Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Turning Jewish

Standing in line to buy coffee today, I found myself behind an increasingly common form of annoyance: the "bumper sticker gay." Buttons on the girl's backpack included "OUT and proud of it!," "God loves me, just ask her" and (my fav) "Vagina Friendly."

I'm always interested in why people feel the need to wear their beliefs in short slogans on their cars and clothes. What can she have been thinking when she parted with money to buy these things to put on her backpack for all to see? Was she trying to promote tolerance for gays? It's possible, I suppose. But if she feels safe wearing them in public, surely her community is already tolerant enough? More to the point, how is seeing a button on a backpack expected to be a life-changing event for anyone? It's like those billboards on the highway that say "Jesus Saves!" Well, great, maybe He does at that. I've never personally seen any evidence, but maybe the people who put up the sign know something I don't. But surely the Lord God of All Creation, Maker of Heaven and Earth, isn't interested in saving people so impressionable that they would offer up their Immortal Soul ® after spotting a billboard? Likewise, I can't believe that anyone who truly has it in for homos needs but one glance at a button to give up his bigoted ways and embrace the path of tolerance and acceptance.

In any case, the confrontational nature of her buttons says it's probably not about promoting tolerance. Take "Vagina Friendly." Great, I guess - but what's so special about this that it needs advertising? I consider myself pretty vagina-friendly, really - as do something like 97% of all males. Throw the lesbians into the mix, and you've got roughly half of the human population in that category. Not to mention, it's probably safe to assume that heterosexual girls aren't vagina-unfriendly, particularly - just sexually uninterested. Really, when all's said and done, there's only a sliver of the population (gay males and truly hardcore misogynists) who are vagina-averse, -unfriendly, or -hostile. So what's with the display?

Or how about the one that says "God loves me, just ask her." Obviously that's meant to be insulting to the beliefs of any fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who think God hates fags. And as far as that goes, fair enough. What makes it annoying to the rest of us is the oh-so-clever use of the pronoun "her" for "God." I'll lay my cards on the table and say I've always been skeptical of the argument that using "he" as a universal pronoun promotes belief in male superiority. For one thing, the pronoun is used in all situations where gender is ambiguous - gods and doctors as well as thieves and swindlers. For another, it's traditional usage, and reimaginings of traditional concepts never seem to suffer from the labels they're assigned in other cases. The label "Grammar School" didn't stop elementary school curricula from expanding beyond basic reading and writing, after all. Nor does the fact that we call our language "English" give people from England exclusive say over how it is spoken. But the point here is surely that this girl, and the people who made the button, made a conscious decision to use the pronoun "she" over something neutral like simply repeating "God" or using "them." The intention doesn't seem to be to fight sexist assumptions that God is male so much as to explicitly assert that God is female. More than that, there's a subtle suggestion that, being female, we can take it as a given that God loves women. (The case for this explicitly-female God loving men would seem to require more argument.) And since it's safe to say that the manufacturer of the button knows as well as the rest of us that getting God to unequivocally express an opinion about anything is a bit more complicated than "just asking," it's hard to see that there's any other point to this than to throw the bigoted pronoun in our faces.

In short, what we have is an egregious example of identity politics on display. What these buttons say, in short, is that the only thing that this girl would like us to know about her, standing in line at the coffee shop, is that she's a lesbian. She wants to make sure we know it, in fact. And I do know it - couldn't help but know it.

All this reminds me of an article I once read on the supposed anti-semitism of H.L. Mencken. The article is a response to charges brought up in a recent biography. In most cases, the author of the article (R. W. Bradford) makes his point. Mencken's style was nothing if not acerbic, but there's little of actual substance to indicate that he disliked Jews as a group. What he objected to, really, was the tendency of certain Jews to wear their Jewish identity on their sleeve - to advertise it to the point where you had to take them as Jews first and individuals second. Responding to a passage in which the author of the biography uses a falling out Mencken had with one of his Jewish friends over Hitler as evidence, Bradford writes:

Finally, Teachout identifies as convincing evidence of Mencken's anti-Semitism "the language he used to criticize Jewish friends," whose "crime," Mencken said, was to have "turned Jewish on me." But Mencken wasn't accusing his friends of a "crime." The actual passage from Mencken's memoirs is this: "Goodman and I became friends almost immediately, and remained so until the shattering impact of Hitler made him turn Jewish on me."* The emphasis on Hitler, and the background of Mencken's long-standing isolationism, help to clarify his meaning.

In other words, the falling-out had nothing to do with the fact of Goodman's being a Jew. It happened when Goodman became so adamant about his belief that the US should go to war with Hitler that he could no longer tolerate Mencken's isolationism. It happened, in other words, when his devotion to Jewish identity politics became more important than the friendship.

That's what's going on with these buttons. They're a display that says "nothing is more important to me than being gay. If you aren't as thrilled about it as I am, please don't even talk to me." Or maybe they say "please say something bigoted so I can express some righteous indignation." In any case, it's clear that we're supposed to take this girl as gay first and an individual second.

A professor of mine once joked that his favorite Christian Fundamentalist bumper sticker was the one that says "In case of the Rapture, this vehicle will be pilotless." -- because "It assumes mine won't be." Just like this girl assumes that most of the people around her are not "vagina friendly," or that they will be shocked to see that someone thinks of God as unambiguously female (and feminist). She's not promoting tolerance with her buttons any more than Christian Fundamentalists are spreading their religion with their billboards. All it is, really, is smug.

I feel the same way about gays that Mencken seems to have felt about Jews. It isn't homosexuality per se that bothers me, just like it wasn't Judaism per se that bothered Mencken. But homosexuals who need me to know before I've even met them not only that they're gay, but also what they assume I think about that? The world can do with fewer of them.

This isn't just a matter of annoying buttons. An editorial in the paper today reminded me how far this stuff has a tendency to go. Apparently IU has a special support office just for GLBT people. Great. More of my fees spent on things that don't concern me. I really fail to see how identity issues that gay people deal with are a problem that the university as an institution needs to address? Can't concerned gays start a volunteer service for this on their own time? As far as I know, gays are a small percentage of the overall population. It depends greatly on how the numbers are done, of course, but virtually no study that counts "dominant sexual orientation" (as opposed to, say, "some homosexual encounter since puberty") as the criterion finds numbers above 4%. An entire support services center for problems that really only affect 4% of the campus? That hardly seems a fair use of university resources. And just so I'm not misunderstood: I'm all for tearing down the Black Culture Center and the Asian Student Center too.

This stuff has got to stop. Identity politics builds more walls than it tears down. If gays want acceptance, there are many ways to go about getting it. Wearing confrontational buttons that label you before someone has even met you isn't one of them.


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