Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Critiquing the Texas House--Sober Version (because some people need things spelled out, and because Religion Dispatches already had the topic covered)

Growing up gay or lesbian in America today isn’t easy—even thought it may be less alienating than it used to be, thanks in large measure to progressive efforts to provide support services of various kinds. But now the Texas House of Representatives has taken steps to eliminate such support services at public universities.

More precisely, the Texas House has voted that any public university which funds a student center for sexual minorities must also extend equal funding to a “traditional values” center. But those behind the bill have made it clear that their real desire is to see LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) centers defunded. The equal funding bill just seemed easier to get passed, and may inspire the same result.

But what if, instead of encouraging the defunding of LGBT student centers, universities began actually creating “traditional values” centers? What would that look like? If the point is about parity, these centers would have to provide services similar in kind to those provided by LGBT centers. So what would those services be?

Of course, the question reveals the absurdity of the legislation. The purpose of LGBT centers on college campuses is to provide support for a minority group that endures a distinctive set of challenges. Many of these challenges relate to the legacy of growing up with a different sexuality than one’s peers. Adolescence is a time when the yearning for peer acceptance is especially great, and it is precisely at this time in their lives that gays and lesbians come to discover that they don’t have the same romantic and sexual feelings as those around them. More significantly, they discover that they have a sexuality that doesn’t fit into the deeply entrenched cultural norms they have been breathing in like air since they first watched Ariel, the little mermaid, pining for Prince Eric.

Even as our culture wrestles with the issue of same-sex marriage, children are carefully insulated from these debates and the reality of same-sex attraction. The weddings they hear about in their stories, the marriages they see modeled on “child-appropriate” television, are heterosexual ones. Any effort to introduce some alternative into the world of children—even in the form of a book about a pair of male penguins co-parenting a baby penguin at the zoo—is met with strident opposition. And so these alternative images remain exceedingly rare.

The result, of course, is that when gay and lesbian adolescents first become conscious of their same-sex attraction, their cultural paradigm offers no place for it. While their heterosexual peers hardly reflect on the direction of their sexual feelings, gays and lesbians may find it difficult to think about anything else. What they are learning about themselves is so anomalous that—at least in the absence of sufficiently high-profile LGBT support groups—a sense of deep isolation is almost inescapable.

And then, of course, comes the peer abuse. The targets of such abuse are usually identified well before they become sexually active—a fact which exposes the disingenuousness of the conservative pretense that homosexuality is a life choice rather than an innate sexuality. Adolescent abusers know better, quickly identifying the “faggot” in their midst long before this victim has “chosen a homosexual lifestyle.”

My best friend, a gay man, recalls that one of the things he was most grateful for in adolescence was his long legs, which enabled him to run fast. It meant that he was beaten up a bit less often than he might otherwise have been.

And then, of course, there is the broad social rejection. While gays and lesbians immediately experience their sexuality is an unchosen fact about themselves that they cannot change, they are told by their churches, by their communities, often by their parents, that it is a perverse and immoral choice. And because they know that what is being condemned is as inescapable as the color of their eyes, what they experience is not a condemnation of some behavior of theirs that they can change. What they experience is a condemnation of who they are. The occasional Hollywood movie or television program that challenges this condemnation becomes a kind of lifeline—and as they cling to it, they hear the conservative members of their community furiously insisting that the rope be cut.

Alienated, abused, and condemned for who they are, they emerge out of adolescence with a range of challenges that their heterosexual peers do not (if they emerge at all--gay teens are four times as likely to die by suicide as their heterosexual peers). And then they arrive as freshman on their college campus, and—perhaps for the first time in their lives—find an established support network in place, one that understands what they have been through and has resources to help them shake off the damaging messages they have received and come to terms with who they are.

Less than a year ago, the life struggles of sexual minorities were brought into sharp focus by a series of highly publicized suicides by young gay men. At least for many, consciousness was raised about the importance of extending special support to those who have been marginalized, abused, and denounced for their sexuality.

Apparently, the majority of the Texas House missed the message. The vote to create “comparable” centers promoting traditional values is hardly coherent. Once the reality of what LGBT centers are about is acknowledged, the requirement for an equivalent “heterosexuality center” would involve the absurd demand to provide support services for those who have endured the “hardship” of having a sexuality that is wholly accepted by their culture, the “struggle” of coming to terms with not being beaten up for who they are, and the challenge of never having being condemned for something about themselves they cannot change.

There is, however, something that opponents of LGBT centers get right. The existence of such centers is an implicit social acknowledgment that the pervasive marginalization of sexual minorities does real harm. And the traditional condemnation of homosexuality is deeply implicated in that marginalization. To recognize the validity of LGBT centers is to call into question the validity of the values that undergird the systematic marginalization of gays and lesbians, in much the same way that centers for racial minorities calls into question the validity of racist values.

But this doesn't mean we shouldn't help gays and lesbians overcome the harms of growing up in the midst of intolerance and abuse--any more than it means we shouldn't have African American student centers. It means, rather, that we should honestly confront the potentially inconvenient questions that the need for such centers raises. And the questions become apparent only when we clearly understand why "parity" in these cases makes no sense--why African Americans and sexual minorities need such things as student centers in a way that members of the empowered majority do not. Seen in this light, pursuing legislation requiring “equivalent” centers for the empowered group (or, as the case may be, centers promoting the "traditional values" that perpetuate that group's privileged position)  is really a way of trying to silence the inconvenient questions by pretending that parity is coherent when it is not.


  1. Austin was the most open, tolerant, and progressive place I've ever lived, but some of the ignorant things that come out of Texas made me embarrassed to live there (like Rick Perry threatening to secede from the Union). With the enormous budget cuts they've just undergone, what hateful nitwits sit around even wasting their time on this kind of bs? It's on par with questioning Obama's citizenship.

    As with any kind of bullying, it's the bystanders who need to step up in this situation. Call these people out for what they are, and step up to support gay rights. If people want a cause to fight, work to end child abuse or rape or hunger or poverty. The very fact that anyone would invest their time, energy, and hate into such a project reveals a deeply flawed and disturbed character. Get. a. life.