Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.
1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.
2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:
a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.
b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.
3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.
To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).
4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?
Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.
5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.
I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc. In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.
And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.
Out of Step with Queer 14 May 2010Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Modernity and Modernism, Queer Theory.
An acquaintance of mine asked me this morning to explain what I meant in my profile by being “out of step with the queer left.” It’s a good question, but a complex one that I still struggle with and am not sure about. I find that I both love queer theory and am frustrated by it on many levels. I find that I get giddy when I think about some of the protest actions by Gay Shame here in San Francisco, but that I also find them problematic and elitist. So here’s my attempt to explain to him what I mean by this. In some ways, this is a personal intellectual journey, but it’s also about conclusions I’ve drawn after being immersed in archival and ethnographic research of gay men for the past 8 years.
A few caveats: I think of knowledge as always in process and emergent, so this is just where I am now. I am constantly thinking about this (and I’m currently writing an encyclopedia article about developments in Queer Theory since 2000), and reworking and exploring where I stand. So this is just a snap shot. Secondly, this is a blog, not a journal article, so what follows is necessarily gestural and incomplete, or in process. Third, it’s at a very abstracted level without actual quotes or examples to anchor the discussion. I would love to have more substantive, anchored conversations about this topic, and hope that maybe the conversation could move there in the comments. So here’s my explanation of what I mean by being out of step with the queer left:
1) I’ve always been pretty idealistic, driven by a vision of what the world should be like, especially in terms of justice and equality. My poor little conservative, Republican, mormon parents thought I was Satan spawn in high school. And my classmates and teachers in my tiny rural high school thought I was from outer space. But for better or worse, I find that I’m still driven by that deep belief in justice (although I find recently that I’m growing exhausted with the never ending academic discussions about it and banging my head against the wall trying to get students to break out of their own experience to see the world as it is for so many others around the planet).
2) Both in my undergrad and in my Masters program (where I did Native American studies, and wrote an embarrassing thesis about NA autobiography), I had been steeped in critical theory, especially in the postmodern/deconstructive vein (and not as much but still significantly in the old Marxist vein). But by the time I was into my PhD program (where’d I’d switched to a more sociological orientation) I had started to rethink the assumptions about empiricism and knowledge production that I’d inherited from my cultural studies background up to that point, and I started thinking in really hard terms about the disjuncture between academic discourse about “critique” and real human lives outside of the academy.
3) Around this time, I met one of the two Social Theorists on campus, Robert Antonio (his work most recently has been about Weber and before that Habermas and before that Dewey) who introduced me to the American Pragmatists, and I began reading Pierce, James, Dewey, and Mead voraciously. They begin with the demonstration of the emergent property of knowledge (and truth and culture (although they didn’t use the “c” word yet because it was before the ascendency of Anthropological terms in the field), the contingency (or situatedness) of knowledge (truth and culture), and the details of how human minds produce knowledge. Dewey after WWI took off from there, theorizing how to conceive of problems in the world and solve them given the emergent nature of knowledge. For me, this was a breath of fresh air. It jarred me out of the kind of helpless funk that the posmodern critique can sometimes lead to, and also reoriented how I frame social problems in the world. [And in my professional life, it also led me to symbolic interaction as a method for research, but that’s tangential to this conversation.]
4) I started doing my dissertation research (which eventually led to book research after I finished my degree) about gay men in the 1960s. I started off with a very “queer” lens and a set of values and provisional claims that I thought I was going to make. I worked hard, however, to keep my claims provisional and to allow the evidence to speak and to see what was actually there. If you read the intro and conclusion to my book, for example, you’ll get a good feel for my intellectual orientation in research in this regard. You’ll find that my divergence from “queer studies” per se is subtle, but there. I’m actually really interested to see what reviewers do with the book and how they interpret my intellectual orientation to what have become “queer” problems.
5) Let me now address my relationship to the ‘academic’ side of queer. In a more direct way, this is what I can tell you about “queer”, where I am right now, after having spent 8 years on a dissertation and book about gay men (bearing in mind that I’m being gestural here).
a) I find that a lot of queer theory is more normative than analytical. This is quite ironic, given queer theory’s ostensible eschewal of the normative. Often I actually agree with the normative it’s proposing, but find that the theorists leave their normatives unspoken or uninterrogated, and therefore weak.
b) I find that queer theory often relies on unsubstantiated or poorly evidentiated assumptions, for example, the universality of bisexuality (which is an old Freudian canard, which still shocks me when I find it popping up in queer writers). This more often than not comes from a refusal to address the actual embodiment of human agents, as queer theory most often sees bodies as mere symbolic effects. Here is, for me, an epistemological disagreement I have with a lot of cultural theory since about 1970 (especially that which is derived from French philosophy): Knowledge can only be produced by bodies, through means that evolved, in physical (and symbolic) environments that produce constant feedback to the organism. I find that queer theory most often rests in that line of cultural theory (though often unspoken) that assumes a priori that the symbolic world is completely self-referential and all correspondance to the exterior world of the subject is coincidental or illusory. I come at this from a baseline interactionist perspective, which is that meaning is more than the interaction of symbols and that it is an emergent property of interaction in an environment and that, although the connections to the exterior are contingent, change over time, and contextual, they are nonetheless real, not just in their consequences, but in their origins.
c) Finally, queer theory is often uncritical of its own historical connections to the eponymous “radical” gay and lesbian movement of the early 1970s. Like other liberation movements of the post-war period, the homosexual movement(s) ended up being constituted through an internal schism between the self-described radicals and the other side, called by the radicals everything from “liberal” to “conservative”, “Auntie Toms” and “shameful.” There is in contemporary queer studies an often un-interrogated aesthetic or even nostalgic longing for the movement of 40 years ago, which itself was probelmatically organized out of a desire for “authenticity.” So “queer” today, despite its critiques of authenticity per se, often unconsciously builds upon notions of authentic queerness (especially in its politics) and then produces the normative bent I mentioned above.
6) And now for actual politics in the public realm. This is where things get very muddy for me, and a lot of my discomfort comes from the research I did about gay men 1961-1972 in San Francisco. There is a long history in gay politics of what I’ll call “in-fighting” for lack of a better word; it’s as long as gay politics itself, that emerges (in my opinion) out of LGBT people’s interactions with the dominant culture and their various efforts to create a space for themselves and the consummation of their desires within society. What tends to happen (at least as far as I can see back to the founding of the Mattachine Society) is a sharp conflict over values among LGBT people that gets enacted in a deep moralizing conflict within the “community” (a word I use with great caution and discomfort (again, see my book for details on that point if you want)).
Take “Gay Shame” here in SF. I find that I very often agree with their social critique, and then can’t figure out what the hell they spend all their time protesting other gay people. This is an old tradition in San Francisco, where the moralizing left aims all its frustration and anger at other gay people. The baseline interaction becomes about who is doing gay (or queer) correctly, rather than on effecting social change that expands the freedom and possibilities of gayness in the lives of real life queers. To say this more clearly: The battle becomes over the right way to be gay, rather than over the transformation of the social structures of oppression.
Think of the battle over gay marriage. If you’ll allow me some cartoon caricatures for the sake of argument, to the far left, the critique is of the institution of marriage itself and the patriarchal relationship between genders, and between parents and children, and between individuals and the state. To the far right, the effort is for assimilation and acceptance, for full “Americanness” and normality. [I think both sides are far more subtle than this, but you see where I’m going.] So here in SF, you got queers-on-the-left protesting against the protests against Prop 8, because of course any gay person who would want marriage is a dupe or stupid or a tool of “the Man”. When I was marching in the massive shut down of Market Street the day after elections in 2008, I felt like I was in a time machine watching Gay Sunshine protest against S.I.R. in 1970. Surreal.
In the interactionist mode, marriage has already been massively transformed by the past 200 years of feminist and more recently LGBT action. Marriage today simple is not what it used to be even 50 years ago. And it will continue to change. LGBTs trying to get marriage can reinforce its social valence and power, but it also necessarily transforms it. This leaves aside the very real inequalities, some of them horrifying and inhuman (see the Governor of Minnesota’s recent veto for example) that result from the current state of affairs. LGBTs having the right to marry can be domesticating, but it can also be transformative. Both. At the same time. Gays in the military can be a normalization of masculinity among gay men; it can also be a transformation of masculinity in the military and in society in general. So the real-world effects and the real-human desires at play seem to be both more simple and more complex than queer politics would have them be.
Whereas I want to create a society that gives the widest range possible for the expression of non-normal (in the statistical sense) sexualities by expanding freedom and access, and whereas I find that I often agree with the baseline criticisms of queer theory and activism, I find that queer practice can be normative, moralizing, and exclusive.
Time for the Movement to Spread Its Protests Around 13 November 2008Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Religion.
Tags: Prop 8 protests
Just a quick thought: Although I’m supportive of the many protests of the Mormon church over the past week, and I think they are totally justified given the church’s prominent role in the Yes on 8 campaign, I think it’s time to expand our scope. We need to continue the peaceful, but pointed protesting, at other churches who were deeply involved in this issue, and we need to include churches across race lines as well. If the exit polling was correct, the religious vote generally, which in this case included Catholic and evangelical churches, voted roughly 80% in favor. Spread the love, my people! I also thought of suggesting the protests move to retirement communities, but for some reason that thought just made me giggle.
Free Speech 101: Mormon Edition 9 November 2008Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church.
Tags: Proposition 8
Please read Chanson’s great post at Mainstreet Plaza explaining to Mormons why protesting at their temples does not violate their rights. My favorite paragraph:
But seriously folks, free expression 101: your right of free speech doesn’t guarantee you protection from having other people tell you that what you freely said was wrong. You know it, and I know you know it, so please cut the B.S.
Here’s my post from a couple years ago on American Christianity’s basic misunderstanding of free speech, “Free Speech, and Insulting Religion.”
Clarification on Mormons and Prop 8 9 November 2008Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
Tags: Proposition 8, tax-exemption
Just to clarify: I’m completely supportive and in favor of the ongoing protests and civil disobedience to bring to light the wrong-headed, unscientific beliefs in fairy tales, and the undemocratic efforts of the Mormon church and its adherents to enshrine their *religious* beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage into the *secular* Constitution of California. In fact, I’m especially thrilled by the prospect of protestors disrupting Mormons’ efforts to marry in their temples. The irony is rich, no?
And especially in reference to my post about the Mormon church’s tax-exempt status, I’m in favor of all churches losing their tax exempt status. There is no reason at all that churches should be able to keep their finances secret and that they should be able to control billions of dollars in assets without contributing back to the society. And they certainly should be paying taxes if they are going to step into the public sphere to make their particular biases and bigotries enforced by law.
Unlike Seth, the Mormon commenter to the previous post, I see no difference between the protests in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles. Both were direct responses to the Church’s efforts to impose its religion on the people of California; both were lawful; and both were filled with the frustration of a people denied. The protestors in Salt Lake City gathered at one of the gates to Temple Square and chanted “You’re Sexist! You’re Racist! And you’re Homophobic!” The protestors in Los Angeles bore signs that read, “You have two wives. I want one husband!” I marched in the protest in San Francisco on Friday night and felt the power of a people galvanized against those who would make them second class citizens. Separate is never equal, and this is but one stop along the route to full equality under the law for the gay and lesbian citizens of Californa. Next stop: The United States.
Tags: gay marriage, Non-Profit Tax Exemption, Proposition 8
I’ve been getting a lot of people directing me to the Mormons Stole Our Rights web site, starting a campaign to take away the LDS Church’s tax-exempt status for the participation in the Proposition 8 battle. This is the wrong approach. Let me explain:
I’m especially pissed at the Mormons for two reasons: 1) it was the religion of my childhood and I feel betrayed and shunned all over again; 2) because they financed at least 1/2 of the campaign and provided the lion’s share of the ground forces for prop 8. So I get the rage and the need to strike back.
However, I’m a stickler for free speech and free expression: As the law now stands, the Mormon church did NOT break the law; neither did the catholic church; nor the evangelical churches who campaigned (and who held that horrifying rally in San Diego a few days before the election).
There is a legal problem here that we realistically need to account for if we are to hold the LDS Church accountable (as well as the Catholics and all those Evangelical churches): The Mormon church did not break any law. It’s within their rights according to the IRS code to advocate publicly and spend money to advocate for political issues. Like all churches/non-profits, they are only barred from campaigning for candidates. The website “Mormons Stole Our Rights” is wrong on the legal facts (it ignores subsection (h) of the tax code they site) and this will lose in any court in America. Ask any tax attorney and they’ll spell it out for you. Even more problematically, the Mormon church itself donated exactly ZERO funds to this campaign anyway and asked its members to donate money; this is also completely within its rights as the law now stands.
The more legally sound approach is to begin a campaign consisting of one of the two of the following:
a) demand that churches not be considered special kinds of non-profits and that their finances must be made public, just like non-religious non-profits must.
b) remove nonprofit status from all religious organizations. Make them all pay taxes on the money they use to advocate for issues, just like all private citizens must (we have to pay taxes on the money we donate to political causes). Religions have only had nonprofit status since the 1950s. This isn’t enshrined anywhere in stone.
There is also a third issue to consider:
c) another way to go might be to see if it could be made illegal for California propositions to be funded by out of state interests (see prop 10 as another example); I suspect that may come into conflict with the interstate commerce clause, however, and would require federal legislation.
In some ways, this nascent campaign seems to seek to punish the Mormons for expressing their beliefs and campaigning for them. That is, on its face, anti-democratic and the precise wrong way to go about addressing our the role of the LDS Church in this past election. I’m all in favor of the protests at the Mormon temples, the intense criticism in the public sphere that Mormonism has been getting over this issue, etc. That is what free speech is for: Engaging against wrong-headed and harmful speech and countering it. But rather than seeking to punish an individual or organization for doing what is most fundamental to a democracy, we should be seeking to change people’s minds and convincing the majority of Californians that they are wrong ethically and democratically to enshrine a second class citenzhip for homosexuals in their constitution.
Let’s face it: The No on 8 campaign was completely unprepared for this battle, and the homos of California were complacent and assumed that there was no way this could pass. By the time No on 8 made the staffing change in the campaign, it was too little too late. There is much work to be done to overcome the homophobia and no institutionalized inequality in our Constitution. I fear that this specific line of attack is the wrong one, unless done very carefully and with full understanding and respect for the law and for the right to free speech and expression.
“Gay Marriage” in California 22 May 2008Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights.
Tags: California Supreme Court, gay marriage, judicial activism, marriage equality
I’ve been meaning to post about last week’s decision for, well, about a week now, but haven’t really had the time to breathe with all these blue books needing graded. I’ll try to come back to this early next week when grades are submitted. For the time being, run, don’t walk, to read Glenn Greenwald’s two analyses of the legal issues. I especially appreciated his day-of explanation of what makes an “activist court” and why this is not judicial activism. I wish some of the law professors I’ve been hearing on the radio over the past week would do some reading in democratic theory and even the Federalist Papers, for god’s sake.
Dumbledore Is Gay (Part Two), or Why Rowling Was Wrong to Keep Dumbledore in the Closet 21 October 2007Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification.
Tags: gay men in literature, homophobia
[I’m having a passionate argument with my cyber-friend Hellmut over on an ex-mormon forum (Further Light and Knowledge) about Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore. And because I’ve received a couple emails about yesterday’s post, I thought I’d cross-post an edited piece I posted over there, followed by a brief explanation of why I care if Dumbledore was gay or not]:
In 2007, we should be way past the stage of begging and feeding off the table scraps. I have 250-ish years of modern democratic history to prove to you that no one gets anything by being happy to get what they get. African Americans call this Uncle Tom-ing or being a House Negro (think: Collin Powell). Gay men call it being an “Auntie Tom” or the Gay Clown. In the current ENDA debate, Barney Frank calls it “good strategy.” But most of us call it a cop out and Mr. Frank, for whom I normally have a great deal of respect, is dead wrong.
In American history, being grateful for the scraps massuh throws you has never worked as a strategy for gaining a full and equal place at the table.
Rowling may have had the best intentions, but her execution ultimately undermines any attempt that she thought she was making for tolerance, because she gave us a closeted, lonely, dis-integrated character. If she had really wanted to argue for tolerance at the level of sexuality, Dumbledore’s sexuality would have been woven into his character and fully integrated JUST AS IT WAS FOR ALL THE STRAIGHT CHARACTERS. As it happens, she wrote a closeted, pathetic, tragic homosexual character, and then outed him after the fact. She can keep those table scraps.
In my original post I said that Dumbledore could talk about love and relationships to Harry and Hermione, if appropriate. That was NOT intended to say that there should have been some didactic scene where Dumbledore explains the theme of tolerance to the kiddies. I was thinking specifically of several scenes in the series where Dumbledore talks about love and friendship and relationship to the kids already. How much fuller and more powerful would these moments have been had they been in the context of him having his sexuality fully integrated into his character? What else might he have said about Snape’s history or the friendship between James, Remus, and Sirius; or between Lilly and James; or between himself and Grindelwald? Rowlings choice was not only political (and financial?) cowardice, it was a BAD ARTISTIC CHOICE.
Now, to the simple question requiring a complex answer, why does it matter whether or not Dumbledore is gay? Or why do I care about some character in a series of children’s books?
This is a question my students often pose when we study pop culture or even so called “high” art. Why does it matter? Quite simply, the beliefs and practices of a given society are produced and reproduced in their art, even in their pop culture (perhaps especially in their pop culture). Although art/pop-culture can’t tell you statistically how many people believe or do X, Y, or Z, it can give you a window qualitatively into how the meaning-systems of a particular culture are functioning and circulating at a given moment. So for an obvious example, we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin to understand not black life, but strands of thinking within the abolitionist movement just before the Civil War. These meaning-systems undergird, support, and reproduce the social structures (that is, the institutions, interactions, and relations of power) within a society. Where this is most striking is where the beliefs and practices that resonate with the mass audience are also those which serve to create unjustified or even harmful stratification.
To put it another way, the cultural meanings reproduced in Rowling’s novels are inextricably connected to the systems of power in the real world, whether they support those systems or critique and undermine them. It’s one of the many reasons why her books resonate and are so immensely popular. So when discussing arguably the most popular books of the late 20th/early 21st century, it is easy to see how important it is to understand and critique the meaning-systems Rowling puts together.
My criticism (and I’m not alone here) of Rowling is that her choice to keep Dumbledore closeted ultimately plays into a kind of ‘half-way’ culture where gay men (and obliquely, gay women) are concerned: They can be seen but not heard. They can exist, but not as fully integrated human beings (compare: the Weasley parents, whose sexuality is fully integrated into their characters as a matter of course, without question or excuse). I would have been easier on Rowling had she not explicitly stated in her interview that she thought of Dumbledore as part of her larger narrative aim at examining Tolerance. My argument is that the way she portrayed Dumbledore in the books has precisely the opposite effect. If Dumbledore’s characterization is what it means to Tolerate gay men, I want none of it.
Dumbledore Is Gay 20 October 2007Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Sexuality.
Tags: gay men in literature, homophobia
Well, duh. J.K. Rowling revealed yesterday that her character Dumbledore, erstwhile Hogwarts headmaster, is gay. [Hat tip to Belaja.] Leaving aside the politically delicate act of outing, Rowling’s revelation puts to rest a couple years of rumors concerning the bearded sage, and surely will bring up all sort of pedophilic panic among those already predisposed against the Satanic wizarding world (i.e., Christian wingnuts). I find that I have a mixed response to this revelation.
On one hand, I still have that problem where I crave representation in the larger culture, and so I immediately started rethinking everything I remember about the character through the books. And I felt a bond to Rowling. Apparently, Dumbledore’s life-love was the evil Grindelwald, because of whom he almost destroyed his remaining family (Book 7). Rowling says that his love for Grindelwald disillusioned Big D, and taught him that love can blind you to what is right. And that it was the great tragedy of Dumbledore’s life.
But Dumbeldore as broken, betrayed aging single lonely gay man? The other side of my response was irritation and disappointment. There are two tropes in Western literature going back at least to the Victorians of homosexual male characters. First, the psychopathic, often homicidal, mentally imbalanced. In the narrative, he is usually the foil against which the normal or good men are measured. Think: Talented Mr. Ripley. Even E.M. Forster’s characters in Maurice border on this trope. Second, and the one followed by Rowling, the single outcast, usually pathetic and pitiable, incapable of love, or only finding impossible love; but usually functioning as a care-taker or guide or at worst the comic relief for the straight people in the narrative.. These men are usually not explicitly homosexual. Think: Henry James’ The American. Rowling has followed this trope, albeit a step up, where Dumbledore has an important career and is the center of the fight against darkness. See, all that unused relational energy can be transfered into a career!
So while I understand Rowling’s argument that her books are a “prolonged argument for tolerance,” and I think she had good intentions, in 2007 we are far beyond the time when a sympathetic gay character should be closeted and sexless (and surely Ian McLellan has proved that older gay men are still vital and sexual). Given where the UK is right now in the integration of gay men and women into British society, this is a step backward. I don’t want to be too harsh, here, but ultimately Dumbledore’s narrative turns into sycophantism: How do you write a gay character in a children’s book without freaking the hell out of their conservative retrograde parents? What would Dumbledore have been like had he had a partner (dead or living), if he’d discussed love with Harry or Hermione at appropriate moments? Would it have undermined his position at the center of Goodness in the book? No. If Rowling’s intention is an argument for tolerance, it is a weak whimper of a statement, at least where gay men are concerned.
To be honest, my bets for a gay character were on Sirius. My feeling was that he had been in love with James (Gary Oldman’s plunging neckline can’t help but throw us back to the go-go gay 1970s). But had Rowling outed Sirius last night, we would have been left in exactly the same conundrum. A lonely, single gay man, loveless and pitiable.
UPDATE: If Sirius were gay, that would mean that the two main adult men who take care of Harry as a young man were gay. The horror! Surely, this explains his pouty broodiness in books 5-7, as well as his bad manners and self-absorption and most especially his propensity to flagrantly (flamboyantly?) disregard the rules! I see it now. What Rowling is actually doing is writing a cautionary tale about young men being mentored by homos.