Theres a lot to love about the photo of Senator Doug Joness swearing-in. In part, that its Senator Doug Joness swearing-in, and that its Vice President Mike Pence having to preside over it as part of his official duties.
But the reason the photo has gone viral is Joness 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 dont know what Carson was thinking or even whether he was giving Pence side-eye or not (the person who grabbed the screenshot says he wasnt). But there is a lot of poetry in that image, and since its one of the few bits of flotsam for queers to grab onto in this Titanic wreck of a presidency, Im going to enjoy it for a minute.
First, theres Carson Joness mere existence. In Pences theology, and in policies he has endorsed, gay people dont 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.
Thats why Pence has supported the utterly bogus, ineffective, and universally disowned-by-all-psychiatric-associations practice of conversion therapy. Its why hes opposed same-sex marriage and non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Because to Pences 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 isnt 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 Joness sexuality an issue in the election, Pences 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 Rights 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 peoples military service, approved limitations of LGBT marriage rights I could go on and on.
And, while again I could be reading this into Joness 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. Ive 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, Ive 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 theres an asymmetry in these conversations that often goes unspoken, because while Im 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 cant live authentically: with his wife, with his strict policy of never being alone with another woman, with his various religious beliefs and practices. Thats true even though many of us find those practices deeply problematic from a feminist or, for that matter, a scientific point of view. Its live and let live, where Pences 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 couldnt 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, hed split up our family and place our daughter in foster care (since, after all, gay men cant be good parents). At the very least, I know hed 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 Ive sat down opposite a politically active religious conservative, Ive 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 arent debates on a level playing field. Theyre not even fair fights. Its 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.
Thats certainly true for Pences 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 youre 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; youre swearing in my dad, youre 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 dont win every battle, even though youre won a lot of them lately. I am here, and I have my self-respect, and theres nothing you can do about that.