A New View for the New Year


I was recently reviewing the December 2006 Zogby Interactive Poll that surveyed 545 troops who served in Iraq and Afghantistan about sexual minorities in the military. Several questions were asked about whether the troops knew any gay or lesbian service members (23% said yes) and whether they impacted unit morale (64% said there was no impact). One question asked the troops to rate their personal comfort in the presence of gays and lesbians. Seventy-three percent of the respondents said they were "comfortable," but what caught my eye was the fact that African-Americans (71%), and Catholics (78%) had two of the highest rates of comfort among the many subgroups including Baptists (26%). These statistics are notable for two reasons.

First, California's proposition 8: a big deal was made of African-American support for the measure that eliminated gay marriage in California. There has been much criticism of this assessment, discussion of racism in the gay and lesbian movement, and the politics of marriage equality in general - but mostly this idea has been hyped because it plays into unexamined prejudices (just like the idea that openly gay service members would undermine unit cohesion used to). This small finding cracks holes in our expectations and undermines the prejudicial glue that holds our misconceptions in place. How do we reconcile the Prop 8 controversy with the fact that among troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, African-Americans, were personally more comfortable than most with gays and lesbians?

This poll is not nuanced enough to address the whys and hows of the statistic or to extrapolate a policy - but it demands that we reevaluate our preconceptions and ask more questions like: does the overrepresentation of African-Americans in the military increase a sense of comfort in general? Is there a disproportional representation of gay and lesbian African-Americans in the military and what impact does that have?

Second, in California and elsewhere the gay and lesbian movement is depicted as a moral war with gays and lesbians on one side and "people of faith" on the other. In the same way that this creates a false dichotomy when it comes to race (as if gays and lesbians and African-Americans were mutually exclusive groups), it creates a false dichotomy when it comes to faith. In addition to the fact that many Catholics are themselves gay (myself included), many more Catholics are personally comfortable with their gay neighbors than other Christians.

A July 2008 Washington Post poll, confirms these general statistics: more white Catholics support openly gay members in the military (82%) than those with no religious affiliation (80%), not to mention white evangelical Protestants (57%). I like to think that this is due to the primacy of the church's core message of love, which certainly comports with the loving Catholics I hang out with. But again, there is not enough here for conclusions, just more questions, like how do these statistics comport with the fact that a majority of Catholics think torture is justified? (And how does that comport with my 'message-of-love' theory?)

Ultimately, polling data is precarious. At best such data points out the flaws in our assumptions. Another interesting finding in the Zogby poll was that the majority of troops (52%) agreed with the statement "Compared with my peers, I consider myself more tolerant on the issue of homosexuals in the military" (another 31% were neutral). Most had a high opinion of their own tolerance but of those who did not know of a gay or lesbian person in their unit, 58% said that the presence of gays and lesbians would likely have a negative impact on overall unit morale (while only 38% said it would have a negative impact on their own morale).

I've mentioned this discrepancy between what our peers actually think and what we think our peers are thinking before and I think it reveals something about how society works.

We define each other. It is too hard to make meaning out of ourselves without the context of our communities. We make meaning together in ways that protect enclaves of identity, resources, power, or simply, the status quo. And since meaning making is arduous and inefficient we take short cuts and communicate in shorthand in order to negotiate life with greater ease and consistency.

This process creates gaps where prejudice digs in, often unnoticed. Preconceptions about race and religion in the context of gay and lesbian military service, or marriage, or queer liberation limit not only the way we conceptualize (and strategize with) allies and enemies, but also the way we we conceptualize ourselves.

It's useful to take a step back every now and then, and to look upon ourselves with curiosity - maybe we'll identify blind spots, make suprising discoveries about our self-imposed limitations and then reassess and find new ways to operate more efficiently. To move ahead with new vision in 2009 and beyond will require not just new policies and alliances, but new ways of understanding ourselves.