02/20/2006 06:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Brokeback' & Abu Ghraib: What's our Problem with Gays?

Talk about a gloomy week! Dick Cheney shot a man and kept his mouth shut --- and his Garbo turn kept the shooting at the top of the news day after depressing day.

To lessen my despair --- but keep up on current events --- I turned to another issue in the news: sex.

Gay sex.

This topic switch started with the release, by an Australian TV show, of a fresh wave of photos from Abu Ghraib. [Warning: unsettling images galore. Abu Ghraib: The Sequel.] The horrors aren't random --- the "story" they tell is of systematic attacks on Islamic values. In what amounts to S&M gay porn, our interrogators strip the Iraqis of their heterosexual masculinity, then force them to reenact somebody's idea of gay scenarios.

The White House and Pentagon don't want us to see these pictures. Not that anybody in America --- except the HuffPo crowd --- seems to care. As a result, the next trials of American soldiers accused of torture are handlers.

That day after I studied the Abu Ghraib images, I stumbled over gay sex again. This time, it was in a conversation with a Media Guru about the upcoming Academy Awards. He saw a ratings disaster. "After Jon Stewart's opening segment," he said, "everyone will change the channel."

"What makes you think so?"

"This country isn't going to show up to watch 'Brokeback Mountain' win a bunch of awards."

He's probably right. It doesn't matter that "Brokeback" has out-earned all of the Best Picture nominees. Or that Bill O'Reilly's prophesy --- "This movie does not do big box office outside the big cities. It won't. They're not going to go see the gay cowboys in Montana" --- has been proven wrong, not just in "liberal" Missoula and Helena but in hard-core Billings and other "Red" strongholds as well.

So here's my question: Why are so many Americans --- most of them living where there's no uncloseted homosexual for miles --- so full of fear and hate for gay men? (Gay women are another story; just ask any horny guy.) Why is gay sex unacceptable within our borders, but ideal to export to foreign torture chambers? Why, of all our urgent issues, is homosexuality right up there at the top?

I thought of no end of reasons, few profound. So, on a whim, I phoned Philip Slater, the distinguished sociologist best known for his 1970 classic, The Pursuit of Loneliness. Dr. Slater has clearly taken oddball calls before; he was willing to think aloud with me.

There was a study, he told me, of reactions to heterosexual pornography and gay pornography. Two groups of men were tested: one gay, one of men who described themselves as "homophobic." Both were electronically wired so they could be measured for sexual arousal. Interestingly, the homophobes were not especially aroused by the male/female porn. What turned them on? The gay porn. Which presents the question: Why do homophobes hang around gay bars to beat up gay men when they could be at straight bars meeting women?

Then Slater suggested a more provocative question: Why are people on the Christian and political Right so angry when they seem to be winning?

I suggested some sort of twisted sexual rage --- their religions limited their sexual expression and that made them jealous of those who felt unfettered by religious constraints.

Slater had another response: The Christian Right and the political conservatives are not winning. And they know it. That's what infuriates them.

Slater briefly took me through a line of argument that he explains fully in a dazzlingly upbeat essay, America is Polarized. In brief, he sees America --- and the planet --- undergoing "the most revolutionary cultural shift in the history of our species." In response. we tend to join one of two camps: "Control Culture," which clings to rigid, traditional beliefs, and "Connecting Culture," which aims to knock down walls and boundaries.

To read this essay is to be greatly cheered. The spread of democracy, the Women's Movement, the global economy, the ecology movement, the Internet --- everything reasonable people care about is a manifestation of the Connecting Culture. And that culture is growing fast, fueled by technology, global communication, planetary awareness and what Slater calls "the decreasing utility of war."

Ever since we were blessed with the Bush presidency, I've been searching for a way to look at what's happening in this country that doesn't make me feel sick at heart. Slater may not have the ultimate answer --- but he gets you to 30,000 feet fast. From there, you can look around for yourself. At the very least, you can feel the beginning of compassion for those who feel the need to be in "Control" --- people so freaked out by change that they fixate on gays.

It's hard to feel that the Connecting Culture is winning; when I look out my window, I see only Americans running faster on the hamster wheel. Make change? Who has time to do more than read a few blogs? Slater acknowledges this disconnect. And he reminds us that history moves slowly --- while the Control Culture cannot win, it may not "lose" in our lifetime. And that this struggle is not an American one. It's global.

The Slater essay cheered me. Please read it.