Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights

Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights

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What can straight people do to support gay rights? How much work or sacrifice must allies take on to do their share? Ian Ayres and Jennifer Brown--law professors, activists, husband and wife--propose practical strategies for helping straight men and women advocate for and with the gay community.

Straightforward advances a thesis that is at once simple and groundbreaking: to make real progress at the central flashpoints of controversy--marriage rights, employment discrimination, gays in the military, exclusion from the Boy Scouts, and religious controversies over homosexuality--straight as well as gay people need to speak up and act for equality. Ayres and Brown take aim at both the hearts and minds of the general public, focusing on strategies that can change the incentives and therefore the behavior of the recalcitrant.

The book is peppered with stories about real people and the decisions they have faced at home, in church, at work, in school, and in politics. It is also filled with creative legal and economic strategies for influencing public and corporate decision-making. For example, Ayres and Brown propose the development of a "fair employment mark" to help companies advertise inclusive employment policies. They also show how a simple pledge to vacation in states that legalize gay marriage can create powerful incentives for legislatures to amend their marriage laws.

Engagingly written and sure to spark debate, Straightforward promises to change the way America thinks about--and participates in--the gay rights movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400837472
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/27/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Ian Ayres is the William K. Townsend Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He is a columnist for Forbes magazine and radio commentator on Marketplace. He is the coauthor of Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small and Pervasive Prejudice? Non-Traditional Evidence of Race and Gender Discrimination. Jennifer Gerarda Brown is Professor of Law at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and a Visiting Lecturer and Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School.

Read an Excerpt


How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights

Chapter One


A first-year law student named Nancy went to her Contracts class with Professor Jay expecting nothing out of the ordinary. But somewhere between sessions on "promise" and "breach," between "expectation" and "reliance," she one day noticed something quite different about Professor Jay. Jay, who combined left-leaning politics and scholarship with a distinctly conservative fashion sense, usually sported short hair, penny loafers, and oxford cloth shirts. But today, Nancy noticed, Professor Jay was also wearing bright green nail polish.

Unable to contain her curiosity, Nancy asked her professor about his new fashion statement. Jay explained that the day before, his young son Ted had come home in tears. On the playground that day, a group of children had encircled him with taunts about his "long messy hair." Noticing Ted's nail polish, they cruelly chided him for being "abnormal." Later, a teacher found Ted hiding under a piece of play equipment, crying because one of his harassers had finally slapped him.

Professor Jay had taken the measures most parents would when faced with a beloved child in this state. He'dreassured Ted in every way possible. He called Ted's teacher as well as the principal of the school and sought assurances that the other children involved would be made to understand that their behavior was unacceptable. But that evening, Professor Jay went one step further: he took his young son in hand and went to the bathroom where the nail polish was stored. Did Professor Jay remove his son's nail polish at that point? No. He asked if Ted would like to paint his father's nails as well. How better, Jay asked, to convey to his son his solidarity and support?

Nancy is bisexual. As she recounted this story to us, her eyes filled with tears. "I know it was just a little, silly thing ... but I was blown away when my professor told me what he did for his kid," she said. "I mean, when he put on that nail polish he not only told his kid that it's OK to wear what he wants and look the way he chooses; he effectively put himself in something like the same position his son was in ... It was as if to say, 'If they go after you, they'll have to go after me too.' All I could think was, what if every gay, lesbian, or bisexual person got this kind of support from the people who loved them? Can you imagine how different our lives would be?"

Let's take this last question seriously. Suppose that every gay man or lesbian in America can call upon at least two heterosexual friends, family members, or coworkers to actively support their struggle for equality. This is not an outlandish possibility-even if the gay community can count just on parents, this would almost produce the level of support we're hypothesizing. Although some parents of gay children do not support their children's struggle, and some parents are no longer alive, we believe that almost every gay or lesbian person in America has at least two supportive nongay friends or family.

If this amount of support currently exists, right now twenty million heterosexual allies stand ready to support gay rights in the United States. Too often, however, those allies have remained silent, leaving gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to struggle alone in their quest for equality. This lack of support stems in part from a sense a helplessness. We sense a palpable anxiety among these allies. "What can I do?" they ask.

This book provides an answer. It gives pragmatic advice to heterosexual allies on what they can do to support their friends. It also suggests how supporters of gay rights (regardless of their sexual orientation) can work to restructure institutions and legal rules to activate heterosexual support. The book thus serves as a guide to action not only in our personal lives and economic activities but in the political sphere as well-suggesting new public policies that are designed to waken this sleeping giant of potential support.

One way to advance gay rights is to recognize instances in which heterosexual people can take action. That is, allies must identify times when they can express their decision to support gay rights; they must recognize the cusps when choice becomes available. Such occasions involve concrete decisions: to speak or remain silent, to act or remain passive. Therefore, the book begins by making visible the existing places in which heterosexual people can act to support gay rights; because these opportunities remain hidden, some people are currently making choices without realizing it.

We also use this book to create new occasions for those who believe in gay rights-especially heterosexuals-to act on their convictions. Finally, the book proposes public policies to create new opportunities for expressing support, suggesting specific legislation that would enable such expression.

Heterosexual allies possess tremendous political and economic clout-should we choose to wield it. Without leveraging this resource, full equality for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people may be difficult or impossible to achieve. So this is a book about when and how to level that influence, in individual choices large and small that in aggregate determine the level of equality in our communities and in our nation. It's also about recognizing when and how to express our preferences.

HETEROSEXUAL PEOPLE who want to engage in the struggle for gay rights must come to terms with an important endowment they bear, an endowment that is both a blessing and a curse. We are referring to what is sometimes called heterosexual privilege, "the range of perks and incentives with which heterosexually identified persons are rewarded for conforming to the dominant sexuality." As Jamie Washington and Nancy Evans point out, coming to terms with privilege can be "the most painful part of the process of becoming an ally." Privilege creates certain dilemmas, as Bruce Ryder further explains. "[White heterosexual males] must speak and write with great care, acknowledging our privilege and using it and the authority that comes with it in a manner which is attentive to the limitations of our particular knowledge and experiences." Heterosexual people are endowed with a privilege based upon the social implications of their sexual orientation, and this privilege, if not managed effectively, can create obstacles to their constructive engagement in the struggle for gay rights.

The first obstacle that heterosexual privilege can create is informational. One of its key characteristics is to render itself invisible to the privileged. Those who benefit tend to see their status as a norm. Many progressive, well-intentioned heterosexual people are so used to the advantage their sexual orientation conveys that they are blind to it. Some well-meaning heterosexual people don't know how to support gay rights because they do not see how a lack of privilege disadvantages bisexuals, lesbians, and gay men.

For this reason, many heterosexual people are not able to perceive the gay rights issues within their everyday existence. Because they are not personally affected, they do not recognize that a particular policy, rule, or social norm is hurting gay people. For example, many heterosexual people are unaware of the real costs that the prohibition on same-sex marriage imposes on gay people. Heterosexual employees in a business that lacks health benefits for domestic partners, for example, may be unaware that their gay and lesbian coworkers bear the expense of health benefits for their partners. When a child's high school restricts the types of student groups that can meet on school property to prevent a fledgling gay-straight alliance from forming, many parents do not recognize that the free expression of gay and lesbian people has also been restricted.

Such ignorance isn't surprising. These problems don't affect heterosexuals directly and exist on the perimeter of the public sphere. One of the goals of this book is to highlight issues of gay rights that can play out in heterosexual people's "own backyard" and to suggest ways that they can promote equality by making their voices heard.

Although many heterosexual people are oblivious to privilege and its effect on gay and nongay lives, at times heterosexual people may become acutely aware of it. They may not name privilege as such, but they know that it divides them from the lesbians and gay men they would like to support. Many heterosexual people with progressive attitudes and good intentions feel presumptuous even trying to express support for gay rights. Because they are granted powers and privileges denied to gay people, heterosexuals may feel hesitant-embarrassed, disconcerted, inappropriate-discussing the structures and policies that give them these privileges. Perhaps their experience is similar to that of feminist men or white civil rights workers in the 1960s. Certainly heterosexual people must avoid the temptation to speak for gay people (this would be presumptuous). The challenge is to find a distinctly heterosexual voice that can constructively speak for gay rights.

This book proposes three distinct general strategies for managing privilege: exercising it, disabling it, and renouncing it. We suggest when it is most appropriate for heterosexual allies to use each strategy-when, for instance, to speak expressly as heterosexuals and when to speak in ways that make their sexual orientation ambiguous. We discuss when heterosexuals should work within institutions to economically support gay-friendly policies, and when they should walk away from institutions, boycott bigoted vendors, and renounce the benefits of privilege.

Exercising Privilege

The first strategy calls on allies to exercise privilege when it will upset conclusions people in power may draw about the views of heterosexual people. Here's a fairly common example. Suppose that a school system is deciding how to cover homosexuality in the standard sexual education curriculum. Conservative organizations may object to any presentation of homosexuality as falling within a "normal" orientation. The school may also hear from gay rights advocacates who support a curriculum that normalizes homosexuality. In the middle are hundreds, even thousands, of parents in the school system who have their own views. Heterosexual parents who support frank, open, and fair discussions about homosexuality in sex ed curricula have a special opportunity, indeed responsibility, to make their views heard. They can work within the system, identifying themselves as heterosexual parents of kids who are going to take sex ed classes. Because heterosexual people are more likely than gay men or lesbians to have children, they gain access and privilege within school systems that gay people lack. It becomes the responsibility of heterosexual people, then, to exploit that privilege to make progress on gay rights within the school system.

Heterosexual allies can also exercise their privilege by supporting gay rights economically. This book will not only make existing choices more visible, it will also create new opportunities to express such support-a chance for allies to "vote with their wallets." Straightforward will launch a web site ( where people can sign a "Vacation Pledge for Equal Marriage Rights." People who sign promise to vacation in the first state that legalizes same-sex marriage within three years of legalization. Many states rely on tourism to support their local economies and generate tax revenue. Through the web site, gay and nongay supporters can make clear that significant rewards await states that innovate on gay rights.

As this book goes to press, the ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court requiring equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in Massachusetts has just gone into effect. The court's action has created pressure for state and federal constitutional amendments restricting marriage to different-sex couples; state civil union may be a compromise position in this battle. At this point, the Vacation Pledge is designed to reward the first state that votes democratically to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples-either by legislative action or by the vote of the electorate rejecting constitutional amendments designed to undo judicial action. In the future, a pledge could reward the first state that recognizes a same-sex marriage solemnized in another state. A pledge could reward the first state west of the Mississippi to allow gay marriage. The point is that the pledge can reflect the evolving recognition of same-sex marriage, holding out rewards to the states that propel legal change. More broadly, the pledge demonstrates the economic power of heterosexual allies who act on their privilege.

Another new space for the expression of heterosexual support is the Fair Employment Mark. Launched contemporaneously with the publication of this book, the Fair Employment Mark can be used by licensees to certify that products bearing the mark have been manufactured in compliance with a specified standard of gay friendliness in employment. To start, the mark could be licensed only to employers who voluntarily comply with all that has been proposed in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the as-yet unsuccessful congressional bill that would protect gay and lesbian workers from discrimination in the workplace. If ENDA eventually passes, the Fair Employment Mark could reflect a yet higher standard of gay friendliness, usable only by employers who offer benefit plans open to employees' same-sex partners, and so on. While the Vacation Pledge calls upon people to express their support in a public, coordinated way, the Fair Employment Mark facilitates individual consumers' private, decentralized choices. These complementary strategies (each embracing a broad range of support levels, and both deploying heterosexual privilege) could maximize the number of people who participate in the gay rights movement. Even as this book encourages gay rights organizations to more effectively deploy heterosexual people in their struggle, it also implements two instruments for doing so.

Small states and small producers have disproportionate incentives to compete for gay-friendly dollars. Even when there are more gay-unfriendly than gay-friendly consumers, some small firms or small states still have strong economic incentives to commit to nondiscrimination policies. In other words, the benefits of "buycotts"-for example, gay-friendly consumers' preference for products bearing the Fair Employment Mark-are likely to outweigh the threat of boycotts by consumers who oppose equality.

Disabling Privilege

The second general strategy (and for some heterosexual people, the most difficult) is to disable one's own heterosexual privilege by making one's sexual orientation ambiguous. You cannot claim the perquisites of heterosexual status if others can't discern your sexual orientation. Making sexual orientation ambiguous requires a tolerance-perhaps even enjoyment-of uncertainty. While exercising privilege involves acting explicitly as a hetero-sexual person, heterosexual allies who "ambiguate" serve the cause of gay rights by forgoing opportunities to identify as heterosexual. In some contexts, we'll make progress only when heterosexual people are willing to be "mistaken" for bisexuals or as gay. Heterosexual people's willingness to present themselves ambiguously is, in some ways, a test of their support for gay rights and a prerequisite to making a real difference in some areas of public policy.

This strategy requires heterosexual allies not to be so quick to clarify their sexual orientation, to resist the urge to say, "Well, I'm heterosexual, but I support gay rights." From time to time, heterosexual people should merely state their support for gay rights-and let the audience draw whatever conclusions it likes about their sexual orientation. Creating ambiguity can be as simple as a choice of words. A woman can refer to her husband not as her husband but as her "spouse" ("My spouse and I are academics"). She might leave open the question of whether her spouse is a man or a woman. Perhaps use of the word spouse rather than partner already identifies her as legally married and therefore involved with a member of the "opposite" sex. But as increasing numbers of same-sex couples participate in religious and civil wedding ceremonies and thereafter refer to each other as "spouses," the mere avoidance of gender specificity can create ambiguity. All of this is to suggest that when a woman uses the word husband, she marks herself as part of a heterosexual couple, ridding her description of even the hint of ambiguity.


Excerpted from Straightforward by Ian Ayres Jennifer Gerarda Brown Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix Chapter 1: Heterosexual Allies and the Gay Rights Movement 1

Part I. Exercising Privilege

Chapter 2: Parenting, Parishes, PTAs, and Places of Employment 17
Chapter 3: The Vacation Pledge for Equal Marriage Rights 60
Chapter 4: The Fair Employment Mark 79

Part II. Disabling Privilege

Chapter 5: Ambiguation 97
Chapter 6: The Inclusive Command: Voluntary Integration of the U.S. Military 116

Part III. Renouncing Privilege

Chapter 7: Boy Scouts of America The Informed Association Statute 145
Chapter 8: Renounce or Share? 162
Chapter 9: Working with Advocating Gay Rights Organizations 178

Notes 195
Index 237

What People are Saying About This

Evan Wolfson

No civil rights movement is ever won solely by those who are the primary targets of discrimination. Gay rights are merely non-gay rights made available to all, and all Americans have a stake in a nation that treats us all fairly. In Straightforward, Jennifer Gerarda Brown and Ian Ayres start the brainstorming on creative ways that non-gay people can raise their majority voices, wield their clout, and do their part to achieve equal rights for all, including their gay loved ones and fellow citizens.
Evan Wolfson, author of "Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry"

William Eskridge

In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Lawrence, equal treatment for gay people is an idea whose time has come. No one has explored that idea as thoroughly as Straightforward. An added bonus is that Brown and Ayres offer strategies for gay-friendly straight people to advance gay equality in the political and social arena. Every American, gay or straight, should read this book!
William Eskridge, author of "Equality Practice"

Richard Florida

Straightforward provides an important and much-needed guidebook for enlisting straight Americans to the cause of gay rights. Just as the civil-rights movement of the 1960s called upon blacks and whites to band together to achieve social gains, Ayres and Brown make the case for a new gay-straight alliance as a force for expanding not just gay rights but broad human rights for all Americans.
Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class".

William Bratton

Brown and Ayres have big hearts and their critical intelligence is second to none. Straightforward brings the full force of both to bear with devastating effect against the deep prejudices that taint heterosexual attitudes toward lesbians and gays. The authors think heterosexuals can do better, and make some excellent concrete suggestions as to how. This is compelling reading for anyone who takes equality seriously.
William Bratton, Georgetown University

Carlos Ball

This is one of the most important works on gay rights in recent memory. The book elaborates on a crucial (but often overlooked) insight, namely that if the gay rights movement is to attain its most important goals, it needs the assistance and contributions of heterosexuals. No other book speaks so directly and effectively to heterosexuals who generally support gay rights but may not have given much thought to what practical steps they can take to advance gay rights causes.
Carlos Ball, Dickinson School of Law, Pennsylvania State University, author, "The Morality of Gay Rights"


Gay people will always constitute a small percentage of the population and therefore our rights will always depend on the support of non-gay people. I wish all that all non-gay people possessed the wisdom that Ian Ayres and Jennifer Brown show here—and now they can. This remarkable book doesn't just explain the benefits of supporting gay rights—it actually tells how to do so. A rare combination of insightful analysis and instructive tactical suggestions, it provides novel, exciting, and very specific ideas about how to change the world. It's like a gay rights recipe book. And it's arrived at just the right moment. Buy it. Read it. Implement its suggestions. Make a difference.
William B. Rubenstein, Chair, Charles R. Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law, UCLA School of Law

Diane Mazur

If you've become bored with the predictable arguments for and against gay rights, straightforward is the book you need to read. Whether you agree or disagree with its ideas, I guarantee you'll be hearing most of them for the first time. Straightforward speaks to everyone—parents, teachers, clergy, employers and soldiers—and offers a solid, economics-based way out of the usual gay-rights impasse.
Diane Mazur, University of Florida

Mary Bonauto

Taking to heart the adage that no minority group can succeed in its social justice struggles without the help of the majority, Straightforward offers a soup-to-nuts guide to being an ally to gay and lesbian people in these challenging times.
Mary Bonauto, Civil Rights Project Director, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders


Drawing on the most up-to-date legal and gender theory, this book provides original, very practical advice for heterosexual people who want to advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians. An eminently useful self-help book, it proposes creative—and many times simple—strategies for supporting the extension of full civil and legal rights to people regardless of their sexual identities.
Leila J. Rupp, Professor and Chair of Women's Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

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