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Friday, March 18, 2011

Gay Assimilation, Queer Emancipation, and the Dialectic Demolition of the Closet

A new ABC News/Washington Post survey released today has found that, for the first time in a decade of polling, a majority of Americans now support same sex marriage.

I don't make a secret of the fact that I am personally ambivalent about the reduction of queer liberation politics to an essentially neoliberal gay assimilationist project to enable shiny happy gays to confuse love with ownership, to kill official enemies, and to participate in the breeding and raising of future consumers and soldiers.

But as I have argued again and again any more radical queer politics, repudiating such possessive and defensive relations among people and celebrating lifeway diversity in a shared world, peer to peer, is nonetheless enabled when the repudiation of the possessive, violent, conformist status quo is advocated by those who are included but see and want something better, rather than by those who already suffer absolute exclusion from that status quo in the first place.

What I want to propose in this post more specifically is that what has come to seem the quintessential tactic of neoliberal gay assimilationist politics -- "coming out of the closet" and "living out and proud" and so on -- is itself a gesture that ultimately threatens assimilation as much as it has enabled it, and that the demolition of the closet potentially and promisingly demolishes possessive policed sex-gender formations as well.

I can't help but be struck by just how sweeping a change the report of emerging majority support of same-sex marriage really seems to be, and this right on the heels of the dismantling of the system excluding open gays and lesbians from military service.

Back in my Queer Nation days twenty years ago fighting sodomy laws then on the books in Georgia and anti-gay job discrimination at Cracker Barrel restaurants and so on, attitudes opposing gay marriage, adoption, open military service and so on seemed at once so utterly irrational and yet so utterly intractable that they had the sort of character that is so demoralizing when one contemplates (now as then) the endless racist war on recreational drug use or the apparent impossibility of common sense gun control.

In my undergraduate years in the 1980s AIDS-panic functionally yoked the "disease of homosexuality" as such to the disease from which so many gay folks were suffering in the popular imagination, provoking genocidal fantasies of concentration camps and compulsory tattoos.

And still so entrenched was rampaging anti-gay hostility as recently as 2004, fully twenty years later, that it was still being used to get out the Republican vote to help George W. Bush win his first election (that the 2000 election was stolen in a putsch enabled by Republicans in the US Supreme Court should never be forgotten or forgiven).

But it really does seem that the tide has turned, a tipping point has been reached (pick your ecological metaphor) and gay people are to most people, and all this rather suddenly, no longer different in a way that inherently threatens but different in way that inherently expresses the cherished differences we all exhibit such that to threaten them in their difference is to threaten everybody in their individuality.

How did this happen? I think the usual explanation is largely true: namely, that the demolition of the closet over the course of my generation made explicit for the first time the deep and widespread connections of the straight majority to their queer relatives, neighbors, and friends (as well as to figures in the public eye they admired or with whom they sympathized) and made them experience personally and sometimes viscerally the costs of anti-gay bigotry, and hence more likely to resist than to participate in it.

Even though it was always true that only a marginal minority of gay Americans are HIV positive and always also true that only a minority of those who suffer from AIDS as a planetary pandemic are gay, the large number of gay people with AIDS and who took up roles as caregivers in the early years of the pandemic quickly began the process of the mass demolition of the closet. This sudden, sweeping, often involuntary and tragic exodus of so many queer folks from the closet was, to say the least, an ambivalent political and cultural force, connecting many to new forms of support while at once exposing many to new forms of hostility and harm.

And the next chapter in the demolition of the closet was no less paradoxical, as the emergence of online networked forms of sociality were hyperbolically blamed for the disappearance of millions of people from the public scene and their retreat into the isolating glow of the private computer screen, and yet this very development enabled the hitherto enforced private isolation of a geographically dispersed marginalized minority of gay folks suffering homophobic terror in silence sudden access to information, friends and potential partners, organizational resources that brought so many of us out into the mainstream of public life far earlier and far more often and far more fearlessly than ever before.

Again, I do think that the sea change in public attitudes toward queer folks represented in recent polls about gay marriage, gay parents, open lgbt service in the military, and so on reflects a generation of coming out of the closet and into the streets and into the hearts and hearing of everyday American life. However, I do not think this opportune openness tells the whole story of this rather sudden sweeping victory for acceptance of many (very much not all) queer folks. I would propose that there is another strategy afoot here that is often overlooked altogether but which worked hand in latex glove with this queer visibility, and indeed enabled queer visibility to do its measure of emancipatory work in the first place.

I refer to the insistence on the part of so many queer activists, popular figures, everyday folks to declare and repeat loudly, incessantly, and nearly universally -- sometimes as a joke, sometimes as a diagnosis, sometimes as an accusation, sometimes as a proverb, but always lethally -- that every single act of anti-gay bigotry one encounters signals always and everywhere the internalized-homophobia of a closet case.

It is not only the mass coming-out from the closet of gay folks but also (often, to be fair, quite unfairly, and deliciously so) the mass outing of the most energized anti-gay folks that created the unique cultural conditions out of which have emerged the recent victories of assimilationist gay politics.

The marginalization of the anti-gay bully into identification with the gay target of his hostility has been a staple of gay wisdom for generations, but the strategic deployment of this folk psychological chestnut into a mass-mediated rhetorical strategy is recent and has been more effective than anybody could have hoped in their wildest dreams.

Where once the continence of the compulsory heterosexual community was policed precisely through the ritual humiliation and terrorization of possible queers, the re-reading of this very policing gesture as the signal of a possible queerness threatened by and threatening that heterosexual continence rendered compulsory homophobia helpless. In almost no time at all it was precisely the untroubled embrace of gay friends as equals that signaled an unambiguous heterosexual identity, and by now (in about a decade's time, mind you!) a playful questioning of compulsory heterosexuality itself has become the condition on the basis of which heterosexuality has retained its normative force.

That heterosexuality is normal is statistically assured, but that it is "untroubled" and hence legibly normative is now and likely ever more to be ritually assured through its questioning, as witness the almost immediate, at first quite anxious but already now quite easygoing, proliferation of "metrosexuals" and "bromances" and openly exhibited sexual experimentation among younger straight males.

Again, I want to stress that this reframing of conspicuous exhibitions of homophobia themselves as a kind of queer performativity -- homophobic attack qua homosexual conduct -- this politically motivated re-reading of the act of hate as the likely "coming out" of a self-hating closet-case should definitely be treated as of a piece with the larger movement of neoliberal gay assimilationist politics from the closet-structured century of secrecy into a politics of queer publicity through the demolition of the norms of the closet (and the concomitant norms of possessive defensive identity) more generally.

For one thing, it is actually enlightening to insist that especially virulent forms of anti-gay bigotry attest to a form of desire that is profoundly queer in its specificity and should be understood that way: The way homophobes get off on their bigotry is so gay!

It is in this context that many of the early "controversies" around the politics of outing in the early 1990s should be reconsidered: Usually framed by neoliberal gay assimilations as a matter of determining the proper conditions under which it became admissible involuntarily to expose a closeted queer to the public (usually when a closeted politician promoted anti-gay policies or a closeted celebrity indulged in anti-gay defamation), these controversies assumed in advance the security of the subject who "volunteers" or not to testify to the terms of their desire and of an identity that presumably follows as a matter of course from that desire.

But in retrospect, it does not much matter that some of the folks "outed" by radical queers turned out not to "be" gay after all. Setting the scene for this whiff of paradox, note that under the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, a virgin who declared themselves to be gay was discharged in consequence, which made coming out itself, not cocksucking or buttfucking or cuntlicking or what have you, the quintessential, presumably threatening, act of queerness in the first place.

Harvey Fierstein was just plain making sense when he protested that it could just as easily be considered a compliment as defamation to suggest someone's conduct made you assume they were gay, especially when the suggestion came from a queer person. Surely anybody who suffered by this attribution of queerness to them was suffering most of all not because of the mis-behavior of "outing" activists, but because of homophonic norms from which they were already suffering even as heterosexuals in ways that they simply had not hitherto been paying enough attention to -- the impoverishment of their relations with queer family, friends and fellow-citizens, say, and the impoverishment of their own unduly crabbed heterosexual norms.

Finding ways of connecting straight majorities to the suffering of queer minorities and hence making this suffering personal was after all the force that drove the politics of mass coming out in the first place. That it also articulated the politics of outing should hardly seem surprising.

But as a practical matter it was only because homophobia was re-framed as a kind of involuntary coming out performance, that the so-called "voluntary" performances celebrated as coming out were able to assume their finally transformative character. Even if every homophobic bigot were to discover a connection to a cherished queer relative, friend, colleague, icon they could always preserve that cherished connection without calling into question the violence and humiliation of compulsory heterosexual norms themselves through the usual and simple expedient of treating their queer connection as exceptional.

It was the structural connection of the gesture of coming out as gay to the reading of the anti-gay gesture as just another form of coming out as gay that enabled the demolition of the closet to assume a universalizing emancipatory force that undoes compulsory heterosexuality, not by welcoming every closeted queer into opening the closet door but by exposing literally everybody to the threat of being outed as queer, thus socializing the costs of compulsory heterosexuality.

And so, neoliberal gay assimilationism has cheerfully paid as a price of its desired assimilation into the body of conventional society (apart from the costs in superficiality, vulgarity, and boredom of a life lived under the terms of inclusion within awful ugly reprosexual consumer capitalist norms) the assimilation into its body of the phobic foe itself. And in so doing, the assimilationist has of necessity invigorated the possibilities for a far more radical queer politics.

1 comment:

JD Tuyes said...

Hi Dale,

What you describe seems so historically specific, but the same dialectic is felt in Europe. It's not just the speed but the breadth of the closet's demolition that is so awe-striking. Imagine being able to walk hand in hand with your partner in a small fishing town in Italy as NYC.

Despite your aversion to the medium, I repost over Facebook to draw readers to your posting. Your observations must be read!

Much love