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“As a Texan lesbian academic living and working in the United Kingdom for more than 20 years I am often asked by other Americans why European countries are so much more accepting of their lesbian and gay citizens,” writes Angelia R. Wilson as a first line from her new book.
“European scholars also direct the other version of this question at me—Why are Americans so against the extension of rights to lesbian and gay citizens?” she continues, in Why Europe Is Lesbian and Gay Friendly (and Why America Never Will Be), a monograph on this thorny problem. In the face of continuing right-wing homophobia here, is there really no hope for tolerance and support?
Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Manchester, England, has truly cast her research net wide in attempting to find the center of the question. It’s particularly appropriate for this election cycle, given that Europe was dominated for 1,500 years by a monopoly church, followed by centuries of warfare over which Christianity would dominate, Catholic or Protestant, to see religious leaders still fighting human rights. Are the Europeans more or less religious than Americans? Are the evangelicals in U.S. Bible-based Protestant churches making the most of a divisive issue (gay civil rights) only to satisfy their base and increase votes? What other threads are included in European tolerance?
Wilson’s work is admirably packed with references, statistics, polls, and theories, and a discussion of many threads that affect whether or not a state is “friendly” toward gay citizens. Economics, religion, politics,
et al, are linked. So I’ll attempt a brief overview. However, I would encourage those interested in her title’s thesis to thoroughly read the book for themselves.
From Jeffrey Weeks’s book The World We Have Won, Wilson outlines four key answers:
• After Stonewall in 1969, “the gay movement has made a significant impact on the cultures, politics, and policies of the Western world.”
• European politicians or policy makers took risks by questioning traditional notions of equality, justice, or rights to reframe the debate and develop a redefinition more inclusive of LGBT citizens. Thus, a few European countries began to set the bar for nondiscrimination and inclusivity.
• Construction of the European Union (EU) created a “a unique political terrain for introducing social change.”
• A shift came in social attitudes toward gay men and lesbians, as literature showing “more respondents attribute homosexuality to nature, rather than nurture.”
After centuries of battling among themselves for control, France, England, Italy, Spain, and others began to work to shape the EU, and formulate laws to protect the rights of all citizens. The right to travel, to have health care, to share an economy, and other concerns were an attempt to overcome cultural and traditional attitudes, and develop more tolerance and diversity. Obviously, this would mean protecting minorities and women in all matters involving rights and equality.
“Care” became a priority hoped for by those leading the EU. It’s this attitude, Wilson points out, which America does not share. The recent attempt to provide universal health care in the U.S. has become embroiled in a “do or die” fight by both political parties.
Through the centuries, “care” was seen as a responsibility of the family, volunteers, charities, and religious institutions. In a high-tech 21st century, with a booming population and people living longer, these entities can’t appropriately deal with health issues. In addition, laws questioning the “rights” of abortion, shortages of food and water, and dealing with STDs and HIV/AIDS have complicated citizens’ demand for more “care.” (A question of values no one ever seems to ask: “Should human health be a for-profit product?”)
Wilson points out that in America a “market economy” turns almost everything into a commodity. She writes that G. Esping-Andersen’s Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism “…takes three factors into account: ideological differences of policymaking styles, political structures, and patterns of class formation.” When welfare is affected by commodification and “divergent abilities to purchase these goods, the response of the state is to decommodify welfare, enabling citizens to acquire basic needs from market forces.”
Also impacting the issue is the value of strong labor movements in promoting equality, integration, and social participation; as they are destroyed or limited, the state intervenes to ensure the welfare of all citizens.
In a nation like the U.S., currently being pushed to the right by billions of dollars aiming to reduce government solutions (even when citizens favor them), who or what is to ensure all citizens are “cared for” in terms of civil rights, needs, and health?
Finally, Wilson raises the question of the pressures posed in all these various threads by religious leaders. Certainly in the case of LGBT citizens, fundamentalists are demanding gays be put back in the closet. Meanwhile, the public doesn’t agree and favors a widening of gay rights. But if the society at large is “non-caring,” this is unlikely, as shown by the complacency of congressional leaders about income inequality. Gay issues get pushed back by much larger issues involving the whole society.
Finally, Wilson points out that P. Norris and R. Inglehart, in Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, state that anxiety seems to create a demand for more religion. They suggest that where economic insecurity exists (e.g., loss of job, no job, low pay) there is high religiosity. “High levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society, despite American affluence, due to the cultural emphasis on the values of personal responsibility, individual achievement, and mistrust of big government,” they state. This can limit the role of public services and the welfare state in basic matters covering all the working population. Thus, when socioeconomic insecurity is high, then religiosity is also high and “the poor are almost twice as religious as the rich.”
This book is a must-read for anyone willing to delve into the many ideas needed to change attitudes toward gays in America, and other concepts that can limit all U.S. citizens in a variety of ways.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.