[Marxism] The National Equality March: A New Generation of Protesters
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 14 07:07:16 MDT 2009
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
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
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.
More information about the Marxism