Umbrage as War by Other Means

The right way to fight for gay rights is not to treat gays as though they're too fragile for public discourse.
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Liberal values are easy to profess. Adhering to them is a different matter. When Slate launched Outward, its LGTBQ section, editors J. Bryan Lowder and June Thomas expressed pride in "the unique, provocative contributions our gay and straight writers have made," and professed their commitment to pluralism and diversity:

"...This won’t be just another one-note, mainstream 'gay news' blog. Being made of the same ornery stuff as the rest of Slate, Outward will be a haven for passionate expressions of underrepresented and controversial points of view that we hope will make you think, make you cry, and even make you mad, all in the service of expanding the limits of the this big queer conversation. If it’s not clear already, that conversation includes anyone who wants in, even if they don’t have a gay bone in their body. (emphasis added)

The section's tagline: "Expanding the LGBTQ conversation."

Reading Lowder's critique of my recent work, however, I think the editors have fallen short of their commitmentsHere it is:

This implies that there's something untoward and noteworthy about a straight man participating in the debate about Mozilla's CEO, a position the ensuing article fleshes out. Had I argued that Brendan Eich ought to be fired, Lowder would've had no objection to "a straight man" explaining his reasoning. Instead, I argued that opposition to gay marriage alone shouldn't cause someone to be forced from a job, a case that I addressed to everyone—not just gays, as implied by the headline, which also begs a significant question core to the debate.  

What comes after the headline is even more problematic. Alongside some sharp writing and reasoned arguments, Lowder leans heavily on left-wing shaming tactics. Even worse, he unwittingly perpetuates some objectionable stereotypes about gay people—in part by failing to acknowledge the diversity of gay opinion, and more perniciously by casting gays as fragile victims whose capacity for logic is overwhelmed by emotion.

He goes so far as to imply that the position of gay critics of Mozilla stems from a lack of "energy and emotional reserves" rather than their considered judgment. In his telling, straights should tiptoe around gays in public discourse as a result. Meanwhile, he characterizes my aversion to forced resignations for Proposition 8 donors as a "pluralism fetish," as if my stance is exotic. Tens of millions of people likely share it. Many in the LGBTQ community share it. Are we all fetishists?

Lowder apparently believes that my approach to public discourse is disrespectful to that community. And I, in turn, believe that my approach is grounded in deep respect for gays, who deserve to be treated as equal participants in public discourse, no different from any other human being. Perhaps Lowder believes that too, and doesn't see how his suggested approach would consign gays to unequal treatment. Perhaps I can persuade him that he's made an innocent but grave error.

* * *

Let's begin with Adam Hersh, an email correspondent who responded to my initial article on Mozilla with a thoughtful dissent that I subsequently published at The Atlantic. "I'm a long-time reader, occasional commenter, and big fan of your writing," he wrote. "I also happen to be gay. I've been closely following your series of posts on stigmatizing opposition to same-sex marriage, because I strongly believe in the value of such a stigma, and I want to see the strongest argument against my position—something you can be counted on to provide" (my emphasis).

He proceeded to lay out his position.

Now, it seems to me that I showed respect to this reader by publishing his lengthy dissent in The Atlantic, praising his thoughtfulness, and providing the strongest argument I could against his position, exactly fulfilling a request that he made. 

Here is how Lowder characterized that rebuttal:

... it’s worth considering what it means for a straight man to be telling gay people that we should be willing to “live and work alongside people who support policies we believe to be deeply damaging and unjust.” Honestly, if I had a higher regard for brevity, I’d call that piece, in which he condescendingly explains to a gay reader how gays should go about getting their equality, the most egregious, cringe-inducing example of straight-splaining I have ever encountered and call it a day.

My correspondent disagrees.

And let's make a few other things clear. The necessity of living and working alongside people who support policies we believe to be unjust is obvious, and is not at all particular to gays. Lowder's readers would know I thought so if he'd quoted me in context.* And my work on the Mozilla controversy is not a case of a straight man "telling gay people" anything. My thoughts on stigma were addressed to a general readership, in large part because waging the most just, effective possible campaign for gay equality ought to be a human project, not a gay or straight project. 

I did not take a "straight" position that I was explaining to gays. I took a position shared by many gays and straights alike, and articulated it on behalf of all of them. I took a position opposed by many gays and straights too, and tried to change their minds. 

That brings me to the tired charge of "straight-splaining."

Wikipedia defines mansplaining, a useful term before its shameless bastardization, as follows:

Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words "man" and "explaining" that describes the act of a man speaking to a woman with the assumption that she knows less than he does about the topic being discussed on the basis of her gender... Mansplaining is different from other forms of condescension because mansplaining is rooted in the assumption that, in general, a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman.

The offensiveness of that assumption is what gave "mansplaining" its negative connotation. "Straightsplaining," used properly, would constitute a straight person implicitly condescending to a gay person by assuming straights are more likely to be knowledgeable than gays on a given subject. My opinion pieces on marriage equality and stigma in no way state, imply, or assume that straights are more knowledgeable than gays on any subject. In order to deploy the term, and to exploit its negative connotation, Lowder must twist its meaning—as he uses it, the term might be defined as "a straight person commenting on anything related to the LGBTQ community in a way at odds with progressive orthodoxies on the subject."

The progressive position and the position of gays is inevitably conflated, disappearing the many gays who are not progressives. The term "straightsplaining" is never applied to arguments that concur with progressive orthodoxies.

Lowder verges on treating these progressive orthodoxies as if they're the official gay position by attributing to "straight privilege" a stance that lots of gay people share. 

Says Lowder:

...What Friedersdorf’s privilege as a heterosexual leads him to miss is the fact that actual gay people—people who have been sexually and emotionally traumatized since childhood, who have had to listen to people like him civilly debate their worth as human beings for decades, who have more often been made to account for themselves than been able to demand an accounting of the violations committed against them—may very well be just a little too exhausted with bigotry of all stripes to engage in well-mannered chit-chat. Indeed, it seems the height of privilege blindness to schoolmarm gays about how to engage their aggressors when Friedersdorf, in point of fact, has no idea what omnipresent psychological torture feels like. 

Wow.

Imagine if, over dinner with one of my editors, I said, "I have strong opinions about a debate that touches on LGBTQ issues, but I'm not going to write about it, or engage the subset of gay writers I disagree with, because I assume that all their lives they've been subject to omnipresent psychological torture, and they're too fragile and exhausted to be engaged and treated like I would a straight person. I can't expect them to use logic or have manners after all they've been through."

That would be pernicious, prejudicial condescension. 

In point of fact, I have not exhibited "blindness" to the horrific traumas many gay people have endured in America, though I of course have not experienced it personally. I've reported on those traumas. I've written about managing Andrew Sullivan's email, and seeing the "intensely personal missives of hyper-sexualized hate" sent by anti-gay bigots. Debating Mozilla, I read many emails from gay readers, publishing a sampling of the ones that detailed the very realities I'm supposed to have missed. My approach to public discourse isn't due to my missing anything.

What I have done, when engaging with gay interlocutors, is to engage them exactly as I'd engage anyone else because I respect them as equals, as everyone should.   

The bastardized version of "_____splaining" that's abused daily by a subset of progressives is pernicious because its practical effect is to pressure straight people, whites, and males to engage less with gays, women, and people of color; to withdraw from conversations about gay equality, sexism, and racism; to assume a stereotypical notion of what people from these groups think, as if they all think the same thing; to show them the false respect of assumed victim status.  

At his best, Lowder does great work. And Slate is a magazine with tremendously talented writers and editors. I'm a huge fan. But I wish that articles like the one I'm critiquing here didn't appear on a blog that professes itself to be a "haven" for "controversial points of view," beneath the tagline, "Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation." From the headline on down, the author hedges his attempt to engage on the merits with tactics meant to police and narrow the conversation, not to expand it.

The illiberal impulse behind his approach is laid bare at the article's end, when Lowder adopts the pronoun "we" as if he speaks for "most" gays**, explaining that they reserve the right "to get a little nonviolent justice, even a little retributive succor, when we can."

"All’s fair in love and war," he continues, "and until our love is no longer the subject of debate, reasonable or otherwise, this war isn’t over."

It isn't ultimately that he and I disagree about how the pen should be used. It's that he'd prefer to use the sword.


*"I don't think America would be a better place if everyone who felt strongly that a policy was unjust began trying to get everyone on the other side fired from jobs in unrelated fields. America is divided on Iraq. It is divided on abortion. It is divided about the drug war, capital punishment, healthcare, Guantanamo Bay, and NSA surveillance. Shall we live and work alongside people who support policies we believe to be deeply damaging and unjust? Or should all cooperation cease with the impure?"

**He doesn't

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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