Ghosts of Christmas Present
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Bay Windows
December 21, 2006

RICHARD J. ROSENDALL

Ghosts of Christmas Present


Each of us has his own familiar spirits, her own favored abstractions, its own “buttons” waiting to be pushed. (I am joking with my pronouns, but pronouns are a major bugaboo for some people – whom I am afraid I have just provoked by treating the matter with irreverence.) Virtually everywhere we look, and with everything we say, we encounter one another’s ghosts.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to LGBT equality is unquestioned abstractions – ideas whose time has come and gone. The theocons and their allies who constantly demonize us for partisan gain are not really looking at us. They refuse to see us, and that is really their whole point. What they see is a bogeyman – whether ideological reflection or marketing device.

We ourselves burn a lot of gas fighting over abstractions like assimilationism, when much of the internecine conflict would dissolve if we simply reframed our goal as surviving and thriving in the prevailing society without giving up who we are – a task inherently harder for some of us than for others. My own sense is that the most radical and in-your-face formulations (like the silly “gender queer”) tend to be adopted by privileged young people indulging rebellious impulses at little or no personal cost.

Transgender sex workers struggling on the streets of our cities, on the other hand, have no such luxury. What they need is not a radical abstraction, but shelter and job training and counseling and substance abuse treatment. Some professionally angry activists may prefer to denounce me for rejecting “gender queer” than to look for common ground. And that is fine. People wedded to distrust are part of the reality I have to deal with. I can only control my own choices, and I choose as an activist to work with whomever I can to make useful changes in public policy.

Some offending ghosts have a way of sticking around. Many leading enablers of the radical right are quite young, as can be seen at National Review Online. Generations of Southerners inherited the Lost Cause, in which the crime of slavery was obscured by a nostalgic haze. Yankees engage in their own mythologizing of the Founding Fathers. And if not for the awe of ritual and authority long promulgated by the Catholic Church, the abuses by pedophiles within the priesthood could not have continued nor remained hidden for so long. Dispelling popular demons requires more work than just waiting for the older generation to die.

If you think that our society is plagued with old superstitions, consider the recent experience of my lover Patrick. Last week he called his brother in Africa, who is raising the two orphaned sons of a third brother who died a few years ago. One of the boys had become paralyzed on one side, and the family’s response was to take him to a witch doctor. Patrick, who is a professional nurse, became angry and insisted that his brother take the boy to the hospital immediately. He then called the doctor to discuss symptoms and treatment.

The boy responded well to medication, and is now out of the hospital and feeling fine. Patrick is struggling to find his place in his family, which reacted violently to learning he was gay, but he is naturally assertive and in this case his assertiveness may have saved his nephew’s life. The same situation occurs in this country with believers in faith healing who refuse medical treatment for their seriously sick children. But it is one thing when people embrace such folly themselves (and bad enough for their dependents); it is quite another when they attempt to use government to foist their phantoms on everyone else.

The current American politician most gifted at plowing through the ectoplasm and appealing broadly to a divided electorate is Barack Obama. As I write this, I just heard his praises being sung by, of all people, Newt Gingrich. Asked by Tim Russert about Obama’s relative lack of experience, Gingrich observed, “Abraham Lincoln had two years in the U.S. House, and he seemed to do pretty well.” Gingrich was followed by conservative columnist David Brooks, who praised Obama’s penchant for seeing the best in opponents’ arguments and reflecting them back.

In Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters, James Whale, played by Ian McKellen, refers to himself and rival director George Cukor as a couple of old queens slapping each other with lilies. That image comes to mind when Obama says that the culture wars that baby boomers have fought for decades are of little interest to the younger generation. On the leading hot-button issue, gay rights, the poll numbers suggest he is right: younger voters accept their gay peers as a matter of course. Life must be lived in the present, however, and baby boomer concerns continue to haunt us.

In politics, victory usually goes to the one who has the most compelling narrative. In the case of popular ideas, especially those purporting to define the world in some way, there is a test that transcends the political arena, which is whether the idea works. When people cling to a big idea that has failed, tragedy can result. The time comes for an intervention, as my Patrick undertook on behalf of his nephew. And the best interveners are those closest to the problem.

As was said of charity, so let us say about dispatching our demons: Ghostbusting begins at home.


Copyright © 2006 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.