Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In the Future Everybody Will Be Queer -- Except Me

I've finally begun reading Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (Liverpool UP, 2008), and am in the middle of a contribution by one of the editors, Wendy Gay Pearson. She begins by describing the 1998 call by fan groups for a boycott of an upcoming Star Trek film, Star Trek: Insurrection.
After nearly two decades of lobbying the producers of the various Star Trek shows and movies for the inclusion of a lesbian or gay character in a cast intended to represent all types of humans (including a variety of racial and ethnic types, as well as both sexes) and quite a miscellany of aliens, the group had has finally, it seems, had enough. Curious as it might seem at first glance, sf shows seem to be the last holdout in a medium that is rapidly accommodating itself to the idea that there really are lesbian and gay people in the 'real' world that television claims, however peculiarly, to reflect ...

Spokespeople for the Voyager Visibility Project note, trenchantly enough, that despite the addition of visible lesbian and gay characters to non-sf television shows, 'it is just as important to show that gays and lesbians will exist and will be accepted in the future'. The heteronormative assumptions behind much science fiction, both cinematic and literary, are very neatly exposed by the circular reasoning with which the producers of Star Trek reject demands for visibly non-straight character: homophobia, they say, does not exist in the future as it is shown on Star Trek; gay characters therefore cannot be shown, since to introduce the issue of homosexuality is to turn it back into a problem; in order for Star Trek to depict a non-homophobic view of the future, it must depict a universe with no homosexuals in it. Clearly, logic is not a prerequisite for would-be television gurus.

Nevertheless, while I certainly acknowledge that a visible gay or lesbian character on the cast of a Star Trek show would be a politically astute move for those whose day-to-day politics are focused on an inclusionary, right-based approach to ameliorating the conditions in which lesbian and gay people live, it is worth asking whether the inclusion of a gay character on a show that presupposes an already heteronormative view of the human future can be said to 'queer' that future in any significant way. If a lesbian officer is shown on the bridge, for instance, or a gay male couple is shown holding hands on the holodeck, either might certainly be an instance of 'cognitive estrangement' (to use [Darko] Suvin's term) for many audience members, but neither instance would necessarily be queer. Of course, the producers will have to use a little -- and one might suggest that it would only take a very little -- imagination in showing us that their new lieutenant, shall we say, is lesbian, without making her sexuality into a 'problem' [14-15].
It should take a very little imagination to do so, since the producers would have before them the example of Star Trek's handling of race, with Lt. Uhura, a character of African descent whose skin color was not treated as a 'problem'; and if they wanted, they'd have the example of a great deal of print SF which already by 1998 had shown lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters whose sexuality was not a problem. That's why Star Trek always left me feeling dissatisfied from its first season: it was good for TV science fiction, but not very good compared to print science fiction. Where sex and gender are concerned, the lag between TV/film and print just widened as time went on.

But I disagree with Pearson's take on the producers' circular logic. They're quite right to insist that a non-homophobic future would not regard lesbian and gay Starfleet personnel as a problem; they could even have argued that in such a future, "gay" and "lesbian" would have no meaning. Queer theorists like to talk about "homosexuality as we think about it today" by contrast with the past, but they seldom consider how people might think about homosexuality in the future. In a nonhomophobic society, it seems to me, there would be many people who would become involved erotically / romantically with persons of their own sex, but they wouldn't think of themselves as lesbian, gay, or even bisexual, because there would be no need for such labels. Samuel R. Delany likes to cite a Thomas Disch story which contains the line (I'm quoting from memory here), "Father married again, a man this time and somewhat more happily." This sentence, all by itself, tells us that the narrator and his father live in a society where men can marry other men, where there's not an assumption that because one currently has a partner of one's own sex, all of one's partners have been or will be of one's own sex. That's not to say that in a non-homophobic society everyone would be "bisexual," as some have claimed. It would be homophobic to object if someone preferred partners of one sex or the other. The anthropologist Margaret Mead notoriously said that exclusive heterosexuality is as sick as exclusive homosexuality, which is true only in the narrow sense that zero equals zero, because neither pattern is "sick."

I can't tell so far whether Pearson is unaware of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's schema of "universalizing" vs. "minoritizing" conceptions of homosexuality, or whether she merely misunderstands it. At one point she refers to her "own sense of where queer comes from: a dissatisfaction with both the universalizing (all gays are alike) and the segregating (gay men and lesbians are different) style of 'identity politics' influenced by an ethic of gayness" (17). She doesn't mention Sedgwick here, but if she has her in mind, she misunderstands what Sedgwick meant. A universalizing view doesn't assume that "all gays are alike" -- that would be the minoritizing view, which holds that homosexuals are a stable, discrete group, not all identical perhaps but still possessing the same gay or lesbian essence, which heterosexuals lack. A universalizing view holds that anyone might have homosexual feelings, desires, overt experiences. This is not necessarily either a hostile or an accepting view, just as the minoritizing style can be either hostile or accepting. Sedgwick was interested in exploring and unraveling the tensions and contradictions between the two styles, which aren't mutually exclusive. It's hard for me to figure out just what binarism Pearson is trying to define here.

But maybe Pearson meant something else. Whatever. What I was getting at is that the producers of Star Trek were using the idea of a non-homophobic society as a way of erasing same-sex eroticism. Their logic wasn't necessarily circular, just dishonest. The way to resolve the problem would be to have characters who interact romantically with partners of their own sex without labeling them gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This would probably be too much for television, let alone science-fiction television, but that's the way it has been handled in print science-fiction. I'd say that the producers Pearson quotes were using this valid logic to veil their own homophobia.

What got my attention in Pearson's discussion was that bit about "If a lesbian officer is shown on the bridge, for instance, or a gay male couple is shown holding hands on the holodeck ..." Pearson alludes to the problem of how you show a lesbian officer on the bridge -- what signifiers would tell us that a woman officer on the bridge is a lesbian? a labyris? Doc Martens? -- but doesn't seem to see the trouble with her image of a gay male couple holding hands on the holodeck. Two men holding hands would spell h-o-m-o to an American TV audience, of course, but not to people in every culture. The editors of Queer Universes pay lip service to postcolonial theory in their introduction, but Pearson gives me the impression that she doesn't know much about other cultures in the real world. She certainly hasn't taken them into account here.

In many cultures, from Africa to the Middle East to East Asia, men are physically affectionate with other men and women are physically affectionate with other women to a degree that often makes visiting Europeans uncomfortable. (This despite the fact that such effusive affection between men was not unknown in Europe or America in the recent past.) Men hold hands walking down the street or while having a conversation in a cafe, for example. There's a tendency among some Anglo observers to romanticize this behavior (Jeremy Seabrook on Indian men, for example), which I want to avoid here. Such societies are not less "homophobic" than "Western" societies -- indeed, they are often very homophobic. I have the impression that this same-sex affection flourishes in sex-segregated societies, and that as the culture changes and men and women are allowed to be affectionate in public, affection becomes eroticized and homophobia makes it harder (and eventually impossible) for it to be expressed between same-sex friends.

But there's also a tendency for homophobic spokesmen of those societies to insist that such affectionate displays are not "homosexual", in an attempt to deny that homosexuality exists in their cultures; I reject that tendency too, along with the contemporary "Western" academic tendency to de-eroticize this affection with terminology like the "homosocial." There's no clear line to be drawn between the affectionate and the erotic in general.

To postulate two male characters holding hands on the holodeck as "a gay couple" is a textbook example of that Eurocentric gay imperialism that post-colonial theorists often complain about, though they often try clumsily and ineffectually to "queer" those non-Western patterns -- that is, to claim them for queerness. (I hereby claim this island and its exotic folkways for Queer Nation!) It will take more than just "a very little imagination" to come up with depictions of lesbian and gay characters for Star Trek or other vehicles that don't fall into that trap, yet would work on American television with all its taboos. In a non-homophobic society, how would a lesbian officer or a gay male couple behave? What would two men holding hands on the holodeck signify? I see no reason to assume that such affection is only and always an expression of eroticism, though the erotic is as welcome to me as the non-erotic. What happens to pride and honor in a non-homophobic society? In a homophobic society, men must defend their honor against imputations of sexual receptivity, even (or especially) if they are sexually receptive to other men in private. Will men in the future be accepted not only if they have sex with other men, but if they hold hands with them? Ditto for women.

Questions like these are too much for the likes of Star Trek, of course, but queer theorists and science-fiction writers interested in sexuality, gender, and culture had better start exploring them; they seem to be very interesting, to me. The matter of affection and its relation to eroticism is something I hope to write about more before long.