Monday, August 15, 2011


Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Jennifer Boylan which contended that trans people always come last when it comes to LGBT rights. The article participates in a longer discussion that I can't recapitulate here. Suffice it to say, that conversation is about the use of gender normativity to grease the wheels of gay and lesbian assimilation into middle America -- only faintly tomboyish women marrying each other, while muscled, still-manly men do the same. Since trans people can't be gender normative, their struggles are necessarily marginalized when campaigns for gay equality emphasize gender normativity. Many indignant commenters insist that gays and lesbians cannot be opposed to trans people, that only the straight majority can do that. Unfortunately, that's just not the case, as people opposed on one topic can share ideas on another. I like to think of such partners as strange bedfellows, indeed.

This article and the resulting backlash prompted me to think about my own travels, relocations that often transformed my way of thinking about gender and sexuality. With that, here is "Translocations."

I went to an all-boys Catholic school run by the order of priests known as the Jesuits. If I remember my Jesuit history, they were a scholastic bunch, often hired as tutors for the elites of what remained of Catholic Europe in the wake of Luther's Reformation. They may have also played a small role--tiny, really--in carrying out the Spanish Inquisition. Hey. Nobody's perfect.

In my hometown of Cincinnati, St. Xavier had (and has) a very strong commitment to social justice. In fact, I have to credit the school with helping me fully understand that the drive to subordinate women, screw the poor, and marginalize queers were brought to you by the same folks who brought you white supremacy... I had already received ample demonstration and instruction about women's capacities for leadership--most strikingly, in fact, from my father. But I don't remember anyone talking about same-sex sex or gender nonconformity in my family. There wasn't much talk of sex at all; that was adult business to be handled at a later time. And, when that time came, the conversation was fairly traditional birds and bees. Homo- and transsexuality weren't vilified; I suppose they weren't considered.

Right at this crucial pubescent moment, St. Xavier High School was bringing parents from P-FLAG to speak to our Morality and Social Justice classes (1994). Their simple and inarguable message was that their children deserved to be treated with compassion and dignity. For me (and, I suspect, for my classmates), it was a shock to hear same-sex sexuality discussed as a real thing that existed. One element of the Theology department's stance did make sense to me immediately. There was no way to reconcile ridicule, harassment, or violence with Christian teaching.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I relocated to St. Louis University High (2000). Having attended a Jesuit high school, I thought I knew what to expect. However, the Liberation Theology of Oscar Romero was not in force there. That is, the actions and teachings of Christ reported in the Bible--welcoming outcasts, socializing with prostitutes, speaking on behalf of the poor and oppressed--were only partially in effect. The school did not, in normal cases, admit students who were not Catholic (a policy I'd never have expected based on St. X where my classmates were Jewish, Presbyterian, and Hindu. You didn't have to believe in Catholic teaching to be there, but you did have to learn the history of the Church and one version of theology and ethics that come from it).

And, when it came to the gay thing, the U High was very trepidatious. Students formed a gay-straight student alliance and, as I recall, the President pressured the Principal to shut it down after alumni complaints. At least, those are the bits of the story I could gather. In any case, I'm not sure the alliance lasted more than a week.

I was one of the more radical things to come through the doors at SLUH. This is not saying much for me; it says more about the location. In those days, it was very possible for a student to take four years of English and never read anything written by a woman of any nationality, nor any person of color. There was resistance to including nonwhite traditions in our celebrations of Mass (which, frankly, were not celebrations and desperately needed a change--any change at all). And the response from the top (and among some students) to the targeted harassment of several women faculty members amounted to a shrug of the shoulders--or, if pushed, counter-accusation.

I began to think of myself as the only radical around. It was a misperception, but it seemed like I'd fallen into a time warp. It wasn't that there had been no conservatives in my world; it's just that the great majority of the people running the organizations that shaped me were black and white veterans of the movements of the 60s. They were champions of individual excellence, to be sure, but they also believed that our country had to strive for excellence and that justice, inclusion, and equality would be the measures. When my surroundings began to feature more people who wished to halt the progress of social equality (or, worse, reverse the movement already made in that direction), I became desperate. Desperation led, I will confess, to a bit of a Messiah complex. I feared that if I didn't take the time to think it and say it, no one would.

When I got to NYU (2003), I was surprised to discover that aspirations that would have been deemed quite radical in Catholic St. Louis were actually being called conservative by the local Left. To illustrate, we need only look at the issue of gay marriage. In both of my midwestern towns, the battle lines were clear: there were gay people (and allies) wanting to destroy the legal bar to equal citizenship and enter the territory of state-recognized marriage. On the other were conservatives who wanted to preserve the status of marriage as the (ideally) monogamous union of one man and one woman. Before arriving in the hotbed of cultural Marxism known as NYU's American Studies department, I had no idea that there was gay (well, more precisely, queer, as explained below) opposition to same-sex marriage.

In the wake of the New York legislature's historic passage of a bill recognizing gay and lesbian couples as married in the eyes of the law, the always-present fissures within the so-called gay community have been granted a city-wide (and potentially national) airing. Who, outside of queer yackademia knew that there was a school of thought that viewed same-sex sex and gender nonconformity not simply as burdens to be shed but as a potential way to liberate everyone from the impossibly strict standards of gender? You know, proper gender--the kind that is supposed to get you hired for jobs and married off to a person who is of the opposite sex from yours in every conceivable way.

Who, outside of queer yackademia knew that the push to have same-sex couples recognized as marital partners, in effect, helps out the "just like you" crowd of white-collar, white-skinned, and gender-normative gays and lesbians and then closes the book on the question of equality? In other words, the gay community, if one wants to talk about such a thing, has a wide array of people who face a variety of social and economic impediments. In New York, one of the least celebrated are the mostly black and Latino trans- youth who congregate on the piers. My understanding is that most of them are poor, if not homeless. These are not the people on the cover of The Advocate, or appearing on ground-breaking One Big Happy Family shows like Modern Family. They are not, as the old movie title implies, who Middle America wants Coming to Dinner.

But does this justify their persecution by police? And couldn't a more broadly effective "gay rights" movement say that discrimination against queers starts with the most socially vulnerable and moves upward? Granting legal recognition of marital commitments to the already solidly middle-class and gender normative can not address the mistreatment of those who are so flagrantly not mainstream. But addressing what happens to the most persecuted would absolutely trickle upward. A society that did not sanction violence against gender nonnormative people at a low socio-economic level would have no investment in presenting gender-appropriate behavior as the hallmark of the middle class. In other words, addressing transphobia would be more helpful to "gay rights" than the reverse.

Let me be clear. I don't blame any constituency for trying to achieve those things that will make their lives better. My problem is really with the purposeful confusion of that particular goal with universal relevance. The feminist movement had (and continues to have) this agonizing problem: organizing around gender tends to privilege those women who have only gender to worry about. All the other women wind up on the sidelines asking "Ain't I a Woman? And if so, how can any issue I face, while being a woman, not be a woman's issue?"

So, we've landed here with gay rights as well. The most successful aspects of the movement have been based on the "just like you" model--as in we are just like you except we're gay. But what about that fateful moment when the lights go out? No matter how many beers the Brokeback Mountain guys had, or how much they complained about their shrewish wives and crying children, there's that moment when the fishing trip turns into something more carnal. And that ain't just like straight guys anymore. And if your whole basis for equality is that you aren't different, you're sunk the moment someone is able to locate your difference. I can't fault "I'm like you" as a desperate move, like blocking your face with your hands when attacked. However, when there is more time to calculate, better strategies can be devised. The ultimate goal has to be insisting that difference does not justify social hierarchy, because difference don't have to be stacked vertically but can be arranged horizontally.

1 comment:

  1. a response from dp:

    You remind me of my high school experiences with the Brothers of Holy Cross, though I daresay they were somewhat less explicit in their embrace of Romero's liberation theology. (That would be with the exception of Mr. R) Thankfully, having had a family of lefty-Catholics steeped in that tradition shed light on the possibilities which exist in that spectrum. It was a far cry from St. Mel (who knew), where, as a junior high schooler, I was told that Bill Clinton was the devil, as evidenced (primarily) by the fact that Time magazine's cover photo of him featured the 'M' *behind* his head, conveniently revealing his liberal horns of death.