What are straights for?

Graham Willett, University of Melbourne

Ian Ayres and Jennifer Gerarda Brown Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2005 (304 pp). ISBN 0-69112-134-6 (hard cover) RRP $52.95.

It might well be thought that the main thing that heterosexuals can do to support the gay community is to go on doing what they have always done—getting married and having babies. For reasons not yet fully understood, the heterosexual pair-bond has proved a remarkably fertile breeding ground (puns intended) for the production of homosexuals, and until the current baby boom in the gay community reaches critical mass, this is likely to remain the case. It may well remain true long after that too—it’s not at all clear that gay couples will produce gay babies.

Certainly, for a long time most activists saw the liberation of gay people as the task of gay people themselves. Interested heterosexuals found themselves asked, politely, if they were lucky, to step aside. To the extent that they had a role at all it was—as legislators, clergy, editorial writers and so on—to use their institutional power to advance and implement the demands of the movement.

Times have changed. In the United States, most dramatically, the Christian Right has opened new fronts in its culture war, focusing particular attention on the struggle against gay equality. As a result, the demands of the gay movement have moved well up the public agenda, and it has become clear to many—gay and straight—that the issues at stake do not concern gays alone. Solidarity is increasingly understood not as an act of generosity from the stronger to the weaker, but as an indispensable means by which all of us can act to make our society a safe and comfortable place.

But what might ‘solidarity’ actually mean? In Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights, Ian Ayres and Jennifer Gerarda Brown devote a couple of hundred pages to tackling this question, offering theoretical reflections and practical proposals on what heterosexuals can and should do in support of gay rights.

Most activists have seen the liberation of gay people as the task of gay people themselves.

I have to say, I like their approach. In the first place, they are really interested in what they refer to early on (quoting Eleanor Roosevelt) as ‘citizen action’, which is to say, actions that take place in everyday life rather than, say, court cases. This point is especially important. Recent failures by advocates of same-sex marriage in both the US Supreme Court and the High Court Family Division in the UK have shown that the judicial road to recognition is actually not surer or faster or easier than grass-roots social change. What Ian and Jennifer (as the authors call themselves throughout this book) are interested in what people like them can do, and how we can do it. I say ‘people like them’, but the authors are, in fact, law academics, which makes their approach even more remarkable.

Straightforward, then, is a book about activism. But it is, within that framework, something rather special. It is about how heterosexuals can be active in support of gay rights and gay equality. Ian and Jennifer are married, they have children, they are probably heterosexual—although one of their concerns is with precisely the question of when should heterosexuals come out as such and when should they engage in the gentle art of ‘ambiguation’.

Ian and Jennifer have no illusions about the extent to which heterosexuals are privileged in Western societies, and they begin by considering whether this privilege should be used or surrendered. Sensibly, they think both, depending on circumstances. They go on to identify some circumstances and how people might respond. As people entitled to marry, to serve in the armed forces, to join the Boy Scouts, heterosexuals have the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to speak from within, to try to change these and other similar institutions, or at a minimum to criticise and disavow homophobic practices and policies. There are times when to join such institutions would be wrong—or when to continue one’s membership is indefensible. Here ‘exit’ is the best action. But there are times, too, when ‘voice’ is to be preferred. Heterosexuals may well be listened to precisely because they are not gay, and so are seen to have no vested interest to advance. It is disturbingly true that straight people speaking up for gay rights is still rare enough to be newsworthy. Liberal member for the far north Queensland seat of Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, has attracted much attention for his outspoken support of gay marriage in Australia.

But Ian and Jennifer are interested in the everyday enjoyment—and political use—of privilege as well. After an exhilarating discussion of whether heterosexuals should marry at all (by doing so, after all, they enter into an institution that excludes gay people), they tell us that in their own case they offered prayers that one day all their friends would be free to experience this right. This is, of course, a small gesture. But the gains of the social movements over the past 40 years have relied upon such small gestures for their progress.

Heterosexuals may well be listened to precisely because they are not gay.

We often think of the civil rights, equality and liberation movements as being about massive demonstrations, or flamboyant gestures. And so they were. But as anyone who was involved, or who has studied them, will realise, they were also about the small, often invisible, micro-level actions, that alerted, confronted, educated millions. One gay activist in Australia once laughingly referred to the early movement as providing cheap after-dinner entertainment for the Lions Clubs—and she was right, it did. It is one of the ways that large numbers of people came face to face with real live homosexuals and discovered that, really, they quite liked them. Movements work as much in the capillaries of society as in the brain. Never underestimate the importance of the local in struggles for social change.

The bigger campaigns that Ian and Jennifer put forward are specific, well thought out and, I suspect, capable of making a difference. On gay marriage they suggest a Vacation Pledge—a website (http://www.vacationpledge.com) on which supporters of same-sex marriage rights can pledge to take a vacation in the first American state to recognise same-sex marriage. On the military’s exclusion of openly gay people, they suggest Inclusive Commands, in which service personnel indicate on sign-up whether they would prefer not to be assigned to a unit in which gay people are serving. The result would be the co-existence of (homo)sexually-integrated and (homo)sexually-segregated units. On the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Boy Scouts have a constitutional right to discriminate against gay people, Ian and Jennifer propose, not changing the constitution but a statute that would forces organisations wanting to exercise that right to explicitly say so to anyone applying for membership.

On first reading these suggestions might seem wildly utopian. Does anyone seriously think that a million people are going to sign the Vacation Pledge? That state legislatures are going to force organisations to openly admit their discriminatory policies? Or that even if they did, this would make a difference? The authors talk in terms of incremental pragmatism, of creating opportunities for people who want to do something, without devoting their lives to these particular issues which, in the great scheme of things, aren’t actually all that important—though in the United States the material benefits of marriage are significant. They also point to the way the advertising industry has mobilised the ‘buycott’, cashing in on its willingness to target gay consumers, and suggests some smart small state might well take the hint. So they are advancing a strategic orientation.

This book is about identifying issues, finding targets, and taking action.

But, more important, I think, is their optimism. Ian and Jennifer feel that the dam is about to burst in favour of gay marriage, for example, and that actions like the Vacation Pledge can help chip away at the wall. And perhaps they are right. After all, I can still remember when the idea of gay marriage was the sort of thing that turned up in science-fiction television shows set in the far future. Now it is a reality in half a dozen countries. Similarly, openly gay people serve in the armies of a number of countries, killing and being killed alongside their straight comrades with no problems at all. And, as Ian and Jennifer note, US soldiers, who have never been consulted on the policy, are working well with integrated forces from several NATO counties. The United States, for as long as the conservatives remain a force, will hold out on these issues, but the pressure is actually building on many fronts. The centre, the liberals, and the Left in the United States are committed to gay equality—and as they recover from the battering of the last twenty years, they will bring that support into the mainstream. The United States likes to think of itself as ‘exceptional’; ‘backward’ would be the better word.

As activism, the campaigns Ian and Jennifer suggest are things that we can all participate in, or agitate for. What makes this book interesting is that it is couched very explicitly in terms of ‘what can heterosexuals do?’ Sometimes these are exercises in everyday life. They suggest that we should greet all our friends with kisses, rather than dithering around between handshakes, hugs, kisses according to Byzantine calculations of who is likely to comfortable with what. Sounds simple—but how many straight men do it, or would feel comfortable doing it? And why (not)? In the same vein, they suggest that parents try to raise their children as bisexual, as capable of loving regardless of sex. Sound odd? But don’t most parents try to raise their kids as capable of loving regardless of race or ethnicity? What, exactly, is the difference? The authors acknowledge that this is mostly a thought exercise, because how sexuality is shaped remains unknown. But the exercise is a striking one—try it on your friends some time.

Straightforward is about identifying issues, finding targets, taking action—all necessary political work, whether victory is in sight or not. In his extraordinary work, Angels in America, Tony Kushner has one of his characters remind us that it is only in politics that miracles happen. Looking back over the last 40 years, this seems true. We are apt to forget, though, that the miracle-workers are the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people who sign petitions, write to their legislators, go on demonstrations, and argue with their friends. Read this book, learn things, be inspired, do something rather than nothing, and do one small thing every day.

Graham Willett teaches at the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. He is currently conducting ARC-funded research into the origins and diffusion of homosexual law reform politics in the British World in the 1950s and sixties. He is the author of Living Out Loud, a history of gay and lesbian activism in Australia.

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