There’s a lot to love about the photo of Senator Doug Jones’s swearing-in. In part, that it’s Senator Doug Jones’s swearing-in, and that it’s Vice President Mike Pence having to preside over it as part of his official duties.
But the reason the photo has gone viral is Jones’s son Carson, who is gay and hot and whose shirtless pics have been delighting the gay internet for weeks now. In the photo, Carson seems to be giving Pence some serious, drag-queen-worthy side-eye, half mocking, half enraged, ready for gif-ing.
Now, I don’t know what Carson was thinking or even whether he was giving Pence side-eye or not (the person who grabbed the screenshot says he wasn’t). But there is a lot of poetry in that image, and since it’s one of the few bits of flotsam for queers to grab onto in this Titanic wreck of a presidency, I’m going to enjoy it for a minute.
First, there’s Carson Jones’s mere existence. In Pence’s theology, and in policies he has endorsed, gay people don’t actually exist at all. To them, gays are just straight people with personality disorders – or, in somewhat older language, immoral desires which they indulge for sexual gratification.
That’s why Pence has supported the utterly bogus, ineffective, and universally disowned-by-all-psychiatric-associations practice of “conversion therapy.” It’s why he’s opposed same-sex marriage and non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Because to Pence’s religious ilk, gay conduct is an aberration, and gay identity is a sickness.
Having Carson Jones stand there, in all his manifestly non-sick and non-aberrant hotness, itself speaks volumes.
Second, Pence isn’t just any conservative. As Indiana governor, he became the poster child for the “religious exemptions” movement, which has succeeded in sharply limiting LGBT rights by carving ever-larger exemptions away from the laws that protect us. Like that of Roy Moore, who made Carson Jones’s sexuality an issue in the election, Pence’s outspoken religiosity endeared him to the Religious Right, doubtless one of the main reasons Trump wisely chose him as his running mate.
And as vice president, Pence has been the Religious Right’s point man (with Attorney General Jeff Sessions) in the White House during a terrifying rollback of LGBT rights, as the Trump administration has vastly expanded religious exemptions, eliminated non-discrimination protections for LGBT employees of government contractors, eliminated protections for transgender kids in schools, zeroed-out aid for LGBT activists overseas, attempted to end transgender people’s military service, approved limitations of LGBT marriage rights – I could go on and on.
And, while again I could be reading this into Jones’s expression, it sure seems like he knows it. (Jones gave an interview to the gay social media app Hornet in which he said that “moving forward, I probably will get a bit more vocal about issues,” suggesting that he has an informed political mind of his own.)
Which, for me, is the most significant aspect of the photo.
I was a professional LGBT activist for ten years. I’ve been writing about LGBT issues, first in the academic world and now in the journalistic world, for the better part of two decades. Time after time, I’ve engaged in discussions and debates with people on the “other side” of this or that LGBT issue, and more often than not, they have been fruitful conversations for all concerned (Twitter haters not included).
But there’s an asymmetry in these conversations that often goes unspoken, because while I’m not trying to limit the liberty or humanity of the “other side,” they are working hard to limit mine.
No one is telling Pence he can’t live authentically: with his wife, with his strict policy of never being alone with another woman, with his various religious beliefs and practices. That’s true even though many of us find those practices deeply problematic from a feminist or, for that matter, a scientific point of view. It’s live and let live, where Pence’s life is concerned.
Not so with mine. My partner and I are proud parents of a wonderful baby girl. But thanks to Pence and Sessions, we couldn’t adopt a child in many states, because now religiously affiliated adoption agencies can turn us away, even though they depend on government funding for their very existence.
For that matter, Pence has previously gone on record opposing my marriage itself. Based on his past statements, in his ideal world, he’d split up our family and place our daughter in foster care (since, after all, gay men can’t be good parents). At the very least, I know he’d like hotels, restaurants, and other businesses to be able to refuse us service. He said as much (or refused not to say) on national television.
In other words, Pence and Carson Jones are not equal debating partners on opposite sides of a contentious national issue. One is trying to oppress the other.
For twenty years, every time I’ve sat down opposite a politically active religious conservative, I’ve had that in mind. Just as many people of color do when they “debate” issues of race with white folks. Just like many women do when they “debate” issues of equality, sexual harassment, or gender in male-dominated spaces.
These forums aren’t debates on a level playing field. They’re not even fair fights. It’s one person politely asking another person to please stop stepping on their neck. Knowing that, most of the time, the person doing the stepping also has all the power to decide whether or not to change the situation, and often howls in protest that stopping the stepping is a form of discrimination against him.
That’s certainly true for Pence’s religious exemptions movement. I have no doubt that many Christians sincerely feel oppressed by same-sex marriage, gender-appropriate restrooms, and other changes regarding LGBT equality. But as the now-famous quote says, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
So this is what I imagine Carson Jones thinking: I see you, Mike Pence. I know what you are trying to do to me and people like me. I know that this is a moment of politeness and collegiality; you’re swearing in my dad, you’re the vice president, and this is how we act in this time and place.
But I also know that I will oppose you on the streets, online, and in elections to come. I know that after this ceremony is over, you will go back to fighting against my right to stand here as an equal citizen to you. I know the score.
And yet I am here, because you don’t win every battle, even though you’re won a lot of them lately. I am here, and I have my self-respect, and there’s nothing you can do about that.