Culture Wars have always been a staple of American politics, it’s just that we’ve only been labeling them for the last two decades. Obviously issues such as woman’s suffrage, prohibition, and the scary threat of comic books and rock and roll—both the subject of congressional hearings in the 1950s—were culture wars as we now define them.
Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National convention was a defining moment in how we think of the culture wars. At that convention, Buchanan declared war on gay rights, choice, and any number of other “hot topics’ for the Republican base.
The last months—particularly with John McCain’s choice of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as a running mate—appeared to be a revival of the culture war mentality. Here was a woman who was against abortion, who repeatedly inquired about banning books from her town library, who belonged to a church that was invested in “saving” homosexuals, allowed her town to charge assault victims for rape kits, and who touted “traditional values” of home, motherhood, family, and what have you. The conventional wisdom was that Palin was going to shore up a Christian Evangelical base who were dubious of McCain’s commitment to them. What is interesting is that the looming “culture war” seems not to have happened as predicted. And certainly a culture war against homosexuals—or involving homosexuals—has not materialized at all.
Why is this? Can we have reached a point where gay rights has become so ingrained in American culture that even die-hard homo-haters have a hard time making their voices heard? Or has the country gotten tired of hearing about gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, gay whatever so that basic human rights are now being granted and accepted out of boredom?
It may be a mixture of all of these—not to mention the result of plenty of grassroots organizing by LGBT groups. Let’s be clear, however: Americans have not all joined the gays gone wild club. Lesbians and gay men don’t have basic legal protections in many states, often face violence, and certainly run into many more social and legal obstacles than do their heterosexual counterparts. A constitutional right to federal contractual marriage—a right being quickly granted by more and more European countries—is also not an option for same-sex couples. Obama and Biden are very clear in their opposition to same-sex marriage, as are (obviously) Palin and McCain.
In the vice presidential debates Palin and Biden strongly voiced their opposition to changing the definition of marriage from anything but a heterosexual paradigm. But Palin also went out of her way to state that a McCain-Palin administration had no interest in curtailing the hospital visitation rights of same-sex couples or voiding legal contracts that same-sex couples might make. It was an odd moment since no one had ever suggested that this was even a remote possibility—or, for that matter, even legal under any reading of the law. She also did not mention that McCain has come out against same-sex couples adopting children. He stated that it was clear to him that a traditional parenting family was the best for children (the violence against children in heterosexual families to the contrary). But maybe she didn’t know that. Or at least wasn’t prepped for it.
Clearly, in the past few weeks, the economy has taken enormous precedence in this election and will most probably be the defining factor in how people will vote. But that obvious fact aside, it is also clear that culture war thinking has declined among many voters, although perhaps not a certain segment of the far right, religious, Republican base.
It was perhaps inevitable that after years of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Will and Grace,” Ellen, Rosie, and now Lindsey Lohan, most Americans might have become more tolerant. The situation is, of course, more complicated than this. But there has, to some degree, been a sea change around the public discussion of how lesbians and gay men should be treated in our society. On the upside, many of the most virulent and vicious attacks by the right wing have decreased or stopped. When was the last time that you heard about “homosexual predators” attacking children? Even “Law & Order: SVU”—a show seemingly predicated on weekly narratives of pedophilia—is careful to make sure that no one confuses sex with children with homosexuality.
But a downside is that homosexual issues have begun to be erased from public discussion. For example, the debate would have been far more interesting if Biden and Palin had been asked questions about federal funding for Gay-Straight Alliances in schools or what the Department of Health should do to actually reach teens with HIV education or if there should be a federal program that would address homophobic bullying in schools. Certainly Palin, who believes in abstinence-only sex education, would have to give pointed answers. And who knows what Biden would have said.
It is probably good that the culture wars about homosexuality have abated, but if it is at the expense of no discussion and no real movement toward thinking these issues through, maybe we want to see some aspects of the old time culture wars return.
Michael Bronski is a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator. He has been a visiting professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College since 1999.