Disgust and the Problematic Politics of Similarity

Martha Nussbaum’s latest book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation & Constitutional Law, could not have come at a more opportune time in the history of gay rights in the United States. All signs point to progress toward “humanity,” from same-sex couples’ successful bids for marriage equality in a handful of states to the public’s increasing acceptance of the prospect of gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Even if recent cognitive science research indicates that same-sex relationships provoke more than a little disgust in some people, landmark marriage-equality victories in a few states suggest that the law is far less willing to tolerate that disgust as a valid basis for discriminatory and exclusionary legislation. And unlike its culture-war comrade abortion, homosexuality has become less, not more, taboo over time. Whereas abortion is rarely, if at all, mentioned on television, homosexuality, as Nussbaum points out, is becoming a virtual regular on primetime (p. xviii). Indeed, if the gay couple on ABC’s Modern Family is any indication, homosexuality–or at least a very domesticated version of it-has begun to lose its taint. In documenting this progressive movement from a “politics of disgust” to a “politics of humanity” (pp. xvii-xviii), Nussbaum’s book tends to mimic it, starting at the low point of sodomy’s criminalization in American law (Chapter Three); moving toward the significantly higher points of Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, and the marriage-equality movement (Chapter Five); and ending with a gesture toward a world “after disgust,” one in which “progress . . . is … complete” (p. 208).