When your name is mud, find someone dirtier

Trigger warning: heterosexism, sex work, pedophilia

Just after 3 in the morning on Friday of last week, a sex scandal involving two unfaithful Michigan legislature senators came to a close with Cindy Gamrat having been removed of office by a Senate-wide vote and resigned and Todd Courser having resigned (after repeated attempts to also vote him out). The details of this are comparatively run-of-the-mill, with a fairly similar sex scandal – once again, between two socially conservative members of an upper midwest legislature – having broke at almost the same time. Courser’s handling of the situation was marked by a unique damage control campaign though, which has been widely described as an attempt to create confusion and doubt around his alleged sexual misconduct.

While there’s a number of details in these stories that are meant to show Courser as debauched, not all of them even sexual, the use of him being purportedly bisexual should give observers pause. If nothing else, it reflects a comparatively unquestioned form of heterosexism lingering throughout the US. The very details of his concocted self-smearing are built off of devaluing images of gay, bisexual, and other non-straight men as sexually and otherwise out of control. These are the stereotypes that fed into a resignation that the effects of HIV among those communities are inevitable as well as justified denying marital rights to them (among others). His highly public use of them reflects how many people not only still believe them but actively seek to use them.

While the deceitful nature of Courser’s efforts have been revealed, it’s curious how intriguingly effective his claims have been over some media. As the New York Daily News described it – he “planned to muddy his own name to save Gamrat”. Seemingly one of the worst case scenarios his plan attempted to deal with was to bank on the nature of his sex scandal actually being between him and a woman not him and a man, and that’s precisely the straight, romantic terms in which it at least once managed to be framed on the national stage. That’s a reassurance that relies specifically on degrees of security and safety and value being reserved for straight people and their relationships.

Fueling that are those stereotypes. In a broader view, he chose to use one small slice of a treasure trove of stereotypes, one tailored to be more outrageous for many than his own flaws he feared would be revealed. The larger pool of those ideas about non-straight people, however, gives him and all other straight people an entire system of support. There’s a sort of Goldilocks quality to the varied ways that regularly happens. Courser relied on the assumption that gay men and bisexual people are too promiscuous (compared to straight people) but other straight people can also turn to the belief that lesbian women are overly committed or even zealous (compared to straight people). There are also echoes in Courser’s email of the framing of gay men and bisexual people as too risk-taking (compared to straight people), but in other times and places it’s more useful to say that lesbian women are too risk-averse (compared to straight people).

Straight personal histories like Courser’s emerge out of those and other comparisons as the middle-of-the-road. Even with their flaws and problems, they can become an alternative that’s safe, stable, reasonable, and fulfilling in all the ways non-straight people miss the mark. Precisely which non-straight people have which faults is actually irrelevant and even interchangeable, because that’s not the point. Anti-lesbian rhetoric can just as easily frame lesbians as inadequately committed in their relationships compared to overly committed. The point isn’t a consistent or realistic depiction of these various non-straight groups, just to create an image of them that frames them as negative extremes that straight people better balance.

Ultimately, because Courser was exposed, this event could be revealing of that and related thought processes that many straight people have and even regularly rely on. As not only the New York Daily News but even John Oliver’s piece show, that’s something that few straight people or people of any sexuality in the mainstream media are comfortable with or capable of doing. It’s easier to laugh at or otherwise find entertainment in this, as something fantastical, rather than a common social practice. That’s certainly a lot safer than examining one’s own life and actions and considering if you ever rely on non-straight people being the mud that makes your name look clean in comparison.

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