Progay/Antigay: The Rhetorical War over Sexuality

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Ralph R. Smith & Russel R. Windes

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  • Rhetoric & Society

    edited by Herbert W. Simons, Temple University

    Editorial Board

    Michael Billig, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University

    Carole Blair, Department of American Studies, University of California, Davis

    Richard H. Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland

    Rosa Eberly, Division of Rhetoric and Composition, University of Texas, Austin

    Dilip Gaonkar, Communication Studies, Northwestern University

    James Jasinski, Department of Communication & Theatre Arts, The University of Puget Sound

    Joyce Irene Middleton, Department of English, University of Rochester

    Janice Rushing, Communication Department, University of Arkansas

    Allen Scult, Department of Speech Communication, Drake University

    This series will publish a broad-based collection of advanced texts and innovative works encompassing rhetoric in the civic arena, in the arts and media, in the academic disciplines, and in everyday cultural practices.

    Books in this series:

    Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetorics of Therapy

    Dana L. Cloud

    Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers

    Jodi R. Cohen

    Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives

    Glenn F. Stillar

    Progay/Antigay: The Rhetorical War Over Sexuality

    Ralph R. Smith and Russel R. Windes

    Copyright

    View Copyright Page

    Dedication

    To a multitude of friends, our “Old Time Throng”from New York to San Francisco to San Diego, with whom we shared affinities, adversities, and achievements, and from whom we learned to cope more sanely with hostility and more rationally with the irrational. These loving friendships made our lives together over forty years a succession of days of wine and roses.

    Foreword

    This book brings news of some interesting symmetries between a movement and a countermovement, broadly labeled “progay”and “antigay.”In large ways and small, each talks past the other, exhibiting what Barbara Herrnstein Smith has felicitously called the “micro-dynamics of incommensurabilty.”But in a curious way, these antagonists also depend on each other, play off of each other, adapting arguments in light of each other's rhetoric. The prize as usual in conflicts between movements is third party support: news media, legislators, judges, and that amorphous, often fickle entity called “public opinion.”But progay and antigay also use rhetoric to shore up support within their ranks. So, different as they are ideologically, each is alike in demonizing the other while masking internal differences as they project myths of unity.

    These intricate steps in the dance of progay/antigay are not much different from those found in conflicts between other movements. But movement studies tend to focus on one movement, giving short shrift to the movement's evil twin. And most movement scholars tend to be unschooled in the give and take of argumentation. So this book is valuable, not just as a contribution to gay/lesbian studies, but as a case study in the rhetoric of controversy between movements and countermovements more generally.

    Smith and Windes come to the study of progay/antigay as rhetoricians of a certain type. They are Burkeians and they are well up on movement theory by communication scholars and social scientists. The result is an integration of Burkeian rhetorical criticism and movement theory that William Gamson and I could only dream of when I visited with him in Ann Arbor back in 1977. Bill Gamson has done much since then to lay the groundwork for the study of what he calls “issue cultures,”textual practices that become relatively fixed in discussions of public controversies. Opposing groups generate “interpretive packages,”collections of collectively held ways of seeing and of arguing that, as Smith and Windes put it, are “forged in the crucible of reciprocal antagonism.”

    “Rhetoric”is an old word, made rich but also ambiguous by a long history of inconsistent usage. Some rhetoricians confine their study to oratory, others to the written word, but Burkeian theory extends the purview of rhetoric to symbol-using (mis-using) of every kind, focusing on reciprocal but “incomplete”antagonism as rhetoric's paradigmatic case. Moreover, in keeping with interpretive social science, Burkeian theory is constructionist, anti-essentialist, focusing not just on what progays and antigays say and believe, but also on the role of rhetoric in the making and molding of identities such as homosexual and heterosexual.

    Arguably, it is impossible to maintain a constructionist stance consistently, for, taken to its logical extreme, such a stance would render issues of truth and non-truth unintelligible, and render activisim of any sort indefensible. Smith and Windes make clear that their constructionism is methodological—a bracketed compartmentalized anti-essentialism that leaves citizens free to act on rights they believe to be inalienable, including the right of all citizens to discover for themselves their sexual orientation, and then to embrace beliefs and behaviors which reflect both that discovery and their inalienable right of choice.

    But ironically, their methodological anti-essentialism gives them a certain freedom as scholars to put aside personal predilections and treat progay and antigay rhetorics evenhandedly. Some gay and lesbian scholars/activists will chafe at that. But as Joshua Gamson observed, in a pre-publication review, “the book fills a gap in the literature on political communication surrounding sexuality with sophistication, balance, and thoroughness.”

    Who, then, is this book for? Josh Gamson concludes that it should have a ready market in university libraries and courses, particularly courses for graduate students and undergraduate students focused on (a) sexuality and sex/gender politics, (b) political communication and rhetoric, (c) social movements and collective identity.

    I began the Rhetoric & Society series for Sage with a view that a Burkeian approach to rhetoric, a “globalized”rhetoric, as it's been called, was the perfect complement to so much that has been happening in the academy recently under the rubrics of interpretive social science and poststructuralism. Hence the names on the Editorial Board. Hence the books in the series already published.

    Yet I believe the Smith/Windes book best exemplifies the promise of a globalized rhetoric. One cannot read it without concluding that the usual distinctions between social science and humanism are untenable.

    I say that as an essentialist. I say it also as an anti-essentialist.

    Herbert W. Simons, Series Editor

    Introduction: Public Policy Debate about Variant Sexuality

    Homosexuality is an increasingly prominent subject of public policy discussion in the United States and other Western nations. In recent years, debates over measures to protect and extend the civil rights and liberties of lesbians and gay men, along with controversies over policies to discourage homosexuality, have increased so dramatically in frequency, number of participants, and prominence in the mass media that the nature of communication about variant sexuality has been fundamentally altered. Legal scholar Janet Halley (1994) correctly concludes:

    The closet no longer reigns in solitary splendor … Its door now opens directly onto the areopagus, the forum, the senate hearing room, the court of law—onto scenes of rational debate, public deliberation, and collective decision making, conducted under the aegis of reasonable discourse. (p. 1727)

    Symbolic action in these scenes of public policy formation on variant sexuality constitutes our general subject.

    Elements of the controversy over the regulation of sexual behavior frequently have been chronicled and assessed. Most of these published works analyze either progay or antigay advocates, or describe one particular controversy. This valuable literature, on which our present study draws, can be usefully supplemented by analysis of how the process of antagonistic confrontation influences the nature of the debate over public policy concerning variant sexuality. Our intent is not definitively to survey this debate, but rather to examine adversarial engagement, a dynamic recurrent in most controversies. The nature and effects of oppositional relationships occurring in public policy struggles over variant sexuality have been previously surveyed, most notably by legal scholar Didi Herman (1994) and by journalists John Gallagher and Christopher Bull (1996). They each investigate the patterns of contention arising from mutual influence that have been significant for public policy discussion of variant sexuality. Our perspective differs from theirs, however, in that we investigate progay/antigay conflict as a process of collision in which multiple symbolic worlds are created and reconstructed when progay and antigay advocates strive in opposition to one another to influence adherents, allies, opponents, bystanders, and government officials. This is a task appropriate for those who examine public persuasion through rhetorical analysis. Progay/Antigay traces how competing texts weave around and through each other in an ongoing national town meeting on human sexuality. Specifically, we employ rhetorical analysis to describe: (a) how opposing advocates develop rival symbolic communities; (b) patterns of appeals which are generated by interaction among adversaries; (c) the extraordinary influence which opponents exercise on each other; (d) divisions produced by this influence among advocates allied in general purpose but not assumptions and strategies; (e) the influence of context on the types of appeals produced in deliberating particular issues. With reference to the dynamic of adversarial influence, we conclude with recommendations about how public debate over variant sexuality can be conducted more productively and investigated further.

    Rhetorical Analysis of Public Controversy

    Our understanding of public controversy over variant sexuality is grounded in the tradition of rhetorical criticism which developed from the seminal writings of Kenneth Burke, “the foremost rhetorician in the 20th century”(Golden, Berquist, & Coleman, 1997, p. 179). We have consistently drawn upon Burke's (1952) insight that the core subject of rhetoric consists of the “possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another”(p. 22). We seek to travel what Burke identified as the necessary path of persuasion, into “the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure”(p. 23). Like Burke, we recognize that the circulation of identification and division around each other “must often carry us far into the lugubrious regions of malice and the lie”(p. 23).

    We also accept Burke's methodological insight, cogently described by sociologist Joseph Gusfield (1989a), that understanding rhetorical action demands a “program for analysis of human behavior which is pluralistic and dialectical” (p. 30). In particular, Burke moves us toward the interpretive social sciences, that is, in the direction of “approaches that seek to understand how patterns of consciousness enable us to organize experience”(Gusfield, 1989b, p. 5). We have been particularly impressed by recent social scientific efforts to develop a cultural theory of collective behavior which advances beyond ideology, social strain, and resource mobilization. The “Human Barnyard”cannot be described through theories which solely concern formal belief, social dislocation, or rational actors. By stressing the definitional power of culture, we have sought to bring attention to “how social movement organizations and actors interpret grievances and generate consensus on belief and action … create collective identities … produce frames of meaning … vocabularies of motive, and social dramas necessary to mobilize constituents”(Ellingson, 1997, p. 269). Such a cultural approach recognizes that “social movements tend to become worlds unto themselves that are characterized by distinctive ideologies, collective identities, behavioral routines, and material cultures”(McAdam, 1994, pp. 45–46).

    The development of such worlds, and the collisions among them, can be understood in ways which likewise have Burkeian origins. For instance, drawing on Burke's theory of dramatism, sociologists Robert Benford and Scott Hunt (1992) elaborate the principle that “interpreting is a never ending social activity that makes movement scripting, staging and performing possible”(p. 48). They use Burke's method of dramatistic analysis which features “inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions”(p. 445). Benford and Hunt observe that activists develop lines of action which they believe to be “consistent with their collectively negotiated reality interpretations, idealistic visions and readings of the audiences’ interpretations”(p. 48). We agree that social movements are best understood as dramas through which “protagonists and antagonists compete to affect audiences’ interpretations of power relations in a variety of domains, including those pertaining to religious, political, economic or lifestyle arrangements”(p. 38).

    The terms “identity,” “frame,”and “movement/countermovement dialectic”further define our perspective. We are centrally concerned with the process of creating identity out of the sociality of collective action. Burke (1959/1937) points out that “‘identification’ is hardly other than a name for the function of sociality” (p. 266). Rhetorical critic Maurice Charland (1987) extends Burke's point that audience members do not exist prior to communication but come into existence as they “participate in the very discourse by which they would be ‘persuaded’” (p. 133). Charland is right that the creation of subject positions is an historically contingent textualizing process. “The subject is a position within a text. To be an embedded subject is to experience and act in a textualized world”(p. 141). We are led by this theory of constitutive rhetoric to accept his conclusion that we ought to be “mindful not only of arguments and ideographs, but of the very nature of the subjects that rhetoric both address and leads to come to be”(p. 148). We have adopted a view which denies a “real”identity existing in advance of communication, believing that every aspect of human interaction—agent, agency, act, scene, and purpose—are problematic because, as Charland states, the “position one embodies as a subject is a rhetorical effect”(p. 148). Specifically, gay people and their opponents—who they are and what they want—do not exist prior to communication, but come into existence through their rhetorical acts.

    Our approach which stresses the rhetorical development of identity is supported by recent works describing the construction of the subject within social movement culture. Sociologist Mary Bernstein (1997) notes, for example, that shared collective identity is not only necessary for mobilization, but is a goal of social movement rhetoric as either the construction of an identity or the deconstruction of identity categories, and ultimately is employed in strategies of critique and education (pp. 535, 538). We will explore subsequently how gay/lesbian and traditionalist actors use identity constructs as weapons to achieve dominance. Even the grievances which movements seek to highlight are intimately related to the identities which movements construct and deploy (Johnston, Larana, & Gusfield, 1994, p. 23). Recent interest in identity as rhetorical accomplishment develops out of the poststructuralist trend to question accepted symbolic boundaries: “What appears to be a difference is reinterpreted, discovered to be little more than a distinction rooted in power or a move in a rhetorical game”(Wolfe, 1992, p. 310). Throughout our analysis of the dynamic of antagonistic enjoinment in the variant sexuality controversy, we will be concerned with the rhetorical creation of identity, difference, and boundaries.

    Within our approach, identities are rhetorical constructs created through discourse, not simply the products of innate biological and psychological characteristics or the results of dysfunctional social structures. We agree with sociologists Hunt, Benford, and David Snow (1994) that the construction of identity is inherent in social movement framing activities. “Not only do framing processes link individuals and groups ideologically but they proffer, buttress, and embellish identities that range from collaborative to conflictual”(p. 185). Both progay and antigay advocates have created a range of identities in order to accomplish persuasive purposes.

    The concept of framing (creating patterns for organizing thought about issues), which is important to our understanding of rhetorical criticism, also has Burkeian origins, specifically in his concept of “terministic screens”(i.e., words which direct our attention into a particular point of view). Burke (1966) observes that “much that we take as observations about ‘reality’ may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms”(p. 46). Symbolic framing involves imposing interpretive schemata which simplify and condense experience by “selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions with one's present or past environments”(Snow & Benford, 1992, p. 137). Conceived as modes of articulation and attribution, collective action frames focus attention on situations perceived to be problematic, “making attributions regarding who or what is to blame, and articulate an alternative set of arrangements including what the movement needs to do in order to affect the desired change”(Hunt, Benford, & Snow, 1994, p. 190). In the controversy over variant sexuality, the language which advocates employ creates and limits grievances, casts heroes and villains, projects modes of effective action, and envisions desirable outcomes.

    Frames do not exist in isolation, however. They occur as part of a struggle to achieve dominant meaning. Consequently, the agonistic struggle for domination is central to our interpretation of symbolic action. Burke (1952) observed that “individual universes as such do not compete” (p. 22). However, within rhetoric, “their universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. For one need not scrutinize the concept of ‘identification’ very sharply to see, implied in it at every turn, its ironic counterpart: division”(p. 23). Much of the drama of social controversy lies in division between movements and countermovements, “that a variety of movement outcomes, from resource mobilization to longevity, depend upon scripting and sustaining agon”(Benford & Hunt, 1992, p. 51). Put another way, meaning construction occurs through a “process of contention within a discursive field as speakers jockey to gain legitimacy for their positions, the support of targeted audiences, and the opportunity to implement their solutions”(Ellingson, 1997, p. 272). Clearly, the struggle to produce identities and frames is, therefore, undertaken in an atmosphere charged with conflict, while opposing movements battle “for primacy in identifying the relevant issues and actors in a given political struggle”(Meyer & Staggenborg, 1996, p. 1635). In controversies over variant sexuality, struggle against “the enemy”plays an important role in all aspects of collective behavior.

    Our interpretation of the progay/antigay drama has also been influenced by several elements in rhetorical theorist Raymie McKerrow's (1989) concept of a critical rhetoric which examines “the dimensions of domination and freedom as these are exercised in a relativized world”(p. 91). We share his interest in a rhetoric which is involved in the process of “demystifying the conditions of domination”(p. 91) while, at the same time, recognizing that we have created a partial understanding by patching together fragments of texts. This is a self-conscious attempt to respond to rhetorician Michael McGee's (1990) challenge to “reconcile traditional modes of analysis with the so-called post-modern condition by understanding that our first job as professional consumers of discourse is inventing a text suitable for criticism”(p. 288).

    We are working in a relativistic rhetorical tradition which emphasizes the construction of “truth claims”through symbolic action. Therefore, we have attempted to discipline our own preferences among these claims and their political consequences. Our emphasis on the symbolic construction of reality, however, makes us skeptical of claims which are based on “self-evident”natural facts or faith commitments to a supernatural ordering of the universe. To use philosopher Ian Hacking's (1999) typology of the varieties of social constructionism, we have taken historicist and ironic stances toward struggle over the regulation of variant sexuality. Our purpose does not include proceeding further into the unmasking of ideas, stripping them of authority in order to serve reformist or revolutionary purposes (pp. 66–67). As politically active individuals who are committed to voicing many of the ideals and goals which we characterize as progay, we find such purposes entirely congenial. As activists, we find nothing objectionable to discrediting the worldview and rebutting the truth claims of antigay opponents. But, as rhetorical critics seeking to understand the symbolic acts present in progay/antigay conflict, we strive to limit ourselves to the premises that (a) all constructions of meaning are contingent results of historical circumstances and (b) constructions of reality as they exist are inevitably in the world and cannot rationally be used to refute each other.

    Though we are concerned with using rhetorical analysis in a neo-Burkeian mode to understand better progay/antigay debate, we certainly do not limit our interpretation to those propounded by professional rhetoricians, nor do we systematically attempt to improve critical methods. Throughout this discussion, we are frequently drawn to the insights of scholars in a variety of academic fields: anthropology, history, literature, philosophy, political science, and sociology. Without assuming the title of rhetorician, these scholars provide helpful direction for the study of how human beings influence one another through symbols. Nor have we attempted to structure their ideas about symbolic action into an innovative theory. Directly stated, our purpose is to comprehend more completely one aspect of public conversations about sexuality. Our primary concern remains antagonistic enjoinment of progay and antigay discourses, and not centrally the analysis of methods of rhetorical criticism.

    Main Arguments of the Analysis

    Focus on the mutual influence of adversarial relationships, combined with our concept of rhetorical criticism, pushes us toward a particular program of analysis. This analysis supports the contention that understanding the dynamics through which advocates seek to establish dominance requires appreciation for how rhetorical strategy is influenced by interactions among advocates of rival public policy positions. Rhetorician Celeste Condit Railsback (1984) correctly asserts that critics should not focus “on the advocacy of only one side of a controversy,”but instead ought to analyze the “social text created by the advocates of various sides of the controversy, interacting with each other and the public”(pp. 419–420).

    Several rhetorical critics have explained how opponents in public controversy constrain one another's strategic choices and persuasive appeals. Rhetorical critic Jeff Bass (1991) suggests that reactionary rhetoric is often studied in isolation from its opposite, the rhetoric of reform, and that “this kind of analysis tends to deflect our attention away from the manner in which it may interact with and be influenced by reform rhetoric”(p. 427). He concludes that the “strategies employed by one side to persuade an audience influence the other's selection of strategies and appeals far beyond an invitation to engage in a game of rhetorical one-upmanship”(p. 427). Rhetorical critic Charles Taylor (1992) emphasizes the “dialogic”relationship between advocates of creationism and evolution, attempting to explain how each constrains the other (pp. 278–279). These studies, though largely limited to adjustment of argumentative strategy, point toward the uncharted territory in which adversarial supporters of particular public policies are influenced to draw specific appeals from their armamentarium in order to shape one another's identity claims and relational and situational definitions.

    The study of communication about public policy toward variant sexuality initially can be organized by recognizing that symmetrical relationships of interdependence and mutual influence developed in recent decades between proponents and opponents of a civic culture which tolerates and even celebrates lesbians and gay men. The symmetry of the contest over sexuality may arise, in part, from the similarities of opponents. With respect to the United States, some analysts have suggested that groups working for and against public policy reforms favorable to gay and lesbian persons resemble one another in their strategies and their location in the political system (Gallagher & Bull, 1996, p. xiv). In this view, each side (a) uses strong emotional appeals to broaden its base of support; (b) functions most effectively when there is an immediate threat to dramatize; (c) achieves power within one political party; (d) must struggle against the skepticism and suspicion of the majority of Americans. Each finds within public struggle a source of empowerment (Hannigan, 1991, p. 325). These claims to similarity, however, must be balanced against recognition that gay/lesbian and traditionalist advocates often seem to be speaking a mutually incomprehensible language, argue from different premises, act within different social milieu, and are, in many other respects, significantly dissimilar. Our central point is that those locked in combat over variant sexuality exercise deep mutual influence over one another. Their oppositional discourses shape presentation of collective identity; they influence definition of controversy, contribute to understanding the relationship between antagonists, and heighten dissent among advocates of any one general position on homosexuality.

    The examination of gay/lesbian public policy issues begins in Chapter 1 with a description of the general public policy controversy over variant sexuality and with an overview of the emergence of conditions which produced the current extensive public debate about homosexuality. Significant variations have occurred through time and across cultures in the construction of homosexuality and the degree to which it is accepted. Our own culture's engagement with the public policy implications of homosexuality hinges on the emergence of a particular type of gay/lesbian subject (i.e., a subspecies of humanity). This subject's appearance is the precondition for both the development of a gay/lesbian community and a set of movements which constitute a powerful political force for public policy change. Simultaneously, fundamentalist and other traditionalist movements have gathered strength, in part based on their resistance to homosexual activism. Often working through organizations dedicated to influencing public sentiment, gay/lesbian and traditionalist advocates have become principal voices in our present complex controversy about variant sexuality.

    Unraveling the complexity of this controversy requires analysis of the language, collective action, and interactive communication produced within an issue culture. Each kind of analysis provides insight into an aspect of public policy dispute. In our attempt to understand and analyze public policy debate, the production of arguments, ideographs and condensation symbols are important. Equally significant is the mobilization as movements of interpretive communities (i.e., groups which coordinate their personal interpreting behaviors). The concept of issue culture (the textual practices which become relatively fixed in discussion of a public question) allows us to focus on language and social mobilization through the lens of framing processes which occur during the production of interpretive packages (i.e., collections of frames through which advocates seek to impose their point of view about a controversy). These interpretive packages are forged in the crucible of reciprocal antagonism. Chapter 2 elaborates on language, collective action, and interactive communication as means to understand variant sexuality controversies.

    Advocates for progay and antigay positions have constructed a variety of elemental appeals which surface in different combinations in most public policy disputes about homosexuality. The generative premise for these appeals is that there is a link between private behavior and public action. Traditionalist discourse consists of appeals which attempt to make homosexuality publicly invisible as well as attacks on public policy programs which encourage homosexuality. In contrast, gay/lesbian discourse consists of efforts to make sexual difference visible in the public sphere, to refute antigay appeals, and to justify public policy favorable to lesbians and gay men. Chapter 3 explains our understanding of this pattern of appeals, stressing that these appeals are not forged through isolated thought, but in the production of discourse intended to achieve symbolic dominance.

    Contests of representation provide strategic structure for the variant sexuality issue culture. Through the process of making public claims, traditionalist and progay advocates strategically construct themselves, their relationships to their antagonists, and their legitimate position in the public sphere. Both lay claim to virtue in their struggle against an evil nemesis. The projections generated in contests of representation are creations designed to establish a dominant interpretive package. Chapter 4 traces the interaction between advocates which produces reciprocal influence important to public action concerning variant sexuality.

    Both progay and antigay interpretive packages are ambiguous in the sense that they contain not a single position, but a range of alternative claims. Divisions develop among advocates who want their own interpretive versions to be dominant within either the traditionalist or progay positions. These divisions are influenced by concerns with representation in public policy contests. In Chapter 5, we describe the development of such divisions, with major emphasis on disputes within the gay/lesbian political community over competing versions of identity and their strategic consequences for public policy formation.

    Different contexts produce different patterns of persuasive interaction because specific public policy disputes filter out particular elements of the traditionalist and progay interpretive packages. The recent Congressional debate on the Defense of Marriage Act is an example of this process. The struggle over gay marriage narrowed the range of gay identity, enhanced themes of gay/lesbian participation in civic life, and raised issues of social stability. The marriage debate will be examined in detail in Chapter 6 as an example of reciprocal influence within an institutional context.

    Antagonistic enjoinment in the debate over variant sexuality has significant implications for the study and criticism of public communication. Chapter 7 describes several of these implications, concluding with suggestions for research which might profitably be conducted to advance our understanding of reciprocal influence in a variety of issue cultures. We will suggest that rhetorical critics can contribute to improving the discussion of gay/lesbian public policy questions if they encouraged reduction of opportunistic and shallow argument, the formulation of more substantive appeals, a rethinking of identity claims, and a deeper appreciation of the fundamental challenges which attempts at moral persuasion make to beliefs about how society ought to be constituted.

    Analytic Limitations and Difficulties of Terminology

    Discussion of the politics of variant sexuality must necessarily recognize that political discourses on homosexuality are nested within a larger culture. Though traditional political theory separates politics and culture, in practice they are closely connected (Bronski, 1998, p. 248). Law professor Robert Cover (1983) provides an important description of the relationship which holds between law and policy on the one hand and the environing moral culture on the other. He writes that “we inhabit a nomos—a normative universe.”The legal system, principles of justice, formal institutions, and social conventions are “but a small part of the normative universe that ought to claim our attention”(p. 4). As a consequence, Cover asserts, public policy must be understood as part of the complex narrative myths which underlie culture. He argues that these myths establish a “repertoire of moves—a lexicon of normative action—that may be combined into meaningful patterns culled from the meaningful patterns of the past”(p. 9). Variant sexuality is not a separate subject to be explored in isolation from other elements of culture because, as social scientist Jeffrey Weeks (1977) asserts, “attitudes to homosexuality are inextricably linked to wider questions: of the function of the family, the evolution of gender roles, and attitudes to sexuality in general”(p. 2).

    Although our attention here focuses on debate over public policy, we must bear in mind that the substance of persuasive discourse produced in these debates bubbles up from our most fundamental cultural assumptions. Further, these beliefs and myths are dynamically created. They are not only the artifacts of the past, but a continuing creation produced through cultural production and struggle. Mass media, for instance, creates representations of gay and lesbian persons which then become suppositions in political discourse. Vito Russo (1987) in his analysis of lesbian and gay characters in film demonstrates the presence (and absence) of a range of images which flicker through popular culture. Similarly, sociologist Joshua Gamson (1998) shows how the changing guidelines for success in reaching mass audiences create new rules for understanding the behavior of both progay and antigay advocates. More generally, as philosopher Morris Kaplan (1997) points out, “a distinctive feature of modernity is that it supplements the juridical and repressive model of state action with a pervasive system of social relations that produces new institutional settings, modes of knowledge, and forms of subjectivity”(p. 71). Despite our emphasis on politics and the law, the widest definition of our topic is the creation of new social contexts, knowledges, and subjects through political communication. We do not avoid a discussion of cultural issues. Instead, we are focusing on the political aspects of the culture, including those fundamental beliefs which undergird the appeals and strategies which recurrently are expressed in the variant sexuality controversy. We leave to others the equally important subject of the influence of popular culture on political outcomes.

    Our concentration on the process of antagonistic enjoinment further limits systematic discussion of the many factors which produced particular patterns of appeal and representation. A comprehensive account of discourse on variant sexuality public discourse would take into consideration the availability of models for imitation, adaptation to specific political opportunities, motives other than those involved in confrontation, and, perhaps of greatest importance, variation among institutional contexts in which progay and antigay discourses are produced.

    On a variety of occasions throughout this analysis, we place adversarial influence within institutional context. For instance, institutional setting is important for the emergence of the progay/antigay contest, for the secularization of antigay rhetoric, for the production of different progay self-representations, and for the essentialization of gay identity in formal deliberative debate. Beyond this, we recognize that different institutional environments distribute power in unequal ways; they constitute diverse primary audiences and establish conflicting standards of rationality and acceptability. In brief, they encourage particular rhetorical strategies and discourage others. A comprehensive interpretation of discourse on variant sexuality would give prominence to such institutional influences. Our interest in foregrounding the effects of the antagonistic interdependence of progay and antigay advocates, however, leads us in this monograph to place institutional contexts in the background. This should not imply, however, that such contextual influence is beside the point of our analysis, but merely often in shadows around our main point.

    Language, the most salient feature of culture, simultaneously enables and obscures public policy debate about variant sexuality. Discussions about the regulation of sexuality are conducted in a variety of lexicons which are deployed as weapons in struggles over specific issues. Each key word and phrase which threads through variant sexuality public issue contests contains a history, a strategy, and a critique. Choice of terms for use in engaging in public argument and for describing public discussion invariably signifies a commitment to a contested position and to a particular way of understanding sexuality. Among the crucial terms that come to mind is “variant sexuality,”a frequently used phrase which has the virtue of nonjudgmental neutrality and inclusiveness. The term, however, could conceivably include groups such as pedophiles, a classification to which many gay activists would object. The word “sodomite”invokes a long history of denunciation and criminalization of sexuality. “Homosexual”is generally believed to medicalize same-sex erotic behavior, connoting the sense of pathology and possible treatment. The term “homosexuality”also sets up a homosexual/heterosexual binary which falsely structures perception of sexuality. Others object that “homosexual”wrongly constitutes a type of person rather than rightly naming only a behavior.

    “Gay”or “lesbians and gay men”are terms often derided as being non-descriptive, opportunistically invented for political reasons, or too prescriptive of the kinds of persons named. The addition of “transgender”has the ambiguity of describing not only lesbians and gay men but cross-dressing heterosexuals. The term “bisexual”has been objected to on the grounds that it truly describes no actual sexual actors and that it inconveniently focuses attention on behavior rather than a fundamental class of persons. “Sexual orientation”is a generally accepted term, even though there has been objection that it is an ill-defined concept which naturalizes a certain kind of person. The word “queer,”recently favored by some progay advocates and academics for its virtue of inclusiveness as well as its function both in reversing the valence of a traditional epithet and in subverting the received sexual order, is offensive to many lesbians and gay men precisely because it has long been used as a term of opprobrium, inviting discrimination and violence.

    The language used to name those who oppose gay/lesbian political action is no less a terminological minefield. A number of terms imply that religion is the origin of antigay sentiment. Words such as “fundamentalist,” “evangelical,”and “new religious right”are frequently used pejoratively for individuals who oppose homosexual movements. However, such terms leave out opposition justified on secular grounds and suggest that religious opponents are merely a radical minority. The term “homophobe”to describe an individual who either dislikes homosexuals or opposes gay political action can be attacked as pathologizing proper moral views, as a diagnosis without basis, and as a mere epithet. “Bigot”and its variants has been frequently employed by progay advocates to describe their opponents, and has been rejected as simple name-calling by individuals who define themselves as “people of faith.”

    There is no means through which to compromise the innumerable semantic disagreements which mine the battlefield of public policy whose subject is same-sex sex. These disagreements are, in fact, useful artifacts marking boundaries between opposed groups as well as indicators of the deployment of particular rhetorical strategies. In examining these public policy debates, some conventions of usage, even though arbitrary, might provide clarity and consistency. In general, we propose to use the terms “progay”and “antigay”to denote opposing sides in public policy debate. Variants of the term “gay and lesbian”will refer to homosexuals within progay discourse. Similarly, the term “homosexual”will be used during analysis of antigay advocacy. Antigay advocates frequently will be called “traditionalists,”a neutral term which suggests that antigay impulses have origin in both secular and religious beliefs.

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    About the Authors

    Ralph R. Smith is Professor of Communication and Mass Media at South-west Missouri State University. He received his doctorate from the University of Southern California and also holds degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia University. He teaches courses in social movement communication, public relations, and rhetorical criticism. He has taught at The City University of New York and Dartmouth College. He has coauthored texts in nonverbal communication and in organizational communication. His scholarly works have appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, the Southern Communication Journal, the Central States Speech Journal, and the Journal of Homosexuality. He is chair (1999–2000) of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered Communication Studies Division of the National Communication Association.

    Russel R. Windes is Emeritus Professor of Communications at The City University of New York. He holds his doctorate from Northwestern University. He teaches courses in argumentation, persuasion, political communication, and conflict management. He is the author of books in argumentation, persuasion, and debate, as well as numerous articles in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication Monographs, the Western Journal of Communication, the Southern Communication Journal, and the Journal of Homosexuality. He has served as Chair of the Publications Board of the National Communication Association. As consulting editor for the Bobbs-Merrill Series, he edited 56 books in the field of communication. As consulting editor for Random House, he edited 14 books. He has also taught at Northwestern University and San Francisco State University. At Northwestern, he was Director of University Debating. His debaters twice won the National Championship.


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