Friday, September 29

A Gay Scholar Confronts the Harshness of the Heartland


Choosing career over lifestyle, I packed my Honda on the blue shores of the Pacific and pointed it to the red heart of America. Before then Oklahoma had entered my consciousness as a concrete place only twice: when I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, and in the wake of the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. Neither produced many positive associations with the state I was about to call home. Neither signaled a welcoming place for a gay man.

When I arrived in 2002, I heard news that confirmed my impression. A local gay-rights group had sued Oklahoma City after municipal officials rejected the group's request to display rainbow banners from city-owned light posts. Earlier the mayor had defended his position by saying that if the city could not hang banners with a religious message, then it should not be required to promote an "irreligious message." A federal judge disagreed, ruling the rejection an infringement of free speech and ordering the banners replaced in time for gay and lesbian history month.

Even with legal protection, gays and lesbians in Oklahoma have to contend with continuing harassment, I learned. Protestors set up pickets along a strip of gay nightclubs in Oklahoma City. Some teen-agers who come out to their parents are sent to coercive Christian-sponsored therapy programs to "cure" their homosexual urges. An openly gay candidate for county commissioner faced a ruthless campaign targeting his "values."

Ensconced at the university, I felt insulated from this assault. My colleagues always behaved professionally, and I developed a small network of other out faculty and staff members. Besides, I could camouflage myself easily. I was in my late 20s and unmarried, fairly common these days. My car bumper featured an array of stickers for Democratic candidates, but no rainbow symbols. Moreover, my research on evangelical Christianity in Mexico rarely touched on gay themes. Even though I never denied my sexuality and always included material on sexuality in general in my anthropology courses, being gay did not seem relevant to my academic role at the university.

That changed in the run-up to the 2004 elections. That year the Oklahoma Legislature considered 10 antigay measures, including some that sought to restrict same-sex marriage. Never mind that Oklahoma as well as the federal government had already passed so-called defense-of-marriage acts. Bill Graves, then a Republican state representative from Oklahoma City, was a cosponsor of a successful bill proposing a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

Mr. Graves has asserted that "in Western civilization and in all recorded civilizations of the world, marriage has always been viewed as a union between a man and a woman." By basing his opposition to same-sex marriage on anthropological evidence, the legislator presented an opportunity for me to defend gay rights on intellectual grounds. As any cultural-anthropology class will teach, marriage across time and space has more to do with status and alliances than romantic love between two individuals of the opposite sex. In fact, Mr. Graves had it exactly backward. Favoring the union between one man and one woman is a relatively recent and localized innovation in the history of marriage.

Before the fall elections, which included the proposed constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, a graduate-student group organized a panel discussion to examine the issue. The group invited me to give the social-science perspective, a political philosopher to provide an ethical context, and Mr. Graves to defend his legislation. The organizers blitzed the campus media and booked a room in the student union that held 200 people.

On the day of the event, the crowd overflowed the space. Before it began, I shook hands with Mr. Graves, a courtly, older gentleman sporting the American flag lapel pin that all politicians seem obligated to wear. As he pleasantly chatted about his memories of the university with me, I realized that he had no idea which side of the issue I was on or even that I was one of the sinful gays he ranted about on the floor of the state House of Representatives.

As it turned out, I spoke first, and Mr. Graves followed me. I had the advantage of knowing what he would argue, so I tried to pre-empt his logic by presenting examples of flexible marriage arrangements. I described the precedent for same-sex marriage in the anthropological record among some Native American groups. I closed by warning against the dangers of ethnocentrism — the tendency to hold the beliefs of your own culture as the norm. Anthropological evidence undermines, not upholds, the case for restricting marriage to a single form.

Mr. Graves spoke without notes and without acknowledging anything I had said. He began by repeating the assertion that marriage between a man and a woman constituted the bedrock of society's existence. Attempts to "redefine" marriage chip away at the core values underpinning this country, he said. To some hissing from the audience, he explained that Christian principles as reflected in the Holy Bible have guided lawmakers from the inception of the United States. Since the Bible makes clear that "homosexuality is an abomination in God's eyes," it is not bigotry to deny gays the right to marry; rather, he argued, it is defending the divine order.

During the question-and-answer period, I received the typical question about how allowing gays to marry could be a slippery slope to bestiality, but most of the audience targeted Mr. Graves. One young woman who identified herself as an Oklahoman and a Jew wondered how legislators could represent non-Christian citizens. That touched off a technical discussion between Mr. Graves and the philosopher about the founding fathers and the separation of church and state.

At the end of the event, Mr. Graves shook my hand again. I couldn't help feeling envious of his total self-confidence, his imperviousness to criticism.

He knew that as a grandfatherly, heterosexual, white Christian, he would never have to feel the sting of public denunciation for his "lifestyle." I, on the other hand, lived in a state where my elected representatives considered it acceptable to discriminate against me. I could take some consolation in the audience's negative reaction to the legislator, but I found it disheartening that no amount of reasoning could change his mind.

In my academic bubble, I would mark down Mr. Graves's presentation for failing to provide testable evidence to support his claims. The currency of scholarly exchange is argument and proof. By contrast, the political world operates on nebulous values and bold assertions. Since legislators like Mr. Graves do not gather and weigh evidence to arrive at their positions, exposure to contradictory examples has no effect on their thinking.

While academics expect their arguments to change over time as new evidence comes to light, politicians worry about accusations of weakness if they modify their stances. This attitude mirrors the logic of faith. As I saw while conducting research with Mexican converts from Roman Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism, fundamentalist religions favor obedience to doctrine over independent thought. Many churches use martial language to promote a sense of siege that only obedient, disciplined soldiers can overcome. At its root, the political attack on gays rests on a narrow interpretation of a religious text. Since that condemnation coincides with already deeply held fears of difference, Bible-believing Christians have no reason to question it.

In Oklahoma unreflexive Christianity receives constant reinforcement. On evenings throughout the year, Oklahoma City's skyscrapers light office windows to form a cross on the sides of buildings. The state's largest newspaper includes a prayer on its front page every morning. Every spring students at my university host a well-publicized Jesus Week to spread the Gospel to their "lost" classmates. Promoting Christianity need not spread intolerance, but it normalizes belief based on faith, not evidence.

Increasingly Oklahomans use Christianity to justify attacks on gays. This year state legislators threatened to withhold financing from public libraries that did not relocate gay-themed children's books to the adult section. Again, supporters did not base their decision on evidence of actual harm inflicted on young readers from these books, but on an abiding conviction that homosexuality must be denounced.

This preference for prejudice over proof baffles my circle of friends at the university. We thumb copies of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004) and George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives (Chelsea Green, 2004), seeking ways to frame our issues in a more palatable way. However, what these coastal thinkers miss is how Christianity saturates life here in a way unthinkable in California or New York. No clever argument in support of gay rights will silence the constant drumbeat of disapproval emanating from the churches.

Segregationists also used crude readings of the Bible to justify racist policies. Public protests helped win the last civil-rights struggle because courageous leaders valued careful thought over political expediency.

Nowadays such valor is scarce. In Oklahoma as in Washington, D.C., elected officials only foment the demonization of gays while seeking the cover of biblical purity. Mr. Graves is no longer a state legislator, having served the maximum time allowed in that office, but his successors show the same willingness to let a homophobic Christianity guide their actions. And Mr. Graves has put himself on the ballot this fall as a candidate for district judge.

Protected in my bubble, I did not perceive the connections between my sexuality and my academic role. By being outspoken about equality for gays and lesbians, I am not advancing a narrow personal interest; rather I am defending the fundamental principles of the university. Those principles promote intellectual conversation based on argument backed by evidence.

Claims without evidence, like those offered by Mr. Graves, impoverish the university because they forestall debate. How can I participate in a discussion over same-sex marriage or stem-cell research if the other side ignores my data? Like most biases, homophobia stems from unquestioned faith, not empirical knowledge. Sociological and cross-cultural studies counter every rational objection that opponents to same-sex marriage or parenting raise.

What's left is naked prejudice, a toxin that no state boundary can contain. To borrow the evangelicals' language, academic authority itself is under attack, and all scholars have a stake in defending it.

Peter S. Cahn is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.