We should be thoughtful about gender oppression and gay-baiting
As a social justice organization, the Montana Human Rights Network works to eliminate various forms of oppression through education, organizing and advocacy. Last week, the issue of “gay-baiting”- using language, images, or innuendo that suggests that someone is gay without explicitly calling a person gay- came up again in Montana elections. In politics, we often hear charges of “coded language,” “race-baiting,” and “gay-baiting,” but we don’t spend a lot of time talking about what these charges mean and why they are damaging. Part of the reason, I think, is that it requires taking the time to sort out implicit messages and their effect on communities. It’s not easy, but it is important.
A recent post on an anonymous blog run out of Helena used images of two candidates running in a state senate race. One of the candidates was hunting while wearing camouflage, while his opponent was pictured wearing a sweater vest and carrying an over-the-shoulder computer bag. The pictures were accompanied by the labels “man” and “man purse” underneath the images (see below).
The implication was that one candidate was a man, and the other was effeminate in some way and less of a man. It was meant as a joke. If you do a little reading, you would find the impetus behind this joke was that one candidate is an avid hunter and the other seems to be pretending to be a hunter in order to score political points. That point seems valid and would have been easy enough to make. Instead, the author used the aforementioned images and captions. It made an implied statement about what is acceptable gender expression for a man and what is not. The post had as much to do with gender oppression, rigid gender stereotypes, and what behaviors are acceptable for men as it did with who hunts and who doesn’t. When we fail to challenge the reinforcement of these stereotypes, we send a message to people who don’t fit comfortably into them. The message is that they are inadequate in some way. It may not have been the author’s intent to marginalize a group of people that don’t fit into restrictive societal assumptions about gender roles, but that was the result. That result coupled with the long-held stereotypes about gay men being less masculine than straight men led to the charge of gay-baiting. The blogger stated that he or she meant no offense to the LGBT community, and that could very well be true. Intent aside, this messaging is damaging – even if it’s an accident. The response to this post was divided. Often a sincere hope that one candidate wins over another candidate can blind people to the negative effects that this sort of messaging can have on individuals and communities.
If the post had looked like this:
It's possible that some of the people defending the original post and who are upset that activists and the Network have condemned it, might have a different reaction. Or it might not have changed a thing.
Gay-baiting and gender oppression have long held an unfortunate place in Montana politics. Many Montanans will recall that during the 2002 race for US Senate in Montana, the Montana Democratic Party released an ad about the Republican candidate in the race (Mike Taylor). It showed images of Mr. Taylor massaging another man’s face at a hair salon with 1970’s style lounge music playing in the background.
At the time, the Network called for the ad to be taken off the air and warned against gay-baiting. The crafters of the ad stated that it wasn’t about being gay or straight. Instead, they claimed that the content of the ad was about Mr. Taylor running a “beauty school” and running a student loan scam as part of it. Mr. Taylor (and many others) got an additional message. He held a press conference, said that he had been maligned by being called gay, and dropped out of the race. The message there? Being called gay is terrible and that being gay or perceived as gay is an insurmountable political challenge. Not good for LGBT people. It’s important to mention that, in this most recent incident, neither candidate or political party seems to have been involved at all, just a popular blogger with a political readership. As people who care about equality, fairness, and dignity, we need to call out harmful messages whether they are intentional or not. We need to call out harmful messages no matter who the messenger is, whether they are an opponent or an ally. Most importantly, we need to talk about why they are harmful.
A gender-just society would be one where everyone, regardless of their gender expression or identity, is able to fully and authentically participate without fear of discrimination, harassment, or persecution. We don’t live in that society yet. The Network feels that one of the ways to get there is by talking about gender injustice and why it matters.