Gay Marriage, GOP Secret Weapon

05 November 2004

Was the “moral value” of homophobia this election’s X-factor?

By Jeff Sharlet

My colleague Ann and I decided to tune out of the election coverage around 1:30 am. We left the friends with whom we’d been watching to walk to the F train the long way, crosstown and down Sixth Avenue through Greenwich Village. At W. 4th, a man staggered toward us from across the street. He looked drunk; he was dirty; and he wore an American flag t-shirt that didn’t come close to covering his belly.

“Admit it, Democrat,” he bellowed, closing fast. “Bush won!” He shook a fist at us. “And now I’m gonna shove my whole f—–g fist up your Democrat ass!”

I had two inches on the guy. Ann, half a foot shorter than me and probably half as heavy, knows karate. We figured we could protect our unaffiliated asses. The real puzzle was, Why did this man think we were Democrats? And what was with the weirdly homoerotic anger? There’s something about threatening to shove your “whole fist” up an ass that suggests a certain familiarity with the sexual practice of fisting and its challenges.

We thought about it while we waited for the F train. Ann, as it happens, had voted for Kerry. Since I didn’t vote — my registration is two or three apartments behind me — I don’t need to say who I would’ve voted for if I had. We inspected our clothing: Ann looked sharp in a neat black outfit and short, bright red hair. I felt stylistically nonpartisan in jeans and a sweatshirt. Both of our bellies, however, were fully covered, unlike the fister’s. That fact, apparently, revealed both our political and sexual proclivities.

At first, we didn’t make much of the man’s warning. After all, it’s easy to imagine that had the election gone differently, and had we been in, say, Dallas, a bare-bellied Kerry supporter might have likewise threatened a fisting.

Or maybe not. Homophobia is a cross-party persuasion, but last night it figured most often in the votes of Republicans. A topic discussed more and more frequently as the pundits came to realize that their predictions had been wildly wrong was “values” — that is, in this election like no other, gay marriage. Let’s make that simpler, get to the root of the matter: gay sex. Gay sex in all its variety — including fisting — may have been this election’s X-factor. Bush is against it. Kerry would rather leave the details to the discretion of lovers.

The clearest evidence of homosexuality as an organizing principle in last night’s voting is the fact that all eleven of the state gay marriage bans proposed passed. The proposals may not have been so much populist as political from conception, designed by GOP strategists to drive otherwise lazy, Republican-leaning voters to the polls. Given the accounts of fraudulent phone calls “campaigning” for Kerry’s promise to legalize gay marriage (a promise he never made; like Bush, he’s for civil unions), that’s not a hard story to swallow.

But it doesn’t account for the marriage bans’ victories, nor for the many bishops and priests and ministers who called for electoral holy war by declaring the fight against homosexuality on par with that against abortion, and both more important than voters’ pocketbooks, public welfare, and international warfare.

And no get-out-the-vote strategy can ultimately explain the vote itself, nor the plurality of voters who told exit pollsters that “moral values” were their number one concern. Moral values — visible faith, anti-abortion, and, this time, anti-homosexuality — are a real and powerful force in the American public sphere.

In 2002 and 2003, my friend Peter Manseau and I spent about a year traveling the United States, reporting a book called Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, a sort of spiritual geography of the nation. When we published the book earlier this year, interviewers asked us time and again: What’s the common denominator of American faith? What is it that most of us share?

We lied every time. We offered up sincere but misleading tributes to freedom of speech as the American devotion. We avoided the answer that had made itself as plain as the two-lane roads we drove on: The greatest common denominator of American belief is anti-homosexuality.

In Alan Wolfe’s sociological survey, One Nation, After All, he writes that he discovered that most middle-class Americans are free of overt bigotries — except homophobia. The exception to the rule of tolerance in American life, he argues, is the widespread belief that homosexuality is just not ok. Really not ok; whereas most Americans practice a nonjudgmental pragmatism with regard to others, homosexuality comes in for special condemnation.

Wolfe found this common thread through careful sociological analysis. My co-author and I tripped over it without even looking. In the strong majority of hundreds of interviews we conducted, believers of nearly every variety volunteered their opposition to homosexuality. I’m talking not only about Christian conservatives, although it’s worth remembering that that designation applies to the majority of Americans. We also heard about how wrong homosexuality is from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, New Agers, Santeria practitioners, even Wiccans.

Most of these people are surprisingly abstract in their thinking. There may be a certain disingenuousness to the popular anti-homosexuality mantra, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” but nearly everyone we met really did distinguish their hatred of homosexuality from their dealings with homosexuals.

How do I know? Because many, if not most, thought that Peter and I were a gay couple, by virtue of the facts that we’re writers and had come from New York City. We’re neither a couple, nor gay, but there never seemed to be a polite way to say that, so we didn’t, and still some of the great homosexual-haters of America welcomed us into their homes and their churches and their temples.

If they could share their homes and their faith with men they assumed were gay, why can’t they share the state sanction of marriage?

I don’t know.

I’m familiar with all the arguments for and against gay marriage, and have heard variations played to the tune of a dozen different creeds and denominations. Examined in good faith, arguments against it do not hold water. Even if one concedes that homosexuality might be against God’s will, and that the state should help enforce God’s will, there’s the troubling question of priority. Depending on how you read — or don’t read– your scripture, there are a lot of things against God’s will, and in no faith that I know of is homosexuality chief among them. Most are more concerned, for example, with relations between men and women.

Take the problem of wife beating, much more widespread than gay marriage. Wife-beating can’t by any stretch of the imagination be defended on biological grounds. And yet, wife-beatingis remarkably amenable to faith-based solutions; indeed, Christian conservative programs such as Promise Keepers enjoy much greater success in helping men refrain from hitting their wives than they do in “curing” homosexuality.

So, why the obsession with homosexuality? As Jason Boog pointed out on The Revealer on Monday, some referendums actually pushed the issue further than gay activists had been inclined to take it. Gay activists in Michigan weren’t, for the most part, seeking the right to gay marriage, but that didn’t stop the state’s Catholic dioceses from pouring money and media into a campaign to prevent them from doing so.

That campaign worked, although, if it was designed to tip Michigan Republican, it failed, as it did in Oregon, where another gay marriage ban passed even as the state went blue for Kerry. In both states, though, it required Kerry to pour resources into states that might otherwise have been safe bets.

So, at one a.m. this morning, TV pundits left and right shook their heads and talked about gay marriage, and “values,” as possible explanations for why the overall vote failed to follow pollsters’ predictions. If they’re right, why exactly do so many people believe that homosexuality is an “issue” as important in determining one’s vote as the economy, or healthcare, or war?

Since I don’t share that view, it’s hard for me to know. But I suspect that most of those who do hold it don’t really know, either. Very few are able to articulate anything more than the easily-countered arguments that have been taking the debate nowhere for years.

So I’m proposing a story for some brave journalist, or novelist, or scholar, or filmmaker. Tell us why so many of us build our understandings of the world around opposition to homosexuality. We’ll want to know about the various theologies. We’ll need to know about psychology, biology, sociology. But what I’m really waiting for is a full account of the faith that underlies this opposition. It’s neither simple nor shallow. My travels — and this election — suggest to me that it is deep, profound, and made up of many meanings, spiritual, physiological, political, metaphorical.

And it’s crucial to understanding the passion for “morality” that become this election’s X-factor, whether expressed in a vote or an angry “whole fist up your Democrat ass.” There must be more to it than can be explained, or justified, by the vast, empty term “values.”

Jeff Sharlet is co-author of Killing the Buddha and editor of The Revealer.