Sunday, November 19, 2006

What's the Matter with Texas -- Part Three

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.


Roger Owen Green said...

GP- Surely you know that it is PRECISELY the couple dissed by the contractor that got the press that will move the ball, so to speak. Why does one story rise to the top? It's not because it's "more important", it's because it struck a nerve with some reporter and it gwets wide release.

Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, and it can be "representational" - it'snot just THAT contractor, it's how many OTHER people do that to blacks, I mean gays.

Anonymous said...

Do you really think that homos sent the "I wanna sodomize you" emails/voice mails? I mean, couldn't it be crazy righties trying to justify their hatred?
Irregardless the whole sitch is totally irretarded, and you're right about what should have come out of it--take away the faces to look at the issue, give solutions on how we can deal with the issue locally, at a state, and at a federal level.
But, like you say, there is no leadership. Did you read Rudnick's tongue-in-cheek-ish, "Gays take the day off" thing?

Doug said...

I think the inability of a middle-class gay couple to get Christian landscaping is the same issue as violent persecution, lack of medical care, and all the other symptoms of discrimination. I think it's a matter of degree and circumstance. In the business world, Sabrina Farber sent an email. On the streets, her or her friends or her children physically attack gay people. Hatred is hatred.

People sending threats to the Farbers is the same as people sending threats to the Dixie Chicks. Your question, "What the fuck, people?" can be addressed to everyone, sadly, not just the Left.

I totally agree with you that this was a wonderful opportunity that slipped through our leaders' fingers. Intelligent discussion about the larger situation could have opened people's minds. Instead, nothing was done, so the ignorant threats sent to the Farbers got the attention and the situation is worse.

wayout said...

Okay, you’ve convinced me. Texas is a horrible place. My gut reaction was never to set foot in the state again. But wait, I haven’t yet in my life so it’s doubtful Texas would miss me or my dollars. We can flee or boycott the most objectionable places but that pretty much accomplishes the opposition’s fondest wish – that queers (or any other targeted group) either be unseen or simply go someplace else. Texas left on its own course of direction will surely get worse rather than better without us.

The therapeutic remedy to any phobia, whether it’s flying or public speaking or queers, is repeated exposure. Being out, in however many aspects of daily life one can muster, is still our greatest tool to affect social change. Wherever one lives, the opportunity is near with Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings to expand the circle of those who know a queer.

We need to get our own lives in order too. If all of our friends are of the same race, orientation, religion and political party, change for the good is going to occur very slowly if at all. Our own interactions should strive to be more diverse. As much as I want to demonize and avoid the Christian right, they are precisely with whom we need to interact. I know I need to make their church up the street more diverse.

We hope that beneficial change will happen easily through court order, legislation or the stroke of a pen, but it rarely does. Real change is changing minds one at a time. If we want that change, it is our work to do.

tornwordo said...

Wow. I hadn't heard about that. It's hard to take the view that we're all in this together when there are cities full of Farbers.

I think you should work on ways to avoid going back.

kusala said...

OK, I'm really late in hopping on the comment bandwagon here, but I finally got around to thoroughly reading the Texas trilogy.

I am very ambivalent regarding a business owner retaining the "right to refuse service." I think Mrs. Farber was incredibly ballsy in sending a letter that specifically stated why she and her husband were choosing not to bid on the landscaping contract. A lot of contractors might choose to just ignore the request or otherwise decline to do business with someone. For some reason, I also find this type of contractor to be different that a restaurant, shop, or other "open to the public" establishment where refusing someone entry or service would be entirely out of line. Maybe I'm wrong though; maybe all businesses should be looked at equally as having an obligation to provide service to anyone who solicits their service...

I had a similar dilemma of my own a couple months ago when buying a secondhand television. After arranging the deal, I "googled" the seller and discovered that he was an ultra conservative who had posted commentaries on some rightwing blogs and who works for a "Reagan Youth" foundation. I seriously questioned whether I wanted to do business with someone like that. In the end, I bought the TV, but I still question my decision. Granted, this transaction was an entirely private transaction between individuals where no "business license" or "public business/corporation" was involved. However, the same ethical questions/decisions had to be considered.

To take an alternative view, suppose a queer contractor were asked to provide a bid/quote on a project, and discovered when assessing the job that the house in question belonged to an evangelical Christian family whose vehicle had bumperstickers saying things like "Keep Marriage Sacred between One Man and One Woman." Should the queer contractor feel well within his rights to refuse the painting/carpeting/tree-trimming job they requested his services on? Would he be obligated to decline just for general reasons, or would it be a problem if he said "I don't think we should do business together because our values sharply conflict"?

Of course, I think once you open a restaurant or a shop, you're stuck having to serve whoever walks through the door... but private-contractor-type individuals seem to have a bit more leeway. I guess I believe we can all "vote with our wallets" and I'd be just as guilty of "discriminating" against a blatant right-wing vendor/customer (if I knew their beliefs) as the Farbers were guilty of "discriminating" against the gay couple.

I, as a leftist queer, WANT to know -- would rather know -- the values/beliefs of the people I do business with so that I can make an "informed decision." I'd prefer that than waking up one morning to discover (hypothetically) that the sweet little greengrocer down the block (with whom I'd done business for years but had never discussed a word of politics) was a member of the KKK or some such thing.

Sorry for the huge comment, but thanks for posting such an interesting topic for thought and discussion! We love GayProf!

Anonymous said...

Here is my take on the matter:

IF you have a contracting business, and already signed the contract with the client... and then the "sharp conflict of values" arises...

...tough noogies. If that contractor refuses delivery of service, then he is in breech of contract and may be held liable in court for it.

However, if a contractor decides not to enter a contract because he observes some thing "wrong" with his client... then he is not obligated to provide service.

This would also apply to sales such as housing (governed by civil law) and other such things.

For those with stores, the proprietor or management of the store should be permitted to excercise jurisdiction as to who he or she wishes to serve, and should indicate this by posting a "we reserve the right to refuse service at our discretion"... without having to provide a reason for it.

kusala said...

Well, Seeker Onos, I don't think a sign posting "we reserve the right to refuse service at our discretion" serves as anything like a get out of jail free card -- it certainly would NOT hold up if one tried to say, "This is my luncheonette and if I don't want to serve 'coloreds' or 'fairies', I don't have to".

Anonymous said...

I don't entirely disagree with you, Kusala... and I am presenting this in a manner of playing the "devil's advocate" ... sort of.

But as far as using race or gender as a pretext for refusal of service... I think the masses of consumers (the "consumer republic") would be ones either affirming or denying a business's decision to discriminate in providing goods and services to different people.

On the one hand, posting such a sign serves as a very limited "contract", in the sense that the potential clientele is informed that owner may or may not discriminate in providing services.

If race or gender or sexuality are not implicitly used as a pretext - and the owner of the diner does not feel obligated to serve a particular person or group of persons, then by no means should he be compelled against his will to render services.

This is "laissez faire" at its core.

*Should* the business owner deal unfairly or be perceived as such, it would be bad for business as he earns a bad reputation for not serving "coloreds" or "fairies"... over time, the consumer republic would shun his business because of his prejudiced rendering of services. Also, depending upon the civil statutes in his jurisdiction, he may be liable to civil penalties based upon his discriminatory refusal of service (again, if it is that obvious)

Likewise, upon observing the potential for exclusion (buyer, beware, and be the judge of the situation) he or she could simply opt to do business with a company that is more willing to deal with a diverse clientele.

On the other hand, a service provider or store could as well post a sign declaring a policy of diversity or open service without regard to the customer (allowing for denial of service if the customer is threatening or violent or otherwise acting in a manner which common sense would dictate some extraordinary measures).

Stores and service providers with this policy would be accountable to that "contract" to provide service equitably to all potential customers, and may reap benefits from public adhering to it.

It is not perfectly 100% egalitarian, but hardly anything in human society is... but trying to over-regulate industry because someone doesn't want to cut someone else's grass seems a bit... well, unnecessary.

GayProf said...

Kusala and Seeker Onos: Yeah, I also had a conflicted response to the question of the Farbers’ rights. Even most of the 1960s Civil Rights legislation made exceptions for certain small business, like boarding houses. Then again, that always struck me as evil. Just because a business is small, should it be able to do less ethical things than a major corporation?

In different circumstances, one might think that economics would solve the problem. As Seeker suggests, boycotts can be powerful. The Farbers, though, never took queer money. So, they are not really hurt by our refusal to pay them. Moreover, the Farbers reaped financial reward for their bigotry with a windfall of new clients.

In the end, I have come to an unsettled conclusion, but am still open to be persuaded in either direction. First, I don’t support legislation that looks to limit “hate speech.” Curbing somebody else’s rights is no way to protect your own.

This case, though, suggests something about access to services considered “public.” I am inclined to think that we can (and do in thousands of ways) demand ethical behavior from companies licensed by the state.

Anonymous said...

Just because someone, for one reason or another, does not provide a service does not automatically mean that they hate a group or an individual