The late French philosopher Michel Foucault provides a larger frame to help understand the Sally Kern media frenzy, which began when an audio recording of the Republican legislator’s confused and archaic ideas about gay people began circulating on the Internet.
By now, everyone knows Kern, pictured right, a state Representative in Oklahoma City, was recorded at a Republican gathering in which she equated gay people with terrorists and essentially blamed a mythical homosexual agenda for destroying the nation. Her comments were met with protest and outrage by people in Oklahoma and across the world, and this is where Foucault ideas about sexuality are so important.
Foucault would surely argue the “reverse” discourse to Kern’s predictable, religious-laced comments represents the vital component of the sexual orientation “dialogue” that commenced soon after the recording was made public by Victory, a gay rights organization. Sally Kern’s speech, if given in 1950 or maybe even in 1980, would not have even registered. Yet the reverse discourse, as defined by Foucault, shows the deepening social and cultural transformation of our twenty-first century culture, which, despite Sally Kern and her petty speeches, is becoming exceedingly more tolerant of gay people.
In his work, The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that official aspects of nineteenth-century culture categorized homosexuality in mostly negative terms, as “perversity,” but this new discourse also opened the way for homosexuality to “speak for itself.”
Foucault writes, “The appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and ‘psychic hermaphroditism’ made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of "perversity"; but it also made possible the formation of a "reverse" discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified.”
Kern gave her speech equating gay people to terrorists to about 50 Republicans, according to media reports. She claims she did not know someone was recording her, and she has said she does not care. The legislator, who is married to a Baptist minister, also will not apologize for her comments, and she continues to insist her comments were somehow taken out of context. She has received support from fellow Republican legislators and conservative political groups. She appeared on a local television show to argue her points. A conservative group plans a rally today on her behalf.
But those who spoke out against Kern’s comments surely can sense the power behind their unified response. Local television stations covered the Kern protests. Progressive bloggers spoke out here and across the country in unison, and their blogs were filled with outraged comments. The Daily Oklahoman, the most conservative newspaper in the country, even called Kern’s comments “wrong” in an editorial. Later, the newspaper called Kern a “one-trick pony.” The Oklahoma Democratic Party announced a candidate, Ron Marlett, would run against Kern in the upcoming November elections. A local political group, Equal Rights Project, was formed in response to her comments.
Meanwhile, response on the national level was simply staggering. The initial audio recording was later turned into a video. It appeared on the Victory site and YouTube and was heard by more than a million people. (Compare this to the 50 people or so at the gathering where Kern spoke.) On her show one day, television star and comedian Ellen Degeneres actually called Kern’s legislative office trying to speak to her. Web sites across the country relentlessly pounced on Kern’s comments.
The signs are everywhere that tolerance for gay people is increasing in this country. A growing number of television shows and movies routinely contain sympathetic depictions of gay people. Many companies now offer insurance benefits to same sex partners of their employees. Increasingly, gay couples adopt children. Massachusetts recognized same sex marriages in 2004, and several states have civil union laws that offer marriage rights and responsibilities to gay couples. Local leaders, such as state Rep. Al McAffrey and Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth, break stereotypes and help forge a new tolerant reality.
Sally Kern’s petty comments cannot stop this cultural and social transformation.