Alex Blaze

Defending Garrison Keillor

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 15, 2007 1:43 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Ann Coulter, cowboys, Dan Savage, Garrison Keillor, narrative construction, nostalgia

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.)

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Marla R. Stevens | March 15, 2007 5:43 PM

Absolutely spot-on. Thanks for taking the time to go beyond the kneejerk and analyze beyond the surface.

Thanks for articulating my thoughts on the article. After I finished it I suspected that it was not to be taken at face value and was a bit dismayed to see the overwhelming reaction on the web indicating the opposite.

Right on, Alex. Jerame and I were just talking today how I just couldn't work up a post on this topic. I just didn't feel the outrage other bloggers were working up... It seemed to me much more like he was making fun of "traditional" marriage and saying that we were expanding. The paragraph that stood out to me was:

And now gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives. In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife's first husband's second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin's in-laws and Bruce's ex, Mark, and Mark's current partner, and I suppose we'll get used to it.

That's where I did the doubletake. Isn't he saying that folks will get over the whole marriage-phobia? When you think of the whole column in that cast, it's a completely different article.

His whole thing (this column and his show and other things) is that we need to stop seeing culture as static and accept change. So, yeah, when he says "I suppose we'll get used to it," he really means that we will, and that the change to allowing gay marriage is just another part of the evolution of culture. IMHO, of course.

Donnel Jones | March 15, 2007 9:58 PM

"Nature is about continuation of the species -- in other words, children. Nature does not care about the emotional well-being of older people."

This is ironic? This is not to be taken at face value? Hey, I DO read literature, poetry especially, which Mr. Keillor pretends to enjoy.

I therefore do understand what the Left calls "subtext." It doesn't sound to me that Keillor is being ironic or tongue-in-cheek. Especially since he is middle-brow and a guy for "the people," that "ah shucks" kind of Midwestern liberal attitude that is almost as nauseating as Northeast paternalisitc liberalism.

Anyway, I'm afraid your liberal friend is a bigot. Hey, I defend Garrison Keillor's right to be a bigot, even an uber-urban-ironic one . . . . .

Just spare me the "oh he's a liberal so we have to stand behind our man no matter what!"

Or, perhaps, Mr. Keillor is not as good a writer as you are a reader of his writing.

I think not. You are standing by your man who holds gays in contempt REGARDLESS of the precious "diversity" statement of his lame liberal church.

Please. . . . the whole "diversity" mantra is a cover for bigoted libs like Keillor.

Now that I've read your column, I do believe that his article was "tongue-in-cheek." Thanks.

I'd have thought if he "meant well" he would have said something by now.

I think what happened here is simply people who aren't familiar with Garrison Keillor reacted without realizing it was satire. er, Did I just echo your point?

I have to ask how anyone who has ever listened to one freakin' episode of "A Prairie Home Companion" could go get their knickers in a knot over this Salon piece.

Oops, I forgot. Garrison writes for people with mid-triple-digit IQs and there are a huuuuuge number of "with it" people of all sorts of races, genders and sexual orientations who aren't appreciably smarter than the halfwits over on the right. Unfortunately. And like the righties, they get mighty upset if you point out they didn't get the joke.

Listen up, halfwits: the man's en-tire ca-reer is an as-sault on the same ass-holes you don't like. Now that the big words are bro-ken down in-to bite-size syll-a-bles, have you "Got it??"


reading through the posts,I have to thank those here who put so much effort every day into disproving the old homophobic slur that all gays are smart. Your efforts are appreciated.

Fookin' morons.

Oh for God sakes. Keilor's schtick is fundamentally no different from David Sedaris, he's just doing it in hetero, middle class, mid western drag. For the irony challenged, I suggest you consult his Lake Woebegone stories before running for the torches and pitchforks. One of his central themes is how people systematically limit their potential for happiness by a slavish devotion to received mores and how this self suppression winds up making them as weird as, if not weirder than, any non white bread nonconformist. Philistines who'd get their drawers in an uproar over this need to find a productive use for their excess energy.

Wow. Great post. Great point about culture always changing.

The problem with the "simpler times" philosophy is that it only applied to a select group of people. The '50s were great unless you happened to be black, gay, or a woman who wanted to work outside of the house.

Donnel Jones:
You said:
" 'Nature is about continuation of the species -- in other words, children. Nature does not care about the emotional well-being of older people.'

This is ironic? This is not to be taken at face value?"

Well, yes. Seems pretty obvious to me, in fact; the "Nature does not care about the emotional well-being of older people" is the key -- he's making an intentionally absurd exaggeration, supporting the (ironic, satirical) thesis that the good old days were those when "Mom and Dad stood like smiling, helpless mannequins in the background." I don't mean to turn this into a regional thing, but this kind of extremely understated overstatement, said with a stonelike straight face, is a hallmark of those "aw, shucks" Midwesterners you mention. At least the ones in my family.

have none of the folks who are getting so uptight about this ever read any sinclair lewis?

Great column. So sad that Keillor should be so skewered by the GLBT community for statements about gay men that are really no more ascerbic than the Minnesotan stereotype Keillor riffs on a weekly basis. Still, he's beloved in that state.

The sanctimonious critics of Keillor's column protest too much. Tolerance begets tolerance -- and in the case of hypersensitive, humorless identity warriors, tolerability.

Is it possible y'all are just overanalyzing the column and Keillor's really not much different from a white liberal who thinks that because he supports civil rights in concept it's okay to make n-word jokes?

Thank you very very much for the paragraph about Queer Eye and Will and Grace. It strikes me as the height of hypocrisy to have gay people (I must confess to an abhorrence of the word 'queer' in any context) lambasting Keillor for sterotyping when many of these same folks loved Will and Grace and Queer Eye and Queer Folk and All the Little Queers. We invite derision when we refuse to condemn Karen and Grace calling their oh-so-gay friends 'big fags' and when we fail to protest the baffoonery of what you explain so succinctly when you say '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.' I do not recall HRC or anyone else demanding the withdrawal of advertising from W & G when 'fag' was thrown around as a term of endearment - which it is not. Instead they got a GLAAD award. The outrage of Savage and Sullivan and others is really sort of sad in its lack of sophistication and its (in Savage's case) typically foul-mouthed diatribe against a far superior writer. Thanks again, you made my day.

As for Prairie Anti-Homo Companion Keillor, you don't think his description of gays as "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." " wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts." isn't stereotypical homophobia? Do you know any gay men who match that description, apart from the nausea-inspiring stereotypes brought to the American viewing public on "Queer Eye"? And it's only gay men he seems to have ranted about. Garrison, is he scared of Rosie O'Donnell chewing him a new sphincter should he dare mention anything about those "mannish lookin' wimmin" and so he just plays it safe and goes for the "wimmin lookin' mens"? (To paraphrase Bessie Smith.) And what on earth does the appearance have to do with one's ability to be a good parent? If such standards as Keillor might find acceptable were true, then the ideal American parents would have to be Pastor Ted Haggard and Pamela Anderson. Gays & Lesbians adopt and they actually want the children. Isn't that better than an orphanage or some hideous foster home where the phony parents are only taking the kids in for the money and treat them like it?

"It strikes me as the height of hypocrisy to have gay people (I must confess to an abhorrence of the word 'queer' in any context) lambasting Keillor for sterotyping when many of these same folks loved Will and Grace and Queer Eye and Queer Folk and All the Little Queers."

I for one thought these shows did more damage than good to the so called G&L community. Awful stuff.

If Mr. Keillor's writing takes this much to "explain" it, perhaps this particular piece needed a second draft.

I have listened to Prairie for a while. At first I hated it beause it seemed to idealize 50's white small town values that never were. But after Bush was reellected, the show skewered Rebublicans and conservitives. Then I started to reallize it is satire. He doesnt live in Lake Woebeone because it doesn't exist. I'm a gay man who has been out for 20 years. I had to quit watching Will & Grace, Queer Eye, Queer as Folk because they have little to do with my life and I'm tired of looking at portayels of gay men as shallow, preening, bitterly witty man whores. And I'm supposed to be excited about seeing myself on tv. Garrison is a libertarian and I really doubt he is against gay marraige or adoption. I always wonder why we put up with all the inaccurate portrayals of ourselves by other gay people.

Thanks for the piece. I agree 100%, and tried to explain to Dan Savage in comments why his take was so tone-deaf.


Nope, it's not. How can you not hear the satire in "go in for flamboyance now and then themselves"?? Just try to imagine someone saying that out loud (and meaning it) with a straight face. Satire, people, satire. Everything Keillor-esque is satire. Now whether you appreciate his humor as funny is another question entirely.

Didn't Jonathan Swift suggest that we eat our children? Now, everybody missed the boat on that one.

Keillor is:
a) human and either i) gets it wrong or ii) is not crystal clear (satire is like that) from time to time.
b) his wit and satire, like Molly Ivins', is both savage and compassionate, and his eye is looking at the whole human scene, straights and gays. He has his eye on the sparrow. His subtext is always that of Puck's, "Lord, what fools these mortals be."

I'm straight, my brother was gay, died of AIDS and is missed, I have a lesbian daughter. And I grew up in the South, where bigotry is uglier and more open than most other places in America. /I/ think that the way to show your value is to live a life of witness. The only Christianity I respect is that of those that do so, with humility and grace. Which is why I think so much of the radical right and evangelism is a fraud.

And I think that as gays present themselves/live a life as just other people, they will finally age into the cultural mainstream. Screaming from the ramparts makes great theatre, but it's a dead-end Masada scene.

You have arrived when Keillor pokes gently at society and gays and their reactions. Take a breath. You are valued, you are even gently (NOT viciously) poked fun at. Laugh at yourself and with everybody else. Welcome to the gang. We should have gotten together sooner.

"idn't Jonathan Swift suggest that we eat our children? Now, everybody missed the boat on that one."

No, he ironically suggested eating Irish babies to cure the great famine.

& where does Dan Savage get off dissing Keillor anyway? Isn't he the one who expressed his loathing of female genitalia by comparing vaginas to "canned hams"?

Brian Miller | March 16, 2007 5:05 PM

Had Keillor written his column about interracial marriage, and used stereotypes about African Americans, would people still be cheering his "ironic satire," or flaming him for racism?

I suspect the latter.

The reality is that Keillor represents a viewpoint common in the liberal academy, that views LGBT people as plain-old idiots when we aren't useful idiots -- and reserved itself a "right" to mock and stereotype us because, of course as we all know, they're more compassionate and caring than everyone else.

Paul G. Brown | March 16, 2007 6:08 PM

Brian Miller -

to every season. Look up a little comedy movie titled "Look Who's Coming to Dinner". You might also want to get into some re-runs of "All in the Family".

Different times. Different comics. Different stereotypes. We remember them, these days. We also remember the genuine bigots and hate mongers; George Wallaces, Enoch Powell, Falwell.

Dan Savage says some wise and witty things. This little essay wasn't among them.

Jolly-ho. Ever since Savage got mopped up by O'Reilly a couple of years ago he consistently avoids the real threats to gay America. GK should be boycotted? Oh My. Savage is the classic bully who was overpowered on the playground so he goes home and beats up his own family.

Sorry to be so late on this thread, maybe everyone has gotten over this already but I 'spect some are still plenty upset.

I'm a white, straight married father of two sons who sometimes checks web sites in the gay world just to try to understand issues that matter to a community I support socially and politically - but can't ever belong to. I guess I'm a little like the nerdy white guy who listens to the blues so he can understand black people. I know that's lame. Sorry, but until at least one of my sons realizes he's gay it's the best I can do.

What I'm trying to say is that we all want to be accepted and understood for who we are. When someone falls short of perfect understanding, when we feel rejected for being ourselves, it's hurtful and sad.

When I was a child, I went to Unitarian church. I was taught to accept everyone simply because anyone I might meet was a child of God and was therefore loved by the Creator. Who was I to reject anything loved by God - including myself?

I went to a Catholic High school. Not for religion but for education. I respect and honor all faiths. But I never became a Catholic and I don't go to church now.

In some ways, over the years, Garrison Keillor has become my pastor. His sophisticated homilies often contain parables about human weakness, intolerance, ignorance, love, failure, joy redemption and spirit. His simplicity has guile. His subtlety requires patience. And...he's only human.

I can't forgive him for you. I was not offended by him.

I am so sorry to read so much pain caused by the fear, ignorance and hate of others. I am so sorry that so many are hurt and angry. Garrison Keillor didn't hurt you. Somebody else gave you the pain you're feeling a long time ago. Forgive them, be your perfect self and be healed.

My Best Regards With Love and Blessings.