August 1, 2014

‘The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality’ by Suzanna Danuta Walters

Posted on July 24, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

The first thing that came to mind after finishing Suzanna Walters’ excellent and original piece was a quote from longtime social critic Fran Lebowitz from the 2010 Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking where she stated:

[...] I mean, do I think gay marriage is progress? Are you kidding me? This was one of the good things about being gay! I mean, I am stunned that the two greatest desires of people involved in gay rights movements are gay marriage and gays in the military. I mean to me, these seem like the two most confining institutions on the planet: marriage and the military. Why would you be beating down the doors to get in? Usually a fight for freedom is a fight for freedom, this is like the opposite…I mean people used to pretend to be gay to get out of going into the army!

As Walters argues, and I believe this is something Lebowitz herself would agree with, today’s gay rights movement and its allies who believe that “access to marriage and the military are the brass ring of gay rights” and that once we “have achieved these goals we will have moved into a post-gay America” are not only wrong but also doing an injustice to the gay rights movement by promulgating such rhetoric over demanding full equality, bar none. Yes, gay marriage and equal access for those LGBT individuals who want to be in the military are important, but they are in no way the be all and end all of the gay rights movement that has greatly changed its makeup from the individuals behind the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 to those of today. Undoubtedly Walters will not only receive an insurmountable amount of criticism for pointing this out but also, as a result of her excellent book, she’ll disillusion the idea of progress, as we see it today, as not progress but rather small steps in the “deep claim for full civil rights” that is still unknown to the LGBT community. Walters posits that the LGBT community needs to recommit itself to fighting for full civil rights rather than accepting whatever comes our way in small gradual steps.

The major crux of Walters’ argument is in her deconstruction of the popular battle cry “It’s not a choice.” Walters believes the “born this way” argument is harmful to the gay rights cause as it allows individuals to utilize substandard science that reduces human sexuality into normative categories and classifications. As Walters, whose bluntness throughout the book is a breath of fresh air, states:

Most gays and their allies believe that gays are “born that way” and that proving biological immutability is the key to winning over reluctant heterosexual and gaining civil rights. Most gays and their allies believe that the closet is largely a thing of the past and that we have entered a new era of sexual ease and fluidity. Most gays and their allies think that we have essentially won the culture wars and that gay visibility in popular culture is a sign of substantive gay progress. Most gays and their allies believe that gay is the new black: hip, happening, embraced….Most gays and their allies believe that we are almost there: we can see the end of the tunnel, where a rainbow world of warm inclusion awaits us. These people are wrong.

Walters pinpoints the scientific arguments behind the “born this way” argument to show not how gay rights activists are wrong but to express the tragic consequences behind historically categorizing and measuring people’s activities. There is no one way to look at sexuality and human nature and Walters does an excellent job of utilizing a type of reverse psychology, not to change the minds of anti-gay individuals but to ask members of the gay community and its allies to think how they argue for the “born this way” argument and how it may be a type of appeasement to the “accept us” agenda. It isn’t demanding full equality under the law, but only partial equality as seen in allowing LGBT individuals the rights to marry, file joint taxes, and even die for their country.

Although Walters is not the first person to critically lash the gay rights movement today, à la David Halperin’s How to Be Gay, her argument has caused me to reexamine the ways I not only accept tolerance but also how I continue to identify as a modern gay rights activist. Simple tolerance and acceptance is becoming a thing of the past and “as long as tolerance is [the] reigning ethos [and] as long as we deny our difference in the service of misplaced allegiance to gender and sexual norms, we [will ultimately] deny ‘the unique genius in being queer.’” While we have won many battles on the gay rights front in the past two years, the coming storm for full equality is looming in the distance. Regardless of how the outlook appears, a victory can in some ways feel like a loss and even when we think we are near the finishing line, we, gay rights activists and allies alike, will realize that we have miles to go.

 

 

The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality
By Suzanna Danuta Walters
NYU Press
Hardcover, 9780814770573,  343  pp.
May 2014

‘State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties’ by Judith G. Poucher

Posted on July 20, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

I approached Judith G. Poucher’s State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties with a degree of skepticism. It wasn’t long ago that I reviewed Stacy Braukman’s masterful Communists and Perverts Under the Palms (2012), also about the Johns Committee, and I had my doubts that a second book in three years would reveal much more necessary information about the post-McCarthy witch-hunts that the committee launched in Florida. Fortunately, Poucher has found a different approach to the material, emphasizing the contributions of five individuals who, when confronted by the committee, fought back through lawsuits, cleverly combative testimony, and, in the case of gay individuals, refusing to name names. (more…)

‘The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy’ by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy; Edited by Katherine Bucknell

Posted on July 17, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

Christopher Isherwood died in 1986, his legacy as an author and gay trailblazer assured by works such as A Single Man, The Berlin Stories, and, most recently, the publication of his diaries–a treasure trove of insight into one of the 20th Centuries most fascinating figures. It’s only been in recent years, however, that Isherwood’s love life has drawn public attention on par with his literary achievements. The Animals, a collection of love letters between Isherwood and his surviving partner, the artist Don Bachardy, aims to correct that imbalance. (more…)

‘Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves’ edited by Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway

Posted on July 15, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves is an anthology of personal narratives by trans men in North America, spanning an array of perspectives, ethnicities, classes and ages. This anthology provides a space for trans men to share their experience of childhood, coming out, transitioning, relationships, family and what masculinity means to them. (more…)

‘Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire’ by Amy Villarejo

Posted on June 3, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

What we see on the horde of screens that comprise and dictate the majority of our daily actions are vital in composing not only our personal narrative but also society’s at large. The importance of one of those screens, the television, has been such a longtime player in the representations of different societal, cultural, and sexual norms that it has oftentimes been the subjects of critique, ridicule, and praise. One of those critiques, Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire by Professor Amy Villarejo at Cornell University probes into how representations of queer life have changed since the evolution of the TV in the 1950s and provides a bold new way for queer people to understand themselves through the programs they watch on TV and the world and cultural niches they occupy. (more…)

‘In a New Century : Essays on Queer History, Politics and Community’ by John D’Emilio

Posted on May 28, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

In this book, John D’Emilio takes us on a friendly, companionable walk through his career and his wide-ranging thought. As an amelioration of varied interests, the collection is a refreshing overview of this storied academic’s professional career infused with a vigorous analysis of people and events as he considers multi-dimensional changes in the LGBT community since 1960 and how these have impacted the United States.
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‘Gender Failure’ by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon

Posted on May 24, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

Sometimes you open a book that feels like sitting down to catch up with an old friend. That was my experience as I began to read Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon’s co-written book Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp Press). The book is an adaptation of the duo’s successfully-toured performance, interspersed with Clyde Petersen’s art which was also initially projected during their live show. In the show, the duo alternate telling stories exploring their unique take on life outside the gender binary, and the failings of trying to think of gender simply as a simplistic polarized “male” and “female.” (more…)

‘Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body’ by Peggy Shinner

Posted on May 6, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

“The domestic made lethal—that’s the legend.”

-Peggy Shinner

We live in a society entrenched in matters of the body. Sexualization, fetishization, policing, ableism, movement, tangibility, and the body politic, our corporality is absolutely everywhere. Despite the fact that bodies are subject to intensive scrutiny, the historical origin of how bodies have been perceived throughout time (everything from feet to slouching to undergarments) remains mysteriously out of the realm of everyday knowledge. How is it, for example, that foot shape determined class and stature, traditionally? How has the body been commodified in times of martial economies (i.e., dowry economy)? (more…)

‘Paris Is Burning’ by Lucas Hilderbrand

Posted on April 7, 2014 by in Nonfiction

In the latest contribution to Arsenal Pulp Press’s “Queer Film Classics” series, Lucas Hilderbrand sets his sights on that legacy object, the fabulous and enduring cultural phenomenon that is Paris Is Burning. One of the most successful documentaries ever made, the 1991 film follows Harlem Drag legends like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and newcomers like Octavia Saint Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza as they compete in Harlem drag balls, dream of fame and struggle as queer people of color in the bustle of pre-Giuliani New York City. Hilderbrand, whose scholarship includes articles on Todd Haynes’ Barbie bootleg, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and an analysis of “The Art of Distribution: Video on Demand,” embraces the rich cultural text with signature breadth and an impassioned personal narrative. (more…)

‘Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home’ by Catherine Reid

Posted on March 23, 2014 by in Nonfiction, Reviews

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

-Margaret Atwood, “The Moment”

Borges says, in his literary theory, that there are more or less six themes that authors write about, six stories they tell, though the narratives may vary. All have to do with the human condition: how we love, how we live, how we make a life for ourselves, how we interact with the physical/metaphysical/spiritual, our literal and figurative place in the world. Following this metric, Catherine Reid’s newest collection of nature-centric essays, Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, is the perfect example of how the personal becomes global through familiar tropes. Utilizing her relationship to her home in the Berkshires as well as the deeply-crafted life with her partner, Reid juxtaposes her identity as a native New Englander with her otherness as a lesbian woman to create lyric tension that sustains the ambivalence of the narrative. (more…)