Changing the Direction

"Nobody Passes," Make/shift, Fall/Winter 2012

It’s taken me weeks and weeks to finish this column, and it feels important for me to acknowledge that. I need to exert all this energy in order to reach out to people, so that I feel connected, but then I’m so drained from reaching out that I end up feeling disconnected. Writing is part of that connection, usually the most reliable part because often when I don’t have hope in anything else I still have hope in writing. Except when I’m so exhausted that I can only write for five minutes before the words get caught in a haze.

And so, even while I try to push these sentences through a wall of fatigue, I also want to acknowledge that the tour for my latest anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, felt more successful than ever. What do I mean by that? I mean that the events were packed—I need them to be packed, in order to feel like it’s worth it. But, more importantly, everything felt both intimate and explosive. The point of this book is to instigate a conversation, and I felt that conversation happening in gorgeous and intoxicating ways.

Another thing I noticed is that I’ve become a public figure of sorts—people come to my events who have read my books in college, sometimes followed several titles, paid attention to media appearances—some even read my blog, and this relationship through my work is one of the things that creates a feeling of intimacy. Often the questions directed toward me on this tour were more broadly related to the anti-assimilationist politics I’ve articulated for almost twenty years than to the specific concerns of this new book, yet this was less disconcerting than on my previous tour (for my second novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly), when I really wanted people to engage with the process of an experimental literary work, but they kept asking about everything else.

I’m familiar with gay-marriage proponents who come specifically to debate me—often they stand arm-in-arm in the back, and you can almost see the stars and stripes projected onto their faces. But, this time, those who expressed concerns with an anti-marriage, anti-military queer politic came from much closer. After an incredible reading in Portland, someone who had already written to me ahead of time to tell me how my work was so important to their analysis and understanding of the world surprised me by asking: how do we build bridges between HRC and a radical queer agenda?

There are no bridges to build between the Human Rights Campaign, the well-funded arm of the gay establishment, and a radical queer agenda. This is the group that every year gives 100 percent ratings in its Corporate Equality Index to some of the most exploitative companies in the world (in 2012, this included Bank of America, Chevron, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase). What is “bridge building,” anyway? When one side has all the resources, they need to build the bridge. Otherwise, we’re just talking about giving up.

But then, in Seattle, similar questions resurfaced. This time someone asked about making space in radical queer worlds to support friends who want to get married. But why? Is the entire media not already saturated with gay-establishment visions of holy matrimony? And is critique not also a form of support?

I’m not interested in the liberal mantra that all choices are equal. We have to talk about who is harmed, who benefits, and who is always left out of the picture. The gay-marriage agenda has systematically redirected resources in the wrong direction—away from the people who need help the most, and toward a politic that embraces straight privilege at any cost. We all make compromises in order to survive this hideous world—if someone wants to get married to obtain a lover’s health coverage, that might be an important compromise to make. But we can’t think of this as progress. Gay marriage comes at the cost of broader social struggles—imagine how much closer we could be to universal single-payer health care or to ending U.S. wars if the last twenty years of star-spangled militaristic gay-marriage mania had centered around these issues.

But then, a follow-up question, from someone who thought I was creating a binary between queer and assimilationist. I’m not creating a binary—I’m talking about a power dynamic that exists. Assimilationist gay power brokers wield tremendous political clout, masterminding the ghastly spectacles of consumer loyalty that masquerade as “LGBT” identity while monopolizing resources—financial, political, social, emotional, and intimate. Straight people are not going to hold gay people with power accountable for the violence they enact, whether through gentrification or prioritization of the fittest—they are too busy hiding their own homophobia or too anxious they will be accused of anti-gay bigotry.

I’m worried that even queer dissenters are internalizing the gay-establishment notion that somehow a queer politic that starts with talking about universal access to basic needs instead of accepting a privatized, sanitized, corporate-cozy gay identity is “excluding” those with more privilege. I’m worried that when we say that instead of fighting for marriage, military inclusion, and hate-crimes legislation, we need to fight for an end to fundamental institutions of oppression, this is considered “divisive” if we don’t start with the absurd statement that the right to get hitched by the state or the right to go abroad and kill people is somehow a launching point toward social justice. I’m worried that when queers articulate the need to fight for gender, sexual, social, and political self-determination for everyone, we are told we are enacting violence by excluding those who are comfortable with the status quo; I’m especially concerned when this sentiment comes from other anti-assimilationist queers.

The gay establishment has long perpetuated the mythology that there are only two sides to the debate—the smiling, happy, “we’re just like you” face of gay normalcy versus raging Christian fundamentalists who think all queers are going to burn in hell. That dichotomy excludes all of us who embrace a more complicated, critical, and engaged vision of queer splendor, and I believe it’s crucial for critics of the gay establishment (or religious fundamentalism) not to capitulate to its terms. As CAConrad says in his contribution to Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots, “this time of assimilation means that we need to become even angrier and more rebellious and creative so we can change the grim, apathetic direction in which we’re all headed.”