New Culture Wars Over Gay Teens?

We are beginning to see a small but gradual shift in the ongoing culture wars around queers, away from the issue of same-sex marriage back to the 1970s preoccupation with children. The issue of same-sex marriage has been front and center for anti-gay right wing organizing for the past decade. Ever since Baehr v. Miike, the 1993 decision by Hawaii’s Supreme Court that allowed same-sex couples to get married (it was later overturned by a constitutional amendment), the specter of queers tying the knot has been conservatives’ prime example of what can really go wrong with America.

Sixteen years later, while only a handful of states allow same-sex marriage or civil unions and the government has passed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that forbids any federal marriage-related benefits to same-sex couples, it is clear that conservatives have lost this battle. Sure, they still bluster away about same-sex marriage hurting the heterosexual family and then bring out completely misused statistics to prove that fatherless families live in poverty, but there is little doubt that in two decades same-sex marriage will be completely legal in many states and DOMA will be gone.

This is, in part, due to most Americans getting used to the idea of same-sex marriage (polls show that women and men under the age of 25 have no problem with it) but also to the fact that most Americans don’t care. Marriage in America—with an over 50 percent divorce rate and a raft of reality TV shows that demonstrate that dating, marriage, and being a housewife is a nightmare—is no longer an issue for culture wars. The general consensus is that same-sex marriage does not place American family values at risk and the institution of heterosexual marriage does not have to be protected.

On the other hand, many Americans may still feel that children need to be protected from "the homosexual lifestyle." This past October two events brought the issues of homosexuality and kids to the forefront. The first was the attack by conservative groups, spearheaded by the Family Research Council, on the appointment of Kevin Jennings to head up the Department of Education’s endeavor to create "safe schools" at the state and local level. Jennings is the founder of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education network (GLSEN) and has been an outspoken advocate for anti-bullying laws, the creation of Gay/Straight Alliances in public and private schools, as well as a critic of the religious right, which has often opposed his efforts on both of these issues.

Right-wing attacks on liberal or progressive federal appointments are not new—in the recent case of "green czar" Van Johnson, they actually got his appointment rescinded—but the war on Jennings has moved into hyper overdrive. Jennings has been vilified in conservative blogs, religious media outlets, and there is even a Facebook page called "Expel Kevin Jennings" for "Concerned citizens who don’t want Kevin Jennings ‘queering’ our schools." The story has played endlessly by Fox. Even CNN has covered it, mostly to make corrections to some of the more extreme right-wing misstatements of facts. The most notable of these is the story of Jenning’s telling a 15-year-old that it was okay to have sex in men’s rooms. This claim was a distortion of a speech Jennings gave in which he told the story of counseling a 16-year-old, legally of age to engage in adult sexual behavior, to use a condom if he had sex with men he had just met on a bus.

The ferocity with which the right attacked Jennings tells us two things. They feel that they have some traction with this issue and that the scare tactics about queering schools has the potential to move into the mainstream. Certainly coverage on Fox News is aimed at doing this, though so far it has not been effective. Even the more reasonable arguments, such as Tom Perkins’s Family Research Center blog, may not convince the more middle of the road. Because Jennings supports the idea of "safety" in schools, Perkins notes, correctly, Jennings is really "reaffirming" gay identity.

Even some right-wingers might be tempted to support the "safe schools" agenda as long as it is limited to ending bullying and does not extend to actively affirming or promoting homosexuality. However, in a 1995 speech, Jennings admitted that the rhetoric about "safety" was a political device, saying that it "threw our opponents on the defensive and stole their best line of attack. This framing short-circuited their arguments and left them backpedaling." In a 1997 speech he embraced the idea of actively "promoting" homosexuality, looking forward to a day when "people would hear that someone was promoting homosexuality, would say, ‘Yeah, who cares?’" And an unsigned article on the GLSEN website in 2000 declared, "The pursuit of safety and affirmation are one and the same goal."

The problem for the right is that increasingly most Americans care less and less about demonizing homosexuality. There are plenty of ways U.S. culture can be, and is, homophobic, but telling school children that being gay is not necessarily a bad thing is very low on the list of American’s fears. It has been three decades since Anita Bryant managed to jump-start a national movement with her "Save the Children" campaign. To a large degree the anti-Jennings campaigns have a note of desperation to them.

This is not surprising given the larger cultural context. The September 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine featured a cover article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis entitled "Coming Out in Middle School" in which teens as young as 13 who knew they were gay at 11 speak out about being gay and how they manage to negotiate school, family, crushes, and (although most of them have not "gone all the way") sex. The piece is basic reporting and feels honest, non-exploitative, and sensible in a friendly way. These are kids whose parents are mostly supportive (no surprise since they had to have their parent’s permission to appear in the article) and are well integrated and charming. When they have problems at school, the article takes pains to point out that the problem is with the schools, not with gay teens.

What is most amazing about "Coming Out In Middle School," however, is that the New York Times, which has never been particularly progressive about LGBT issues, felt that the time was ripe for a public conversation about gay kids and middle school. Some of this has to do with the fact that as a society we discuss sex and sexuality more and more and there are fewer reasons not to come out if the context is safe and (moderately) welcoming. Some of it has to do with the mainstream media reporting more honestly on the lives of younger lesbian, gay, and bisexual people because the broader culture will support such articles. But, to a large degree, articles such as this are a (conscious or unconscious) response to the increased (and increasingly shrill and crazy) right-wing rhetoric that uses homosexuality and children as a scare tactic.

We saw the exact same pattern in reporting about same-sex marriage. As right-wing attacks increased, newspapers not only supported same-sex marriage on their editorial pages, but placed photos and notices of same-sex couples on their "Weddings and Commitments" pages, as well as feature articles on LGBT families.

Does this mean that mainstream media is going to begin taking progressive stands on all LGBT issues? Probably not. As with all issues, they sniff out the general odor of cultural permission before they take a chance on anything. But it may mean that as the right—including Fox and the world of conservative blogs—becomes increasingly rabid about gay and lesbian issues, the more moderate media may begin acting more responsibly. And that alone would be news.


Michael Bronski is the author of numerous books, including, most recently Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. His articles have been published in the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, GLQ,and the Los Angeles Times. He has been a visiting professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College since 1999.