This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: Responding to Gay Panic
The public is on our side — when we speak on the right, relatable terms. Plus: A surprising appeal to "science."
I want to thank everyone who joined the discussion on last Friday’s post about my efforts to pretend that I am Ina Garten in my spare time. I appreciate your perspectives on the merits of fabulous-yet-effortless dinner parties, especially Pierre St. Pierre, who remarked that “reading this made me so grateful to be a straight man. I do not have the energy for any of this.”
If you’re not a paying subscriber, you didn’t get that post, but you can sign up to read it and the ensuing discussion thread here.
I also have a programming note: the Very Serious podcast is off this week because we are focused on some technological adjustments that will allow us to integrate it better with the newsletter. We’ll have more (exciting) information about that for you soon.
However, we will be taping next week’s podcast this Friday — I’ll be interviewing Jerusalem Demsas of the Atlantic, about her excellent article discussing why so many of the widely shared economic predictions about the pandemic were wrong. If you have questions for her, please drop them in the jar before Friday morning.
Now, on to this week’s mail.
Olivia and Joey ask:
We’ve been pretty surprised on two counts by the messaging around the Parental Rights in Education Bill recently signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. First of all, it seems to be a messaging bill with real dubious prospects in the courts, but in a recently-purple state like Florida, such a broadside seems to run the real risk of offending the sensibilities of the vital core of voters that has delivered consistent victories to Republicans there as of late. So one could argue that DeSantis intends to play to a national audience, but that brings us to our second surprise: we’ve noticed what seems like a real increase in openly and straightforwardly homophobic rhetoric from politicians and pundits on the right. Just a few years ago, it seemed like the battle for public opinion on gay rights had largely been settled. But were we just being naive? Do you see it that way? Is the panic over expanding recognition of trans identity fueling a wider homophobic backlash?
How this law is going to land with the average voter I think remains an open question — as I discussed a few weeks ago, the polling is very different depending on how you ask about the law and what characteristics you emphasize. One piece of information that seems to reduce support in polls is if you tell people the law allows parents to sue school districts. In the months and years ahead, you’re likely to see lawsuits with sympathetic defendants: teachers who have engaged in innocuous behavior such as mere disclosure of their sexual orientation (or even marital status), and school districts that are spending taxpayer dollars fighting these nuisance suits. And that will be unpopular.
At the same time, liberals need to understand where they have genuinely gotten out over their skis.
A majority of the public is bought in on acceptance of LGBT people, including opposing legislative efforts like bathroom bills, and therefore accepts the idea that some people’s gender identity diverges from their sex in a way that demands both legal protection and social acceptance. But the public is not bought in on Judith Butler, or on the idea that gender is essentially arbitrary or unlinked to sex. The ideas underlying the current orthodoxy on the relationship between sex and gender were, until just a few years ago, obscure academic ones. And as those ideas have started having consequences — as Andrew Sullivan notes, there are a substantial number of schools using teaching materials that take a truly avant-garde stance on this issue — liberals have become aggressors in a piece of the culture war without even considering what we were fighting for, whether it’s worth it, and whether we even really believe in it — or whether we just went along with it because we were afraid that otherwise we’d get yelled at.1
The solution here is not a state law, especially one as broad and vague as the one in Florida. The solution is for school districts and teachers to make choices that reflect that public schools are shared institutions that cannot sustainably be on the vanguard of controversial ideas from the right or the left. And on gender in particular, I think Jonathan Rauch has some good ideas about how to talk about acceptance and pluralism while recognizing that people have valid interests related to both sex and gender, and without asking the vast non-queer majority of the public to reconceptualize their own gender along lines that arise from queer theory.
As for broader homophobic rhetoric, certainly the “groomer” and “pedophile” slurs that conservative activists and some Republican politicians are throwing wildly at teachers and Democratic politicians around the country have their roots in earlier panics specific to the idea that gays are a threat to children. I also think the accusation is incoherent and probably a political mistake — the constituency that is primed to be wary of social activism in schools is a lot larger than the constituency that’s primed to believe teachers are trying to have sex with their children.
But I also think it’s important to maintain perspective: the political and social environment for all categories of LGBT people remains more favorable than it was at any previous time in American history. We are fighting over issues that weren’t even on the agenda ten years ago, like transgender participation in women’s sports, because LGBT people have won not just policy fights but public opinion fights about the last round of issues, like gay marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. This is not like abortion, where liberals won the court decisions but never succeeded in moving public opinion along with them. But on a going-forward basis, LGBT advocates need to be careful that the agenda items they pursue are built on the same ideas of pluralism and acceptance that won the prior fights, because those are the ideas that got the public into our corner in the first place.
Speaking of abortion, Ethan asks:
What is your position on abortion, in light of modern science that says life begins at conception? What do you think the best abortion stance to take for a Democratic politician that recognizes this fact and is politically feasible? As a Democrat, I’m just tired of the abortion extremism in the party.
I was interested in how Ethan’s question relies on an appeal to “science” to settle an essentially moral or metaphysical issue, but from the right — usually, it’s liberals who look to “science” to settle fights.