Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Uncle Tom's Closet (Part 1)

(Uncle Tom's Closet is a three part series that describes the phenomenon of politically powerful gay people who actively oppose the rights and freedoms of gay people.)

Back in February John and I sat in the Indiana senate chamber balcony along with his mom, our friend Duane and his two kids listening to a senate committee decide whether or not the legislature should move forward with a constitutional amendment that would deny our family the legal protections of marriage (See Hope in the Indiana Statehouse).

At one point in the debate, a young black pastor expressed anger that same-sex couples would describe their struggle in terms of the civil rights battles black people have faced. In his opinion, homosexual people were engaging in “learned perversion,” thus eliminating the need to defend their rights. Based on my own experience, I don't believe in “gay school.” The civil rights comparison does, however, warrant a closer look.

The civil rights struggle for black people has been painful and complex. Historically, its challenges ranged from not having the rights and benefits of marriage to the person of their choice during the 20th century to the 19th century problem of being legally classified as a piece of property, like a voiceless chair or mule, to be used, moved, sold or destroyed as the owner saw fit. It is the former analogy that most obviously applies in the case of gay Americans today. To literally compare the struggle for marriage protections with that of legally becoming a person is ludicrous and infuriating to people with ancestors who once suffered under slave laws.

The saga of slavery in the U.S., however, has created a shocking historical record as well as a pantheon of literary characters that have stayed in common cultural use since that time. The titular hero of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is a frequently invoked archetype. Tom is a faithful, kind-hearted servant to his masters, including the bitterly abusive Simon Legree. Though Tom has every reason to pursue his own freedom and work against Legree's purposes, he chooses to stay and work for him. A sense of moral purpose animates the slave to keep intact the prison that holds him.

“Uncle Tom”, “Tomming”, and “acting white” are now some of the vernaculars used to identify a black person who supports systems that suppress racial equality in general-conservative Judge Clarence Thomas and former senator Alan Keyes have received this designation in the past for advocating policies that work against much of the black community while bettering the position of white people. An Uncle Tom may be motivated by internalized self-loathing, self-preservation or advancement, or a subversive desire to work against the oppressive system from within. At times, a combination of all three factors may be at play.

But is Tomming limited to the black experience? As an out gay man it is perhaps too easy for me to forget that part of my own coming out process included Tomming in the straight community. At a young age I would join in malicious exploitation of gay stereotypes. I worked very hard to hide my true identity in an effort to assimilate into predominately straight crowds. During my time in an ex-gay ministry, which for all practical purposes was an Uncle Tom training camp, I owned up to my same-sex attractions while working to convince myself and others that gay people can and should become heterosexual. For some, myself included, Tomming can be a transition stage on the way to embracing larger truths.

As gay people struggle to gain the same rights to protect their families that straight people have, an influential and dangerous kind of Tomming is becoming more visible, that of highly influential political closet cases. Over the next three days I will describe a variety of gay politicos who ironically have worked very hard to limit the rights and freedoms of gay people.

Today's public figure is Mayor Jim West (R), Spokane, WA

From The Advocate (5/05)
… West confirmed to the newspaper that he offered gifts, favors, and a City Hall internship during chat sessions on Gay.com to a man he believed was 18 but who was actually a forensic computer expert working for The Spokesman-Review. On Thursday, West said he will not resign. He confirmed that he'd pursued relationships with men in person and online…

… The Spokesman-Review said "JMSElton" was a screen name West used. Punctuation is as it appeared in the messages.

From a February 26 conversation using instant messaging:

JMSElton: "Remember, Im very closeted. No one knows I like guys. Except the few guys Ive been with and highly trusted."

JMSElton: "Its just that the openly gay guys are a little over the top for me. I dont really like the in-your-face attitude some guys have. And the massive political agenda either. I say live and let live. Most gay guys turn me off, too."

Their third online chat, again using instant messaging, occurs March 8. When JMSElton asks for a picture, Moto-Brock sends a random photo of a young, dark-haired, athletic-looking man.

JMSElton: "I could never be into the gay scene with its politics and all. Ive just seen too many guys decide once they come out that it becomes everyone elses problem to deal with. Im not into femmy guys."

JMSElton: "Its our secret here."

The two chat online again March 8 and then March 9. JMSElton says he's going to Washington, D.C., on business and mentions taking a couple of high school interns with him on a business trip there years earlier.

Moto-Brock: "Ohhhhh. You are killing me here. I want an internship! So I can go to DC."

JMSElton tells Moto-Brock he has a friend who might be able to get the teen an internship…

… West has strongly opposed gay rights during his political career. He supported a bill that would have barred gays and lesbians from working for schools, day care centers, and some state agencies. That bill failed. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed, banning same-sex marriage. And for years he helped to block a bill that would prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and insurance.

If West does not want gay people to be professional teachers and child-care workers, his issues obviously go past those he has with “femmy guys” and the “massive agenda.” In fact, he has been accused (not yet convicted) of abusing underage boys.

People are not typically in the closet because they are models of emotional and relational health. Identity suppression and inappropriate shame create dangerous emotional by-products. Perhaps West's political positions stem from an assumption that all gay men are, like him, interested in relationships with 18 year-old boys (West is 54). Is it because his perspective is limited to the Internet, his own youth-focused sexual relationships, and the young people he has manipulated in the past? Or are his attempts to limit opportunities for gay people in youth-related careers an attempt to deflect attention from his own same-gender and youth-oriented attractions?

“Dr. Troy's” Prescription: (I'm not really a doctor)

*West needs some time on the couch to speak honestly and openly about his same-gender attraction.

*He also needs a therapist's help to look a little more closely at his desire to pursue people 36 years younger than he. Even if such relationships are legal, there is likely an imbalance of relational power that could be damaging to the less empowered person (Ali G would call such relationships “barely legal”).

*Step away from the Internet (at least for awhile). If West continues to pursue a conservative agenda at the expense of the rights of gay people, he should still develop healthy relationships with other same-sex attracted people who could perhaps at least give him a more realistic idea of the concerns gay citizens have. Log Cabin Republicans could be helpful here. West's one-dimensional stereotype of the gay community might broaden a little, too.

Coming Tomorrow: Former Congressman Ed Schrock (R-VA) and Robert Traynham, senior aide to Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA)


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