Monday, January 14, 2008

Chronicles Of The Backlash, Episode The First

Numerous writers have scolded the New Atheists for (supposedly) thinking that religion will just disappear overnight if it’s confronted with Reason. I don’t know if Dawkins, Harris, and the rest actually believe this, but it is a handy accusation to throw around: having exposed one’s targets as hopeless naïfs, one can return to the status quo with a sigh of relief. Things aren’t so bad after all….

These same critics, it should be noticed, are critical of all sorts of things they don’t like – fundamentalist Christianity, for example. Katha Pollitt in particular has taken a lot of flack for dissing not just fundamentalists, but “nice,” liberal Christians. C’mon, Katha, fundamentalism isn’t going to go away overnight just because you make fun of it. Neither will male supremacy, racism, American militarism, and postmodernism. (Well, maybe postmodernism.) So stop being so mean to those people, okay?

Now, switching targets but staying with the same approach, I know very well that antigay bigotry isn’t going to disappear – not overnight, maybe never. To my mind that’s a good reason to slap it down whenever it rears its head, especially since bigotry is sneaky. It’s not always crude, gut-level ranting or violence. Sometimes it’s genteel, nicey-nice, for-your-own-good, death by a thousand pats on the head. And the most insidious kind is found among gay (or glbtq+π, if you like) people.

Consider Jennifer Baumgardner’s 2007 book Look both ways: bisexual politics (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Baumgardner is bi, 37, a former intern for Ms., the co-editor of Grassroots: a field guide for feminist activism (FSG, 2005), and to be blunt about it, a bit of an airhead.

… I don't relate to the gay catchphrase "coming out of the closet." I reject its implication that I have been harboring a shameful secret or have forced a part of myself to fester alone in a dark, windowless place. Coming out to friends and family for some is a sit-down conversation it takes years to steel oneself for, followed by tears, recriminations, and fallout. Other times it's as simple as referring to your girlfriend in casual conversation with a friend who just gets it. ... These feelings and experiences are part of the culture, even while homophobia is still a part of it, too [210].

Listen, fool, I’m one of those 70s liberationist queers, and I often come out to people just that casually. That was what we were aiming for, as far as I knew: to be able to refer to one’s boyfriend/girlfriend and not have it be a big deal. At other times, it was not so casual – that’s determined not by me so much as by the people I’m dealing with.

For you there may have been no closet to come out of -- that's not unknown even among queers old enough to be your grandma -- but even nowadays there are people for whom it's a struggle. They didn't have your liberal parents and your New York feminist environment to make it easier -- not to mention the years of militant queers like me, forcing open the closet doors, doors that often had straights (and gays) on the other side, struggling to hold them shut. (Liberal parents have been known to freak out when they learn their kid is gay. It’s one thing to have your interior decorator over for cocktails, another to have a son who takes it in the face.) If coming out is often less of a big deal than it used to be, it's because of us, not because of you. At the very least, you might consider not trivializing other people's experiences. I won't call you a fence-sitter if you'll grow up a bit. At 37, you're a bit too old to be cut slack for being young and shallow.

I am not the advocate who screams "This is homophobia!" constantly.

Why the fuck not? But no, you're the advocate who screams "This is biphobia!" constantly. Defining yourself against a caricature – aka “straw man” – is the quintessence of bad faith. Very seriously, I’m not sure what your disavowal is even supposed to mean. Does it mean that even if you encounter homophobia, you don’t do anything about it?

But it's the tragic part of being gay (or thereabouts) that I don't want any part of, honestly [212].

How nice for you. Neither do I, honestly. Are you completely unaware that not wanting any part of the tragic part was a major theme of the old gay movement you so lightly blow off? See The Celluloid Closet, for example. But sometimes “the tragic part” comes up and hits you on the head whether you want any part of it or not. Someone you know is disowned by their family for being gay or bi. Someone gets queer-bashed. Someone seroconverts, or is diagnosed with AIDS. Someone is kicked out of their church, or loses their job, for being gay or bi.

I wouldn’t be so hard on Baumgardner if it weren’t for her vaunted liberal-feminist credentials (I was an intern for Ms.!), and the fact that this tripe was published (though not, it seems, edited) in hard covers by a prestigious mainstream publisher. I’ve encountered similar sentiments and closely guarded ignorance in real-world encounters and online, but to find them in print is especially annoying. Which is why Cthulhu created notebooks and blogs, to provide a medium for venting one’s annoyance.