Saturday, March 20, 2010

Assimilation and Its Discontents

I've been dithering around writing about gay people and assimilation for years. People are still talking about it, and every year or so I get a request from a student journalist to ask if any Speakers Bureau volunteers are willing to talk about the assimilation question. I think my position has more or less stabilized (though you never know), so here goes.

I think GLBT assimiliation is a non-issue -- I'm not sure the idea even makes sense. First, we are born assimilated into straight society: our parents and families are overwhelmingly heterosexual. There's no analogy between our situation and that of people who come into a new culture from another one, speaking another language, having other customs, used to other political systems. (Even this ethnic model of assimilation has been questioned, though in many respects it seems a moot point: most immigrants' children and virtually all of their grandchildren learn English and acculturate. This article, for example, mentions a study which found that "after four years of American high school the children of Mexican and Filipino immigrants were fifty percent more likely to self‑identify themselves as Mexicans and Filipinos than as Mexican‑Americans, Filipino‑Americans, or unhyphenated Americans." It's not clear what the "decrease" was measured against historically, compared to previous generations of Irish or Germans or Italians, and I wonder what effect anti-immigrant sentiment and propaganda had on the self-perception of the kids in the study. But anyway...) If queers want to refuse assimilation, we have to secede, though often enough we're expelled. Still, I'm not sure how well either withdrawal or expulsion fits with the notion of assimilation or its rejection.

Nor am I sure what constitutes assimilation. Many of us take for granted that same-sex marriage is assimilationist, and I agree that the motives of many if not of its advocates are precisely to blend into mainstream society. But will they succeed? How well do same-sex couples blend in? I'm not the only person who's noticed that same-sex and especially same-gender couples undermine the gendered, separate-spheres structure of "traditional" marriage. That is certainly among the reasons why religious bigots oppose it: they want marriage to be hierarchical, with one person in charge and the other subordinate. Heterosexual marriage was already becoming homosexualized in this sense before the same-sex marriage movement got into gear; the controversy lies in whether or not you consider that a good thing.

On the other hand, I've also noticed that many straight male liberals who are vocal in supporting same-sex marriage and an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell are still homophobic, often intensely so. They reflexively fall back on homophobic imagery to describe conflict and unfairness -- bending over, having something rammed down their throats, castration and the lack of "balls", and so on -- and fag jokes are still part of their repertoire. Assimilation is never as easy as the assimilees think it will be, and resistance runs deep. German Jewry was Europe's most assimilated, and they were very proud of the extent to which they'd Germanized themselves, right down to assimilating hatred of "stereotypical" Jews. In the end their assimilation was used against them, just as gay invisibility has been used against us (we're a fifth column, trying to undermine society, pretending to be normal when we're not, etc.)

Sure, the craving of so many Homo-Americans to be recognized as a regular, normal part of our glorious country makes me gag. Which isn't to say it doesn't make a kind of sense, since as I just said, we are born and grow up as part of American culture. It's not surprising (to me, anyway), that many people would react to attempts to expel them by refusing to be expelled, to insist that they do so belong. And who's to say they don't? As I've said before, my own experience has been that being openly gay enabled me to mix (not to assimilate) among straights, while gay community / culture seemed to me like a product of the closet.

I just finished reading Smash the Church, Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights Books, 2009), edited by longtime activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca. It's mostly a collection of short memoirs by people who were involved in the radical gay movement that exploded in 1969 and petered out sometime in the mid-1970s, with some contemporary documents, some of them published in full for the first time. For those of us who lived through that period and were inspired by that movement, the book is an important jog to the memory; for those who were born long afterwards, it will be probably be something of a revelation. The writers don't minimize the downside of those years -- the government repression from outside, the ego trips and burnout that sent Gay Liberation into a downward spiral, though it never quite died out. Gay Liberation still should be an inspiration, simply because it asked deep questions and proposed radical answers and tried to live them. This was true not only of Gay Liberation but of other movements for social justice and radical change that flourished in the 1960s and were crushed in little over a decade, and that are commonly derogated now as utopian foolishness by a society that was nevertheless affected by them. People who didn't grow up in the 1950s and 1960s can't feel in their bones how much things changed. If those movements didn't directly cause the change, at least they were the vehicles, the channels through which the change flowed.

One thing that struck me as I read Smash the Church, Smash the State! was how many of the writers, men and women alike, have become therapists. That looks like assimilation to me. Given the historical role of psychotherapy as an enforcer of conformity (and worse -- remember the major role therapists and counselors played in the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunt of the 1990s), I find this fact disquieting. Did we take over the profession, or did it co-opt us? I think it's more the latter. So I had probably my most mixed feelings about Don Kilhefner's contribution, "The Gay Community in Crisis." Kilhefner was involved in GLF, helped found what is now called the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (later to be taken over by professional diversity managers -- see Jane Ward's Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in GLBT Activist Organizations [Vanderbilt, 2008]) , and was a co-founder of the Radical Faeries. He's now "a Jungian psychologist and shamanic practitioner" in Los Angeles.

I agree with a lot of Kilhefner's diagnosis of the current gay malaise, though I think it applies no less to other minorities. He writes (275), "It saddens me tremendously today when energized young gay men want to know where they can go to become actively and constructively involved in the community. For the first time since the 1980s I have no place toward which to point them. It tears me apart when intelligent young gay men tell me they have to 'dumb it down' to be part of the gay community. I have a hunch this is true in your community as well." But then I remember having to struggle against dumbing-down in the early 1970s too. There was great resistance to gay politics of any kind among most gay men I met in those days. It wasn't just heterosexuals who laughed at the idea of homosexuals organizing, making demands, changing the way we saw ourselves and expecting straights to do the same. I had unrealistic expectations of the thoughtfulness of other gay men when I first came out, and remember that I did so in a college town.

Of the genesis of Faery, Kilhefner writes (273),
I had gathered together all the gay visionary literature I could get my faggoty hands on, beginning with Walt Whitman and including Edward Carpenter, Gerald Heard (writing under the pseudonym D. B. Vest in homophile publications), Harry Hay et al.; culled the evolutionary biology and sociobiology literature about us at the time; and also rounded up the other usual suspects.
The reference to "evolutionary biology and sociobiology" put me on the alert. I remember seeing Harry Hay refer to sociobiology in interviews during the 1980s, and I'd wonder what he could be thinking. In the 1970s some sociobiologists were suggesting that (male) homosexuality could be explained in terms of "kin selection" -- that our cultural contributions in emergent human societies balanced our nonreproductive tendencies. When I first encountered this speculation (which was all it was), I thought it was plausible until I began reading the critiques of sociobiology that began appearing at around the same time. I also wondered what counted as "homosexuals" in this scheme, since most gay men and lesbians are capable of reproduction; the assumption (which is all it is) that we are somehow totally uninvolved in making or raising children is false. This theory is also at odds with the rejection of assimilation, since it assumes that homosexuals have always played an important role in their societies, rather than being outsiders with a society of our own.

But Kilhefner takes sociobiology very seriously (275f):
Evolutionary biologists inform us that the basic function of heterosexuals is the reproductive survival of the species. The most essential question for us at present is: What is the evolutionary function of gay people? What are gay people for? To mimic heterosexuals? I don’t think so. Otherwise, evolutionarily speaking, we would have gone down the drainpipe of history long ago.
This assumes, first, that gay people are biologically distinct from heterosexuals, which we aren't. If we were, we would indeed "have gone down the drainpipe of history"; the sociobiological fables were concocted to explain in Darwinian terms how a non-reproducing adaptation could have arisen in the first place. Second, it assumes that you have to have an "evolutionary function," and you have to know what it is, and if you know what it is you have to conform to it because it gives your life meaning. Or something. I certainly don't see why it's an "essential question," let alone the most essential "at present" -- if it matters, it always did, though it could hardly have arisen before Darwin. (Two centuries ago, I suppose a Don Kilhefner would have been saying that the most essential question before Mollies, Sodomites and Sapphists was to know our role in God's plan; the two ideas are functionally equivalent, and equally unimportant.)
Assimilationists will say we are basically just like heterosexuals except for our choice of sex partners. (Harry [Hay] would say to me: “We’re just like hets when it comes to sex, and in most other ways we are different.”) Assimilationists act as if we already have an identity (homosexual), and with cybersex and hookups who needs a community or even an intellectual life?
Harry Hay's quip has often been quoted, and while it's a cute, Wilde-wannabe paradox, I don't agree, or even get his point. What are those "most other ways" we're different? (I'd rather point out that the assimilationists' claim contradicts their rage at those who'd reduce gayness to mere -- you know -- sex.) I think that, given sexism and male supremacy, the sex of one's sexual partner has some serious consequences; it's not exactly trivial. But most of all, I reject the idea that there are heterosexuals, who are all pretty much alike, and then there are homosexuals, who are all pretty much alike. I've never wanted to assimilate to gay men's culture, any more than I wanted to sit around with a bunch of guys chugging brewskies, slobbering over the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, or screaming at a big-screen TV on Superbowl Sunday.

One thing that bothered me about Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal (The Free Press, 1999), which I mostly liked, was Warner's apparent acceptance of 'mainstream' society's self-presentation at face value: if respectable men pretended to be monogamous family guys who'd never think of sneaking off to a strip club or an adult bookstore, let alone a gay cruising area, then that was what they were. The underside of the "normal" is part of society, and can't be separated from it. Similarly, as I've suggested before, "assimilationist" gay people will most likely end up being as hypocritical as their straight counterparts, because hypocrisy is part of respectability.

It doesn't seem to me that gay enspiritment, as Kilhefner calls it, offers much of an intellectual life, which is one reason why I've always given it a wide berth. Especially the Jungians, who are especially pernicious. (Kilhefner also refers in his essay to "father hunger", which indicates his ties to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement, another hotbed of creepy pseudospirituality and anti-intellectualism.) A lot of very fine books have come from GLBTQ scholars, but the most resounding turkeys -- Judy Grahn's Another Mother Tongue, Jamake Highwater's The Mythology of Transgression, Mark Thompson's Gay Body, Arthur Evans's Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, Mab Segrest's Born to Belonging come to mind off the top of my head -- all come from the therapeutic/spiritual, and especially Jungian wing of the community. (Well, them and the New Agers, but then the latter are part of the therapeutic/spiritual wing anyway.)

Which doesn't mean I'm complacent about gay politics and community today, as anyone who reads this blog should know. But I think that pursuing "enspiritment" and the culture of therapy has been the road too many of us have taken to become lost in the wilderness.