By now it should be clear that I have little desire to return to Texas. My experiences with that state suggest that hate, greed, and fear are cherished much more than a basic commitment to human or civil rights. Yet, I think more is at play than just my reluctance to move back to Texas. Well, okay, these posts are mostly about my reluctance to move back to Texas. I also see Texas, though, as making visible the problems faced by the entire U.S. Texas might appear extreme on the surface, but I am not convinced that it is really that anomalous. Rather than dismissing it as a backwater hickville, Texas shows the direction the rest of the U.S. will take if white conservative Evangelical Christians are permitted to reign unchecked.
Take, for example, events that have transpired since the first post of this series. One might have hoped that the revelation of a blackface-video produced at Texas A&M University would challenge all students on campus to reconsider race and racism. Certainly concerned faculty and some students have held many discussions about the campus climate. Robert Gates, the university’s president (and Bush’s current nominee for Secretary for Defense), vigorously condemned the video’s blatant racism. Only a few days later, though, Latino students in Hobby Hall, one of A&M’s residence dorms, awoke to find that their fellow students marked swastikas on their doors.
Obviously, given the size of the state, I don’t mean to imply that every single person in Texas has an allegiance to Karl Rove and/or the Ku Klux Klan. Pockets exist of reasonable people. They, though, are far, far, far outnumbered by those who seek, at best, self-satisfaction and, at worst, the misery of others.
Don’t bother bringing up Austin, either. That pitiful city’s reputation wrongly benefits because it is surrounded by fanatical conservative muck. Austin simply wouldn’t qualify as a “liberal” city in a global competition. In reality, Austin is merely “less conservative” than the rest of Texas. Residents of Austin are also shockingly provincial and often refuse to interrogate their complicity with the status quo in Texas. Yes, I might have anti-Austin agenda. That aside, the last news incident that caught my attention suggests not only Texas’s serious problems, but also the Left’s inability to develop effective strategies to grapple with such a state.
Even The New York Times picked up the story of the Houston-landscaping company Garden Guy and its refusal to work with a gay male couple. Like many Americans, Garden Guy’s husband-and-wife owners, Sabrina and Todd Farber, follow a branch of Christianity that fosters a hatred of gays and lesbians. The owner of the business drew on these beliefs when responding to a gay couple’s request for Garden Guy to bid on a landscaping contract for their new house. “I need to tell you,” Sabrina Farber wrote in an e-mail, “that we cannot meet with you because we choose not to work for homosexuals."
After receiving that note, the gay couple sent it to two hundred of their e-mail friends. Those initial two hundred, in turn, sent it thousands of others. The story, as a result, got some “legs.” Soon, the news media picked up the story. Farber was shocked – SHOCKED! – that queer people would be offended by her refusal to work with them.
This story, though, left me with some ambivalent feelings. Obviously the main issue centers on whether businesses like Garden Guy have the right to discriminate against queers. Sabrina Farber’s lack of shame about announcing that queers are less deserving of respect than heterosexuals warrants attention. It also reminds us that one goal in reforming the public sector is to ensure that any business open to the public can’t pick and choose who they want to serve.
Still, I am not confident that this particular incident warranted the attention it received. Before the news story hit big, I received an e-mail about it. My reaction then still holds today: The inability of a middle-class gay couple to get some crazy Christian to plant their Azaleas just doesn’t rank as the critical civil rights issue of our times. Queers facing violent persecution, lack of medical care, and an inability to maintain employment strike me as slightly more important than roses and daffodils.
Don’t get me wrong, some good changes came from this incident. For one, the media took some time to point out that discrimination against queer people still exists. Queer folk in Texas hardly found this “news,” but many heteros reacted with surprise. Anything that can get queer folk onto the majority’s radar has value.
Moreover, the incident also prompted the Association of Professional Landscapers to adopt a non-discrimination clause that included sexual orientation. In the future, members of that organization will be expected to abide by this provision.
Still, the incident revealed a Left that largely lacked leadership or even a certainty of our basic goals. The gay couple initially involved in the incident has shunned speaking with the press. They have not articulated clear motives nor an active agenda. Other queer leaders have yet to materialize.
Given that the Farbers already refused to work with queer people, an economic boycott would be largely ineffective. If somebody refuses to take your money in the first place, it’s hard to strike at their pocketbook by refusing to give them any money. The Farbers had also long-ago given up their membership in the Association of Professional Landscapers, so changes in that organization were moot.
Moreover, a few people hurt our cause by threatening the Farbers through their web-page or via e-mail. Nothing will turn sympathy against queer folk more than telling a hetero Christian family that they “should be sodomized” and/or put to death. Some even threatened violence against the Farbers’ children. What the fuck, people? That’s not at all helpful.
Within Houston, the Left’s lack of direction and threats to the Farbers created an image of them as the victims. Reportedly, the Garden Guy only lost $500 worth of business because of their homophobic stance. Yet, they have picked up another $40,000 worth of business from other hateful Texan bigots.
To have made this incident more effective, queer leaders needed to move the discussion away from the Farbers as individuals. Instead, we need to focus the blame for this type of hate on the state and federal governments. The Farbers discriminated against gays and lesbians as customers because the current legal structure in Texas permits them to do so (with the exception of some weak city ordinances in Dallas and Austin). Indeed, Texas actually provides incentives to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The Farbers have reaped real economic and social benefits from special privileges granted to married heterosexuals who have children.
If we allow the discussion of these types of battles to become merely about individuals like the Farbers, we will lose. It took little time for some media sources to present the Farbers as a hapless religious couple being trashed by "radical queer activists."
Fighting for Social Justice is not about seeking revenge on mean-spirited people like the Farbers. Rather, our battles are about reforming the government and laws. Texas and the federal government tacitly accepts, if not actually promotes, a notion of queer people as less deserving of respect basic civil protection. The Farbers are an example of that problem, but not the cause.