Just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a historic and rather ballsy speech to the United Nations calling for the humane treatment of LGBT citizens worldwide, Jim Downs, Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College wrote an article at The Huffington Post Gay Voice entitled, “Hillary Clinton Is Not Helping the Gay Civil Rights Movement.” In the article, Downs basically says that because Clinton’s speech has endangered LGBTs around the world because it revved up the anti-gay right; he basically suggests that she never should have made it. As one commenter notes, by that rational, Martin Luther King should never have made the “I Have A Dream” speech, because it angered racists.
Before we pile onto him, let us say this: Downs’ article makes good points about how many same-sex loving cultures don’t identify themselves as “gay” and that Clinton’s speech comes at a time when the U.S. continues to abuse and mistreat its own LGBT citizens. But the good parts of his article basically end there. The history professor’s biggest beef with the speech is that he worries it basically reconfirms the foreign conception that homosexuality is a Western export and that Clinton’s speech suddenly injected gay issues into the 2012 elections (as if):
Actually, being gay is a Western invention. Homosexuality has a long history that begins in the West. Cultures throughout the world may have had people who have over time engaged in same-sex sex but that’s different from the historical categorization of “being gay.” People only started “being gay” about a century ago. Prior to that, men may have had sex with men, and women may have had sex with women, but that was not being gay—that was sex and sometimes love. Gay is an identity that came into fashion at the turn of the twentieth century in the West. Today, there is not a single definition for “being gay” even in the United States, let alone throughout the world. In the United States, what it means to be gay in New York City is very different from what it means to be gay in Pierre, South Dakota. Same-sex sex is different from “being gay.” Take, for example, in the United States the notion of being on the “down low,” refers to men who live “heterosexual lives,” but also have sex with men. They don’t call themselves “gay,” neither do the thousands of men who visit porn and Internet hookup sites, who are looking for sex with “straight jocks.”
This is all to say that while Clinton wants to do the right thing and make a noble statement about people being beaten and tortured for their sexual choices, she invariably and unwittingly propagates many contradictions and posits a familiar strand of American cultural imperialism…
Re-enter Rick Perry. Throughout his attack on the Obama administration, he consistently refers to gay people as a “lifestyle.” What is in a word? Nothing if you are not in that “lifestyle,” but everything if you are. Clinton’s clumsy language enables Perry to get even clumsier. It also allows him to open the door and let the religious right and the Tea Party loose on gay people. Clinton is worried about violence against gays abroad, but how does Perry’s language provoke the religious right to launch a crusade against “gay” Americans at home? Perry exclaims, “Investing tax dollars to promote a lifestyle many Americas of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong.” In the stroke of a sentence, Perry calls on Tea Party advocates with his references to “tax dollars” and he summons the religious right with his reference to “faith.” All of which ends up with both groups tying gay people to the whipping posts in a symbolic gesture to broaden the Republican base. Put another, gay people once again reenter the election season as a political football in order to rally the right against the left.
So basically, Downs wanted Clinton to spend her time at the U.N. discussing semantics instead of using language that’s pretty much universally accepted to refer to people who experience same-sex attraction. He has also apparently been living under a rock and is under the impression that until yesterday the Republicans, Rick Perry and the religious right had stopped political attacks on LGBTs. Right…
Luckily, John Aravosis quickly responded to call Downs out on his crap:
Gay people have existed in the historical record since possibly as early as 9000 BC. Why in a million years would anyone want to say otherwise, especially knowing that this notion of “being gay is a Western invention” is exactly the kind of argument African legislators and dictators are using to justify the incarceration, torture and murder of their own gay and trans people?…
And I’m not even going to touch the “American cultural imperialism” crap. She was staking out the most pro-gay position ever promoted by an American administration in the most public way ever. And she was trying to help some poor gay kids in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Nigeria not get hanged, or worse, for being gay. Under Downs’ definition, all human rights must be cultural imperialism, since per se one country is telling another how to live. And as I recall, that in fact is the definition the Soviets and the Communist Chinese prefer(red), for obvious reasons…
Any time anyone does anything pro-gay you’d better believe the religious right is going to strike back. But that’s hardly a justification for not doing anything at all. They’re going to hate us, and beat on us, regardless of whether we fight for our rights. So we might as well.
LGBT blogger Alvin McEwen summed up the problem with Downs more succinctly: “Downs is way off base in his piece and whether he realizes it or not, he is causing more harm than Clinton’s speech. She told us that we are human beings. He is telling us that we should be cowards.”
We’re gonna give Professor Downs the benefit of the doubt and simply assume that he was trying to write a counter-intuitive response to Clinton’s laudable speech in an earnest attempt to generate critical discussion about American gay issues and queer identity around the world. But his article ends up nothing more than an academic exercise, deconstructing an idea without offering any alternative—something far worse than actually standing up for the right thing, consequences be damned.
Image via Connecticut College