Normalize or Marginalize: What’s your preference?

This sort of breaks my brain to even think about, but, apparently, there are actually gay people who PREFER to be a marginalized part of society. I can’t even pretend to understand their view point, though I’ve been trying valiantly for the last few hours.

I’ve been reading an article by Johann Hari entitled “The hidden history of homosexuality in the US” in which he discusses a book by Michael Bronsky, A Queer History of the United States.

Please read the quoted text from the end of the article. I apologize for the length, but that is merely a fraction of the article and the part that most applied to the topic at hand.

My view – since reading Andrew Sullivan’s masterpiece Virtually Normal when I was a teenager – is that the point of the gay-rights struggle is to show that homosexuality is a trivial and meaningless difference. Gay people want what straight people want. I am the same as my heterosexual siblings in all meaningful ways, so I should be treated the same under the law, and accorded all public rights and responsibilities. The ultimate goal of the gay-rights movement is to make homosexuality as uninteresting – and unworthy of comment – as left-handedness.

This section is, quite possibly, the most concise statement of my feelings on the subject of gay rights. It’s the statement I’ve been trying to write since I started writing about gay rights on this blog and I’ve simply never managed to make it sound so concise.

Sorry, I just had to fangirl a little all over the wonderfulness of having read something that sums up my viewpoint so well.

That’s not Bronski’s view. As he has made more stridently clear in his previous books, he believes that gay people are essentially different from straight people. Why is his book called a “Queer History” and not a “Gay History”? It seems to be because the word “queer” is more marginal, more edgy, more challenging to ordinary Americans.

He believes that while the persecution in this 500-year history was bad, the marginality was not. Gay people are marginal not because of persecution but because they have a historical cause – to challenge “how gender and sexuality are viewed in normative culture”.

Their role is to show that monogamy, and gender boundaries and ideas like marriage throttle the free libidinal impulses of humanity. So instead of arguing for the right to get married, gay people should have been arguing for the abolition of marriage, monogamy and much more besides. ” ‘Just like you’ is not what all Americans want,” Bronski writes. “Historically, ‘just like you’ is the great American lie.”

He swipes at the movement for gay marriage and Sullivan in particular, as an elaborate revival of the old social-purity movements – with the kicker that gays are doing it to themselves. (It’s easy to forget that when Sullivan first made the case for gay marriage, his events were picketed by gay people spitting this argument into his face.)

When Bronski argues this case, his prose – which is normally clear – becomes oddly murky and awkward, and he may not agree with every word of my summary. This is the best I can figure out his position: He does finally explicitly say that the gay movement should have fought instead to “eliminate” all concept of marriage under the law, a cause that would have kept gay people marginalised for centuries, if not forever. Of course some gay people hold revolutionary views against the social structures of marriage and the family – and so do some straight people. But they are small minorities in both groups. If you want to set yourself against these trends in the culture, that’s fine – we can have an interesting intellectual debate about it. Just don’t equate it with your homosexuality.

When Bronski suggests that gay marriage “works against another unrealized American ideal: individual freedom and autonomy”, he is bizarrely missing the point. Nobody is saying gay people have to get married – only that it should be a legal option if they want it. If you disagree with marriage, don’t get married. Whose freedom does that restrict?

It’s bizarre that Bronski – after a rousing historical rebuttal to the right-wing attempt to write gays out of American history – ends up agreeing with Santorum, Beck and Bachmann that gay people are inherently subversive and revolutionary, longing for the basic institutions of the heterosexual world to be torn down.

There’s a whole Gay Pride parade of people marching through Bronski’s book who show it isn’t so. I can see them marching now, down the centre of the Mall: the Native American chief with her four wives, Nicholas Sension with the whip marks on his back, the residents of Merrymount holding aloft their their 80ft phallus, Deborah Sampson Gannett dressed in her military uniform as Robert Shurtliff and the men from Physique Pictoral in their posing pouches, amazed to discover they are not alone.

Yes, they were all Americans. And no, they didn’t choose marginality and exclusion. They were forced to the margins. It would be a betrayal of them – not a fulfilment – to choose to stay there, angrily raging, when American society is on the brink of letting them into its core institutions, on the basis of equality, at long last.

I find that I agree with Hari’s views and completely disagree with Bronski, though I believe I would be interested in reading his new book. This is a topic I’ve addressed before in my blog, in fact I wrote a blog about it rather recently where I compared the fight for gay rights to the fight for mutant rights in the X-Men universe.*

In that article I made it clear that I want to normalize, I don’t want to marginalize, because being gay is not my identity and I don’t feel that I have a social obligation “to challenge how gender and sexuality are viewed in normative culture.”

To be marginalized is to allow your identity to be shoved into a tiny box based on some characteristic. For the gay community to choose to be marginalized and held apart from the rest of society would be like the Japanese walking themselves into the American concentration camps. Bronski is essentially begging us to uphold the stereotype that the religious right holds against homosexuals, that we are “inherently subversive and revolutionary, longing for the basic institutions of the heterosexual world to be torn down” and we don’t want to be normal. This is the stereotype that has hurt our fight for equal rights for so long.

I really don’t think Bronski needs to be speaking for all of us on this topic, unless I’ve been misinformed and this is how the majority of the gay community want to be seen. I always imagined that the majority wanted to be accepted as a normal part of society, but I could be wrong. I have been before.

*because I’m a nerd.

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5 Comments

  1. I feel like there is a way to interpret Bronski’s “marginalization” argument without “walking…into the…concentration camp” so to speak.

    Approach his views as from the perspective that currently, queer people are viewed by most people as far outside the norm. (I would put forth current marriage debate as empirical evidence of this. And admittedly, this view is changing i.e. yay New York! Slowly, people are beginning to accept the gays)

    If the question is, how do we get queer people included in the norm? Then its seems Bronski’s answer is: Destroy the norm. Push the boundaries so hard and so far as to make the word “normal” unintelligible.

    At the end of the Slate article you quote, Hari accuses Bronski of agreeing with Bachmann and Santorum and the like.

    ( “It’s bizarre that Bronski—after a rousing historical rebuttal to the right-wing attempt to write gays out of American history—ends up agreeing with Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann that gay people are inherently subversive and revolutionary, longing for the basic institutions of the heterosexual world to be torn down.”)

    I think this is an oversimplification of Bronski’s point. Bronski is simply recognizing that there are a heck of a lot of people who think like Bachmann and Santorum. Recognizing this fact, Bronski thinks queer people should not cow-tow to those people and attempt to prove they are normal. Bronski realizes that such a tactic will never work. He’s thinking on a much grander scale than just changing the legal definition of marriage to include two people of either gender. He wants to destroy much of the gendered thinking that pervades our society and wreaks injustice upon many people.

    Why aren’t gay people trying to destroy some of the basic institutions of the heterosexual world? Why stop at sexual liberalization for monogamous gays? Shouldn’t polyamorous people enjoy marriage rights?

    It’s politically unpopular to state that your goal is the destruction of some long standing institution, so gay people must choose to either be disingenuous or flat out discriminatory. Until marriage includes any number of consenting legal adults, it will remain an institution that discriminates, so for us gays to be happy to stop when we are included means we are happy to join in the benefits of being normal and say “to hell with” anyone who is left out.

    Actually, yeah, I’ve come to a realization. I agree with Bronski that we don’t want to just be normalized, because to do so we would almost necessarily become the oppressors we now claim to oppose.

    I really apologize for this being long and rambly.

    • I had the most horrific migraine last night when I got this comment, so I didn’t get to reply.

      “Why aren’t gay people trying to destroy some of the basic institutions of the heterosexual world? Why stop at sexual liberalization for monogamous gays? Shouldn’t polyamorous people enjoy marriage rights? ”

      I actually just wrote a post on polyamory, I do support marriage rights for poly relationships. I simply don’t think that tearing down institutions is the right way to go, we need to slowly evolve society. That has been going on through out civilization and it will continue, if we expect to tear things down and force society to change too quickly then people will rebel. Evolution takes time, luckily social evolution is much faster than biological evolution.

      I’m not sure why being normalized would make us the oppressors, not if by normalizing we become what is part of a normal society. Being “normal” doesn’t mean being straight, it means being normal.

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