On April 5, 2014, I had the honor of delivering a speech at a Stanford University conference on “communicating family values.” I showed up with a surprise companion – a progressive musician I would have never thought could be an ally. On that day, she became not only an ally, but a friend.
Another Conference, Another Flash Mob
The summit planned by Stanford’s Anscombe Society was the latest theater in the all too predictable culture war. The conference organizer, Judy Romea, survived an effort partly orchestrated by GLAAD to block the event, because gay activists considered the inclusion of Ryan T. Anderson and me as speakers an affront to the campus queer community.
The Stanford queer students’ group claimed that my presence might cause homosexuals on campus to commit suicide. Their proof of my dangerousness was the same roster of out-of-context quotes the gay lobby has always used against me.
Judy Romea told me she still wanted me to present. I felt that it would be a disservice to her if I bowed out against her wishes, because she had taken a serious risk by inviting a speaker on GLAAD’s blacklist. So I put together my PowerPoint slides and speech on family values. I girded up for battle against what Matt Barber dubs the “rainbow shirts.”
Shaking it up a little
Before the conference, I called up Michelle Shocked, the indie musician who’d been arrested at Occupy Wall Street before falling prey to a vicious character assassination by the same “bloggerazzi” subculture that had tormented me.
She was an anarchist artist slimed by the gay mafia, so I had a devilish impulse to bring her up to Stanford and confuse everyone’s political boundaries.
In March 2013, at a venue called Yoshi’s in San Francisco, she had spoken from the heart about Christian marriage, as a Pentecostal.
As a result, she had the plug pulled on her while she was onstage.
Immediately, hit pieces came out in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Yahoo News, branding her a homophobe and denouncing her for hate speech. Within days her tour was in ruins, and supposed gay rights activists had pulled strings in dozens of cities to cancel her shows. An appearance on Piers Morgan’s show didn’t reverse her plummeting fortunes; as one might expect, Morgan simply trapped her and made the situation worse.
Michelle Shocked had contacted me nine months later, after reading “Life on GLAAD’s Blacklist.” That was an article I wrote about my experience as the queer, biracial son of lesbians, blacklisted by GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign.
We’d spoken a few times over the phone. The Stanford conference would be a fantastic time to meet her; also, if I could persuade her to perform some songs for the conservative Stanford students, she might show them that they were less alone in the culture wars than they thought they were.
At the San Jose airport, I could pick Michelle Shocked out of the crowd. She was the slender musician with a wide-brimmed black hat and a chow-slung guitar case covered in Jackson Pollack-style paint patterns.
The night before the conference, we stayed up late sharing stories about the gay mafia.
The next day, she kept a low profile during the presentations. The conference plodded along without major incident. The queer students showed up looking very Wall Street with their collared office shirts and executive-boardroom mannerisms. They flocked to Ryan Anderson with commentary, but then when I presented, they sat quietly through the talk, asked no questions, and left.
“Shell,” I asked, “is it just me, or did they not have any interest in arguing with me or talking to me?”
Michelle had the same impression I did: these “queer” students had no interest in me other than as an effigy to burn.
They were drawn immediately to Ryan Anderson’s prep school looks and Princeton charm.
“No matter what they say, they are not class enemies,” Michelle noted, hypothesizing that all the banter was like so much foreplay before the onset of a serious man-crush.
It seemed that it would be easier for the queer students to give up their same-sex attraction than it would be to give up their attraction to privileged metro power-brokers similar to themselves.
She said it was natural that they would not dignify me with any conversation. “Your very existence is offensive to them.”
After the “queer” students slipped out of the conference, Michelle and I headed over to dinner with the Anscombe Society. She performed.
Michelle led the group in singing “Amazing Grace.” Whatever her views on economic policy, she was unmistakably Pentecostal and felt the call to speak divine truths about marriage. The students were moved. Later, I received e-mails from Stanford kids saying that it was unique and inspiring to hear the songs from someone who’d normally be their political adversary.
After-Action Review: My Follow-Up with Michelle
I met up with Michelle in Los Angeles two and a half months later and wanted to get her uncensored thoughts on her dust-up with the gay mafia, as well as what had happened at Stanford.
Q: Your conflict with the “bloggerazzi” came as a big surprise, because you had such powerful progressive credentials, especially in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. How do you explain the suddenness of the conflict?
Michelle: They are bloggerazzi, but they aren’t all gay. These are largely straight white men using gay avatars… There were already vast networks in place like kindling for a fire, and all it needed was a spark. I was happy to oblige. [People in the online media world had long been sparring with Michelle over her fight against bootlegging.]
Q: I was so honored that you came to Stanford for that event with me. You were very respectful to people like Ryan Anderson, affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. Could you ever see yourself as an ally of Heritage?
Michelle: Never. The whole thing made me think of when I played in the Hamptons once. Kathleen Turner was there, she was a fan. These people paid $50 to see me, and … hell, I wouldn’t even pay $50 to see me. I got on stage, and I said, “Technically we’re class enemies, you and I.” And Kathleen Turner was in her drink and said, “Shut up and sing.”
Q: Given that you can’t really bring yourself to see Heritage as an ally, what struck you as you watched the Stanford queers and their enemies from Heritage interact?
Michelle: How similar they were. They are like mirror reflections of each other. Out of the folks I met, the best impression was made on me by Miss Judy Romea, when I saw her managing this controversial conference and then falling back on the support of all the Filipino relatives who’d come to cheer her on. She really holds that conservative promise that America is the land of the self-made woman. By working hard and being smart, you can do anything. She represents the spirit of all the immigrants helping each other. She is different from the queers and the Heritage folks; they were the privileged status quo on both sides. Rich young white males – their sexual orientation was a negligible distinction.
Q: Who are your natural allies, seeing as both the queers and the Heritage Foundation struck you as problematic?
Michelle: Radicals. Radicals on both sides of the political fence.
Q: Do you think that some people on the right are radicals and just don’t know it?
Michelle: I use the term “radical” as an evangelist, someone with a holy boldness. You have to have a devotion to Christ and a faith in God’s Word that will inspire you to go into the fiery furnace and come out unscathed. [At this point Michelle broke into a Shirley Caesar song, and the other patrons of the café were enraptured.]
Q: What would you say to beleaguered social conservatives who keep hearing that they need to set aside their faith in favor of fiscal concerns?
Michelle: Believe in your righteousness. Just know I ain’t never gonna admit it.
Q: What would you say to those who align with the progressives on economic issues, but who feel conservative on social and faith issues?
Michelle: Progressives? They’ve been co-opted by centrists. There are no real progressives left, at best only a handful. Those who call themselves progressives are garden-variety liberals. Seeing this as an anarchist, I can see where I’d side with the far right: free speech über alles. Out with all these protected groups and bans on hate speech. The only cure for hate speech is more free speech. That’s a view that’s radical, but it isn’t left or right.
Q: How did it feel overall when you went to Stanford, a school that’s smack-dab in the middle of two mafias you have taken on pretty hard: Big Gay and Big Tech, San Francisco and Silicon Valley?
Michelle: Happy as a clam. I like going to the center of hostility, trying to see if peace is still present. That’s why Judy Romea was my inspiration, seeing her bond with her mentors, who could help her navigate such a complicated system. I’m such a rebel that there were people who wanted to help me along the way, and I never let them. Judy was an example of what happens when you humble yourself, listen to wise advice and follow it. Part of it is the immigrant sense of not being so self-centered, doing some self-sacrifice because it’s about something bigger than you.
Q: Let me press you on what you said about Heritage. Couldn’t you say that Heritage knows what it’s like to be outsiders now, because they are fighting against the power of popular culture on issues like marriage?
Michelle: Yes and no. In my forthcoming book, Bootleg This, I emphasize that media metrics have divided us all into rooms with people who think the same way we do. [Christians and gays, conservatives and progressives] keep splitting hairs on what makes them different, distracted from even noticing how much they have in common.
Q: In the 1980s and 1990s, you and I were immersed in similar lefty subcultures. Back then, would you have ever been able to predict that the “left” would turn into whatever those Stanford queers represented?
Michelle: Let me tell you a story. I was vagabonding, just released from an arrest in Dallas in 1984, at the Republican National Convention. I was making my way out of that protest toward New York City, and I made a detour to Madison, Wisconsin.
On the campus there, I saw older women protesting something, and there was a circle of students around them. When I got closer I saw coat hangers on the ground. I recognized that these older women were protesting against abortion. So I went up to one of the older women and I asked her, “What is it about this issue that makes you so passionate that you could come out on the streets to protest? Protesting is supposed to be my job.”
The woman’s response was very simple. She said, “because I believe abortion is murder.” A light bulb turned on over my head, because I realized we had more in common than we had differences. I told her, “The next time you see me fighting against this war, this police action, this invasion, this occupation, if you ask me the same question, I’ll tell you because I believe war is murder.” I realized we have to find common ground. I have to respect her sanctity of life, and she has to respect mine. To me, that is radical.