New Civil Rights Movement

October 14, 2009

In the weeks leading up to the National Equality March -- held in Washington this past Sunday -- I found myself in the awkward position, for a straight person, of defending same-sex marriage rights to gay people who hated the whole idea with a passion.

Half the pleasure of being gay, explained my irritated interlocutors, is running wild. Maybe more than half.

Now in fact I do not doubt this. As a teenager circa 1980, I went through a countercultural initiation that involved listening to Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria” (treating it as a song about lesbian cruising) while reading William S. Burroughs, whose experimental fiction tended to include sadomasochistic orgies between young male street hustlers and extraterrestrials. A somewhat less literary(if not necessarily less exotic) exposure to to gay folkways has gone with living in Dupont Circle in Washington for a couple of decades. My own life is almost comically straight and narrow and monogamously domesticated. But that hardly precludes the ability to acknowledge and affirm other possible arrangements.

Besides, marriage isn't for everybody, and there are statistics to prove it.

Anyway, my argument with the fierce anti-matrimonialists boiled down to a fairly simple point: The right to marry is not an obligation to marry. I doubt this persuaded anyone. The assumption seemed to be that I was practicing cultural genocide through heteronormativity. I sure hope not. Committing cultural genocide would be bad.

In any case, something like 150,000 people turned out on Sunday to march past the White House on their way to the Capitol. The demand of the protest was simple: full equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people (LGBT) in all matters covered by civil law.

It was a spirited crowd. But on consideration, it might have been more than that.

Early this summer, I devoted a column to gathering the thoughts of various scholars on what developments they expected might emerge within LGBT studies over the next decade. At that point, planning for the march was at its most grass-rootsy. Now, a few months later, I suspect that a new wave of research and reflection will be necessary to deal with something not previously anticipated, let alone theorized. For we seem to be witnessing the emergence of a civil rights movement in which the struggle for recognition and equality goes beyond “identity politics” (in which each subset of an oppressed group insisted on the incommensurable specificity of its own experience and struggle).

Something new is coming forward. It is not purely a matter of sexual identity, let alone of political activism. I think it involves something much deeper, drawing on bonds of solidarity that extend across divisions in sexual orientation. Forty years after Stonewall, a generation or two has grown used to the idea of feeling mutual respect, affection, and everyday concern with people who belong to a different erotic cohort (if that is how to put it).

Beyond a certain point, such ties cease to be merely personal. They create a new sense of justice. You feel protective. If my friends who were married in one state cannot see one another in the hospital when in another state, then their anger is my anger. An injury to one is an injury to all. This does not mean that homophobia disappears from society. Far from it. But it means there is a counterforce.

A less sanguine view comes across in Sarah Schulman's Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, a recent title from the New Press. The author is a novelist and playwright who is professor of English at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. It is a short and angry book. Unlike many another volume of social criticism by an academic, it does not mediate or diffuse that anger through carefully rehearsed stagings of the author’s theoretical affiliations. She just gets right down to it.

The fact that gay figures (real or fictional) are now often routinely shown in the media is not, she points out, “progressive” as such: “They often portray the gay person as pathological, lesser than, a side-kick in the Tonto role, or there to provide an emotional catharsis or to make the straight protagonist or viewer a ‘better’ person. What current cultural representations rarely present are complex human beings with authority and sexuality, who are affected by homophobia in addition to their other human experiences, human beings who are protagonists. That type of depth and primacy would force audiences to universalize gay people, which is part of the equality process. It would also force an acknowledgment of heterosexual cruelty as a constant and daily part of American life.”

One of the most devastating and persistent forms of such cruelty, in Schulman’s assessment, is the experience of shunning or forthright attack by family members – reinforced by the silence of other relatives who may not be actively homophobic, but whose passivity makes them complicit. The effect is what she calls “homophobic trauma,” which tends to go unidentified and unnamed.

"For the most part,” she writes, “victimized gay people are expected to grin and bear it. They are expected to be made better and stronger by the cruelty they face instead of being diminished and destabilized.”

Over the weekend (not long before heading off to march, actually) I exchanged e-mails with the author, and asked if there some influence on her thinking that might not be evident from reading her book The answer came as a surprise: Edward Said’s Orientalism, where Schulman found “the acknowledgment that there are unnamed structures which heavily determine the behavior and experience of perpetrators and recipients, but which are considered to be neutral or natural or simply not happening.”

That connection did not jump out at me while reading Ties That Bind, and I may have to think about it for a while longer before it seems clear. But Schulman pressed the point. “Once you identify the structure, name it, and come to an understanding of how it works, what it does to people and what it relies on,” she continued, “then entirely new worlds of recognition are possible.”

In her book, Schulman offers a strategy for dealing with homophobic trauma: Homophobia should be identified as a sickness, with families court-ordered into treatment programs. This is more like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish by way of Madness and Civilization. The cure sounds as bad as the disease -- and in any case ineffectual, unless the next step is electroshock for knuckleheads.

It left me thinking of a comment by Bayard Rustin, an African-American activist who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He also happened to be gay. If memory serves, he was drawing a connection between his sense of the history of each movement's struggles when he wrote about the limitations of what you can expect from the state.

The law, he said, defines permissible action but not the content of anyone’s heart. A court can never oblige you to love your neighbors. But it has the right to place you in custody if you burn their house down.

Full equality for LGBT people is not a matter of eventually forcing bigots into group therapy for good. Besides, who want to wait that long? The cure for homophobic trauma can be found in the slogan that caught on after Stonewall: “Dare to snuggle, dare to win!” In other words, just traumatize 'em right back.

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