By Mark O'Connell
Is 2012 the political year of “the woman” or “the gay”? Let’s cut to the chase: The answer is both. As Gloria Steinem said not too long ago, LGBT rights and women’s rights “are completely the same thing.” The “wars” on each of these groups that we keep hearing about are in fact the same war, and really just an irritated symptom of a neglected illness—heterosexual men’s unwillingness to share power.
Women and LGBT people, as a sole group, share precarious affirmation by the Declaration of Independence. The statement “All men are created equal,” which our leaders quote with eager regularity, arguably implies that men who sleep with women are equal to men who sleep with men, as are men who identify with women, men who want to be women and men who in fact become women. We can then interpret Thomas Jefferson’s language to mean “All men and women are created equal.” However, this last statement—which was documented in “The Declaration of Sentiments” in 1847 by a group of women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, N.Y.—is never used by our political leaders including President Obama, who referred to the Seneca Falls event during his Barnard commencement speech this year and has been an ardent supporter of women’s rights.
Why not? Because though our laws have evolved (at a snail’s pace) to provide more freedoms for women and LGBT people, social and political power still overwhelmingly belong to heterosexual men, and to quote Stanton instead of Jefferson would symbolize a desperately undesired relinquishment of that primal stronghold.
Acknowledging this simple truth evokes a gag reflex in many, much like talking in public about what happens on the toilet—it’s commonly understood, but groupthink renders it too foul to discuss. However, when we’re consistently bombarded with news about “special interest groups” competing for political fresh air—the war on women vs. the war on same-sex marriage—it seems farcical not to point out that they’re fighting against the same suffocating odor.
The Republicans have lately been marvelously thorough in surfacing this conflict between straight men and everyone else. Their current platform clearly emphasizes a desire to constrain the freedoms of all those who are not straight men, including their staunch position against same-sex marriage, voting to cut federal funding from Planned Parenthood health centers, introducing the “Let Women Die” bill, voting against equal pay, removing the protections of gay and lesbian people from the Violence Against Women Act and adopting the GOP’s position from 1956 supporting the right to legally discriminate against LGBT people, to name just a few.
For those who find the simple message underlying all of these positions to be obscure, conservative pundits and religious leaders graciously elucidate it. For example, Rush Limbaugh famously called a young women’s rights advocate a “slut” earlier this year, not to mention his recent statement that “when women got the right to vote is when it all went downhill.” Also consider the North Carolina pastor who requested electric fences to contain homosexuals and another who urged parents to “punch” their boys who act “girly.”
It’s far too tempting right now to view this problem in terms of a Republican and Democratic binary, but in doing so, one overlooks the primal conflict between Thomas Jefferson’s “men” and everyone the word arguably omits. Even if Obama wins the November election, the disparity will still exist and will continue to show itself, albeit in a less palpably hateful manner than the Republicans have allowed.
If conservative pundits have exposed the underlying misogyny and homophobia fueling their policies, Democrats and liberals need only look to their own pundits to witness their frequently negative attitudes toward women and LGBT people on the social, up-close-and-personal level, which contribute to this imparity—despite their significant support of equality-granting laws.
HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher is perhaps the best example of this problematic duality between political positioning and personal bias. Despite his clear and open support of women’s rights, particularly regarding abortion, his schtick has been relentlessly sexist, spitting denigrating terms at female politicians he disagrees with, and consistently mocking women he believes to lack attractiveness and desirability. Particularly memorable was his pointlessly derisive jab at the two elderly women who had the distinction of being the first same-sex couple to be married in New York state—an opportune moment to use his heterosexual male power to build up the esteem of marginalized people, rather than keep them down.
It’s a good thing the overlap between women and LGBT issues are rising to the surface, clarifying that the threat to “the family” that women presented during the turn of the century was born of the same fear (of heterosexual men losing power) that currently drives positions against same-sex marriage; the question now is how to best make use of this awareness, and a stronger alliance between women and LGBT people seems to be the answer.
Unfortunately, many women choose to align themselves with the aforementioned conservative views that are clearly “anti-woman,” deceived into believing that being co-opted by male power is the same thing as equally sharing power. By the same token, there are many gay men who would prefer to align themselves with straight men rather than women, and why not? After all, men are able to enter “pink-collar” jobs, and climb the ladder much higher and much more quickly than women, and who wants to give up privileges such as these in order to find kinship with a second-class group?
But the fact is both groups are in the same second class and will remain there until there is a greater demand for visibility, identification, representation and advocacy on their part as a team.
Laws protect us only so much, but without social recognition, acceptance and respect, true equality cannot be achieved. We’ll know we’ve made progress on this front when the president (whomever it turns out to be) has the balls to quote Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Photo by James Vaughan (CC-BY-SA)