Timbertown in the Pink
Gay rights are a fact of life in urban America, where nondiscrimination measures and domestic partnership ordinances have proliferated, corporations like Coors Brewing Company seek to shed their bad-for-business, homophobic reputations by supporting gay causes, and politicians troll for votes at gay freedom day parades. But "gay rights" are fighting words in places where the big city is as unloved as Sodom. Within nanoseconds after the first gay rights laws were adopted a quarter-century ago, the opposition mobilized. The threat of a perverse and dangerous way of life turned Anita Bryant, the songbird of the Florida orange industry, into an antigay crusader. The fear that gay teachers would convert their students to deviance motivated a California legislator named John Briggs to campaign for a state constitutional amendment barring homosexuals from the classroom.
The rhetoric has changed since then, as overt appeals to prejudice have largely been replaced by opposition to supposed special rights and fretfulness about affirmative action for gays. Yet behind this facade of principle, the intention is the same--to keep gays in their place, to define homosexuals as less than full citizens, as inferiors who cannot turn to the law for protection against discrimination or for legal recognition of committed relationships. So, while gays and lesbians have become staples of the popular culture, Will and Grace is one thing, reality programming something else. Antigay antagonism remains widespread and passions run deep. In Vermont, no hotbed of reactionary politics, the passage of a state law authorizing civil unions for gay couples in the spring of 2000 sparked a campaign to take back Vermont--take it back, that is, from homosexuals and other strangers. Eleven lawmakers who, out of principle, voted for the statute were defeated by the voters.
In the early 1990s antigay groups in Colorado and Oregon launched state ballot measures intended to deny civil rights protection to gay men and lesbians. Those initiatives lost in the cities, Denver and Portland, and the college towns, Boulder and Eugene, but they won healthy majorities in the rural counties. After the 1992 statewide defeat in Oregon, the campaign shifted tactics. It targeted towns that had voted for the initiative, drafting amendments to local ordinances that would prevent city councils from passing gay rights measures. Though this drive was largely symbolic--these towns had neither the authority nor the will to enact special rights measures--that didn't dampen the passions. Arlene Stein's The Stranger Next Door recounts how this war was waged in one such community, a place she calls "Timbertown," an easy commute but a psychological light-year from Eugene.
Why should civil war over gay rights erupt in a place where gays and lesbians were essentially invisible? The simple explanations aren't entirely satisfactory. The media and national gay groups emphasize the power of the religious right: Fundamentalist crazies--a redundancy in liberal circles--seized the day. Timbertown did in fact find itself in the throes of a culture war, beset by moral panic, and many residents came to believe that homosexuality was a threat to the moral order. But while religious fundamentalists are an increasingly important presence in Timbertown, as they are across the country, they still represent a minority; in order to prevail, they had to conscript the unchurched to their cause. Tarring all fundamentalist churches as havens of bigotry also misses the mark. Fundamentalism takes many forms, from bonhomie to brimstone, and in Timbertown the churches in question differed on the wisdom of preaching the gospel in the political arena.
The other common explanation is materialist: Religion was really a stalking horse for economics. In a community like Timbertown, where the fortunes of the work force were declining as lumber mills started shutting down, an outlet for resentment--a scapegoat--was needed. Someone had to be blamed, and gays made an easy target. But this too is just part of the answer. It ignores ideological divisions among those suffering from economic hard times, and it dismisses the genuine anger evoked by the specter of homosexuality--not the good gays of Timbertown (most of whom, as it happens, were lesbian) but the encroaching evil, San Francisco come to Arcadia.
By combining the meticulousness of an ethnographer with a writer's commitment to storytelling, Stein has written a book that's surprisingly compelling--or, better, compelling because it's surprising. A great many social science luminaries--everyone from Michel Foucault to Pierre Bourdieu, George Lakoff to Georg Simmel--make cameo appearances, but this isn't academic name-dropping. What's extracted from these intellectual heavyweights gives this story a significance that carries beyond its particulars.
The Stranger Next Door looks not only at economics and religion, and the ways these forces--these powerful feelings--become intertwined. It also delves into the somewhat trickier realm of psychology. At a time when gender roles are at play, Stein argues, a perceived threat to masculinity may underlie the antipathy to gay rights, not just for men leading lives of quiet dislocation but also for stand-by-your-man women. Though this makes intuitive sense, there's a risk of substituting psychological name-calling, intellectual ad hominem, for analysis, dismissing repellent behavior by defining it as pathological. Not so long ago, psychologists spoke of homosexuality as a mental illness; here fundamentalist faith is so cast, which Stein links to deeply held feelings of shame. "While Christian right activists speak about their efforts as a quest to repair the world...it is also an effort to repair themselves," Stein writes. The left, of which Stein is a card-carrying member, would dearly love to believe this--but is shame really a special, defining trait of fundamentalists?
The roots of homophobia lie far deeper than rationality can reach. Sometimes, as with Matthew Shepard in Wyoming or Brandon Teena (whose life was dramatized in Boys Don't Cry) in Texas, the rage is literally murderous. But what happened in Timbertown--mobilization in defense of a perceived assault on morality--is more typical. The antigay campaign reveals democracy in America in its most worrying form.