A moral panic occurs when people feel that society is declining in its values and morality, due to one or more current issues. Unsurprisingly, moral panic most commonly occurs when something or someone challenges the current status quo and proposes (gasp!) change to it, or at least suggests that something else could also (gasp!) be acceptable. This is particularly true of one of the most prominent social issues we are currently facing: marriage equality.
Change is complicated. Change is scary. Change is also necessary (new Dr. Seuss rhyme, right there). As we are imperfect individuals, we have an imperfect society. This is well-documented by the amount of injustice, inequality and discrimination that has existed throughout history, and continues to exist today. Only those part of the status quo can really ignore this. So let us begin at the beginning, shall we? When discussing the matter of sexual orientation, it is only prudent to discuss what a heteronormative society we live in. We are taught from childhood — through everything we are ever told, everything we are ever shown — that it is a man and a woman who belong together, that that is how it should be, that is how it must be, because how could it be anything else? How could it be anything else, especially when we are offered no alternatives?
Think about it. Every TV show, every film you ever saw as a child, if there was a romance involved, it was very strictly heterosexual in nature. Man/woman, girl/boy, even if the romance occurred between animals or inanimate objects (we’re thinking kids’ movies right now, remember). No exception. You had it drilled into you that what Mommy and Daddy had was normal, and not just normal, but the only normal. There couldn’t be more than one normal. That was it.
Now, in the last few decades — but more especially in the last one — LGBT awareness and rights have accelerated at a quicker pace than ever before. Suddenly, it has been brought to our attention that some people don’t have Mommy and Daddy. Some people have Mommy and Mommy, or Daddy and Daddy, or something else entirely. People always claim that media — that television, video games, books, films — that they influence us to do terrible things. On the contrary, media influences us in ways that ridiculous “watch dog” groups never imagined. They condition us to what’s normal, what’s expected, and what to expect from other people. Art is an imitation of life, not the other way around. And no matter how strange, how weird, how twisted our art becomes, eternally it finds its only source within us. For values to exist in art, we have to hold them first. If we had never valued heterosexuality, it would never have appeared so often, so ad-nauseam, in our work.
And so this brings me to the moral panic that occurs when marriage equality is discussed. There are a million variants of this, manifesting themselves as real and true arguments as to why marriage equality is at best a rather silly request, and at worst, an extremely dangerous one. It all started on this rather excellent blog post by Greta Christina, discussing the oh-so-charming Mitt Romney’s comments on the death of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
To quickly summarize Greta’s already succinct post, Romney commented on how great Sally Ride was and what a great life she lived. Wow, that’s so nice of him. Except that Ride was part of the queer community, having been with her female partner for 27 years. This is the same group of people that Romney is trying to defend America from! By…uh, denying them rights and stuff. Yeah.
Yes, Mitt Romney and his gang of Eww, Something Not-Straight, have long opposed equal marriage and want to actually embed material into the United States Constitution that expressly prevents same-sex couples from marrying or having any kind of, you know, actual rights or visibility. Generally I just ignore Republican clowns like Romney, but when they start to gain real ground like he has — being the running candidate against President Obama — I get very worried. I get worried because I really start to wonder if the day will never come that we can embrace each other and not only be okay with our differences, but truly take them on as normal, as acceptable. I long for the day that there is, truly, more than one normal in the world. People like Mitt Romney do not threaten that dream when they are people on the street; however, they do set it back several decades when they end up in office.
The really interesting thing about this is the comments on this blog post. One person in particular, calling him or herself Bookworm, thought it necessary to remark that it should be Sally Ride’s life we are appreciating, not her orientation — Romney, and by extension those who are like-minded, can still, y’know, appreciate Ride’s contributions, even if they also will prevent her partner from getting federal benefits after Ride’s death because they don’t legally consider her to be next-of-kin. Even if they never would have accepted Ride’s contributions had they known she was not straight prior to her being accepted into the NASA program. Even if they would have actively discouraged non-straight people from joining up, solely on the premise of them not being straight. Yeah. They’re totally supportive, you know? It’s just us, us left-wing people, we’re appreciating her solely because she was a lesbian (not something that she ever claimed to be, by the way), not because she was a great astronaut and scientist and made valuable contributions to science and society. We just like her because she’s gay, right? It shouldn’t matter that she wasn’t straight, it’s who she was and what she did with her life!
It’s always absolutely incredible to me how these people can automatically, hypocritically, self-servingly rush from, “we don’t want to give queer people rights because they are queer!” to “it shouldn’t matter if you are queer!” When they learn that someone well-respected or well-known was queer, suddenly they are so quick to say that labels don’t really matter, it’s our actions or our contributions, and why are we so focused on the fact that so-and-so is gay or bi or trans. It doesn’t really matter!
Hmm, yeah, except that if that were really true — if labels really didn’t matter — then same-sex couples would not be denied social benefits because they are not considered married or common-law, they would be able to be at their partner’s bedside at the hospital, they would be considered next-of-kin. But they are not. If we were really in a post-labels world, we would not still judge people based on the fact that they are queer. Do they not see the hypocrisy in this argument? If Sally Ride had not been Sally Ride, The Amazing Astronaut — if she had been perhaps a mechanic, a doctor, a teacher or a coal miner, and not the first American woman in space, not a well-known scientist — suddenly, the labels would matter. Oh, they would matter very much indeed.
A teacher of mine once said, “People always say to stop shoving in their faces that you are gay. Well, to them I say that I wish people would stop shoving the fact that they are straight in my face.” And it is true. Heterosexuals can hardly complain about homosexuality or other “queerness” in their faces when you look at the sheer amount of heteronormativity that exists. When you say that you wish LGBT individuals would stop “shoving it in your face,” you are essentially saying, “I don’t want to pay attention to the fact that LGBT exists because I am straight and this is unfamiliar and therefore abhorrent. So please, stop making me aware of this issue that makes me uncomfortable.”
Have you found yourself saying that and meaning it? Do you still mean it? If so, you are the sort of person I could never see eye to eye with. When you talk about “the gays”, “the lesbians”, “the bis”, “the transgenders” (SUPER offensive way to word it, FYI!), you’re talking about people. And that’s something you’ve lost sight of. Our identities are little more than the sum of our parts, which makes our parts important. Take away one part and we are no longer who we are. By the same measure, you have to see that the parts make up a whole, and that whole is a PERSON. I know people say “hate the idea, not the person!” but that’s crap, in cases like this. If you are homophobic, if you are transphobic, if you are opposed to giving people the rights they deserve by virtue of just being fellow human beings, we cannot be friends. Full stop.
Let’s be honest here. I know you love labels. You know you love labels. They’re so convenient! You want to be given a cookie for being so generous as to say, “I’m just going to appreciate your ACCOMPLISHMENTS, Sally Ride, not the fact that you were queer! I’m the bigger person here!” You want a big old pat on the back for pretending to live in a label-free (colourblind, gender-blind, blah blah blah) world, even though you should just do it because it’s right, you should just do it because you’re a decent person and it should just be the default “good person” position?
Sorry. No cookies for you. Not today and not ever.