I only knew my Uncle Danny for the first three years of my life. Memories I have are hazy, and most are emotional anecdotes from before my time. Even though I did not get a chance to get to know him, my uncle remains an integral part of my thinking, and a heavy part of my heart. You see, when Danny was young, he began to question his own sexuality, noticing that he was attracted to other boys instead of girls. Even at such a young age, he knew that what he was feeling went against the morals of society, and he knew it was something he must keep hidden. However, this forced the emotional damage to cut deeper, and horrible bouts of depression ensued. By the age of 15, Danny was running away from home for long periods of time. “We had no idea when he’d be back. Sometimes we even began to think he was dead,” my mother recounts. Danny found refuge in various underground societies of people like himself: oppressed and depressed homosexual men forced to live a life of shame and secrecy. So many of these lost individuals participated in recreational drug use and unprotected sex with relatively random men. It was in the early 80’s, only a matter of years later, that Danny was diagnosed with one of the biggest threats to humanity at the time: HIV. With the lack of healthcare or knowledge about the disease, and with very little support from society, Danny was left in his final years to battle the disease in his own bed at home. My entire family watched as his body became increasingly emaciated, and finally his painful death in 1993.
So, yes, I had mentioned that Danny remains an integral part of my thinking, and in me his story ignites anger, fear, and a yearning to understand and change the way society thinks and reacts. The important thing to remember is that I am not alone in these feelings; that events and stories like these have incited anger in people throughout history, sparking social movements that rise up against the values that have been ingrained in our society for so long. So begs the question, how can a simple opinion shared by a majority of people have such a devastating and revolutionary effect on a society? I’ll illustrate my interpretation using two of some of the biggest major threats to the sexual freedom of American society: HIV/AIDS and the more contemporary debate over marriage equality. Social movements, especially those on HIV/AIDS and marriage equality, involve a constant power struggle between multiple structures on both sides of the debate, and both sides are ignited and influenced by the all-too-powerful existence of stigma.
Sexuality is a subject that has long been creating ripples and causing multiple dichotomies within our society throughout history. Foucault describes sexuality as something that has been long engrained in our way of thinking and as manifesting itself in a lot of different aspects in our lives, and in turn it has been largely connected to power through societies attempt to repress the expression of sexuality. In understanding the social movements regarding sexuality, we must first understand the dynamics of discourse and power as it relates to the repression of sexuality in our society. “To say that sex is not repressed, or rather that the relationship between sex and power is not characterized by repression, is to risk falling into a sterile paradox” (Foucault 1978, p. 8). Foucault wanted to assert that power itself is not responsible for the repression of sex, but that there is a relationship between the two, and that power comes from multiple angles that proliferate ideas and shape discourse. He explores the reasons we say we are oppressed and the different powers that offer different bits of knowledge and discourse that either silence or facilitate discourse about sex. The idea that power manifests itself in all different forms and can come from anywhere plays into the concept of webs of power, a concept that will be discussed largely throughout the analysis of social movements, because the power webs are an integral part of how discourse is shaped and how changes are made within our society. It must be understood that with power comes resistance, and when there is a push there is always a pull, thus where social movements are born through moral panic and opposition.
Social movements themselves are very carefully organized and use structurally sound methods in an attempt to facilitate a change in discourse, and it’s important to understand how social movement organizations (SMO’s) go about their action plans. Social movements can themselves be sparked by a multitude of things, and there is always a potential for resistance. However, two of the biggest main causes include court cases and tragic events. With court cases, we see cases like Roe v. Wade which caused significant backlash over the issue of abortion, and one of the biggest historical tragic events causing backlash was the outbreak of HIV/AIDS, which will be discussed at great length. There are many theories as to why these social movements emerge in the midst of these events. The relative deprivation theory offers that existing social inequalities compare themselves with another group, much like the chain of social movements that arose in the 1960s. With the J-Curve Theory, groups start to see the advancements they made threatened, which in turn results in a backlash. However, with this theory, there is a constant cycle of social movement because of the never-ending presence of resistance and threat to social advancements. Focusing less on the recognition of inequality, the resource mobilization theory places more emphasis on how SMO’s organize and rationally strategize by building coalitions, utilizing webs of power, and using discourse and rhetoric skillfully. The political opportunity theory looks at how social movements can only emerge when political institutions open up, placing a large dependency on who’s in power, and a huge importance on the election process. Finally, the new social movement theory explains that what a movement says is the most important thing and that discourse and rhetoric are the main keys to success. The way the SMO frames the issue to better illicit a response, and the impact of resonance to get the idea to stay in the minds of the audience are of utmost importance in this theory. With these social movements erupting, the SMO’s have to be very strategic in how they go about advocating for their argument, and in doing that they have to do three main things: frame the issue, define the group or collective identity that they are representing, and strategize how they’re going to put forth a counter-movement to deal with backlash.
During the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, the LGBT community began to take small steps towards breaking the stigma against them in society. An article published in a October 1977 issue of the New York Times discusses how homosexuals were finding a new sense of pride in New York City. “The city’s homosexual population, which only a few years ago began to ‘come out of the closet’ and into the street, has developed markedly in recent months into a cohesive, open and organized force.” However, beginning in the early 1980s, a new epidemic would start that would threaten those advances and push the LGBT community even further into stigma: the outbreak of HIV/AIDS, or as it was known at the time, Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Syndrome (GRID). One of the first top powers that emerged in this issue that would soon become an integral part of the web of power within the social movement was the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which at the time was the major factor influencing society’s discourse about the new disease. On June 5th 1981, the CDC published a report that introduced this new disease as affecting gay men (Frontline). This, in turn, had a profound affect in wildly intensifying the stigma against homosexuals. If we look again at the J-Curve theory, and we see this as being a huge threat to the improvements in their situation, we can then understand why the outbreak of HIV/AIDS had sparked a huge social movement. In fact, the first gay rights organization, brought together by activist Larry Kramer, emerged within a year of the introduction of the new disease (Frontline). All of the sudden society had two major forces battling against one another: morality and safety. Multiple powers arose out of intense fear, stigma, and political controversies on the severity of the disease at hand.
It came to be that there were multiple aspects to the AIDS epidemic, one of them being the very large rise in African-American infection rates. A debate featured in the New York Times in August of 2011 discusses ways to close the racial gap between HIV infections. In this debate, one of the most useful statements is that made by Vickie M. Mays, where she proposes that we start with comprehensive sex education. “We must engage a national sex education program for all young people that encourages self-respect, reduces secrecy and stigma, and delays the start of sexual intercourse.” The aspect of teaching self-respect and reducing stigma is very very important to not only closing the racial gap but bringing down HIV statistics altogether. Stigma only leads to a rise in HIV rates, so why not proliferate positive discourse and try our best to break the taboo of homosexuality? Going very much along those lines, the argument of Hugo Mialon, who proposed a similar solution except focusing primarily on changing society’s attitude towards homosexuals. “Societal intolerance toward gays tends to drive homosexual behavior underground. This type of risky behavior is characterized by anonymous encounters with high-risk individuals in secret, socially disconnected venues like parks, beaches and bathhouses, known as “cruisy” areas. Conversely, social acceptance of gays induces gay men to interact in open and socially mediated venues associated with less risky sexual behaviors, which decreases the rate of H.I.V. transmission among homosexuals.” This point at large would be a driving bullet to again not only close the racial gap but to solve many other issues within the gay community, including the issue of marriage equality. As touched upon, the stigmatization of homosexuality and those with HIV/AIDS actually increases the risk of homosexuals contracting AIDS. According to the report, “91% of governments reported that they address stigma and discrimination as cross cutting issues in their national strategies.” However, the study also found that these programs were very poorly funded and many of the programs were not enforced. Many of these people don’t even have access to programs and healthcare due to the discrimination. It seems that society is layering stigma after stigma, forcing a causal relationship between the social construction of heteronormativity and the spread of AIDS. Comprehensive sex education would do wonders in reducing stigma and getting society on a comfortable level when the subject turns to sex, but that brings about a whole other issue. It is situations like this that comprehensive sex education seems to be the better option. As Luker describes it, “but what about the most worrisome claim made about abstinence programs, that such programs reduce the propensity to use contraception when and if students become sexually active?” So, yes, how do you protect against the spread of disease when you’re teaching you’re not teaching children and teens how to take the necessary precautions? Even further, with the AIDS epidemic it’s not just about teaching children, it’s about bringing the disease into light and educating the public instead of stigmatizing it and attempting to silence it.
During the AIDS epidemic, many of the victim’s partners found themselves unable to visit them in the hospital, and they did not have any rights in regards to health insurance or life benefits. George Chauncy explains, “AIDS raised the emotionally charged question of who counted as family in the most profound ways. The biological family of an estranged son with AIDS was often content to let someone else take care of him” (Chauncy 2004, p. 99). Similarly, during the tragedy of 9/11, homosexuals died and left their partners without any type of benefits. This was one of the biggest factors that sparked the movement for marriage equality in our country. Reese Kelly explains, “beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, marriage became part of the larger fight for gay and lesbian equality due to three major social factors: the impact of AIDS, the growing visibility and integration of gays and lesbians in society, and a growing middle-aged L/G population” (Seidman 2011, p. 458). However, it certainly wasn’t a new issue. One of the biggest factors for people advocating for marriage equality is the rights and benefits granted to those who are married, rights that should be available to homosexual couples as well, if they so choose. An interesting article printed in a 1981issue of the New York times explains the story of a 23-year-old homosexual man who adopted a 27-year-old homosexual man. The article explains, “a legal family relationship is unavailable to homosexuals through marriage because under New York law, as in all other states, people of the same sex may not marry. But most state adoption laws that allow an unmarried adult to adopt another, including New York’s, do not explicitly forbid homosexuals from adopting.” In the ruling, the couple was granted adoption and they were granted familial benefits. So, why, thirty years later, are we still at a point where it is not legal everywhere in the United States for same-sex couples to marry?
A woman by the name of Carol Buckheit came in to speak to our class on the issue of marriage equality and how social movement organizations worked to legalize it. Having worked for a prominent SMO in the state of Connecticut, Love Makes a Family, she had plenty of experience in working in a social movement, and had a lot to say about what it takes to work effectively inside the webs of power. First she covered the question of why organizations for fighting for marriage equality, and the answer was simple, in two parts. First, of course, was the benefits package that married couples receive. Married couples in Connecticut are given 588 rights and benefits when they sign a marriage license. On top of that, they are given over 1,100 rights and benefits by the United States. Many believe that the introduction of civil unions for same-sex couples alleviates those concerns, but what that actually does in a lot of same-sex couples’ eyes is put them at a status that is lower than that of married couples. Carol described the important of the word “marriage.” That it is something that is not just a word but resonates with multiple feelings and meanings within our society, and represents a strong love connection between two people. So, the organization had what it wanted to fight for, now they had to decide how they were going to go about doing that to reach the legislature.
When law is changed through legislature than through court cases, it is usually seen as being more accepted within society, and that was the main goal of Love Makes a Family, not to generate a court case but to change public opinion on the issue. To reach this goal they had to come up with a strategy. First on the agenda was to advocate for public education to decrease stigma against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Stigma is a profoundly powerful factor in the opposition to same-sex marriage, and carries with it the assumptions that gays and lesbians are not fit to marry. Especially after the attacks of 9/11, anything outside the norm of a man and a woman was stigmatized. Reese Kelly explains, “In regards to sexuality, those who are perceived as ‘unpatriotic’ are predominantly single mothers and gays. To be ‘patriotic’ by the current dominant standards one must be heterosexual, married, and family-centered” (Seidman 2011, p. 459). As a society that gains much of its morality and legitimate knowledge from the Christianity, the Church remained one of the strongest powers that needed to be persuaded in the fight for marriage equality. This is true for most issues involving sexuality, as we saw with the fight against AIDS and with a lot of organizations that fight for pornography and prostitution rights. Marriage for most religious people is seen as a religious institution, so for most the issue of same-sex marriage becomes an issue of Christianity, and because many Christians believe that the bible deems homosexuality as immoral, it doesn’t take much second thought for them to decide that same-sex marriage should not be allowed. Therefore, SMO’s have to be very skillful in the rhetoric they use and the way they choose to frame the issue. In Carol’s case, Love Makes a Family wanted to focus on what is called the “moveable middle.” These are the people who weren’t strongly on either side of the debate and would be open to both sides of the argument. There goal was to convey a message that would correctively frame the issue and resonate with the audience, making it stick in their mind and ultimately changing their position to pro-marriage equality. In a lot of cases with most social movement organizations, there were always certain types of people that would be best in getting the message across that were used frequently. This included parents and grandparents of gay or lesbian children, lesbian mothers, child advocates, and older gay or lesbian couples. The older gay or lesbian couples is perhaps the most powerful tool to deliver the message because it utilizes the longevity factor–people tend to become more sympathetic when they see an old couple who have been committed to each other for years. This type of framing breaks common stereotypes about the gay and lesbian community and resonates within the minds of the audience. Seemingly simple tactics like these can have big effects on the webs of power in the sense that it breaks stigma and causes more people to go against the status quo, which can be very powerful in influencing any power at large, since stigma and societal majority have much to do with standpoints on social issues.
Conveying a message to the public was only one part of the tactics used in Love Makes a Family, because it really only targets certain powers in the web of power, mainly the public and those who follow the Church. However, the power that still remains at large is the State and the government, because they essentially control any changes that are to be made. In Carol’s case, this meant that there was a lot of lobbying to be done, both through the capital itself, and through grassroots methods. They had someone inside the capital who would attempt to persuade legislators on the issue, educating them and also choosing messages that would resonate. However, some of the most profound lobbying came from their letter-writers. These were people who had volunteered to be on the organization’s mailing list, and when any type of article was published in regard to marriage equality, Love Makes a Family would have all their volunteers write letters to the editor. These turned out to be extremely effective, because a lot of them contained emotional messages and personal anecdotes that resonated with a lot of people. When issues are framed in an effective way that makes the audience believe that same-sex marriage is almost common sense, it can have powerful effects. A very recent article posted by the Huffington Post on December 14th discussed an interview with New York governor Andrew Cuomo that featured his views on marriage equality. In the interview, he says, “[mocking the opposition] ’You can't get married if you're gay.’ Why? ‘Well, because you're gay.’ And? ‘And, well, you can't make babies.’ That's the argument. Oh, really? So then we should change the law to say, ‘Only people who can and want to make babies can get married.’ So an infertile man can't. A woman who can't, she can't get married. People who don't want to make a baby, they can't get married. So let's change the law so it says, ‘Only people who can and will make babies.’ ‘Well, we don't want to do that. You can get married if you don't want to make a baby or if you can't--except if you're gay!’ There's no logic.” This type of argument is often extremely effective to an audience, and exposing the fact that there’s no real legitimate logic behind the opposition to an issue tends to open people’s eyes.
Many people don’t realize that driving force behind issues and debates over sexuality, one that is so ingrained in people’s minds that they often mistake it for logic. That driving force is the socially constructed stigmas within our society. It’s everywhere in the subject of sexuality, but most people just don’t know how to look for it. Take the case of Romer v. Evans, for example, which provided special protections against the discrimination of homosexuals or bisexuals. Maddox explains, “this case seemed to indicate that, as a matter of law, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals were a minority group needing protection from discrimination–in effect, placing them outside the boundaries of cultural acceptance” (Seidman 2011, p. 468). While many people saw this as an advancement for the LGBT community, many SMO’s saw it as something else: the labeling of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals as a minority and the further stigmatization of that group. It’s not just gays and lesbians that are stigmatized for their sexual behavior, either. If we look at the issue of sex workers, or even the porn industry, we see that the opposition to these institutions are mostly conservatives who are basing arguments off of stereotypes and generalizations about what it means to be pure vs. corrupt. Homosexuality in our society is seen as a corruption by most. Fear is set upon in the notion that homosexuals can corrupt with the spread of HIV, and that by getting married and having the right to adopt children, they can also corrupt children with the notion that homosexuality is normal and okay. What it really comes down to is the presence of symbolic violence within our society, or the idea that stereotypes can do significant damage to those groups. Symbolic violence in our society can and does lead to social inequalities, which in turn leads to structural violence and the denying of rights to a group of people. Take my uncle Danny, for instance. He was the victim of many degrees of symbolic violence throughout his entire life. First, by having been discriminated against and made believe that being gay was a horrible thing, he suffered tremendous emotional damage. In turn, this led to self-inflicted violence and recreational drug use, and unprotected sex with others who were victims of the same type of symbolic violence. He then contracted HIV and was even more discriminated against, taught to see himself as corrupted and sinful, having to die alone because he never was given the opportunity to be openly gay and marry a man he loved. This is a horrifying truth for many, many people, and what lies at the root of it all is that symbolic violence, that deep and layered stigma. Social Movement Organizations are not just trying to change legislation, they’re trying to eliminate stigma. Without stigma, without prejudice, hate, and violence, would there even be a need for all of this framing of rhetoric, all of this discourse geared towards the acceptance of sexuality? A recent article published in the Boston Globe on December 15, 2011, tells the story of a young boy who was outted against his will by his school. A director explains, "Taking away the choice for a LGBT student to come out on their own terms opens the door to significant risks, including harassment at school and family rejection.” So my question is, why should it be such a big deal for young people to come out of the closet? Wouldn’t it be fair to not criticize the school for outting the child, but instead criticize society for making that an event one should fear? I’ll reiterate: stigma is tremendously powerful. I think Foucault would agree that we would not have so many different groups tangled up in a complicated web of power if so many of those groups did not hold such strong and communicated beliefs about sexuality. What would be logical would to not be constantly stuck on a discourse about sexuality, to not be screaming about sexual debates on mainstream media. However, it’s the only thing necessary in the presence of such strong stigma, and without the elimination of those prejudices and stereotypes, I’m afraid that there might never be a lull in the discourse, and social movement organizations will continue to find the right rhetoric, and the right methods in which to push their cause against endless restraints.