Tuesday, May 24, 2011

To assimilate is great--or is it?

For some time now a dispute has been simmering between two factions in the gay world (or as some would have it, the queer world). 

1) There is what is sometimes termed the gay-radical approach. Continuing the gay- liberation tradition that began with Stonewall in 1969, the proponents of this view strongly affirm gay and lesbian distinctiveness or exceptionalism.  These folks hold that the expressivity--sometimes extending to "outrageousness"--found in many g/l people is not simply a product of the long-standing obloquy and discrimination imposed by the host society. In no way are these traits to be dismissed as pathology. Instead, they serve to preserve a heritage that is vibrant and indispensable. For participants, the behavior functions as a survival mechanism. But that is not its only value. For its own good, society needs individuals who will shake things up from time to time.  That is our role, and it is a positive one. 

Harry Hay, the founder of the modern American gay movement, used to say that there is such a thing as a “gay window,” a particular way that homosexuals have of viewing things. This perspective stems from the fact that we must always seek to combine the way we perceive things with the standard opinions found in the larger society. (Hay was probably riffing on a similar thought W. E. B. Du Bois had voiced a hundred years ago about black people.)

2) Opposing this approach is the view of those observers who are sometimes labeled assimilationists: they hold that we are (or soon will be) just like everyone else. We must shun marginality, which is now dated and dysfunctional. As Andrew Sullivan put it, the ultimate goal of gay organizations is simply to disappear, once they have done their work.

Presently, I will cite Johann Hari, who puts the case for this second view more eloquently than I can--perhaps because I have difficulty signing off on it.

For some, the distinction between the two factions is encapsulated in the word "queer"--does one accept the q-word or reject it? Many who have embraced the term seem to understand it in sense no. 1, holding that it aptly characterizes the transgressive enterprise to which we must commit ourselves, body and soul. However, matters are not so straightforward, for the the queer concept also harbors assimilationist overtones. It points the way for us to merge into a larger entity, a great congress of outcasts, as it were. Yet the linkage may be even broader.  I remember once hearing Lisa Duggan say that everyone is queer, in the sense that we all have some eccentricity or personal distinctiveness.  It could be a oddity of speech or a mild phobia, but also some gift for performance and a way of doing things a little differently.

At all events the differences between the two factions have been well characterized by Johann Hari, a British gay journalist, in a piece published in the online magazine Slate a few days ago. (The paragraphs I am about to quote are from a review of a new book on Queer History in America by a Boston scholar, Michael Bronski, who is very much a supporter of the first position sketched above; Mr. Hari is not.) Here is Hari:

"My view—-since reading Andrew Sullivan's masterpiece "Virtually Normal" when I was a teenager—-is that the point of the gay rights struggle is to show that homosexuality is a trivial and meaningless difference. Gay people want what straight people want. I am the same as my heterosexual siblings in all meaningful ways, so I should be treated the same under the law, and accorded all public rights and responsibilities. The ultimate goal of the gay rights movement is to make homosexuality as uninteresting—and unworthy of comment—as left-handedness.

"That's not Bronski's view. As he has made more stridently clear in his previous books, he believes that gay people are essentially different from straight people. Why is his book called a "Queer History" and not a "Gay History"? It seems to be because the word "queer" is more marginal, more edgy, more challenging to ordinary Americans. He believes that while the persecution in this 500-year history was bad, the marginality was not. Gay people are marginal not because of persecution but because they have a historical cause—to challenge "how gender and sexuality are viewed in normative culture."

"Their role is to show that monogamy, and gender boundaries, and ideas like marriage throttle the free libidinal impulses of humanity. So instead of arguing for the right to get married, gay people should have been arguing for the abolition of marriage, monogamy, and much more besides. " 'Just like you' is not what all Americans want," Bronski writes. "Historically, 'just like you' is the great American lie." He swipes at the movement for gay marriage, and Sullivan in particular, as an elaborate revival of the old social purity movements—with the kicker that gays are doing it to themselves. (It's easy to forget that when Sullivan first made the case for gay marriage, his events were picketed by gay people spitting this argument into his face.)

"When Bronski argues this case, his prose—which is normally clear—becomes oddly murky and awkward, and he may not agree with every word of my summary: This is the best I can figure out his position. He does finally explicitly say that the gay movement should have fought instead to "eliminate" all concept of marriage under the law, a cause that would have kept gay people marginalized for centuries, if not forever. Of course some gay people hold revolutionary views against the social structures of marriage and the family—-and so do some straight people. But they are small minorities in both groups. If you want to set yourself against these trends in the culture, that's fine. Just don't equate it with your homosexuality. When Bronski suggests gay marriage "works against another unrealized American ideal: individual freedom and autonomy," he is bizarrely missing the point. Nobody is saying gay people have to get married—only that it should be a legal option if they want it. If you disagree with marriage, don't get married. Whose freedom does that restrict?

"It's bizarre that Bronski—-after a rousing historical rebuttal to the right-wing attempt to write gays out of American history-—ends up agreeing with Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann that gay people are inherently subversive and revolutionary, longing for the basic institutions of the heterosexual world to be torn down. There's a whole Gay Pride parade of people marching through Bronski's book who show it isn't so—from the residents of Merrymount proudly carrying their giant phallus, to Deborah Sampson Gannett dressed in her military uniform as Robert Shurtliff, to the men in Physique Pictorial in their little posing pouches. They didn't choose marginality and exclusion. They were forced onto the margins. It would be a betrayal of them—-not a fulfillment-—to choose to stay there, angrily raging, when American society is on the brink of letting them into its core institutions, on the basis of equality, at long last."

A curious feature of this debate is that advocates for both sides say that they are not trying to coerce anyone to do or be anything. They are simply asking that we each have the liberty to be true to our own nature.

I suppose that these libertarian claims are true, up to a point. Yet each side demonstrates, from time to time, a heavy dose of judgmentalism. Supporters of the distinctiveness view like to see themselves as brave outsiders who have the courage to know themselves and to chose to march to a different drummer, even though there may be, and often are, economic repercussions in the form of a reduced standard of living. These people like to portray their assimilationist opponents as sell-outs, cynics who have agreed to curtail their true natures in exchange for a "place at the table," the right to consume as much as they wish, and to bask in the plaudits of straight society. For their part, those who hold the second view, tend to see the supporters of gay exceptionalism as self-indulgent creatures who refuse to grow up. This resistance is seen in their opposition to, or indifference to gay marriage. In what may be a stereotype, the assimilationists cite the use of drugs in the first group as evidence of a flight from adult responsibility. So it happens that while neither side has the power to force the other to adopt its stance, they nonetheless seek to mobilize social pressures to move them in this direction.

Where, then, do I stand in this divide? My sense is that over many generations gay men and lesbians have built up a large store of cultural capital. This is manifested in works of fine art and literature, but also in the playful camp spirit manifested by many ordinary gay man and lesbians. In order to preserve this heritage we need gay archives, libraries, and museums. But ours is also a living tradition. Currently, I would estimate that there are at least twenty plays and musicals running in New York City that are strongly imbued with the gay sensibility.

That sensibility is real, and it must be preserved.



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