A few years back, I read an interesting article (I think it was in The New Yorker) predicting the ultimate marginalization of the Religious Right and the victory of social liberalism and toleration. The article acknowledged a string of right-wing electoral victories, but based its prediction on the values of popular culture–precisely those values that cause apoplexy in people like Bill Bennett and John Ashcroft. The thesis of the article was that popular culture is a predictor of political change.
A few years back, I read an interesting article (I think it was in The New Yorker) predicting the ultimate marginalization of the Religious Right and the victory of social liberalism and toleration. The article acknowledged a string of right-wing electoral victories, but based its prediction on the values of popular culture—precisely those values that cause apoplexy in people like Bill Bennett and John Ashcroft. The thesis of the article was that popular culture is a predictor of political change.
If that thesis is correct, even the Bush Administration can’t stop progress. In this space last month, I listed some recent examples of positive change toward gays and lesbians; this month, I am prepared to augment that list.
- A hate crimes act including sexual orientation is on its way to passage in Utah, of all places. (Yes, I know I’ve written before about my concerns with such legislation, and those concerns remain. I’m listing cultural harbingers, not endorsing legislation.) This is particularly noteworthy because the Mormon Church has announced that it will not oppose the measure. That’s the same Mormon Church whose financial support and strong opposition to gay Boy Scouts guaranteed that the Scouts would fight to keep their anti-gay policy.
- Illinois has just sent a gay rights bill to the state senate. This is the farthest such legislation has ever gotten. The measure would add sexual orientation to state anti-discrimination law.
- In New Orleans—hardly a liberal hot spot—the District Attorney has called for repeal of Louisiana’s statute criminalizing consensual sodomy. Reasonably enough, he points out that consensual behavior shouldn’t be a crime, and that criminal sanctions should be reserved for coerced behavior, or for sexual acts with a minor.
If the New Yorker column is correct, these signs of political enlightenment are due to tolerant attitudes fostered by popular culture. It is likely that the Religious Right agrees; it is hard to understand its hostility to that culture otherwise.
A particularly compelling example of a sympathetic portrayal of lesbians is the recent, critically-acclaimed film The Hours. In that movie, three women—all lesbians—Virginia Woolf, a fifties suburban housewife, and an “out” lesbian with a long-term partner in contemporary Manhattan—are connected across time by love and literature. All three are exceptionally well acted, but the most heart-wrenching character is the fifties housewife, struggling against the pieties of her time and place, suffocated by the love of her husband and the needs of her children and the constant battle against acknowledging her own identity and needs. It is a bravura performance—and a cautionary tale.
The movie has generated uniform plaudits, and is up for several academy awards. Despite its obvious sympathy for the characters, I am aware of no outcry, no attempt at a picket or boycott. (Granted, I’m not a regular reader of Christian Right websites.)
Of course, this is only one among dozens of examples we might point to—from Will and Grace to Six Feet Under on television, to Jeffrey and Angels in America on stage, to Boys Don’t Cry on film. Portrayals of gays meant for heterosexual or mixed audiences are proliferating, and the vast majority of them are positive. It is against this backdrop that the Religious Right and other homophobes must argue for the older, darker images of gay life. If the students in my classes are any indicator, social liberalism is winning decisively.
This semester, I’ve been teaching an elective course I call “Sin and Crime.” As the syllabus describes it,
“America has a long history of criminalizing so-called “consensual” behaviors; that is, voluntary behaviors by or between adults which arguably do not harm the community at large. Drug use, prostitution, sodomy, loitering, pornography, adultery—these and other individual behaviors, in addition to being categorized by many religions as sinful, have been criminalized as well. This course will consider the arguments for and against public policies classifying sins or perceived moral failings as crimes requiring the sanction of civil authority.”
I anticipated very lively classroom debates, but to my surprise, few have occurred. I have sixty-two students, and best I can tell, sixty of them are social liberals who think such laws are nuts.
Blame it on our much-maligned popular culture.