Pride Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters

The parades are over… the fight for equality is not. 

As LGBT Pride Month comes to a close today, we invite you to read this Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trapin which she discusses the shift from gay pride to tolerance, the trouble with same-sex marriage victories, and what it might look like on the other side of the rainbow.

Who doesn’t like tolerance? As you write, “It seems to herald openness to difference and a generally broad-minded disposition.” Looking a bit more deeply, what does “tolerance” really imply?

Suzanna Danuta Walters: Well, tolerance is certainly better than outright hatred for sure!  But think about it: we tolerate things we would rather do without (an irritating neighbor, a boring movie, a meeting that never seems to end) – we rarely speak of tolerating the things we enjoy (a delicious meal, a vibrant party, a sunny day.)  So tolerance is a very low bar to set when we are pondering the real and robust inclusion of a minority group into full citizenship.

Out gay and lesbian celebrities, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, the end of sanctioned discrimination in the military… Are these not good things?

Of course these are good things – I would be the last person to deny the very real changes that have occurred in the past 15 or so years.  Things are undoubtedly better.  But three points need to be made here:  they are not better enough (we still have disproportionate numbers of gay youth on the streets, we still don’t have ENDA passed, we still have only a handful of openly gay politicians and national leaders).  Second, those gains—out celebrities, gay marriage, and military inclusion—are not the “end” of the struggle for full inclusion. Gay marriage does not = gay rights. And, third, the framing of gay rights around “tolerance” and acceptance forestalls addressing the deeper and more challenging questions posed by full inclusion.

Social movements usually evolve through various stages over the course of years or decades. What stages has the gay and lesbian movement gone through, and where are we now?  What would success look like to you?

True, some of what we are seeing now is the inevitable “normalizing” and mainstreaming of a social movement. But I do think there are some peculiar twists that the gay movement and gay rights has taken. I think “tolerance” as both a means and an end is NOT, in fact, what most social movements have centered their work around.  So feminism didn’t demand “tolerance” for women, but full inclusion and rights and— more importantly—a sea change in cultural attitudes about gender. The civil rights movement asks not for “acceptance” but for a robust re-imaging of race and an historical reckoning with slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve had a wonderful and radical history of gay rights and gay activism—and that has by no means disappeared—but I think we are now threatening that progressive potential by buying into the tolerance trap.

What did “gay pride” used to mean? What does it mean now?

Oh gosh, I still feel a little tingle at the parades, but it does seem it has become more of a rainbow food court than a righteous rally. I do think “pride” is actually a very different affect than “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If we actually got back to that old way of thinking of pride (evidenced in slogans such as “gay is good” and “glad to be gay”) we might begin to shift away from the tepid language of tolerance.

Can you talk a little about how coming out has come to be seen as the master narrative of a gay person’s life? In what ways does the mainstream, at least as represented by conventional wisdom and popular culture, get it wrong?

Coming out has long been both our master narrative but also the way in which gay identities and lives are seen and even “measured” by straight “audiences.” But coming out stories are complicated. For example, in much of popular culture, coming out tales focus more on the reaction of the heterosexuals than on the actual feelings and lives of gay people doing the telling. It often serves to give straight folks a pat on the back for tolerating their gay brethren but often asks little of them in terms of real shifts in attitudes.

In whose interest is it that gay people become “just like everyone else”? What does the gay and lesbian community stand to lose if this assimilation becomes complete?

I actually don’t think it is in anybody’s interest. Assimilation surely might help some (wealthy, white, married) gay people find a home in this country, and it might give comfort to some anxious heterosexuals who don’t want to be bigoted but also don’t want to themselves have to change. But we all—as a nation—lose out when the rich difference of gay life and history and culture are stripped away in the march toward tolerance.

As a progressive (and a lesbian), you are obviously not against marriage equality. And you admit to certain sentimentality about the very fact that gay men and lesbians can now marry their partners in many parts of the U.S.  Yet… you suggest that gay marriage is “the perfect Trojan horse for the tolerance trap.” [p. 177] Tell us more.

Of course I am for marriage equality in the sense of opposing any restrictions on basic civil rights. But what I mean buy “Trojan horse” is that I think gaining marriage rights produces the appearance of full inclusion and equality—it sneaks it through the gages so to speak, and thus allows everyone to pat themselves on the back for their tolerant acceptance of gayness.

Some people may not realize that there has been a healthy debate within the gay and lesbian community for decades about the wisdom of fighting for marriage rights.  Give us the argument against marriage.  What would a more progressive family rights agenda look like?

Same-sex marriage has been won largely by making one totally kosher claim and two (well, many more actually…) hugely problematic ones. The legit claim is the simple one of equal treatment under the law. A no-brainer. Easy to support. But the other two…not so much. The first, used in amicus briefs throughout the country, is that gays should get their marriage because they are “born that way” and therefore their immutable homo-ness puts them in the same category as other groups with supposedly immutable qualities. So “we can’t help ourselves” is the identity argument at the core of much of marriage argumentation and indeed pro-gay discourse more generally. The second claim is that legalizing same-sex marriage won’t affect straight marriages at all (because we’re just like you). To which I have to say: if it doesn’t change gender normative, often abusive, deeply unequal, heterosexual marriages, then why does it matter at all? If queer marriages DON’T alter straight sensibilities around gender and intimacy and family then they are strangely not queer at all. And not worth all the fuss.

I’ve been so frustrated at the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement. We are told that this is the culmination of the long march of progress and soon we’ll live in a happy rainbow world of official homolove. Lawyers and plaintiffs alike claim this decision makes us “more equal” and our families “more legitimate.” Gee, I thought we were pretty legitimate without marriage, and that our children weren’t torn apart by the agony of unmarried mothers. My nineteen-year-old feminist daughter (of a single mother to boot!) widened her eyes in horror at that old anti-feminist canard being trotted out and declaimed with nary a whiff of irony.

Love is not more legitimate or good or valuable if the state makes it official, and garnering a basic victory is not the same as making the world a more genuinely amenable place for sexual difference. Marriage rights are not synonymous with full citizenship or true belonging.

Also, many of us fear a few other things:  that we will now see a division between the “good” marrying gays who deserve tolerance and those recalcitrant gays who are pushed even further outside of the field of respectability.  So as I listen to the victory speeches I have a smile on my face, but I also hear the voices of my friends who have pledged not to take part in this rush to the altar. I hear the voices of the poor, the disenfranchised, the gays of color for whom marriage is hardly the golden egg or prized victory. I am sickened by the wedding industry that bilks billions out of those who need these resources for health care and housing and everyday life. I shudder at the resources that go into this industry, while HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis. I am reminded, again, of the vexed history of this institution and its stubbornly gendered and racialized parameters.

What is on the other side of the rainbow?  Give us a picture of how things have changed, not just for gay and lesbian Americans but for all of us, when gay and lesbian people truly belong?

We can’t know in advance what that will look like but I can say that gay belonging will mean assuming that heterosexual business as usual gets upended.  If you really reject the tolerance trap—and all that goes with it in terms of “born that way” ideas and odes to acceptance and assimilation—you open the door to a re-imagining of intimacy, family, sex, and love as unmoored from gender certitudes and assumptions. It might be pretty fun.

Trans*politics, solidarity, and ENDA

—Isaac West

Having already declared June as LGBT Pride Month via a presidential proclamation, President Obama is prepared to further demonstrate his commitment to LGBT equality by signing an executive order designed to prohibit federal contractors from practicing employment discrimination against LGBT individuals. Obama’s action is necessary because the Republican leadership in the House refuses to allow the membership to vote on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which the Senate passed 64-32.

In short, ENDA would incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity into the protected classes of federal employment anti-discrimination law. (The current version of ENDA is not without its problems—the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center and GetEQUAL, among others, withdrew support for the current bill, citing unprecedented religious exemptions for non-religious employers.) Even though 208 co-sponsors have signed on to ENDA in the House, including eight Republicans, Speaker John Boehner will not bring it to the floor. According to Boehner’s rather disingenuous reading of employment law, he finds ENDA redundant because he claims LGBTs are already covered by current legislation and does not want to afford “special rights” to any new minority groups.

If Boehner’s interpretation of our current laws was not motivated by his catering to his right flank, he would be in good company given that the majority of Americans think that it is already illegal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Along with this common misperception, paradoxically, there is also a consensus that LGBT employment discrimination is widespread. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of the general public revealed 67% of respondents answered affirmatively when asked if “LGBT people experienced discrimination ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in applying for or keeping a job.”

Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that in a recent poll of LGBT Americans, conducted by the Pew Research Center, employment protections topped marriage rights as the most pressing legislative issue. Although same-sex civil marriage equality gets most of the media attention, LGBT advocates and allies have waged at least as vigorous a campaign for employment protections.

Like most legislation, ENDA’s long, slow march through Congress began in 1974 when Bella Abzug introduced the Equality Act of 1974, a bill that outlawed address discrimination based on sexual orientation. After two decades of little to no movement on measures such as this, ENDA experienced numerous stops and starts during the Clinton and Bush presidencies.

Congressional momentum picked up in 2007 when Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin, self-identified gay and lesbian members of Congress, championed the bill. The 2007 version of ENDA finally included gender identity as a category, which had been a sticking point for years, until Frank, over Baldwin’s objections, excised the gender identity protections from ENDA., justifying the move on the grounds that some members would not vote for a bill with gender identity as one of the protected categories.

In a surprising turn of events, almost every major LGBT organization, excluding the Human Rights Campaign, withdrew support of the sexual-orientation-only ENDA. Over 400 LGBT organizations joined forces to form United ENDA, pledging to actively work to delay, if not defeat, the bill if it excluded trans’ protections.

In my analysis of these events, I highlight how the gender identity provisions of the bill provided an occasion for solidarity, reversing the general trend whereby trans* and gay and lesbian issues are framed as separate and competing agendas. In this case, these advocates had to make a choice about whether or not they would fight for the rights of the whole LGBT community, or accept a partial victory for the LGB community. After examining the legislation, United ENDA argued that gender identity protections would prevent employers from exploiting the “gender identity loophole,” meaning that an employer could claim to fire someone for their atypical gender performances, not their sexuality.

What makes this case instructive for the future is how United ENDA placed trans* concerns at the center of their advocacy and used it as the glue for their coalition. Instead of treating trans* and gender identity matters as a fringe issue, they served a unifying purpose for rethinking what LGBT solidarity might look like. By rethinking LGB identities through a trans* perspective, the advocates understood that their identities could not be cleaved off as neatly as Frank would have liked to do. As we move forward, keeping in line with the actions of United ENDA, we need to make sure that LGBT politics work toward the good of the whole, and sometimes this may require us to focus more on our shared positions of vulnerability rather than our differences.

Isaac West is Assistant Professor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Transforming Citizenships: Transgender Articulations of the Law (NYU Press, 2013).

Love travels: Queer friendship across class lines

—Lisa Henderson

Hotel giant Marriott International has unveiled its #lovetravels marketing campaign just in time to sponsor Pride events this June in Washington, DC, New York City, and San Francisco. The campaign appeals to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender travellers, featuring celebrity queer and transgender people on multiple media platforms. This would have been hard to imagine back in the 1980s, when many of us in Philadelphia volunteered with the Lesbian and Gay Task Force to protest against routine discrimination, including in public accommodation.

But as anyone who travels (or wants to) knows, love travels best with money, especially if you’re DC-bound this Pride month and plan to stay at the Renaissance and Residence Inn hotels at Dupont Circle, the Renaissance Downtown, the Ritz Carlton, or the Washington JW Marriott—all establishments that will feature #lovetravels banners. This is a high-end campaign, inclusive of those who can pay.

I am employed; I travel; I have stayed in Marriott properties; and I know that appealing to queers on the road beats taking our money while reviling our profile. But the campaign reminds us that wealth is the price of admission, which means that those without it aren’t invited. This is a far cry from an earlier period less enfranchised by the standards of civil rights but perhaps more sustaining of queer world-making across class lines.

In “An Old Queen’s Tale,” downtown performance artist Penny Arcade’s recent love letter to Christopher Street, Arcade writes:

“When I speak to young queers who want to know the differences between today and back then I say quietly, ‘Show me one twenty-seven-year-old queer guy who is going to take in a homeless seventeen-year-old girl. Back then we knew we had to take care of each other…It was humane and inclusive…Everyone recognized their people intuitively.’”

Queer history is full of community friendship and protection across class lines, but that can’t really be the message of a marketing campaign, least of all when pricey forms of access are the measures of queer arrival.

Consider a recent but old-school example of queer friendship across class lines. Last January, English actor Rupert Everett wrote a feature for The Guardian/Observer about the police ouster of sex workers from their shared apartments in London’s Soho neighborhood. The arrests were conducted under the guise of stopping sex trafficking, says Everett, though no traffickers were apprehended. Contrary to the claims of police and morality squads, there is a Soho land grab going on, where police co-operate with property developers and their partners in City Hall, rubbing their hands together over a Soho reconfigured for international tourism and sales, as if London weren’t expensive enough. Everett follows his sex worker friends to trial, to witness the proceedings and to write dryly—and knowingly—about the theater taking place there and the revelation of legal done-deals against Londoners with few resources, save their own social networks now ruined by police “protection.”

Readings Everett’s piece left me wondering about Everett himself—his posh writing style, his come-and-go fortunes as leading man in popular film since openly identifying as gay in 1989, his friendship and solidarity with maids and prostitutes pooling their housing resources in Soho. Everett is not unique among English cultural figures—part social and cultural elite, part artistic bohemian and old school sexual rebel—indeed he reminds us of Oscar Wilde, whose biography, plays, and film adaptations Everett knows well as performer.

Everett’s Guardian piece, however, re-animates the conversation about sexual culture and class solidarity in queerness—the queerness of being a gay actor who, at one time, traded sex for drugs and money, the queerness of being unmoved (if still displaced) by morality squads working at the service of property development, the queerness of sexual libertinism and the sensible distrust of sexual show trials. Anyone who watched the purification of New York’s Times Square and the loss, there, of a mixed culture of rent boys, porn workers, and sexual bohemians (Samuel Delaney’s writing preserves it achingly, as Sarah Schulman’s does for New York’s East Village) will find Everett’s account of Soho familiar.

Everett’s Guardian authorship reminds me of the history of multi-class queer friendship, of solidarity amid survival and sexual trouble-making. It also reminds me of the thick weave of social, cultural, and economic forms—capitals, in Bourdieu’s terms—that make up class and class difference in the present.  In Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production, I unravel the cultural and economic intersection of class in queerness, to expose that intersection in many places, from the history of hyper-acculumulation that marks queer—and all—political development since the mid-1970s, to the cultural representation of queerness as a class project, the taste hierarchies that separate queers once gathered by sexual exclusion, the draw of class recognition in queerness, and the terms of political opening that might favor renewed solidarities across class lines.

Imagine the alternative marketing campaign that invites people to share rides, sleep 8 to a room, eat pot-luck, and welcome strangers and the friends of friends. A lot of people got and get to big-city Pride celebrations that way.  It wouldn’t work for Marriott but it might signify the practice of friendship and solidarity in a mixed life that is both queer but never only queer, and it might enable a little more movement energy, the stuff we still need to make life work for everyone.

Lisa Henderson is Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production (NYU Press, 2013).

Pride Month and Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx

—Amber Jamilla Musser

Last week I waited for an hour to go inside a warehouse and see Kara Walker’s new art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The line stretched several blocks to see a woman posed like a sphinx with a headscarf. She is rendered in white sugar, so she is grainy to the touch and fine powder falls around her. She looks regal and impassive, staring past her minions—small brown candy boys carrying baskets, fruit, or other objects, who melt slowly into the ground around them.

While Walker is known for her fierce engagement with history, race, and sexuality, you might be asking what this has to do with pride? Though it may be coincidence that Walker’s installation is up during Pride Month, I want to ask what it would mean to think about these projects as overlapping.

Both Pride Parades and Walker’s installation involve bodies—bodies on display, bodies watching other bodies, waiting bodies, nudity. One might even be tempted to say that both are celebrations. Walker’s installation, always controversial, honors many things including the pain and suffering of plantation slavery and the labor of the Domino workers. Pride parades, begun to mark the Stonewall riots, honor LGBT struggles for inclusion and rights. In theory, pride parades offer a way for LGBT people to live in their identities freely by dancing in the streets as they are cheered on by their brethren.

There are differences, however. In Walker’s installation black female sexuality is at once revered and enclosed, animal and human, and the emotions one sees or feels upon encountering the marvelous sugar baby are amplified by the production of distance. A Subtlety is a spectacle; the black boys are spectacles; we gaze upon them and their eyes do not meet ours. In contrast, Pride parades mobilize bodies and invite participation.

These different spaces and conjured embodiments remind us that the gap between these worlds is not just a matter of adding adjectives, but of seeing how history and bodies meet. Pride parades aim to turn historic shame into pride. Walker’s installation, enclosed in a building whose walls ooze history and sugar, asks us to recall pain and shame by making us confront regality. Though people of color are not necessarily estranged from mainstream pride celebrations, the gulf between these displays helps to articulate what happens when we imagine sexuality as liberatory while forgetting that for some it is still embedded in a difficult and complex history. As my forthcoming book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, argues this is not a question of merely taking different intersecting identities (black queer female) into account, but asking how celebrating one set of values—pride—threatens to eclipse our ability to understand other experiences, where powerlessness cannot necessarily be overcome with a parade.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (forthcoming in September 2014 from NYU Press).

What straights can do for Pride

—James Joseph Dean

It’s Pride Month, a time for celebrating the differences that make up LGBTQ communities. Queer celebration and pride are of course important acts and feelings to embrace in a heteronormative society. However, by celebrating only queer people, we sideline the ways straight people support us and are often-honorary members of our communities. Even more than that, we are letting our straight friends and allies off the hook. They could be doing more.

While being against homophobia is the most obvious way for straight allies to promote sexual equality, another immensely powerful practice is for straight individuals to give up their straight privilege. Giving up straight privilege, even some of the time, I think would elevate the status of LGBTQ sexualities and lessen the social hierarchy that privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality in our culture.

For me, it’s important to separate out homophobia from heterosexual privilege.  Homophobia is the range of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory acts that stigmatize, subordinate, and exclude queer people from respect, equality, and social goods such as jobs, homes, and services.

Straight privilege, in contrast, is about the unearned advantages that come from being or claiming a straight identity. Straight privilege is, then, a benefit every straight person accrues just by being straight. To be clear, I am not arguing for straight people to become gay or queer. But I am arguing that straight people should let themselves be seen as gay or as not clearly straight more often in their everyday lives. Everyday acts of surrendering straight privilege would counter the sexual stigma that persists in defining LGBTQ sexualities and it would promote a more queer-friendly society.

Straight privilege, for example, is claimed and performed in everyday life when straight individuals simply disclose their heterosexuality to disassociate themselves from homosexuality. In my book Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture, I found that many of the straight men I interviewed who supported LGBTQ rights still felt uncomfortable being alone at a Pride parade event or in socializing in a gay bar without a female companion, be it their female friend, girlfriend, or wife. These straight guys would bring their girlfriends or wives to Pride events and other gay spaces to signal their straightness. If by chance their girlfriends or wives weren’t available, they would mention them in conversation to indicate their straight identity.

Similarly, many of the straight women I talked to would also bring up their boyfriends or husbands when they were worried about being perceived as lesbians, but they expressed more comfort socializing in gay spaces without their male friends, boyfriends, or husbands present. In part straight women’s comfort came from the fact that the gay bars and clubs they went to were patronized by mostly gay men, not lesbian women.

However, the most queer-friendly straight men and women I talked to said and did a number of things to lessen LGBTQ stigma and promote sexual equality. These straights used inclusive terms like “partner” instead of “wife” or “husband” to refer their significant others. They also didn’t defensively disclose their straight identity when a same-sex person flirted with them. Of course, they didn’t try to lead people on, but they also didn’t make known their heterosexuality or bring up their wife or husband to avoid being thought of as possibly lesbian or gay.

And so for Pride Month and, really, every month, I challenge straight allies to refuse the unearned advantages that adhere to being part of the dominant sexual group and to enact a small measure of change through resisting the identity politics of straight privilege in their everyday lives.

James Joseph Dean is Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and author of Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture (forthcoming in August 2014 from NYU Press).

Fat Gay Pride

—Jason Whitesel

I recently finished my first book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigmawhich offers an inside look at “Girth & Mirth,” a gay social club where members nurture each other’s joy in being fat and happy. As a gay man who participated in Girth & Mirth—therefore as a partial insider, yet admittedly with thin privilege, white privilege, and a professor’s privilege, among others—I want to share my critique of the wider gay community’s sizism.

As Marcia Millman observed almost 35 years ago, in Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, “when a homosexual man is fat, he is often viewed in the gay community as not having sufficient ‘self-pride.’” Indeed, fat gay pride is a difficult subject position to sell; and when the Girth & Mirthers I studied invited other big gay men to join their cause, they opened themselves up to public rejection, as if it weren’t already difficult to be personally rejected because of their size and sexual orientation. I have witnessed these men being chastised for wanting to participate in annual Pride parades and being told they are embarrassments to the gay community.

Girth & Mirthers are often left out of Gay Pride media coverage; yet they persist despite their invisibility, seeking group recognition. As Lory Britt and David Heise put it so aptly, while “shame may lead to hiding, . . . pride may lead to expansive behaviors in public space.” The growing sense of pride Girth & Mirthers feel parallels their ample body size, which is even reflected in our language when we say: “He swelled with pride.” Indeed, pride makes one feel bigger and stronger and stand taller.

With the protection and backing of their fellow sufferers in Girth & Mirth, members move toward reconfiguring their shame. For some, being in the Pride parade means they come out twice: for being gay and for being fat. In a 2006 San Francisco Bay Times article, Sister Dana Van Iquity quips tongue-in-cheek on the homogenization of Pride: “The Girth & Mirth club will be asked to either not be fat or at least not show a sense of humor about their stout state. After all, we would not want the public to think that a bunch of happy, chubby gays represented our community, now would we?!” Thus, this author affectionately acknowledges the existence of big men in the gay community. Sister Dana’s remarks point out the contradiction that if gays are open to making fun of themselves in campy-queer drag, they need not be so threatened by Girth & Mirthers’ presence in the gay community.

When Girth & Mirthers participate in Pride celebrations, they not only gain visibility, but also communicate an alternate message: not all gay men are pretty-perfect and chiseled. As queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam puts it, taking pride in one’s shame is like going to “a place where shame can be transformed into something that is not pride, but not simply damage, either.” Girth & Mirthers take pride in their shame, sometimes going to the extreme to present a fun, larger-than-life persona. Despite acutely feeling the sting of rejection from those who are sizist, big gay men march in Pride parades and put themselves out there something fierce.

Therefore, with Pride Month upon us, it’s my belief that the road to accepting those groups that continue to be marginalized within the gay community—people of size as well as transgender folks, people with disabilities, and/or racial-ethnic minorities—must involve more than simply tolerating these groups. It requires all of us to embrace a wider range of diversity unremarkably, and without fuss. Fat activists put it best when they say, “We’re here, we’re sphere, get used to it!”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (forthcoming in July from NYU Press).

Are we still queer even though we’re married?

—Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp

We got married for our 30th anniversary, although not on the actual day. Despite our feminist reservations about the institution of marriage, we did it for political reasons, as an act of resistance to those who loudly and publicly asserted, especially in the Prop 8 campaign, that same-sex couples did not deserve the right to marry because we would corrupt children and destroy the institution of marriage. We did it aware—and in agreement with many—of the queer arguments against marriage: that there are more important issues, that rights should not be attached to marriage, that marriage is homonormative.

So we got married. Does that make us less queer?

Despite the marriage equality movement’s strategic emphasis on the claim that “we’re just like you,” the reality is also that marriage has not necessarily turned out to be the beginning of an inexorable slide into hetero- or homonormativity, as queer theorists predict. The Right is right about one thing: our marriages have the potential to undermine marriage as we now know it. Consider, first of all, the way that a younger generation of queer people is wielding and transforming the terms “wife” and “husband.” It is not unheard of for a stranger to assume a woman who refers to her wife has misspoken and to correct her, saying, “You mean your husband.” That’s in-your-face. Is it possible to imagine that marriages between two men or two women, not to mention transgender or genderqueer people, will transform the meaning of the words “husband” and “wife”? For the better?

And consider the fact that marriage, across blue states in the United States and a number of other countries, is becoming something that heterosexuals enter into later or not at all. Or that they enter into it but exit out of it with increasing frequency. That should reassure us that younger queer people will not necessarily be pressured into marriage just because it is a possibility. For those to whom it means a lot—because it is an important personal expression of love and commitment, because it brings recognition from family and friends, because it provides health insurance or immigration rights or needed tax benefits or inheritance rights or parental rights or the right to make life and death decisions—it may be an option. For those to whom it means or brings nothing, it can be an option not taken. And if queer people, like straight people, more and more eschew marriage, then perhaps the rights that we all deserve will no longer be tied to a marriage license. That would be a victory for the LGBTQ movement.

So just as we reject the notion that getting married magically bestows endless happiness and a lifelong commitment on anyone who ties the knot, we reject the notion that it severs us from the queer community. When strangers ask us if we are sisters, or even twins, as they are increasingly wont to do, and if we say in response, “No, we’re married,” we can assure you that they don’t then think of us as just like them. They still look at us as if we are, well, queer.

Verta Taylor is in the sociology department and Leila J. Rupp is in the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Taylor is the co-author (with Rupp) of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret, and Rupp is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women (NYU Press, 2009).

[Note: An expanded version of this article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.] 

Suzanna Walters kicks off Pride Month book tour

June is LGBT Pride Month!

Celebrate with author Suzanna Danuta Walters as she hits the road this month on a national book tour for The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality (“out” now from NYU Press). Each stop on the tour will have an opportunity for a Q&A session with the author and book signing. If you are in any of the following cities, please stop by and meet her!

The complete list of tour dates is below. For further details, visit Suzanna’s website

 

William Way LGBT Community Center
JUNE 3, 2014 | 6:00 PM
PHILADELPHIA, PA

Out Professionals Pre-Pride Book Party at NYU
JUNE 4, 2014 | 6:30 PM
NEW YORK, NY

Barnes & Noble, Upper West Side
JUNE 5, 2014 | 7:00 PM
NEW YORK, NY

Book Soup
JUNE 10, 2014 | 7:00 PM
LOS ANGELES, CA

Books, Inc.
JUNE 11, 2014 | 7:00 PM
SAN FRANCISCO, CA

Attorney General’s Office
JUNE 17, 2014 | 12:00 PM
WASHINGTON, DC

Harvard Book Store
JUNE 19, 2014 | 7:00 PM
CAMBRIDGE, MA

The Book Cellar
JUNE 21, 2014 | 7:00 PM
CHICAGO, IL

Provincetown Public Library
JUNE 26, 2014 | 6:00 PM
PROVINCETOWN, MA

Mensa Gathering
JULY 2, 2014 | 3:00 PM
BOSTON, MA

Stay tuned for more on The Tolerance Trap this month on our blog, including a book giveaway and Q&A with the author. Happy Pride!

Bullying, teasing and the gender trap

—Emily W. Kane

With National Bullying Prevention Month underway and a focus this year on the sponsoring organization’s tagline, “The End of Bullying Begins with Me,” I find myself thinking back to what I heard from parents of three- to five-year-old children during interviews for my book, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls.

I talked to parents from all social backgrounds and all family types, and found that quite a few wanted to give their kids the freedom to pick activities, toys, colors, and approaches that were not strictly determined by gender. But even those parents who wanted to encourage a moderately more fluid approach to gender, expressed fear and anxiety about how their children might be treated if they didn’t conform to typical gender expectations.

I heard reports of an everyday world teeming with social pressures, judgments from friends, relatives, their children’s peers and even strangers if their kids didn’t stick to a pretty narrowly gendered path. These parents were very much conscious of the social costs their children might face and, consistent with decades of scholarship in gender studies, these costs and anxieties loomed larger in relation to boys. With frequent mention of phrases liked “picked on” and “ostracized,” parents expressed the fear that their sons would be bullied by other children if they wandered even a little bit off that socially-dictated path.

The trap of parents pushing children toward traditionally-gendered outcomes is sometimes baited by beliefs about biology, personal preferences, and unconscious actions. Even when it isn’t, though, the everyday judgments of friends, relatives, and teachers can bait that same trap. Gender nonconformity is much too often met with bullying behavior, and if adults are not vigilant about responding to that bullying and responding to the more minor policing of gender expectations (which parents in my study labeled as teasing), many parents will enforce gendered constraints they don’t even agree with out of fear for what their children might face.

Individual parents can try to create a less constraining world for their children, but only if the rest of us suspend our judgments, applaud their efforts, and seek to interrupt the everyday teasing and more significant bullying that are too often ignored in children’s daily worlds. Suspending our judgments, offering that applause, and executing those interruptions are all ways that the end of bullying can indeed begin with each of us.

Emily W. Kane is a Professor of Sociology at Bates College and the author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls (NYU Press, 2012).

Same-sex weddings: Challenging (and carrying on) tradition

—Karen M. Dunak

Same-sex couples, finding marriage now a legally recognized option, may move deliberately toward the world of weddings. In the aftermath of the DOMA decision, many observers (myself included) have speculated about the potential payday such celebrations may yield for the wedding industry. But this assumption, to some degree, assumes that queer weddings will follow the format of straight weddings. In reality, however, the gay couples face endless possibilities when it comes to their styles of celebration. And the New York Times chronicles that with this article, “Free to Marry, and Not Bound by Rites.”

There are so many smart points made in this article – I encourage everyone to read it. And there are so many great, quotable lines. I’ll limit myself to this one:

Mr. Solomon wrote in an e-mail that he and Mr. Habich “wanted to have a wedding that echoed the weddings of our parents and of others,” but without parroting heterosexual customs. “Everything traditional was nontraditional simply because we were both men,” he said of their civil ceremony, which was followed by Christian and Jewish ceremonies. “The more of a ‘wedding’ it was, the more revolutionary it was.”

YES. This is a major point I make in my book As Long as We Both Shall LoveFor those who critique marriage as a conservative goal and the celebration of a wedding as a mark of conformity, when a couple (two men or two women) who looks nothing like the expected couple (one man and one woman) take on these alleged hallmarks of conformity, they are immediately challenged and thereby robbed of their conformity.

The gist of the article is that same-sex couples have the opportunity to celebrate in as traditional or as non-traditional a style as they wish. Of course, I argue that couples – not just same-sex couples – have been doing this for years. The tradition that gay couples will carry on in their celebrations is the larger postwar wedding tradition of couples using the wedding to communicate their views of love, marriage, and partnership.

Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is the author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America (NYU Press, 2013).

[This piece originally appeared on the author's blog here.]

The secret history of gay marriage

Excerpted from As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America by Karen M. Dunak.

On October 10, 1987, nearly 7,000 people witnessed a wedding on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Men and women cheered and threw rice and confetti as family, friends, and community members took part in the largest mass wedding in American history. After the celebrants exchanged rings and were pronounced newlywed, guests released hundreds of balloons into the air. Brides and grooms, dressed in formal wedding attire, cried and embraced after an “emotional and festive” ceremony. Like so many brides and grooms, participants identified the wedding day as one of the happiest, most meaningful days of their lives.

But this was no ordinary wedding. And these were not typical brides and grooms. This wedding held special significance for its participants. Beyond the “mass” nature of the celebration, something else was unique. The newlyweds that fall Saturday paired off as brides and brides, grooms and grooms. “The Wedding,” as it came to be known, marked the symbolic beginning of nearly 2,000 same-sex marriages. Rejecting the idea that a wedding—and by implication, a marriage—should have one male and one female participant, the grooms and their grooms, the brides and their brides presented a striking picture.A wedding, a fairly conventional affair, became a site of radical protest. Layered in meaning, “The Wedding” celebrated the personal commitments of those being wed. At the same time, it was a direct political act that challenged the legal, religious, and social barriers against same-sex relationships. Like couples before them, gay men and lesbians found they could use their weddings to make a statement about the world and the place of their relationship in it.

Designed to reflect an alternative approach to love and marriage, “The Wedding,” part of the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, rejected the narrow definition of marriage that limited the relationship to members of the opposite sex. “The Wedding” likewise rejected a narrow view of the standard wedding celebration. Dina Bachelor, metaphysical minister, hypnotherapist, and “Wedding” officiant, designed a new-age style ceremony. Bachelor recognized the uniqueness of the celebration and chose her words and actions carefully. Standing under a swaying arch of silver, white, and black balloons, Bachelor omitted any mention of the customary “honor and obey, till death do us part.” Including observers in the celebration, she asked witnesses to join hands and encircle the celebrants. For participants, “The Wedding” was not about fitting into a pre-arranged style. Instead, it was about expanding the celebration to include various approaches to marriage and family. Like alternative wedding celebrants of the 1960s and 1970s, same-sex partners recognized the flexibility of the wedding and used the celebration to express their views about life and love. Bachelor likewise noted the celebration’s significance and concluded the event by stating, “It matters not who we love, only that we love.”

Gay community leaders emphasized the political component of the celebration. Drawing on the activist view that the personal was political, the public pronouncement and celebration of a long-ridiculed personal lifestyle served as the ultimate political statement.Those present rejected the shame associated with their relationships and proved that many same-sex couples shared long-term, committed relationships. Courageously displaying their individual love and their membership in a community of likeminded gay men and lesbians, “Wedding” participants did not demand a social inclusion marked by assimilation or guarded emotions. Rather, they demanded full acceptance of their lifestyle and relationship choices. Reverend Troy Perry, a minister evicted from the Pentecostal Church of God for his own homosexuality and founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, spoke to this desire for openness and acceptance as he rallied his congregants with a shout of “Out of the closets and into the chapels!”

Hosting “The Wedding” in front of the Internal Revenue Service’s building was a symbolic choice meant to protest the tax office’s refusal to accept taxes jointly filed by same-sex couples. As activist Sue Hyde recalled, couples participated in “The Wedding” “both to protest discrimination against them and to celebrate their love and commitment to each other.” Challenging conventional views of family and marriage, groom and “Wedding” organizer Carey Junkin of Los Angeles echoed “The Wedding’s” official slogan when he said, “Love makes a family, nothing else.” Adding his own sentiment, he stated, “We won’t go back.” Marriages celebrated that day held no legal standing, but that did not diminish the emotional impact of the event. The community of couples who wed accomplished their political objective by making their private relationships part of the political discourse. The very public, very political event demanded recognition of the legitimacy of the relationship between two brides or two grooms.

As for “The Wedding” participants (composed of more male than female couples, suggesting an ongoing discomfort with weddings and marriage among politically active feminists), they expressed warm praise for the celebration, as well as a sense of anger that any members of the gay or lesbian community would criticize their decision to wed. Dressed in suits, tuxedos, and wedding gowns, albeit with little regard for normative notions of gender, the celebrants saw the day as an important turning point in their lives and relationships. Despite their unorthodox appearances, many participants noted that they would have been comfortable with an even more “traditional” ceremony. The only registered disappointment pertained to the desire that the ceremony might have been more explicit in regard to monogamy or couples’ exclusivity. The mass “Wedding” was not intended to replicate heterosexual marital relationships or wedding celebrations, but the importance given the celebration and the desire for expression of personal preference—be it for a more or even less traditional form than the ceremony before the IRS—hinted at possible similarities between same-sex weddings and their opposite-sex counterparts.

While “The Wedding” looked unlike the individual white weddings celebrated by heterosexual couples, the event incorporated familiar elements of the wedding ceremony. Most participants wore some sort of special dress; an authority figured presided over the celebration; and guests bore witness to the event. The relationships may have seemed atypical or strange in the eyes of the mainstream observer, but there could be no question as to what had transpired that October day. The familiarity of the wedding served as a valuable political tool even as it fulfilled the personal desires of same-sex couples who wished to share their lives together. For a population who had the option— admittedly the very unpleasant option—of invisibility, the choice to make public the intimacies of private life was a political statement in and of itself.

Same-sex weddings transcended the “difference vs. accommodation” debates often raised in subcultural groups and hotly contested within the queer community.8 In the years following the celebration of “The Wedding,” gay men and lesbians expressed a blend of intentions and motivations with their celebrations. The flexibility of the wedding, continually tested by the heterosexual marrying population in the decades since World War II, likewise served the personal as well as the political objectives of queer couples. Moving from the mass to the individual, weddings legitimated and celebrated relationships that had long been deemed wrong or strange and had thus been cloaked in secrecy. Such celebrations allowed men and women to celebrate their private lives in a public style and with the sanction of chosen and accepting family and community members. By publicly celebrating their relationships, queers challenged a political system that refused to recognize their right to wed.

Like the weddings of those before them, the white weddings hosted by same-sex couples in the 1990s and in the early years of the new century seemingly adhered to a standardized form of celebration. The similarity between opposite-sex and same-sex events, of course, was noticeable in the continued reliance on a wedding industry and adherence to wedding norms: formal dress, recitation of vows, and elaborate receptions. On the surface, this suggested a kind of queer accommodation to the standard form. Even though a gay couple might purchase a cake topper that featured two grooms, the couple still purchased a cake topper. The prerequisites of a wedding had tremendous staying power. But same-sex couples shaped their weddings in ways specific to their relationships and cultural identifications. Ceremonial alteration and amendment, whether slight or pronounced, reflected the beliefs and desires of same-sex couples.

Queer couples, like other brides and grooms, negotiated tensions created by family, cost, and the overall wedding planning procedure. Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex brides and grooms challenged existing authority in the very act of celebrating a wedding. Couples celebrated the communities from which they came, to which they currently belonged, and those they created, if only for their weddings. They exerted individual authority over their ceremonies not only in their selection of music, dress, and wedding style, but also in their very direct rejection of a legal system that denied them access to the rights and privileges of marriage. They publicly celebrated relationships long denied public recognition. Weddings could be and could say whatever the celebrating couples wished. As various states began to recognize same-sex marriages, acceptance of same-sex unions extended even beyond the queer community. Weddings both affirmed the political victory achieved by those who had long advocated on behalf of equal rights and marked the triumph of personalization in American wedding culture.

Read the rest of this entry at Salon.com.

The men behind the March: Randolph and Rustin together again

Bayard Rustin (right) with A. Phillip Randolph on the cover of Life magazine, September 6, 1963—Cynthia Taylor

With the 50th anniversary of the1963 March on Washington demonstration in the media’s spotlight, and especially of its heavy emphasis on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this light has also shined on the real strategic planners and originators of the actual 1963 March: A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Together, Randolph and Rustin made an indefatigable team of seasoned civil rights activists that enabled Dr. King’s now famous speech to be remembered so vividly fifty years later.

Through the media attention on this anniversary, it has been gratifying to once again see the cover of Life magazine (September 6, 1963) with Randolph and Rustin standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. At the time of the March, most Americans had viewed these two men as the real stars of the occasion. The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was actually the realization of their long-time “dream” to have a dramatic and peaceful demonstration that emphasized the need of all black Americans for economic opportunities and jobs, as well as the more elusive ideal of freedom.

At the time of Randolph’s death in 1979, Rustin described his relationship with Randolph in a variety of ways: father, uncle, adviser, and defender. Yet, Randolph’s and Rustin’s civil rights collaboration got off to a shaky start. As a leader in the youth division of the original March on Washington Movement, Rustin publicly criticized Randolph for calling off the first march scheduled for July 1, 1941. After the war, in 1948, Randolph and Rustin worked together again on a civil disobedience league called the “Committee to End ‘Jim Crow” in the Armed Services.”

When Randolph disbanded the league after President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to the desegregation of the services, Rustin recalled how “a number of ‘Young Turks’ and I decided to outflank Mr. Randolph,” denouncing him in the black press as “an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a reactionary, and an old fogey out of touch with the times.” Afraid that Randolph would not forgive his “treachery,” Rustin avoided Randolph for two years. When Rustin finally mustered the courage to visit Randolph in his New York office, he described the renewal of their friendship in this way:

As I was ushered in, there he was, distinguished and dapper as ever, with arms outstretched, waiting to greet me, the way he had done a decade ago.  Motioning me to sit down with that same sweep of his arm, he looked at me, and in a calm, even voice, said: ‘Bayard, where have you been? You know that I have needed you.’

From then on, Randolph and Rustin worked together as the key architects of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, after an incident in Pasadena California when Rustin, an openly gay man, was busted on a morals charge of sexual misconduct, Randolph stood by him and without his friendship, support and considerable influence, Rustin might have been completely ostracized from the civil rights community. Randolph declared “if the fact is, he is homosexual, maybe we need more of them; he’s so talented.”

In 1956, Randolph and Rustin, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison, formed an organization called “In Friendship,” a fundraising group committed to providing “economic aid to victims of race terror in the South,” especially for supporters of the Montgomery bus boycott.  The group agreed that Rustin, with his extensive experience in nonviolent techniques, could best evaluate the situation in the early days of the boycott. In his brief time there, Rustin worked effectively with the young and inexperienced boycott leader, Martin Luther King. Behind the scenes, Rustin advised Dr. King with his speeches and sat in on many of the boycott’s strategy meetings. Both Randolph and Rustin threw their considerable influence behind King’s emergent leadership of the newest phase of civil rights activity, as Rustin believed “from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for the next two years following to May 1957, [the three year anniversary of the Brown decision] the center of gravity and the center of activity for the whole civil rights movement was the church people and ministers of the south.”

Between 1957 and 1963, this newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), joined forces with the NAACP, and various labor and working-class groups linked to A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders to make civil rights history, culminating in the spectacular success of the peaceful August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

By 1963, A. Philip Randolph was nearing the end of his long years of labor and civil rights activism. In his final tribute to Randolph, Rustin remembered their historic collaboration of that day in the following way:

As the assembly slowly dispersed from the Lincoln Memorial, Rustin saw the tired ‘old gentleman’ standing alone on the podium, looking out on the departing crowds.  As Rustin walked up to Randolph, he was surprised to find ‘tears streaming down his cheeks’ the first time he had even seen Randolph show his emotions.  Indeed, Randolph was so overcome with the power of that one-day event, in which the black community and the white liberal community came together in their demand for equal treatment under the law, that he ‘could not hold back his feelings.’

How great that the 50th anniversary of the March has brought two forgotten heroes behind the movement, back into public memory.

Cynthia Taylor teaches American history and religion in the school of Art, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dominican University of California. She is the author of A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader (NYU Press, 2005).