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The Ellenization of Gay Activism


Lest the title lead to any misunderstanding, I want to make very clear at the outset that this essay is not a criticism of Ellen DeGeneres, either personally or in her professional life. I have a fondness for Ellen actually. She is a perfectly respectable role model for young gay people. So it is not Ellen qua Ellen that I am speaking out against. Rather, it is Ellen as a symbol that bothers me. For as a symbol, Ellen represents the mainstreaming of gay rights issues. And in the mainstreaming of gay issues, it seems to me that the issues that are unique to our community, the issues which make our community non-mainstream, have been pushed to the periphery. It often seems better to us to neglect them or work on them quietly than to risk the project of mainstreaming gay civil rights by bringing these issues to the fore.

This essay could just as easily be titled, “Chelsea’s Story.” Chelsea[1] is a transgendered woman who was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness family. When Chelsea’s brother found out that Chelsea is “gay” (like many, Chelsea’s brother is incapable of viewing her as a woman,) he did what any 6th century Barbarian would do and beat her senseless. Further, he reported her to their religious authorities. Naturally, the Witness authorities were much more concerned about Chelsea’s status as a transgendered woman than they were by the violence that her brother directed against her. So the Witness authorities expelled Chelsea from their religion and ordered Chelsea’s mother to cease giving any material support to Chelsea and to kick her out of the home. Chelsea was 19 years old, and suddenly found herself without any support system whatsoever.

Neal was a gay young man in a nice Christian home. One day, Neal’s parents had a great idea: “Why don’t we break into Neal’s room and read his journal?” To their shock and disgust, Neal’s parents read that Neal is (gasp) GAY!  Wringing their hands, Neal’s parents wondered what to do about this affront to God. Then, one of them apparently had an Aha! moment: “Aha! Neal is only 15. He doesn’t have legal rights to refuse medical treatment that we approve of. So why don’t we force Neal to undergo reparative treatment?”

I do not want to pretend that these sorts of issues are completely off the radar of most gay activists. In fact, in a particularly touching recent piece, Ellen DeGeneres directly confronted violence that had resulted in the death of a 15 year old gay boy. I believe I have seen similar issues confronted by Anderson Cooper. Further, many in the progressive media, both gay and straight, have worked hard against reparative therapy. The culmination of these efforts resulted in California, late last year, being the first state to take decisive action against reparative therapy. These efforts are to be commended.

But, while it simply is not true to say that the LGBT community has completely ignored issues of this sort, I believe it is fair to say that issues like this have been moved to the periphery. The focus of most gay activism has centered on two issues: gay marriage and gay service in the military. And, while I understand the impetus behind this focus, I believe it to be wrongheaded.

One of the primary ways that gay people have sought acceptance is by trying to convince the rest of society that our community is really no different than theirs. Our goals, hopes, aspirations, dreams, and more are just what theirs are. We have tried to blunt hatred by emphasizing sameness. The message is that we want to live our lives, raise our families, and serve our society just like they do. Of course, I do not want to de-emphasize the equal rights aspect of the movement for gay marriage and inclusion of gay individuals in the military. But, it has often seemed to me that the impetus is less a concern for equal rights and more of a desire to emphasize the sameness of gay and straight communities. We want marriage. Why do we want marriage? Because we are just like you: we want to fall in love, get married, and share our lives with the person we love. We want to serve in the armed forces. Why do we want this? Because we appreciate and honor our country, just like you do, and want to serve it.

None of these impulses are inherently wrong. It is true that there is a degree of sameness to the gay and straight communities. But there are important differences that come from being hated rather than hating. I have never heard of a lesbian couple kicking their children out of their home for being straight. I have never heard of two gay men disowning their son because he fell in love with a woman. I have never heard of a gay preacher beating up his son in church, in front of the entire congregation, because his son brought his girlfriend to church. I have never heard of straight children having to hide their sexual orientation from their brothers and sisters for fear of being brutally beaten. I have never heard of straight men and women being kept away from their nieces and nephews because the family fears that the straight person’s sexual orientation will be contagious. I have never heard of people who are homeless and lack any sort of social support simply because they have “made the choice” to be straight.  I have never heard of straight people committing suicide because they feel powerless to meet social expectations that they be gay. I have never heard of a lesbian girl killing a straight boy who asked her to be his valentine. But sadly, the reverse of these events are so depressingly common that it brings tears to the eyes even to contemplate.

When we focus on the sameness of the gay and straight communities, we alienate part of our own community. Thankfully, homophobic attitudes are lessening in society, such that many gay people are now raised by families where that level of hate is unthinkable. They are able to be who they are without fear of losing everything that matters to them. They are able to be openly gay and go to college, maintain family support, find well-paying jobs, and make a success of their lives. For such people, being gay is seldom more than a slight inconvenience, and they may be forgiven for longing for the defeat of the last bastions of official gay inferiority. But for other members of the gay community, such opportunities are nothing more than a taunting fantasy – a life they can see others living but scarcely hope to enjoy themselves.

I have often been attacked for claiming that gay activists need to be more than just gay activists, they need to be human activists. Too often, I wonder about our sense of priorities. When the fight was on for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I was accused of being a self-hating gay man by another gay activist because I vocally opposed admitting gay men and women to the military. “Why are you so anti-gay?” I was asked. “I’m not anti-gay,” I responded, “I’m anti-military.”  I am troubled by anyone’s decision to join an organization that I believe to be responsible for so much suffering worldwide. But gay activists, even those who agree with my sentiments about the U.S. military, are afraid to make those points for fear that they would be betraying the gay cause. They are gay activists first, and human activists second. Their priorities are all wrong.

Another example? During the recent Presidential election I took a lot of heat for suggesting that, for as seriously flawed as many of Ron Paul’s policy suggestions are, he is a lesser evil than Barack Obama in light of Obama’s decision to largely continue the immoral, aggressive foreign policy of Bush/Cheney. I was repeatedly asked how I, a gay man, could possibly fail to realize that Obama, a man who supported gay marriage, was much better for my cause than a known homophobe like Paul. The sentiment was right; Obama was better than Paul on the issue of gay marriage. But the assumption was wrong; why should it be assumed that I care more about gay marriage than the deaths of Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani children?

I hope these last two paragraphs emphasize an important point: it seems that we gay activists often fail to make the right decisions about what to support because we have failed in our task of prioritizing properly.  Compared to the misfortunes which befall many in the gay community, the issue of gay marriage is a mere trifling. How have we lost that focus? How have we lost the ability to discern that issues involving societal conditions which strip many of their most basic source of support are more important and more worthy of our time, energy, and financial backing than issues involving inconveniences caused by the fact that my domestic partnership doesn’t quite give me every single right as a straight person’s marriage?

Is the problem simply one of apathy? Is it simply easier to go downtown for a few hours with one’s friends and hold up a sign than it is to deal with complex social problems for which there are no easy answers?

I have no doubt that is part of it. But I also have no doubt that part of it is what I am terming the Ellenization of Gay Activism: we desperately want to convince the straight community that we are the same as they are. But until they stop ostracizing and alienating their gay children, we have no right to make that claim. I would rather alienate the straight community than those gay youth who have nowhere else to turn.

What do I suggest? To be honest, I am not really sure. As I said before, these complex problems have no easy solution. But what I am convinced of is this: gay youth who have been deprived of familiar support have the same needs as those who come from functional families. If they are to be successful they need a warm, safe place to stay. They need an investment in their education. They need effective mentoring. They need to be protected from exploitation by those who would use their misfortune against them. In short, they need the advantages that are the traditional domain of families. Gay organizations may be short on many things, but cash is not one of them. Money, in the form of investment in safe houses and scholarships, would do much good. For those of us who are short on cash, mentoring is another need that often goes unfulfilled and doesn’t cost a dime. Organizations could do a better job of organizing mentoring programs so gay youth can be assured of effective mentoring that is free of exploitation. Even before these changes are made, a lot of good could be accomplished by shifting our focus away from more trivial matters and more on discussing issues involving the loss of support of many gay youth.

Sometimes, just knowing that someone else understands makes all the difference.

Caleb Castañeda is a human being. He lives with his domestic partner and far too many dogs in California. He can be praised or berated at


[1] Names have been changed.

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