Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the new normal

A few weeks ago I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which is an excellent book (if a little meandering). Among other things, its detailed description of growing up in the 60s and 70s gives me flashbacks to being a kid in the 80s.

I'd hate to oversimplify that time. Our memory lies, and nostalgia lurks in dark corners like a dormant virus, waiting to corrupt our experience of the present. I do think it was a less chaotic, freewheeling time, though, at least in retrospect. (Our view was just limited for how far things could go, sort of like we thought conservatism had reached its apogee of evil stupidity under Bush II, until we saw what came after.) We had reference points; not healthy or productive ones, but we knew where we stood, or thought we did, which made us feel almost as good. Our enemies and adversaries were easily-identified nation-states (remember when Libya mattered?). The order of the old world hadn't yet completely disintegrated. The nation was still arguing about Vietnam, a festival of recrimination we would continue until President Obama's election in 2008.

(Finally, no one cared what a candidate had done during the war, because mostly he was being a little kid in Indonesia.)

We had structure, we had defined roles and categories. Those are reassuring things; much like what we provide for/force upon children. The structure of the world limited and blinkered us as much as it supported. Like any culture, if you didn't fit the provided roles and categories, you were going to have trouble.

When I was a kid, if you had an earring in your right ear instead of your left, it meant you were gay. As for the kind of bizarre feminization implied at the time by having earrings in both ears...better not to speak of it. But that was it, that was the signal. I don't know if it was real or not, but in our childhood culture, it's not something anyone wanted to risk. (It could well have been real. Gay men have had to use such covert signals for centuries, to survive.) When I pierced my (left) ear in 1991, it wasn't exactly cutting edge, but it was also not universally accepted. Piercing the right ear in 1996 or so felt slightly edgy, probably the closest I've ever come to that hip state of social rebellion.

Can you imagine that kind of coded distinction from today's 10-year olds, born in 2000? They're far more likely to say "you're gay if you primarily like dating the same gender as you." It's not a thing for them. And it's not just us over-educated latte-sipping poofs in the coastal cities. This Slate article about Constance McMillen, the Mississippi high school senior who filed suit to be able to bring her girlfriend to the prom, contains this gem of a paragraph:
And Constance herself is the kind of young woman a state entirely mired in bigotry can't produce. Though she doesn't belong to a church, McMillen describes herself as an "open-minded Christian" and a strong believer in monogamy, which she expresses in a distinctly evangelical way. "Actually, I have a promise ring from my girlfriend, and I'm pretty sure that within the next year she's going to propose. Of course, we wouldn't get married until she's 18." One male student once asked McMillen's girlfriend, "How can you be redneck and gay at the same time?" which seems tantamount to proof that the woman in front of him had that figured out. McMillen would like to live in Los Angeles when she gets older, but that is due in part to many, many hours spent watching The L Word. Her girlfriend says she doesn't want to come because she can't hunt there.
Between that and a black President, no wonder the American right has completely lost its mind. Every month brings more evidence that the old world is passing away, the world of obvious enemies, and women and minorities who "knew their place." By 2050 if not before, we'll technically all be minorities. (Though probably not women. Not even in San Francisco.)

Ever since I was a kid, I have listened incredulously to my mom's stories of "dorm mothers" at all-female Smith College in the 60s, older women who watched over the students and enforced curfews and behavior. Decades before going to college, I absorbed that such a thing was absurd and impossible in my time. It only seemed more absurd when I went to college and visited Smith several times. In the 90s, at least, Smith had a circle-the-wagons mentality about men, a protectiveness of women for each other, as if the culture was dominated by 1500 of your ex-girlfriends, but only the ones who were still mad at you. Who needs dorm mothers when every girl has a posse of bodyguards (many of whom were bigger than me)?

Just as dorm mothers sound impossibly quaint to me, so must the earring-as-gay-identifier sound quaint to today's young people. It sounds quaint to me. The numbers agree: here's a breakdown of approval of gay marriage by state and age (click image for original website).
The red dots are people aged 18-29, and the blue dots are people over 65. It's a perfect correlation, with no exceptions: the older you are, the less likely you are to approve of gay marriage. So, it's a done deal: as my subculture started saying as America considered choosing its first post-Vietnam President, we're waiting for some people to die so life can move on. It's a harsh way to put it, but it's true. And yes, we'll still say that when we're old, even if we're the ones in the way.

There's no guarantee we won't backslide. We often think of history as inevitable, because we look at what happened, and we think. "Look! The past only happened in one way! And here's why! It had to have been that way." We're fantastically wrong: just like we don't know what will happen in the coming year or two, neither did anybody 50 or 100 or 3000 years ago. History is full of unrealized paths. Just because conservatives have eased up on hating gays in favor of hating immigrants and Muslims doesn't mean it won't come around again.

But the demographics look pretty awesome.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post; it's very well written and supported. I remember when I was little that I lost an earring while climbing trees, and my friend made me take the other earring out because she couldn't "remember which side makes you gay." That wouldn't happen now, thankfully.

    On another note, of the 4 dorms I lived in at Hillsdale, 3 of them had dorm mothers. I lived next door to the dorm mother my freshman year. I didn't mind it too much, but then again I'm not too rebellious