If you've been away from the GLBT blogosphere today and last night, then you probably missed the call-to-arms against Garrison Keillor for this Salon column. My old friend and blogger Kevin Erickson sent me the link late last night, and, let's just say, that upon first reading the column, I had a few hairs-rising moments.
They were far from the sentiment in Dan Savage's call to interrupt Keillor's radio show. I feel that that sort of civil disobedience is best reserved for - oh, I don't know - people who are materially harming the queer community, like those who are collecting signatures for New Jersey's anti-civil-unions ballot initiative, the headquarters of corporations that refuse to give benefits to same-sex partners, or for the Nigerian embassy, and not for people who write up a column on the internet. But it is important for me to say that I did not at first agree with Keillor's column. He repeats gay stereotypes and anti-gay lies, and, just coming off Pace/Coulter/Hardaway, it's hard not to be sensitive to that sort of language.
But after a long conversation with Kevin about the column and re-reading it several times, I've found that Keillor's thesis shines through. The column is a sharp and sardonic criticism of the Cultural Warrior mentality - both for its inane 1950's nostalgia and for its procreative-centric model of parenthood.
Keillor describes and simultaneously pokes fun at the "marriage is all about the children" mentality by taking it to its logical conclusion that parents don't matter:
We didn't have to contend with troubled, angry parents demanding that life be richer and more rewarding for them.
Nature does not care about the emotional well-being of older people.
we started down the path toward begetting children while Mom and Dad stood like smiling, helpless mannequins in the background.
Isn't that the way the Focus on the Family folks see the old ideal of marriage? If it's all for children, then the parents' desires aren't important. And for all their "parents' rights" dogma, the end result of precreative-centricity is that once a person has had kids he or she doesn't matter any more
, which even the Religious Right doesn't actually believe.
What's funny about this is that cultural conservatives constantly link this back to Leave it to Beaver narrative of the way things were back in the 1950's. Keillor goes after that after describing his upbringing:
You could put me in a glass case at the history center and schoolchildren could press a button and ask me questions.
The whole Cultural Warrior mentality depends on the notion that there was a time in America's history when everyone lived a "normal" life, and you could find any one of these people and put him or her in a box and maintain that sort of culture. Cool people like you and me know that culture ain't static. It's constantly changing and is never the same at any two moments or for any two people. But the far Right wants to protect that culture with anti-marriage amendments and reactionary school curriculum, little glass boxes in museums to halt change and to exalt one way of living as better than all others.
I can't think of a better metaphor for this mentality than Keillor's speaking occasion that he describes at a second-grade class (bold mine):
So I told them a story about how, back in the day, we were cowboys and rode horses across those flat spaces, rounding up our cattle, even in blizzards. For proof, I sang a cowboy song with a big whoopi-ti-yi-yo at the end of each verse and I got them all to do clip-clops and whinnies.
They seemed to understand it all, at least the clip-clop part, and they are better children for having met me.
I mean, isn't that the truth? There are strong parallels between the Leave it to Beaver
narrative of the 1950's and cowboy stories, because neither is based on a comprehensive look at reality yet both have strong cultural power. The main difference is that everyone except for second-graders knows that cowboy stories aren't descriptive of all people in the Old West and that basing public policy on them would be rather idiotic. But the Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly types get everyone going with nostalgic stories of times when things were simpler, their audience clip-clopping along with them, never really attempting to understand that that narrative has only gotten power from repetition and dominating over other narratives, not by being a comprehensive, static Truth.
But the paragraph that most people are understandably getting stuck on is:
The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men -- sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand in back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That's for the kids. It's their show.
We live in a culture where shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
and Will and Grace
are actually popular among people who are against our rights. There are people who tune in every week to watch Carson "Oh, snap" a straight guy's wearing green and blue together or Jack fashion-trash-talking Grace, who also go to the ballot booth, pull the curtain tight, and cast a ballot to support an anti-marriage amendment. Keillor attempts to explain this apparent psychic dissonance by pointing out that such shows profit on one stereotypical view of gay men, and that such a view, which is consumed like pornography by many heterosexuals, ultimately has denied and continues to deny us our rights.
In other words, if parenting is all about the kids, then parents have to be able to fade into the background to appropriately put their needs behind their children's, in the Focus on the Family mindset. The ability to parent gets judged on the ability for someone to be bland. And how can gay men ever be considered bland in a culture that is obsessed with gay culture as flamboyant? Is the reason that so many straight people cling to this stereotype exactly because it affirms their fears that gay men make bad parents? He's describing how conservatives have drawn two completely separate boxes of behavior, one for what they see as gay men's behavior and another for proper parents' behavior. Since their stereotypes don't allow for overlap of those two boxes, they can simultaneously enjoy camp culture and say they're pro-gay and go and vote anti-gay, just like Ann Coulter does when she watches a drag show (which she does enjoy) right after writing a column about how gays will destroy marriage.
To put his column in some context as well, consider this review of Keillor's book Homegrown Democrat from a Christian conservative:
Where Republicans want to paint Democrats as a party of gays, radicals and abortionists, Keillor believes that Democrats are the party that tolerates and includes all kinds of Americans, with less interest in our private lives than in our public duty to be kind, compassionate and neighborly.
And he belongs to a church that participates in South Central Minnesota's Pridefest yearly
and has this diversity statement
on their website:
With these words, your Vestry in 1997 made a very bold statement. In essence they declared that St. John's Parish was to be a place of welcome for all people, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, age, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of the human condition which is often used as a means to divide God's people.
In choosing to endorse these words, our parish took the bold step to join with other Episcopal congregations throughout the country in being a place of welcome to gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual individuals. We proudly proclaimed our intention to extend the loving embrace of God to all persons. I am very grateful that we are a "Welcoming Congregation." That fact played a large role in my decision to accept the call of the Vestry and Bishop Jelinek to serve as your priest-in-charge.
I think that we should give someone like Keillor the benefit of the doubt.
(Thanks to Kevin for helping with some of the ideas in this post and finding some of the links.)