The Right Keeps Demonizing Us--But It’s Not Sticking
When Kevin Jennings was appointed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the post of assistant deputy secretary to the head the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in July, the move was lauded by the LGBT community as a step in the right direction for the Obama administration’s commitment to diversity.
But not everyone was as pleased with the founder of the Gay & Lesbian Straight Education Network’s new federal post.
The far right quickly mobilized and incited a media blitz based in a number of incendiary claims that Jennings was "sick and immoral" in his involvement with controversial organizations like ACT UP. They dredged up an incident recounted by Jennings himself when he looked the other way when an underaged teenager confided he’d had a relationship with an adult. (Actually, he advised the young man to use condoms.)
They claimed he supported the North American Man-Boy Love Association because he praised a veteran activist who had ties to the hyper-controversial group. And they dredged up a panel in which Jennings reportedly taught school kids about fisting.
As ridiculous as the narrative of Jennings as a "pervert" pushing a "pro-homosexual agenda" might sound, it was forcibly promoted by right-wing organizations like Americans for Truth About Homosexuality and the American Family Association. Conservative outlets including Fox News, the Washington Post and World Net Daily amplified their arguments.
Words and phrases like "extremist," "out of step" and "activist" also greeted the appointment of out-lesbian activist attorney Chai Feldblum to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the introduction of the Matthew Shepard Act (coined the "Pedophile Protection Act" by some conservatives) to the Senate and House.
These arguments have not caught much wind in the mainstream. The Shepard Act has been signed into law and both Jennings and Feldblum have retained their posts.
But their rhetoric clearly has political impact. Last month, 53 House Republicans signed a letter addressed to Obama which called for Jennings’ dismissal. The talking points of "tradition" and "protecting children" also played a heavy role in conservatives’ successful repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage-allowing amendment.
In an effort to get at the root of the right’s attack on Jennings, the Shepard Act and anything remotely gay-positive in recent months, EDGE spoke with a number of experts on the subject on the past, present and future of the conservative conquest against the modern LGBT rights movement.
Gay Sex Panic Dates Back to ’60s & Beyond
The criticism of Jennings did not come as much of a surprise to many of this story’s sources who noted that the strain of the far right rhetoric is neither exclusive to this era, community or issue.
Janice M. Irvine, sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, dates the right’s targeting of sexuality, in particular, back to the early ’60s, when social conservatives took the reins of the Republican Party with the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964.
"[The Christian right] discovered by the late ’60s that scaring people with sexuality can help them build their movement and they’ve done it over and over again since then," Irvine said. "They are always trying to find the ’scariest’ aspect of sexuality that will create a sex panic. This is a time-worn tactic."
Tom Boellstorff, a University of California anthropology professor and editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist, looks back even further in his explanation of conservative attacks on LGBT persons’ legitimacy in both politics and the public sphere in general.
"In many cultures throughout history, control over sexuality is a way to achieve social control more generally - organizing who people can have sex with, when and what meanings are attached to that fact, and these ideas get linked to kinship," Boellstorff explained. "In many cultures, it is thus assumed that your sexuality dominates every aspect of your being and determines your personality."
We’ve Got to Think of the Children!
Seeing a name like Jennings rewarded with a federal post working directly on the issue of safety in schools strikes a particularly tender blow for the right. They’ve warmed up to the issue as one of their most effective aces up their sleeve dating back to the days of the Briggs Initiative and Anita Bryant’s "Save Our Children" campaign.
The "save marriage" campaigns in both California and Maine in recent memory successfully argued that legalized same-sex marriage would result in its teaching in schools.
As Boellstorff points out, the accusation that a visible LGBT community influences youth adversely follows a broader strategy used against other minority groups historically.
"One of the easiest ways to create oppression against any group is to claim they are a danger to children," he added. "This has been seen in anti-Semitic language in many historical periods, and in racist rhetoric toward African Americans; for instance, baseless claims that black men were hunting down and raping young white girls. This is a very old scare tactic used to demonize many different groups."
Jennings has, of course, not been the only member of the Obama administration whose feet have been held to the coals by the right, as part of a larger effort by conservatives to criticize many of his policies. Other appointees, including former "green jobs czar" Van Jones, have successfully been forced out over criticism of past activism.
Larry Gross, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, described the Jennings saga as part of "take-no-prisoners" campaign against the administration. He said their targeting of Jennings was "predictable."
But their choice of Jennings was far from random. Jessica Levin, press secretary of the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters for America, added she couldn’t imagine a "better rallying point" for the right than Jennings and specifically criticized Fox News for what she describes as a major distortion of facts.
"[The Jennings case] has been completely ridiculous," Levin said. "What made this case unique, going above and beyond Fox News and conservative organizations’ attempts to take down any Obama administration official they can was bringing in the case of the statutory rape. Their connection of someone who is gay with the schools plays to that which they want to fear-monger about the most."
Ultimately, on the Wrong Side of History
And yet, despite the all-hands-on-deck campaign against Jennings, he has remained in his post. In his defense, Secretary of the Department of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement that Jennings is "uniquely qualified for his job and [she is] honored to have him on our team." And few mainstream media outlets have given the matter near the attention that Fox News and other conservative outlets have, making one wonder: Is the rhetoric losing its audience?
Irvine said she did not perceive the charges Jennings faced as having the same impact as they would have in the ’60s or even the ’90s. She felt right-wing organizations were largely "speaking to the converted" and anticipated a backlash against their rhetoric could be on its way.
"We tend to think of this kind of speech being out there as toxic and dangerous to us, but i can also serve to make them a mockery among the public. I think the course of history is running against them," Irvine said. "Conjuring up homosexuality as a frightening thing at this historical moment is a dead metaphor and I don’t think it will be effective."
Denis Dison of the Victory Fund, an organization that lobbies for openly gay and lesbian politicians, agreed the argument was losing potency, but doubted that the attacks would end anytime soon.
"This is a losing argument in the mainstream and they know it, but there’s a bit of an anti-gay industry out there, people who make their livelihood scaring people about gay people, and it behooves them to continue them to ramp up their rhetoric," Dison said. "That said, you see [the story] dying down now because it was too crazy for them."
Reasons for Optimism
Dison further pointed to the success of an astounding number of openly gay candidates in local and state races during the most recent election as a positive sign for growing acceptance.
All told, 49 of the organization’s 79 endorsed candidates emerged as victors. Notable victors included Charles Pugh, Detroit’s first openly gay city councilman, and Annise Parker, who placed first heading into a runoff election for Houston mayor. Sandra Kurt and Jim Llanas both overcame attacks on their sexuality to become the first openly gay members of their city councils in Maplewood, Minn. and Akron, Ohio, respectively.
"It wasn’t that long ago where elected officials did not want to touch these issues at all, and these successes fly in the face of their argument that gay people are only sex-crazed hedonists bent on destroying all religion and family," Dison said. "Jennings shows allied political professionals are developing more of a backbone in being able to defend the community against these more salacious attacks."
But even with increasing visibility, it is clear that the coming years will require vigilance by our community to counter the continued spread of misinformation in the right’s attempts to dismantle the LGBT movement’s progress.
"It is important we name this kind of bigotry as bigotry," Boellstorff said. "Here, in the year 2009, we need to say that heterosexism is simply not acceptable."