The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights

Overview

"By combining the meticulousness of an ethnographer with a writer's commitment to storytelling, Stein has written a book that's surprisingly compelling-or, better, compelling because it's surprising."
-David L. Kirp, The Nation

Winner of the 2001 Ruth Benedict Award 

In a book that combines strong on-the-ground research and lucid analysis with a novelist's imaginative sympathy, Arlene Stein sets out to discover why a small town with ...

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Overview

"By combining the meticulousness of an ethnographer with a writer's commitment to storytelling, Stein has written a book that's surprisingly compelling-or, better, compelling because it's surprising."
-David L. Kirp, The Nation

Winner of the 2001 Ruth Benedict Award 

In a book that combines strong on-the-ground research and lucid analysis with a novelist's imaginative sympathy, Arlene Stein sets out to discover why a small town with no apparent queer population became the site of a bitter battle over gay rights. 

"A fascinating look at the psychology of fear and persuasion." 
-Monica Drake, The Oregonian

"Every liberal ought to read this. . . . Arlene Stein provides an important depiction of life in a town which became a vortex of national and local issues."
-Tex Sample, Christian Century 

"What's especially valuable about Stein's book is her detailed look at each individual's take on the meaning of the campaign and her patient exploration of the wide variety of forces shifting the ground of these people's lives."
-E. J. Graff, American Prospect

"This book displays interpretive sociology at its best." 
-Robert N. Bellah, coauthor of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society

"In her cogent analysis of just how sickeningly simple it is to create an 'other,' a 'stranger' upon whom blame for our problems may be shifted, Stein has touched to the very heart of the social upheaval in America today." 
-Dan Hays, Salem (Oreg.) Statesman-Journal

Arlene Stein is associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University. She has written for The Nation, The Oregonian, and Newsday, among other publications, and is the author of Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation and editor of Sisters, Sexperts, Queers. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
By combining the meticulousness of an ethnographer with a writer's commitment to storytelling, Stein has written a book that's surprisingly compelling-or, better, compelling because it's surprising.--David L. Kirp, The Nation

"A fascinating look at the psychology of fear and persuasion." --Monica Drake, The Oregonian

"Every liberal ought to read this. . . . Arlene Stein provides an important depiction of life in a town which became a vortex of national and local issues."
Tex Sample, Christian Century

"What's especially valuable about Stein's book is her detailed look at each individual's take on the meaning of the campaign and her patient exploration of the wide variety of forces shifting the ground of these people's lives." --E. J. Graff, American Prospect

"This book displays interpretive sociology at its best." --Robert N. Bellah, coauthor of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society

"In her cogent analysis of just how sickeningly simple it is to create an 'other,' a 'stranger' upon whom blame for our problems may be shifted, Stein has touched to the very heart of the social upheaval in America today." --Dan Hays, Salem (Oreg.) Statesman-Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"To conservative Christians, homosexuality was sinful, unnatural, against God and family... but to the vast majority, who believed that religion--and sex--should be kept private, these words sounded intolerant... even hateful," writes Stein in this astute social analysis of how a small Oregon community dealt with an early 1990s political referendum to prohibit "special rights" for homosexuals. A Jewish lesbian, Stein (Sisters, Sexperts, Queers) writes as both a community insider and outsider, drawing upon personal observation, media analysis and interviews with 50 of the town's residents to sympathetically and critically reveal how both sides, and those caught in the middle, responded to this culture war. She conjures a complex portrait of people under stress, attributing much of the community's conservatism to the flagging economy caused by the weakening of the timber industry in the 1980s. Stein is best when articulating and exploring the myriad paradoxes and contradictions of the situation. Her most striking observation is that while conservative Christian organizers from outside Timbertown created widespread fear of a gay takeover, the town itself had no visible homosexual community, and most of its gay citizens were well integrated and accepted within the social fabric. A careful observer and writer, Stein uses traditional sociological methodology to reach conclusions about the boundaries of tolerance that are similar to those in Beth Loffreda's recent work of straightforward reportage on the murder of a young gay man in Wyoming, Losing Matt Shephard (Forecasts, July 31). (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
detailed, and very readable study of politics in rural Oregon. Stein spent several months in "Timbertown" (not the town's real name), a small town in central Oregon caught up in the battle of liberals and conservatives over a proposed amendment to the town's charter prohibiting "special status" for homosexuals. While the battle seemed to center on the issue of gay rights, Stein reports that this was only a proxy battle between longtime residents and newcomers over the change from a reliance on the old ways of the timber-based economy and the new service-based economy of the state. Stein provides detailed examinations of the conservative Oregon Citizens' Alliance and the more liberal Citizens' Action Network, exploring the belief systems driving each group. Her in-depth analysis of the evangelical Christian movement in America is also particularly noteworthy and broadly applicable beyond Oregon. This book is very highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Mark Bay, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Stein (sociology, University of Oregon and Rutgers University) tells the fictionalized story of a rural Oregon town and its encounters with prejudice and paranoia when a conservative Christian organization convinces citizens that lesbians and gays are taking over the town and demanding special rights. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807079539
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 1,039,632
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Arlene Stein is associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University. She has written for The Nation, The Oregonian, and Newsday, among other publications, and is the author of Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation and editor of Sisters, Sexperts, Queers.
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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Introduction


Midway between San Francisco and Seattle, in a spectacular verdant valley, is a place I will call Timbertown. Home to eight thousand people, it is in many respects a typical small Oregon community, and a typical small American town, a place that prides itself on the fact that most people know each other, at least by sight, and a place where life goes on and relatively little changes—or so many believe. Yet several years ago, within the space of a few months, the intimate acts of individuals became the subject of a raucous public debate that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Should the community recognize lesbians and gay men as a legitimate minority group, and accord them equal protection under the law?

    Since Timbertown possessed little power to create such protections, the question was above all a symbolic one. Nonetheless, it created a storm of controversy few will forget. Families stopped their children from playing with friends whose parents stood on the opposing side of the issue. Husbands and wives quarreled over it, and it sparked fistfights at the high school. The local newspaper, normally preoccupied with news of the timber industry and Little League scores, covered little else for months. Practically overnight, the question of lesbian/gay civil rights became a matter of public debate and acrimony.

    Rural Oregon was a rather unlikely site for a battle over homosexuality. In this vast, sparsely populated region of the country, there were few visible signs of queer life outside of the few metropolitan areas: no out homosexualslobbying for civil rights; no lesbian/gay coffeehouses, newspapers, or running clubs, commonplace in larger towns and cities. Yet suddenly the issue of homosexuality moved to center stage. "Across rural Oregon, where homosexuality used to be the last thing you'd expect anyone to be discussing, much less debating" a newspaper reported, "people are talking about little else."

    In 1992, religious conservatives sponsored a highly controversial statewide ballot measure that sought to deny civil rights protections to lesbians and gay men. The initiative, known as Measure 9, lost by a large margin in the state's two most populous metropolitan areas but won across rural Oregon. The following year, in an effort to build upon its successes in rural areas, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which spearheaded the campaign, targeted eight counties and three dozen small communities where the statewide measure had passed the year before. These measures sought to amend local bylaws to prevent anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians and prohibit government spending to promote homosexuality (see Appendix B).

    When I moved to Oregon in the fall of 1994, the year after the ballot measures rippled across the state, people were still talking about them. On several occasions, friends warned me to stay out of a particular community when it had passed an ordinance prohibiting lesbian/ gay rights the year before; gay rights sympathizers waged unofficial boycotts of these towns. It seemed to me that homosexuality had become a primary way these towns defined themselves, and others defined them. But why, I wondered, did small-town folks find homosexuality, seemingly a nonissue, so confusing and troubling? And why bother organizing against lesbian/gay rights in towns where queer people were barely visible? A second question also emerged: How did small towns defend lesbian and gay rights in the absence of a visible, identifiable gay community?

    I became interested in how discussions of homosexuality and lesbian/gay civil rights entered public life in small communities, shaping how "ordinary" people talked about sexuality. Small rural communities have usually been thought of as the repository of traditional American values, conjuring up images of close, face-to-face relationships among like-minded people. In recent decades, a series of sweeping social changes, including the dissemination of new media technologies and the growing movement of urban dwellers into rural areas across the nation, has called this nostalgia-tinged image into question. What happens, I wondered, when small-town people and big-city, indeed global, cultures come into contact with one another? The issue of homosexual civil rights, as it was debated by a small community, provided a lens for looking at this process.

    I spent two years talking with community activists on the right and the left, along with city officials, teachers, students, car mechanics, and lumbermen in the small Oregon town. I examined what people said publicly in the debate about homosexuality—in newspapers, radio broadcasts, television interviews, and organizational literature. And I interviewed people who participated in these debates to try to figure out what homosexuality symbolized for them on a deeper level—for those who sought to legislate against gay rights or who defended these rights, as well as for those who had few opinions on the matter.

    I had to admit that I was drawn to the project because it offered the chance of entering an alien world: small-town America, and particularly the world of Christian evangelicals. I had read about the Christian Coalition and its efforts to shape American politics, seen films such as The Apostle, about a southern Pentecostal preacher, and had followed the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal in the news. But I had never actually talked with a card-carrying evangelical. Nothing seemed further from my reality as a Jew, an urbanite, and a laborer in the agnostic groves of academia.

    As I embarked on this project, friends and colleagues were curious. How would I present myself to my subjects? Would I tell people that I was a Jew? A lesbian? Would I reveal my progressive political sympathies? A colleague of mine, Linda Kintz, had studied the world of Christian conservatism, attending conferences of such organizations as Concerned Women for America. Kintz, a sweet-voiced woman with a smooth Texas drawl, wore a tasteful pantsuit and presented herself as a conservative activist in order to gather what we sociologists call "data." Reporter Donna Minkowitz chose a different strategy: she bound her breasts and donned a goatee makeover to attend rallies of the Promise Keepers, the hugely successful Christian men's organization. But my appearance irrevocably marked me as not-Christian (and not-male). I couldn't pass. Nor did I want to, particularly, as I imagined that interactions with my informants would tell me as much about their world as would their answers to my pointed questions.

    Indeed, much of what I learned surprised me. I was struck by how many people expressed opinions about the world that were both honest and forthright yet based upon operating assumptions diametrically opposed to those I took for granted. While I understood diversity and multiculturalism as a positive ideal, for example, others felt threatened by it, and refused to mince words when describing their feelings. The schools "require our children to celebrate cultural diversity," one mother complained. "But what if the families don't want to celebrate?"

    Why would individuals come to such different conclusions about something that seemed, to me at least, relatively simple and straightforward? To find out, I would have to enter a particular place, and try to understand its people, and their world. This book, then, is about much more than the gay rights debate. It explores how sexuality became a resonant symbol upon which a group of citizens projected a host of anxieties about the changing world around them, how it divided a small community, and what that tells us about our ability to live with difference. And it documents how a local campaign brought the issue of homosexuality into the public sphere in unprecedented ways, generating discussions of sexuality among those who had never before talked about such matters publicly.


DOES THIS MEAN WAR?

While I spoke with rural Oregonians, ethnic conflicts six thousand miles away transformed Serbs, Croats, and Albanians into bitter, bloody rivals. Though the context was clearly very different, the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia frequently entered my thoughts. Why do some social differences that are submerged and unremarkable become sources of division? In the United States, few have taken up guns to defend their vision of what is right and true, but Americans have frequently responded violently to such perceived social problems as drug use, abortion, and satanic ritual abuse, to name a few. Stanley Cohen coined the term "moral panic" to describe how some issues—such as pornography, homosexuality, and pedophilia—engage the passion and focus of people in ways that seem to far outweigh their real threat.

    But frequently, religious convictions shape political attitudes in ways that go far beyond fleeting panics over disparate issues of concern. Indeed, some would argue that Americans' preoccupation with moral issues, such as homosexuality, is evidence of a "culture war" that is realigning political loyalties along lines of faith. According to sociologist James Davison Hunter, a "culture war" pits traditionalists, who understand the truth in terms of an external, definable, and transcendent authority, usually defined by religious beliefs, against progressives, who see truth as inherent in human beings and the natural order, and constantly in flux. A good number of American Protestants feel themselves to be socially and demographically distant from modern life, a fact that, in Hunter's words, allows them to "avoid sustained confrontation with modernity's most threatening attributes."

    As the "culture war" argument goes, religious conservatives use their faith to insulate themselves from the threatening changes around them, looking to traditional values as guides for living. In contrast, liberal secularists are more apt to embrace the changes they see around them, and view the individual as the best arbiter of what is right and wrong. These beliefs about truth—whether it is absolute or relative—shape people's beliefs on a host of issues, such as abortion, gay rights, and welfare reform, cutting across many of the cleavages that organized politics in the past.

    If there is in fact a culture war, it isn't all that new, of course. Throughout American history, moral crusades against drinking, campaigns against pedophilia, child abuse, and satanism identified deviant social categories and dramatized and normalized identities and institutions such as the traditional family and Christianity. A wave of religious revivals in 1831 converted large numbers of middle-class Americans to millennial beliefs. The decade that followed saw a massive "protest cycle" in temperance, abolition, and moral-reform movements, each based on a sense that sudden, dramatic change was possible in this world, a view impossible under older Calvinist fatalism.

    In the 1920s, cultural clashes about the teaching of evolution in the public schools rippled through the United States, culminating in the Scopes trial, in which a biology teacher was charged with challenging state and biblical law. The clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan was a battle over values—a culture war that pitted modernists against fundamentalists. As liberal critic Horace Kallen put it, "The Great War with tanks and planes and poison gas has been followed by a battle of values, or norms and standards; a struggle of theories of life." Fundamentalists retreated after the Scopes trial, in which creationism was roundly condemned, and for fifty years occupied themselves with building their own culture and institutions, breaking out into public life only occasionally in momentary spurts of activity.

    Many members of Timbertown's religious community certainly believed they were engaged in a culture war. As one conservative activist asked: "The question is do you follow God's teachings, or do you defy them? Do you live by the rules that were set down thousands of years ago, or do you live by your own rules? Many of the evangelical Christians I spoke with viewed the Bible as the word of God, saw salvation as central to religious faith, and attended church at least once a week, if not more. They believed that homosexuality poses a threat because it represents chaotic and morally lax behavior, and that growing tolerance for homosexuality is evidence of the community's declining morals.

    But there was much more at stake, a union leader told me. "Christianity has very little do with the appeal of the Christian right," he offered. "Christianity has as much to do with this battle as religion has to do with the war in Ireland. The church was an institution that was hollow and available for use, so it was taken over by people wanting to put forth their authoritarian ideas. It's not about theology, it's about economics." The war over homosexuality, he suggested, was simply a smoke screen, obscuring more powerfully determining material forces. Had Timbertown not come on hard times, my union friend argued, there would never have been support for the antigay campaign, which was an expression of status resentment.

    In Oregon, attitudes toward homosexuality appeared to correlate with divisions between a declining working class that felt itself displaced and ignored, and a rising professional class, for whom the declining working class was invisible or irrelevant. Young urban professionals, who teemed into the state to work in high-tech industries, tended to support abortion and gay rights. Not all working-class people opposed them, of course, and a good number of middle-class people did. Nonetheless, class differences shaped the debate in important ways.

    But the more I spoke with people in Timbertown, the more I came to believe that the clash over homosexuality in small-town Oregon was not reducible to either values, as proponents of the "culture war" notion suggest, or economics, as their materialist critics contend. It was about both of these things—and more. Claims that lesbians and gays enjoy "special rights" brought together moralistic concerns about perversity with material concerns about the decline of the family wage and resentments against affirmative action, blending secular arguments about civil rights with passionate religious injunctions against sin. Authors Sara Diamond, Didi Herman, Linda Kintz, and Suzanne Pharr capture the blend of values and interests that animate these debates, and have made enormously valuable contributions to explaining the origins, meaning, and persistence of the Christian right.

    This book extends their analyses, taking a somewhat different approach. Rather than focus upon the national rhetoric of Christian right organizations and the formal, organized manifestations of these movements, it looks at a single conflict in relation to a single place, a small, not particularly significant community, tracing how a cultural conflict emerges in the context of everyday life. I was inspired in part by Faye Ginsburg's book Contested Lives, which examines the abortion controversy in Fargo, North Dakota, and shows, through the experience of one community, the clashing social forces behind the abortion debate in bold relief. To understand why women become active on the issue, argues Ginsburg, one must understand the meaning that abortion, and motherhood, has for different groups of women at a time when women's lives are rapidly changing. To understand why people became involved in a campaign against homosexuality, I show in this book, one must understand the different meanings and associations evoked by homosexuality (and by implication, heterosexuality) in a particular place, and at a time when truths about gender, and also a host of other certainties, are being questioned.


THE MAKING OF US AND THEM

In a recent book about Yugoslavia's disintegration into warring ethnic factions, author Michael Ignatieff tells a story about a Serbian militiaman who is asked what he has against his former Croatian neighbors. The man looks scornful and takes a cigarette packet out of his jacket. "See this? These are Serbian cigarettes." Over there, he says, gesturing out of the window, "they smoke Croatian cigarettes." In other words, we are Serbians because we are not Croatians. A sense of similarity among us rests upon a sense of difference from them.

    What this story suggests is that in their everyday lives individuals make countless decisions about who is a friend and who is an enemy, about who should be included in a particular community and who should not. People do things because they wish to protect an image of who they are in relation to the group of which they believe they are a part. We conceptualize the world into those who deserve inclusion and those who do not. Boundaries mark the social territories of human relations, signaling who ought to be admitted and who excluded. The desire to root out others in order to consolidate a sense of self seems universal. How do human beings perceive one another as belonging to the same group while at the same time rejecting human beings whom they perceive as belonging to another group? Why must we affirm ourselves by excluding others?

    A community's boundaries remain a meaningful point of reference for its members only as long as they are repeatedly tested by people who are on the fringes of the group and repeatedly defended by those within it. Sociologists tell us that in order to create a sense of social order, which all societies must establish, deviants are created and punished. "Whenever a boundary line becomes blurred," writes Kai Erikson, "the group members may single out and label as deviant someone whose behavior had previously gone unnoticed." The act of naming things that are dangerous demonstrates to those in the community "just how awesome its powers really are." This clarifies what is acceptable and what is not, who belongs in the community and who does not. Identities that had no political or even existential significance can acquire a genuine hold as badges of group identity overnight. Though the making of collective identities and boundaries is always inherently political, at certain moments such processes become explicitly politicized.

    Symbolic boundaries become more important during periods of rapid social change—when geo-social boundaries become less central. In colonial America, as communities grew and changed, some individuals who were previously accepted as part of the group found themselves run out of it as heretics—witches. In Yugoslavia, as national unity collapsed, ethnic boundary drawing came to the fore. The more pressure there is on communities to change, it seems, the more vigorously boundaries are symbolized and conformity demanded. Clearly, the world is changing in many different ways, and at a rapid pace. In this country, during the past few decades, an unprecedented number of women have entered the workforce; the globalization of the economy has made us less and less dependent upon a sense of place, economically and culturally. Even residents of small-town Oregon, who consume media beamed from satellite dishes and work for companies whose manufacturing operations are located in far-flung parts of the world, are subject to these and other modernizing processes.

    During the past decade, huge geopolitical shifts have shaped U.S. political culture. The collapse of Communism destroyed the faceless enemy upon which our national identity had been based, and had an enormous, largely unacknowledged impact upon the nation's sense of itself. The issue of "who is American" became more and more unclear. It used to be that Americans defined themselves as not-Communists. But once Communists no longer posed a threat, the drive to figure out the meaning of America became even more urgent. Communism was no longer a threat. What would replace the "other" against which American identity was defined? "A symbolically contrived sense of local similarity" writes Richard Jenkins, is sometimes "the only available defense."

    Historically, the right has drawn much of its strength, collective identity, and legitimacy from its ability to construct a coherent, visible enemy and to demonize the "enemies within" in the name of the imagined nation. As the old devils—Communists, working women, the counterculture—lost their power, a new devil was needed—preferably one that embodied the worst excesses of the permissive society, that transgressed sexual respectability, that seemed sufficiently outside the community to be alien, but that simultaneously represented familiar (and therefore doubly scary) urges that were accessible to anyone. How better to construct a sense of identity, the we, than by articulating a clear sense of what one abhorred? How better to affirm one's purity than by getting rid of the dirt?

    Sigmund Freud has noted that the compulsion to name and exclude dangerous "others" may be more virulent the more similar those others are to you; all likeness must be denied and difference exaggerated. He called this the "narcissism of small differences." Freud noticed the ease with which larger cultural groups latch on to smaller groups or groups seen as social intruders, leading the English and the Scots, North and South Germans, to turn against one another, venting their aggressive impulses. He recognized how Jews have, historically, "rendered most useful services" throughout European history by being a favorite target of violent aggression. For many centuries they were the "strangers" against which Europeans defined themselves. Familiar and yet unfamiliar, visible and yet faceless—they did not fit easily into any of the established categories through which people made sense of their world. These "others" who were not quite "other" caused confusion and anxiety, which made them particularly susceptible to hateful passions, and efforts to clearly delimit "us" and "them."

    Do lesbians and gays play a similar role in the contemporary United States? I wondered. For many centuries, the philosopher Michel Foucault tells us, the boundaries separating the homosexual and heterosexual worlds were either weak or nonexistent; homosexual and heterosexual behavior existed side by side. There was not yet an understanding of homosexuals as a recognizable, definable category of people. With the emergence of sociosexual medical categories, this changed: homosexuals became understood as a distinct group of individuals, radically different from heterosexuals. The construction of a "homosexual role," Mary McIntosh argues, "kept the bulk of society pure.

    It's no wonder that a series of antigay campaigns rippled through the United States in the 1990s, when lesbians and gay men were becoming more and more fully integrated into American life and the boundaries separating the homosexual and heterosexual worlds were blurring.


SHIFTING INTIMACIES

Twenty years ago, I graduated from college, packed my bags, and moved to the West Coast, fleeing from watchful parental eyes and hoping deep down to meet the girl of my dreams. I was certainly not alone. Tens of thousands of young people had migrated there before me in search of the great gay metropolis, that "imagined community" where people could act on their same-sex desires and receive support for doing so. But only a couple of decades before, same-sex behavior was confined to the margins of society, in shadowy bars in major cities, or to secret, forbidden desires. Men and women possessing attractions for members of their sex were forced to keep them under wraps lest they lose their jobs and their families.

    But after years of living with the "culture of suspicion" which defined clear boundaries between the straight and gay worlds, and cast homosexuals into secretive double lives, in the 1960s and 1970s some activists vowed to overturn the prevailing notion of "homosexuality as pollution." Gay liberationists attempted to "smash the categories": the boundaries separating heterosexuality and homosexuality were, they proclaimed, social illusions. For a brief moment, these ideas caught fire. Many people, influenced by the movement, were faced with a choice about whether to be with women or with men. Those who had never entertained the idea of homosexuality were forced to scrutinize the nature of their attractions. The heterosexual imperative was profoundly shaken.

    These cultural shifts were not limited to increasing tolerance for same-sex behavior. The twentieth century ushered profound changes in sexual and gender relations. Traditional bases of sexual authority, such as religion and family, weakened, individuals engaged in sex at earlier ages and outside of marriage, the double standard of sexuality eroded. The system of reproductive sexuality is declining. If the sixties generation affirmed the shift toward sexual liberalism, shaking the foundations of traditional sexual morality, economic changes that freed individuals from the constraints of the family economy gave individuals unprecedented freedom to pursue their desires. A sexual sea change occurred: the very nature of intimacy was transformed.

    Over time, gays openly intermingled with the heterosexual world, began to see themselves as the moral equivalent of heterosexuals, and demanded rights on that basis. By the time I came of age in the 1980s, the American gay rights movement had become professionalized, sophisticated, mainstreamed, and wedded to a model of gay "ethnicity." In an effort to strengthen the analogy between homosexuality and race, civil rights advocates presented scientific evidence of the immutability of sexual orientation. Lesbians and gay men emerged as a distinct interest group, wielding political action committees, political clubs, and human rights organizations seeking greater social and political integration. Homosexuality, once seen as a source of pollution, was becoming normalized.

    In 1960, no cities or states in this country guaranteed equal rights to gay men and lesbians. By 1997, eleven states and dozens of cities and counties had passed laws protecting lesbians and gay men (and sometimes bisexuals and transgendered people) from various forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation, and elsewhere gubernatorial executive orders and mayoral proclamations officially banned discrimination. As a result, by the end of the decade, more than one fifth of Americans lived in cities or counties providing some legal protections. Five states, including New York, offered domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian state employees.

    Lesbians and gay men were also increasingly visible in American society as happy, healthy homosexuals, and even began to crop up on television sit-coms, in Hollywood films, and in popular music. By the early 1990s, the vast majority of Americans, if not sexually liberal, were at least wary of extreme efforts to legislate sexual morality. Sociologist Alan Wolfe, in a study of middle-class American attitudes, showed that while Americans are far from relativistic in their own moral views, they shrink from judging the private behavior of others and dislike moralizing when they see it practiced. At the same time, a majority of the population still disapproved of homosexuality, exhibiting what Wolfe calls "soft homophobia." They believe that gays and lesbians should have rights, but objected to the belief that homosexuality is the moral equivalent of heterosexuality.

    A survey that asked individuals to rank different social groups using a "feeling thermometer" revealed that feelings toward gays and lesbians are "colder" than feelings for many other oppressed groups, including blacks and people on welfare, and "warmer" only than feelings for illegal aliens—confirming Urvashi Vaid's claim that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people in the United States have been granted "virtual equality"—"a state of conditional equality based more on the appearance of acceptance by straight America than on genuine civic parity." Clearly, attitudes about homosexuality were in flux.

    Still, speaking openly about sexuality in many parts of this country remained difficult. There were wonderful gay neighborhoods in many cities, but straight people generally stayed away from them, except when tour buses stopped to gawk at the queers. Moreover, while gay people were building a new home from the ground up, we had moved away from our families, our communities—often for very good reasons—and to varying degrees we had lost our capacity to speak their language. Perhaps that's why we had underestimated the extent to which many Americans felt threatened, and troubled, by the growing normalization of homosexuality.

(Continues...)

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