By Brent Dorian Carpenter
Dr. David Halperin arrived at University of MichiganÑAnn Arbor in 1999 as a professor in the department of English Language and Literature. An outspoken gay activist, his class, “How to be Gay,” has stirred controversy in several circles. His current lecture, “Academics and Activism in a university setting,” is designed to motivate college youth to pick up the baton of groups like ACT-UP with grass-roots activism to counter the rise of the religious right. He sat down recently with BTL to share his thoughts about current events.
BTL: What has the environment been like on UofM’s campus since the 2004 election and the passage of Proposal 2?
DH: I think it’s been very good. I’m waiting for a new wave of queer activism in response to what is clearly a very bad situation we are all facing in Michigan. I’m waiting to see how long into the Bush Administration we will have to wait to see the sort of counter-cultural movement like that of the 60s reborn. If anything, the election has probably strengthened the resolve of a lot of people to use the relatively safe space that we have here at the university to continue to do our work. I am enthusiastic about the future, long-term. I don’t know how many people have to suffer in the meantime to get there. But I think in time there will, in time, be a backlash against the Bush Administration, and it is young people who will determine that.
BTL: The religious right has targeted SpongeBob SquarePants and Buster the bunny for allegedly promoting a gay agenda. Have they begun to overreach?
DH: We’re in a very serious situation in this country. We have authorized torture. We’re scaling back all sorts of basic constitutional and civil rights. And there needs to be real popular coordinating resistance.
BTL: What do you make of recent comparisons between what is happening in America today to Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s?
DH: Well, I don’t think we should exaggerate the comparisons. We still live in a democracy, we still have freedom of speech. We are able to state our opposition to government policies without being thrown in jail or beaten up, as people were when the Nazis came to power. But I think we are getting as close to fascism as we have been. I’m starting to understand what it would have felt like to be one of the so-called “good Germans,” the ones who didn’t especially want the Holocaust to happen but didn’t know what to do to stop it from happening.
BTL: What else is happening here at UofM?
DH: I think the University of Michigan is a great university for queer studies. We have about three dozen faculty who work centrally in that field, and I think in the years ahead we will be doing more to consolidate the offerings we have. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist. The problem is that they are scattered and dispersed and we need to make them more visible.
BTL: What do you make of the New York state court decision clearing the way for same-sex marriage?
DH: It remains to be seen whether any of these anti-gay initiatives will survive in the courts. Some of them are going to be hard to get rid of, but at the same time, there is a greater spirit of acceptance of sexual diversity in America that has reached up into the courts despite all of the Bush appointments. I think it’s possible that as the marriages from Massachusetts start claiming benefits in other states, and as other state courts like New York consider same-sex partnerships, there is likely to be a certain amount of challenge in the courts to the popular opposition to same-sex partnerships.
BTL: How is the equation changed if Bush gets to name two or three Supreme Court justices?
DH: It depends on who they are. We should remember that a part of the majority in the Lawrence [v. Bowers] case was made up of O’Connor and Souter, who were Republican appointees. Certainly Souter would not have been appointed if his voting record on the court had been foreseen. So you never know how these things are going to work out. Obviously, everybody who is nominated is going to have to be looked at very carefully Ñ but I don’t think the battle is lost yet. The Democratic Party doesn’t have much willpower yet. I agree with what Jon Stewart said about the Democratic Party: “A moment of resistance, a lifetime of capitulation.” But I think if they have the capacity to resist anything, it will be the Supreme Court nominations.