Much as I maligned Dan Savage’s discussion with Chris Hayes a few months ago, I have to give him credit – he at least asked an openly queer person to analyze and comment on policies and attitudes that impact queer people. Last Friday, while Alex Wagner was filling in for Lawrence O’Donnell, that was sorely lacking as MSNBC juxtaposed Rob Portman’s new public support for marriage equality with the most vocal voices at the on-going Conservative Political Action Conference. Instead of hearing a very specific gay man (who, of course, is cisgender, White, and an upper class celebrity) speak as though he represented the entire queer community, we actually had MSNBC ask for commentary from either closeted or straight people on one straight man’s opinions on queer people and associated policies. Oh dear.
There was, at the least, a variety of perspectives presented. I agreed fairly strongly with Ari Melber’s point that the Rob Portman’s “evolution” to a queer-friendly perspective is underwhelming in that it took one of his children being queer for him to even consider changing his publicly supported policies (and then took him two years to do so – because this should really be about whether he’s comfortable). Ana Marie Cox, who has been subjected to false allegations of having had an affair with a woman but didn’t comment as to her own sexuality in denying them, retorted, “I don’t think it’s necessarily sad that this is what it took Portman to change to his mind. I’m a supporter of marriage equality – I’ll take what I can get.”
The meaning of that statement cannot be divorced from Cox’s primarily undisclosed sexual orientation. If, though previously married to a man, Cox identifies as queer in some way, her disagreement comes from a very specific place. She is deciding that policies that impact her, which she wants altered in a specific way, are important enough that while Portman’s support might decenter people like her from the discussion, she’s willing to accept that as a price for political change. On the other hand, if she identifies as straight, this sentence is pretty damning. In that case, this was a declaration that as a supporter for that policy she has the right to determine what support for it is valid and what is not – that such decisions aren’t the exclusive property of those directly affected by it. In a literal sense, she would be giving herself permission to determine the shape and form of activism and policy-outcomes that don’t directly impact her, essentially speaking over the voices of actually affected queer people.
Before we cheer on Ari Melber or even Alex Wagner for avoiding such potential foot-in-mouth statements, it’s worth noting that not only were both of them party to this (presumably straight-only) discussion focused on straight people’s feelings about legal recognition of queer families, but they’ve been connected to other such discussions in the past. Melber, while sitting in for Wagner on her usual afternoon show, led a discussion at the end of last year on then Senator Chuck Hagel’s anti-gay comments in the context of his eventually successful installment as Defense Secretary. Like this (ostensibly straight-dominated) analysis of Portman’s opinions on his gay son, that panel was also entirely composed of straight or closeted people. To be charitable to MSNBC, it’s not like they have a resident expert on the intersections between their own queer activism and military policy (oh wait).
Naturally enough, the panel included Catherine Crier, who explained that Hagel’s commentary occurred so long ago as to be meaningless. After all, it was the Clinton administration! Back then dubstep didn’t even exist! And Crier was backhandedly hinting about how Janet Reno was a lesbian! If anyone’s an expert on whether that matters, it’s definitely Crier.
(Not pictured: an explanation of who gets to define what gay rights are and what the best or appropriate means for advancing them are.)
In a nutshell, this has happened twice. At least in the past few months, on two occasions has MSNBC put together a panel of exclusively straight (or closeted) people to talk about policies and attitudes that straight people have imposed on or developed about queer people. From this (perceptively) straights-only zone, twice now comments from people who haven’t publicly identified as queer have declared that a statement by a straight person aren’t nearly as problematic as some people view it to be. It’s wrong when this happens with regards to race, and the same dynamic is problematic when it happens with regard to sexual orientation.