Conservatives in the Mist

At last year’s NLGJA conference, I moderated a panel that included former Log Cabin Republican president Patrick Sammon where we discussed the “Gay Republicans in the Mist” story.  It’s the kind of reporting that treats gay Republicans as odd specimens in the jungle being examined almost anthropologically, like Diane Fosse studied gorillas in “Gorillas in the Mist.”

I was reminded of that conversation when I read the Washington Posts breathless story on Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.  In the first paragraph, we’re told he’s not like those SCARY conservatives who oppose gay rights and same-sex marriage, but instead you can practically find him likeable.

The nightmares of gay marriage supporters are the Pat Robertsons of the world. The James Dobsons, the John Hagees — the people who specialize in whipping crowds into frothy frenzies, who say things likeKatrina was caused by the gays.

The gay marriage supporters have not met Brian Brown. They should. He might be more worth knowing about.

Within paragraphs, we are treated to this insight:

But this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis.

Brian Brown speaks to these people. He has a master’s degree from Oxford, and completed course work for a doctorate in history from UCLA. He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it’s horrible when people say that your life’s mission is actually just prejudice. He tries to help people see that opposing gay marriage does not make them bigots, that the argument should have nothing to do with hate or fear, and everything to do with history and tradition.

The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.

My heavens, you mean conservatives can actually be “sane” and not support same-sex marriage? It’s now okay for the Washington Post’s readers in DuPont Circle and Arlington and Takoma Park to say that a conservative they disagree with is actually, you know, likeable?

The LGBT blogosphere didn’t like Monica Hesse’s story for very different reasons than I didn’t. Joe Jervis at JoeMyGod called it a “glowing profile” and one of his commenters, LKinDC, called it “[y]et another attempt[] by the Post to simultaneously kiss up to the right wing and generate page views by making sane people irate. Liberal media my ass.”

At Queerty, the WP is accused of “gloss[ing] over the fact that Brown, 35, is trafficking in hate.” The Advocate was also dismissive of the story, pointing out that no leaders of LGBT organizations are quoted while Michael A. Jones at Change.org’s blog asks “Who knew that NOM had hired the Washington Post to do their public relations for them.” Louise, at Pam’s HouseBlend, asks a similar question.

At the Human Rights Campaign’s blog, Michael Cole sums up the activist disagreement with the story:

There’s a lot to unravel in today’s Washington Post profile (”Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile”) of National Organization for Marriage head Brian Brown.  Overall the piece is a terribly one-sided, myopic view of a man and an organization who have made it their life’s work to deny loving, committed couples the same rights and responsibilities that they enjoy themselves.  Not exactly what I would call “sanity” even if it’s with a grin on his face.

The writer Monica Hesse seems to be caught up in Brown’s pearly whites too much to realize that what comes out of his mouth is a torrent of lies and distortions.  She says their “Gathering Storm” adwas a “misstep” for its “melodramatic dialogue and fake lightning.”  How about the fact that nothing about it was true?  You’ll remember we debunked that one pretty easily.

Here’s the thing. I completely understand their complaints about the story. If I was a same-sex marriage or gay rights activist instead of a journalist, I’d totally agree with their analysis. But I also don’t think they appreciate how really condescending the story is towards Brown and those who agree with him. I also don’t think they understand how condescending it is to the reader.

Hesse’s premise appears to be that all Washington Post readers agree with her that Dobson and Hagee are scary and awful and therefore would be surprised to discover that there are nice social conservatives who disagree with Washington Post readers. There’s a sort of “wink” and “nod” that there’s no way that Brian Brown could actually be smart, likeable, savvy, and disagree with Washington Post readers.

I understand that in the confines of the personality profile, it’s hard to get an angle that is going to be provocative and interesting.  And I’m sure to many in the Washington Post‘s Style section’s perceived demographic, they are going to be astonished that Brown is a nice, smart guy with a loving wife who make a “rational” argument against same-sex marriage.

But journalists need to do better.  Just as a story describing gays like they are mysterious specimens that will shock people with their likeability and intelligence are insulting, so too are such stories insulting when they treat other people that way.

UPDATE: Michael Cole from HRC makes an excellent point that deserves attention.  One of the other big problems with this story is the complete absence of LGBT voices.  I understand it’s a personality profile and supposed to focus on Brown.  That’s fine.  But if you are going to spend paragraphs describing his philosophy and how attractive it is, it seems that there should be at least a couple of paragraphs from an LGBT voice countering the rhetoric.

If there was a personality profile of Joe Solomonese at HRC, you can bet there would be at least a couple of quotes from the likes of Maggie Gallagher or Brian Brown.

UPDATE II:  New thoughts on the story.

4 Responses

  1. The article seemed pretty condescending to me. It did not denigrate their cause, but it also seemed to mock Brown’s stance that they’re the only sane ones.

  2. Michael – agree with your assessment about the piece’s underlying assumption about their own readership. While it does condescend to the reader and NOM, it’s not as if they’re treating LGBT activists as rational, thoughtful people. We seem to be lumped into a category that’s the antithesis of the Robertsons and the Dobsons and then there’s the [“sane”, “likeable”] hero Brian Brown standing in the center reaching the movable middle. With no significant LGBT voices in the story, we’re banished to the fringes and somehow the guy who wants to write discrimination into constitutions is the pillar of moderate thinking (just like you dear reader).

    • Michael, that’s a good point. It seems if the entire premise of the profile is going to be his political strategy and how nice he is, there should be someone besides a throw-away comment from PFAW with a voice. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a profile of Joe Solomonese without including a comment from Maggie Gallagher or another anti-gay rights voice.

  3. Excellent analysis, Michael. I agree that a big problem is this story is the stereotyping of both sides. There should be no big surprise that “nice guys” exist on the other side of the debate.

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