Timbertown in the Pink

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The rhetoric has changed since then, as overt appeals to prejudice have largely been replaced by opposition to supposed special rights and fretfulness about affirmative action for gays.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.

So many sins have been committed in the name of democracy, so much misery has been inflicted in the name of community. The term itself has been abased by overuse. Now it's a rhetorical trope–the summoning of a nostalgic fantasy, a Fourth of July that means more than big sales at K-Mart–and a political weapon. In Timbertown, both sides in the gay rights war draped themselves in the flag of community and demonized their opponents as proto-Nazis, the shock troops of the intolerant or the vanguard of the politically correct. But the idea of community acquires real bite when people are obliged to decide who's in and who's out, who's a member and who's a stranger: who, in the terms of the initiative, deserves to be protected against discrimination and who doesn't. This is what the conflict in Timbertown was really about. In part, it's a unique tale–to paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy communities are different from one another. But it's also a familiar story, with only the identity of the out group changed: Latino migrant workers, Vietnamese boat people, schoolchildren with AIDS. For many Americans, Timbertown is Grovers Corners, a veritable Our Town for these deceptively peaceful times.

Until the 1980s the mills meant prosperity for Timbertown, providing good jobs for the men, many of whom dropped out of high school to become breadwinners. But gradually the lumber industry declined, the mills shut down and unemployment skyrocketed. In the new economy, good jobs went to those with high-tech skills. If the laid-off workers could find any employment, it was in low-paying service jobs; in order to make ends meet, women who'd made raising a family their vocation had to find work. Meanwhile, waves of newcomers arrived, drawn by the beauty and affordability (to them) of the place–hippie communes and feminist enclaves in the 1970s, later the "equity migrants" from California, who sold their homes at enormous profits and moved north in search of a simpler life. But for many of these new settlers, simplicity turned out to be unlivable without a good cappuccino. As the trappings of cosmopolitanism began appearing, with smart cafes and trendy bookstores down the road from rusting cars in front yards, resentment mounted.

The right-wing Christian churches capitalized on this resentment. In Timbertown, as across the nation, membership in mainstream Protestant congregations has been stagnant or has declined while evangelicals have been thriving. The latter version of Christianity promises nothing less than to set the world aright. Religious fervor and bred-in-the-bone social conservatism, economic insecurity and the need to restore men to their rightful place: These make for a volatile and potent combination.

Casting the antigay position as opposition to special rights misrepresents what laws against discrimination actually accomplish, but it's a brilliant tactic. It draws on all the deep-rooted angers without leaving its adherents directly vulnerable to the charge of bigotry. "Protecting gay rights is analogous to protecting the spotted owl," one Timbertown activist said, piling one resentment on top of another, despised environmentalists fused with gays and lesbians, deepening the sense of victimization at the hands of powerful outsiders–them threatening us. The paranoia even had its comic aspects. There's a gay line at the bank, it was whispered, because "Gay" appeared on the name card of one of the tellers; the mundane truth was that Gay was the teller's first name. But the antigay campaign was anything but frivolous. It was irrelevant in this charged atmosphere that the organizers of the anti-gay rights campaign were themselves outsiders, and that many who opposed the measure were third- and fourth-generation natives. The language of insider and outsider had been cut loose from its literal meaning, transformed into a litmus test for one's position on the gay rights issue–indeed, for one's worldview. In Timbertown, inside versus outside became an all-encompassing state of mind: Boycotts were launched, schoolyard fights waged and intimate friendships ruined over this issue.

Opponents of the antigay initiative quickly realized that general appeals to tolerance and fair play were useless in such circumstances. Even as their opponents were busily fearmongering, circulating a video that depicted the orgiastic aspects of San Francisco's Gay Pride Day, straight citizens became the spokespeople against the measure. The Great and Good of Timbertown–the newspaper editor, who wrote endless editorials, the ministers of mainstream churches–lent gravitas to the campaign, in which gays were represented as just like us. Homosexuals in Timbertown were the good gays, so very different from their outrageous brothers and sisters. On the eve of the vote, an exhibit of Anne Frank memorabilia was brought to town and high school students were asked, unsubtly, to draw parallels to examples of intolerance in their community. All to no avail: The anti-gay rights ordinance passed, with 57 percent of the vote.

The rapidly changing labor market, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, the sense of threat to a way of life–these facts of life in Timbertown are American commonplaces. So too is the inversion of the civil rights struggle, the tendency for displaced white males to see themselves as the newest category of victims, worthy successors to blacks in the struggle for respect. In such circumstances, the case for gay rights isn't easily made. A recent national survey conducted for Horizons Foundation, a San Francisco-based gay organization, found that 56 percent of Americans believe that discrimination against gays is morally wrong.

Horizons' executive director sees that result as encouraging, but subtract those who tend to give pollsters the "right" answer versus what they actually believe, and, at most, half the population is opposed to overt bigotry. How many Timbertowns does that add up to?

When they voted against gay rights, a clear majority of Timbertown's voters symbolically banished those strangers in their midst. While life there goes on, with arguments about fixing up the high school once again the big news item, gays and lesbians know now that for all their efforts to fit in, they are unwelcome. In the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Colorado law on which the Timbertown initiative was based. A state, the majority concluded, cannot deem a class of people stranger to its laws. Denver and Boulder, Portland and Eugene can have their gay nondiscrimination ordinances. But in the other Oregon–the other America–gays and lesbians remain the strangers next door.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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