Reviewed by Natalie P. Kapur, Department of Political Science, University at Albany, SUNY. Email: nkapur [at] albany.edu.
Gilreath presents an interesting and thought provoking account of the life and struggles of a gay American today. The book is split into three parts: Equality and Making Meaning; Equality, Sexuality, and Expression; and finally Millenial Equality: A primer on Gay Liberation in the Twenty-First Century.
Before presenting a summary of the book, a note on the author is appropriate; he states his stake in the subject matter, writing a narrative of the struggle for gay liberation from the lens of a gay man. This, he notes, has received both praise and disapproval. Writing from this vantage point does not inherently make the book biased, but rather more engaging through the passionate writing of an individual who is facing these daily struggles. One criticism of this would be that at times he overstates his point. However, this does not take away from the overall powerful message of the book.
Chapter 1 introduces readers into the study of straight supremacy. He urges gay individuals to seek gay liberation and reject the Heteroarchy, defined as “the system of straight over Gay domination” (p.2). He further advocates gay individuals refuse to assimilate into the straight culture permeating American society and seek substantive equality. He calls equality a “radical idea,” something that has been sorely lacking in the lives of gay individuals (p.3). Despite various judicial victories, substantive equality has yet to be achieved. He advises the method of the book is the engagement of law with life, hoping a new world order will result, one that sees homosexuality as more than just an absence of heterosexuality.
The second chapter discusses the caste system, analogizing gays to the lowest Hindu caste, the Untouchables. Gilreath finds this parallel not subtle; it is a stigma permeating both Hindu and contemporary American society, where gays are excluded from “traditional heterosexual enclaves” such as marriage and the Boy Scouts (p.37). One question Gilreath discusses here is the idea of immutability, asking how one proves immutability. Still, he asserts that heterosexuals subordinate gays through societal rules favoring heterosexual practices. This we see if we look at Bowers v. Hardwick, challenging ay law that criminalized sodomy without regard to the genders of the participants. Justice White maintained there was no constitutional right to engage in private homosexual sodomy, [*89] focusing his opinion almost exclusively on the rights of homosexuals rather than the broader right of privacy given to all, and upholding the law under the rational basis test. Gilreath uses others cases, including Romer v. Evans (1996), in which the Supreme Court applied the rational basis test rather than the strict scrutiny test employed by the Colorado courts, and Brown v. Board of Education, to illustrate the difficulties with the three tiers of judicial scrutiny used by the Supreme Court, asserting that rather than giving equal rights to homosexuals it perpetuates the hierarchy of heterosexuality above homosexuality. Further, Brown was decided without any mention of the immutability of race. Therefore, is it really a useful concept?
Chapter 3 critiques Lawrence v. Texas. While this decision has been applauded for the good it did for gay rights, Gilreath presents an alternative vision of the outcome. He maintains, through a sometimes overstated argument, that Lawrence did not really have any substantive effect on the plight of gay individuals in their quest for equality or liberation from straight supremacy. The argument regarding Lawrence is overemphasized. The decision in Lawrence gave gay people “equivalence under the law” but not equality, thereby serving to “entrench heterodominance” (p.72). Gilreath claims that in using privacy (or substantive liberty) doctrine as opposed to equal protection, Justice Kennedy solidified the status of gays on the fringes of constitutional doctrine. While Equal Protection is squarely within text of the Fourteenth Amendment, the more ambiguous right to privacy is found in the penumbras of the Bill of Rights. In Lawrence, the Court chose an assimilationist path, asserting that gay people’s equality is defined as “equivalence to the preexisting heteronormative standard” (p.78). That is to say, if you want to be equivalent to straight people, you should be the same as them, with gay people being deserving of these protections because they are “like” straight people, not because they are gay people, individuals and humans within society. The assimilation argument, however, does run true and is presented clearly not only in this chapter but also throughout the text.
In chapter four Gilreath explores the substantive equality theory of freedom of speech, examining “anti-identity” speech (p.112) by focusing on two cases where an individual’s freedom of speech was under consideration. The first, Harper v. Poway Unified School District, involved a student wearing a T-shirt with a degrading message towards homosexuality. In upholding the School’s decision to suspend the student, the court’s decision clearly indicated both words and language mattered. The majority concluded the language of the t-shirt impinged upon the rights of other students to be free from such attacks while on a school campus. They also found the message on the t- shirt interfered with the rights of gay and lesbian students to learn. Linked to speech is the fact gay individuals are more likely to be the victims of assaults [*90] and degrading insults throughout their lives, especially in their youth. As in the other chapters, Gilreath points to disagreements he has with the court in forwarding equality for gay individuals. Throughout this chapter he presents the stories of young men and women who were victimized by anti-gay individuals with dire consequences. One concern in this chapter is the analogy of anti-speech to the Nazi’s anti-Jew campaign. This comparison, while noteworthy, may be overstated ; the Nazi regime was abhorrent, and while gay and lesbian individuals in America face inequalities in everyday life, the “heteroarchy” is not attempting to eliminate gays and lesbians from society as the Nazis were doing with Jews.
The fifth chapter deals with pornography. In a society where straight pornography is the norm, Gilreath argues in very colorful language that gay pornography still emphasizes the domination of one person and the submission of another with the image of a straight male figure as the aggressor. Although defenders of pornography have lauded it as free speech, Gilreath questions whose speech is it protecting, arguing that gay persons have constantly been silenced, even in the most basic sense, of “coming out” (p.194).
Chapter 6 reflects on gay marriage, concerned with the proposition that there is “no other way for gay people to be fully equal to non-gay people… than to participate in the same legal institution” (p.215). This Gilreath would reject because again gay individuals are assimilating to the straight world they inhabit. A debate has been raging between advocates for gay marriage and those questioning why gays and lesbians would even want to enter into this patriarchal institution. Gilreath argues that those who want marriage are ascribing to the heteroarchy that he urges them to resist; this does not represent gay liberation on his terms, as marriage is ultimately a heterosexual institution.
In the penultimate chapter Gilreath takes on those who have attacked the “emergent marriage equality laws and state antidiscrimination paradigms” (p.233), which are neatly housed in the volume Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts, edited by Douglas Laycock, Anthony R. Picarello Jr. and Robin Fretwell Wilson. Gilreath argues that the book does not contain any serious discussion of the equality aspect of same sex marriage (p.234). With a focus on one essay by Wilson analogizing same sex marriage to abortion, Gilreath argues this distorts the real equality issue, which Wilson does not satisfactorily engage in. While the analogy to abortion is interesting, it fails to stand up to the rigor or equal protection analysis as the various analogies to interracial marriage would. This, in and of itself, however, is still an incomplete comparison. Miscegenation laws and prohibitions on same sex marriage are two different beasts. Emerging Conflicts engages in what Gilreath sees as ultimately problematic – that religious entities will not be required [*91] to participate in same sex marriages and that this undercuts the seismic change that gay marriage will have.
The final chapter focuses on transsexualism and lists a number of ways in which men and women in different cultures seek to become someone else through surgery. One example presented is the practice of “footbinding” among Chinese women to make them more desirable to men. Some men refer to gay men with the feminine pronoun, to make sense of their sexual practices in a world where straight supremacy rules, and Gilreath believes transsexuality to come about as a result of the same phenomenon; this need to rationalize their same sex desires in a predominantly heterosexual world. This is also far-fetched. It does not appear, at least to me, that male to female transsexuals or female to male transsexuals undergo a lengthy and expensive process to “fit in” with the majority of society. Indeed, many post-operative transsexuals still identify as gay; it is their body that does not conform to the gender they believe they are, not necessarily their sexuality.
Overall Gilreath presents a very compelling account of the lives of gay individuals in America. While he certainly overstates some of the connections he makes and the conclusions he draws, refusing to assimilate to the way straight people “do things” is a noteworthy endeavor. He ends by asserting that the law is circuitous in many ways. “It both embodies prejudices and begets them, often enforcing and suggesting forms of bias simultaneously” (p.251). This is certainly true, if we look not only to gay rights but also to other claims throughout history, including women’s rights and rights for interracial couples.
Laycock, Douglas, Anthony R. Picarello Jr. and Robin Fretwell Wilson (eds). 2008. Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. Lanham, Md: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Rowman & Littlefield.CASES CITED:
Bowers v. Hardwick 478 U.S. 186 (1986).
Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Harper v. Poway Unified School District 445 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006).
Romer v. Evans 517 U.S. 620 (1996).
Copyright 2012 by the author, Natalie P. Kapur.