On Being a Gay Male Theologian During the War on Women by Dirk von der Horst
For some time, a prominent strand of gay and feminist theory and theology has taken it almost as axiomatic that gay men, lesbians, and straight women have a common stake in dismantling patriarchy. While I have always understood my own work as a gay theologian in terms of that common struggle, recent developments point to a significant challenge to keeping that bond intact in the larger sphere of political activism.
At the end of last year, National Public Radio deemed 2011 an extraordinary year for gay rights. Buzzfeed listed 40 reasons why it was the best year for gays ever, beginning with a Gallup poll showing that for the first time a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage. The list also included the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and several firsts for openly gay elected officials. Even the world of professional sports is becoming more accepting: in a recent tweet, Ravens’ linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo equated support for same-sex marriage with playing in a Super Bowl when asked about his life’s greatest accomplishments.
Simultaneously, we saw a steady legislative assault on women’s reproductive freedom.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, state legislatures introduced more than 1,100 health provisions. 68 per cent of the proposed legislation would have restricted access to abortion in various ways. Not all the measures passed – the draconian measure in Mississippi that would have conferred “personhood” on a fetus didn’t. But the sheer activity shows remarkable momentum against women’s reproductive rights. Repercussions from earlier restrictions are also making themselves felt. At the end of 2011, in Maryland, a reliably “blue” state, two abortion providers were charged with murder for performing late-term abortions under a law passed in 2005. Maryland is in the company of 38 states that have such laws on the books. Mexico also faces an anti-abortion backlash.
These two trends point to a bifurcation of social movement for sexual justice. It’s largely nostalgia, but I’ve felt this development as a betrayal of a common struggle shared by straight and lesbian feminists and gay men, which I experienced most vividly in the 1990s in the frequent participation of other gay men in defenses of abortion clinics and the alliances AIDS activists built with women’s groups and movements for racial justice. Regardless of whether or not this nostalgic view approximates historical reality, the starkness of 2011’s division of sexual politics shook the last vestiges of my working assumption that women’s liberation and gay liberation work in tandem in relation to the relative strength or weakness of patriarchal forces.
To be sure, I was already aware of tensions between feminist and queer theory, and knew of plenty of examples where the connections weren’t being made among activists. The current situation has shifted my sense of how significant those disconnects are. There are powerful analyses of the connections between sexism and homophobia. But the trends at the moment show that those connections can be severed. What this means is that a unified counter-patriarchal sexual politics is neither a given nor an illusion, but a task. Our primary energy should go into identifying where we can build coalitions for a holistic vision of sexual justice, but we may well want to spend some time figuring out where our interests do not overlap so we can move forward with a more realistic sense of what the actual challenges are.
With formal legal equality, it is almost certain that white gay men will see less reason to link our self-understanding to the struggles of other groups fighting for liberation. During the last year, as I participated in discussions with other predominantly white gay men, I frequently found myself wondering in response to impassioned pleas for equality, “equality with what and equality for what?” The demand for equal rights, while important, felt shallow. One of my attempts to generate critical discussion around white privilege among gay men simply ended up with me further marginalized from the very group I was attempting to engage. I had been a participant for years in LGBT (mostly G) groups at the online community Daily Kos; few gay men with whom I had been in regular conversation bothered to comment when I explicitly named the fact that we were isolating our struggle from a broader movement for liberation.
One dynamic of oppression is finding oneself in a position where one has to retread well-worn ground because voices and perspectives have been marginalized or silenced. The fact that the book I most recommend to people who want to get a grasp on gay theology – Gary David Comstock’s Gay Theology Without Apology – is out of print, represents a major stumbling block to advancing a conversation in religion based on where the common ground between women and gay men lies. Comstock relied on feminist theology and biblical studies to construct his version of gay theology. It remains one of the most explicitly feminist of gay theological texts. A friend, at my suggestion, had used it in his class on liberation theologies; I don’t know of another text I would recommend as wholeheartedly. Its unavailability marks a real set-back in moving a conversation that unites gay and feminist concerns forward.
So, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Coalitions can always be built. But those coalitions will only work if we build them on actual conditions, rather than in a theoretical purity of our imagination. I recommend some wariness on the part of feminists in approaching white gay men as allies at this point in time. Not all of us have your back. This is not a reason to abandon a search for common ground. It is only a sign on the road: Construction Ahead.