The Gay Rights Movement Is Undoing Its Best Work

Since achieving marriage rights, there’s been a radicalization of the movement’s ideology and rhetoric. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

A new report out from GLAAD suggests that there has been something of a retrenchment in comfort with gay equality. The massive gains of the last couple of decades have stalled a little. While the percentage of people who support equality for gays, lesbians, and transgender people remains at a high of 79 percent, more people are expressing some discomfort: “In 2014, for example, 27 percent of non-LGBT Americans said they would be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ uncomfortable looking at a wedding picture on an LGBT co-worker’s desk. The following year, that figure dipped to 25 percent. Now, it has returned to 27 percent.” The survey shows a similar rise in discomfort in several other day-to-day situations.

Let’s not get carried away here. But some small stalling in momentum seems clear, across so many areas. The question is, why? The mainstream media has no other explanation than, well, Trump, and a culture more tolerant of intolerance. That may well be part of it. But no one seems to notice the profound shift in the tone and substance of advocacy for gay equality in recent years, and the radicalization of the movement’s ideology and rhetoric. That is also surely having an impact.

For a couple of decades, many non-leftists, in the wake of the plague, took more control of the messaging of gay rights. We emphasized those things that united gays and straights, and we celebrated institutions of integration — such as marriage rights and open military service. We portrayed ourselves as average citizens seeking merely the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else — Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. We were largely gender-conforming, which is not in any way better than non-gender-conforming, but this helped get the conversation started and sustained. We adopted a much less leftist stance — and few can really dispute that it was one of the most swiftly successful civil-rights movements in history.

But since Obergefell? As many of us saw our goals largely completed and moved on, the far left filled the void. The movement is now rhetorically as much about race and gender as it is about sexual orientation (“intersectionality”), prefers alternatives to marriage to marriage equality, sees white men as “problematic,” masculinity as toxic, gender as fluid, and race as fundamental. They have no desire to seem “virtually normal”; they are contemptuous of “respectability politics” — which means most politics outside the left. Above all, they have advocated transgenderism, an ideology that goes far beyond recognizing the dignity and humanity and civil equality of trans people into a critique of gender, masculinity, femininity, and heterosexuality. “Live and let live” became: “If you don’t believe gender is nonbinary, you’re a bigot.” I would be shocked if this sudden lurch in the message didn’t in some way negatively affect some straight people’s views of gays.

The left’s indifference to religious freedom — see the question of Masterpiece Cakeshop — has also taken a toll. So have the PC bromides of the LGBTQRSTUV reformulation. It’s a clearly ideological construct, and so it tends to feed ideological polarization, rather than unwind it. The gay-rights movement achieved its biggest gains when we worked against polarization, reached out across the spectrum, emphasized the human rather than the political, and did the key, hard educational work in our families, schools, churches, and neighborhoods. Too many seem eager to forget those lessons.

The Trump era is, I fear, not just about this hideous embarrassment of a president. It’s also fueled by a reaction of many ordinary people to the excesses of the social-justice left — on immigration, race, gender, and sexual orientation. If the gay-rights movement decides to throw in with this new leftism, and abandon the moderation and integrationism of the recent past, they risk turning gay equality from being about a win-win process for gays and straights into a war between “LGBT” people and the rest. That’s a battle none of us need to fight. Especially after the real war was won.

Logging Out

Is social media on the decline? Here’s hoping. A lovely piece in The New Yorker last week by Jia Tolentino lamented the loss of blogging, idiosyncrasy, quirkiness, and intelligence from the web. This set of reflections on the Awl compiled by Max Read in these pages also conveys the essence of the Internet That Nearly Was. Tom Scocca gets the essence of this old era: “What the Awl represented to me was the chance to write exactly what I meant to write, for an audience I trusted to read it.”

I feel entirely the same way about the blogging golden age. What was precious about it was its simple integrity: A writer gets to explore her craft and develop her own audience. We weren’t in it for the money or the clicks or the followers. We were in it for the core experience shared between a writer and a reader — and the enormous freedom that removing the editorial gatekeepers unlocked. It was a brief period, but an alive one, and it was largely lost — or abandoned — because of a major failure of nerve on the part of most print media. (Harper’s was and is a notable exception.) I was there, for example, at The Atlantic, when it felt it had no choice but to abandon its small group of bloggers and their devoted audiences in favor of a business strategy to maximize page views through social media. I witnessed a great American literary institution a century-and-a-half old feel it necessary to suck up to Facebook and Twitter. I saw when the goal across the media shifted from simply writing what you believed, however idiosyncratically, to writing more and more and more, so that the sheer volume of traffic might save the economics of web journalism. The fire-hydrant stream of “content” (“writing” was so passé) was so overwhelming that no single editor could manage it, no group of writers could give it character, and no single reader could even begin to read it all. Maybe the web made this inevitable. But it didn’t make the dissipation of so much heritage any less agonizing to watch.

And after a few years of “social” obsession, online media began to seem all the same: a heaving, pulsating, twitching ocean of hot takes and insta-news in which tribal identity always took precedence over style or elegance or quirkiness or diversity of view. And it didn’t really work as a business model anyway. Instead of consolidating their own readerships and loyalty, magazines became dependent on Zuckerberg and Twitter, vulnerable to shifts in the Facebook News Feed, which is now moving away from news. Increasingly and mercifully, writers and editors are discovering that their actual economic value lies not in countless page views, but in a relationship between readers and writers. Subscriptions increasingly matter more than page views with their diminishing ad revenues, which is why the subscriber buoyancy of the Washington Post and the New York Times is so encouraging. I’m proud that my own blog, the Dish, never bent the knee to social media, and was eventually proof that the best business model was always reader loyalty and engagement — quality, not quantity. Which is why we were able to develop an online subscription model of 30,000 paid and passionate online subscribers — still more than any other purely online website has acquired two years later.

But there’s hope on the horizon again. The sewer of most of Twitter is now so rank that even addicts have begun to realize that they are sinking in oceans of shitholery. Facebook is long overdue for a collapse, and the old institutions are showing signs of developing more character and coherence. Nick Bilton at Vanity Fair cannot wait for FaceTwitterGramChat to peak:

A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.

The evidence that social media has turned journalism into junk, has promoted addictive addlement in our brains, is wrecking our democracy, and slowly replacing life with pseudo-life is beginning to become unavoidable. And the possibility that the media may recover from its loss of nerve is real.

Readers will reward quality. The editors of our day, if we’re lucky, will begin to realize that this is the economic future of journalism, and bank on it again. This tide will turn. Drop your Twitter; abandon Facebook; and buy a subscription to a magazine that is trying to save its own soul.

Science, Not Sexism

And so it has come to pass: “Students* taking maths and computer science examinations in the summer of 2017 [at Oxford University] were given an extra 15 minutes to complete their papers, after [professors] ruled that ‘female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure’.” Notice the “might.” My alma mater was concerned that men were winning twice as many first class degrees as women in the STEM fields and, so they - how else to put this? - changed the rules. When they gave students the extra time, they were able to shift the balance from 2 - 1 to 47 - 39, with men still a plurality of First Class degrees. There are no subjects I know of in which the exam times were lengthened to advantage men.

This is a little odd given the overall advantage that women now hold on campus. Nationally, women now outnumber men in colleges by 45 to 55 percent, and overtook men as long ago as 1978. The Department of Education projects that this imbalance will increase to 42 to 58 percent by 2023, giving women a real edge in the higher-paying workplace. Women now have a lower unemployment rate than men. Unequal pay? Yes, there’s a median pay gap of 23 cents between men and women in all jobs. But when you adjust this number to examine whether men are, on average, paid more for exactly the same work as women, it shrinks considerably. Control for the type of jobs (and how well they pay), majors in college, and the length of time in the workforce (not affected by pregnancy and early motherhood), and, as a recent study (by the American Association of University Women, no less) found, the gap becomes around six or seven cents. That’s seven cents too much, but it is still unclear to what extent sexism — although it obviously plays a part — contributes to it, compared with many other factors. If anything, it seems clear that the future for most women in the marketplace is better than for most men. The value of physical labor is fast declining; the demand for jobs that involve interpersonal relationships and college degrees (where women excel) keeps growing. It can get a little difficult to believe in the enduring nature of a crude patriarchy when you look at these data.

That’s why one of the highlights of the web this last week has been an epic interview on British television between the University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson and his interviewer, one Cathy Newman:

As Peterson pointed out facts about gender, making careful distinctions, Newman kept putting obviously misleading words into his mouth, insulted him, tried to marginalize him until it became abundantly apparent that she was not exactly used to being challenged so rigorously on the premises of her worldview. She did not seem ready accept, for example, that it’s perfectly possible to be an enthusiastic believer in female opportunity and also believe that men and women are inherently, naturally different, in many important ways, and will end up with, on average, different roles in the culture and society. In more progressive countries, as in Scandinavia, there is a greater differentiation between the kinds of jobs and occupations the genders choose. More equality gives you more choice — and gives you more gender difference. It is therefore not an outrage that there are more men working as computer coders than women, and far more women working as nurses than men. It is a function of equality, not inequality, that these differences exist.

The same unwillingness to entertain a complex thought was also revealed in the responses last week to my post on testosterone. Jessica Valenti claimed that I was justifying abuse and harassment on the grounds of testosterone. Of course not. I was describing male behavior as largely driven by testosterone, and therefore inexplicable without it. No one can actually refute this, so they misdirect. Valenti simply ignores hormones entirely. In Slate, Evan Urquhart, a transgender man, has had to grapple with this question. And he describes his transition from estrogen to testosterone as really no big deal. He argues that it only affects superficial physical traits, not behavioral or psychological ones, as if our brains were not part of our bodies, as if testosterone reached the neck and decided, I’m done now! But then he offers some caveats. He admits “a change in horniness, but it was a change in frequency, not in kind,” as well as the fact that testosterone made him less likely to cry, and more likely to be angry or irritable. So apart from making him horny all the time, less weepy, and more aggressive and impatient, it really explains nothing about male behavior!

Is this so outrageous an idea: When one gender feels crazy horny all of the time and the other has a more episodic experience of it, it has relevance to the sexual dynamics between men and women? When you examine animals, you find that testosterone has more power than chromosomes in changing behavior. As I noted two decades ago, “species in which the female is typically more aggressive, like hyenas in female-run clans, show higher levels of testosterone among the females than among the males. Female sea snipes, which impregnate the males, and leave them to stay home and rear the young, have higher testosterone levels than their mates.” We now know that girl chimps play with dolls, just like human girls. Boys — chimps and humans — mostly don’t.

I’m not saying that humans are merely animals. Our massive brains make us far more complex. But we are not supernatural. We are not abstract Kantian creatures in theoretical spaces. We are advanced primates on planet Earth, and the more we understand science, the more obvious that becomes. It frustrates me that progressives seem so afraid of this. It seems at times as if those who celebrate diversity are also terrified of it. The idea that men might be profoundly different than women or that the different outcomes between the genders might be caused by something other than the patriarchy are ideas deemed too toxic to consider. It’s time they weren’t.

See you next Friday.

* In the original version of this article, I mistakenly misread the original source and claimed that only female students were given an extra fifteen minutes. I regret the error.

Sullivan: The Gay Rights Movement Is Undoing Its Best Work