Monday, 3 June 2013

Kaitlyn Hunt: How this case both is and isn't a gay rights issue

I've written about the Kaitlyn Hunt case twice. And while I've received a lot of support I have also received a lot of flack. Yesterday I tweeted about a woman I had just spoken with. Her daughter faced a situation similar to Hunt's.
It was at that point that my social media channels exploded with people telling me that I wanted "special rights" for lesbians. Which is so not the case. However, I do think that homophobia comes into play in this case so let me take a moment to explain how, in my opinion, this case both is and isn't a gay rights issue.

How the Kaitlyn Hunt case ISN'T about gay rights

First, let me be very clear about this point: I would feel the same way about a teenage male-female relationship. When two teens, at the same school, in the same peer group, engage in a consensual relationship, I don't believe that either of them should be incarcerated. Critics have pointed out that I wasn't writing about teenage boys facing the same situation. And they are right. The reason being that I haven't been aware of those cases. I became aware of the Kaitlyn Hunt case when one of my blog followers messaged me about it.

The bottom line, for me, is that when two teenagers consent to sex with one another that relationship shouldn't ever be a felony. On the basis of that argument this case isn't a gay rights issue. It's about young people. You may think these relationships are wrong or right. I don't really care. But in no way should these relationships be a matter for the courts.

Also, let me be equally clear about this point, LGBT folks arguing in support of Kaitlyn Hunt are not advocating for sexual access to children. I feel like this is absurdly redundant. But it apparently needs to be explained. Do I think that relationships between teenagers in the same peer group should be legal? Yes. Do I think that priests should be able to engage in sex with youth in their care? No. Do I think that teachers should be able to seduce students? No. Do I think that forty year-olds should be allowed to sexually assault young people, whether they be 8, 12, or 15? No. These are NOT the same cases. 

I think that some LGBT individuals and groups are shying away from this case, in part, because of the fear that it links homosexuality with pedophilia. Kaitlyn Hunt, and other teenagers who have consensual relationships with their peers, are not pedophiles. Pedophilia is a medical diagnosis. It refers to persons over the age of 16 who have a primary or exclusive interest in pre-pubescent children (generally 11 years or younger, sometimes 13). And although the age cut-off is 16 those persons also need to be AT LEAST 5 YEARS OLDER than the youths in question to qualify for the diagnosis. You see the difference here don't you? 

How the Kaitlyn Hunt case IS about gay rights

First, there is the argument put forth by the Hunts that the parents of the younger girl pressed charges to prevent their daughter from engaging in a same-sex relationship and to punish Hunt for "making" their daughter gay. The Smith's deny that this is the case.  However, the Hunts claim that numerous people have heard Mrs. Smith say that there was no way her daughter would be gay. 

But homophobia is entrenched much deeper into this case than comments made by the younger girls' parents. First, as of June 2013 same-sex marriage is only legal in 12 US states. Florida is not one of them. What do marriage rights have to do with a lesbian statutory rape charge? The lack of legal rights for adult gay citizens speaks to the culture of heterosexism in the US. If adults in love can't expect to be treated equally under the law is it really that far of a stretch to assume that young LGBT people in trouble with the law will also not receive equal treatment? 

What also comes into play here is the conception of a woman's sexuality as passive. Something to be taken or acquired. Something in need of protection. In our society we struggle with the idea that a female can actively participate in her own sexual expression and identity. When a young male and female have sex it is often assumed that she has lost something while he has gained something. Consequently, when the older person is male and the younger person is female, it tends to be taken much more seriously than when the genders are reversed.  See, for instance, the cases of Alan Jepson and Norma Guthrie of Sheboygan Wisconsin.  Jepson, a 17 year old male, was arrested for having sex with his 14 year old girlfriend. Guthrie, a 17 year old female, was arrested for having sex with her 14 year old boyfriend. Both were arrested in the same town, one day apart, and both cases were handled by the same District Attorney. However, Jepson was charged with a Class C felony (with a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison). In comparison, Guthrie was charged with a misdemeanour (with a maximum sentence of 9 months in jail). Additionally, Jepson was held on a $1000 bond while Guthrie was released on a signature bond. 

So why the discrepancy? Because male sexuality is understood as a weapon. It violates. It takes. But our society struggles to conceive of female sexuality in the same way. Although both of the younger partners agreed that the relationships were consensual (the younger girl even admitting that she told Jepson she was 16 years old) the application of the law saw that substantially more "damage" was done to the female "victim" than to her male counterpart. 

Certainly, this discrepancy is harmful to teenage boys. But why is it relevant in the Kate Hunt case? It's relevant because in this case we have a female being seen as the violator. The taker. The one whose sexuality becomes a weapon. And that makes people uncomfortable. Kate Hunt steps into the margins of our sexual understanding and her acts become perceived by many as more deviant and more dangerous than they would be if performed by a male of the same age. 

And while the District Attorney may argue that the law is applied blindly in regard to gender I think we can all imagine that the understanding of the case in the eyes of the judge and/or jury can certainly be tainted by homophobia. 

In the end, it is impossible to completely disentagle this case from its inherent heterosexism. That does not mean that those who see this as a gay issue want to see Kaitlyn Hunt receive special treatment for being gay. In fact it is quite the opposite. The law may not differentiate between male and female or gay and straight. However, it is important to understand that the way it is applied, as well as the punishments given out, may not remain equally blind. 

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