The Gay Glass is Half Empty

Ok, so I know that the passage of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in California and the recently de-gaying of Grey’s Anatomy may seem like small potatoes next to the election of our nation’s first black president, but I’m having a glass-is-half-empty week.

I was an Obama supporter from the beginning, from the first time I saw him speak, I knew he had my vote. He inspired me and made me believe that this country could be something great, that he could lead us to be a nation that I could be proud to claim as my own. When he won the SC primary, I saw him give his speech here in Columbia and felt politically empowered to the point of tears. When the west coast polls closed on Tuesday night and the news announced his victory, I was overwhelmed with joy, not just with his win, but with the fact that the majority of Americans chose to appoint him as our leader. I was truly proud to be an American for the first time in my adult life.

Then I checked the results of Florida’s Amendment 2 vote and California’s Proposition 8, both banning gay marriage in their respective states. While I didn’t expect a victory in FL, I was surprised and saddened to learn that California passed their ban. Then the next day, I learned that one of my favorite characters on one of my favorite TV shows had been written off because ABC execs were uncomfortable with the overt nature of her relationship with another woman. I want to be so excited about the direction American politics is taking, but I can’t help being worried about the lack of progress for GLBT rights and visibility, and these issues have been nagging at my mind all week.

Why is it that Americans will elect a man who supports civil unions that are exactly the same as marriages in all legal terms, but to call it “marriage” is still political suicide? How is it that soccer moms across the country will watch Ellen Degeneres every day, and clap when their favorite lesbian marries her girlfriend, but when two fictional lesbian characters have a sexual relationship on a notoriously sexually explicit TV show, the American public can’t handle it? Why did 61% of Californians vote for Obama, but only 48% voted against banning gay marriage? Why can a show like Will and Grace, which featured prominent gay characters be so incredibly popular for so many years, but when a show tries to take a serious look at a lesbian relationship without reducing its portrayal to stereotypes and jokes, network execs think they’ve gone too far and back-peddle?

It warms my heart to see that the American public has re-embraced Ellen after her career-killing coming out so many years ago. But let’s face it, Ellen is rarely political and very family-friendly. She’s popular because she’s hilarious and talented enough that people like her in spite of her sexual orientation. She and her gorgeous wife (until Tuesday… now partner?) are the perfect portrait of hetero-normative lesbian bliss… which is fine, but it’s also more easily acceptable to the “I’m not homophobic… I have gay friends… I watch Ellen” crowd.

Will and Grace was entertaining, and although it occasionally tackled issues of homophobia, it was mainly comedic and pandered to stereotypes in order to get laughs. If viewers can laugh at gay characters, they become more palatable and less threatening to people’s prejudices. My parents loved watching Will and Grace long before they ever came close to accepting gay people.

And then there was Callica…. Callie Torres and Erica Hahn, two female doctors on Grey’s Anatomy who considered themselves straight until they fell in love with each other. While there were certainly problems with the way Shonda Rhimes handled the development of their romance (that’s another blog entirely), this was the first attempt on network TV (in other words, aside from Showtime’s Queer as Folk and the L Word) to deal with a lesbian relationship seriously and as a recurring plot. The problem? Too explicit. It’s ok for straight characters on the show to routinely rip each other’s clothes off, talk casually about sex, and change partners as frequently as they change their scrubs, but the mere discussion of lesbian sex, couched in extremely vague terms, a few tame kisses, and a fully-clothed scene in bed followed by Erica’s declaration that she is “so extremely gay,” is too explicit.

The lives and relationships of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people deserve to be represented in television just as much as those of straight people, and in equal terms. Moreover, the desexualization of lesbians in contrast to the hyper-sexualization of gay men is based on stereotypes as well and must stop. Straight people who watch Ellen and go have sex with their opposite-gender spouse need to realize that when Ellen goes home to Portia, they have sex too, and those two sexual relationships should be treated equally.

Visibility is important, and Will and Grace, Ellen, Rosie, Portia, and all of the other shows and celebrities who deal publicly with gay themes and GLBT rights issues are essential steps toward equality and inclusion. But I think those on the political left often fail to acknowledge the homophobia that this visibility obscures because it’s easier to point to more overt and violent examples of anti-gay discrimination. Moreover, we let our progressive peers (like all of those Californians who voted for Obama and in favor of the gay marriage ban) get away with homophobia because it’s not as obvious as those people committing hate crimes and protesting pride parades.

So why is this all important? Because a significant portion of those we call allies in the struggle to make this country a better place are the very people keeping us from achieving legal steps toward GLBT equality. We can assume that right wing fundamentalists aren’t going to be voting for equality anytime soon, but the “moveable middle”–our most powerful potential allies–aren’t giving us much help either.

The fact is that the majority of Americans, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, are homophobic. They think GLBT people do not deserve to have the same rights as they do, and they are uncomfortable taking us seriously and seeing us in the same sexual terms that they see themselves and other heterosexuals. As far as we have come in our fight for gay rights, I think we have taken for granted many of the victories we’ve had in recent years in both legal and cultural realms, and this election serves as a painful reminder of how far we have left to go.

Beth Sherouse is a Graduate Assistant in the Department of History at University of South Carolina. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Beth, or visit Beth's website.

20 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Garrett said on November 8th, 2008 at 10:18am #

    “Why did 61% of Californians vote for Obama, but only 48% voted against banning gay marriage?”

    Obama, like most of his supporters, is not a true progressive.

  2. Folklight said on November 8th, 2008 at 11:11am #

    Quoting Beth:
    The fact is that the majority of Americans, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, are homophobic.

    Homophobia: Noun
    1) homophobia. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
    …Fear of or contempt for lesbians and gay men.
    2. Behavior based on such a feeling.

    Sorry but you have not been given the ability, power or right to judge anothers motives. Therefore stating their motives as facts, you declare your own contempt.

    People are free to make lifestyle choices, within the law, and can expect to inherit the fallout (consequence) inherent within said choice.

    I can hear you saying ‘it’s not a choice to be gay’, therein is the conundrum. People are free (independent) to ‘choose’ their ideals.

    Our nation is upheld by it’s ideals in governance, philosophy etc.
    When those ideals are challenged it is threatening the core of our national fabric. That is why issues such as prop 8 have been and will be rejected.

    It is not a personal rejection per say. It is rather a rejection of attempts to legislate national ideals into existence against a majority opinion.

  3. Eric Patton said on November 8th, 2008 at 11:49am #

    And liberals are a bunch of fucking whiners who are incapable of thinking strategically, except when it comes to new campaigns with which to solicit donations.

    Liberal lose because they deserve to lose.

  4. Max Shields said on November 8th, 2008 at 12:15pm #

    Eric I agree with you so long as you distinguish liberals from independent progressives. There is a litany of difference and differentiating is essential if we are to promote a real progressive activism and movement going forward.

  5. Danny Ray said on November 8th, 2008 at 7:46pm #


    Ma’am, I have read your article and found that you make a good many excellent points, I can appreciate your situation and before I go any further I would like to say that I voted against the gay marriage amendment in the Florida election. I personally believe that the state has no business to codify who can or cannot receive a marriage.

    That of the meat of this matter, while I voted against Florida’s marriage amendment. I do not feel comfortable around gay people or lesbians or the transgended. Am I a homophobe, I don’t think so. just my personal preference is not to associate with gay people. what you do in your own life is your business not mine. But the burning question I choose to ask is you’ve labeled everybody that voted for the marriage amendments homophobes, have you ever sat down and discussed it with any one from the conservative middle class. And I mean discussed not shouted at or pointed fingers at are began the discussion with name calling .

    As I read the post here on dissident voices and I read them all daily, one thing seems to always jump out at me. No attempt is ever made by the left to reach out to the middle class in this country and no changes will ever be made in this country until the middle class of this country stands up and says this is what we want. You can blame the problem on the mysterious cabal of neocon bankers and Zionist. Or the far religious right. African Americans never achieved anything in this country until the middle class stood beside them. The war in Vietnam would’ve gone on forever had not the American middle class cried enough.

    And this is the paragraph is going to piss you off. Do you know why the basic middle class in America will not toe the line for a gay rights? Because for some unknown reason gay people choose to push our collective faces in their gayness. We turn on the television and we see things like queer eye for the straight guy, or a show about interior decorators who were so effeminate that make the average American stomach a little uneasy Mr. And Mrs. Joe Average don’t wanna see that. Working people in this country who spend eight hours each day on a tractor or at the mill or laying pipe or welding or doing the countless things that have to be done each day to make this country work to make your life worthwhile don’t want somebody constantly telling him that he or she is inferior, they want that no more than you want to be told that you are inferior. I’m extremely sorry that the two favorite characters were removed from your favorite television show due to the fact they were having a lesbian affair. But like I said when it becomes outrageous, Rubin Roundhole does it want to see it.

    So, the next time you meet someone you immediately classifies a homophobe instead of shouting at them or laughing derisively or assuming condescending airs, you might try talking to them. You’d be amazed what you probably find out.

  6. teammarty said on November 9th, 2008 at 11:48am #

    What you’re really saying is that if the gays just STFU and go back in the closet where they belong, they’ll be more accepted.

  7. Danny Ray said on November 9th, 2008 at 3:15pm #

    No, that’s not what I meant, Just like the Gang banger in loose pants and a dew rag is not doing much for race relations. The Prissy Queen telling everyone that they should try it they might like it is not helping gay straight relations.

  8. DavidG. said on November 9th, 2008 at 3:21pm #

    In a war-impacted world that is falling apart financially, one that is in the grip of global warming, famine, millions dying from preventable diseases, etc, the question of whether or not gays should be able to change the common meaning of the word ‘marriage’ to suit their particular preferences would seem a minor issue.

    I don’t mean to be unkind but I guess it’s a question of priorities. If the planet goes down or we end up in a nuclear war, issues like gay marriage won’t really matter one bit.

  9. Max Shields said on November 9th, 2008 at 5:10pm #

    Frankly DavidG, I think it’s even worse then that. I think we’re on the cusp of the down side of net-energy. Seems like such a trivial thing – two little words; but it’s equivalent to atomic war heads taking off.

    We are on a trajectory that looks pretty certain at this stage given our demand for fossil – natural gas, oil and coal.

    We have a perfect real life case that happened just over the past several months – a barrel of oil went from $140 to barely $60. No new refineries went online, no new oil fields discovered and pumping oil. And yet…the price when dramatically down. Why? Because it’s treated like a commodity and thus under the “law” of supply and demand. A non-renewable scarce resource is treated as if we – humans – actually made it!!! But we don’t. When you treat a once plentiful resource as if there is endless supply you come up against the wall – NET-ENERGY; whereby it takes more energy to get energy. When that happens, it’s the beginning of the end. Renewables will never be able to handle the massive world wide demand for energy. We are unprepared to deal with a “lights out” situation. Our cities, the places we should be investing in have been left to the most impoverished – with a few exceptions. Their natural efficiencies have been squandered by neglect. Sprawl has created the least capable life style in place.

    The party is over, my friend.

    Imagine what happens to our precious civilization when there’s no electricity…just imagine.

    Empire could look like the good ol days when we could just send off troops hither and yon, blanket a nation’s forests with massive bombs and gases. What a hay day we’ve had with the planet. Dr. Strange Love becomes Mad Max.

    So, marriage, gay or otherwise may at least provide some small comfort.

  10. Beth Sherouse said on November 9th, 2008 at 5:25pm #

    David G.: I totally agree with you that there are far more important issues in the larger scheme of things than gay marriage. War, famine, disease, the environment, these are all issues which concern the survival of humanity, and many gay rights issues don’t affect everyone. I’ll be the first to admit that my ability to fight for gay rights is a privilege that I enjoy because I make enough to meet my basic needs. I also live in a country that promises me a certain set of rights as one of its citizens, and I don’t think that it’s selfish or unreasonable to express outrage against systematic denial of those rights….and we’re not just talking the word “marriage,” but all of the legal protections and benefits that go with it.

    Danny Ray: In response to your comments on the middle class…Yes, the middle class is powerful, and yes their influence was important in the African American Civil Rights Movement, but far more important were two other forces: 1) activists who led efforts in local communities to register voters, empower individuals, and change hearts and minds, and 2) the actions of the federal government to lay the legal and legislative basis to end de jure segregation. You give the middle class, which has been notoriously conservative throughout 20th century politics, far too much credit.

    As for your comments about GLBT people forcing their gayness in your faces. Until the last 20 years or so, we’ve been virtually invisible from public American culture, and almost completely invisible in mainstream media until the last decade. Gays and lesbians value our relationships just like you do. We have boyfriends and girlfriends, lovers, spouses, parents, children, brothers, and sisters just like you do. What makes your heterosexual relationships any more important and deserving of representation and visibility than mine? How do you think we feel having your straightness shoved in our faces every hour of every day with a few rare and fleeting exceptions?

    Despite your denial, you seem to fit the definition of a homophobe to the letter. You avoid association with gay people, and they make you uncomfortable. Effeminate men make your “stomach a little uneasy.” Why should another man’s failure to meet your standard of masculine behavior make you feel so threatened? If you are comfortable with yourself, gay people (who are all around you, as much as you may try to avoid them….we’re 10 percent of the population) shouldn’t pose any threat to your identity. Words like yours lead gay children and teens (and even adults) into self-hatred and depression because they don’t want to be the object of your disgust simply for being true to themselves.

    Finally, in response to your comments about liberals appealing to the middle class and that I should try talking to people rather than being condescending and calling them homophobes. While the tone of my essay was a bit derisive, I assure you that I talk to conservative middle class people all the time. I live in South Carolina, so that describes the vast majority of the people I talk to. I work at the heart of the local grassroots struggle for GLBT rights here in SC, so I actively seek to engage middle class conservatives and help them to understand why gay rights are important. It may be easy for you to dismiss me and put me into the angry leftist dyke category and thus dismiss my words, but I would ask that you open your mind to the idea that gay people are no different that you are, except when it comes to the issue of whom we love. We don’t choose to be relegated to the fringes of popular culture, nor do we choose to pick a fight for kicks. We fight for visibility and legal rights not to make you uncomfortable, but because we want to be included and treated as equal citizens of this country and of the human race.

  11. DavidG. said on November 9th, 2008 at 5:43pm #

    Max, my blog is based upon the premise that we are heading quickly towards extinction.

    I feel it has more to do with our genetically-motivated destructive nature combined with the greed ‘ethic’ than it has to do with anything physical or scientific like a shortage of electricity.

    Whatever, the party is indeed nearly over!

  12. Carrie said on November 9th, 2008 at 6:33pm #

    Quoting Danny Ray, “We turn on the television and we see things like queer eye for the straight guy, or a show about interior decorators who were so effeminate that make the average American stomach a little uneasy Mr. And Mrs. Joe Average don’t wanna see that.”

    Really, they don’t want to see that? Then how come Suzie Homemakers keeps watching these shows in record numbers? If these shows were being ignored, or were truly disgusting to the middle class as you say they are, they would not continue to be made. How would Rosie and Ellen be some of the highest rated day time talk shows if Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average did not want to see that? Why would Isaac Mizrahi be sold at Target to housewives? Why would lesbian porn be so highly sought after?

    I’ll tell you why. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average really aren’t that disgusted when it comes down to it, but when it comes to standing in front of their peers, church members, or family they feel they have to conform to a middle class ideal of morality that dates back to the 1950s.

    Face it people, times have changed. Separate was not equal for African-Americans and women, and it sure isn’t for gay marriage. End discrimination in all forms.

    A Heterosexual Middle Class Woman

  13. Max Shields said on November 9th, 2008 at 7:53pm #

    DavidG, we may be reaching the same conclusion but coming from some different angles.

    I’m not much for genetics and the reductionism that it lead to. I’m not saying I don’t think there are genetic transmitters at a certain level of early developement, I just think that life is not as deterministic as genetics would have you believe.

    I would invite you to read some of the fine work by the Chilean microbiologist/immunologist/cognitive scientist Francisco Varela to get where I’m coming from. It’s not easy to go there on DV blog.

    That said, I’m not trying to predict the end of the world or the human species per se. I do think that humans are far from immune to extinction and the path we are on is endangering the species. I think the planet will survive the human species, but we have done much to harm it and the life giving atmosopher it generously provides – at NO COST except that we care for what we its naturally here, like the scarce natural resources with regularly plunder.

    This is not how all of the species behaves which provides us with a look at what we can become, what we can evolve in (which gets me back to the “genetic thing”).

    Our problems have been our attachment, not so much to capitalism, but to neoeconomics or neo-capitalism. Prior to the Neo-economics which has infiltrated all of the Western worlds halls of academia, there was classical economics – of Henry George. George understood that poverty was created by the industial progress machine that privatized natural resources and treated them as commodities.

    Today, we have a blind eye leading us. The blindness is the stubborn belief that we can privatize the commons and by so doing treat it as if it was a commodity to be endlessly sold. The ups and downs of our oil prices are a window into the pathology of supply and demand of natural resources.

    It will be the end of the empire, of the Western (and now many Eastern) civilizations. Again, we are crippled because of our dependency on technology which has magnified our existence and is in kind dependent up a resource we use with total abandon. Imagine a world where there is no energy – no electricity. The world will stand still. Humans have been allowed to move and travel and exist in a “world” which is otherwise impossible, because of this use of natural energy. We have built this edifice of civilization and created vast machines of total war and destruction.

    But, is this genetic? I would argue otherwise.

  14. Hue Longer said on November 9th, 2008 at 11:44pm #

    Max and David,

    All interesting (I look forward to your posts), but why here?

    I’ve found that most homophobes (or swell folks who’s stomachs turn around swishy men), are more afraid of being gay than they are of gays. And right they should be! Imagine all that hatred going inward

  15. Deadbeat said on November 10th, 2008 at 12:14am #

    Max says…

    The ups and downs of our oil prices are a window into the pathology of supply and demand of natural resources.

    This is not a “fact”. In fact this premise is very much in dispute. Some on the Left, such as Dr. Petras, has argued that the recent fluctuation in oil prices is not based on “supply and demand” but on the speculative activities of the futures markets that has priced oil based on the War on Iraq that has enhanced the RISK of supplying oil. The reason for the price drop has been the speculation on a world wide recession that is anticipating a drop in demand. This is why recently OPEC cut its production.

    Of course oil is a “commodity” this IS capitalism. However Zionist apologist like Max Shields has been trying to use the “Peak Oil” argument as a way to obscure the role Zionism has played in encouraging the War on Iraq and its subsequent negative effects on oil prices and the economy.

    Beware of wolves in sheep clothing.

  16. DavidG. said on November 10th, 2008 at 1:20am #

    Friends, humans can intellectualize or create a smoke screen about virtually anything. By the time they’re finished, few have a clue as to what the real issue is about. This fact is used by politicians, theologists, academics, capitalists, etc, for advantage.

    The bottom line is that we humans are a primitive form of life. Our genetic inheritance is our major evolutionary impediment, that and our greed (which capitalism has fully exploited) and our weakness for mindless indoctrination.

    Hopefully, one day we will mutate and a vastly superior form of humans, let’s call them neo-humans, will be created. Being more intelligent than us, they will rid their minds and the world of theology, avarice, violence, nationalism, ego-centrism, etc.

    They will be peaceable, compassionate, modest, creative, altruistic, etc, because their intelligence and their serene nature will enable them to see that that is the best way to enjoy their mortal life while nurturing the planet on which they live.

    I hope I live to see such ne0-humans though I’m not holding my breath.

  17. Max Shields said on November 10th, 2008 at 5:21am #

    Hue Longer,

    Yes, we got off the beaten path, but I think it started as a comment to Prop 8.

    Whether it is supply and demand or speculation, it is still about how we abuse the use of a finite and non-renewable resource when it is treated as an endless commodity.

    But since you see everything through the lens of Zionism you probably think Zionists created peak oil and net energy. Of course you do…

  18. Philip said on November 11th, 2008 at 3:10am #

    Thank you for your article Beth and I wish you continued success in your academic endeavors.

    This is the most interesting portion of a comment I’ve read so far:

    I do not feel comfortable around gay people or lesbians or the transgended. Am I a homophobe, I don’t think so. just my personal preference is not to associate with gay people. what you do in your own life is your business not mine. …

    Working people in this country who spend eight hours each day on a tractor or at the mill or laying pipe or welding or doing the countless things that have to be done each day to make this country work to make your life worthwhile don’t want somebody constantly telling him that he or she is inferior, they want that no more than you want to be told that you are inferior.

    Danny Ray, I hope I’m not the first person in your life to point out this little factoid to you; if I am, then you’ve led a VERY sheltered life but, some of those “hard-working” people in this country you described spending all those hours on a tractor, at the mill, laying pipe, welding and all those other things are gayer than Liberace and you never knew it. You, and people like you will keep the makers of Rolaids, Tagamet, Pepcid, and even Pepto-Bismol rolling in dough forever.

    It’s nice that you’re generous enough to imply you’re “accepting” of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered individuals, as long as none of them are living near you or working with you, but trust me on this, no one needs your acceptance and in the future the acceptance of you and others like you will become less and less relevant.

  19. Jim Cronin said on November 11th, 2008 at 6:17am #

    I think much of this is beside the point, including dropping Varela’s name and the New Age, anti-science reductionism bugaboo into the mix. As someone educated in biology, I see the accumulated evidence that homosexuality and transgender sexuality is genetic is now strong enough, but is little used by GLBTs themselves. Denying this is like denying evolution. Second, the primary use of homophobia is distractive politics pure and simple, the creation of an internal enemy to frighten the ignorant and those fearful of their own sexuality into ignoring the horrible crimes being perpetrated by our corrupt leaders. Unfortunately, even many gay and lesbian activists seem to be unwilling to bring these points to the forefront of their struggle.

  20. Folklight said on November 14th, 2008 at 12:53pm #

    Quoting Beth:
    ”We don’t choose to be relegated to the fringes of popular culture, nor do we choose to pick a fight for kicks. We fight for visibility and legal rights not to make you uncomfortable, but because we want to be included and treated as equal citizens of this country and of the human race.”

    It occurs to me you could be using ‘rights’ for privileges as if they are the same. A drivers license is not a right nor is a passport or securing a mortgage. It’s likely you have been granted one or all of the above.

    I postulate the ‘institution’ of marriage is a privilege as well and governed by the state. The state government is to be responsive to it’s voting citizens thus Prop 8 and others around the nation.

    You speak of Love – It’s an honorable thing.. and Civil Unions provide that along with legal protections you need in a often short lived union.

    Most US voters (even in Ca.) refuse to accept a change in the definition of marriage or being called bigot/homophobe because they have a different (MAJORITY) opinion on this issue.

    I’m of the opinion the societal ‘Ideal’ for marriage is 1 man & 1 woman. It has been the traditional standard for our country and has served well as a model. This vote did not nor was intended to prevent ‘alternate’ lifestyle choices. It serves to help protect/promote stability.

    A Civil Society depends on stable values (Ideals). We ALL need a civil society, to prevent the further growth of prison populations.

    Laws have changed concerning Gay behaviour to reflect Majority opinion… most do not want to dictate who people sleep with –
    THAT IS personal – Societal models (Ideals) are impersonal.

    I believe our country has enough problems nurturing & sustaining marriage already (given the prevalence of porn ; our nature & selfish temptation). Divorce is not helpful to kids or society.
    This may also play into gender confusion issues as well.
    (can you say headlines proclaiming man has baby)

    Our Society can do without more of it.

    If a state has enough support for it they can & do permit gay marriage.
    The majority have accepted civil unions, why shouldn’t the minority?

    What is unacceptable is for a Judge to overturn the legitimate will of the people via legislation. None of us should be comfortable with that!
    To attempt that only hurts your cause!