by: Austin Duus
Recently Congressman Barney Frank and advice columnist Dan Savage used racially-charged metaphors to describe the frustrating hypocrisy of gay Republicans. Frank dubbed members of the Log Cabin Republicans “Uncle Toms.”
In their defense, the Log Cabin Republicans did not endorse Mitt Romney—who opposes gay adoption, favors the Federal Marriage Amendment, and has pledged to reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. GOProud, another gay Republican group, apparently found basic gay equality less compelling than keeping the Bush tax cuts and endorsed Mitt Romney. After hearing their endorsement, Dan Savage called GOProud’s members “house faggots” on Twitter.
While the right has used Frank and Savages’ statements as examples of gay “bullying” of conservatives, the most vociferous backlash has come from the progressive left. Maya Rupert, a director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a prominent and respected gay rights advocacy organization, wrote in the Huffington Post that she was offended. She found the metaphors more akin to comparing“apples to slavery” than apples to oranges.
I don’t dispute that these metaphors have a complex history, but as a rhetorical device they should not be off the table, and the impulse to be offended is unhelpful and short-sighted. After all, there are parallels between the civil rights movement and the LGBT struggle for equality. The tendency of the left to engage in the oppression olympics only makes it more difficult to build bridges. It makes it that much harder for people who are both gay and a racial or ethnic minority to feel as if their identity is included in our tent. In particular, we cannot allow the us-versus-them logic to perpetuate the harmful narrative that being gay is a form of acting white.
Rupert may be offended, but her analysis is a straw man. Neither Frank nor Savage said nor implied that gay oppression is parallel to slavery. They may have used pejoratives, but those pejoratives have context and meaning that conveys their basic idea in Twitter-alloted space. “House faggots” (a phrase Rupert’s sensibilities call for redacting to “fa***ts,” as if we aren’t adults) is a lot more succinct than something like this:
“I am very angered that other gay people who share a common identity with me would be so callous as to support a political party and candidate that explicitly and systematically obstruct basic political progress toward LGBT equality and instead pander to an extreme and intolerant constituency. I am skeptical that the GOP can be reformed from within as the party has only become more extreme in the last few years. Unlike years past, gay people have a real political alternative in the Democrats. Their wholesale integration of basic gay rights and equality into their platform makes supporting Republicans at this time in history much less acceptable. I am further saddened that these individuals choose to rationalize their complicity in their own oppression by pointing to the GOP’s politically-convenient refusal to be openly hostile as progress in the evident hope that that a piddling common ground on some fiscal issues is worth trading for their dignity as human beings. Their actions ‘throw us under the bus’ in exchange for an Oliver Twist-like promise of being slightly more favored than other gay people should the GOP come into power in the next election.”
“House faggots” and “Uncle Toms” are metaphors that recall fiery rhetoric in the black civil rights movement. Such rhetoric was controversial then, as now, but it expresses all of the wordy explication above.
More importantly, the metaphors hit home. It is hard to describe the complexity of what Savage and Frank object to without relying on some historical short-hand. Suppose they instead used the term “collaborators.” This is a Nazi reference, but it would be absurd to believe they mean to compare the gay rights movement to the holocaust. Instead they employ the metaphors they used precisely because they are provocative.
The reflexive offense that so many have taken is an example of barriers that often prevent the LGBT community from establishing common ground with other minorities and conveying what our experiences are like to society at large.
Rupert’s critique is indeed a form of the oppression olympics. Political correctness and progressive word-policing are stifling to those who are uninitiated or whose intentions are in the right place. It is this off-putting piety that makes gay people want to become Republicans in the first place, and it obscures what the actual oppressive structure is.
It may be true as Rupert puts it that there is no “one way to respond to oppression,” but, if we take that axiom seriously, we must allow for the Frank and Savage pejoratives within our discussion. It is not in our interest to chill the speech of our allies. Moreover, their anger is valid, and how they choose to express it is less important than their courage to stand up be heard.
That isn’t to say the black civil rights struggle is the same as the LGBT rights struggle. But, at the least, we should be allowed to use the language that demonstrates what we have in common—and thus to further bind our communities—rather than to reflexively allow the discussion to devolve into a contest of who has it harder. That distraction makes it easier to divide and further disenfranchise us. It is this fetish for infighting that the National Organization for Marriage and others rely on when agitating against our equality.
Austin Duus is a student at the University of Chicago Law School and has opinions part-time. He lives in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago.