The saga of Congresswoman Katie Hill’s resignation provides a stark illustration of how LGBTQ continue to be victimized in public life. On Oct. 18, Red State, a trashy, right wing blog with the journalistic integrity no better than 4Chan, published a trove of revenge porn provided by Hill’s abusive soon-to-be ex-husband.
If you expected a media firestorm attacking Red State and the abusive husband for what is clearly a criminal act, you were sorely disappointed. Instead, the media fed the revenge porn through a scandal machine built on heteronormative vocabulary and heteronormative expectations, spitting out a week of content that attacked Hill for being bisexual.
There’s a word for what Hill is experiencing. It’s called “gay-bashing.”
Gay-bashing* is defined as a physical or verbal attack on a person because of their real or perceived LGBTQ identity. Hill was attacked by her husband and political opponents. She was attacked for being bisexual. They weaponized her sexual orientation, knowing the media was ill equipped to handle the nuance of bisexual and non-traditional relationships, and used it against her in a vile, disgusting and criminal manner.
Every LGBTQ person will likely see their own lived experience in the struggle of Hill. Even when we work hard and play by the rules, we still have the tools of abuse, humiliation, crime and violence employed against us in order to silence us or put us “in our place.” That’s exactly what these people wanted to do to Hill. Her husband wanted to further abuse and humiliate his wife, and her political opponents wanted to knock her down and silence her. Sadly, it seems they have succeeded.
What disappoints me more, however, is the systematic failure of the media, the House of Representatives and Democratic leadership to properly respond to the bashing of Hill. In fact, each of them, in turn, contributed to the bashing. The media failed to check its heternormative biases. The House failed to recognize the gaps in its formal processes. And House Democrats failed to stand up for their principles.
Bisexual erasure and the media’s heteronormative vocabulary
There are numerous failures in the media’s response to the Hill incident, of which, its erasure of her sexuality is only one.
The Washington media failed to recognize, as it often does, that Hill is the victim of a crime. Yes, revenge porn is a crime. Yet, the media instead focused on the accusations being made against Hill. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that same scenario plays out every time women, especially lesbian and bisexual women, come forward to report sexual violence. Instead of focusing on the crime or the abuse, the media focuses on the woman, her behavior, her motivations and her believability or likeability. Hill became the story, instead of the crime committed against her.
Equally problematic is the erasure of Hill’s bisexual identity, and the media’s seeming inability (or refusal) to understand non-traditional relationships. Hill is openly bisexual. This means that she may have had or continue to have partners of both the same and opposites sexes. Some bisexual couples, and some heterosexual couples for that matter, choose to engage in consensual sexual activities with a third person. In Hill’s case, she and her husband invited a woman into their relationship.
The media has persistently described this as “an affair,” but that’s an extremely problematic description because it connotes a relationship where one of the spouses has not consented. This is undoubtedly the result of the media lacking the vocabulary to describe a bisexual or non-traditional relationship involving a third party.
Instead of trying to establish or find the necessary vocabulary, the media simply forces the situation through the tired scandal machine it has available that’s built on heteronormative expectations about human sexuality. The result is that Hill’s bisexuality is lost, replaced by the inaccurate picture of a woman who cheated on her husband with another woman.
Formalistic policies are often turned on victims
Between 2017 and 2018, as the #MeToo movement swept the Capitol, eight congressmen were forced to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct. In Feb. 2018, the House of Representatives responded by creating a rule against sexual relations between members and their staff.
In Dec. 2018, Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, tightening rules regarding workplace conduct. Following the Red State smear, the House opened an ethics probe against Hill, the first such investigation under these new rules.
In other words, the rules put in place because women were being sexually harassed are being rolled out for the first time against a bisexual woman, and the machinery designed to protect victims is being turned against a victim. If that’s not enough to set your head spinning at the sexist irony, consider also that the ethics probe was triggered not by any accusations made against Hill, but by the revenge porn itself. In other words, a criminal act against Hill triggered an investigation into her.
The reason why these formalistic policies can be so easily weaponized against the very people they were intended to protect is horrifically simple. Superficially neutral policies are never neutrally applied because power and access are never neutral. When a straight man is in legal jeopardy, a myriad of socially constructed defense mechanisms designed to protect him come roaring to life. The woman’s motivations and sexual history are probed and questioned. The man’s good character is brought up as a defense. Women are brought forward to defend him.
Compare that to Hill’s situation. Where is the expose on her husband’s motivations and character? Where are the cover stories detailing her lifetime of achievement, good grades in school and community service? Where are the men and women being called to defend her?
The sad reality is that these formalistic mechanisms and facially neutral policies cannot be neutrally applied in a social context where men are protected by social rules, norms and expectations, but women and LGBTQ people are not. This is why it’s so rare to see rules like the House’s new ethics rules used against the men who harass their staff. It’s hard to hold them accountable with so many social defense mechanisms standing in the way.
On the other hand, it’s far easier to scapegoat women and LGBTQ people, who don’t benefit from those social defense mechanisms, in order to look like you’re holding people accountable. Then Congress can pat itself on the back for addressing sexual violence on Capitol Hill, even though all they really did is further victimize women and LGBTQ people.
Straight allies too often look away
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s response to the accusations against Hill illustrates the limited capacity of heterosexual allies when it comes to gay-bashing.
Following Hill’s resignation, Pelosi released a statement, saying “(Rep. Katie Hill) has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a Member untenable. We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.” I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that “dignity” was just a poor choice of words on Pelosi’s part. I’m certain she didn’t mean to suggest that LGBTQ people having consensual same-sex relations is undignified, or that abused women challenging their abusers is undignified.
But also consider a comparable situation of physical, rather than verbal, abuse. I’m certain that Pelosi would have immediately come to Hill’s defense if she had been attacked on the street in an anti-LGBTQ hate crime. But when the hate crime is the release of sexually explicit revenge porn on the front page of some trashy right wing blog, she lacks “dignity”? To Pelosi, a longtime advocate for the LGBTQ community, a gay-bashing using a baseball bat is different from a gay-bashing using revenge porn.
That cognitive dissonance will sound all too familiar to LGBTQ people, especially here in California, where being an LGBTQ ally is required for political advancement.
Our elected officials often bend over backwards to pander to our community, but when allyship requires people to challenge more fundamental beliefs about relationships, sexuality, family or gender roles, we are often greeted with uncomfortable silence. It’s simply easier to see a woman cheating on her husband, than to take on the politically terrifying issue of non-monogamy or bisexuality. It’s easier to scapegoat a bisexual woman, than to actually try to break through male privilege and challenge toxic masculinity. It’s easier to dismiss Hill as undignified, than to have the political courage to stand up for an abused woman.
People often ask why more LGBTQ people don’t run for office. Hill’s story is the perfect example. When LGBTQ people run for office they are subjected to a merciless barrage of openly homophobic attacks. Today, these attacks have less impact, in part because, straight allies are quick to defend LGBTQ candidates against these. Yet, LGBTQ candidates still have to contend with the covert attacks, built on heternormative expectations and vocabulary. These attacks can often be more psychologically damaging because LGBTQ candidates face them alone, or even have to fend off allies who don’t understand that they are falling into a homophobic trap.
Hill’s situation stands as an example of this second situation.
Hill and her husband had a consensual relationship with a woman on her campaign team, a relationship that was not a violation of House rules. For that Hill is being forced to resign. While her husband made other accusations, no evidence has been proffered to support them. In other words, Hill is being forced to resign because she is a bisexual woman who had the audacity to engage in a consensual bisexual relationship.
This is a gay-bashing, and it’s sad that so many of our allies have chosen to be complicit in it.
*Although the term “gay” traditionally refers to homosexual men, the term “gay-bashing” includes abuse and violence against lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons as well. While there may be other terms out there to describe this behavior, I’m using the term “gay-bashing” because it is widely known and understood by the general public. I do not mean to suggest that the issue is limited to gay men, nor is it my intention to erase Hill’s bisexuality by using the term. On the contrary, I hope that this piece, though it is limited by imperfect language, will, in some small part, highlight the problem of erasure of the bisexual community.
Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.