The Rebel Girl: Ballot Queer-Bashing
— Catherine Sameh
THIS ELECTION SEASON, Oregonians vote on 26(!) ballot initiatives, many of them right-wing driven. (This column is being written a week before the vote; by the time you read it, you'll know the outcome.)
Ballot Measure 9, if passed, would “prohibit public school instruction encouraging, promoting, or sanctioning homosexual and bisexual behaviors.” Polls show that there is about as much support for the measure as there is opposition to it.
Given the widespread assimilation of lesbians and gays into mainstream culture, and the fact that queers can be out in many parts of Oregon with relative safety and comfort, why is there so much support for Measure 9?
Support for Measure 9 is, in part, connected to a general backlash against progressive gains of the last thirty years. Maybe we can't outlaw homosexuality, its authors say, but let's try to contain it. As with opposition to affirmative action and abortion rights, Measure 9 says queers “have gone too far.”
Implicit in the language of Measure 9, “encouraging, promoting, or sanctioning” queer behaviors, is an understanding that the more sexually liberated a culture is, the more people will question their assumptions about the unique “naturalness” of heterosexuality.
The Oregon Citizens Alliance, sponsor of Measure 9 and multiple anti-gay measures past, has also been successful at fanning general parental fears about children's safety. It plays on the stereotype of queers as predatory, ever ready to recruit heterosexuals into our camp, or worse, engage in pedophilia or child abuse.
But the queer movement has done a pretty good job of challenging this stereotype, pointing out that child sexual abuse perpetrators are generally straight men.
More than these fears, many parents are alarmed by and uncomfortable with sex. The queer movement has always been about sexual liberation. No matter what else it argues for (HIV services, the right to marry and adopt children), no matter how conservative it becomes, it still always raises the question of sex.
Sure, the struggle is about the right to love whomever we want. But it's also about the right to have sex with whomever we want. And we are a culture still largely conflicted about sexual liberation, despite the gains of the women's and queer movements.
We are in a political moment where the gains of queer liberation have fundamentally changed the world we live in. And that new world is marching on, allowing many to live with a previously-unheard-of level of dignity and agency.
While the extreme right will always challenge this new world and try to force us back to a less enlightened time, ordinary conflicted citizens with contradictory impulses, that ambivalent middle, may or may not follow them.
It's Up to Us
Part of that outcome depends on how the left organizes in opposition to these right-wing campaigns. We have to go beyond the conservative tactic of discussing only what's safe, as the No on 9 campaign in Oregon has done (focusing mainly on how Measure 9 would prohibit schools from doing HIV education), and get at what's really troubling people.
Sexual liberation has never been easy to fight for or even talk about. But without that fight, there would be no divorce, no birth control pill, no Roe v. Wade, no civil unions in Vermont, and no “Will and Grace” or Ellen DeGeneres.
ATC 89, November-December 2000