There is one more thing that’s bothered me about the response to the Foley scandal, some of which I noted in a previous post. It probably stems from the fact that I’ve been reading my review copy of Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches in which Horace Griffin, while clearly stating that the experiences of African Americans and lesbian & gay Americans are not the same, makes a convincing case for the temptation for some minority groups to “do unto others” what was done unto them, upon attaining some degree of equality or equal treatment for themselves.
I began to see the developing responses of the anti-gay crowd to the Foley affair, mentioned in the previous post, in a different light. So, when I revisited Ben Stein’s statement, I found myself agreeing with Jim Burroway about the libelous nature of Stein’s comments.
Let’s review Stein’s comments.
We have a Republican man in Congress who sent e-mails to teenage boys asking them what they were wearing, and an entire party, the Democrats, whose primary constituency, besides the teachers’ unions, is homosexual men and lesbian women. I hope it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that a big part of male homosexual behavior is interest in young boys. (Take a look at anyone renting Endless Summer next time you are at the video store.)
That Stein wraps up with “but some of my best friends are gay,” without a hint of irony suggests that he doesn’t “get it, ” but Jim states it pretty plainly.
We will see many attempts to link pedophilia with homosexuality in the next several weeks. Like the famous “blood libel” that Ben Stein’s ancestors suffered under, this libel is not likely to go away anytime soon.
Yeah. He said “blood libel,” because there was a time when people believed that Jews were a threat to children, as this article lays out.
University of Chicago historian George Chauncey documented in Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality that the claim homosexuals recruit children and the stereotype of them as child molesters are relatively new and grew out of the anxious years following the Second World War, when communists, criminal syndicates, and other half-invisible specters seemed to threaten the nation and when demonic new stereotypes of homosexuals were created and backed by government sanctions. … The old tropes of anti-Semitic rhetoric … were especially influential in shaping depictions of homosexuals. … And like Jews, they were depicted as a threat to children. In the most dangerous element of this new image, the escalation of antigay policing was accompanied, inspired, and justified by press and police campaigns that fomented stereotypes of homosexuals as child molesters.
The linking of Jews and child molestation dates from the early medieval period in Europe. By the late Middle Ages, it was “common knowledge” as portrayed in the tale Chaucer’s Prioress told on the way to Canterbury.
But there was something else that still seemed to bother me. It wasn’t until I recalled this Malcontent post about black conservative blogger LaShaw Barber’s remarks about John Mark Karr (remember him?) appearing to be a “homosexual pedophile,” and remembered the conflict this year over a gay bar opening in a predominantly black D.C. neighborhood that included concerns about the well being and safety of children at a nearby school, it occurred to me that the hysteria has a familiar ring to it.
This factsheet states it pretty simply in the opening paragraph.
Members of disliked minority groups are often stereotyped as representing a danger to the majority society’s most vulnerable members. Historically, Black men in the United States were often falsely accused of raping White women, and commonly lynched as a result. Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices.
One of the strongest arguments that Griffin makes in his book is that black Christian (specific to his subject) antipathy towards homosexuality is directly related in part to the sexual stereotypes that were used to dehumanize African Americans, deny them their civil rights, and in some cases deny them (men in particular) the right to life.
There was one, probably familiar to many, for black men.
The brute caricature portrays Black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially White women. Charles H. Smith, a writer at the end of the 1890s, claimed, “A bad negro is the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless.”
And one for black women as well.
The portrayal of Black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, White women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but Black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of Black women is signified by the name Jezebel.
The roots of both are pretty deep.
The belief that Blacks are sexually lewd predates the institution of slavery in America. European travelers to Africa found scantily clad natives. This semi nudity was misinterpreted as lewdness. White Europeans, locked into the racial ethnocentrism of the 17th century, saw African polygamy and tribal dances as proof of the African’s uncontrolled sexual lust. Europeans were fascinated by African sexuality. William Bosman described the Black women on the coast of Guinea as “fiery” and “warm” and “so much hotter than the men.” William Smith described African women as “hot constitution’d Ladies” who “are continually contriving stratagems how to gain a lover.” The genesis of anti-Black sexual arch types emerged from the writings of these and other Europeans: the Black male as brute and potential rapist; the Black woman, as Jezebel whore.
The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of “the lusty Moor,” and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving Blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that Blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and animal-like sexually. Whites used racist and sexist ideologies to argue that they alone were civilized and rational, whereas Blacks, and other people of color, were barbaric and deserved to be subjugated.
Those same colonialists, according to Byron Fone in Homophobia: A History and Jonathan Katz in Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., those same colonialists also wrote of same-sex activity among the people they colonized (which they met with harsh punishment, upon discovery).
Against her brother’s warning, Flora, the delicate young Cameron daughter, cheerfully ventures alone to the spring to fetch water in a bucket. By a fence, an emancipated former house servant/slave – the inflamed, lusty Negro “renegade” Gus (Walter Long) notices her. At the spring, Flora dips her bucket in the water as he follows her path in the forest. From his hiding place in the underbrush, he watches her sitting on a log, where she gestures and plays with a squirrel (in closeup). A closeup of his face displays an ominous look. However, he approaches (with hope) and confronts her with the news that he is now a distinguished military officer and ready for marriage:
Gus: (touching his uniform hat) You see, I’m a Captain now – and I want to marry -.
When he takes her hand as a gesture, she slaps him, jumps over a log, and runs off. He pursues her after the rejection and chases her through a sun-splattered pine-forested area (with dramatic, natural contrasts of light and shadow). In the meantime, to heighten tension, there are cross-cuts to scenes of Ben being notified of Flora’s errand at the house, and his efforts to reach her in the forest (he retraces their steps through familiar settings). As he chases after her, Gus reassures Flora:
Wait, missie, I won’t hurt yeh.
After a long and exciting pursuit sequence (involving all three characters: Ben, Flora, and Gus), Flora scrambles higher and higher up a rocky cliff. As Gus approaches closer toward her and gestures for her to come down, she turns and repeatedly threatens him: “Stay away or I’ll jump.” With arms outstretched, Flora appears to lose her balance and she falls off the cliff – seen from a long shot. [It could be interpreted that she committed suicide by jumping or leaping off the cliff to her tragic death, to avoid being raped and suffer dishonor, but it is more likely that her death is merely an accident. However, it could be interpreted that her threatened rape symbolizes the emasculation and ‘rape’ of whites in the South by a rampant black population suddenly emancipated – and destructive of the racial order.] At the scene of the fall, a fearful Gus is made an innocent victim – he will undoubtedly be held accountable and punished for her demise.
The only equivalent I could find in terms of gays is this “educational” film from 1961 called Boys Beware. But the real story of how it relates to gay people can be found in the history of events like the Iowa “sex panic” and the Greensboro, NC “purge” of the 1950s, which saw gay men being sent to jail or imprisoned in mental institutions for no other reason than that they were gay and thus labeled as “sexual psychopaths” or potential pedophiles. In the Iowa case, gay men were imprisoned in psychiatric hospital as a result of public hysteria in the wake of the sexual murder of two children, though none of the men were involved in either.
Griffin makes an interesting case that black reaction to these stereotypes, combined with a number of early black Christians being converted into southern, conservative, biblical literalist denominations (as part of a broader trend in American religion described by Kevin Phillips in American Theocracy, as well as the “southernization” of the Republican party in terms of religion, something I mentioned earlier and will return to in another post) explains the vociferousness of many African American’s response to homosexuality as having evolved out of historical conditions in which conforming to strict sexual morals was both a matter of survival and a means of currying favor and proving one’s worthiness to the dominant society.
The irony Griffin points out, and that is apparent in some of the responses to the Foley scandal, is that people don’t seem to realize or care to realize that they may be doing to one group what was done to them, and perhaps with similar consequences. And one of the consequences is that members of the targeted group internalize those stereotypes and comes to believe them — as shown by Bill Clinton being feted by some African Americans as the first “black president” and comically celebrated by others as having “negro tendencies”, largely because of his legendary sexual prowess and infidelity. There’s a cost for that, which I’ll get to in another post as well.
It’s too early to see how this will all play out, or what the public aftermath will look like. And maybe I’m reaching a bit in drawing these parallels, but as a black man and a gay man I can’t help but see some parallels. And I can’t help pointing them out in the hopes that others will see them too, and think about the consequences.
Update: Maybe Stein should take a lesson from Mark Pelavin from the Center of Reform Judaism, who wrote the following in a letter to the Family Research Council.
“We certainly agree that the actions of former Representative Foley are abhorrent and deplorable. Nonetheless, I was disturbed, but sadly, not surprised, that you used Mr. Foley’s actions to perpetuate an old and despicable stereotype that gay men are prone to be child molesters. Your willingness to manipulate this tragic situation to engage in an anti-gay screed through such spurious and twisted correlations reveals far more about you than about this crisis,” Pelavin’s letter said.
He went on to note that “as Jews, we know well the dangers inherent in broad, fear-inspiring accusations that blame societal ills on a particular social group. Mr. Foley, and not homosexuals as a group, performed these misdeeds. No group, homosexual or otherwise, bears responsibility. It is shameful for the Family Research Council to use one individual’s wrongdoings to cast a negative light on an entire group of people.”