Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Overlooking the Obvious Again

One thing I've learned over the years from speaking to classes and from online discussion is that very often a question has an unspoken assumption I don't hear at first.  Discovering such an assumption may drastically change the way I answer the question.

Once, for example, a young woman told us that an older male relative, maybe a policeman, had referred to "gay rape" in her presence.  This upset her a great deal, and the other panelists tried to answer it without succeeding in assuaging her concern.  Finally we figured out that she had concluded that her relative meant that rape was a normal part of the gay male experience.  I explained to her that he must have been talking about the rape of a male by another male, which he called "gay rape" just as many people refer to marriage between two men or two women as "gay marriage."  When she understood that gay men don't usually rape each other, she was visibly relieved.  Years later, I'm still baffled at how anyone could have drawn such a conclusion, but that was a learning experience in itself.

I just finished reading I Am Your Sister, the posthumous collection of Audre Lorde's nonfiction writings I wrote about yesterday, and I came again on the notion that, as one Third World queer writer phrased it, concern about women or non-heterosexuals is a "luxury," a monkey wrench thrown into the struggle for liberation.  Or, as a young African-American man asked Audre Lorde in Germany in the 1980s, "Would you think that the Black women's liberation struggle causes harm to the overall struggle for Black freedom?"  (The notable thing about Lorde's answer, which can be heard in Dagmar Schultz' documentary Audre Lorde -- The Berlin Years 1984-1992, is the way she changes her spoken delivery.  Her voice goes up about an octave, sounding almost girlish.  I presume that she did so in an attempt to make her forthright answer less threatening to her male interlocutor.  I'm not sure it worked.)

Of course, this notion assumes that liberation is for men only.  Lorde tells a chilling anecdote in I Am Your Sister:
In 1985 I had a dialogue with James Baldwin at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, not far from Boston.  One of the most heated discussions was around the issue of the twelve murdered Black women, and sexual violence and assault against Black women in general within our Black communities.  There were present two other Black women, two other Black men, one white man, and a young Black male student.

Jimmy and one of the older Black men were in agreement that under the tremendous pressures of racism, Black men could not be held responsible for their violence against Black women, since it was a response to an unjust system, and Black women were only incidental victims.  One of the Black men went so far as to say:

"The Black male is not attacking the Black female; it would be a sheep if that's what was there ..."  To this I replied, and still reply:

"Yes, but I'm not a sheep, I'm your sister ... who is learning to use a gun.  If we wind up having to kill each other instead of our enemies, what a terrible waste for us all."

And at this point it was the young Black male student in the room who spoke up to the older men, in defense of his mother and sisters and their right to defend themselves in the street [179].
It suddenly occurred to me that people who raise this objection are thinking in terms of struggle against the First World oppressor, and assume that women's and gay concerns are going to be added to the list of demands that the liberation movement makes of the oppressor.  But the real issue is internal to the struggle for liberation: Third World men must stop oppressing Third World women and other Third World men.  It's not surprising that such men should object to this condition: they have generally absorbed First World sexism and and anti-gay bigotry along with First World political theories like Marxism and psychoanalysis, using these principles to reinforce indigenous inequities.  Still, it is easier for Third World men to stop oppressing other members of their own group than to demand that the First World stop doing so. (Do I need to add that this applies just as much to sexism and racism among gay white Americans?)  All they need to do is stop harming their own people; this will add nothing to the burden of their struggle against the West.  As Lorde told a mostly white female German audience in The Berlin Years, "Each one of you sitting here has some power.  I know that makes you uncomfortable enough to laugh, but you are responsible for using that power, whatever it is.  And that is not altruism, that is survival."