Coe College, studying feminism, zen deconstructionism, poetry, Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos. He currently lives in Las Vegas, and would like to help you smash the patriarchy.