[Marxism] The National Equality March: A New Generation of Protesters

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 14 07:07:16 MDT 2009

Intellectual Affairs
New Civil Rights Movement
October 14, 2009
By Scott McLemee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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