Understanding and Mastering the Debate

Last week, Howard Dean gave a rousing speech at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in New York City, but the new party chairman didn’t talk about money. He spoke about messaging.

Dean’s promising attempt to frame a winning agenda for the moribund Democrats is comparable to the place where the gay rights movement finds itself at present—moving in the right direction, but nowhere near the final destination.

The larger context of a polarized American electorate that dogs the Democratic Party today provides insight as to how the gay rights movement needs to maneuver in the near future.

Two buzzwords—messaging and framing—have become crucial in the lexicon of political operatives seeking to woo the valuable middle ground of the electorate.

In his speech, Dean spoke of the attitudes of Republican and independent voters who could be persuaded to vote for Democrats. One portion of that group is traditional Democrats who have shifted party allegiance out of some mechanism that might be thought of as backlash. These voters, the former Vermont governor said, have such a high level of “economic anxiety,” that it is “off-the charts.” He stressed the need for Democrats to stress the compassion at the heart of their economic thinking, but all he could do was state the problem, he couldn’t show the compassion.

In other words, Dean understands the problem, but has no immediate solution. My point isn’t to criticize but to suggest the movement for equal rights for lesbians, gays, and bisexual and transgendered people is in a similar place. We are learning what has to be done, but we are not yet able to accomplish it—though I am confident we can.

Creating a new political consensus is the essence of messaging and its companion, framing. George Lakoff, the University of California at Berkley linguist who has done applied research into the development of ways for Democrats to overcome the Republican right’s attack machine, believes proper framing increases unity among progressives and produces programs with great popular appeal.

Framing, Lakoff writes, is about finding the words that fit our worldview.

“The ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas,” he argues.

The words evoke the worldview that we are presenting. According to Lakoff, the initial step in creating a frame begins with scholars who expound the theory. Next comes translating that broader perspective into snap phrases allow the mainstream to connect specific proposals to the larger theory, in the way that conservatives describe estate taxes on the wealthy as a death tax. The snap phrases are only meaningful, however, if the underlying worldview has been adequately articulated in popular discourse.

As the gay movement develops new frames for responding to the right wing, a University of California at Davis psychology professor, Gregory M. Herek, challenges the community to rethink its reliance on the term homophobia. Last year, Herek created a stir with a scholarly article, “Beyond ‘Homophobia’: Thinking About Sexual Prejudice and Stigma in the Twenty-First Century,” written for the National Sexuality Resource Center.

Herek argued that the term refers to starkly different psychological realities unrelated to the true definition of “phobic,” such as phobias of snakes, heights, crowds or whatever occasionally disrupts an individual’s life. The person suffering from that sort of phobia often understands that the fear is irrational, albeit so powerful that it can’t be controlled.

Homophobia, on the other hand, wrote Herek, “appears as antagonism directly toward a particular group of people. Inevitably, it leads to disdain toward the people themselves, and to mistreatment of them.”

Herek does not dismiss the value that the term homophobia has had in the gay rights movement.

“Anti-gay critics have recognized the power inherent in homophobia,” he wrote. “Former U.S. Congressman William Dannemeyer complained that homophobia shifts the terms of debate away from the idea ‘that homosexuals are disturbed people by saying that it is those who disapprove of them who are mentally unbalanced, that they are in the grips of a ‘phobia.’”

But, fear is not an adequate description of the prejudices facing the movement today, Herek argues. Anger and disgust are “central to heterosexuals’ negative response.” Herek says that it is misleading to see this antagonism as a personality trait of individuals. It is part of the culture and in the hands of conservative activists; it is an organized political doctrine.

“Their condemnation of homosexuality may have little to do with personal fear and much to do with their religious values and strong identification with anti-gay organizations,” Herek wrote. “Labeling them homophobic obscures the true sources of their hostility.”

Herek acknowledged that his view requires a “more nuanced” approach, but he says the advance is critical in creating a new theory what will help the gay community resist the growing right-wing attacks on homosexuality and their attempts to revive the libel that gays are child molesters. Herek suggests the term sexual prejudice. His “ultimate concern is anti-gay actions,” and in developing tools to combat stigmatizing prejudices that oppress people.

One part of the complex nature of a stigma such as that related to anti-gay prejudice is that “it engulfs the entire identity of the person who has it,” Herek wrote. “Stigma does not entail social disapproval of merely one aspect of an individual, as might be the case for an annoying habit or a minor personality flaw. Rather, it trumps all other traits and qualities. Once they know about a person’s stigmatized status, others respond to the individual mainly in terms of it. Finally, the roles of the stigmatized and normal are not simply complementary or symmetrical. They are differentiated by power. Stigmatized groups have less power and access to resources than do normals.”

Herek’s conclusion that sexual prejudice is an instrument of oppression correctly captures the essence of the current right-wing attack. If the right’s perspective viewpoint predominates, the queer community would be tightly supervised by law enforcement and other official actions, especially regarding entry to professions like schoolteachers, counselors and clergy.

The redefinition of homophobia goes beyond giving it a new name; it implies a whole new frame evoking the right-wing’s antipathy towards privacy and its support for police control of stigmatized groups.

Properly framed, that argument potentially has very strong resonance among the American people.