Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The LGBT Community and Minority Recognition

The other day I was having a discussion with someone I know when gay rights came up. I try not to shoehorn the subject into my conversations, but it happened to come up then because of the whole Miss California debacle. Somehow during the conversation I ended up mentioning something about LGBT people being a minority, and this person (who happens to be Hispanic, but that’s not relevant to the topic) objected to me classifying LGBT people as a minority.

Once I managed to avoid going into huffy mode I tried to ask what she meant by minority versus what I meant, and it got me thinking about how this seems to be a pervasive topic. When legislation is introduced in wider non-discrimination causes to protect LGBT people it often raises people’s hackles, and a lot of work in the LGBT community has revolved around building to community’s strength and having it be recognized as a minority. But what does it really mean to be a minority, and what are the criteria for being a “real” minority?

In a purely descriptive sense LGBT people are a minority in the sense that they are not the majority. Depending on who you ask the percent of LGBT people in the United States is anywhere between less than 1% and 10%, and it’s nearly impossible to nail down exactly how many LGBT people there are both in and out of the closet. But in the United States to be a “minority” carries with it a special status and certain implications. We don’t consider people with blue eyes to be a minority, but we consider people of African descent to be. So it can’t be said that minority status is just based on physical characteristics, instead there has to be some consequence to belonging to a particular group for it to be a recognized minority.

These consequences don’t have to be as formal as institutionalized racism and homophobia, but those are certainly forms they can take. It seems that we only get a recognized minority when there’s some system in place that splits people up along lines of belonging or not belonging, which usually takes the form of race or ethnicity. Now we have laws in place that prohibit discrimination based on race, but it does not stop all of it. Now you just can’t be formal about it, it has to take more covert forms.

I think we’re all familiar with how race and racism manifests in our society, but when it comes to sexual orientation some people get up in arms about classifying LGBT people as a minority. I can only speculate, but I imagine that it in part has to do with the fact that some people don’t like that in asserting themselves LGBT people are “intruding” on a space that used to be reserved for races and ethnicities. Since there are still a large number of people who think that you “choose” to be gay that may also impact whether they consider LGBT people a minority. We don’t, for instance, consider as small group of Democrats in a mostly Republican town to be a minority in the same sense that a community of color would be, since you choose which political party you affiliate with and can change it relatively easily. It gets complicated when you get into religious minorities, since they are often closely tied to ethnicity and cultural identity, and historically persecution of religious minorities has been a vigorous as the persecution of races (the repeal of the Edict of Nantes is a perfect example of how this sort of religious persecution can take a concrete form).

There’s no doubt that LGBT people are persecuted in formal and informal ways. One needs look no further than Proposition 8 to see the extreme form this can take, when people spend millions of dollars of their own money to prevent one group from having a right. Persecution can also take the form of lack of protection, and this indeed the case in many LGBT issues. Hate crimes are a way of recognizing minority status, but there has been much opposition to widening the umbrella of what’s considered a “hate crime” since in declaring that an attack against one group is a hate crime minority status is implicitly granted.

So there’s little doubt that LGBT are indeed a minority in the strictly numerical sense, and there’s little doubt that systems exist to deprive LGBT people of rights and liberties and formal and informal settings. But there is still resistance to recognizing the LGBT as a legitimate minority despite this, and this is where we get into the meat of it.

The idea that you can only be “born” into a minority may contribute to why it’s so hard for the LGBT community to assert itself as a legitimate minority. The vast majority of LGBT people I know say that they were born that way, but that’s not a widely held view at this point. Since a person can also hide their orientation this may also contribute to the idea that LGBT are not a “real” minority, since it’s not like skin color or bone structure and short of passing for another race one cannot “change” their race.

In the wider sense I think the reluctance to recognize the LGBT community as a minority stems from the fact that calling a group a minority grants them a certain amount of legitimacy and power, especially in the legal arena. To recognize the LGBT community as a minority means that anti-discrimination laws have to be enforced in the case of discrimination based on orientation or gender identity, and it forces judges to apply equal protection statues to cases involving LGBT issues.

This naturally opens up a whole slew of issues that opponents of marriage equality and LGBT rights do not want this to happen, since it not only grants rights they want taken away but frames them as bigots going after a persecuted minority and undermines the legitimacy their authority and cause. They become bullies, and at that point it becomes harder and harder for them to justify their actions to the public. They clearly do not want this to happen, so a large part of their campaign works to frame LGBT people as a dangerous “other” who threaten the minority by their existence and in the process deny the very real discrimination that they perpetrate against a community that has few protections against their actions.

As for my friend, I do not believe she meant any ill will, but she was a good demonstration of why it is so hard for the LGBT movement to gain ground when we’re still struggling to even be recognized as a minority whose rights are being impeded on.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Hannah Montana and Metaphorical Closets

Like most people over the age of 14 I can best describe my opinion of Hannah Montana as tepid, if not outright negative, but I've been able to ignore it for the most part. I did watch it once while at a relative's house with my younger cousins, and I found it to be fairly bland sitcom fair full of the usual cliches. The music grates on my nerves and musical sensibilities, but it seems fairly harmless compared to other things out there at the moment. I'm sure there are elements from my early adolescence that appeared the same back then, but one blog I follow brought up an issue with the new movie that made me raise an eyebrow.

The Sinister Hidden Message of Hannah Montana by Mark Blankenship, while obviously mostly in a tongue and cheek tone, did bring up an aspect of the movie that I find troubling as a gay American. I gather that the basic premise of the show is that Miley Stewart leads a double life as the pop start Hannah Montana, and in the movie she starts to tire of it and considers showing her fans who she really is. At the climax of the newly released movie, after Miley manages to save her hometown with a benefit concert put on by her alter-ego, she takes off her wig to reveal her true self, but the residents of the town tell her to put in back on and be Hannah again.

"Put on the wig, or you'll never have a normal life!" one person calls, and they all promise not to reveal her identity to the rest of the world so she can be "happy" and so her fans won't "lose their dreams" and find out that Hannah isn't real. To my gay ears that sounds uncomfortably close to telling someone that they should stay in the closet rather than come out, but I know I have a tendency to read too much into things like this. But even outside that, is that really what we want our kids to learn, that it's better to live a double life than be true to yourself and risk being rejected? Considering that the latter was largely a message in the media of my childhood this strikes me as rather backwards looking.

To quote Blankenship:
As written, the conclusion tells viewers that being yourself is acceptable when you're with a very intimate circle, but otherwise, it's preferable and even honorable to lie about who you are. Hannah Montana: The Movie suggests that we can make people happy by always being who they want us to be, so we should maintain a performance at all costs. What's a little personal integrity when the entire world will be placated by our perpetual public disguise?
I know I'm disturbed by the implications of this and what it's telling our kids, and it certainly seems like a screwed up moral to say that lying about yourself is okay, whether you're gay or not.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Outing, Privacy and The Frank Rule

Despite the fact that, to put it mildly, I’m thrilled that the number of states where I can get legally married doubled in a little under a week, I haven’t had much to say on here lately, mostly because of end of the semester work and general life craziness. But the occasional philosophical and sociological trains of thought do come up, it’s just a matter of whether or not I have the energy to write them down after everything else that's on my plate. Nonetheless, I’ll try to keep this going with the occasional update, of which this is one.

In my Philosophy of Race & Gender class we had a discussion about the outing of gay, lesbian and bisexual people (and presumably trans people as well, though this was not discussed in this particular case) and whether it is appropriate to out these people and under what circumstances. My position is that under most circumstances it's not appropriate to out someone without their permission, since outing a person who is not ready to be outed is fundamentally taking the control of that event away from them, and I can say from personal experience that the process of outing is terrifying, and being outed without your permission increases that terror substantially. But I disagree that outing is bad in all circumstances, especially in the case of a politician who engages in gay behavior in secret but uses their political power to persecute other LGBT people. In this discussion I cited The Frank Rule, coined by and named after the Congessional Representative from my home state and the chair of House Financial Services Committee, the one and only Barney Frank.

Congressman Frank is famous for several things: First, being grumpy, second, having a razor sharp sense of humor, third, for being a stanch critic of government spending, and fourth, being openly gay since 1981 and an outspoken LGBT advocate, and I've had the good fortune to meet Congressman Frank in person at a talk he gave at the University of Massachusetts many years ago. My father took me to this talk, and though I was too young to really understand what he was talking about or what the fact that he was gay really meant, I remember he was funny, and that despite my expectations I was not in fact bored by what he was saying. I mention this because I've also had the dubious honor of interrupting fellow Massachusetts Congressman John Olver at a talk he was giving, though I was even younger at the time and Congressman Olver is by all accounts both incredibly intelligent and extremely boring.

Back to the subject, The Frank Rule can best be summed up by the Congressman himself:
"I think there's a right to privacy. But the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy. And people who want to demonize other people shouldn't then be able to go home and close the door and do it themselves."
It's a simple enough concept, don't be a hypocrite. I think we can all agree that there are few things worse than someone who crusades against something one minute and participates in it themselves the next. But what stuck out to me in light of today's class was how Congressman Frank makes a distinction between privacy and secrecy, which was one of our topics.

It has been interpreted that we right to privacy guaranteed in our Constitution, and in the LGBT rights movement this has been key to throwing out discriminatory laws and practices that intrude on that right. Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated all the remaining sodomy laws in the U.S. and basically said that the government has no right to regulate the sex lives of two consenting adults. I could go into just what "sodomy" is, but that's another "What Does That Really Mean?" post on its own. When it comes to privacy in the case of outing, it becomes a philosophical and normative question, which happen to be my specialties.

"Privacy" in the purest definition of the word is simply to be free from unwanted intrusion. When you compare this to the idea of "Secrecy", or the intentional concealment of something, it becomes clear that why most secrets are considered private not all private things are secret. I may have privacy in a bathroom stall, but it's no secret what I'm doing in there. When you approach outing as an issue privacy and secrecy overlap, and if someone does not want to be outed the question then becomes whether that part of them is considered private or if it's a secret that is fair game.

In most cases I'm inclined to say that no one has the right to out you without your permission. One analysis I read on the issue tried to address the points of privacy and secrecy, but in it the author failed to acknowledge the vast and varied consequences the process of being outed carries with it. You can lose your job, be thrown out of your home, disowned, beaten up, and even killed, and because these events are far too common the process of outing carries with it an extreme fear. LGBT people have to navigate their lives based on who they are and are not out to, and with just about every relationship there's the question of whether it's safe to be out to this person. I have another post in the works that discusses issues like this and how they're symptomatic of heteronormativity, but that's for another day, and all we need to know now is that it's a downright scary concept.

I'm in no way suggesting that politicians and other public figures who are outed do not face these same issues, but because of their positions their lives are already in the in-between space between public and private, and the issue becomes more complicated. Politicians especially are meant to represent the values of the communities they represent, so intentional deceit and secrecy on their part has an element of power abuse that goes with it.

In cases where a closeted politician is staunchly anti-gay it takes on an even more malicious bent, and besides deceiving their constituents a closeted anti-gay politician creates a cycle of self destruction through their actions that enables further discriminatory action to take place. While politicians are not exempt from a right to privacy merely because of their positions, their privacy is of a different sort and carries broader consequences, especially in cases of deceit. As awful as it is to lie to your family and friends, when you lie to your constituents and work to demonize and disenfranchise an already vulnerable group while engaging in that same behavior yourself the weight of the hypocrisy becomes much greater. As much as I realize that these politicians must go through great mental anguish because of their hatred for themselves, my sympathy stops at the point where they channel that hatred towards causing harm to people in the same position, and I believe they should be accountable for their actions if they are indeed shown to be engaging in hypocritical behavior as they would be in any context where their behavior is shown to be contrary to their rhetoric.

In short, I agree with Congressman Frank. I have no right to out someone without their permission, but in cases of hypocrisy and abuse of power the right of the people to know what their representatives are doing outweighs their right to keep secrets as long as we want an accountable and transparent system of government. You can do what you want with your life, but once you start using your own issues to restrict mine I draw the line. Or to quote the Congressman:
I take it personally when people decide to take political batting practice with my life.