Friday, February 1, 2013

Survivor's Anger: The Gentrification of the Mind

I've been meaning to write something about Sarah Schulman's The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (California, 2012), but haven't been able to limit myself to one topic.  It's a very rich book, provocative and full of ideas, and it deserves a far wider readership than it's likely to get.  Along with the intertwined consequences of the AIDS epidemic and gentrification, she also writes about the loss of history and its effect of that loss on younger generations of people.

This last was something I'd already been thinking about, because I never thought that most schools would or could deal accurately with the history of the gay movement or of AIDS in the United States, or of activism in general.  Since these are still controversial subjects, they're not going to have a secure place in any curriculum at any level; if they were covered at all, it would probably be inadequately.  If you want to learn about such things, you have to educate yourself, and not many people do.

So, for example, Schulman tells about teaching at the University of Staten Island.
Most of the kids who attend the College of Staten Island are working class or poor, many are immigrants.  I had been at my job for eleven years, but it didn't take more than the first few months for me to learn that Staten Island is hell for queer kids.  Year after year my colleague, queer theorist Matt Brim, and I cry on the night bus coming home from New York about how profoundly traumatized our queer students are.  We do everything we can to intervene but for most of them, by the time they get to us, it's too late.
This, by the way, is why I was so surprised and annoyed by, for example, Bernadette Barton's Pray the Gay Away when she implied that gay kids are only traumatized in the "Bible Belt" nowadays.  Barton managed to reach adulthood without any awareness of how bad things still are in her home region of the Northeast.
This night a girl, Michelle, came out in class.  She had been taking my courses for two years and had never given any sign of being queer, but this one evening she read a story about falling in love with a girl in high school and starting a passionate sexual relationship.  When her parents found out, they gave her an ultimatum.  If she wanted to have a family, she would have to break up with her girlfriend.  Without much thought, she followed their instructions.  Three years later, waiting in the bathroom line of a Staten Island dive bar, she met another woman and fell in love.  In her story, Michelle described uncontrollable desire, accompanied by the knowledge of the tremendous familial punishment that lurked, waiting to pounce.  And it did ... At the end of the story, the protagonist finds a boyfriend, Danny.  She says that she is able to "be comfortable" with him. And the story closes with her parents gleefully welcoming Danny into their home to watch the football game, offering him a glass of beer.
Later in my office, Michelle tells me, I know my parents love and support me.  This is just too hard for them to understand."

I say nothing, but I know that her parents do not love and do not support her.  All they care about are themselves.  They do not see her as real.  And for now, she agrees with them [10-11].
This is heartbreaking enough, but it reminds me how often even some gay people, including academics, accuse other gay people, especially activists, of being hostile to "the family," when in reality it is much more the other way around.  (If some of us are hostile, it's not without reason.)  Schulman has noticed this too.  She first mentions a gay male artist who has performed the works of Joni Mitchell for many years; a reporter for the New Yorker asked him "why he 'did not want' to be part of a recent Joni Mitchell tribute album.  'I wasn't invited,' John replied" (85). 
About a week later I had a Facebook conversation with a reporter from New York Magazine.  She said she had "read somewhere" that I argued that gay people should have nothing to do with their homophobic families.  I informed her that my belief was, in fact, the opposite of that.  I told her that my book on familial homophobia argued that third parties should intervene and create consequences for homophobic families so that they could not get away with marginalizing and shunning their gay family members.  Again, she skewed reality to create a false but comfortable illusion in which it is the gay person who has the power and refuses to participate, when the truth is that we are the ones who are excluded [85-6].
There was a lot of other material I wanted to quote as I read The Gentrification of the Mind, but I came to realize I wanted to quote most of it.  So instead, I want to urge everyone who might be interested to read it.