But Words Will Never Hurt Me?

Freedom to Differ: The Shaping of the Gay and Lesbian Struggle for Civil Rights
by Diane Helene Miller
New York University Press, 1998
264 pp., $18.50

“We saw a lot of fags today. You got a lot of fags in Athens. I should’ve punched them out.”

For those of us who count gay men or lesbians among our friends and family, the impact that our words have had on the quality of their lives becomes, at  some point,  shamefully obvious. In the past, before I knew better, before my sister came out, and perhaps since then, surely there have been times when I offended her with my language. Thus these recent words of my 15-year-old cousin on his first visit to Athens made my heart race and then ache. Yet, I held my tongue,  and for my silence I know that my sister, among others, will pay the price. For his words will influence others as he was influenced; his words will shape another person’s thoughts about gay men and lesbians as his were shaped. No excuse or explanation changes the fact that silence in the midst of injustice has the rhetorical effect of condoning that injustice.

These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind as I began reading Freedom to Differ: The Shaping of the Gay and Lesbian Struggle for Civil Rights by Diane Helene Miller, a UGA graduate and Athenian. Miller’s book is not concerned with the street language exemplified by my cousin, but with the language of civil rights rhetoric commonly applied in advocacy for gays and lesbians. By the book’s end I was lifted with hope and re-inspired to combat any language which perpetuates discrimination and inequality.

In her book, Miller recounts two cases of lesbian civil rights conflicts in order to show specifically how the broader quest for gay and lesbian equality is helped and hindered by the discourse that surrounds it. The first of these discussions concerns Roberta Achtenburg, a lesbian whom President Clinton nominated as Assistant Secretary of Urban Development in 1993. Achtenburg’s orientation was known, making her the first openly gay or lesbian person nominated for a cabinet post. In the end, her nomination was confirmed, but not before a Senate debate led by conservative Republicans who challenged her competency and the appropriateness of her pending appointment in light of her sexual orientation. Within the debate, her supporters employed a civil rights strategy, effectively establishing that gays and lesbians are a distinct group of people entitled to at least the forced tolerance of equal protection under the law. As a result of this line of reasoning, the arguments in the Senate became focused on notions of homosexual identity and behavior. Achtenburg is identified as a lesbian activist who has behaved as a lesbian, having attended pride parades with her partner and son, for example. Ultimately, Achtenburg’s nomination was confirmed in the belief that she would separate her identity and behaviors as a lesbian from her role in HUD and assimilate within the dominant group. What makes her different would make no difference. While her confirmation was obviously a positive in the struggle for  gay and lesbian equality, Miller asserts that the sacrifice of Achtenburg’s voice and, to some extent, her visibility, detracts from the movement overall.

The road to equality is not traversed by ignoring our differences, but by honoring them. If Achtenburg’s lesbianism had been accepted into her role as an assistant secretary of HUD rather than pushed back toward the closet as a condition of her confirmation, we would be much nearer true equality.

Miller’s second explication involves Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer who, by 1991, had served nearly 27 years in the United States military and at that time was chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard. In response to a question posed to her in a security clearance interview, Cammermeyer revealed that she was a lesbian. A military board hearing followed and, ultimately, she was honorably discharged, as well as denied partial retirement benefits. As exemplified in their “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuals, which was instituted after Cammermeyer’s time, but reflects the same reasoning which led to her discharge, the notions of speech and conduct are indistinguishable for the military.

Miller unveils the hypocrisy, bad logic and inconsistencies of this and other military policies regarding homosexuality. She also discusses the propensity of the military as well as larger society to connect homosexuality with sodomy, if not to define homosexuality by this sexual act. She discusses how this equation perpetuates stereotypes, diminishes gay and lesbian identities, and promotes the separateness of homosexuals from heterosexuals. The influence of the military, like Congress, tolerates homosexuals only at the cost of voice and visibility, i.e. as a silent, invisible, and therefore essentially powerless minority.

Miller concludes with her vision for the future. She cautions against an exclusive civil rights approach, as it requires participation in a legal system which produces a discourse that circumscribes homosexual identity, and because of its emphasis on sodomy, all but ignores lesbians. She suggests a shift in focus from the alleged wrongs of homosexuality to the rarely contested wrongs of heterosexism. She rejects assimilation and provisional acceptance, recognizing them as false equality, and encourages coming out and being visible as a means of countering “the destructive portrayals” of gays and lesbians created by the mainstream.

Miller’s book offers much more than is indicated here, including richer discussion of specific language and ideologies and their effect on the gay and lesbian rights movement. As such, this is a work which employs Miller’s study of rhetoric as well as her own skills as a rhetorician. Herself a student of English, sociology, rhetoric, speech communication, and women’s studies, Miller cannot help but effect an interdisciplinary approach, using a comprehensive discourse which engages all her fields of study. The result is such that the book offers something for everyone, no matter what the reader’s background. Whether you talk like my cousin or you can hold your own with Miller or, like me, you are somewhere in between, read this book, that you might speak out against language which misrepresents gays and lesbians and contributes to misshapen identity.


  • Shelf Control

    In sync with the general homogenizing of American towns, Athens has recently welcomed another Wal-Mart