As a freelance broadcast technician, some days I have to get up at 3AM to run camera, lights, and sound for corporate news shows like Good Morning America, The Early Show, and Meet the Press. The combination of sleep deprivation and old white guys yakking routinely tests my ability to stay awake and attentive. In order to pass the time, I sometimes try to focus less on the news, and more on the construction of the news and its discourses, lending equal attention to form and content. The producers know that people will be watching through pre-coffee morning haze –these shows are called “Breakfast Television,” after all. So, what is being communicated underneath and between the script, so subtle it won’t distract from your toast, but so prevalent it structures the very way watch you watch? (What lends the anchor their authority as a speaker? Who’s wearing makeup, and how much? Who’s speaking on behalf of whom? What’s being sold?) These wonderings give me something to think about as I push the volume sliders up and down.
Fortunately, most weekdays I go to my other job (at a slightly more humane hour), where I talk to high schoolers about safer sex, birth control, sexuality, healthy relationships, and consent. My two jobs can seem worlds apart: one involves telecommunication, scripts, and advertising; the other, face-to-face interaction, empathy, and moments of sheer vulnerability. And yet, my students’ experiences (filtered through a background in radical sex and queer theory) challenge me to think about where and how media, school, and sex intersect, and what these intersections reveal about each.
* * *
On October 3rd of this past year, the American Family Association (AFA) published a press release “exposing” the Mix It Up at Lunch program, which once a year brings together students of different socioeconomic status, racial background, and sexual orientation at lunchtime in order to break down social cliques and isolation.
The AFA’s contention, broadcast by its leader, Bryan Fischer, in an interview on CNN, was that Mix it Up is “designed… to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools… and push its gay agenda.”
There’s a lot being invoked in that soundbite, and it’s worth unpacking. When Bryan Fischer mentions “the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools,” he’s inserting himself into a history of homophobic fear-mongering that goes back a hundred years. George Chauncey has documented how in the 1930s and 40s gay men were characterized in public media campaigns as sexually abusing children, which set the stage for a long lineage of public homophobia justified in the unspoken interest of creating straight kids. Folks who were alive in the 1970s (or have seen the Harvey Milk biopic Milk) may remember California’s 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gays from teaching in public schools for fear that they’d make the students gay; others may find it helpful to think back to Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned gay marriage in California after supporters notoriously distributed literature featuring the slogan “Protect the Children!” Historically, few politicians have made the link as explicit as Senator Jesse Helms, who in 1989 sponsored an amendment to refuse federal funding to any organization “promot[ing]… or produc[ing] images of… homo-eroticism, [and] the sexual exploitation of children.” So it is not a stretch to say that when Bryan Fischer warns us about “the gay agenda,” this is a PG-13 way of claiming, “the homos in the cafeteria are going to make your kids gay and then fuck them in the ass.”
Of course, CNN’s anchor didn’t call Fischer out on what, exactly, he was insinuating with his talk of, “the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools.” (And to her credit, she eventually just cut him off.) Instead, here’s how the story played itself out: The center-left media took Fischer’s bait, accusing the AFA of a category mistake. Maureen Costello, Director of the lunch program, countered: “Teaching Tolerance and “Mix it Up” day have nothing to do with sexuality… Bryan Fischer sees the homosexual agenda in a dish of ice cream.” At first blush Costello’s response feels right; Mix It Up is about “breaking down barriers,” increasing diversity, and other laudable, standard liberal fare, none of which is explicitly gay. One can even imagine Mix It Up as an advertisement for heterosexuality, bringing together straight students of the “opposite” sex. As a logical refutation of Fischer’s bullshit, this might be a good start–but it also completely misses the point.
Fischer’s argument is a straw man: not just a “misrepresentation” of the Mix It Up program, as Costello put it, but an intentional one. That’s the bait. Fischer and the AFA get to unilaterally set the terms of the debate: to claim where “the homosexual agenda” is or isn’t present. The “homosexual agenda” is so historically overdetermined that it is literally undebatable, meaning homophobia becomes hard-wired as the very currency of the discourse. The stage is thus set for Fischer to blather on CNN, and for both Fischer and Costello to get quoted in the New York Times. Other news orgs, from ABC to the Huffington Post, as well as gay blogs like Queerty, Toweroad, the Human Rights Campaign’s blog, and JoeMyGod then run the story in this same he-said, she-said format. Two hundred schools drop out of Mix It Up, and another 180 join. Tit for tat.
What’s missing from the entire scuffle is anything remotely queer. No one questions whether the school cafeteria is really the asexual space that American liberalism insists it must be and pretends it already is. Within this premise, Fischer presents a nightmare that school could become a space for “alternative sexual behavior”; that if sex and school collide, students may question the narrative they’ve been fed about waiting until marriage, monogamy, procreation, and privacy as the bedrock of personhood. So the “homosexual agenda” is a trope for the threat not only to children’s sexual integrity (the physical integrity of their virginal hymens and assholes), but also the moral integrity that hinges on how, where, and whom they fuck. Costello’s assertion that “Mix It Up has nothing to do with [any] sexuality” is her ground for legitimacy because public youth sexuality is so haunted by the twin specters of pedophilia and gay recruitment that it is an all-or-nothing affair. Either there is no sexuality in the cafeteria, or the cafeteria is full of sweaty, queer bodies indoctrinating and fucking everywhere you look. Once the public debate has been set up this way, Costello has only one option–no sex. Such is the power of the trope of the “homosexual agenda.”
But this is exactly the point and the moment for critical intervention: the school cafeteria, like all non-explicitly-queer spaces (e.g., the rest of the school), is a sexual space–a heterosexual space. From the cutesy drawings of straight families on the mini milk cartons, to the narratives in history textbooks (which at best minoritize “gay rights” to a post-war footnote), to the gender-segregated bathrooms, to the posters for candidates for prom king and queen, to the abstinence-only or “family planning”-focused sex ed curriculum, to the school-sanctioned violence visited on queer and trans students, the cafeteria perpetuates the heterosexual indoctrination that is simply the background noise of American society. As Michael Warner puts it, heterosexuality is “the one thing celebrated in every film plot, every sitcom, every advertisement. It is the one thing to which every politician pays obeisance, couching every dispute over guns and butter as an effort to protect family, children, and home.” By pretending that the cafeteria isn’t already rife with straight sexuality, Costello et al. miss the opportunity to discuss whether it should be and what form it should take.
In other words, what Costello won’t ask is why it would be so fucking bad if two (or more) young women met at Mix It Up and decided to spend fourth period discovering their bodies together behind the bleachers. She won’t ask why it would be bad if a “homosexual agenda” were indeed being served up with the tater tots and chocolate milk–if, that is, the cafeteria were a little less straight. Nor, for that matter, will she ask what the homosexual agenda really is, and what it ought to be. And she can’t ask these questions because she’s already accepted Fischer’s terms of the debate, which are calculated to obscure the construction and ubiquity of heterosexuality, desexualize public space, and foreclose debate about queerness in schools. We need not look past the name of her program–Teaching Tolerance–to see why this concession was necessary. Tolerance –liberal egalitarianism as social policy–offers a place at the table in exchange for fealty to the status quo that bestowed the privilege to begin with. (Consider the gay marriage movement: gays and lesbians can cash in on the benefits of marriage as long as they don’t question the couple form, monogamy, and private property.) Tolerance says, “the queers in the corner deserve to eat lunch in peace like everybody else.” But it says nothing about why it might be awesome to be young and queer, much less what their straight peers, teachers, and parents could learn from them–if only they’d let themselves be “indoctrinated.”
Of course, we shouldn’t expect the mainstream press to ask students to question their sexuality. When stuff like this happens, the media producers’ goal is to win the debate on the terms in which it was found and score some rhetorical points (and ratings). It will poke holes in the sham arguments put forth and proclaim a job well-done. The homophobic fire will be temporarily extinguished, and mass attention will soon drift to the next news cycle. But that’s not to say we can’t learn from the mainstream press. Our suspicion that something is gravely lacking from the discussion can incite us to examine what’s not being asked, like how heterosexuality is at once ubiquitous and obscured at school. Further, the rabid focus on the “homosexual agenda” calls us to question the homophobia that frames the discourse. When’s the last time you heard a queer person non-ironically refer to the “homosexual agenda”? Never, which confirms what we’ve known for years: these words aren’t ours. More to the point, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about the “straight agenda?” Rarely,* which means there’s a lot of room for us as queers to represent ourselves on our terms.
What I’m suggesting, then, is that we may be able to harness–in an interesting, potent way–the revulsion to corporate media that so many of us share. We can queer the media. These moments are opportunities to break the he-said, she-said confines of debate in order to question, reappropriate, and reinvent the terms–whether this transformation takes place over coffee, on an Internet forum, or live on Democracy Now. This doesn’t require that we grab a notepad and tune into CNN. (I, for one, would love to see the creation of a radical queer zine, The Homosexual Agenda, which would parody the term itself, offering a third way between homophobia and the heteronormative fetishizing of marriage.) The point is that we don’t have to be stuck in a binary of agreeing with what’s said (and buying what’s advertised), or tuning out.
Recently, as an experiment, I took Costello’s quip about Bryan Fischer “see[ing] the homosexual agenda in a bowl of ice cream” seriously, and to the website of the ice cream company closest to my house, Dryer’s. As of this writing, the three images rotate through their splash page portray: a woman cuddling with a young child who resembles her, each with a bowl of ice cream; a middle-aged man and woman feeding each other ice cream; and a woman handing bowls of ice cream to two children. A bowl of ice cream, evidently, is as much an advertisement for procreative, familial heterosexuality as it is for frozen dairy products. That we don’t immediately see the straight agenda swirled into the chocolate and caramel indicates only how well the dominance of heterosexuality, like fake sugars and preservatives, has been hidden.
* Note: The 2012 Yes on Prop 1 campaign deserves limited props for warning that schools would push a “radical straight agenda” in Maine if the proposed same-sex marriage law failed.