Copyright © 2001 Arlene Stein. All rights reserved.
Midway between San Francisco and Seattle, in a spectacular verdantvalley, is a place I will call Timbertown. Home to eight thousand people,it is in many respects a typical small Oregon community, and atypical small American town, a place that prides itself on the fact thatmost people know each other, at least by sight, and a place where lifegoes on and relatively little changesor so many believe. Yet severalyears ago, within the space of a few months, the intimate acts of individualsbecame the subject of a raucous public debate that pittedneighbor against neighbor. Should the community recognize lesbiansand gay men as a legitimate minority group, and accord them equalprotection under the law?
Since Timbertown possessed little power to create such protections,the question was above all a symbolic one. Nonetheless, it createda storm of controversy few will forget. Families stopped theirchildren from playing with friends whose parents stood on the opposingside of the issue. Husbands and wives quarreled over it, and itsparked fistfights at the high school. The local newspaper, normallypreoccupied with news of the timber industry and Little Leaguescores, covered little else for months. Practically overnight, the questionof lesbian/gay civil rights became a matter of public debate andacrimony.
Rural Oregon was a rather unlikely site for a battle over homosexuality.In this vast, sparsely populated region of the country, therewere few visible signs of queer life outside of the few metropolitanareas: no out homosexuals lobbying for civil rights; no lesbian/gaycoffeehouses, newspapers, or running clubs, commonplace in largertowns and cities. Yet suddenly the issue of homosexuality moved tocenter stage. "Across rural Oregon, where homosexuality used to bethe last thing you'd expect anyone to be discussing, much less debating"a newspaper reported, "people are talking about little else."
In 1992, religious conservatives sponsored a highly controversialstatewide ballot measure that sought to deny civil rights protectionsto lesbians and gay men. The initiative, known as Measure 9, lost by alarge margin in the state's two most populous metropolitan areas butwon across rural Oregon. The following year, in an effort to buildupon its successes in rural areas, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, whichspearheaded the campaign, targeted eight counties and three dozensmall communities where the statewide measure had passed the yearbefore. These measures sought to amend local bylaws to prevent anti-discriminationprotections for gays and lesbians and prohibit governmentspending to promote homosexuality (see Appendix B).
When I moved to Oregon in the fall of 1994, the year after theballot measures rippled across the state, people were still talking aboutthem. On several occasions, friends warned me to stay out of a particularcommunity when it had passed an ordinance prohibiting lesbian/gay rights the year before; gay rights sympathizers waged unofficialboycotts of these towns. It seemed to me that homosexuality had becomea primary way these towns defined themselves, and others definedthem. But why, I wondered, did small-town folks find homosexuality,seemingly a nonissue, so confusing and troubling? And whybother organizing against lesbian/gay rights in towns where queerpeople were barely visible? A second question also emerged: How didsmall towns defend lesbian and gay rights in the absence of a visible,identifiable gay community?
I became interested in how discussions of homosexuality andlesbian/gay civil rights entered public life in small communities,shaping how "ordinary" people talked about sexuality. Small ruralcommunities have usually been thought of as the repository of traditionalAmerican values, conjuring up images of close, face-to-face relationshipsamong like-minded people. In recent decades, a series ofsweeping social changes, including the dissemination of new mediatechnologies and the growing movement of urban dwellers into ruralareas across the nation, has called this nostalgia-tinged image intoquestion. What happens, I wondered, when small-town people andbig-city, indeed global, cultures come into contact with one another?The issue of homosexual civil rights, as it was debated by a small community,provided a lens for looking at this process.
I spent two years talking with community activists on the rightand the left, along with city officials, teachers, students, car mechanics,and lumbermen in the small Oregon town. I examined what peoplesaid publicly in the debate about homosexualityin newspapers,radio broadcasts, television interviews, and organizational literature.And I interviewed people who participated in these debates to try tofigure out what homosexuality symbolized for them on a deeperlevelfor those who sought to legislate against gay rights or who defendedthese rights, as well as for those who had few opinions on thematter.
I had to admit that I was drawn to the project because it offered thechance of entering an alien world: small-town America, and particularlythe world of Christian evangelicals. I had read about the ChristianCoalition and its efforts to shape American politics, seen filmssuch as The Apostle, about a southern Pentecostal preacher, and hadfollowed the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal in the news. But Ihad never actually talked with a card-carrying evangelical. Nothingseemed further from my reality as a Jew, an urbanite, and a laborer inthe agnostic groves of academia.
As I embarked on this project, friends and colleagues were curious.How would I present myself to my subjects? Would I tell peoplethat I was a Jew? A lesbian? Would I reveal my progressive politicalsympathies? A colleague of mine, Linda Kintz, had studied the worldof Christian conservatism, attending conferences of such organizationsas Concerned Women for America. Kintz, a sweet-voicedwoman with a smooth Texas drawl, wore a tasteful pantsuit and presentedherself as a conservative activist in order to gather what we sociologistscall "data." Reporter Donna Minkowitz chose a differentstrategy: she bound her breasts and donned a goatee makeover to attendrallies of the Promise Keepers, the hugely successful Christianmen's organization. But my appearance irrevocably marked me asnot-Christian (and not-male). I couldn't pass. Nor did I want to, particularly,as I imagined that interactions with my informants wouldtell me as much about their world as would their answers to mypointed questions.
Indeed, much of what I learned surprised me. I was struck by howmany people expressed opinions about the world that were both honestand forthright yet based upon operating assumptions diametricallyopposed to those I took for granted. While I understood diversity andmulticulturalism as a positive ideal, for example, others felt threatenedby it, and refused to mince words when describing their feelings. Theschools "require our children to celebrate cultural diversity," onemother complained. "But what if the families don't want to celebrate?"
Why would individuals come to such different conclusions aboutsomething that seemed, to me at least, relatively simple and straightforward?To find out, I would have to enter a particular place, and tryto understand its people, and their world. This book, then, is aboutmuch more than the gay rights debate. It explores how sexuality becamea resonant symbol upon which a group of citizens projected ahost of anxieties about the changing world around them, how it divideda small community, and what that tells us about our ability tolive with difference. And it documents how a local campaign broughtthe issue of homosexuality into the public sphere in unprecedentedways, generating discussions of sexuality among those who had neverbefore talked about such matters publicly.
DOES THIS MEAN WAR?
While I spoke with rural Oregonians, ethnic conflicts six thousandmiles away transformed Serbs, Croats, and Albanians into bitter,bloody rivals. Though the context was clearly very different, theethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia frequently entered mythoughts. Why do some social differences that are submerged and unremarkablebecome sources of division? In the United States, fewhave taken up guns to defend their vision of what is right and true, butAmericans have frequently responded violently to such perceived socialproblems as drug use, abortion, and satanic ritual abuse, to name afew. Stanley Cohen coined the term "moral panic" to describe howsome issuessuch as pornography, homosexuality, and pedophiliaengagethe passion and focus of people in ways that seem to far outweightheir real threat.
But frequently, religious convictions shape political attitudes inways that go far beyond fleeting panics over disparate issues of concern.Indeed, some would argue that Americans' preoccupationwith moral issues, such as homosexuality, is evidence of a "culturewar" that is realigning political loyalties along lines of faith. Accordingto sociologist James Davison Hunter, a "culture war" pits traditionalists,who understand the truth in terms of an external, definable,and transcendent authority, usually defined by religious beliefs,against progressives, who see truth as inherent in human beings andthe natural order, and constantly in flux. A good number of AmericanProtestants feel themselves to be socially and demographically distantfrom modern life, a fact that, in Hunter's words, allows them to"avoid sustained confrontation with modernity's most threateningattributes."
As the "culture war" argument goes, religious conservatives usetheir faith to insulate themselves from the threatening changesaround them, looking to traditional values as guides for living. Incontrast, liberal secularists are more apt to embrace the changes theysee around them, and view the individual as the best arbiter of what isright and wrong. These beliefs about truthwhether it is absolute orrelativeshape people's beliefs on a host of issues, such as abortion,gay rights, and welfare reform, cutting across many of the cleavagesthat organized politics in the past.
If there is in fact a culture war, it isn't all that new, of course.Throughout American history, moral crusades against drinking,campaigns against pedophilia, child abuse, and satanism identifieddeviant social categories and dramatized and normalized identitiesand institutions such as the traditional family and Christianity. Awave of religious revivals in 1831 converted large numbers of middle-classAmericans to millennial beliefs. The decade that followed saw amassive "protest cycle" in temperance, abolition, and moral-reformmovements, each based on a sense that sudden, dramatic change waspossible in this world, a view impossible under older Calvinist fatalism.
In the 1920s, cultural clashes about the teaching of evolution inthe public schools rippled through the United States, culminating inthe Scopes trial, in which a biology teacher was charged with challengingstate and biblical law. The clash between Clarence Darrowand William Jennings Bryan was a battle over valuesa culture warthat pitted modernists against fundamentalists. As liberal critic HoraceKallen put it, "The Great War with tanks and planes and poisongas has been followed by a battle of values, or norms and standards; astruggle of theories of life." Fundamentalists retreated after theScopes trial, in which creationism was roundly condemned, and forfifty years occupied themselves with building their own culture andinstitutions, breaking out into public life only occasionally in momentaryspurts of activity.
Many members of Timbertown's religious community certainlybelieved they were engaged in a culture war. As one conservative activistasked: "The question is do you follow God's teachings, or doyou defy them? Do you live by the rules that were set down thousandsof years ago, or do you live by your own rules? Many of the evangelicalChristians I spoke with viewed the Bible as the word of God, sawsalvation as central to religious faith, and attended church at least oncea week, if not more. They believed that homosexuality poses a threatbecause it represents chaotic and morally lax behavior, and that growingtolerance for homosexuality is evidence of the community's decliningmorals.
But there was much more at stake, a union leader told me. "Christianityhas very little do with the appeal of the Christian right," heoffered. "Christianity has as much to do with this battle as religion hasto do with the war in Ireland. The church was an institution that washollow and available for use, so it was taken over by people wanting toput forth their authoritarian ideas. It's not about theology, it's abouteconomics." The war over homosexuality, he suggested, was simplya smoke screen, obscuring more powerfully determining materialforces. Had Timbertown not come on hard times, my union friendargued, there would never have been support for the antigay campaign,which was an expression of status resentment.
In Oregon, attitudes toward homosexuality appeared to correlatewith divisions between a declining working class that felt itself displacedand ignored, and a rising professional class, for whom the decliningworking class was invisible or irrelevant. Young urban professionals,who teemed into the state to work in high-tech industries,tended to support abortion and gay rights. Not all working-class peopleopposed them, of course, and a good number of middle-class peopledid. Nonetheless, class differences shaped the debate in importantways.
But the more I spoke with people in Timbertown, the more Icame to believe that the clash over homosexuality in small-townOregon was not reducible to either values, as proponents of the "culturewar" notion suggest, or economics, as their materialist criticscontend. It was about both of these thingsand more. Claims thatlesbians and gays enjoy "special rights" brought together moralisticconcerns about perversity with material concerns about the declineof the family wage and resentments against affirmative action, blendingsecular arguments about civil rights with passionate religious injunctionsagainst sin. Authors Sara Diamond, Didi Herman, LindaKintz, and Suzanne Pharr capture the blend of values and intereststhat animate these debates, and have made enormously valuable contributionsto explaining the origins, meaning, and persistence of theChristian right.
This book extends their analyses, taking a somewhat different approach.Rather than focus upon the national rhetoric of Christianright organizations and the formal, organized manifestations of thesemovements, it looks at a single conflict in relation to a single place, asmall, not particularly significant community, tracing how a culturalconflict emerges in the context of everyday life. I was inspired inpart by Faye Ginsburg's book Contested Lives, which examines theabortion controversy in Fargo, North Dakota, and shows, throughthe experience of one community, the clashing social forces behindthe abortion debate in bold relief. To understand why women becomeactive on the issue, argues Ginsburg, one must understand themeaning that abortion, and motherhood, has for different groups ofwomen at a time when women's lives are rapidly changing. To understandwhy people became involved in a campaign against homosexuality,I show in this book, one must understand the different meaningsand associations evoked by homosexuality (and by implication, heterosexuality)in a particular place, and at a time when truths aboutgender, and also a host of other certainties, are being questioned.
THE MAKING OF US AND THEM
In a recent book about Yugoslavia's disintegration into warring ethnicfactions, author Michael Ignatieff tells a story about a Serbian militiamanwho is asked what he has against his former Croatian neighbors.The man looks scornful and takes a cigarette packet out of hisjacket. "See this? These are Serbian cigarettes." Over there, he says,gesturing out of the window, "they smoke Croatian cigarettes." Inother words, we are Serbians because we are not Croatians. A sense ofsimilarity among us rests upon a sense of difference from them.
What this story suggests is that in their everyday lives individualsmake countless decisions about who is a friend and who is an enemy,about who should be included in a particular community and whoshould not. People do things because they wish to protect an image ofwho they are in relation to the group of which they believe they are apart. We conceptualize the world into those who deserve inclusionand those who do not. Boundaries mark the social territories of humanrelations, signaling who ought to be admitted and who excluded.The desire to root out others in order to consolidate a sense ofself seems universal. How do human beings perceive one another asbelonging to the same group while at the same time rejecting humanbeings whom they perceive as belonging to another group? Why mustwe affirm ourselves by excluding others?
A community's boundaries remain a meaningful point of referencefor its members only as long as they are repeatedly tested by peoplewho are on the fringes of the group and repeatedly defended bythose within it. Sociologists tell us that in order to create a sense of socialorder, which all societies must establish, deviants are created andpunished. "Whenever a boundary line becomes blurred," writes KaiErikson, "the group members may single out and label as deviantsomeone whose behavior had previously gone unnoticed." The actof naming things that are dangerous demonstrates to those in thecommunity "just how awesome its powers really are." This clarifieswhat is acceptable and what is not, who belongs in the communityand who does not. Identities that had no political or even existentialsignificance can acquire a genuine hold as badges of group identityovernight. Though the making of collective identities and boundariesis always inherently political, at certain moments such processesbecome explicitly politicized.
Symbolic boundaries become more important during periods ofrapid social changewhen geo-social boundaries become less central.In colonial America, as communities grew and changed, someindividuals who were previously accepted as part of the group foundthemselves run out of it as hereticswitches. In Yugoslavia, as nationalunity collapsed, ethnic boundary drawing came to the fore.The more pressure there is on communities to change, it seems, themore vigorously boundaries are symbolized and conformity demanded.Clearly, the world is changing in many different ways, and ata rapid pace. In this country, during the past few decades, an unprecedentednumber of women have entered the workforce; the globalizationof the economy has made us less and less dependent upon a senseof place, economically and culturally. Even residents of small-townOregon, who consume media beamed from satellite dishes and workfor companies whose manufacturing operations are located in far-flungparts of the world, are subject to these and other modernizingprocesses.
During the past decade, huge geopolitical shifts have shaped U.S.political culture. The collapse of Communism destroyed the facelessenemy upon which our national identity had been based, and hadan enormous, largely unacknowledged impact upon the nation's senseof itself. The issue of "who is American" became more and moreunclear. It used to be that Americans defined themselves as not-Communists.But once Communists no longer posed a threat, thedrive to figure out the meaning of America became even more urgent.Communism was no longer a threat. What would replace the"other" against which American identity was defined? "A symbolicallycontrived sense of local similarity" writes Richard Jenkins, issometimes "the only available defense."
Historically, the right has drawn much of its strength, collectiveidentity, and legitimacy from its ability to construct a coherent,visible enemy and to demonize the "enemies within" in the nameof the imagined nation. As the old devilsCommunists, workingwomen, the counterculturelost their power, a new devil wasneededpreferably one that embodied the worst excesses of the permissivesociety, that transgressed sexual respectability, that seemedsufficiently outside the community to be alien, but that simultaneouslyrepresented familiar (and therefore doubly scary) urges thatwere accessible to anyone. How better to construct a sense of identity,the we, than by articulating a clear sense of what one abhorred? Howbetter to affirm one's purity than by getting rid of the dirt?
Sigmund Freud has noted that the compulsion to name and excludedangerous "others" may be more virulent the more similarthose others are to you; all likeness must be denied and difference exaggerated.He called this the "narcissism of small differences." Freudnoticed the ease with which larger cultural groups latch on to smallergroups or groups seen as social intruders, leading the English and theScots, North and South Germans, to turn against one another, ventingtheir aggressive impulses. He recognized how Jews have, historically,"rendered most useful services" throughout European historyby being a favorite target of violent aggression. For many centuriesthey were the "strangers" against which Europeans defined themselves.Familiar and yet unfamiliar, visible and yet facelessthey didnot fit easily into any of the established categories through whichpeople made sense of their world. These "others" who were not quite"other" caused confusion and anxiety, which made them particularlysusceptible to hateful passions, and efforts to clearly delimit "us" and"them."
Do lesbians and gays play a similar role in the contemporaryUnited States? I wondered. For many centuries, the philosopher MichelFoucault tells us, the boundaries separating the homosexual andheterosexual worlds were either weak or nonexistent; homosexualand heterosexual behavior existed side by side. There was not yet anunderstanding of homosexuals as a recognizable, definable categoryof people. With the emergence of sociosexual medical categories,this changed: homosexuals became understood as a distinct group ofindividuals, radically different from heterosexuals. The constructionof a "homosexual role," Mary McIntosh argues, "kept the bulk of societypure.
It's no wonder that a series of antigay campaigns rippled throughthe United States in the 1990s, when lesbians and gay men were becomingmore and more fully integrated into American life and theboundaries separating the homosexual and heterosexual worlds wereblurring.
Twenty years ago, I graduated from college, packed my bags, andmoved to the West Coast, fleeing from watchful parental eyes andhoping deep down to meet the girl of my dreams. I was certainly notalone. Tens of thousands of young people had migrated there beforeme in search of the great gay metropolis, that "imagined community"where people could act on their same-sex desires and receivesupport for doing so. But only a couple of decades before, same-sexbehavior was confined to the margins of society, in shadowy bars inmajor cities, or to secret, forbidden desires. Men and women possessingattractions for members of their sex were forced to keep themunder wraps lest they lose their jobs and their families.
But after years of living with the "culture of suspicion" whichdefined clear boundaries between the straight and gay worlds, and casthomosexuals into secretive double lives, in the 1960s and 1970s someactivists vowed to overturn the prevailing notion of "homosexualityas pollution." Gay liberationists attempted to "smash the categories":the boundaries separating heterosexuality and homosexuality were,they proclaimed, social illusions. For a brief moment, these ideascaught fire. Many people, influenced by the movement, were facedwith a choice about whether to be with women or with men. Thosewho had never entertained the idea of homosexuality were forced toscrutinize the nature of their attractions. The heterosexual imperativewas profoundly shaken.
These cultural shifts were not limited to increasing tolerance forsame-sex behavior. The twentieth century ushered profound changesin sexual and gender relations. Traditional bases of sexual authority,such as religion and family, weakened, individuals engaged in sex atearlier ages and outside of marriage, the double standard of sexualityeroded. The system of reproductive sexuality is declining. If the sixtiesgeneration affirmed the shift toward sexual liberalism, shakingthe foundations of traditional sexual morality, economic changes thatfreed individuals from the constraints of the family economy gave individualsunprecedented freedom to pursue their desires. A sexual seachange occurred: the very nature of intimacy was transformed.
Over time, gays openly intermingled with the heterosexualworld, began to see themselves as the moral equivalent of heterosexuals,and demanded rights on that basis. By the time I came of agein the 1980s, the American gay rights movement had become professionalized,sophisticated, mainstreamed, and wedded to a model ofgay "ethnicity." In an effort to strengthen the analogy between homosexualityand race, civil rights advocates presented scientific evidenceof the immutability of sexual orientation. Lesbians and gaymen emerged as a distinct interest group, wielding political actioncommittees, political clubs, and human rights organizations seekinggreater social and political integration. Homosexuality, once seen as asource of pollution, was becoming normalized.
In 1960, no cities or states in this country guaranteed equal rightsto gay men and lesbians. By 1997, eleven states and dozens of cities andcounties had passed laws protecting lesbians and gay men (and sometimesbisexuals and transgendered people) from various forms of discriminationbased on sexual orientation, and elsewhere gubernatorialexecutive orders and mayoral proclamations officially banned discrimination.As a result, by the end of the decade, more than one fifthof Americans lived in cities or counties providing some legal protections.Five states, including New York, offered domestic partner benefitsto gay and lesbian state employees.
Lesbians and gay men were also increasingly visible in Americansociety as happy, healthy homosexuals, and even began to crop up ontelevision sit-coms, in Hollywood films, and in popular music. By theearly 1990s, the vast majority of Americans, if not sexually liberal,were at least wary of extreme efforts to legislate sexual morality. SociologistAlan Wolfe, in a study of middle-class American attitudes,showed that while Americans are far from relativistic in their ownmoral views, they shrink from judging the private behavior of othersand dislike moralizing when they see it practiced. At the same time, amajority of the population still disapproved of homosexuality, exhibitingwhat Wolfe calls "soft homophobia." They believe that gays andlesbians should have rights, but objected to the belief that homosexualityis the moral equivalent of heterosexuality.
A survey that asked individuals to rank different social groups usinga "feeling thermometer" revealed that feelings toward gays andlesbians are "colder" than feelings for many other oppressed groups,including blacks and people on welfare, and "warmer" only than feelingsfor illegal aliensconfirming Urvashi Vaid's claim that lesbians,gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people in the United Stateshave been granted "virtual equality""a state of conditional equalitybased more on the appearance of acceptance by straight Americathan on genuine civic parity." Clearly, attitudes about homosexualitywere in flux.
Still, speaking openly about sexuality in many parts of this countryremained difficult. There were wonderful gay neighborhoods inmany cities, but straight people generally stayed away from them, exceptwhen tour buses stopped to gawk at the queers. Moreover, whilegay people were building a new home from the ground up, we hadmoved away from our families, our communitiesoften for verygood reasonsand to varying degrees we had lost our capacity tospeak their language. Perhaps that's why we had underestimated theextent to which many Americans felt threatened, and troubled, by thegrowing normalization of homosexuality.