Before she began working as a Grit-TV producer-host, Blue Grit author Laura Flanders used to co-produce and host a non-commercial daily alternative morning news show called Undercurrents with Dennis Bernstein and Robert Knight of KPFA’s Flashpoints (www.flashpoints.net) daily alternative evening news show. Following is the fifth part of a 1991 interview with Flanders that appeared in the June 26, 1991 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newsweekly Downtown.
What about homophobia in the U.S. mass media and the British mass media?
Flanders: I think there are many ways the British lesbian-gay movement is a few years behind the movement in this country…The British campaign against AIDS was homophobic in the extreme, even excelling the type of anti-gay coverage and public statements that were made in this country. There is still a sense of the “guilty” victims of AIDS versus the “innocent” victims of AIDS in Britain. And I think that that has been attacked in this country. It’s not eliminated, but it’s been attacked…
As far as employment goes, the British culture contains within it the kind of eccentric gay male character who is kind of seen as a sort of whimsical, almost lunatic member of society, but is seen: the gay lord, the gay aristocrat.
The profile of gay women, I think, is nothing like that. It’s nothing like as sympathetic or as charitable even as that in Britain.
I would be interested, actually, to know what the status is of employment for gay and lesbian people in Britain. Here, you’d have to do a survey to really know what the situation is. But I see homophobia everywhere. I think that even though the anti-homophobia movement and campaign may be a little bit further progressed in this country, it has a very long way to go against a society that is, in some respects, even more intolerant than the British one. I should mention, by the way, though, that Britain has something that we don’t have here at all [as of 1991], which is a weekly gay program called Out On Tuesday, which is broadcast on public television on a weekly basis. So maybe I’m a little out-of-date in my assessment of the British media. They have what we don’t have, at least in New York.
Why would the media be homophobic? What’s the explanation?
Flanders: What is the fear? I think, like anything else, the fear of the unknown…I believe in this country, I think, it’s a fear of sexuality. I think it’s a fear of one’s own sexuality, of sexual issues, of sexual experience, of sexual experimentation, of sexual difference. It’s the fear of lascivious lusts that many people don’t want to acknowledge. And because the homosexual community is defined by its sexuality, it, therefore, attracts the aggression of those who believe sexuality isn’t something that they even want to think about. I think that’s what it is.
I think it has to do with U.S. culture’s horror of sexual honesty and openness.
But couldn’t commercial interests market that sexuality in a profitable way?
Flanders: Well, they certainly do. Lesbian videos are a big seller as far as the straight male pornography market goes.
But that wouldn’t necessarily lead to a breakdown in homophobia?
Flanders: Not at all. I think that can be used to titillate. Certainly lesbianism is, I think, a tool for exploitation in the mainstream. But that’s not addressing lesbians and the sexual lives of women, sexual choices—the independent sexual choices of women.
Many women in the United States—especially many young women—don’t seem to identify themselves as “feminists.” The media has sometimes declared we live in a “post-feminist” age. You seem to identify yourself as a feminist. What’s the explanation for this—I mean feminism is seen by many women, themselves, as part of this “politically correct line” of the previous generation?
Flanders: What do I attribute that to? Again, it’s a big topic…But I think there has been a political retrenchment. There has been a conservatism that has been reviving itself in the last 10 years. And in order to really enforce the conservative agenda, feminism had to be attacked.
Feminism, as far as I’m concerned, is a politics of internationalism, is a politics of social reorganization, is a politics of individual and collective empowerment and works against bigotry, against violent solutions to confrontations. It is about massive social change. So it makes perfect sense that the young of today are being brought up to believe that feminism is passé, in the same way that communism is passé.
But some of them say “I’m not oppressed,” that the battles have been won, “the people who are complaining are those who just don’t have the skills”?
Flanders: Well, that’s classic, you know. That every achievement that has ever been won by a progressive movement has then been stolen from the history books. The development of the union movement is not attributed to local labor action, the action that bought it about. It’s sort of removed from that context, as if it’s always been with us.
In the same way, the presence of women analysts, such as they are, and professors and academics and professionals is somehow seen by the mass culture as always having been that way. As having been some gift of God, as opposed to the hard-won achievements of a mass movement—that had problems. A mass movement—that with no question—had problems. But, without which, I don’t think I would be in the position that I am in today. Or most of the people that I know, in terms of women, would be there…
We’re still fighting most of the battles. Right now, there’s clearly an assault on women’s lives taking place at the federal level. And I think misogyny is back and very strong. A strong force.
I would like to see little holiday camps with some of the young women and have discussions with them about their lives and what they take for granted. And have a discussion with them about where they think those rights came from, where those aspirations came from, then compare their stories with the stories of their mothers or grandmothers. Because I think it’s the word that frightens people, not the concepts of the feminist movement. I think we give up too easily if we shy away from the word. We’ve given too many words over to the right wing, already.
In this week’s issue [June 1991] of Rolling Stone there’s an interview with Madonna—who has certainly been on a lot of magazine covers. Lately, she’s been promoted as the “champion of gay liberation.” And she’s also been promoted as an example of the “independent, strong woman.” What’s behind the “Madonna phenomenon”? Here’s somebody who certainly is being publicized by the same corporate media that Undercurrents criticizes?
Flanders: I think that Madonna has an incredible public relations strategy. I think that she has commercialized her product with more success than almost anybody I can think of.
Did she do it herself?
Flanders: I think she probably played a very strong role in it, from the impression that I get of her. But I think she was also riding a crest of a wave, as far as popular culture looking for a kind of “bete noir” to focus on.
She is, I think, a champion of sexual liberation. She is not a champion of gay liberation. Because if she were, she could use her position of such enormous access to the public’s mind to really say things that mattered about violence against the gay and lesbian community—which she has mentioned, but she could more. About other political issues. About the politics of this country.
Somebody with that kind of access, with that kind of influence, could be a very good political figure without much fear of harm. And I also think she’s given a lot more credit for taking particular political positions than she deserved. What she does…manage to do is, in a very individualistic way, build herself into a cult. And if any benefit showers on others around her, it’s not much thanks to her. I’ve never seen her support other artists or promote other women or really show much love for other women. Even if she does exhibit a healthy dislike of men, at least in her interviews…
She consistently denies [as of 1991] that she has had any lesbian experiences. She consistently refuses to discuss [as of 1991] what lesbian sex might be with somebody who might know, that it’s more than just wearing dildoes. Instead, she uses the fact that she’s had “lesbian experiences” to promote herself—rather than to promote any kind of social change that has enabled her to be in the position that she is in.
Has she ever donated any of her money to Undercurrents?
Flanders: No, she’s not. And we would like her to. We wouldn’t reject it. We wouldn’t refuse it.
I must admit that there was some issue about her participation in the War [in 1991]…What she said about Schwarzkopf. Maybe meant in a joke, but that I didn’t appreciate it. I think she made a comment about how “sexy” he was. (end of part 5)
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