My public reaction (on Twitter) when I saw BuzzFeed’s strange, now-viral piece about a couple of HGTV hosts going to a church whose pastor doesn’t support gay marriage was to wonder if the media outlet was going to write a similar piece about every single Catholic in America or just the famous ones.
Whatever the stated intent for running a story about the church attendance of some C-list home improvement show hosts (they do well in cable ratings, anyway), the subtext is clearly intended for us to look askance at Chip and Joanna Gaines for belonging to a church whose pastor preaches against gay marriage. The weirdest part of the piece is that it’s entirely speculative. The Gaineses didn’t respond to requests for comment, so it’s a piece that cannot even tell the reader whether the Gaineses themselves support or oppose gay marriage.
Robby Soave noted this morning a couple of media outlets like Jezebel and Cosmopolitan running with the story. There’s also been a much larger blitz of responses that are critical of the BuzzFeed piece. Here’s some critical analysis over at the Washington Post from an engaged gay man who worries that the digital media environment under the Donald Trump administration is going to end up as “four agonizing, tedious years of ‘gotcha’ non-stories like this one.”
There is some possible good news here amid the media feeding frenzy surrounding the story: At the time that I’m writing this, a host of outlets have written about and linked to the BuzzFeed story. But I haven’t seen a peep at the major blogs or media outlets (such as The Advocate) that specifically cater to LGBT readers. I may have missed a blog link somewhere given the size of the internet, but this “controversy” doesn’t seem to be a focus of sites that are narrowly focused on LGBT lives and issues.
Why is this good news? Because it’s a sign that the people who are actually affected by cultural attitudes toward gay marriage recognition understand where the battles truly are (to the extent that there are any battles left). Whatever the Gaineses and their retrograde preacher believe about gay marriage is not relevant to whether the practice will continue. There is no indication that any of these people in this story have influence to alter the state of legal recognition (or any interest in doing so).
There is a lot of focus at LGBT sites about who will be serving the Trump administration and fears about what they may do. Trump actively courted LGBT voters, which is remarkable on its own for a representative of the Republican Party. Let’s not forget that the Republican Party’s opposition to gay issues hasn’t been just a plank in the platform—it’s also historically been an issue to campaign with, something largely absent from this year’s race. Trump nevertheless did terribly with gay voters, according to exit polls.
But while Trump doesn’t seem to personally have much opposition to the LGBT agenda, the same cannot be said for the people he’s selecting for his administration, and that’s where all the power will be. I’ve noted previously fear over Trump’s selection of Rep. Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services, given his record of opposition on gay issues. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for secretary of education, didn’t just oppose legal recognition of gay marriage; she actually bankrolled ballot initiatives to block it. Her family has significant connections to organizations that have done everything they could to halt the legal normalization of same-sex relationships, and it’s worth analyzing how that might affect what she does in Trump’s cabinet.
So having said that, what I’m seeing from pieces like this bizarre one from BuzzFeed, and from things like a gay politician’s attempt to promote a boycott of a beer company owner for supporting Trump, is an inability to accept a norm that we live side-by-side in a world with significant ideological diversity, and an inability to place an emphasis on policy-making over signaling and culture war judging. Debate over DeVos’ actual anti-gay background and how that might or might not affect federal education policy (libertarian disclaimer: we shouldn’t even have a federal education policy) shouldn’t be fighting for attention with the church habits of a couple of televised home renovators.
I’ve said repeatedly while watching this election play out that one of the primary attitudes driving the culture of these campaigns has been the desire to punish one’s foes. It’s kind of remarkable seeing responses to the Trump election like this one at Out Magazine that is so certain that LGBT folks are going to be the ones punished under the incoming administration, yet is completely blind to the motivations of pro-Trump voters who think that they are the ones who were being punished and would continue to be punished in a Democratic administration. Why didn’t Shawn Binder’s parents think about his self-interest and those of his LGBT friends, Binder asks, while failing to detail or explain in any way what self-interests prompted his parents to vote for Trump. He wants to know whether he can forgive them, but doesn’t consider whether “forgiveness” is an attitude that should factor into a response to somebody using his or her vote in a way you don’t like. (Maybe that’s the libertarian in me talking: I go through life surrounded by people who vote in ways I don’t like and have managed to not have a nervous breakdown or wonder if I need to “forgive” people)
Self-segregation and social punishment seem to be the order of the day as the left and the right drift further and further apart culturally, even as policy differences seem less pronounced than they used to be. As a member of neither side, I’m hard-pressed to figure out the end game in BuzzFeed’s report other than page views and yet another thumbtack marking a point of cultural hostility on the map of the Internet.
I don’t want to suggest the false choice that covering the Gaineses comes at the expense of covering DeVos. I do want to suggest that journalists at BuzzFeed seriously start thinking about the motives behind cultural reporting like this because it is very clearly influencing people’s perceptions of politics and the media in ways that have already come back to haunt the press. Defensive responses by BuzzFeed’s editor grasping desperately for an explanation as to why the couple’s church attendance was considered newsworthy is not helping.