Friday, May 30, 2008

No big deal until it's a big deal

This is becoming a tired pattern: newspaper runs a story mentioning a subject controversial to some, those some become enraged that the subject is mentioned, others tell them to settle down, they retaliate by claiming their anger has nothing to do with the subject itself, but rather with the newspaper's insistence on even mentioning it.

Case-and-point: The Cap Times runs a story about recently selected UW chancellor Biddy Martin that mentions her being the first openly gay chancellor at the university. This isn't the first or only story run on her selection, rather just one of many, and it happens to focus on this particular element and how it relates to the UW's current lack of domestic partnership benefits. Martin has expressed her intention to support efforts to change that. Simple enough.

But of course, certain folks take umbrage with the article and its focus, claiming that Martin's sexuality has no relevance and shouldn't be mentioned, ever, at all. Apparently it gets their undies in a bunch.

Dave Blaska, scourge of the Isthmus Daily Page, laments that:
But is that the essence of Biddy Martin, her sexual proclivities? Why would a major university hire someone for that reason? (Or, for that matter, not hire?) Would not a more enlightened policy — a John Patrick Hunter policy — be (cue "Anchors Away") "Don't ask, don't tell"?
Quality. Now that it's a generally accepted no-no to be a bigot, bigots have turned to round-about ways of expressing their disdain for all that is different: ignoring it. Plugging their ears and singing "la la la I can't heeeear yoooou" and claiming that it's "no big deal." That is, until someone has the gall to mention it, and then all bets are off as to civility and rationality.

Well, they're right on one count: a person's sexuality shouldn't be a big deal and it shouldn't have anything to do with how we judge their character, qualifications for a job, or anything else. They're as wrong as the military when it comes to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" though. Straight people mentioning their straightness doesn't seem to piss them off, so why should a gay person mentioning that they're gay?

We're also early enough in the game (sadly) that it remains noteworthy when the first of a traditionally marginalized and/or discriminated against group gains prominence or major achievement. The fact that, for instance, Barack Obama is the first major black candidate for the highest office in the land is noteworthy. We shouldn't elect him or not elect him based on that fact, but how on Earth are you going to ignore what is such a major milestone? Ignoring that fact, and the fact of the first openly gay UW chancellor, is akin to ignoring and/or denying the monumental hurdles they've had to overcome on their way to these positions. Hurdles that our society has, for far too long and even still to this day, placed merrily in their way.

And yet, and yet. The webmaster at TCT had to disable the comments section that accompanied the article about Martin and domestic partnership benefits because they became so vitriolic, so caustic that it did nothing to foster debate, only anger and hatred. That's a crying shame, but at least we're reminded that these types of attitudes still exist, and that there's still much to be done in the way of education and activism before we can call ourselves a truly enlightened and egalitarian society.


John A said...

For what it's worth, this is the first I'd heard that Martin is gay. And I can't say I care much one way or the other. But as someone who has minimal interaction with the university outside of the taxation space and the film festival, I'm staying out of the discussion as a whole. Why anyone else would care who she sleeps with or doesn't is still beyond me.

On a superficial level, I'm more concerned that she elects to call herself Biddy...

M Big Mistake said...

I also had not heard before yesterday that Martin was gay...though I guessed that she was the first time I saw her picture (I do not know why I can pick gay people out by how they makes no sense).

But...the lady wrote a book about being a lesbian! That's part of her resume. It's not like it was a big secret that someone dug was fully public info. And I think it is REALLY important given the current asinine domestic partnership benefit issue in Wisconsin. Not because a straight married person couldn't also fight for partner benefits...but because now it's pretty damn hard to say that it isn't important and that there aren't people that it impacts.

I'm glad it's public info that she's gay. And for the record...being gay isn't about who you sleep with. There are plenty of gay people who weren't sexually active who have been discriminated against or even killed. It's not about someone's sex life, it's about the discrimination that happens simply because of a word.

Not saying the word out loud just reinforces the status quo that gay people don't exist or aren't important and can therefore be abused or dismissed.

I'm sure that somewhere along the line, if she was straight, that a newspaper article would have mentioned her husband. Would THAT have been unnecessarily talking about her sex habits? I can't imagine a single person who would have said so.

Emily said...

John - Apparently "Biddy" is an Irish nickname for people called Bridget. With it's slang meaning, though, I'd probably be hesitant to call myself that, though. Hey, to each their own. :)

MBM - Exactly.

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