17 September 2007

Yes, sometimes it's personal

I was reading this article (sub req'd) the other day about the major contributions gay people made to American culture during the middle of the 20th century. The authory, Michael Sherry, dealt quite deftly with the painful-to-beneficial relationship between great gay artists (like Copland, Bernstein, etc) and the mainstream media. Society recognized that their work was brilliant, while concurrently abhorring the [real and imagined] lives these men and women lived. Thus these individuals existed in a tenuous position. Revered on one hand, reviled on the other. Indeed, many commentators feared what having a strong, yet gay, artist community would have some sort of disastrous consequences on the moral fiber of American society as a whole, and there was a sort of Lavender Scare in the early sixties as a result.

Most students of U.S. history and politics recall that various Red Scares took place during the 1920s and again in the late 40s-50s. These scares were particularly hard on both the arts community and the foreign and security policy communities, for different reasons. The common thread, of course, was that gay and lesbian people got scooped up in each of these scares. The natural resilience to societal pressures that artist communities usually possess brushed this off relatively easily. In the policy community, though, where conformism is essential, the effects were devastating.

Fast forward to today. You still can't legally be gay in the military. The military, being one massive tool of foreign and security policy, and an apparatus that interacts with almost all other segments of the policy community, clearly has an effect on culture. The current leadership at the State Department has often harped on promoting freedom and human rights. Yet it is conspicuously silent on LGBT issues. With these combined influences, it's still a pretty lonesome place for LGBT people in that community. Other oppressed groups have been able to make more visible inroads in these areas. Yet given a culture of forced invisibility, it's pretty hard for LGBT people to make the same kind of advances. Thus for an individual such as myself, with a passion for working in international affairs and a strong desire to influence policy and thus positive change, I tend to feel disempowered and silenced, because to find gay people in that world, one basically goes on a quest for the Northwest Passage. It's not completely impossible to find out LGBT people in foreign and security policy land, but you're not going to find a lot.

So why is it so much more difficult for LGBT people to feel any sense of place in the policy realm? For one, as Sherry puts it so much better than I ever could, "the labels 'gay' and 'American' do not yet readily collapse into one." There is still a lot of stigma (particularly moral stigma), and much of this is perpetuated at the highest levels of society (just think about how George Bush got elected in 2004). I once talked with a former employer of mine, a woman who was advising members of Congress on foreign affairs in a day when such women were particularly rare. She described a lot of challenges that I feel myself (I'm not trying to appropriate her experience, I'm just noting similarities).

I guess my point is that I feel stifled a lot of the time. Granted, I'm young, and part of that has to do with insufficient experience to match aspirations. But part of it is a genuine concern that making even a mention of my personal life could preclude me from work somewhere. Admittedly, I wouldn't want to work somewhere where that would be the case, but still, knowing that it could occur is still troubling. I've certainly got being white and male going for me, but not fully fitting into that archetype is a problem (in some eyes) nonetheless.

Bottom line: yes, I can talk about decorating, but I'm trained to talk about force strength, strategic planning, transitional justice, and corruption (among other things). Don't think I'm "soft" because I'm a homo. And you, yes you with the ugly blue suit and the same tired comb-over everyone else in your building is sporting: I can play ball in your court, I just happen to prefer a flashier uniform.

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