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Dangerous popularity

What price have queers paid for gaining mainstream acceptance?

WAKE UP. The waters may cool sooner than you think. Credit: Mia Hansen

The progress gay men and lesbians have made during the 1990s is astonishing. Survey after survey has shown that the Canadian public is increasingly accepting the rights of lesbian and gay people.



Environics Research Group reports that in 1992, 35 percent of Canadians agreed that “society should regard people of the same sex who live together as being the same as a married couple.” Just six years later, 45 percent agreed with this statement. At this rate, a solid majority of Canadians will support gay equality within the next few years.



But the rapidity with which the general population has accepted gay and lesbian people is not without caveats. It’s a particular kind of acceptance, one which could backfire in the long run, if recent trends in the US are any indication.



How has homosexuality gone from being a taboo to an accepted part of the mainstream in such a short period of time? To answer this question, it helps to look at the roots of anti-gay sentiment.



Dr Gregory Herek, a psychologist at the University Of California At Davis, observes that people with the most anti-gay attitudes are those for whom homosexuality “stands as a proxy for all that is evil,” and that “such people see hating gay men and lesbians as a litmus test for being a moral person.” So it is not just homosexuality, but morality in general which is the issue.



In his book The Decline Of Deference: Canadian Value Change In Cross-National Perspective, the University Of Toronto’s Neil Nevitte observes that attitudes toward homosexuality are part of a broad fabric of values. He contends that the growing acceptance of homosexuality is one thread in a pattern of social values changes, not only in Canada, but in advanced industrial states around the world.



Attitudes toward homosexuality, professor Nevitte says, are part of a more general shift toward greater moral permissiveness.



Attitudes toward gay men and lesbians are changing, but so are attitudes toward institutions, communities and authority. People are detaching themselves from traditional institutions, communities and authorities, in favour of a greater focus on personal autonomy and self-fulfillment.



In recent decades, Nevitte and his colleagues have conducted several waves of a World Values Survey, and have found that the publics of Western Europe, the US and Canada are all becoming more tolerant of homosexuality. Of all the factors Nevitte studied, the greatest predictors of moral permissiveness are church attendance and religiosity.



“In other words,” he writes, “respondents with low church attendance rates, or who attach little importance to God in their lives, score higher on the moral permissiveness scale.”



So despite the fact that most of us can point to a few religious individuals who support gay equality, the general rule, all across the advanced industrial world, is that the more religious you are, the less likely you are to be tolerant of homosexuality.



Thus, it is not surprising that in Canada, where church attendance has plummeted in recent years (from 60 percent weekly attendance in 1957, to about 30 percent today), acceptance of gay men and lesbians has grown rapidly, whereas in the US, where church attendance and belief in God remains robust, tolerance lags.



In a July 1998 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll, a majority of Americans, 54 percent, said homosexuality is a sin. Only 38 percent disagreed.



But given overall declining religiosity and rising individualism, the temptation is for gay men and lesbians to say, “Great, the more individualism the better.” It makes sense to detach ourselves from institutions that have historically failed to accept, or even actively condemned us, such as churches and governments.



But ’90s-style mainstream support for gay rights is the positive side of a double-edged sword. The very nature of the social change that has brought progress in rights for gay men and lesbians – growing individualism – has created other difficulties. The increased individualism has often come at the expense of a shared sense of community. And community is exactly what gay and lesbian people will need more than ever in the coming century.



Over the past two decades there have also been increases in the proportions of people agreeing that most public officials are not interested in the problems of the average person (up from 64 percent to 74), that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance (up from 31 percent to 39) and that you can’t be too careful when dealing with people (up from 56 percent to 61). As well, there have been extensively documented declines in confidence in almost all institutions and figures of authority.



On the positive side, growing individualism means that people are more inclined to let others do their own thing, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect them – an attitude that has benefited gay men and lesbians. On the negative side, it also means that they often simply identify less with others.



This results in a seeming paradox. While the most individualistic people generally harbour egalitarian ideals, these are not being translated into practice. For example, there is a widening divide between the rich and the poor, burgeoning child poverty and increasing environmental degradation.



Growing individualism has rendered collective action, whether by gays and lesbians, environmentalists or other groups, increasingly difficult. For the most part, people have become more suspicious of large organizations, including unions and governments, don’t trust them to protect their interests, and are unwilling to defer to their recommendations. One of this country’s smartest thinkers, Naomi Klein, considers these challenges in her new book No Logo: Solutions For A Sold Planet.



As ordinary citizens have become less engaged in the institutions of government, large corporations have been only too happy to fill the vacuum. One of the trends we have seen in the ’90s is governments increasingly capitulating to, rather than regulating, business, for example in the case of environmental protection. While increasing proportions of people are willing to take individual action to help protect the environment, the reality is that individuals can recycle till the cows come home, and it will mean little unless collective action is taken to prevent corporate polluters, whose capacity to pollute is limitless and increasingly unregulated.



While growing individualism has been of great benefit to gay men and lesbians, this will not necessarily be the case in the future. Eroding communities and an increase in agenda-setting by large corporations could make us very vulnerable. There are also signs that there might be a backlash against individualism.



Daniel Yankelovich, a leading social values researcher in the United States, says that now Americans are “struggling to hang on to the benefits of expressive individualism, while being faithful to fundamental moral truths.” By fundamental moral truths, of course, what is meant is Christianity. Despite the retreat of religious belief almost everywhere in the advanced industrial world, the United States remains exceptionally religious.



Fundamentalist Protestantism in particular is growing, especially in the US, and it is both individualistic and viscerally anti-gay. The US attempt to marry some aspects of modern individualism with evangelical fervour has resulted in a veritable Christian Frankenstein culture, trying to attach Jesus to everything but the kitchen sink. Witness some recent titles appearing on US bookshelves: Jesus CEO, The Management Methods Of Jesus, Succeeding in Business Without Losing Your Faith, How To Get Rich By The Book and The People Skills Of Jesus.



Gay theologians can go through verbal acrobatics trying to explain away Biblical passages which condemn homosexuality, but for as long as they remain in the Bible – that is, forever – the “good book” will remain a major source of hatred against homosexuals. The fact is that, at the end of the ’90s, Christian belief still remains the top predictor of anti-gay attitudes in the Western world.



This is not at all to condemn spirituality. In fact it is probable that some sort of spiritual beliefs are necessary or helpful for the creation of new communities. But it may be that we require Athena or Aphrodite rather than the Judeo-Christian god, and New Aquarius rather than New Testament.



Now the challenge is to consider how we are going to establish new senses of community, which differ significantly from the authoritarian, hierarchical ones of the past.



There are signs that people are getting politically involved. But they are getting involved in organizations which are not based on class conflict, traditional political parties or unions with broad agendas. Rather, they are participating in smaller groups focussed on more narrow and particular goals, and where it is easier to forge consensus about aims and means.



As gay philosopher Michel Foucault writes in the preface to the book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism And Schizophrenia, “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to ‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.”



Recent talk of “the reconstitution of social order” suggests that if gay men and lesbians do not help create new, modern senses of community, others may come up with definitions without us, possibly to our detriment and from which we are excluded.