Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul recently presented his view of individual rights under the United States Constitution. In service to his larger point about limiting the size of government, he said, “I don’t like to use those terms: gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, religious rights. There’s only one type of right: your right to liberty.” His cursory nod to the denial of these rights in the past ignored the ways these abuses continue in the present. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins offers the solution for this myopia — intersectional analysis. This approach to evidence requires each person to account for the ways her or his different identities – religion, social class, gender, race, and sexuality – impact her or his conclusions about themselves and the world.
The concepts of homo- and heterosexuality did not take formal, oppositional connotations until the twentieth century. While various kinds of human sexual attraction manifested as far back as 2500 bce in recorded history, it was the period of scientific inquiry in the nineteenth century that created a sense of static sexualities that gradually transformed into the recent belief in heterosexual monogamy as a norm or ideal. As a result, gay, lesbian, and other non-heterosexual identities came under greater scrutiny and increasingly, physical, often-lethal assaults. In the media, heterosexual comedians frequently used cross-dressing as a basis for both homophobic and sexist humor, and even transformative, popular TV shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy emphasized the central authority of heterosexuals. In contrast, just imagine seeing a same-sex couple in a prime-time, network advertisement. There is no visual context where the acceptance of alternative sexualities is possible.
White supremacy shifted to a biological foundation from its roots in religious philosophy during the century between 1750 and 1850 ce. Anthropologist Franz Boas (and many other researchers) transformed the approach to the idea of a white race by explaining race as a social construct. While the debate between the social and biological reality of race was largely settled, the media symbols that relied on white supremacy barely changed before 1990. Popular shows like the Dukes of Hazzard reflected the central authority of Dixiecrat ideas nationwide, so much so that regular encounters with a fictional, black middle class family was the most fascinating entertainment experience on television for most of the 1980s. Have we come to the moment where we can imagine 100 Fortune 500 companies directed by boards and senior executive leadership groups composed of African Americans? No, the first multicultural President and his family generates largely the same reaction as the Cosby Show.
Being female in human history is the original experience of social oppression. As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, scholars have found evidence of institutional efforts to create and advance male dominance. In terms of sex (biology) and gender (society), the construction of femininity laid the template for the creation of both whiteness and heterosexuality. Even with the suffrage movement and support for an Equal Rights Amendment, popular movies like Flashdance and Thelma and Louise reinforced narratives of women’s social marginalization — it was a radical act simply to claim their own lives. Are any industrialized societies close to electing a legislature with a majority of women?
All of these points lead us back to the flawed discussion of rights. None of the candidates have a sense of privilege — the daily, accumulated advantages of being male, masculine, heterosexual, and white in the twenty-first century United States. Building new governments, businesses, and media symbols to affirm all people requires our immediate attention.