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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Next in my series on bland well-meaning platitudes with embedded fucked-up ideology (hopefully this time I won’t end up being called a whiny fascist bitch) is “born this way” and all it’s essentialist variants.

Except in this case it’s not so much about the idea that some people are born gay or straight or bi or whatever. While it doesn’t make much sense to me that gender is performative and gender identity is fluid, but what gender you’re attracted to is innate and fixed from birth, if that’s how you understand and experience your sexuality, who am I to say you’re wrong? In fact, I’m sure the “this is just who I am”/”baby I was born this way” epiphany is really important for some people, particularly those who had previously been trying to suppress or deny their desires.

The problem is, “born this way” has become the compulsory narrative for all queer people, and is aggressively policed by certain sections of the community (check out the reaction to Cynthia Nixon’s claim that she chose to be gay, for example). It’s a narrative that erases the experiences and identities of countless people.

Personally, I’ve never felt strongly that any sexuality particularly describes me. There was no eureka moment where I suddenly realised “this is what I’ve been all along”, more a gradual realisation that I was attracted to people not genders and that that’s ok. At various times I’ve identified as gay, straight and bi, but none of those really described me, and it’s caused me a lot of anxiety. Trying to choose from one of the pre-packaged identities on offer was quite a rough experience emotionally. Eventually I settled on ‘queer’.

I’m pretty sceptical that I popped out of the womb with that aspect of my identity fully formed and that I’m now just living out a script written in utero by genes and hormones. I’m pretty sure my unique socialisation – my exposure to anarchism, queer theory, feminism, postmodernism etc., and to a community of radicals where not just tolerance but acceptance and understanding of difference is expected, and where normative assumptions about identity are questioned rather than being taken at face value – plays a huge part.

(You’ll notice I haven’t bothered with any of the scientific stuff here. That’s because I don’t really care. Empirical evidence can at best point us towards interesting correlations between certain genes and hormones and sexuality, none of which implies causation, and certainly none of which is enough to establish that sexuality is innate from birth in every case. But, more importantly, because you don’t just get to erase people’s subjectivities by going “look, science”.)

But anyway, “born this way” isn’t actually an attempt to accurately describe queer people’s experiences of themselves – it’s a political statement, which is the product of a particular politics: the mainstream (liberal) LGBT civil rights movement. It’s a politics that’s fraught with problems – mainly that it aims at LGBT inclusion (or more correctly assimilation) within oppressive institutions that we should really be struggling against (the US war machine, nationalism, the State, the capitalist class, the cops, marriage and the nuclear family, among others) and in doing so has allowed LGBT struggles to be co-opted by reactionary agendas (Israeli apartheid, Islamophobia, consumerism, family values) in exchange for small concessions from the State.

As a political statement, “born this way” is related to a whole bunch of different issues. I’ll try and sketch some of the main ones here.

Anti-discrimination legislation

In the United States, in order for a group to qualify for certain legal protections as a ‘suspect class‘ under the 14th Amendment, it is important (but not strictly necessary) for that group to demonstrate that they possess an immutable and/or highly visible trait that distinguishes them as a group (similar requirements exist in many other jurisdictions). As a result, liberals who see pursuing civil rights through the courts and voting for progressive legislators as the primary methods of political struggle need to establish that sexuality is innate and immutable, and those of us who that doesn’t apply to had better just shut our mouths and stop ruining it for everyone else.

This demonstrates pretty clearly the poverty of the liberal approach to struggle. Rather than actively combating homophobia through grassroots struggle and direct action, they instead attempt to piggyback on the victories of the black civil rights movement by making sexuality like race, even though it clearly isn’t (although arguably race as a political and sociological category is at least to some extent performative, but that’s a different discussion).

It’s all pretty naive stuff. Rights, or freedom from oppression, can’t be granted as gifts from above, only won through popular struggle. Anti-discrimination legislation hasn’t abolished institutional racism, rather it’s outlawed certain overt forms of discrimination. As long as race-thinking and white privilege still exist, institutional racism will just change form in response to legal gains; the language and tactics of racism change, but racism persists. Similarly, no amount of court judgements and no amount of saying “we were born this way” will win queer emancipation if we’re unwilling to fight for the right to fuck who we want without shame.

Curing homosexuality

A major fear is that if we admit that having sex with members of your own gender is something people do for all kinds of different reasons, rather than an immutable part of a person’s biology in every case, it opens the door for various kinds of horrific ‘therapy’ practised by religious bigots designed to ‘cure’ homosexuality.

I’ve never had someone offer to cure me, but my likely response would be “fuck off there’s nothing wrong with me” not “sorry dude I can’t help it, there’s nothing you can do”. Our response as a community should be to empower queer people to make that stand for themselves, and you don’t do that by talking about their sexuality as if it were an incurable disease. If your argument against homophobia is that their bigotry is illegitimate because sexuality is innate, the obvious corollary is that if it were a choice, their bigotry would be legitimate, which makes it a pretty shit argument.

As for the legal side, surely the fact that these therapies have been shown in every case to cause massive psychological damage (and often suicide) is a strong enough argument for them to be banned?

Not unsettling heteronormativity

Most heterosexuals love the idea that their sexuality is innate, because that means their access to heterosexual privilege is also innate and unthreatened. “I was born gay just like you were born straight” is a great thing to hear in a society where it means they were born normal and will never be anything other. It’s a great way to win (tokenistic) support from the oppressor class without unsettling their privileged identity. On the other hand, the idea that they too might find themselves attracted to someone of the same gender is a direct threat to their privilege, and it’s an uncomfortable thought.

If your aim is to win gradual small gains by compromising with an oppressive system (i.e. if you are a liberal) then it makes tactical sense to say things that heterosexuals find easy to digest. But if your aim is a world without heteronormativity, then combating essentialism is pretty essential (pun intended).

Ok that seems like a decent enough ending. Next post will be about the centrality of class in understanding oppression.

So yesterday I whipped up a storm of self-righteous indignation over on the ‘I’m not gay but I don’t care if you are’ Facebook page. Apparently happy-clappy liberal sentiment can quite quickly turn to anger if you puncture their self-congratulatory bubble of bland platitudes with some actual analysis and experience of how oppression manifests itself.

In the end, me and several of my friends were blocked from the page and all our comments deleted. I’m not entirely sure what I expected to happen – I guess “I see where you’re coming from and will rethink my approach to this” wasn’t realistic. Oh well. The whole drama did raise an important question, though:

Are members of an oppressed class entitled to make demands regarding what kind of support they receive from members of the oppressor class?

Yes.

Moving on, here’s a selection of some of the really dumb shit people said to me, with snarky commentary:

Obviously this fellow doesn’t understand the position of a person who is not homosexual but is not all up in arms and offended by the fact that others are, so maybe he shouldn’t judge those of us in a different position than him just as we don’t judge homosexuals, eh?

I’m sure it’s a tough position. In many ways tougher than actually facing discrimination…

This article shows the same level of maturity as the child learning to ride his bike, who pushes away the hands of the parent attempting to support and protect them with the insistence that they can “Do it themselves”. I do not understand the determination to reject an ally.

Thank God we have straight people to patronise protect us, otherwise we might actually fight our own struggle on our own terms scrape a knee.

If the ally didn’t announce their hetero orientation at the outset, wouldn’t that be to invite a comment like, “Honey, you can’t speak for me! You don’t have the first clue about what it means to be gay in a predudiced society.”

“Honey”

I am an allie. I DON’T have to be an allie the way you say I do. I CAN be an allie on my own terms. If you don’t like it, no one is forcing you to be here.
I put a lot of thought into this name and my intentions behind the name were calculated.

We get tons of hatemail from homophobes and occasionally attacked by those that we fight for.
Some of us are just way to picky…

The phrasing and “Tone” of this page name is intended to provoke thought in homophobic people, or people that are otherwise indifferent to the suffering of others.
I have no (inherent) desire to please gay people with this page…that was just a pleasant by-product. The name inspires other people that aren’t gay to look within themselves and ask, “Do I care if he(or she) is gay? and if I do, then ‘why’.”
It works wonders…you should see the response I get from the sticker on my car. It provokes thought…which, I might add, is easy to see in people’s faces.
If it pisses off a few people in the process, then so be it…at least they’re thinking.

These are all from the page founder “Mike Thought”, who apparently gets to decide what it means to be an “allie” and doesn’t have to listen to what actual queer people think. Although I guess if you make up your own word you do get to define it…

Saying I don’t care if you are gay means just that. I choose people who I want to be friends with based on their charater and morals. Everything else doesn’t matter to me..age, gender, race or sexual orintation.

Yup. It’s totally possible to just declare yourself blind to age, gender, race and sexuality and no longer be responsible for your privilege.

The fact that this guy uses ‘queer’ all throughout the article invalidates his argument. Queer usually implies some kind of departure from normalcy, I couldn’t finish reading, because he used it so often.

How about you not use the term queer when complaining about semantics lmfao!!!!

This would be hilarious if one of the page admins hadn’t taken it upon himself to censor all comments explaining why some of us choose to identify as ‘queer’. Apparently heteros also get to decide how other people describe their sexuality.

Whomever wrote this is a very sad person. I can see the hurt and mistreatment by the way they argue and nitpick the semantics of this Facebook site, especially a site that has dedicated their time to support the who I am assuming is a gay person writing this article. Time to accept your probably sad and scary past and move forward with your life to one that is more welcoming today than it was yesterday.

People like this are probably not worth the time and stress. Just ignore them, it takes someone really unhappy with themselves to attack someone who is trying to spread peace and do good.

I might say I hate being otherised, but what I really mean is I hate myself…

This post: “You can be straight, just don’t assert it or use it for acceptance, because that might offend some people”

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: “You can be gay, just don’t assert it or use it for acceptance, because that might offend some people”

“You’re oppressing straight people!”

Stop hating and nitpicking. Leave that for the straight homophobes. You’re not doing the gay community any favors by spewing hatred and judgement. Isn’t that exactly what you ask the heterosexual community NOT to do? I think that’s a little bit hypocritical there aren’t you?

I don’t even.

Thanks for that.

(Or ‘How not to be an ally’)

So the I’m not gay but I don’t care if you are Facebook group popped up in my feed again to remind me just how much I hate their faux-progressive posturing.

Recently I posted an angry Facebook thread (where I believe I called it “heteronormative bullshit”) about it, where the general consensus among both queer and straight friends was that I was “being too harsh” and “at least they’re trying” and I should “stop nitpicking” etc. etc.

I’m still pretty sure I was right, and here’s why:

Firstly, and this is far from the main problem, within a heteronormative society it’s just not enough to “not care” if someone is gay. You have a duty to actively think about being inclusive, in the language you use, the way you behave, and the kinds of speech and behaviour you put up with from friends.1 Not caring is a cop out that avoids dealing with the specific needs and sensitivities that queer people have as a result of living under an oppressive system.

1. This, by the way, means challenging homophobic speech even when there’s no queer people around.

But the worst part is, “I’m not gay but” is a pretty clear attempt to retain access to a privileged identity while defending an oppressed group. It’s wanting to appear pro-gay while avoiding all the negative consequences of being associated with queers; some of us don’t have that luxury. It’s “I think being gay is ok, and I’m straight so you should take me seriously”.  It’s “I’m normal, but if you’re not that’s cool with me”. And it’s pretty offensive.

I’ve had this move used on me in person on occasion, and it’s a pretty uncomfortable experience: When arguing with some outright homophobe about something, some hetero white-knight will come over and pull the “I’m not gay but I agree with you” move.2Immediately, the dynamic of the conversation shifts from me arguing with a dickhead, to two straight people arguing about me in my presence, and I don’t like it. When someone pulls the “I’m not gay but” move, I don’t think “oh great, an ally” – all I see is someone who wants to reassure a homophobe that he’s not one of the queers.

2. And often expect me to be grateful for their “tolerance”. As a rule, I don’t appreciate being tolerated (as opposed to included/accepted) and you won’t get a good reaction if you try it.

If you want to actually be an ally (as opposed to posing as one) it’s not going to be consequence-free – siding with an oppressed class rarely is – and one of those consequences is people will associate you with a group of people whose sexuality is stigmatised and shamed. If being mistakenly thought of as gay is such a big deal for you that you need to assert your heterosexuality at the beginning of a discussion then you’re not an ally, and you’re probably at some level a homophobe.

When I say learned, a lot of this is stuff I knew already, but which has become a lot more starkly clear through the Campaign.

  • Talking to people is key to building any kind of resistance. There’s no real substitute for knocking on people’s doors or stopping them in the street and communicating your ideas. Things like handing out flyers and papers, while much easier, just don’t have the same effect as a face-to-face conversation. You also get to learn a lot about the level of politicisation, and the language it’s expressed in, outside of the activist bubble.
  • How to talk to people. This is essential reading for anyone doing any kind of organising. The biggest revelation for me was that listening is much more important than talking.
  • There’s too many of us for the State to handle. This sounds a bit like Communism 101, and I’ve known this intellectually for years now, but it’s only recently, through walking around working-class neighbourhoods (even in a small city) and seeing just how many people there are out there that I’ve started to feel that revolutionary change is actually a pretty realistic prospect (if we do our work properly). If we become ungovernable, even in a relatively small way like boycotting an unfair tax, the State actually doesn’t have the resources to govern us anymore.
  • Democracy is strategically important and not just in the sense that our organisations should reflect the kind of society we want to create, but that only through participatory democracy can we build an effective campaign, because only grassroots democratic decision-making gives the campaign the benefit of the creativity and intelligence and experiences of a broad mass of people.
  • Some people have really annoying letterboxes. I don’t get why people have letterboxes that have that weird carpetty stuff in them (and sometimes two flaps). Surely all of their post gets scrunched up and ruined like my flyers did. Also, some people hide their letter boxes in random places around their garden. Also, I’m more scared of dogs than I realised.

Check out: the Campaign Against The Household & Water Taxes website.

In a Facebook thread discussing this rather excellent post on polyamory and the objectification of women within activist circles, a friend of mine (who is a bit of a polyamory evangelist) said:

Nobody says that polyamory is a cure-all for sexism. It’s a cure for monogamy, which is inherently propertarian and unquestionably allied to patriarchy”1

1. Also “If monogamy is patriarchal, then by contraposition, feminism is polyamorous”, apparently. I’m not entirely sure how monogamous lesbian relationships contribute to patriarchy, but I’m sure there’s a suitable analysis out there somewhere… Probably something about using the master’s tools.

This kind of sentiment is pretty common in radical circles, to the point that people are told they’re bad anarchists/feminists for choosing to be in monogamous relationships.

I don’t agree with this. I don’t think monogamy is inherently propertarian or that polyamory is inherently the opposite (the opposite of owning one house is not owning many houses, it’s changing the way people relate to houses).

I’ll illustrate using examples:

  1. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They sit down and talk and both decide that while neither has the right to control the other’s actions, they are both more comfortable in a monogamous relationship. They agree to be monogamous, but leave open the possibility of future renegotiation of their relationship. Alice meets Carol, and finds herself attracted to her. Alice tells Carol that she is in a monogamous relationship and that nothing can happen between them until she has spoken to Bob. Alice goes back to Bob and explains the situation. They talk. One of several things happens:
    1. Bob is comfortable with the situation and a polyamorous relationship is formed,
    2. Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to split up so Alice can pursue her relationship with Carol,
    3. Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to stay together and Alice doesn’t pursue the relationship with Carol.
  2. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They assume that the relationship is monogamous because “that’s what people do”. Both are constantly jealous when they see each other with friends of the opposite sex. Bob meets Carol, and finds himself attracted to her. He doesn’t consider the possibility of renegotiation because talking about that kind of thing is weird. He cheats on Alice and doesn’t tell her, Alice still can’t pursue other romantic interests because “she’s his girl”.
  3. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They decide to be monogamous. Bob meets Carl, and finds himself attracted to him. He tells Alice he wants to have a polyamorous relationship involving Carl. Alice doesn’t like the idea, because she doesn’t want to put her emotional/sexual/whatever needs on hold while Bob is spending time with Carl. Bob pressures Alice into agreeing by telling her she’s being a bad feminist and is trying to oppress him.
  4. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They decide to have an open relationship. Bob is much more confident and socially outgoing than Alice. Whenever Alice tries to assert herself Bob pretty much disappears from her life to have casual sex with random people until Alice drops the issue. Alice realises she would much rather be in a monogamous relationship, but every time she raises the issue, Bob reminds her that she agreed (enthusiastically even) to be in a open relationship, and that he can always find someone else who “won’t try to monopolise his love”.

All of the examples in 1 are non-propertarian, and are based in explicit negotiation, consent and mutual respect. It begins as consensual monogamy, in 1a it evolves into consensual polyamory, in 1b and 1c it continues as consensual monogamy. It could also obviously have started out and continued as consensual polyamory, that’s cool too, but I didn’t want too many examples.

Example 2 is oppressive monogamy, of a depressingly standard kind, and 3 and 4 are polyamory in which Bob exploits a power imbalance to get what he wants.2

2. I’m sure someone will probably argue that this is not polyamory, or something similar, but then we’re into a situation where polyamory is good by definition, which seems pretty useless to me.

All of these things happen, or at least could happen, and I think it demonstrates that being non-hierarchical in relationships has a lot more to do with how people behave in relationships and how people make decisions about what relationships they have than it does with how many people are involved.

Monogamy isn’t the problem. Compulsory monogamy (as in example 2) is a problem, certainly, as is any kind of compulsory sexuality, and the possibility of  polyamory is certainly important, but simply practising polyamory does little to combat propertarian male attitudes towards women. Actually challenging propertarian male attitudes towards women is how you do that.