Saturday, July 20, 2013

Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Academic Disciplines Admit Impediments

The marriage between Queer Theory and Post-Colonial Studies has not always been a happy one.  I've joined a Facebook group, Against Equality, affiliated with a website of the same name that is
focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. As queer thinkers, writers and artists, we are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the US military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation.

We want to reinvigorate the queer political imagination with fantastic possibility!
Anyone who reads this blog will recognize that, as a queer thinker, I'm a priori sympathetic to Against Equality's agenda.  I've written often on their first two concerns, and admittedly rather less on the third.  But so far I'm wary of their work.  They're too prone to throw around the word "privilege," even though as far as I can tell they're fairly privileged themselves.  (And that second paragraph is complacent bullshit.)

Privilege is always relative.  Recently on another site I saw someone, presumably white, argue that poor whites in a particularly disadvantaged county in West Virginia don't have white privilege, but he didn't provide any information about the condition of black people, if there are any, in that county.  (If there aren't any, well... )  It's not exactly a major revelation that white racism in the Jim Crow era functioned (and may even have been deliberately intended) to let poor whites have someone they could feel superior to, and to redirect anger at blacks that might otherwise have been directed at wealthy, powerful whites.  Less well-off racist whites today often complain that blacks have it better than they do: there's a lot of thwarted entitlement in that complaint.  Analogously, graduate students in the US often have it rough, but they are still privileged in terms of status and access to knowledge.  That doesn't mean they have it easy, but it does mean they need to be careful about throwing accusations of privilege at other people.  Against Equality explicitly views the current US gay movement's focus on marriage, gays in the military, and hate-crime laws as dictated by the white privilege of the current leadership.  There's truth in that, but it's an incomplete picture.

So, someone posted a link on the Against Equality page on Facebook about Benjamin Medrano Quezada, the newly-elected gay mayor of Freznillo, Zacatecas in Mexico.  "The fans at Queerty aren't too pleased about this one," commented the person who shared the link, because Medrano told the AP he isn't concerned about gay marriage.
“I’m not in favor of gay marriage, I don’t share that view, because we are still very small town … in short, we’re not prepared, in my view,” the 47-year-old gay bar owner told the AP. “Not yet, anyway, because we have strong roots in our religion, and in our customs.”
Ha ha, take that, you heteroimitative privileged gays at Queerty!  But another member of Against Equality commented mournfully, "(But *sigh* that is exactly how *not* to be critical of gay marriage.)"

Oh, really?  What is the right way to be critical of gay marriage, and who gets to decide it, especially if you're not talking about an American fundamentalist but the singing Third-World mayor of a Mexican town, a status that should confer unquestionable authenticity on Medrano?  He looks güero (that is, "fair"), which confers skin-color privilege on him in Mexico as in the US; and owning a gay bar marks him as petit bourgeois, therefore also of suspect authenticity.  But his reasons for rejecting same-sex marriage are typical of rhetoric from around the world, including queer-theoretical Third World academics: we're traditional here, we're a small town, we're devout, it's not our custom, we don't need your foreign ideas and your atheistic NGOs.  You'd think that devout, conservative small-town people would want their homosexuals married instead of tomcatting around, but there you are.

I recently read a book of academic papers on passing.  Unfortunately, most were quite poor work.  The best, and to my mind the only really good one, was about the drag ball scene documented in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. The paper, "Mimesis in the Face of Fear" by Karen McCarthy Brown, traced the complexities and contradictions in the ball scene, which goes back to at least the 1920s, and originated as an outlet for urban gayish people of color.  Some theorists, including theorists of color, have imposed their understandings on these performances, and were displeased when the poor black and brown queens turned out to have their own understandings and agenda.  McCarthy wrote that "bell hooks, for example, approached the Ballroom Scene in this mood and then found herself disappointed, even angry, about the quality of resistance manifest there."*

This doesn't mean it's improper to criticize traditional, devout, indigenous ways of being and resisting.  It's just to say that neither I nor the folks at Against Equality should presume to lecture South African township ladies, Dominican bugarrones, beauty-contest-competing Filipino bakla, singing gay Mexican small-town mayors, Thai toms and dees, or black and Latino urban Ball queens on how they can most authentically manifest resistance or construct their identities.  We can argue with them, sure; but we must also listen to them if we expect them to listen to us.

It works both ways, of course.  Graeme Reid quoted the Dutch-Surinamese anthropologist Gloria Wekker's stricture "emic constructions and explanations of same-gender sexual behaviour need to be taken seriously. There is no reason to assume that the Western folk knowledge about sex, which has been elevated to academic knowledge, should have any more validity than folk knowledge anywhere else"**.  Western folk knowledge, even when it has been elevated to academic knowledge, also has no less validity than folk knowledge anywhere else.  Both can and should be argued with, but that's what people like Wekker, Reid, the people from Against Equality, and I are for: to argue about them.

*In María C. Sánchez and Linda Schlossberg, eds., Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion (NYU Press, 2001), p. 219.
** In Graeme Reid, How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-town South-Africa (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press, 2013), p. 184.