Recent debates on whether Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars is an appropriate viewing experience for children exemplify a dangerous conservative trend in the LGBT movement. As in debate on same-sex marriage, queer activists find ourselves being ask to defend our simple humanity, backed into a corner where visible queerness is seen as a bad strategic move.
Again, I find myself using an example of a queer celebrity in the media to argue the necessity of a truly queer movement. The more time we spend arguing that we are normal, “just like” our opponents, the further we get from our policy priorities. When we allow hate groups to define the debate, they have already won.
How can we turn this disaster around? Refuse to engage by framing our position around being like our opponents. We are not like bigots, homophobes, and transmisogynists. We embrace diversity. We fight with creativity and humor. We shift the ground under gender stereotypes and we regularly fuck with patriarchy. We don’t accept conservative arguments that dehumanize us and challenge our right to occupy our space.
We’re here, we’re queer. Join us.
I support the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals and just generally be douchebags.
When I was a junior in high school, I had a math teacher who was a brilliant woman and taught me a lot of what I needed to know about life, if not much about math. The thing she said that stuck with me the most was about free speech–she told me that she, a very liberal Jewish woman, strongly supports a Nazi’s right to stand on a hilltop shouting at the top of his lungs, because that is absolutely the only way she can defend her own rights with a clear conscience.
And let’s face it–this case is free speech gold. These are the most disgusting, reprehensible people you can imagine, people who picket funerals, who absolutely loathe me and want me to die in the most gruesome possible ways, who firmly believe that I deserve to rot in hell for all eternity. This is why queers, liberals, and human rights activists need to stand up and cheer for the Supreme Court on this ruling, and defend Westboro Baptist’s right to tell everyone that God hates fags. If we don’t jump on this case, we have no credibility.
Of course, at the same time, we should absolutely condemn Westboro Baptist’s actions, beliefs, and thoughts using our own free speech right. But you have to pick the right enemy.
I believe that there is a war on free speech in this country, and it’s not being fought in the courts. Initially, it was, but the obscenity laws are in place. The Puritanical, stigmatizing laws, rules, ordinances, and regulations that supposedly are designed to keep children away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll are the real problem. This is how cultural shifts happen, and look where we are now. We’re afraid to say “fuck” in public. We’re afraid to say lesbian in public. Sexual expression is reduced to obscenity, and people who raise children in queer, kinky, polyamorous, sex positive, or radical households are condemned as unfit parents. That’s where we need to turn our energies.
As an undergraduate, my major was history. One of the most important things I learned from my study of history is that history is not only relevant to the present, but extremely also value-laden and described in a different way by almost every narrator. Part of the ongoing struggle for social justice in the present is the fight to define the past.
Part of this fight is simply including topics like sexuality, gender, queerness, race, disability, imperialism, etc. etc. in our teaching of history. When history curricula fail to include these elements, students are never given an opportunity to question the values passed down by their parents, and you get the clincher, what I call the way it’s always been argument.
I got a taste of that argument on the train yesterday, when a man next to me was talking on his cell phone about his gay son. He expressed feelings of disgust to the woman on the other end of the line, but what he kept coming back to was the “men having sex with men isn’t natural” argument. The specifics were a mix of bad history, bad theology, and bad biology–men in relationships is a recent perversion, the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is wrong, and we are the only species where males have sex with other males.
This is a case where mere exposure to alternative facts could make a difference in a child’s life.
I’m not saying that people aren’t stubborn, or that they won’t argue back. I know that for every sex-positive or queer-positive curriculum, there’s a conservative argument that espouses the opposite with facts to back it up. But some things are kind of hard to disprove. Biology isn’t my field, but I bet I could find you a couple of male animals of some species that like to get it on. Just like I can provide countless examples of queerness throughout history.
The man on the train may never change, and his son may never know what it’s like to have a father who loves him for who he is. But we can educate ourselves about our history and share it with others, and we can support the introduction of wider history curricula in our schools, and those of us who are interested in history can ask some direct questions in our research about who’s writing the articles, and who’s being left out.
Yes, I know I’ve kind of abandoned ship lately. But never fear, I shall return! I only have a month left of law school so I’m hunkering down and then joyously returning to blogging.
That said, I really wanted to get a quickie out there for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is focusing on transphobia this year. I thought this was particularly appropriate for me personally, because in the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about gender identity and am very thirsty at this point to learn more.
Though I was always conscious of the “T” in LGBT, I think I’ve spent a lot of time being at least partially transphobic, and very trans-ignorant. The Global Arc of Justice conference really helped me understand how broad the fight for transgender rights is, though, and some personal acquaintances as well as some books I read helped clarify what gender identity is really about. There are a lot of different ways to experience gender – it isn’t just male, female, FTM, or MTF. Some people identify entirely as their “destination gender” after transition, and don’t want to be referred to in any other way. Some identify strongly as transmen or transwomen. Some prefer something more fluid, and don’t identify as trans but rather as genderqueer or something similar. Some go from being a “straight male” to a lesbian, some from “straight female” to straight male, some stay bisexual or pansexual the whole way through. Though I don’t think our society has very many set-in-stone stereotypes about gender identity, because we tend to simply cover up the variations, it’s definitely a bigger world than I initially thought, and it’s important to recognize these differences when thinking about discrimination, rights, and/or the law.
There have been some great steps in the law lately, perhaps most notably the House’s passage of the Matthew Shepard Act (c’mon, Senate!) A lot of people think of this as a hate crimes bill to protect gay and lesbian people, and it does expand our protection, but actually we’ve already got a lot of it. Trans and intersex folks have nada. So this law would be a great step, but at the same time, there are a lot of things that need to happen that aren’t happening. We need to educate ourselves about gender and not be afraid to discuss it, to ask questions, to teach our kids about different gender identities. We need to educate law enforcement (big time). And those of us who don’t really understand need to ask, read, educate ourselves, and become activists. We also need to learn to listen. I think a lot of people in the LGBT movement (myself being one) have a tendency to think we know what transpeople need (and intersex people, if we even consider their existence). We lump transfolks into the gay rights movement and then get bitchy when they intrude on our women-only space. I admit that when I first heard about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival incident, I was a little unsure about my opinion. I wasn’t sure I wanted someone with a penis in a woman-only space, because I will freely admit that I hate and deeply fear the penis at this point in my life. But on the other hand, well, that’s my problem. I need to get over it, or not show up. We don’t have a right to identify as women if we’re going to exclude others who choose to do so. My own acceptance is coming along slowly, and I appreciate any help from trans, intersex, and genderqueer folk who have advice or opinions, but I also know that it’s not your responsibility to fix my fuckups. I think we all need to take responsibility for the discrimination and plain stupidity we’ve exercised in the past, and figure out how to do better in the future. Hopefully this year’s IDAHO focus will be a strong first step.
If you haven’t yet seen it, Jon Stewart makes some really thoughtful arguments in a discussion with Mike Huckabee about gay marriage. One of my favourite points: “Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality.” You can get it online at thedailyshow.com, just click full episodes and select Tuesday’s night’s show. The discussion is right after the last little black commercial break bar at the bottom of your screen.
There’s been a story circulating around the Internet about how the principal of a South Carolina high school chose to resign when students chose to form a GSA (Gay Students Association). Now I personally don’t have a problem with the man’s choice. It seems like he handled it very well – he made it clear that it was for personal and religious reasons that he was leaving, he decided to stay out the term until 2009, and he indicated that he wouldn’t be mentioning to the students his specific reasons for leaving when he made the announcement to the school. He also, as far as I can tell, didn’t block the formation of the GSA in any way.
The part of this news that made me think, though, was something in his letter of resignation. What troubles him is that this and no other club deals with students’ “sexual orientation, sexual preference, and sexual activity” and that the way he sees it, the club requires acknowledging that students are sexually active with a certain sex, whether the same, different, or both.
Wait, what? Back that train up, please. Besides the obvious problem that others have pointed out in blogging about this article with sexualising the gay movement in general, I’m a little concerned about this specific context. Coming out, to yourself or to others, doesn’t mean anything about how sexual you are. Whether or not you are attracted to someone of the same sex is relevant, but sexual experience is in no way required to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or anything in between – including straight. If sexual experience were the only indicator, I’d be straight, and I’m sure as hell not.
But it’s not just that alone that bothers me, it’s the inherent assumption here. In order to be gay, he seems to be saying, you have to admit that you’re sexual with someone of the same sex. Is the same true in order to be straight? I actually think it might be almost all right if we just said, no one is anything until they have sex (putting aside the obvious huge problems with basing orientation entirely on experience). It wouldn’t really be accurate, but at least it would be equitable. Instead, I think what we obviously say in society is that everyone is straight by default. Straight is the presumption, that has to be rebutted. How do we rebut it? By having sex. Hmm.
So what we’re saying, I suppose, is that people are straight until they have a same sex experience. You can’t have an abstinent gay person. And I suppose it would be problematic to require straight people to have sex to prove their straightness, because, well, if you fall into a certain religious group, they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place until they’re married. Queers can’t get married, so they might as well go have sex? Oh, I don’t even know.
Thinking back, I realise that I encountered this attitude quite a lot when I was younger. I said I was bisexual (which is how I identified till I was 21 or so) and people would say oh, okay, that’s great, well you don’t really know until you’ve tried it, but good luck! Even people who were completely okay with LGBT folks, my family included, would put it that way. This may have been because I very aggressively tried to be cool as a kid, and cool included being girly and boycrazy, so I seemed rather obviously straight, but even so, I think all this really does is encourages kids to go out and have sex to prove you wrong (whether they’re ready or not). Now that I’m older, people assume that, because I say “I’m a lesbian,” that I’m sexually experienced with women. The fact is that I’m not really, mainly because of timing (my one serious relationship with a girl was in high school) and the fact that I’m very picky about relationships and enjoy being single, so I’m less experienced than some people my age. I don’t really mind that assumption so much, but I think that in general it’s a good rule of thumb not to assume. Sex and sexuality are obviously related, but there’s no correlation between sexuality and how much sex you have.
Just food for thought.
To celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, instead of doing a post I offer you two items of possible interest. The first is an article that ran today in Le Monde, which I have translated for you. The original text in French appears here. Keep in mind that I am not a translator by profession, and I did this quickly without editing. It should be accurate, but if it reads a little stilted it’s because I only translated directly, instead of doing a “smoothing over” after the fact. The article is an interview with Daniel Borillo, and it caught my eye because I used an essay of Borillo’s on gay parenting in France for my seminar paper. Fellow history enthusiasts may find it especially interesting. The second item is the text of my high school graduation speech, delivered in 2003 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Interview with Daniel Borillo: “The battle against homophobia is worldwide”
Since 2005, the International Day Against Homophobia has taken place each year, on the 17th of May. One of the objectives of this day is the decriminalization of homosexuality throughout the world. What regions are currently the most affected by the legal prohibition of homosexual practices?
There are, in the world, more countries that impose sanctions on homosexuality than countries that celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia! Homosexuality is penalized today, often in a very brutal fashion, in more than eighty countries.
In most of them, Islam is the official religion, to which we add the secular states like Tunisia, and the Islamist regimes like the Sudan. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, in Mauritania, and in Nigeria. Homosexuals risk a life sentence in Uganda, in India, and in Singapore.
The Qu’ran isn’t more homophobic than the Bible, but in the countries of the Christian tradition, the action of the secular movements has allowed a weakening of religious power.
What is unfortunate is that, in these countries, the initiatives of civil society are immediately censured. In 2004, a very important website of information on the prevention of AIDS, gaymiddleeast.com, was thusly blocked by the Saudi authorities, which has had dramatic consequences for the diffusion of the epidemic. In this country the Islamists, who have pressured the governments to a virulent homophobia, are greatly responsible, but the society as a whole also participates in persecution in rejecting homosexuals.
You have shown, in a critical anthology that pulls together the writings of more than fifty authors, that the West has itself for a long time considered homosexuality a sin, seen as a crime. What were the successive faces of this stigmatisation?
In Europe, the victory of Christianity constituted the first step in a long persecution of homosexuals. In 313, under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became a state religion, and in 390, under the Emperor Theodoseus I, the punishment for sodomy was death by burning. Homosexuals were then persecuted as sodomites, and in a systematic manner from the end of the thirteenth century.
These peresecutions, which culminated in the setting in motion of a veritable Inquisition at the European level, also targeted Jews and witches, but homosexuals have long had the sad privilege of being pursued as sinners, as sick persons and as criminals. After the Inquisition, the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi regime constitutes the most tragic chapter in the history of homophobia. The Central Office of the Reich for Combatting Homosexuality, created by Himmler, took part from the beginning in the arrest, imprisonment, deportation, and death of tens of thousands of homosexuals.
Finally, until the end of the 1970s, homosexuality was, in one way or the other, punished in all the European countries: legal sanctions, police repression, jurisprudential practices.
It wasn’t until the decision of the European Court in Strasbourg, in 1981, that the repression of homosexuality among consenting adults was judged contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
These persecutions contrast with the practices of antiquity, which tolerated, even valued, certain forms of homosexuality. How do you explain that these cultures did not recognize what we today call homophobia?
Greco-roman antiquity basked in a climate of tolerance with regard to homoeroticism, but homosexual practices were very coded. The sole form of accepted homosexuality was pederasty, that is to say relations initiated between a young man who was to have public responsibilities and an aristocratic adult man. This was due to the fact that this profoundly misogynistic society strongly condemned the assumption by any free man – Roman or Greek – of the passive role, that is to say his behaving sexually like a woman. But this didn’t apply to a young man – who was in a relationship of apprenticeship to masculinity – or a slave – who was in a socially inferior situation.
It is then the active-passive dichotomy, and not the homosexual-heterosexual one, that determined the sexual morality of the ancients. In France, how was the calling into question of Christian heritage accomplished?
This was accomplished thanks to the veritable political and cultural revolution that the liberal thought of the eighteenth century, which pronounced the distinction between private and public life and the protection of the individual against the interference of political power, created. For the liberal philosophers such as Condorcet and Bentham, an act that didn’t cause any harm to others, such as homosexuality between consenting adults, could be morally condemnable but didn’t merit any penal or civil sanction. Later, the Industrial Revolution and the migration of populations into the cities permitted homosexuals to distance themselves from the rigid social structures of the countryside. Free from the familial constraints of rural life, homosexuals could assume their sexuality more freely.
Did the AIDS epidemic, starting in the 1980s, play a role in the growing consciousness of the discrimination experienced by homosexuals?
We often say that the AIDS virus is “intelligent” because of its manner of transmission, which makes fighting it medically very difficult. I like to say that the virus had “intelligence” to appear at the moment when the gay and lesbian movement took a structure. Until then, all epidemics on this scale were handled by classic mechanisms of imprisonment and exclusion of the sick. What is extraordinary with AIDS, is that the epidemic was handled, in the West, in a liberal and democratic manner, thanks to the individual awareness of responsibility among the infected and the partnership between associations and public powers.
This wasn’t obvious: in the case of AIDS, homosexual practices became dangerous and society could have taken on an attitude of growing hostility. But the existence of an organized gay movement showed that exclusion, instability, and isolation aggravated both the medical situation of the sick and the social problems that confronted this community. In spite of its dramatic dimension, AIDS did more for equality than all the previous mobilisations.
It is at that moment that society became conscious of the fact that a man who had lived for years with his sick companion wouldn’t be recognized by the hospital authorities and that he would be expelled the next day from their communal housing. It is thus due to the political mobilization around AIDS that one can enter into a PACS.
Has Europe in its many forms (the Brussels Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Court at Strasbourg) participated in this movement for decriminalization of homosexuality, followed by the penalization of homophobia?
The Council of European and the European Parliament were pioneers in the fight for equality. These supranational bodies allowed for a change in perspective: in twenty years, Europe has replaced criminalization of homosexuality with penalization of homophobia. I often cite Sartre, who was asked about the Jewish question and responded, “There is no Jewish question; the real question is anti-Semitism.” For homosexuality, it is the same thing: the question, today, in Europe, is no longer homosexuality, but homophobia. Homosexuality is no longer a sin, a mental illness, or a crime. What is a problem for democracy is intolerance towards homosexuality.
What are today, in your eyes, the discriminations that persist in France with regard to homosexuals?
France lacks a real policy on the prevention of homophobia in the schools and in the education of police and judges, but the discrimination principle is written into the law: it is the refusal of gay parenting and marriage between couples of the same sex. For me, this demand doesn’t deny the difference between the sexes: it is freedom and equality, not masculine and feminine, that constitute the democratic values. I just read a UNICEF report that affirms that twenty million children in the world today are orphans: I said to myself that what is urgent is to welcome these children into families, and not to debate the difference between the sexes, as the opponents of equality do.
In the past decade, several European countries such as Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands have opened marriage and filiation to couples of the same sex. Do you believe that this evolution is “inevitable,” using Luc Ferry’s word?
History doesn’t make itself: it is made, day after day, by social movements. If the gay and lesbian movement continues its struggle, yes, this change in legislation will be inevitable. France will join with Spain, where marriage is authorized and where homosexuality has become commonplace, this is the ideal situation.
But one must distrust the rhetoric of the mobilizers, because the gains are always fragile: the examples of yesterday’s Poland of the Kaczynski brothers or of Italy under Berlusconi today show that steps backward are always possible.
Raleigh Charter High School Graduation Speech, May 2003
Over spring break this year, I went to Key West to visit my family. One day I was riding my aunt’s spare bike to the Eckerd’s to get some film developed, and while I was unlocking the bike from a rack in front of the store, a woman walked by me. She looked fairly old, her face was very wrinkled, and she was wearing overalls and ratty sneakers. When she passed, she said “hello, sister.” Immediately, my guard went up. Was the woman homeless? Or perhaps mentally handicapped? Thinking I had misheard, I looked up and asked, “sorry?” She stopped and said, “I said hello, sister. You’re my sister, because I believe we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.” She paused, and unsure of what to do, I just looked at her. “You may not believe it, but that’s what I believe,” she said. I still couldn’t think of the appropriate response, and she continued on her way. As I rode back to my aunt’s condominium, I thought about the encounter with some guilt. I do, after all, consider myself a Christian in some respects, and I like the thought that we are all brothers and sisters. It demands a certain amount of love and respect for one another that seems lacking in the world today. However, I couldn’t just show my agreement, smile, and move on. I had to start churning out assumptions. Is she homeless? Is she insane? Am I in danger? This sort of experience is troubling, and I’m not the only one who has done something of the kind.
I have no doubt that the students at our school are kind and respectful, and that many would go out of their way to help someone in need. However, there is a mindset that many of us carry around that says, whether we admit it or not, that those who are different need to be “fixed” in some way. We are not comfortable around them, and we may not feel safe. It is easier to just be politically correct and stand for broad concepts like being against racism, sexism, and homophobia, than it is to actually accept and affirm someone whose thoughts or actions differ from our own.
College will be a place where intellectual and other kinds of diversity are celebrated, and where thought that differs from the norm is encouraged. However, it can be easy not to question the little things we do that reject other people, and to lock ourselves into an “it’s okay, my neighbor did it too” mentality. This is why it’s best to challenge yourself not just in the classroom, but throughout all parts of your life. Are you unconsciously more likely to associate with someone or agree with them because of factors beyond their control? Do you do unkind things without thinking about them, just because they seem acceptable? Are you unlikely to go against the grain and really think when someone asks you a question? Do you challenge yourself to answer truthfully no matter what other people think?
The other day, I was eating lunch with Ms. Solomon when Agnes came in for help with a speech on character for the NHS induction. Ms. Solomon gave her a piece of advice that really resounded with me. Those who have character are not always the most recognized people, or the ones you hear about. They aren’t necessarily the people who wind up in the statistics. People with character are those who only one person, or perhaps no one at all might recognize, but they are those who feel good about themselves because they have done the right thing, whether or not it was the easiest.
Last month, Caitlyn Meuse, a 16-year-old student in Massachusetts, was hit in the head with a baseball bat after participating in her school’s Day of Silence.
A few months ago, two gay men were murdered in their home by a man who also bombed an abortion clinic and a synagogue. His sentence could be as little as 23 years in prison.
Between 1994 and 1995, 1,459 hate crimes were committed. 95% of the perpetrators acted alone; obviously the hate they felt is something that pervades our society, not just isolated groups. Most of the perpetrators did not feel they did anything wrong.
9,271 hate crimes were committed in this country in 2001 alone. 4,367 were committed on the basis of race, 2,098 on the basis of ethnicity, 1,828 on the basis of religion, 1,393 on the basis of sexual orientation, and 35 because of bias against a person with a disability.
In June 2001 a 32-year-old member of a white supremacist group punched a 16-year-old black teenager in the mouth after seeing him with a white young woman, saying that he should only associate with black women.
You probably just said in your head about at least one of these cases, “that’s wrong” or, “that can’t be possible in this day and age.” Yet, despite how much statistics and stories like these affect us, it is the people who encourage and cultivate diversity that fail to get the most recognition, not unlike those with general good character. It takes courage to defeat the internal assumptions about other people that are founded on culture, upbringing, and history – not on logic. These comments, gestures, and attitudes towards other human beings are what keeps the culture that breeds stereotypes self-sustaining. Yet if you can think about these assumptions and consciously try not to submit to them, you will be all the better for it.
If you think about it, you will probably be able to recall an incident in which someone made an assumption about you based on some extenuating factor. Perhaps someone laughed at your southern accent once, or assumed you wouldn’t want to join in a basketball game because of your height. Everyone makes assumptions, and everyone is the victim of them. However, I believe this class can do something to improve this troubling social climate. It doesn’t take much to change an attitude, or think before you say something damaging to another person. If just the few hundred of us in this room try to challenge one assumption tomorrow, to give one smile to a stranger or to carefully consider one person’s viewpoint, I believe we will be making a big step towards improvement.
If you want to make a difference after graduating here, and be a citizen of a truly better world, be just a little more aware of who’s around you. Think before speaking, and challenge your assumptions. You may not feel like any big hero, but you will be able to live with a clear conscience and a knowledge that you’ve done what was right.