Op-eds written by Yasmin Nair
India’s Delhi High Court recently issued a ruling about Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code July 2, marking a historic day for the country’s LGBTQ population. For over a century, S. 377 codified the prohibition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” It should be noted that S. 377 has not been overturned; it has been “read down” so that consensual homosexual sex is no longer criminalized. The law still applies to “non-consensual penile non-vaginal sex and penile non-vaginal sex involving minors.”
This is a triumphant day for India’s myriad queer activists who have been working on this case for nearly a decade, not an uncommon length of time in a country whose judicial system still bears an eerie resemblance to that found in the pages of Dickens’s Bleak House. Yet, there is already evidence of the ruling being appropriated into a rapidly growing and problematic discourse about a “global gay” identity. Specifically, the landmark case is being hailed as “India’s Stonewall.”
It may be natural to transmit the verdict’s importance in terms that are legible across borders. But calling the 377 ruling “India’s Stonewall” assumes an unchanging and ahistorical gay reality across time and place, where all gay struggles are the same and achieve the same logical goals. And, in the process, we erase the realities of both Stonewall and 377.
This ruling is not India’s Stonewall because Stonewall isn’t quite the Stonewall we would like it to be. That’s not to take away from its importance but to emphasize that Stonewall was a symptom, not the culmination or the spark, of a long history of explosive moments that includes the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco. Both events involved mostly trans people, poorer queers, and people of color who were fed up of continual police harassment. Today, as we mark the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, the history of the state’s continuing brutality over the disenfranchised is being erased. Most of this June’s celebrations of Stonewall made it seem like the originary moment that sparked a “revolution” moving towards the eventuality of gay marriage.
The 377 ruling is the culmination of a long legal battle, and it comes from a vastly different political terrain. I spoke to Svati Shah, Assistant Professor of gender and sexuality at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who is also a queer South Asian and an activist with the South Asian Solidarity Initiative and Youth Solidarity Summer, both left/progressive activist spaces. Shah, who identifies as a “feminist queer secularist,” pointed out that the reading down of 377 came about in a country that boasts of two Communist Parties, both of which have women’s wings. Many of the members of India’s queer movement have strong ties to the Left in India. In addition, she said, India is home to a women’s movement that is not as fully entrenched in the non-profit industrial complex as the women’s movement in the U.S. “not funded, and have the political latitude to say and do things on the edge. They are, for example, more free to complicate the notion of a liberal model of sexuality, [the kind that rests upon the strict distinction between private and public], and have built strong alliances with queer and trans movements.”
In contrast, LGBTQ struggles in the U.S have been deradicalized in favor of a liberal human rights discourse that prioritises individualized desires over coalitional movement building. Gone are the collective struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, when gay and lesbian activists emerged from and with labour and feminist struggles. Gone are the days of early AIDS activism when queers fought for health care alongside the uninsured. In its place is a notion of “gay rights” focused on individuals seeking to affirm their private relationships in the eyes of the law.
Lastly, the question of class is crucial to 377. The ruling comes about in a country where the struggles of queers cannot be separated from the realities of class and poverty in a country of over a billion.
You cannot avoid class in India the way we avoid it in the U.S. In India, it’s impossible to make poverty disappear by coining euphemisms like “the working poor,” or by building shelters to make the homeless invisible at night. India’s poverty is brutal, grinding, and hits you in the face every time you step out of your door. Indian queer activists are not all fully engaged with class issues. The anthology Because I have a Voice, edited by Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain, features accounts by Indian queers who write about the difficulties of working across class boundaries. The stigmas attached to poverty and “lower” class identities mean that English-speaking and upper class queers might refuse to work with or live in buildings where poorer queers can be wilfully excluded.
Despite these issues, India’s queer activists have built strong coalitions across class and caste boundaries to reach this moment, and queers everywhere should rejoice at the dismantling of yet another absurd law that criminalizes us. In terms of struggle and solidarity, the 377 ruling is ours. But it also has its own contexts and pathways, and we would be remiss if we made too much of it being “our” history.
Note added June 24, 2009, on The Bilerico Project: Readers of this post are strongly advised to look closely at the date of publication.
As regular readers of Bilerico know, I’ve written a lot of posts critical of gay marriage. I’ve received a great deal of criticism for my views and my knee-jerk, pseudo-lefty, wanna-be-feminist knee-jerk response has always been to sneer at them in disdain.
But, recently, I’ve been rethinking my views on gay marriage. A lot of commenters have made excellent points. For instance, one reminded me that “there are also LGBT community members fighting for economic justice within their communities of color,” and that single fact blew me away. Even as a person of color, I had never thought about those connections. And yet another put it succinctly: “We are just as good as anyone else and deserve the same rights as all citizens.” Of course, I thought, we are as good as anyone else. Surely we too deserve marriage.
And thinking along those lines, I began to wonder: what was really keeping me from fighting for gay marriage? What was my resistance really about? I’ve spent the last few weeks mulling over those questions and the result has been a drastic shift in my perspective. I have decided to come out for gay marriage. But first, I wanted to share the reason for my prior resistance to marriage.
I’m single. And I hate it. I’ve never been able to admit that to anyone, but there it is. The fact is that everything about the single life is repulsive to me. All those meaningless one-night stands, all those days of networking and, no pun intended, single-minded focus on my career -- all of that was eating me up from the inside. But over the years, because I’ve found it so hard to find anyone to even date me, I’ve cast myself as someone who doesn’t care and who criticises what I insisted was society’s undue emphasis on coupledom. All the while, I have secretly longed to find and be with my one true love and leave this ugly life of singledom behind in the dark where it belongs.
But, of course, what would be the point of finding that love if society won’t recognise my newly exalted status? It’s not enough to have my love valued in the eyes of God (I’ve also found Christianity) and my friends. That relationship is nothing if it’s not valued by the State and if I can’t have the 1000+ benefits I deserve. Only marriage will provide that for me.
Marriage would also give me health care. I’ve been falsely trumpeting the benefits of universal health care but, let’s face it, that’s not coming any time soon. More importantly, universal health care is simply UN-AMERICAN. This is the land of free enterprise and we are rewarded for our hard work, for pulling ourselves up by our own shoelaces. Or putting on our own shoes. Whatever. You get my point. Only two kinds of people deserve health care: People who can demonstrate their commitment to each other, and hard-working people with jobs that give them health care.
I support gay marriage because marriage is the only way for a civilised society to recognise and reward those citizens who do the right thing: work hard, love with commitment, contribute to their communities, and make this country better and stronger with every passing day.
I support gay marriage because I cannot wait for the day when my love will be recognised by the power of the State. I have turned my back on the hideous, meaningless hedonism of single life and can only pray to my new-found God that all my single and so-called radical queer friends will also find their way to this blessed state. And on that note, I should also add that I no longer use the q-word: I am now simply and solely a lesbian.
I support gay marriage because I know marriage will make me a better person, a better citizen, more loving, more kind, more just, and a better and more productive member of my community. I haven’t yet found anyone to marry, but I know that my efforts to find the One Of My Dreams have been blocked by the negative energy I’ve carried around with me all these years. My quest to be whole is now unimpeded by my false anti-gay marriage politics. Eventually, I know, I will find Her: a sweet, loving lesbian who works for HRC, with excellent benefits, perfect teeth, and a shining, happy outlook on life. Together, we will adopt children from a third world country and give thanks each day for the joys of our union.
“Lunch-bucket Joe.” The term's being used to describe Joe Biden, and it emerges breathlessly from the lips of Democrats thrilled at having found someone who can, supposedly, represent the working-class stiff whose vote once seemed locked in favor of Hillary Clinton. That would be Clinton of the “Sisterhood of the traveling (raw silk) pantsuits,” the millionaire who downed shots to demonstrate her connection to the boys in the working class.
On the Republican side, we have the spectacle of John McCain, who can’t remember how many houses he owns, at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in a checked shirt and a baseball cap declaring that he prefers the sound of 150 Harleys to the applause of Berliners (after Obama’s overseas tour). John McCain, biker dude.
Obama, who has the temerity to speak well in English, is being criticized for not being folksy enough in his speeches. In a recent New York Timesop-ed, Roger Cohen reports standing next to a man at a January rally who kept correcting the candidate's use of “isn’t”: “Ain’t right, Barack, ain’t right.”
So here we are. Forty-six million Americans are uninsured, and 37.3 million live in poverty. And our biggest concern about the Presidential candidates is whether or not they can speak authentically like, and to, the “average Joe.”
This is class in drag. Our sentimentality about the “working class” allows us to forget the depth of the inequality we face. To speak of the “working class” allows us to forget that many of are just plain poor. Class categories have always been fictitious signposts on the highway to a vaunted class mobility, the kind that allows us to imagine ourselves as different from snooty Europeans or caste-bound Asians. Ironically, most of those dubbed “lunch-bucket Joes,” would probably rather see themselves as “middle-class.” But nobody identifies themselves as poor, despite ample evidence that poverty is on the rise.
When we argue about which candidate speaks for the working man, we're conveniently forgetting that only the elites can afford to run for office these days. Sadly, it’s the conservative George Will who put it precisely when he said, and I paraphrase, that Americans ought to stop being sentimental about being ruled by elites and simply ask themselves which elites might rule.
To speak of the “lunch-bucket crowd” is just one more way to distance ourselves from the realities of inequality. The figure of the working-class man can be taken up with impunity by men like Biden who’ve spent most of their lives in the privileged halls of power. It haunts a candidate like Obama, who must prove that he’s not black like Jesse Jackson but can talk like a working-class white man.
Will we ever get beyond our sentimental attachment to a caricature of the lunch-bucket Joes and actually address the issue of inequality? It ain’t gonna happen -- unless we realize that allowing Washington elites to dress up as the “rest of us” under the guise of effecting change is as bad as the “rest of us” forgetting that we're often actually poor.
Gay groups are up in arms about the induction of James Dobson into the National Radio Hall of Fame (NRHOF) at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Dobson heads the anti-gay and archconservative ministry known as Focus on the Family. Groups like Truth Wins Out (TWO) are calling for the induction to be rescinded.
I don’t care for James Dobson. I grew up, in a fashion, in Indiana, where his type abounds, and I learned the useful trick of tuning out fundamentalists. So the recent fracas over Dobson’s induction is a good reminder of the anti-gay poison he spreads. But I’m baffled about this call to rescind his induction.
Dobson isn’t being honored for his anti-gay message. He’s being honored for having “distinguished himself at the national level,” according to Bruce DuMont’s letter to Windy City Times. The vague wording indicates the nature of the institution. There’s a reason why it’s not called the Hall of Noteworthy Work and Clear and Discernible Influence. A Hall of fame, by its very nature, can do no more than reflect the politics and temperament of its nominating and voting body at a given period of time. A lot of amazing people get nominated to Halls of Fame, and just as many are questionable. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began in 1986, but only got around to inducting the seminal Velvet Underground in 1996. The Velvet Underground, people. Don’t even get me started on that one.
Even institutions that are ostensibly about judging quality come up with odd results. Take, for instance, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, where nearly 6000 voting members decide on categories like Best Picture. The results are still inconsistent: crap like Titanic, a gem like No Country for Old Men. If you think that my opinions are subjective, you’re right. Why pretend that judgments about the value of someone’s work are strictly apolitical and impartial?
Such institutions usually have complex sets of rules that we may or may not agree with, and which may still not give us the desired results. But consider the opposite scenario. An anti-war lefty broadcaster gets inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Right-wingers cry foul and that person’s induction is rescinded.
Why should we stoop to that level, especially when we have more significant work to do? Why not simply continue to focus our valuable time and resources on exposing Dobson’s politics? If people have issues with the nomination and election process of NRHOF, make those points clearly but be prepared: there will always be nominees we don’t like. Let’s not go down the dangerously slippery slope of telling people that a collective vote should be cancelled. Or have we already forgotten what it’s like to have the results of an election overturned?
The recent California decision on gay marriage fills me with dread—dread at the schlock I know is awaiting me during this Pride month and afterwards; dread about hearing all the triumphant rhetoric about “equality;” and dread that queers are going to speak about marriage as some kind of dream fulfilled. Again.
Because, of course, marriage will solve all our problems. No health care? Get married! Laid off? Get married! Struggling to pay bills and survive another month? Get married! Don”t believe in marriage or that marriage should be the only way to gain health care and other benefits? Suck it up and start believing!
We queers have a unique ability to forget about the after—as in: what happens after “marriage equality”? Will our workplaces be better? Will we be less vulnerable to layoffs? Will our unmarried friends and neighbors have health insurance? Will the lives of our married but uninsured friends and neighbors be any better with the legalization of gay marriage?
These questions preoccupied me as I watched the “gay movement” take up a cause in a cynical bid to further the idea that gay marriage/gay coupledom matters above all: immigration. In this year’s Chicago May Day march, gay groups joined together to form an official queer contingent.
Watching and talking to several of the key organizers of the contingent, I was struck by the great differences between queers who claimed to fight for immigration and queers who are themselves queer immigrants. For queer immigrants, immigration had to do with the rights of the undocumented. Many of them have friends and families who couldn’t attend the march without consequences in their workplaces, and who faced deportation after recent raids. This year’s march focused on the legalization of the undocumented and workers” rights.
To be fair, many non-immigrants, especially younger queers, understood the key issues. But others were fixated on an issue that has nothing to do with the undocumented and even less with workers’ rights: binational couples. According to them, gay couples should be able to sponsor their partners for immigration like married heterosexuals. In fact, this does nothing for the undocumented—citizenship via marriage is only available to the documented.
Somehow, the rights of the undocumented have become conflated with the “marriage rights/gay couples matter more than others” movement. Queer organizers insisted that their situation—as queers whose relationships aren’t recognized by the state (because, apparently, only marriage can legitimize a relationship) —was equal to that of the undocumented. Never mind the fact that none of them faced the harrowing issues of the undocumented.
That willingness to usurp any cause in order to further a narrow agenda is typical of those who’ve militantly organized over gay marriage over the last decade or so. We’ve allowed the loudest among us to pretend that queerness is somehow separable from the issues that affect us. We have labored over the delusion that queer love and attachment matter more than the central issue of labor—which literally organizes our daily lives.
This blindness is apparent in the way that some of us use the issue of asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation. This is a necessary cause—we know too much about the very real violence faced by queers in parts of the world to ignore their need to leave their home countries.
But there’s a lot that’s skewed in the discourse about anti-gay violence in “other” parts of the world. For one thing, we’re not exactly a shining beacon of perfection. Even more troublingly, we ignore the economic and political circumstances surrounding anti-gay violence and persecution. For the most part, the most horrendous (reported) situations occur in countries in the global south whose economies have been wrecked by the neoliberal machinations of the developed world.
So while it’s compassionate to insist that that queers need refuge in the West on account of the persecution they face, it’s short-sighted to assume that asylum is the perfect solution. What concerns me is that we rush to paint all those other countries as universally hostile to queers without understanding the larger contexts in which that violence is bred. That’s not to excuse hostility and violence; it’s to ask that we consider how our ignoring of those contexts keeps alive the conditions of global inequality and horrendous labor conditions that oppress large numbers of non-queers as well.
Do we understand the lives of persecuted queers alongside the lives of non-queers who are brutalized, physically and economically, but have no recourse to asylum? Do we understand that queers leave their non-queer families and friends behind when they apply for asylum, often unwillingly? And that those left behind must often resort to entering the U.S as cheap and exploited labor?
Whether it’s gay marriage or queer immigration, we have to understand that queers are more than the sum of their romantic relationships. We have no right to take on the cause of immigration without understanding the issues faced by immigrants themselves. And we can’t delude ourselves into believing that love will conquer the problems with labor.
Jennifer Baumgardner, otherwise known as the woman who came up with the “I had an abortion” T-shirt, recently unveiled her latest creation. This time, her T-shirt’s image is of an open safe, with the words “I was raped” delicately scrawled across a note. (April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.) The message is obvious: Rape is a secret for too many people and they need to open up about it. According to Baumgardner, the shirt allows victims “to own that experience and divest themselves of some of the shame and secrecy of it—and realize that they’re not the ones that should be ashamed.”
We could argue about whether or not rape is still a deeply shameful experience. That’s not an unimportant question, but focusing on whether or not our cultural and legal attitudes towards rape have changed only blinds us to the fact that the T-shirt renders rape in terms of affect and understanding. It does nothing more than ask for pity for the wearer who has carried the burden of a secret.
By focusing on rape as an intensely privatized experience, we miss the fact that rape is a tool of political and economic coercion, mostly suffered by bodies with neither the resources nor the inclination to wear their experiences on T-shirts. In a time of war, rape is the first weapon of dominance visited upon the conquered. But this use of rape is hardly restricted to war zones.
Take, for instance, the issue of prisoner rape. According to the Bureau of Justice, as noted by the group Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), “more than 6, 500 inmates in adult prisons filed reports of sexual violence in 2006 alone.” A significant portion of these are youth and/or LGBTQ youth.
There is, of course, a danger that drawing such distinctions creates hierarchies of opprerssion. Even if the people raped in prison are criminals who had themselves raped others, we shouldn’t classify them as deserving victims of rape. And yet, we’ve grown indifferent to and naturalized the fact that prison rape has become a de facto method of maintaining control over inmates who will probably spend their entire lives in prison because of draconian sentencing laws that inflict longer sentences for even minor crimes. They will always live within the informal and brutal sexual economy of prison time.
In short, rape has become the unacknowledged weapon of choice within mechanisms of war and systems of incarceration. The text and imagery of the rape T-shirt separates the act from the political and economic realities in which it occurs.
And what are we to do with those among us who wear these T-shirts to announce their experiences? If someone has to wear a T-shirt to “own” an experience, that’s a sign he or she lacks access to professionalized care. Let’s not kid ourselves that all we need to do hold hands with each other in order to help victims of rape. People respond differently to different forms of sexual assault and need different kinds of help. Are we to collectively take rape-counseling classes to help the wearers cope?
The T-shirt proves that the personal is not political. Instead, the personal now stands in for the political. People who are raped don’t need another T-shirt. They need medical care—free and easily accessible—that helps them to deal with the physical harm they’ve endured. They need a system of justice that doesn’t criminalize them, and lawyers to help them through the system.
Instead, the T-shirt puts the onus upon the wearer to create a system of ‘ownership’ and recovery. It also creates an emotional climate around rape, the sort that furthers the notion that we not only know how to help the victims, but how to punish the criminals. It’s no surprise that there’s also a T-shirt that declares, “Dead men don’t rape.” We have privatized victimhood and are now privatizing criminalization.
Ultimately, the T-shirt creates a shamanistic aura around the raped, assuming that they have privileged access to experience. It operates on the assumption that nothing that the non-raped might say to grapple with the complexities of rape can equal the wearer’s rape.
Let me put it this way: If I told you that I was raped, would you read this column differently? Would you be more or less willing to validate my critique and analysis? Why?
Thomas Beatie, a transgender man who has retained his female reproductive organs and is six months pregnant, recently appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Let me be clear at the outset: I support Beatie’s decision. I also think it’s remarkably brave of him to be public about his decision. It takes a lot to be out as a transgender person, even in famously liberal Oregon, but to be a pregnant man in public goes beyond the pale. Sure, I could have done without all the gendered rhetoric, as when his wife said, “He’s going to be the father; I’m going to be the mother. It doesn’t change how I feel about him as the husband.” This will be a family with a father who gives birth to his child. But this will not, apparently, be a feminist family.
Everything has changed with Beatie’s pregnancy in terms of our ideas about what gendered bodies can do. However, nothing has changed in terms of the context in which reproduction and child-rearing are carried out today.
In Beatie’s own words on the Oprah show: “Different is normal.” In a piece for The Advocate, he wrote, “ … our situation ultimately will ask everyone to embrace the gamut of human possibility and to define for themselves what is normal.”
He’s right. And that’s the problem.
Beatie’s words, and the coverage so far, imply that reconfiguring our sense of what is normal, in favor of its former opposite—the supposedly abnormal or deviant—is all that’s required to make fundamental changes in society.
Reproduction is part of the language in which we discuss changes in society, whether in terms of the freedom granted by birth control or in terms of the restriction of abortion rights. Lately, we’ve been obsessed with the seemingly endless expansion of child-bearing capabilities, marveling at grandmothers who give birth to more offspring. The Beaties used purchased sperm, and that sort of intensive and expensive reproduction technology is hailed as miraculous even though it’s strictly a matter of science. But the language of miracle-creation also obfuscates the embodied realities that face transgender people and/or people who raise children.
The Beaties clearly enjoy middle-class privilege: they’ve run a successful business; have accrued enough in savings to go into seclusion for a while; and his recent book deal is probably quite lucrative. But hormone therapies and surgeries remain expensive for most transgender people, who often also have to battle employment and housing discrimination—which, in turn, can lead them to commit survival crimes and end up in incarceration.
Just as importantly, while birthing seems easier for some, rearing children is an entirely different matter. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, “[ a ] bout 39 percent of the nation’s children—nearly 29 million in 2006—live in families with low-incomes, that is, incomes below twice the official poverty level ( for 2008, about $42,000 for a family of four ).” Add to that our failing public schools and a lack of health care, and the situation for the children of the underprivileged is even more dire. A 2006 UNICEF report on child well-being in 21 wealthy nations ranked the United States as the second worst (after the United Kingdom) in children’s quality of life.
So, yes, Beatie’s pregnancy does expand “the gamut of human possibility.” But it does so while reinscribing the transgender body within terms of bourgeois respectability. And yes, potentially, from now on, a larger number of people can bear children. But we ought not to lose sight of the fact that fewer people today can afford to raise the children they bear or adopt with everything they need.
On January 8, The Washington Times reported that Mike Huckabee supported amending the constitution so that children born in the US to “illegal aliens” could not automatically become American citizens. On January 9, the same paper reported Huckabee’s denial that he supported any such measure.
Those of us who identify as Liberal, Progressive, or Left might be tempted to dismiss this as the usual blather from the Right. We consider ourselves infinitely superior on the topic of humane immigration laws. But what do we really understand as substantive and significant immigration reform? On January 21, 2009, immigration will once again become a divisive issue. Where will queers stand in relation to the immigration reform movement? Where will the immigration reform movement stand in relation to the queer community?
Why are the interests of the two groups seen as incommensurable with each other?
When it comes to immigration, a lot of queer energy is being spent on the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which benefits bi-national couples (where one partner is a citizen/permanent resident and the other a foreign national). The UAFA would make it possible for U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex “permanent partners” for immigration, something that straights can already do. Groups like HRC and Immigration Equality have decided that UAFA is the single most important piece of immigration legislation that matters to queers. But what’re the real issues in immigration? And why is that the queer community and queer organisers aren’t motivated to act on immigration reform except when it comes to the narrow self-interest of queers? Who benefits from the UAFA? More importantly: Who suffers?
As I’ve written in a piece on changing the paradigms of queer immigration and in previous articles on marriage and immigration and the UAFA, the immigration crisis is about labour. We want cheap and easily exploited labour to bring us our cheap and plentiful orange juice and we also want the “right kind” of immigrants -- those who’re “qualified” and able to become “contributing citizens.” As if immigrant day labourers, for instance, are nothing but cankers on society, waiting in the wings to “take American jobs” from hard-working citizens. The UAFA isolates queers from the workforce – defining queers as simply “permanent partners” in “committed relationships,” as if queers aren’t ever workers in any capacity and can only be reduced to their roles as mates for life. But if we’re being asked, as a community, to mobilise around this “cause,” we ought to ask how it connects to larger immigration reform.
The UAFA is mired in the concept of “family reunification,” the idea that people should be able to sponsor their spouses/partners and children for immigration. But, as Eithne Luibhéid shows in her revealing book, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border, family reunification has always been about exclusion, not inclusion. It has always privileged particular types of families (heteropatriarchal, with the father determined as the bread-winner); has kept out specific ethnic groups (“Asiatics” as opposed to Europeans); and controlled women’s sexuality (female spouses were closely examined for any signs of moral deviation and fixed in their roles as wives). Family reunification law requires that the sponsoring partner can support dependents at 125% above the mandated poverty line. That cuts a lot of people out of the picture. And families considered undesirable are treated as less than human. Consider, for instance, this Counterpunch report about the euphemistically named T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, where nearly 200 children of immigrants awaiting deportation hearings are forced to live in subhuman conditions with the threat of separation from their parents.
Many binational couples live in anxiety and spend a lot of their scarce resources devising ways to stay with their partners; not all of them have the money and resource to fly back and forth between countries. But stories like the one about the Pfizer executive living with his Brazilian partner in London reinforce the idea of class privilege and mobility. These people, we’re implicitly reassured, are good and stable, the kind we’d want living next door to us. The UAFA would not help undocumented couples, or even the undocumented partners of citizens.
And then there’s the dramatic language used by so many proponents of UAFA, about “going into exile” or, even more contradictorily, “self-exile.” Yeah. Right. Pablo Neruda. Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And some guy who’s able to relocate to Toronto to be with his partner. You’re forced into exile, a political condition, when your life is in danger. Relocating and/or moving between two countries can be difficult and taxing but that, my friends, is not exile. That’s mobility.
And what does the privilege of sponsorship really mean for straight people, especially women whose dependence on their husbands’ sponsorship leaves them vulnerable to spousal abuse? What about people like Aalimah, a lesbian trapped in a heterosexual marriage who’s trying to get out of a desperate situation? H-4 status, which is what you get as a dependent spouse, means that you don’t get a social security number and can’t apply for jobs. The Hindu has reported on the widespread abuse of women on H-4 visas, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think that queers are incapable of such abuse. And then, of course, there’s the fact that H1-B visa holders are themselves prone to exploitation by their employers, who can force them to endure terrible working conditions under threat of cancelling their visas. All of which is to say that family reunification/partner sponsorship does nothing to get at the underlying problems with immigration legislation.
Given its troubling history, it’s time for the Left to rethink our support for family reunification. And for queers to question the UAFA. The Right has dubbed family reunification “chain migration” in order to play on our worst fears about hordes of invading “aliens.” But the fact that the Right is against something does not mean that the Left needs to automatically support it (the Left, has, in recent years, mostly defined itself in response to the Right. As opposed to devising a truly Left agenda. But I digress; that’s a post for another day).
Queer organising used to be dismantling economic structures of privilege and redefining structures of kinship in ways that straights have since embraced. Somewhere along the way, we – or rather, the increasingly powerful gay organisations that speak for us and articulate “our” agenda – have decided that we want to expand, not destroy, privilege. Instead of fighting for basic rights for everyone.
So what do we support, as queers and as people who’d like to see real immigration reform? Being critical of the UAFA isn’t about hostility towards binational couples but about questioning the value of organising around a concept and legislation that does nothing to change or even shift the problematic paradigms around which immigration legislation is built. In my article, I ask readers to question their gay groups about their long-term support for immigration reform. But do I really believe that we should depend on them, or that they’ll actually adhere to any promises they might make about a long-term commitment to the issue, once the UAFA is passed? No. The solution lies not with gay groups but with queers figuring out and asking hard questions of ourselves. The ENDA fracas showed us that it’s dangerous to let a major gay organisation like HRC establish itself as the voice of the community. When it comes to immigration reform and to politics in general, we queers have so far tended to substitute affect for any substantive call for economic and political change. We have depoliticised politics.
If we remove affect from immigration reform, it becomes clear that concepts like “family” and “permanent partnership” only distract us from the real issue of exploited labour and the privileging of certain classes of people (doctors and lawyers over day workers). But consider what would happen if we demanded something as simple as dropping the dependency requirements and enabling spouses/partners to come here as people with economic rights – such as applying for jobs and getting social security numbers. That alone would mean looking at everyone, not just “workers,” as self-sustaining individuals with rights, not as dependents. Now consider allowing undocumented people without families, who don’t want to get married in order to stay, to petition for themselves as self-sustaining workers. That, along with reform of the labour laws so that workers, whether day workers or H1-Bs, aren’t exploited, is no more complicated or onerous than the current system of sponsorship. Defining immigrants as people with economic rights instead of as dependents would make for fairness. And that, not marriage and not “permanent partnerships,” is what truly gives immigrants, straight and queer, the same rights as citizens. In contrast, the UAFA threatens to take us back fifty years, to a time of social relationships defined by dependency.
In 2005, the gay press reported that two men were hanged for consensual sexual relations on July 19 in the town of Mashad, Iran. The story that they had been punished for being lovers was especially propagated by writer Doug Ireland on his blog.
This year, an assortment of groups backed by leaders of the “global gay community” like Peter Tatchell declared that July 19 would be “The International Day of Action against Homophobic Persecution in Iran.”
Commemorations were to include worldwide protests, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was among the sponsors. Significantly, Al Fateha, the biggest queer Muslim organization in the U.S., did not endorse the protest. But there was widespread dissent among queers about the politics of the event, and IGLHRC eventually withdrew its support. Instead, with HRW, it organized a community forum that conflicted with the protest outside the Iranian embassy in New York.
The flurry of acronyms hides the fact that the criticism came from individuals like me as well as organizations. What follows is an account of how radical and progressive queers expressed and mobilized dissent against this event. It details the extent to which so-called Leftist gay leaders are willing to use the strategies of the Right. The story reveals that the trouble with the putative fight against homophobic oppression is that it draws upon conflicting impulses of solidarity and imperialism. In the rush towards establishing a transcendent global gay identity, there may not be much difference between the two.
Despite the claims of organizers that they wanted to work in solidarity with Iranian and other oppressed gays everywhere, I initiated a critique of the protest on the queerfist listserv ( www.queerfist.org ) that was taken up by others, and eventually suggested that dissenters contact sponsoring organizations to withdraw their support. We were wary of perpetuating a U.S.-led hostility towards a country that Bush once declared part of an “axis of evil.” The idea that the two men were gay lovers, not rapists or murderers, seemed the only basis of mobilizing the gay community’s outrage against the hangings.
But, I asked, why base a critique of the wanton use of the death penalty solely on the notion of innocence and the claim that the two were lovers? If they had been rapists and murderers, would that make the punishment more acceptable? In that case, this Day of Action was extremely limited in its understanding of social justice.
Critics also took issue with Doug Ireland’s claim that gay Muslims seek a “self-affirming gay identity.” They countered that not all gays subscribed to mainstream American notions of an exact match between sexual identity and practice. From Beirut, Daniel Drennan wrote a nuanced and incisive critique of Ireland’s positions. He was especially critical of the posture of rescue that the “West” tends to adopt in relation to the “East” and wrote, “Please give it a rest. We are very tired of the ongoing ‘interventions’ on our behalf.”
Ireland’s responses to criticism became increasingly more febrile, and he suggested that I was among the “sectarian apologists for the Islamic Republic of Iran.” I am not, and was shocked that someone who claimed leftist politics would use McCarthyesque tactics to smear his opponents. Finally, Ireland lost journalistic credibility with a single e-mail. He forwarded, without comment, a message from Jeff Edwards, a former member of the now-defunct Queer to the Left; we had been members. The message was a series of ad hominems and included a claim about my sex life ( I’m happy to forward a copy to anyone ) . But one comment stuck out “… she has never had to face what it means to be a homo.”
Ah, I thought. Yes, perhaps. After all, this whole out-queer-woman-of-color-with-a-noticeably-Muslim-name-in-a-post-9/11-world thing will only take a lifetime to negotiate. The next time I’m pulled aside for a “random search,” I’ll remember my relatively privileged position vis-à-vis white gay men like Ireland, click my heels Dorothy-style and chant “I’m no homo” three times in the hopes of being whisked away to Kansas. Where I will be stared at and denied service because of the color of my skin. Which will never compare to being a homo.
I don’t, of course, believe in a hierarchy of oppressions. My point from the start had been that we could not argue against a horrible action against gay men without and outside of relevant contexts—such as global politics and gender oppression—in Iran and the U.S. Yet, here was Ireland attempting to silence me on the grounds that my supposed non-homo-ness and my gender made my critique irrelevant. Posting an e-mail about my sex life was a weak attempt to discredit and, presumably, shame me. It made him no different from right-wing ideologues who ferret out salacious details about opponents in order to shut them up. Ann Coulter, meet Doug Ireland.
Unable to counter my political critique, he proved that there were no sustainable politics of social justice behind the protest. The event’s success depended on manipulating the emotions of people who will only support a ‘gay’ action if the principals involved led unimpeachable and beautiful gay lives of love and romance. As Long pointed out, organizers of the protest never offered a plan for action that could utilize the energy of the event. Ireland revealed himself as a megalomaniac whose feverish blogging indicates a talent gone awry in the pursuit of narratives of persecution, real or imagined. His constant proximity to the computer screen bears an inverse relationship to his distance from reality.
What does this tell us about queer politics and the contemporary gay movement? We’re so used to thinking that anything LGBTQ is automatically a progressive cause that we have yet to develop a language of dissent among ourselves. A truly progressive movement could absorb and integrate points of critique without deflating into meaningless ad hominems. There can be no doubt that people are repressed, brutalized and killed in many parts of the world, including the U.S., on account of their gender and/or sexuality. But rushing blindly into projects of rescue benefits no one and, as Long and others indicate, the Iran fracas may eventually do more harm than good to the situation of Iranian queers whose accounts are clouded by suspicions of their authenticity.
We are bound to hear more stories like the one in Mashad. It’s difficult for individuals not to sympathize, but it’s worth asking hard questions about not just the stories but our motivations for rescue. Who tells the story? Who else can corroborate it? What do we really want to gain from endorsing actions on behalf of those oppressed? Is it likely that our need to save others might be motivated by a hope of being glorified by them as their saviors?
Yet, it’s difficult for most of us as individuals to stand by and watch atrocities and not respond in some way. I don’t endorse the idea that only organizations should do the work of research and negotiation on our behalf, given their uneven politics on most issues. IGLHRC’s flip-flopping on the Iran protest is hardly commendable. And most gay organizations endorse gay marriage and hate-crimes legislation; neither cause is part of progressive politics. In a perfect world, the work of individual activists and thinkers and rational and even-handed journalists could serve as a counterbalance to the work of organizations. The problem is not that we lack the resources but that radical queer organizing tends to become invisible and unintelligible amidst the cacophony raised by the Gay Right and by organizations that have too much clout and dictate what the “community” should stand for. An even bigger problem is that we haven’t yet come to grips with what we define as a radical or progressive vision in relation to the “gay/homo” agenda.
Queers stood by uneasily as the Gay Movement moved rightwards in its quest for the status quo, most notably around the issue of gay marriage. Proponents of Gay Marriage (PGMs) and most gay organizations can not move beyond asking for acceptance into the mainstream. They are too wedded to the principle of asking for equality. Such rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that the claim for equality rests on the idea that all queers equally want the same thing. As the gay marriage movement demonstrates, the principle of equality is only another way of asking for the status quo. So, for instance, gay marriage supporters argue that gays should be able to marry in order to gain healthcare benefits. Their insistence that this is somehow part of a liberal/progressive gay agenda has taken real healthcare reform off the radar of progressive organizing. PGMs have yet to articulate a larger vision for social justice that includes healthcare and benefits for all, not just couples.
It’s time to be blunt about the pitfalls of gay marriage. The fight for gay marriage directly contributes to inequality in America. It takes away resources from pressing social concerns and it assumes that only people in coupled relationships are of any consequence. PGMs have even hijacked the immigration rights movement by arguing that the queer partners of citizens should gain a quicker path to citizenship on the grounds of ‘life-long commitment’ and ‘financial interdependence.’ [INSERT CFS] This is unfair to single immigrants; considers them unworthy of any recognition; and reinforces antiquated and heteronormative patterns of relationships.
All of these struggles over the status quo reinforce simplistic ideas about who gets to be “gay” or “homo” enough to warrant attention. A gay movement without an expansive notion of queer social justice is doomed to failure. The Iran fracas demonstrates that conservatives among us will always attempt to define our politics by a singular notion of gay and that only gay lives defined by sexual practice and identity are worth noting.
If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If a lesbian goes through life without a partner, is she never a lesbian?
The dissent over the Iran protests signals the end of the Gay Movement as we know it. In its place lies the potential for a more critically self-aware and nuanced queer movement that goes beyond affirming the status quo. It’s time for supporters of gay marriage to end our specious call for equality and seek an end to inequality.
What does immigration mean for queers? A heterosexual U.S. citizen/permanent resident (c/pr) can sponsor a spouse for immigration; a queer U.S. c/pr can’t sponsor a partner. The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) seeks to reverse this by substituting the phrase ‘permanent partner’ wherever the word ‘spouse’ appears in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
UAFA’s heavily supported by groups like Immigration Equality (IE) and Out 4 Immigration (O4I) , even though it’s not part of a comprehensive immigration reform agenda and is meaningless for undocumented partners.
In February, Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) released Queers and Immigration: A Vision Statement. I worked on it with Debanuj DasGupta, QEJ’s immigration policy analyst and others, including an IE staff member, Adam Francoeur. Among other things, the statement connects the issues of LGBTQ immigrants, documented and undocumented, to the exploitation of labor that led to the immigration crisis. After a series of intense discussions, language about families and UAFA was included in order to reflect the different groups working on the document. It was sent to a wider group of organizations; over 50 groups signed on but O4I did not sign it (interestingly, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force did not, either). To our surprise, IE first signed then took its name off at a very late stage.
Why did two major gay immigration groups not sign on to this document? Why do they support UAFA but not a statement that situates queer immigrant issues in a larger framework of, well, immigration? In trying to answer these questions I interviewed some key people, including Michael Lim at O4I. Francoeur did not respond to a request for an interview.
UAFA’s supporters emphasize “family reunification,” long a cornerstone of U.S. immigration law. But recent Republican immigration reform proposals favor a merit-based system and would greatly diminish the extent to which immigrants can sponsor family members. Democrats now accuse their opposition of lacking family values.
But is “family” necessarily part of a progressive reform agenda? DasGupta, explaining why QEJ never originally focused on family or the UAFA, points out that the emphasis on families benefits a neoliberal free-market based economy, where the responsibility for essentials like healthcare is shifted from the state to individuals. Indeed, immigration rights advocates often separate the family from the dynamics of labor.
Media coverage of “the immigrant family” portrays nurturing environments filled with the scent of home-cooked food and the love of extended family. This ignores patterns of domestic violence and incest within families (immigrant or not) and ignores the violence from deportation units.
Ignoring such realities, UAFA’s supporters position the interests of bi-national couples in opposition to immigrants, prioritizing the needs of U.S. citizens. O4I quotes an American veteran, Jim Carrozo, who asks emphatically, “Why should I, a gay U.S. citizen with a foreign partner be forced to leave my country … while immigration reform would allow NON-U.S. citizens to come here?” [emphasis on the O4I Web site]
Perhaps UAFA’s supporters are just focused on a single issue. According to Lim, O4I’s board felt that there was too much in the vision statement that did not speak to the interest of queers. But surely it’s possible to have a more expansive sense of justice. Marta Donayre, co-founder of Love Sees No Borders and a co-writer on the QEJ statement, criticizes the narrow focus of gay immigrant groups and the fact that “[a]n immigrant is considered … only when an appendage of [an] American citizen.” Donayre is herself in a bi-national relationship, but her kind of critique is rarely heard from groups like IE or O4I.
The gay rights movement ignores the real meaning of inequality. Lim echoed a prevalent statement, “What differentiates LGBT people from non-LGBTs is … our sexual or gender identity. … There’s plenty of injustice to go around, but that does not go part and parcel with the inequality of LGBT people.” Economic inequality is ignored while the “inequality of LGBT people” becomes a way to gain privilege for U.S. citizens. But why should spouses/partners should be given immigration priority in the first place?
Positioning UAFA as the penultimate issue for gay immigrants depoliticizes the most political issue of the day. It’s clear that groups like IE and O4I actually see the bill as a vision statement, an affirmation of cozy gay family life. Conversely, they acted as if the QEJ vision statement was a binding piece of legislation.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t about which groups have signed on, but about what the dissent over signing on indicates about gay immigration politics. In all the brouhaha over UAFA, one salient fact has been ignored: the two prominent groups advocating for it are not predominantly immigrant groups. Their constituents are American citizens whose interest in immigration lies solely in the fact that their partners happen to be immigrants.
Gay groups shouldn’t call themselves pro-immigration groups if they’re primarily interested in furthering the interests of American citizens. As one fed-up immigration organizer said to me, “They’ve got to realize that this is about the needs and issues of all immigrants, not just the immigrants they fuck.”
Yasmin Nair is a member of QEJ’s Project Advisory Committee on immigration and CLIA ( Chicago LGBTQ Immigrant Alliance) , which will hold its second town hall on June 12, 2006 at Acme Art Works, 1741 N. Western, at 6-8 p.m.
“How long will it take?” I was talking directly to a hard hat perched on top of the head of a Chicago city worker. He looked up, shrugged, and replied with a mildly amused glint in his eyes, “Don’t know, ask them.” But I had in fact already asked each of “them,” a group of five men outside my Uptown apartment building. City insignia on their clothes lent them an air of authority as they milled around a giant hole in the pavement. The “it” in question was the entire process of turning off the neighborhood water supply, digging the hole, fixing some kind of “water problem,” turning on the water supply and then repaving the pavement.
In typical Chicago fashion, no one in our building had received a prior warning about the water being turned off. I had been unpleasantly surprised to find my taps dry when I returned from getting my paper early that morning. I was cat-sitting for friends and suffered an initial short panic about my feline guest dying of thirst. Realizing that she could do with a single bowl of water for the day, and that I lived in a city with ample resources (except, apparently, running water), I bought a bottle of water, poured it into her bowl and then contemplated what to do until “it” was done. Which, as far as I could tell, could be a day or weeks. Every one of the city workers had responded to my question in the same way, with a shrug and amusement that I would even think about asking how long a city job might take. The men gathered around the hole seemed to have nothing to do with the actual job (the hard hat did all the digging) but they stood and talked, confident about nothing more than the fact that “it” would take time. Who knew how long? Who really cared?
Facing deadlines, I made my way towards Andersonville with my ancient and heavy laptop in hand, loathing the idea of becoming the typical café denizen, the sort that sits at a table looking alternately industrious and contemplative. For me, writing is a solitary activity best done at home, close to the comfort of free food and tea. I don’t, while writing, seek the companionship of friends or strangers. So it was with some annoyance that I found myself in Café Boost looking for a plug point and a quiet spot.
Readers familiar with Chicago’s North Side cafés will remember the great “Kids and cafés” saga from 2005. Andersonville leapt to national attention because of a sign posted by Dan McCauley on the door of his restaurant Taste of Heaven: “Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven [TOH] .” McCauley claimed that this was to make sure parents controlled children who tended to run wild and disturb adult customers. The story made it to The New York Times, surprisingly igniting a national conversation about how parents should raise their children—or if they were even doing so in an age of “child-centered” policies and places. And occasionally, as the story wound its way through national and local news outlets and the blogosphere, it became one about the differences between parents and non-parents. McCauley is an out gay man so, to be specific, the story became one about straight people—“normal” child-rearing types—versus queers—who supposedly don’t have children to take care of.
It’s tempting to write something about the laughable fallacy of assuming that queers don’t have kids—especially given the hysteria with which pro-gay marriage people, straight or queer, go on endlessly about the sanctity of gay families. But readers are aware that I don’t think the family is a particularly precious unit to preserve and cherish. It’s also tempting to write something about yuppies taking over neighborhoods like Andersonville, which have seen gays migrating northwards from places like Boystown after having been gentrified out.
The popular myth about queers and gentrification is that we move into broken-down houses in equally broken-down neighborhoods and fix them up, making it possible for wealthier yuppies to eventually relocate into “our” neighborhoods, pushing us out in the process. This narrative erases the reality that marginal and “undesirable” neighborhoods are usually first inhabited by a city’s migrant workers and its poorest (who may or may not be queer—but nobody cares to run surveys among them) before being “discovered” by queers. And it ignores the fact that yuppies and suburbanites, the ones so many of us love to loathe, are in fact often wealthy gay men and women.
To some extent, the “Kids and cafés” story exemplifies traditional conflicts over ownership of a changing neighborhood. But at the end of the day, it’s really only about who in the neighborhood gets to pay for the privilege of paying about or over $10 for soup and a sandwich at a café—and nearly $20 if you include dessert and a drink. Despite all the talk about styles of parenting, of battles between yuppie gentrifiers and “original” residents, capitalists vs. bohemian artists—it all comes down to people fighting over the right to pay the kind of money that most of us living in the city can’t shell out too often.
I entered Boost for respite from dry taps sometime in 2000, when Taste of Heaven was still located further south, on Foster. Where Taste now stands once stood the old BC Tap Bar. Its eventual closing was mourned by the neighborhood and “Save BC Tap!” signs appeared on windows everywhere. It’s now hard to find an Andersonville resident who even remembers the old bar. Boost has also closed. In case I start to seem like Garrison Keillor in the city, let me be clear that this is not a call for nostalgia. My point is that gentrification is cast in the light of ownership (cultural and material) and sentimental memories of the “old days.” But, in the end, it’s about who can pay to live in a neighborhood and whose tax dollars count the most.
I returned that afternoon to find the water turned back on. The cat, showing no signs of dehydration, was curious about her next meal. The hole in the pavement was filled but never repaved. For years afterwards, people waiting for the bus there had to walk around or over a large mound of dirt until our collective weight slowly wore it down to a bare and rough patch level with the ground. My building was once firmly in Uptown. Two years ago, Andersonville crept southwards to where I live and staked out its territory with a black, faux cast iron lamp-post and a flag with that neighborhood’s name planted to the right of the nearest crossing, making me feel utterly colonized. But on the other side of the crossing stands an old green Chicago city lamppost, its light long missing. I’ve called 311, but no one has bothered to replace it. Who knows how long that will take? Until my area is completely gentrified, who really cares?
Recently, Haworth Press cancelled its anthology Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, edited by Beert C. Verstraete and Vernon Provencal. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the decision came after the press received 20 letters of complaint from readers of worldnetdaily.com (WND). This extreme right-wing Web site routinely condemns homosexuality and supports reparative therapy. Focusing on Dr. Bruce Rind’s “Pederasty: An Integration of Cross-Cultural, Cross-Species, and Empirical Data,” WND, on the strength of a 187-word abstract, implied that Rind was endorsing “rampant child molestation.” The press succumbed to the sensationalistic and willful misrepresentation of the book, instead of standing by the research of scholars who have cumulatively written about sexuality for decades.
Haworth will now publish the volume without Rind’s essay, which is to appear in The Journal of Homosexuality, along with responses to the controversy. On the face of it, this seems like a scholarly tempest in a teacup, and it’s easy to laugh off WND as the misbegotten intellectual progeny of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger. But this issue has serious ramifications for our ability to have an honest discussion about children and sexuality and about sex, period. Haworth’s initial and craven capitulation and the firestorm it set off gives us the opportunity to revisit the history of terms like “sexual abuse” and “pedophilia” that have been thrown around.
Pederasty and pedophilia have been topics of debate in works about gay and straight history, given long-standing traditions of intergenerational sex between and among men and women. The right uses that fact to condemn all queers, particularly gay men, as predators of children. Haworth vice president Kathryn Rutz furthered the incendiary conflation of terms: “For the record, we do not in any way support or endorse the practice of pedophilia, pederasty, or any form of child abuse.” To study the historical import of pedophilia or pederasty is not the same as practicing child abuse.
Some of that history involves Rind”s earlier work. In a 1998 article, he and co-authors argued for a re-evaluation of the term “child sexual abuse” (CSA) . They acknowledged the circumstances in which sexual encounters between children and adults might indeed be harmful and abusive. But they also reported that many of their subjects experienced sex with adults as positive experiences. In part, Rind et. al. sought to initiate a discussion about the concept of the “child,” a term that suffers from extreme malleability. Depending on the state and the circumstances, the legal age of a “child” varies enormously and that can have serious consequences for anyone suspected of sexual relations with or desire for “underage” people.
Images of children’s bodies are fraught with contradictions. It’s apparently all right for us to watch toddlers wiggle and twirl as mini-adults at pageants and talent shows. But anyone who takes a picture of their children naked in the tub (imagine, naked, while bathing!) and tries to develop it at a photo store stands a good chance of being jailed and separated from them forever. That kind of hypocrisy and hysteria led to Rind’s essay becoming the focus of a campaign led by conservative groups like NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) and the Family Research Council. The uproar led to Congress’s censure of the essay despite an independent academic panel’s support of the methodology used. Haworth showed a similar willingness to dismiss scholarly work at the instigation of those who are least qualified to judge it. And they legitimized the ravings of those who have a vested interest in literally eradicating homosexuality.
There remains, of course, the emotional resonance of terms and concepts like CSA, especially for those who have actually experienced physical and sexual abuse as children. Combine that with the fact that the appearance of standing up for children is the easiest way for politicians to get votes and you have the heady sensationalistic brew that is the extreme paranoia around children’s sexuality.
Feminism helped to end the silence around topics like incest and sexual abuse, making it easier for people to speak out. Today, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction to the extent that we care less about protecting children and more about increasing the scope of the prison industrial system so that it effectively forms a virtual jail around those convicted as “sex offenders.” Bill Andriette points out that those convicted become “guinea pigs for technologies of biometric and electronic surveillance-and-tracking that increasingly, under the guise of fighting terror, are rolled out for everyone.”
Anyone labeled a sex offender, pedophile, or pederast is sentenced to a lifetime of surveillance, barred from many occupations, and from living where they choose. This does not reduce the sexual coercion of children behind closed doors by relatives and family, and it prevents us from any meaningful discussion about consent. The stigmatization of groups like NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) which have asked for conversations about the age of consent means that we drive forms of desire inwards and underground.
We fail to remember that someone who knows beforehand that their desire, legitimate or not, will cause them to lose everything is more likely to act upon it with a desperate sense that they have, in a sense, nothing to lose. Eventually, those who do suffer from sexual damage have a lot to lose as well. A system that sees “predators” as beyond repair and thrusts them to the outermost regions of society also deeply pathologizes the “victims.” We assume that those who experience abuse are forever damaged individuals and that we must exact the greatest revenge on their behalf.
Years ago, a woman matter-of-factly told me and others about the sexual coercion she endured in nearly every one of her foster homes. But whenever someone asked what she would have changed about her life, her response was “Nothing.” Because, as she put it, she wouldn’t be who she was without what happened — and she rather liked herself. That’s not to claim that children/adults should experience sexual abuse as a rite of passage or as a life-affirming experience. But it does illustrate that we need to move beyond the monolithic idea that people respond in exactly the same way to abuse, however we define it. The conflation of pedophilia and pederasty with child molestation prevents us from considering a range of ways of responses and effects of sex between adults.
Why should queers worry about either the Haworth issue or those punished for sex with “minors” (the term is as malleable as “child”)? The contemporary “gay movement” insists that gays are second-class citizens because they cannot marry. But it has nothing to say about the gay and straight men who are routinely and unfairly apprehended for public sex. It ignores the fact that such surveillance and that of “sex offenders” is also a policing of gay desire. As Andriette points out, a “sex offender” on parole can be put back in jail just for reading Best Gay Short Stories. We are determined to prove that we are not only as good as straight parents and spouses but infinitely better. To that end, we’ve repudiated our sexuality and anything that hints of “deviant” sexual practices.
But how long can we carry the burden of exceptionalism? If there is ever a story about gay incest, or gay child abuse, the backlash will guarantee that we lose every one of our supposed gains and we will have hung everything on the tenuous concept of the “equality” of marriage rights. Gay marriage proponents argue that marriage will guarantee our rights to adopt and keep children. Really? Straight parents have their children taken away all the time, for the simplest acts like photographing their children in the nude. We may lose a lot more if we don’t speak up for the rights of those most vulnerable amongst us.
The gay community’s silence around the Haworth press issue repudiates or at least rewrites sexual history. It’s not just that gay history has recorded intergenerational sex as a formative social influence. Queers know that our understanding of sexual and gender identity comes about through a complicated nexus of secrecy and knowledge, and in affiliations with people who are sometimes simultaneously our intellectual and sexual mentors.
But the problem with the current discussion around “adult-child” relationships is that we are conditioned to think that sex with an older person is traumatic. We talk more about sex these days and mistakenly believe that talking about the sex lives of desperate housewives or queer fashionistas means that we think about sex in more interesting ways, but the truth is the opposite. The more we discuss sex, the less we think and talk out loud about complicated questions about power and consent, secrecy and knowledge.
We’re dealing with questions about children’s sexuality by making them paradoxically invisible in our representations of them. We image them as sexless creatures of fantasy, with pixelated blue patches where their genitals should be. Conversations about children’s sexual bodies and lives may be more difficult than censoring thought and speech and throwing people in jail for the rest of their lives, but they’re absolutely necessary if we want to do more than reiterate narratives about “trauma” and “abuse.”
Haworth’s decision to separate Rind’s essay is unsatisfactory because it implies that his work is outside the pale of “normal” research. Even now, Haworth distances itself from its own authors by not keeping the abstracts on its Web site. Instead, these can be found on the website of International Pedophile and Child Emancipation (IPCE), an organization. Once in print, it’s likely Rind’s essay will be relegated to the “Special Collection” areas of libraries and that anyone asking for it might be suspected of being a potential molester. I want to read Rind’s essay as part of legitimate sexual research, not divorced from it.
Ask yourself if you would like the simple privilege of talking and thinking out loud about matters which affect us so deeply. Write now to Haworth Press, objecting to its capitulation on this matter. And maybe next time, the right will hesitate to assume such victories.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) recently released its annual report on violence against gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. The group reports a 4% increase in anti-GLBT incidents, totaling 1,792. A press statement about the report issued by the Michigan-based Triangle Foundation declared that there has been a “toxic climate” against gays in the last year. The report itself addresses the Right’s “open warfare against all that they hold in contempt, including and especially the LGBT community.”
With language like this, it’s easy to believe that queers are in a state of siege, surrounded by hatred, that utterly unquantifiable emotion. But we ought to stop and think carefully about this concept of hate and where it takes us. Reports like this one seem to only detail the facts about incidents of violence. But the truth is that the apparently simple concept of hate violence/crimes (the idea that some crimes are motivated by hatred towards specific groups) in fact leads directly to hate crime legislation which in turn has insidious effects on the justice system.
To designate a crime as one motivated by hate means to implicitly ask that the penalty be substantially higher. Penalty enhancement leads to absurdly greater levels of punishment and even the death penalty. My own report on the Daniel Fetty case shows how even the possibility that a crime was “hateful” can be used to bring the death penalty to the table even when the legislation is not in place. And surely state-sponsored murder is among the most violent acts in society.
Moreover, “hate” is as unstable and illogical a legal concept as it is an emotion. Determining what counts as an act of violence against GLBTQs or a “hate crime” produces results that are often bizarre and at times even laughable.
One example of the former is this “case narrative” from the NCAVP report, which I quote in its entirety: “A 19 year-old man was bludgeoned to death with a pipe while standing on a corner in Queens(New York).” I see the horrific crime, but not why it’s included in a report about anti-gay violence. And there are laws on the books to punish murder. In another instance, a bar owner was found asphyxiated inside his establishment in Binghamton, New York. What are we to note here, besides the possibility that the victim was gay? And why are we not content to find the murderer and simply prosecute him or her for murder?
A Chicago incident from April 2004 sheds a different light on “hate crimes.” Mike Banko and Jeffrey Durbin reported being attacked by a group that included a woman who threatened them with a baseball bat and allegedly screamed that she would “take care of the faggots.” The investigation of the incident as a possible hate crime was dropped when the woman, Myrna Vazquez, turned out to be a lesbian; police then decided that the altercation resulted from “road rage.” The quick shift in this case, from hate to no hate, only shows how ludicrous and unreliable hate can be as a legal concept. Even if we took “hate” seriously: was it determined that a lesbian could simply not hate gay men because of her own identity? What if either man had called Vazquez a dyke? Would that be no less hateful? Would the two men have been punished for “hateful speech,” but only if they had been straight, just as Vazquez was to be punished for calling them faggots? Does threatening someone with a bat not constitute enough of a crime? Are we now to police thought and speech as well?
How do we measure hate? How do we decide what counts as a homophobic crime? And who ever committed a crime of violence out of love? None of these questions are answered by the incessant call on the part of anti-violence groups and “victim advocates” to record and register hate. The resulting rise in hate crimes legislation means a further curtailment of civil liberties. Post 9/11, we are faced with increased surveillance of our actions and speech. Tabulating and recording supposedly homophobic “hate” means that we LGBTQs are actually asking for an increase in the patrolling of thought and speech. Far from providing justice to all, laws based on “hate” confer special status to a few whose suffering is deemed worse than that of others. The concept of hate crimes and hate crime legislation can never be part of a progressive agenda for social justice. We need to get rid of both.
Recently, the Jamaican LGBT group J-Flag toured the U.S. and gave audiences an inkling of the intense homophobia facing queers on their island. J-Flag’s work is important, but its struggle is being linked to calls for more censorship. Working with J-Flag, the British gay-rights group OutRage claims a direct link between the deaths of Jamaican LGBTQs and the homophobic lyrics of reggae and dancehall singers like Beanie Man. Amnesty International, whose Sarah Green commented, “We are very concerned that hateful lyrics have helped to create a culture and atmosphere of violence,” takes a similar position.
But reggae and dancehall artists are convenient scapegoats. Jamaican laws criminalize gay sex and there are no legal protections for workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Silencing music does not address these social problems. And it’s one thing for Amnesty to ask the Jamaican government to bring attention to homophobia. It’s quite another for Amnesty and OutRage to censor what they deem to be offensive. Their actions affirm the economic and political power that Britain and the U.S. have over Jamaica and backfire by making officials resent outside interference.
In February, OutRage announced that it had reached an agreement with Jamaican reggae groups and their recording companies to ban future homophobic lyrics and public statements. The group’s Peter Tatchell said: “We hope this is the beginning of a new era in reggae music, where the artists rekindle the spirit of one love, peace, unity, brotherhood and social justice promoted by reggae pioneers like the legendary Bob Marley.” Would this be the same Bob Marley who sang “I shot the Sheriff?”
For over two decades, the International Monetary Fund has kept Jamaica in the grip of trade agreements that ensure high rates of poverty. Jamaica’s economic devastation is invisible to the tourists who spend weeks basking in its sunshine and sipping tropical drinks. For them, “Jamaica” is a paradise and its natives are happy island people without a care in the world.
There is a parallel between the fantasy of Jamaica and the fantasy of reggae being perpetuated by OutRage. Marley’s lyrics are isolated from their socially and politically charged contexts and he is frozen in time as the eternal colonialist fantasy of the Rasta Man.
Censorship cannot end homophobia. If censoring reggae seems like a good way to end homophobia, let’s remember Buster the bunny from the PBS show Postcards from Buster.” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings declared that the cartoon character’s visit to the children of two lesbians would “undermine” the quality of programming and offend “many parents.” PBS capitulated to the pressure and another moment of queer visibility was lost.
These two episodes might seem unrelated but the pressure to censor reggae is the same as that exerted upon television programming by those who find queers or queer subjects offensive. Censorship might stop the expression of unpopular ideas but it short-circuits real political change.
Vibrant art and music draw their strength from the willingness to be unpopular, unacceptable, and unpalatable. And then there are the moments of rage brought on by insipid work, proving that the urge to censor is not uncommon.
I regret never having taken an axe to the cows masquerading as public art throughout downtown Chicago in 1999. But who was I to dictate what others should not see? Take away anger, confusion, ambivalence, and calls for revolution and this is what we’re left with: banality, economic tyranny, and a lot of cows.
The last few weeks have seen a flurry of stories about the supposed rise in queer suicides, particularly by youth and young adults. But while the deaths are undoubtedly tragic, they are by no means unusual and have not increased in number; they are simply being reported on more often. The exact reasons why the press would, at this time, take such an interest in queer suicides are the subjects of a future piece. For now, I want to complicate the narratives and stories about queer youth that are being spun in the media and in our cultural discourse.
It is necessary to pay attention, as we have been doing, to why queer youth in particular are more than four times as likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. It is even more important to pay attention to how we deploy and even, on occasion, distort their reasons for doing so. Attempts to provide both reasons and solutions for the problem are often shamelessly manipulative and display a rank ignorance of the many multiple contexts in which queer youth live and die.
Take, for instance, the short but hyperbolic video by Sarah Silverman, where she says: "Dear America, When you tell gay Americans that they can't serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you're telling that to kids, too. So don't be fucking shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves … because they learned it from watching you."
Kathy Griffin takes this even further on a PSA for the Trevor Project where she says, "That's why it's so important that Prop 8 gets thrown out by the Supreme Court and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' gets repealed. Because right now the message the government is sending our young people is that it's unacceptable and inferior to be gay."
No. Those are not the reasons why queer children and youth kill themselves. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover killed himself in Massachusetts after being taunted, on a daily basis, for being gay. Walker-Hoover did not identify as gay. He lived in a state where gay marriage has been legal since 2004.
There are, of course, several instances of queer-identified youth killing themselves after being bullied on account of their sexuality. And, certainly, the extreme right's hostility to gay marriage or gays in the military does create a climate where there is at least a segment of society used to engaging in hateful rhetoric about queers.
But none of this justifies a logistical leap to the point of arguing that allowing gays to get married or join the army will somehow make people hate queers, or people they think of as queers, less. When a queer gets bashed, the basher isn't thinking, "I hope this person isn't the married kind because THEY would be all right." The issue facing us is not how to make the bigots love us, but the bigotry they express. Which is to say: twisting and turning gay marriage into a solution for queer suicides is an abhorrent tactic to bolster the cause of gay marriage, on which there is no consensus in the LGBTQ community. The simple truth is that people hate us and will cause us harm. They may hate us because they secretly see themselves in us and are terrified of what that means, or they may hate us simply because they see us as the evil to be wiped out. But they hate us and they will cause us harm. The fact that we might be able to marry will not make a bit of difference to such deep-seated hatred.
To say otherwise is to make a political point—and make no mistake, gay marriage is a political matter—and the Trevor Project, for which Griffin was acting as a spokesperson, has no business mixing politics into its messages about queer youth. When someone commits suicide because life as a queer or being perceived as a queer is so unbearable, it's not because they simply dream of being married someday. It's because their lives are living nightmares.
My 22-year-old friend Hans Anggraito probably put it best: "Just as anti-depression pills are being handed out like candy to people in my generation, gay marriage is offered as the magic bullet to solve all of our gay woes."
I have no doubt that, despite the problems with the Griffin PSA, the Trevor Project is doing vital and important work. But what of preventive measures before that happens? What are the conditions in which students live? For that we need to turn to local organizations staffed by local activists who understand the issues. More importantly, we need to understand that queerness is not all that defines these youth.
Chicago has the most militarised school district in the country and there is tremendous pressure on the schools' minority populations to join the army. The DREAM Act, which would give a chance at citizenship to undocumented youth brought here by their parents before the age of six, has a military option: students can enlist for two years in order to gain a path to citizenship. The districts' military schools already heavily recruit African-American and Latino/a students, building on a prevalent idea that students of color are more likely to need discipline that they supposedly lack in their families. In addition, military service is offered as an economic ladder, promising upward mobility to these students. Students also face tremendous violence in their school neighborhoods: In 2008, more than 500 schoolchildren were shot in Chicago.
When I raise these issues in relation to queer youth, I am often told that these are not queer-specific. But queer youth are also undocumented, at risk of being shot and live in a district where they are preyed upon by the aggressive recruiting tactics of the military. All of these circumstances are a result of the violence of the state, which promises liberation through the possibility of being killed but will not guarantee that students might go to school without the same possibility. Being harassed for being queer only compounds matters for these students.
There have been cases of undocumented youth committing suicide for fear of being deported. And surely it is also possible that some of the suicides we hear of come about because a combination of poverty and lack of support in schools. Yet, sociologists and cultural critics rarely acknowledge poverty as a cause of death while "sexual orientation/gender identity" is a cause that they find easy to grasp. When the undocumented are discovered to also be queer, the media focuses on the idea that they face the possibility of violence in their countries of origin, bolstering the myth that a state so violent as to refuse legitimacy to these youth can actually now provide protection from the presumed repression of another state. But students, like anyone else, do not live in vacuums where only their sexual identities define their existence. They are acted upon by multiple issues. More importantly, they are also capable of political will and agency. Would queer students want to join a military that will not allow them to serve openly? For that matter, would they even want to serve at all?
Students, queer or otherwise, participate in immigration rallies, sometimes under threat of being expelled. Youth of color enter Boystown only to be told by merchants and residents that they have no right to be there and that they make the neighborhood look too dangerous. They participate in anti-war marches. At a meeting organized by queer youth to address the ongoing problem of racism towards youth of color in Boystown, business owners spoke condescendingly about the lack of resources on the south side. One youth stood up and shot back words to this effect: "We do have places on the South Side, you just don't choose to fund them." Youth are not stupid, and they know when they're being lied to.
The point is that queer bullying cannot operate in a vacuum. A school that is hostile to queer youth is not likely to be safe for many of its other students. The logic that queer suicides have to do entirely with sexual identity erases the complicated realities of what it means to be an LGBT or queer youth, and it turns queer youth into apolitical people who just need to be rescued.
The current rise in the reports of queer youth suicides does not signify either an epidemic or a crisis. What we are witnessing is the ongoing reality of what it means to be queer in a world where we forego complicated, systemic analyses of our issues in favor of simplistic and sentimental rhetoric about love and bravery conquering all. The Trevor Project is a hotline, not a program. While it performs an important service, the long-term work of preventing these suicides in a systemic way can only happen if we consider queer youth as more than just queer. If we are to address the issue of queer suicides, we need to think long and hard about actually addressing the depth and complexity of the problem without resorting to magic pill arguments.