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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

"Redneck chic" and the politics of internal backlash

Back when I was growing up - in the days when televangelists (we called them "TV preachers" then) ranted about "godless comm'nists" instead of activist judges and the gay agenda - a "redneck" was someone to be avoided. That combination of seven letters was sufficient to paint a picture of a particular rural, racist and vicious mindset who took pride in his (for the sobriquet was invariably applied to a male) ignorance and propensity for violence.

In the nomenclature of the times, redneck was a few rungs below "poor white trash" on the evolutionary ladder. While someone who was poor white trash could be a redneck, Steinbeck's Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath were the prototype of poor white trash - they could have a sense of nobility about them. Think of Henry Fonda's "Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there ..." speech in the movie version. No one described as a redneck would ever say a line like that. Hell, no redneck could ever really summon up enough empathy to understand the sentiment behind it.

Growing up gay in rural southern Missouri, I also knew that my type and that type didn't mix. That was just the natural order of things.

Now, having shaken the dusty off from that rural backwater in which I grew up nearly three decades ago, it disturbs me to see so many people adopt the symbols that had once been the province of rednecks as their own. I suppose it's to be expected when the nation lurches to the right that a certain segment of the population will dust off their "star and bars" decals and bumperstickers for their pickup trucks or wear t-shirts that proudly proclaim their redneck-hood.

What's unexpected is how many gay men have adopted this "redneck chic" as the latest trend.

In online chatrooms I've noticed more gay men who describe themselves as rednecks or incorporate words like "redneck," "confederate," or "rebel" into their screen names. There's even a G.R.O.W. (for Gay Redneck Outer Wear) web page that offers the stars and bars superimposed over a rainbow flag decal and various t-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the incongruous symbols celebrating both gay pride and redneck "heritage."

So what happened to bring about this most unnatural of pairings? Is this a harbinger of things to come in fashion? Will we be seeing pendants combining the Star of David and a swastika? Or perhaps an African dashiki proudly displaying the letters KKK?

At least where "redneck" gay men are concerned, the trend symbolizes an increasing sense of disconnection between working class gays and the self-appointed activist leaders of the gay community. The schism is a mirrors the sense of disconnection between working-class people and the Democratic Party which is seen as elitist rather than inclusionary.

National gay organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (whose name is so nebulous that it doesn't include any reference to "gay") and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among a host of others, are finding it increasingly hard to reach all segments of the gay community. And little wonder since the past couple of major issues such groups have got behind - gays in the military and gay marriage - have been major losers. Not just in the eyes of the public, but those issues have failed in the eyes of many LGBT folks who see no connection between either issue and their own lives.

Call it an internal backlash within the gay movement, but whatever its cause, there is enough blame to go around.

Gay movement leaders do spend far to much time inside the Beltway and for too little time trying to understand what's important to the average working-class gay. When Bill Clinton was first elected in 1992, he won the gay vote by dangling the carrot of a promised executive order banning discrimination against gays in the military. Starry-eyed that a presidential candidate would even mention the word "gay," leaders of national gay organizations worked tirelessly for Clinton and even rushed to his defense when he reneged on his promise and offered a far less palatable compromise with the "Don't ask. Don't tell" policy. The national organizations treated the issue of gays in the military like it was the most vital and burning of "our" issues. The trouble was, it was an issue that only affected a tiny minority of gays and lesbians. Most of us had good sense enough not to sign up to serve a country that denied them basic civil rights and would have no qualms against ejecting us if we came out.

Then came the marriage issue. At least a few more gays could understand why such an issue might affect them at some point, but the national organizations once again portrayed it as the central issue defining gay rights. They over-reached and once again rank-and-file gays felt betrayed by the leaders who appointed themselves to speak for the entire diverse community. Once again the issue failed ... miserably, this time, as states lined up to vote on measures banning gay marriages (and sometimes even civil unions).

Because the national gay rights groups choose only to test the winds of Washington, D.C. - which are often merely the result of an abundance of hot air - they fail to connect with the average working-class gay man in Kalamazo or Kokomo or even Kansas City. Instead of pushing for law that would protect all gays and lesbians, such as ending workplace discrimination, the national organizations chose to take baby steps on issues around the periphery of gay rights. In doing so, they lost the support of their base.

But groups like HRC, NGLTF and others don't bear the blame alone. Many of the disaffected gay, like those who have donned "redneck chic" or who describe themselves as "not into the gay scene" in their online profiles have lost any sense of altruism when it comes to gay issues. They assume as long as they have bars to hang out in on Saturday nights, gay dart leagues to keep them busy on Wednesday nights, and gay softball leagues during the long summer days, that they have arrived at a suitable level of "liberation."

On the microcosmic level, it's exactly what has happened to swing voters who have gone over to the Republican Party thinking that they have achieved a suitable lifestyle for themselves. Where once they might have expressed passion about issues, now they choose complacency. And in that complacency is a not-so-subtle thumbing of the nose at leaders on the left (just as there is with leaders of gay organizations).

If America is going to progress, the Democrats have to reconnect with those who have abandoned the party in favor of complacency. If gay rights is going to to progress, our national organizations must reconnect with the individuals who have come to believe that the leaders who are supposed to speak for them really do have their interests at heart.