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Warren J. Blumenfeld

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Heterosexism and GOP Presidential Candidates

Posted: 12/09/11 02:12 AM ET

In Iowa recently, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum described marriage for same-sex couples as "a hit to faith and family in America," and he asserted that if legalized, "their sexual activity" would be seen as "equal" to heterosexual relationships, and it would be taught in schools. "It's not OK. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be," he continued. Previously, he said that marriage between same-sex couples will cause our country to "fall."

When asked by Jane Schmidt, student coordinator of the Gay/Straight Alliance at Waverly High School in Waverly, Iowa on Nov. 30, "Why can't same-sex couples get married [throughout the United States]?," Michele Bachman responded that gay and lesbian people should have "no special rights" to marry people of the same sex, insisting that "the laws are you marry a person of the opposite sex." She added, "They can get married, but they abide by the same law as everyone else. They can marry a man if they're a woman. Or they can marry a woman if they're a man." Bachmann has represented same-sex attractions and sexuality as a "disorder" that encourages child abuse and "enslavement." Her husband Marcus has been roundly criticized for his so-called "conversion therapy" ("praying away the gay") practices at his Minnesota counseling center. Michelle Bachmann's Iowa co-chair, Tamara Scott, was recorded as asserting that the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples would ultimately lead to people marrying turtles and inanimate objects, like the Eiffel Tower.

Newt Gingrich, in commenting on marriage for same-sex couples, stated, "I believe that marriage is between a man and woman. It has been for all of recorded history, and I think this is a temporary aberration that will dissipate. I think that it just fundamentally goes against everything we know."

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum have signed a pledge, sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage, promising to support a federal constitutional amendment "defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman." The pledge also includes commitments to support the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in courts and to nominate Supreme Court and federal judges who "reject the idea our Founding Fathers inserted a right to gay marriage into our Constitution."

After both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made moving and heartfelt statements recently pressing for civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people internationally, Rick Perry responded, "This is just the most recent example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country. Investing tax dollars promoting a lifestyle many Americas of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong. President Obama has again mistaken America's tolerance for different lifestyles with an endorsement of those lifestyles."

Rick Perry double-downed his insults. In my Queer Studies course this week at Iowa State University, one of my students shared with the class Rick Perry's latest TV campaign ad, which shocked and dismayed us all. Perry states in the ad, "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again."

In the wake of all these statements by GOP presidential candidates, I cannot help thinking about something Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an impassioned abolitionist, once said when he described the dehumanizing effects of slavery, not simply on those enslaved, but also on white slave owners, whose position to slavery corrupted their humanity. While the social conditions of Douglass' time were very different from today, I nonetheless believe that Douglass' words hold meaning by analogy: "No [person] can put a chain about the ankle of [another person] without at last finding the other end fastened about his [or her] own neck."

Though it cannot be denied that the statements of these GOP presidential candidates on these issues serve their interests in a number of ways, I believe that they are misguided and uninformed and that therefore, this strategy will eventually backfire, and the chain will take hold of them.

In truth, heterosexism (the assumption that everyone is or should be heterosexual, and prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people) is pervasive throughout the society, and each of us, irrespective of sexual or gender identity and expression, is at risk of its harmful effects.

First, heterosexist conditioning compromises the integrity of people by pressuring them to treat others badly, which are actions contrary to their basic humanity. It inhibits one's ability to form close, intimate relationships with members of one's own sex, generally restricts communication with a significant portion of the population, and, more specifically, limits family relationships.

Heterosexism locks all people into rigid, gender-based roles, which inhibits creativity and self-expression. It often is used to stigmatize, silence, and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but who are, in actuality, heterosexual.

In addition, heterosexism is one cause of premature sexual involvement, which increases the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Young people of all sexual identities are often pressured to become heterosexually active to prove to themselves and other that they are "normal."

Societal heterosexism prevents some LGBT people from developing an authentic self-identity and adds to the pressure to marry someone of the other sex, which in turn places undue stress and, often, trauma on themselves as well as their heterosexual spouses and their children.

Heterosexism combined with sexphobia (fear and revulsion of sex) results in the elimination of discussion of the lives and sexuality of LGBT people as part of school-based sex education, keeping vital information from all students. Such a lack of information can kill people in the age of AIDS. And heterosexism (along with racism, sexism, classism, and sexphobia) inhibits a unified and effective governmental and societal response the AIDS pandemic.

With all the truly important issues facing the world, heterosexism diverts energy and attention from more constructive endeavors. It also prevents heterosexuals from accepting the benefits and gifts offered by LGBT people, including theoretical insights, social and spiritual visions and options, and contributions in the arts and culture, to religion, to education, to family life, indeed to all facets of society. Ultimately, it inhibits appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone, because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream or dominant. Therefore, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

The meaning is quite clear. When any group of people is scapegoated, it is ultimately everyone's concern. For today, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are targeted. Tomorrow, they may come for you. Everyone, therefore, has a self-interest in actively working to dismantle all the many forms of bigotry, including heterosexism.

I believe that we are all born into an environment polluted by heterosexism (one among many forms of oppression), which falls upon us like acid rain. For some people, spirits are tarnished to the core, others are marred on the surface, and no one is completely protected. Therefore, we all have a responsibility, indeed an opportunity, to join together as allies to construct protective shelters from the corrosive effects of bigotry while working to clean up the heterosexist environment in which we live. Once sufficient steps are taken to reduce this pollution, we will all breathe a lot easier.