Wednesday, April 14, 2021

False Dichotomies, Cultural Baggage, and Nuclear Families

I was doing some thinking about identities today, with an eye toward doing another post on the subject, and got sidetracked when I reread this passage from an article on sexual attitudes in Mauritania.*

But I have come to understand that the statement "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania" means something else altogether to the people who say it.  Western television and movies are widely available in and watched here.  Via these media, Mauritanians see American and European gay people demonstrating in the streets for their equality, petitioning their government for the right to marry, leaving their extended families, and setting up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  That is what "being gay" looks like to people there.  When homosexuality is portrayed in those terms, the Mauritanians are right -- they don't have (those kind of) gay people here!
Among the many things wrong with these remarks is something so obvious that I forgot to spell it out in the post I wrote around it.  There are numerous reasons why American and European gay people would marry, leave their extended families, and set up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  One very important one is that gay people here have traditionally been expelled from their families, whether by force or by insistent pressure.  But another is that it's what American heterosexuals do.  American heterosexuals rarely live in extended families, though it may have become more common lately, with the COVID pandemic exacerbating the effects of the crumbling American economy so that they can't afford to live independently of their families.  It's this pattern that Dennis Altman referred to as the homosexualization of American culture, and it helped make room for gay people to imagine their coupled arrangements as normal, since in American terms they increasingly were.

Still, the much-vaunted "American dream" is built around the nuclear family, living in the suburbs in a house with a white picket fence with 2.4 children, with white-haired Grandma and Grandpa living in the picturesque countryside to be visited on occasional holidays.  It was always exaggerated, since many heterosexuals chose to live near their parents if they could; gay people frequently could not.  It's also an exaggeration to suppose that people live in "their" extended families in other cultures: in traditional Confucian Korea, for example, a bride left her parents to live with her husband's extended family, and visited her parents only rarely for the rest of her life.  Some family connections, in other words, are made to be broken even in traditional cultures, but they don't count.

If I were trying to explain American gay people to Mauritanians who'd been seeing gay political activism in the news, among the many other misconceptions I'd have to correct was their misunderstanding of heterosexual family arrangements in America.  (Another would be the fantasy that all American gay people spend all our time marching in the streets.  If we did that, we'd never have time for the eternal cavalcade of non-stop, mind-blowing anal sex for which we are justly famed worldwide.)  As I've said many times before, it's true that Americans have cultural baggage of which we tend not to be aware - but so do people in every country and culture.


*Jay Davidson, "It All Began with Mamadou," in Gay Travels in the Muslim World, ed. Michael T. Luongo (Harrington Park Press, 2007), p. 8.  Is a "gay travel" a travel that wants to get married to a travel of the same gender?

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

I Don't Mean to be Judgmental, But ...

The local newspaper carries the venerable advice column Dear Abby, and the first letter in today's column struck a chord, or a nerve.

DEAR ABBY: I am a senior male. I understand I may have some beliefs that others find old-fashioned. However, I consciously try to be tolerant of others’ feelings and beliefs. That said, my problem is with my younger brother, who is a homosexual. I have always tried to ignore that side of his life and, consequently, we have always had a good relationship. He lives in another state, so we only talk on the telephone.

A couple of months ago while we were talking, the subject of sexuality came up, and I told him I find the fact that he is gay “disgusting.” I know it was a poor choice of words. I merely meant to say that I, myself, am and always have been totally heterosexual. I have never had any sexual interest in members of my own sex. I never meant my comment to be judgmental of my brother or anyone else.

I left several messages apologizing for anything I said that he found objectionable. Now, when I try to contact him, he doesn’t answer my phone calls.

Abby, I miss my brother. I truly love him, and I don’t want to lose all contact with him. If you have any advice for me, please give it to me. I’m desperate and can think of nothing I might be able to do to restore our relationship. — FEELS LIKE A FOOL IN WASHINGTON 

Abby was refreshingly unsympathetic, which is in keeping with the Dear Abby brand.  Her mother, the original Abby, was pro-gay before it was cool, and before her sister "Ann Landers" shed her own old-fashioned views on the matter.  In one famous 1972 column, she slyly told an inquirer who asked how to improve their "once-respectable neighborhood" after a gay couple moved in: "You could move."

My take on today's letter takes a wider view.  Bigots of whatever stripe like to see themselves as merely "old-fashioned," unable to understand why others get indignant when they refer to Negroes as monkeys, to women as whores, to gays as a form of bestiality.  Indeed, another syndicated column in today's paper, by an elderly white man, began by declaring that none of his best friends are black, then explaining that he was just being provocative, but jeez, people have gotten so sensitive about race "in the past couple of years."

For me the key to "Feels Like a Fool in Washington"'s letter was this paragraph:

A couple of months ago while we were talking, the subject of sexuality came up, and I told him I find the fact that he is gay “disgusting.” I know it was a poor choice of words. I merely meant to say that I, myself, am and always have been totally heterosexual. I have never had any sexual interest in members of my own sex. I never meant my comment to be judgmental of my brother or anyone else.
I have no doubt that he had been obnoxious to his brother many times before and that he'd been wanting to use the word "disgusting" for decades, so it's not surprising that it finally popped out.  And though he pretends to be remorseful, he proceeds to try to justify himself: "I merely meant to say..."  Sure he did.  There's no reason why his supposed total heterosexuality requires him to be disgusted by his brother's homosexuality, but again, this is what bigots say when they blurt out something reprehensible.  They merely meant to say that as white people, as men, as Christians, as Americans, as whatever, they naturally loathe those outside their granfalloon.  I remember talking with a young gay man who declared that older gay men should not have sex with anyone at all, not even each other, because it was sick and unnatural and disgusting, they should be kept out of sight: he wasn't being judgmental, he meant them no harm, but he just wasn't attracted to them.  I've heard the same line applied to 'stereotypical' gay men.  But "Feels" never meant the word "disgusting" to "be judgmental."

I also doubt very much that the two had "always had a good relationship."  It's a safe bet that his brother had put up with expressions of this man's bigotry for decades, and finally drew a line.  Even now, "Feels" tries to put it all on his brother: there was nothing really wrong with what he said, but his hypersensitive cancel-culture brother "found it objectionable" anyway.  I wouldn't take his phone calls either.  What Sarah Schulman wrote about a conflicted lesbian student applies here too: "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."  The brother may have tried to persuade himself that "Feels" loves and cares about him, but it appears that "Feels" finally persuaded him he was wrong.  "Feels" cares only about himself.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Wills Are Made to Be Broken

The pandemic drags on, with deaths declining and illnesses rising across the US.  My home state of Indiana is now lifting most restrictions, with masks recommended rather than required at the state level; even before the order was lifted, I saw increased numbers of people shopping without masks on.  Municipalities can continue their own control orders, but good luck enforcing them. The county next door wrestled with the problem, and a newspaper story reported that a councilman opposed a mask mandate on the ground that "people don't want to be told what to do."

That's probably true for many, and I initially fumed inwardly because such people think of quarantines and protective gear as something Authority does just to keep them from having fun: they don't take the virus seriously, until they themselves get sick or die.  It isn't, I believe, because the reasons for the restrictions haven't been explained to them, because they have.  I think they react reflexively, like a two-year-old saying "No" automatically and without thought, and it probably helps that most of the time they face no serious penalty for refusing to cooperate -- not even being sent to their rooms with no TV.

Then I happened to reread an older post of mine about boys' and young men's reflexive resistance to rules.  (Large numbers of the older adults we've seen throwing tantrums over having to wear a mask in stores have been women, so it turns out that this reflex isn't exclusively or even mostly male.)  I've noticed before that the same young men who feel oppressed by grownups and their rules also "aspired to join the military or professional sports", which feels odd to me: don't they realize that they'll be forced to conform to far more encompassing chickenshit rules, many of which really are there just to provoke them to disobey, so that they can be slapped down with far more brutality than they ever encountered in school?  It used to be, and still may for all I know, that judges would give boys who kept clashing with the local law a choice between jail and joining the service.  Either way they were going to be beaten, more or less literally, into submission.

(This syndrome wasn't limited to stereotypical bad boys: it was also common among young scientists who chafed at Mom telling them to carry out the garbage or clean their rooms, and retaliated by making stink bombs in the basement. They sought freedom in places like Los Alamos, where they could play with explosives for the fun of it.)

The fantasy was that the process would "make a man out of them," which might be true if "a man" is someone who's been beaten into mindless obedience.  And that's the opposite of what the bold anti-masking brigades claim for themselves.  A similar conflict seems to motivate much of the Trump base: they talk trash about authority, but they also love it, though only as long as Trump tells them what they want to hear.  Maybe that's what they wanted, though, to be taken in hand, their heads shaved, kept in barracks, hemmed in by barbed wire, and forced to comply with a maze of chickenshit regulations?  Maybe all the resistance to masks, distancing, and restrictions on public gatherings was really a cry for help, a plea to be forcibly conscripted into Pandemic Boot Camp for some Tough Love.