So for reasons that will never make sense to me, Donald Trump thought he could help resurrect the Miss America pageant by adding guest judges like Perez Hilton to the line up. Hilton, whose fame stems from an endless stream of insider Hollywood gossip on a blog, has parlayed his snarky-gab into film and music video cameos, and now television despite being much better at the gossip. It is thus with both great pleasure and utter boredom that I watched the recap of “this weekend’s big news” on the internet, featuring Mr. Hilton asking Miss America hopeful, Carrie Prejean, what her thoughts were on gay marriage.
Score one for Perez after all.
A very cleaned up Perez Hilton (gone is the pink hair and the flaunting pudgy replaced by an 80s respectability) asked one of two front runners, Prejean, if she thought “every state should follow suit [with the VT decision to legalize gay marriage].” Prejean stumbled over her initial words a bit while making a pert frown, but the bulk of her answer came out loud and clear:
And you know what in my country, in my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be, between a man and a woman.
The part she stumbled over, was meant to couch her true feelings:
I think it’s great Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage.
Sadly, she not only came out in defense of heterosexual marriage only, but also seemed to reference those two Americas again. You know “her country” where people are heterosexual and “freak America” where they are scary child predators trying to convince you that buggering sheep is all good . . . Looks like Perez Hilton’s make over was not enough to convince Miss California that we queers are actually just falling in love with consenting partners and living our lives like everybody else. (Paging Smith-Rosenberg)
Miss California lost. And this is where it gets sticky. The question about gay marriage could have been an opportunity to infuse needed feminist and queer politics into a decidedly questionable event. Unfortunately, For Hilton, whose 5 seconds of fame always seems more important, it became clear his question was more a self-aggrandizing stunt.
While Hilton, like the rest of us, has every right to be upset at Prejean’s answer, his delivery highlights the double bind of oppression. On the one hand, we are expected to be perfect in order to be heard, which is not a requirement for those in power. On the other hand, in order to be truly heard we must also be true to ourselves. The bind is designed to make the marginalized fail by denying them the right to anger or hurt or any other sign of humanity.
At the same time, when Hilton takes that truth as license to use foul language and threaten another person, he doesn’t just righteously defy the offensive confines of “perfect victim” but also crosses the line of appropriate outrage. And while conservatives get no free pass here, Hilton’s allegiance to the “they have privilege so I can scream whatever I want and threaten whoever I want and bear no responsibility” school of pre-adolescent pseudo-diversity smack downs that ultimately work against us. What is missing from this video is the lost opportunity to seize the moral highground that belonged to us and use it to educate mainstream viewers about how the anti-gay marriage movement is working to legitimate inequality in our nation from behind the guise of “choice.” Not only does Miss California’s stumble prove how insincere the “choice” argument is but her Freudian slip of “in my country” and then fatal equation of country and family, speak volumes about who really has an agenda for the nation and how they use of “family” and “family values” to hide it. And while some will argue that “please and thank yous for the privileged” is ridiculous, those of us who understand the difference between step and fetch it and reasoned, fact based, argument know how crossing the line from righteous political outrage into ranting plays into conservative myths of the “gay menace” and alienates allies and insider-activists alike.
And yet, Hilton’s post-pageant drama is nothing compared to the true culprits in this story: Prejean’s unapologetic national endorsement of oppression and the anti-gay conservatives erroneously crying foul. The latter have already begun bemoaning Prejean’s loss as more proof that the queer community is trying to take over this country. By implying she lost because she “refused to compromise her morals,” they continue an erroneous thread in their queer panic that elevates the power of the gay community over that over the straight ones. Suddenly we 10% are imagined to be everywhere, in the media, the courtroom, the schools, and the halls of government, changing the very face of society to erase heterosexuality and valerize homosexuality to the point of deification. Like so many people exerting power over others, this argument reflects the way heterosexist privilege works and projects it on the target of said privilege’s erasure.
Prejean’s blonde, blue-eyed, Barbie-like figure and current attendance at a Christian college makes her an ideal victim for the conservative cause. Not only does she look like the mythic America they think they live in but her pert refusal to let winning make her compromise and her sad pleading eyes in the camera stand in stark contrast to Perez’ curse-laden threats on youtube. And while image should not matter, Rosie O’Donnell was ultimately able to defeat misogynist, fatphobic, and homophobic responses to her righteous smack down of Hasselbeck and her doe-eyed innocence routine on the view, precisely because Rosie never let her anger and hurt cloud the issues. That isn’t to say she didn’t get angry and show hurt in public, but rather that she used those to make a righteous point instead of a persistent rant full of physical threats.
Never mind that the winner, Katie Stam, pictured to the right, is also blonde and blue-eyed with similar physical features. She was also considered to be equally weighted to Prejean when they went into the final round. Her final question was about whether she supported the bail out, and like the average American, regardless of identity, she said “no.” Her softball question that resonated across the political spectrum surely helped give her an edge when the final tally came down. And while we can guess how Hilton voted, we cannot be as confident about the final voting on Prejean’s question as we can on her opponent’s because homophobia and heterosexism are always present. Yet these facts, which easily explain how the winner bested Prejean in the final round, do not fit with the illogic of the conservative march against queer identity. Nor do logical arguments work against those who believe themselves to be victims. In order for Prejean, and subsequently “her country,” to be victims, we have to erase Stam from the equation.
By keeping Stam and the events in question firmly at the forefront, no threats, no curses, no shouting down are needed. The facts speak for themselves. There is no gay agenda. The Miss America pageant is a bastion of conservative heteronormativity only slightly shifted by that brief hopeful moment in which Perez Hilton asked his question and a portion of the audience booed Prejean’s response. And though it is true that Hilton has clout b/c he can put celebs dirty laundry on the internet and encourage others to mock/revel in their weaknesses and failings, most of us queers are not celebs and we don’t care. And while his outrage is absolutely spot on, his delivery is more about him than the any cause.
It is way past time for us all to question what it means to have conservatives continue to imply that America is “[their] country” and the rest of us by default need to get out. In a time when our economy is coming apart at the seams, other nations are actively undoing dollarazition (which is great for them – especially women and the poor – but bad for U.S. companies), we are fighting wars that most of the international community no longer even pretends to support, and education and educational debt is acing the majority of our population out of higher ed, it isn’t just irresponsible for conservatives to continue to talk about the nation in these terms it is bordering on the house divided. We need to take a long look at who is being claimed and who is being shoved out in their version of the world. While their big house-servants quarters or two Americas may seem appealing to some, what does it really mean for a diverse nation and how will it continue to stand?
Ultimately, it isn’t really about a silly, dying, beauty pageant or a snarky queer blogger. The kind of rhetoric the conservatives are mobilizing is well documented in history and in recent conflicts in Europe, Russia, Africa, and slightly earlier in parts of Latin America. While I’d like to believe that we are above such conflicts, gun violence in churches and letters from disgruntled assassins shows that we may not be.