It's been a tough week for elite gay-baiting. First Howie Kurtz, hack journalist extraordinaire, lost his job at the Daily Beast because he badly botched an attempt to smear NBA center Jason Collins. Part of what Kurtz botched was the facts, claiming that Collins had concealed the fact that he had once been engaged to a woman when Collins had "concealed" that fact by explicitly stating it in his Sports Illustrated coming-out article. ("When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged," is pretty straightforward.) Kurtz, to his credit, has made a full apology.
Then, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson (also a columnist for the Daily Beast) was also forced to apologize after publicly gay-baiting landmark economist John Maynard Keynes. Ferguson decided to tell an audience that Keynes wasn't interested in long-term policy effects (itself a gross distortion of Keynes's position) because Keynes was a homosexual in a childless marriage. Yes, really. That's the standard of logic and evidence to which Ferguson holds himself.
It's heartening that both of these outrageous pieces of queer-baiting blew up in the queer-baiters' faces. Both Kurtz and Ferguson were using well-established, traditionally effective gambits for smearing homosexuals, moves that Kurtz and Ferguson clearly expected to work because those moves have always worked before. (In fact, many other people, including Ferguson himself, have used Keynes's sexuality as a slur that supposedly discredits his economic thinking; Ferguson thought he'd get away with it because he'd gotten away with it other times.)
Let's look at Kurtz's attack in detail. His claim was that Jason Collins (of whom I myself will only say Stanford Pride) had been dishonest about the fact that he'd been engaged to a woman and deceived that woman. It's a classic anti-gay smear: gays are called dishonest because they've been in the closet, as if the source of dishonesty was not the institution of the closet itself, and the sometimes brutal social penalties for open gayness, but something intrinsic about gayness itself. Force a bunch of people to lie about their sexuality, denounce them as liars if they actually start telling the truth, and then claim that the people you've stigmatized deserve to be stigmatized because they're all naturally dishonest. The only logic here is a social logic, through which nearly any charge will stick to the despised group.
As part of this attack, Kurtz offered Collins's former fiancee as the wronged victim, whose plight the news coverage had unfairly overlooked. The basic motto here is "Won't anyone think about the poor straight girls?" Now, I would never recommend misleading a romantic partner. But it's also the case that closeted gay men have long had various kinds of relationships with women and that many gay men who've deceived their female partners have also deceived themselves on some level. (That John Maynard Keynes was gay does not mean that he did not love his wife.) But the gay-baiter's move is to play up the wrong done to the straight person in order to smear the character of the gay person, and by extension the character of gayness itself. This is how prejudice works, especially in people who don't consider themselves prejudiced: sympathy flows swiftly and easily to people in the favored categories, but is quickly withdrawn from people in stigmatized categories. You become quicker to accept negative ideas about a stigmatized person, and slower to let go of them. Here, the idea is that everyone sheds a few sentimental tears for the poor straight white girl and then turns their resentment upon the duplicitous, untrustworthy gay who did her wrong.
It didn't work, which is progress. But one reason that it didn't work is that Howard Kurtz picked on the wrong guy. Too many people are still quick to believe bad things about homosexuals. But lots of influential and powerful people are actually reluctant to believe bad things about Jason Collins personally, because they know and like him. They are quick and ready to sympathize with Collins as an individual, sexual orientation notwithstanding, because he's already part of their social network. He was inside the charmed circle before he came out of the closet, and he's staying in that circle.
The failure of Kurtz's attack validates the wisdom of letting Collins be the standard-bearer. Collins is clearly a Jackie Robinson figure, not in terms of sheer athletic talent (Collins is merely a superb world-class athlete, one of the top few thousand physical specimens on the planet; Robinson was in a level above that.) but in that, like Robinson, Collins has the social bona fides to blunt attacks on his character. Robinson had gone to USC, been a contender for the Heisman, and held a commission in World War Two. Collins is a Stanford grad. But Collins is even more of a Jackie Robinson type than Robinson, or any other black man in the 1940s, could have possibly been. Collins is socially wired in a way Robinson never was.
Collins is a college friend of Chelsea Clinton. Bill Clinton knows him personally. His college roommate was Joe Kennedy III. And those are just the highlights. Collins is enormously wealthy in social capital, meaning connections and beneficial relationships. He is black. He is gay. And he is firmly a member of the upper class. You can't just roll up on Jason Collins with some bullshit smear and make it stick. He has his people.
On the other hand, Keynes has been a punching bag among certain circles for a long time. Ferguson had to expect his queer-Keynes slur to keep working the way it always had because people were ready to have a gay man slurred but also because they were ready to have John Maynard Keynes slurred. The right wing has made a serious commitment to the idea that Keynes is disreputable. The commitment to making Keynes ridiculous was so strong that you didn't have to bother to have the charges against him make even minimal sense. (The idea that gays have no interest in posterity suggests that there would be no gay sculptors, painters, or writers. Perhaps you've heard of some.) That Ferguson was forced to apologize (this time) suggests that bigotry against gays is weakening somewhat, so that if you want to smear them you have to make it good. But it may also suggest that at this point in our ongoing depression, kneejerk rejection of economic stimulus is starting to wear thin. Maybe at this point, with austerity leading only to economic contraction, you're no longer allowed to backhand Keynes unless you make it good. One can only hope.