Stupid, Dirty Girlie Men

It’s a demeaning debate all the way around that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unleashed last week when he struck out in frustration at his Democratic adversaries in the Legislature in Sacramento, calling them “girlie men.”

For gay men to stand up and point out the obvious homophobia (never mind misogyny) implicit in the comment is to risk having adversaries respond, “Do you see yourself as a girlie man? Why do you think the comment is directed at you?”

In fact, in defending the California governor against what he called “mind-numbing political correctedness,” Patrick Guerriero, head of the nationwide Log Cabin Republicans, argued that Schwarzenegger was “one of the most inclusive governors in the nation regardless of party affiliation” and that the political firestorm brewing in California represents “blatant partisan political hay that some on the left are trying to make out of this comment.”

Noting that the governor would not apologize for his comments, Margarita Thompson, a spokesperson for Schwarzenneger, adopted a “get over it” posture about her boss’ language.

He was joking,” she said. “He was trying to use it to get a point across… that the legislators are wimps, and that they need to stand up to the special interests.”

In other words, it was just politics, an attitude I wrote about at length last week.

The debate over the influence of special interests in California politics, or American politics generally, is a fair one, and whether or not he has the higher ground on that question than his opponents, nobody can fault Schwarzenneger for trying to find a way to vividly convey the urgency of the issue.

The problem of course is that the words and attitudes to which he resorted betray a troubling mindset on the California governor’s part that resurrects questions that came up in last fall’s recall election about the way he views and treats women in his professional life. Schwarzenneger’s wife, the journalist Maria Shriver, who comes to California public life with her liberal Kennedy pedigree, was trotted out for a high-profile role in his gubernatorial run in large measure to send a signal of reassurance to voters concerned about women’s rights and issues of sexual harassment.

When Thompson, the governor’s spokesperson, explains that Schwarzenneger merely aimed to label his political opponents “wimps,” she skips over the undeniable subtext of his statement—that men who have effeminate characteristics cannot be relied upon to stand up for important principles and the common good. By implication, women generally can also not be counted on in this manner.

Are the implications of Schwarzenneger’s remarks any different that one of the underlying reasons that gays were excluded half a century ago from service in the U.S. military—that in addition to being susceptible to blackmail because of closeted sexual lives, homosexuals were simply not team players, that they had no loyalties broader or stronger than their own selfish interests?

This is the sort of libel that gay men have endured for too long, and Schwarzenneger, a man who has had broad exposure to diverse communities in his rich and varied life, should know better.

The governor himself showed laudable instincts in dealing with inappropriate comments from public officials just weeks before.

In a bizarre incident on July 9, Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who is now Schwarzenneger’s secretary of education, was visiting a classroom of six-year-olds and one of the children, named Isis, asked Riordan if he could tell her what her name meant. Riordan’s response, caught on tape to be replayed over and over again in the weekend that followed, was, “It means stupid, dirty girl.” The remark caught the children by surprise, and led to demands from some education advocates that Riordan be fired.

Schwarzenneger did not remove Riordan from his job but nor did he brook any attempt by his education secretary to explain away the comment as mere “teasing.” The remark, the governor said, was “unacceptable in any context.”

Dead stop. End of discussion.

Schwarzenneger’s own inappropriate comments come at a time when anti-violence experts are noting a clear rise in violence directed at gay men and lesbians occasioned by the furious debate over same-sex marriage. The governor’s comment can only fuel a climate of disregard for the dignity of gay people and was unacceptable in any context.

Arnold Schwarzenneger should apologize.

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