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What Part of 'Equality' Doesn't the Right Wing Understand?

10/07/2011 01:09 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Nathaniel Frank Author, 'Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America'

When Rick Santorum said in the GOP debate that he'd reinstate the ban on openly gay military service, it raised some serious questions. Not only did Santorum stand by as the audience booed an active-duty gay soldier's question, but he seemed not to understand a thing about actual military life, much less what "don't ask, don't tell" and its repeal did and didn't do. "Any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military," he said, bemoaning that, by removing the gay ban, "they are making a point to include it as a provision within the military that we are going to recognize a group of people and give them a special privilege."

Repealing "don't ask, don't tell" did no such thing. The policy singled out gay, lesbian and bisexual people and slapped a unique restriction on the speech and behavior of them alone, leaving straight people free to have as much sex as they can fit into their off-duty time, and to wax poetic about their sexual escapades on an hourly basis. So in what universe is ending that double standard giving one group a "special privilege"?

Ann Coulter, the, er, eminent military sociologist, defended Santorum, equating equal treatment of gay people with the "sexualization of the military," and insisting that only a marginalized "nut candidate" could support such a thing. The phrase was an echo of the 2008 congressional testimony of Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, who solidified her place in nut history complaining that gay people engaged in "passive/aggressive actions" that "sexualize the atmosphere" in the military. And this week, Michele Bachmann also defended "don't ask, don't tell," saying that "it worked before and what it says is the issue of sexuality is one that doesn't come up and people aren't allowed to be open about it because the United States military is unique."

Really, Ms. Bachmann? A policy that laid waste to 14,000 troops, including scores of Arabic translators, for something that had nothing to do with performance "worked"? And that policy said sexuality "doesn't come up and people aren't allowed to be open about it"? No, what it said was that gay people can't bring it up, but everyone else can. "Sexual activity has no place in the military," Mr. Santorum? Does he actually think our troops are celibate, and that married military couples never get it on?

Of course not. At least, he'd be better off if he's spinning than if he's really that ignorant. So what's going on with the repeated assertions that treating gay people the same as everyone else somehow means giving them special rights? And why do social conservatives have so much trouble seeing equality as equality, insisting every time a besieged minority finally gains equal treatment that they're getting an unfair privilege?

We all know the right-wing message machine is as disciplined as it is dishonest. "Special rights" was born of this machine precisely to keep people from getting equal rights. We also know that politicians and pundits often say things they don't believe for personal gain or, if we're to be more generous, because they believe that sometimes the ends justify the means. But could there be something else going on that helps explain the particular phenomenon of right-wing resistance to equality for gay people? While granting that these voices of unreason may not actually believe what they're saying, it's worth taking seriously their rhetoric for the wider psychology it helps tap us into, and because many of their listeners surely do believe it.

For one thing, straight people, particularly those who are unsupportive of or resentful toward LGBT equality, often suffer from a version of the same blinders identified by scholars of racial bias: white privilege. White people often don't think twice about how they unfairly benefit simply by being born white. The other day I locked myself out of my house in a racially diverse neighborhood of Brooklyn, and as I scaled the wall and hoisted myself in the front window, I realized that if I weren't white, I could have ended up in a squad car and been forced to produce a title deed. I'm also not likely to be passed over by a cab driver just because of my skin color. And I'm far less likely to be shot, executed or imprisoned than a black person, all else being equal.

In the same way, straight people often don't consider how they benefit from not having been born in a closet. What must it feel like to be constantly encumbered by the burden of disclosure, to have the world always assume you're something you're not, and to only be able to set things straight, if you will, by announcing that you're different?

Anti-gay conservatives lack the imagination and empathy to consider these questions. Coulter's defense of the gay-only military gag rule, for instance, is: don't bother announcing it. "Not talking about your sex life with your co-workers," she says, "is not lying about who you are. In fact, many Americans manage quite easily to go days and days without talking about their sex lives with co-workers." Fine, then ban the practice for everyone in the military, not just gay people. Equality means equality. Even better: join the reality-based community where people -- whom we trust with bombs, guns and deadly switches -- are expected to be able to discuss who they are and what they're up to in a way that won't bring down the most powerful fighting force in the world.

Straight privilege in the military has meant rarely thinking twice about the freedom you enjoy to simply mention a date, a spouse, a crush; to wear a wedding ring without fear of being investigated and fired; to know that if you should return from a war zone in a body bag, your chosen partner will enjoy the dignity of being notified by military officials, just like straight partners. When the question, "what did you do this weekend?" becomes legally unanswerable -- for some people and not others -- that's a burden that's unnecessary, unjustifiable and unequal. Ending "don't ask, don't tell" ended that; it didn't create a new privilege.

The other thing right-wing anti-gay rhetoric says is that social conservatives can't think "gay" without thinking "sex." Never mind that they, themselves, routinely have sex as an expression of love or harmless desire (not to mention trampling their marriage vows while espousing pristine family values). For social conservatives, gay people are a stand-in for all the messy, guilt-inducing impulses that they, themselves, can't handle. This surely says more about them than it does about gay people, but their confusion wreaks havoc with the lives of millions. Having exactly the same freedom as everybody else to express your love or desire sexually does not "sexualize" things any more than allowing the straight world not to be monks sexualizes things. This is why the Supreme Court, in a decision written by a Republican appointee, poignantly said that the fundamental liberty to express intimate feelings was not simply about "the right to engage in certain sexual conduct." Reducing gay intimacy to sex, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, "demeans" the claims of freedom for gay people "just as it would demean a married couple were it said that marriage is just about the right to have sexual intercourse."

Of course, the right-wing doesn't want gay people to marry either -- and that's part of the reason: it would further deprive the anti-gay agenda of its capacity to paint gay people as interchangeable with sexual license.

When will "equal," to the right-wing, become simply "equal"? And when will they learn that gay people are not (only) about sex. That is, unless you're someone like Rick Santorum. Maybe that's why his name actually has become synonymous with, well, you can Google him here.