A tale of Vespuccia

Imagine that there is a nation, Vespuccia, a democratic country with a wide spectrum of political opinion but whose policies are nevertheless strongly influenced by hardline religious conservatives. Exploiting a wave of fear and credulity among their citizens, the hardliners announce that it’s time to get tough and launch a “war on homosexuality.” Vespuccians have different opinions about this, but in the end the country pretty much goes along with it. Over time, the social fallout from this “war” is devastating.

Vespuccia is a country of 32 million people, about the size of Saudi Arabia. In the four decades of the War on Homosexuality, 4 million people are arrested for “crimes” related to being gay. Four million people in a nation of 32 million! This warps Vespuccian policies, laws, policing, and political discourse in ways so profound and pervasive they are hard even for political moderates to see.

For example, because sexual behavior takes place largely in private, the hardliners insist that homosexuality will never be defeated unless the police are granted extraordinary powers to search and seize private property. Vespuccia has a constitution that ostensibly protects private property from unwarranted intrusion, but the national court system, doing its part for the War on Homosexuality, has ruled so consistently in favor of police and prosecutors that constitutional search-and-seizure protections are effectively dead. To make sure that police are sufficiently diligent — who knows how many of them might be secretly gay? — the hardliners incentivize aggressive searching by passing laws that allow the police to keep any property where gay sex has taken place, or where gay porn (even, sometimes, gay literary fiction) has been found.

You can imagine what happens: local governments and police departments across Vespuccia generate huge revenues from seizures, many of them enabled by trumped-up charges or set up by informers who are cut in on the profits. Children are encouraged by their church leaders and schoolteachers to snitch on gay family members; ordinary people who have run afoul of the War on Homosexuality are extorted into spying on their neighbors. This is reminiscent of the way the STASI managed to suborn much of the civilian population of East Germany in order to monitor and control political dissidence. Verpuccians insist that their situation is totally different: in East Germany, state coercion was used to stifle political dissent, whereas in Vespuccia, people enjoy freedom of political conscience. It’s only sexual preference that’s being controlled, and that’s just a lifestyle choice. Anyway, you have to control sexuality, or who knows where it all leads.

Since being gay is a crime, gay people are, by definition, criminals. An endless series of TV shows and movies feature homosexual villains who pervert children and destroy traditional marriages, and viewers cheer as the criminals are beaten, tortured, and killed by heroic cops — rugged loners who play by their own rules and get results, despite whatever liberal pantywaists might say. Real-life confrontations between cops and gay criminals are breathlessly reported by the media and framed in the manner of TV cop shows. Homosexuality is equated with terrorism in the public mind. The hardliners point to violent incidents and remind the people that this is a war. So few people complain when the state arrogates war powers to itself in dealing with “homosexual terror.” Small-town police departments get armored troop carriers and machine guns; the Federal police are secretly given sweeping powers of warrantless electronic surveillance. Some citizens are angry about this, but not enough for much to change. After all, there’s a war on.

Of course, the real social cost of the War on Homosexuality is in the individual lives of the people who are caught up in an undeclared gulag. This cost cannot be calculated. One can list statistics, but the figures are so vast they hardly even register. (As they say, one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic.) The War on Homosexuality has cost this small country 100 billion dollars. Vespuccia has the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the world, leading even Russia (Russia!) by a wide margin, and needless to say, all those prisons cost a lot of money. (Prisons are good business in Vespuccia, though, and businessmen who build prisons donate handsomely to the election campaigns of hardliners.) Ninety per cent of prisoners in Vespuccia’s overcrowded prisons are non-violent offenders. Unsurprisingly, ethnic minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented in prison populations. Patterns of sexual preference remain pretty consistent across society, but members of Vespuccia’s dark-skinned minority are ten times more likely to arrested.

Wealthier citizens can buy their way out of all but the worst trouble, but for a lot of young people growing up in the ghettos scattered throughout Vespuccian cities, a single brush with the law will screw them for life. Imagine the toll of losses. The first loss is your love, which the state has declared a crime. But then you also lose years of your life to a prison sentence. You lose your money and property. You lose the means to earn a decent living, since when you are released, you are required to tell prospective employers of your criminal past, and only the most exploitative or the most bafflingly humane of bosses will hire you. You lose your family and friends, many of whom will never speak to you again or (best case scenario) treat you as an embarrassment. And you lose you ability to love freely. If you don’t end up back in prison, you spend the rest of your life crippled by shame and fear. A few former prisoners are unrepentant and vow to continue living and loving as before, but theirs is the martyr’s path: they are subjected to endless harassment and surveillance and may serve decades more in prison to serve a principle of social justice that the rest of society seems to care little about.

Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing are two historical examples of gay men who lost life, love, liberty, and happiness for the non-crime of being gay. Imagine a society in which this is an everyday story. Imagine living in a community where almost everyone you know has a friend or relative in prison for their sexuality.

Now, as this is an academic blog, I should note what effect the Vespuccian War on Homosexuality has had on its universities. It goes without saying that they’re not very big on queer theory in Vespuccia. However, a couple of professors are beginning to do work in queer studies, though they cannot get funding for their work, have difficulty gaining access to the materials they need, and have to deal with a lot of official and unofficial suspicion. An academic working in queer studies cannot discuss even the most basic aspects of her work without being subjected to leering questions about her own sexuality. It is assumed that no-one would even bring up such a topic unless she were secretly homosexual. Students who want to do this kind of research have to be careful whom they tell about their interests: most of their professors will react with hostility or dismissal, and even the most sympathetic of them will advise their students to keep their real research agenda quiet until it is professionally safe — which often means until after tenure.

And really, it’s not safe even then. Queer studies professors don’t just put up with unsympathetic colleagues and the general assumption that they are degenerate freaks. They attract the attention of the authorities. Their homes are raided repeatedly by police. They are subjected to various forms of intimidation. One scholar finds herself listed in a new book by a celebrity conservative pundit; the book is called 100 Enemies of Vespuccia And What To Do About Them.

Academia is a relatively marginal part of Vespuccian society. But every part of Vespuccian society, even the ones most distant from real political power, has been corrupted in one way or another by the War on Homosexuality. Decades on, the War on Homosexuality shows no sign of ending. Strictly speaking, it can never end, since being gay is simply a part of what it is to be human, and human beings will always be willing to take huge risks in order to live authentically and express their true sexuality. But the point was never to end homosexuality; only the stupidest of the clerics ever believed that possible. The point is and always was control.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all is how few people have noticed how bad things have gotten. That’s partly because it happened gradually and partly because even the Vespuccian liberals don’t really care what happens to gay people. (Except, of course, for gay Vespuccian liberals.) There is no part of the left political spectrum that is a reliable ally. The centrists pride themselves on their hard-headed realism and insist they have  bigger fish to fry — issues of labor, the environment, infrastructure, etc. — and what they call lifestyle issues are of minor importance. The Marxists are contemptuous of the “mere libertarianism” of those who stick up for gay rights. And though they would never admit to this, Vespuccian progressives are used to being marginalized in their society and want to keep whatever hard-won respectability they have earned. They don’t want to be associated with a bunch of queers. The politics of gay liberation tends to be single-issue: gay rights activists tend to work only on gay rights issues. Some of their best allies are actually heterodox conservatives. This only makes gay people more suspect in the eyes of progressives.

In recent years, a wave of reform and liberalization has slowly taken root in Vespuccia, and the respectable-liberal types have at last condescended to acknowledge that these people, however silly and self-indulgent they might be, shouldn’t be arrested or jailed for their peculiar sexual tastes. Tolerance should be extended even to these laughable misfits. Op-Ed pieces appear in favor of Homosexual Decriminalization (outright legalization being perhaps a bit too extreme). Their arguments are almost entirely negative and pragmatic: the financial burden, waste of lives, and erosion of civil liberties are too high a cost for the War on Homosexuality to be worth it. Left almost completely unstated the possibility that there is a positive argument to be made for gay liberation: being gay is a valid way of life, and gay people are valuable as gay people, not despite being gay.

Next time: what the point of all this is.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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