If you’re a big fan of your city’s grungy alt-weekly newspaper (this week’s headline: “Reinventing organic nudity”), chances are you’ve heard of Dan Savage. He’s an edgy, anything-goes sex columnist who enjoys quite the omnipresence in the urban hipster media scene. Though actually an internationally-syndicated American based out of Seattle, until quite recently I thought he was an exclusive Vancouver guy — a self-serving misconception I’m sure is not at all uncommon in big cities all over the continent, so high is his indie cred.
Anyway, the gist of the Dan Savage worldview is that a great deal of social dysfunction is caused by sexual repression, and therefore the more liberated, open, and honest we all are when it comes to talking about (and doing) sexual stuff, the happier and better-adjusted we’ll be as a collective society. As a gay dude himself, he’s a particularly strong booster of the idea that taboos against homosexuality are among the greatest evils of our time, and the people who actively promote such taboos among the most wicked. The “It Gets Better” project, where celebrities, both gay and straight alike, record inspirational videos to gay and lesbian teens who may be facing bullying or discrimination, was his brainchild and probably his most laudable and moving accomplishment to date.
But there’s a real dark side to the man as well, and it manifests in the almost pathologically vicious way he chooses to hound, belittle, and publicly humiliate those whom he declares to be enemies of his sexual revolution. I’m sure you’re already starting to see the irony.
Some time ago, the now-Republican presidential candidate and arch-Catholic Rick Santorum gave an unfortunate interview where he, in his typically awkward and muddled way, made the point that, in his mind, there was no historic precedent for recognizing same-sex marriages any more than there was a basis for recognizing dog-human marriages, or pedophilic ones.
Once the interview was released, Savage sprang into action with a campaign to ruin Santorum. Employing a very gross Google bombing campaign, Savage asked his readers to come up with the most vile alternative definition of “Santorum” they could dream up, then created the website “spreadingsantorum.com” to clog up any future search results for his name. It worked, and due to the endless links of bloggers and Facebookers, Santorum’s e-reputation has now been sufficiently corrupted beyond repair. According to this well-titled article in Mother Jones, even leading online reputation consultants consider him basically beyond help at this point.
Now, if you have not read the Santorum interview in full, it may be worthwhile to do so. The man is not particularly eloquent in his words, but it’s nevertheless clear that he is defending his particular worldview with logic and reason, and is not merely a raving bigot. He repeatedly stresses that he has “no problem with homosexuality,” and in fact, the only reason he brought up the man-on-dog stuff in the first place was to, quote, “not pick on homosexuality.” One can certainly disagree with his thesis that privacy rights are unconstitutional, and that all forms of non-missionary consensual sex are a slippery slope to Vatican-style child rape, but it’s still an intellectually valid thesis (and despite his strong faith, not even a particularly religious one).
The same thing could be said for the views of Michelle Bachmann’s husband, Dr. Marcus Bachmann, a Christian family counsellor who holds a similarly negative opinion on homosexuality. In Bachmann’s case, of course, his views are unambiguously religious; it’s now been proven that Bachmann’s clinic has conducted scientifically dubious “gay fixing” therapies on the basis that homosexuality is out-and-out sinful, rather than merely socially problematic. As punishment for believing this, Savage has recently turned the guns on the doctor with equal force, claiming that Bachmann is clearly a repressed homosexual himself, and has launched an aggressive propaganda campaign to make that assertion the mainstream consensus of the internet. (The evidence backing Savage’s claim is that Bachman kinda talks like a homo.)
Now it’s obviously, undeniably clear that a lot of young, gay men and women suffer emotionally from growing up in a culture where their sexuality is constantly condemned, or only discussed as a problem to be solved. And it’s equally clear that true bigotry exists in this world, and people who are genuinely motivated by pure, vicious, angry ignorance can unleash awful cruelty in all sorts of hideous ways.
But it’s also true that an honest, unemotional spectrum of opinion exists on the issue of homosexuality in modern America, rather than some strict either/or, love/hate duality. If you’re a conservative homosexual like me, or Jack Donovan, whose fascinating book on conservative homosexuality I plan to review soon, then you know it’s entirely possible to be accepting of yourself and your sexual orientation, while simultaneously being aware that the overly sexualized, overly-permissive, non-judgemental society championed by some gay activists isn’t necessarily ideal, either. People like Bachmann and Santorum, who probably know very few gay people and don’t really understand a lot of what they’re worried about, may be wrong, but all evidence suggests their motivations stem from a legitimate place of concern (the Daily Beast article linked to above describes Bachmann’s anti-gay therapist as “caring and not particularly dogmatic”), or a genuine religious passion, much as we may personally disagree with it.
More importantly, however, two wrongs don’t make a right. If it’s wrong to bully young gays and lesbians simply for who they are and what they believe, as Dan Savage rightly holds, then it should be equally wrong to use those same tactics against innocuous critics of homosexuality. The idea that the appropriate response when encountering people with whom you disagree is to harass and belittle them until they recant in a position of weakness and shame is a stance as abhorrent as the luridly well-documented tactics of certain fanatical gay “fixing camps.”
Dignity begets dignity. What I hate most about the term “culture war” is its implication that America’s major cultural cleavages, on issues such as sexuality, can only be resolved through the rhetorical and political equivalents of weaponized violence, complete with dehumanized enemies and a scorched-earth pursuit of total victory. The more vicious — and in Savage’s case, frankly gross, reactionary, and immature — tactics that are employed, the more likely one’s opponents are to respond in kind, and the very cycle of ignorance we’re supposed to oppose merely becomes ever-more heated and hysterical.
I actually quite like the Santorum interview above, not because of what it contains, but what it represents. Santorum is calmly being asked to justify his worldview in neutral, intellectual language, and the reader can decide for himself if the case is sound or not. We’d all be a lot better if the discussion had just stayed in that phase. There’d certainly be a lot less evidence that gay activists are hateful, disgusting subversives, for one thing.