Must read: ‘You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?’

If you’re on social media, I’m sure you saw the photograph of the two women who experienced a homophobic/misogynist hate crime in London being circulated last week. One of the women, Chris, has written a brilliant, deeply intersectional, piece in the Guardian, challenging the media discourse that centres white, cisgender “victims” and demanding that we care about all forms of homophobia and oppression. What a way to turn an awful experience, and an unwanted platform, into something powerful.

A refrain I’ve heard ad nauseum is “I can’t believe this happened – it’s 2019”. I disagree. This attack and the ensuing media circus are par for the course in 2019. In both my native United States and here in the United Kingdom, it always has been and still is open season on the bodies of (in no specific order) people of colour, indigenous people, transgender people, disabled people, queer people, poor people, women and migrants. I have evaded much of the violence and oppression imposed on so many others by our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system because of the privileges I enjoy by dint of my race, health, education, and conventional gender presentation. That has nothing to do with the merit of my character.

You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?

Act Up Oral History Project

For World Aids Day on the 1st December, the Act Up Oral History Project 

A collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York.

The purpose of this project is to present comprehensive, complex, human, collective, and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York. These men and women of all races and classes have transformed entrenched cultural ideas about homosexuality, sexuality, illness, health care, civil rights, art, media, and the rights of patients. They have achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing. These interviews reveal what has motivated them to action and how they have organized complex endeavors. We hope that this information will de-mystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made, and help us understand how to do it.

Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia (1995)

Rat Bohemia has a special place in my heart as the first lesbian novel that I read, excepting The Color Purple, which is more of a novel with lesbian themes than a lesbian novel per se.  I have no idea where I laid my hands on my copy because Schulman is not at all well known in the UK.  I think she’s one of our best lesbian writers, but the topics she explores don’t make for popularity.  Rat Bohemia sets out to make connections between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the heterosexual family.

The novel is definitely postmodern, but written in an accessible style. Schulman never overwrites and her deceptively simple, clear prose masks a complex, carefully thought out narrative structure.

Rat Bohemia is divided into four parts, each narrated by a different character. Like most of Schulman’s work, it’s set in a run-down, gothic New York.  And like much traditional Gothic fiction, the text is a patchwork of interlinked voices telling the story from different perspectives.  The first narrator, Rita Mae Weems, is a Jewish lesbian in her early thirties, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she works for Pest Control and is obsessed with New York’s rat problem.  Rita has never got over being thrown out of home at the age of 16 when her father caught her in bed with a girl called Claudia.  The second part is narrated by David, a gay Jewish writer and activist living with AIDS who is desperate for some acknowledgement and love from the family members who he feels are trying to kill him.  The third section is narrated by Rita’s best friend, Killer, a bohemian career plant-waterer who is involved in a passionate affair with the enigmatic Troy Ruby.  Along the way, there are other voices: Rita’s Cuban lover, Lourdes, successful closeted lesbian writer, Muriel Kay Starr, and David’s upper-middle class lawyer father.

Rat Bohemia is an angry novel about devastation, the devastation wrought not only by the AIDS crisis, but by society’s lack of adequate response to that crisis. Schulman locates the source of that deadly neglect in the family, daring to make connections between the Holocaust and American society’s ignoring, even cheering on, of the suffering and death of thousands of gay men in the 1980s.  The novel is a no holds barred critique of the family and its contribution to the suffering of queer people, and  Schulman is totally uncompromising in her representation of the way heterosexual families rationalise their cruelties to their queer members.

I remember when I first read it being struck by her point that heterosexual kids usually get some kind of parental cheerleading when they start to date, something that queer kids have to do without.  She doesn’t let heterosexual siblings off the hook, pointing out the ways they can take advantage of the situation.  This is a problem in the structure of the nuclear family, in which love is treated like booty to be parcelled out to members. She has no gratitude whatsoever for scraps of tolerance and ends the novel with the statement that every child deserves someone to be on their side and defend them.

There isn’t much light in this novel, though Schulman keeps it from being depressing with her warm, blackly humorous tone and her faith in friendship.  The only hope for us, she seems to say, is to be found in love and community between queer people.

This is still a radical book and I think I found it all the more powerful on re-reading.

The Straight Actors Playing LGBT People Film Fad

Recently we’ve seen a spate of straight, white, male actors receiving bravura reviews and lashings of award nominations for their performances as gay men in mainstream movies.   This is a tradition that goes back to Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Jonathan Demme’s reprehensible saintly-dead-queer-person film, Philadelphia (1993).   Since then we have seen Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Sean Penn in Milk (2008), Colin Firth and Matthew Goode in A Single Man (2009), and Jim Carey and Ewan McGregor in I Love you Philip Morris (2009).

Aside from Philadelphia, I’m happy to concede that these films all have merit, but it’s not their quality that concerns me here.   Perhaps I should be more grateful for the exposure they give to gay issues, but as I see these films being released and listen to heterosexual people telling me how moved they were by them (I cried and cried!!!), as a gay person I feel increasingly exploited by a phenomenon that feels like a fad for good-looking, straight, male actors to prove their acting metal (and win lots of awards) by being convincing at playing gay men, while the predominantly middle-class, heterosexual audience assuages its guilt about homophobia without actually doing anything useful at all.   And it seems that only white gay male experience is considered worth representing.

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The Assault on LGBT Children

A few weeks ago I read a post over at Rhetorically Speaking about the Daily Mail’s objections to the LGBT History Month currently being introduced in UK schools. The post made me so angry that I couldn’t immediately form a response, although I’ve been mulling my reaction over ever since.

Basically, The Mail implies that LGBT history month is “political correctness gone mad”: totally unnecessary and potentially harmful. The Mail objects to advice given to teachers because the project aims to teach children about sex and gender diversity and about famous gay people from history who’ve made positive contributions to society.

Ok, you might say, but why are you getting so upset about this stupid paper? Well it disturbs me because it taps into my own childhood experiences and I can’t help but see The Daily Mail as a proud representative of the larger assault on LGBTQ children which is still supported by so many people in society. To what assault do you refer? The assault of silence; the assault of denying us our identities and our histories; the assault of refusing to acknowledge everything LGBT history month sets out to acknowledge. The Daily Mail’s bad journalism represents all those “I don’t care if they’re gay as long as they never speak about it” people. It represents everyone who supports the status quo and contributes to the confusion, loneliness, alienation and outright danger still suffered by queer children in our society. It confirms the thinking of all those who think it is better that queer children suffer and perhaps even die than that they should acknowledge the legitimate existence of queer people.

If you’re a straight person reading this, try and imagine what it would have been like to grown up with no positive acknowledgement of your sexuality or sexual identity. LGBT history month certainly won’t solve everything but it’s a start and, for some children, it might provide a lifeline. As queer theorist Michael Warner observes, “Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual, and for some children this produces a profound and nameless estrangement a sense of inner secrets and hidden shame” (The Trouble with Normal 8).

There was a lot of good in my childhood, but I well remember the isolation, the nameless estrangement, alienation, depression, confusion and secretiveness which has characterised my own experience. To be sure, some children have nice, liberal parents who sit them down and explain that some people love people of the same-sex and that’s ok. But most of us don’t. Most of us still grow up expected to be straight with our parents afraid of even mentioning other possibilities, in case saying it makes it come true.

The idea that telling children about homosexuality will make them homosexual is one of the most insidious weapons of homophobic discourse. Silence won’t make your gay kids straight, but they probably will be more prone to depression, mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. Something like LGBT History month might have made a big difference to my own life. My upbringing, although non-normative in many respects, was certainly heteronormative. I grew up in a middle-class Roman Catholic family, initially in a rural area, later in a small town. At no point during my childhood was homosexuality mentioned in the home, nor was I made aware that there were any possibilities for desires or identifications outside the framework of heterosexual marriage. I couldn’t put any name to my sense of estrangement until I was about 9 and then it was not a good name. In a moment I still recall vividly, I was watching the film The Color Purple with my mother and at the moment when Shug and Celie kiss, the same moment I was thinking “Ah ha!” my mother exclaimed, “Oh, are they funny ladies?” I don’t know why she was asking me. At that moment I discovered three things: 1) The ladies were not Ha Ha funny 2) There was more going on in the world than they had been letting on 3) I identified with what I was seeing on screen more than with what I had so far understood to be sanctioned by my parents.

If we’d had LGBT history month in school I would have been taught about the existence of lesbians. It took me years to glean more information and often in guilty secret, because queerness is not nurtured or encouraged by even the most liberal of parents. It certainly did not occur to mine to entertain the possibility for one second. ‘Families’ says Gayle Rubin, quite rightly, ‘play a crucial role in enforcing sexual conformity’ (‘Thinking Sex,’ 22). This is not surprising because many families are simply too scared to do anything else. You will often come across arguments in favour of allowing gay people to adopt or have custody of their children on the basis that they won’t bring them up to be gay. Meanwhile, the morality of enforcing heterosexuality and strict gender norms on your children is rarely questioned.

I would ask people considering becoming parents what they would do to nurture an LGBTQ child, by which I also mean to nurture their queerness. Imagine encouraging your 14 year old gay son’s sexuality in the same way you would encourage your 14 your old heterosexual son. Imagine how you would be viewed as a parent! It doesn’t take long to realise in the current social climate it would be difficult and even perilous for parents to positively support their children’s queerness. Some queer theorists have argued that heteronormativity is a field of violence; they are right on many levels. We still have a very long way to go.

Homophobic Bullying

Disturbing article in the Guardian about homophobic bullying.

The victims’ stories are appalling and, apparently, the problem is on the increase. In 1988 more than 80% of schools were aware of such bullying taking place. Now, researchers reckon that 1 in 3 LGB kids experiences bullying, but only 6% of schools have anti-homophobic bullying policies in place. There is a perception that gay people in Britain are now more visible, more socially acceptable and better protected by the law.

But, Rivers says, “None of these messages has got through at a school level […] Homophobic bullying carries a particular menace because rarely does any young person want to admit to the nature of their abuse. Children who are victimized might not even be gay, or know they are, or have come out. They are unlikely to raise such a subject with teachers or parents. So they suffer in silence. And because it is so hidden, this type of bullying can have horrifying consequences. Something To Tell You, a study of lesbian and gay teenagers, showed that one in five had attempted suicide at least once (emphasis mine).

Schools will often claim that they can’t deal with the problem because the parents go berzerk if the school is seen to be soft on homosexuality. But Sue Sanders from the campaign group Schools Out argues “There is a massive myth that parents would be uncomfortable if we did this work to combat homophobic bullying, but it just isn’t the case,” she says. Most parents just want their children to be taught in a safe environment – and heterosexual kids are also prey to homophobic bullying.”

I’m not so convinced that parents in general would be comfortable with giving homosexuality the OK. Moreover, all these little homophobes are picking up a sense of tolerance for homophobia somewhere, and I don’t get the impression that very many families are having sit down talks with their kids about homosexuality and explaining why it’s wrong to attack people perceived to be gay.

Most of the campaigners interviewed recommend more educational programmes in schools. That’s great, but getting into schools to do anti-homophobic work is no easy matter and, furthermore, no one’s sure what can be done about the UK’s 7,000 faith based schools where homophobia is rather likely to be written into the school ethos. While I agree that more education is a good idea, personally, I don’t think we’re going to be able to fully tackle homophobic bullying until we acknowledge and talk about the very real social function which homophobia serves in our culture. Homphobia is not arbitrary, not some bizarre anomaly that comes from nowhere; the kids who bully are symptomatic of a society which has long depended on homophobia. Sanders hits the nail on the head when she notes that heterosexual kids are also subject to such bullying. Yes, of course they are, because for homophobia to work properly, it’s crucial that everyone feel at risk of becoming a victim.

In the words of the queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, homophobia is ‘a mechanism for regulating the behaviour of the many by the specific oppression of the few’ (Between Men, 88). Until we accept that homophobia is a weapon used to keep everyone sexually in line, we will not be able to deal with it adequately, not even with all the educational programmes in the world. It’s going to be incredibly hard to get people to lay down this particular weapon. Since admitting that homosexuality is not wrong means giving up enormous heterosexual privilege, we can’t expect society at large to let it go without a fight.