NOM, With Added WashPo and Waugh

The LGBT blogosphere is so used to calling out homophobia and transphobia that it can often seem a bit knee-jerk and hysterical, but to my mind, last Friday’s outburst over a Washington Post profile of National Organization for Marriage executive director Brian Brown was entirely justified. As I said in a response at Campus Progress:

What is most disappointing—and disturbing—about the Post’s profile of Brown is the degree to which the writer, Monica Hesse, fell hook, line, and sinker for NOM’s marketing in its entirety. Hesse positively fawns over Brown, saying that in contrast to “the people who specialize in whipping crowds into frothy frenzies, who say things like ‘Katrina was caused by the gays,’” Brown speaks to a “country [that] is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left, [but] is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis.” Hesse seems to have missed that fighting against same-sex marriage becomes a more and more unreasonable position as the public warms to it. The idea that Brown’s cause is rational is just a tactic: it’s exactly what he and other social conservatives want the public to think.[…]

Brown believes that because Western civilization has historically not recognized same-sex marriages, they shouldn’t have a place in our modern legal system. (As Stephanie Coontz writes, what’s actually most common in Western civilization’s history of marriage is polygyny, not monogamous heterosexual marriages.) The comparison means little when you factor in differences among regions, time periods, and cultures. But Hesse rolls with this flawed understanding of the glorified tax status that is marriage in the 21st-century United States, developing in its modern form fairly recently.

The Post’s profile does not hide the fact that Brown is a devout Catholic (like many of the crusading conservatives, he converted as a young man while studying at Oxford). In doing so, it gives away the tried-and-true tactic Brown is using—placing a dummy wall between his Catholicism and his “family values,” which he tries to defend on other-than-religious grounds. The modern social conservative movement uses supposed “logic” and “reason” to advance arguments which have traditionally been presented on religious grounds. Princeton Professor Robert George, chair of NOM’s board of directors, does the same thing with his arguments, using his distinguished academic pedigree and his debate skills to distance his social conservatism from his ardent Catholic faith.

Read the rest—and I mean it; I don’t usually self-promote unless I actually like what I’ve written.

A lot of stuff was going through my head as I sorted out why I actually do feel outraged by the way the Post treated this profile of a man who is far from moderate or reasonable. It wasn’t just that Brown, who dropped out of a UCLA history PhD program, was claiming that this background gave him license to pronounce authoritatively upon the legacy of Western civilization, and I felt offended on behalf of proto-historians everywhere. It wasn’t just that I felt offended on behalf of queerfolk everywhere. It wasn’t just that I continue to feel that the existence of NOM besmirches the name of Princeton, NJ.

I read, and watched the Granada television adaptation of, Brideshead Revisited this summer, and liked it so much that I’ve had it on the brain since. I find myself coming back to it when I think about the ways in which Brown and the other NOMites either call attention to or try not to call attention to their religion—often, specifically, their Catholicism. In Brideshead, Catholicism is for the Flytes (the aristocratic family central to the plot) at times a piece of social positioning, a networking tool that means being friends with monseigneurs and curates and other English Catholics; and at times it is an intensely private and deeply-held conviction that seems irrational to those who don’t subscribe to it, but is the natural order of things for the believers. And I can’t resist reading the novel as suggesting that, whatever homosexuality meant in the English 1920s and ’30s, it’s part of what Sebastian Flyte is struggling with within his tortured guilty Catholic conscience, part of what drives him away from his family and which propels his uneasy relationship with his religion.

In Brideshead, the family’s religious beliefs are the plot wedge, but it could conceivably be something else—and in 2000s America for people like Brian Brown, being Catholic is not the same as it would have been in inter-World Wars England. For one thing, being Catholic is just not as markedly incredible here and now as it was there and then. But I am struck in both cases by how dogged trust in a faith doctrine persists, even in the face of what seems to those who don’t have that faith as the most unassailable evidence that, for example, prejudice just isn’t in anymore, whatever Leviticus or your own personal brand of non-Biblical logic may have to say about it.

Okay, yeah, the Brideshead thing was a totally tenuous connection, and I’m not quite sure why I drew it in—except to say that this kind of fervor (whether it’s religiously driven or not) remains to me, as it does to the non-Catholic characters in Brideshead, a deeply incomprehensible thing. I find myself continuing to wonder in all these cases to what extent it’s actual devotion, and to what extent it’s a cultivated social pose.

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