No more of the “Same”: A response to the responses

—Karen Tongson

A little over a week ago, the folks at NYU Press approached me about writing something for their blog, From the Square: something that addressed the “continuation of [my] work’s themes, or an op-ed piece related to LGBT issues” for June, aka National Pride Month. Because I’ve had a great working relationship with the press as an author and as a book series editor, I agreed to write a brief “thought piece” about a song I’d recently heard on the radio. About my visceral response to hearing its message, what it sounded like, and how it addressed—or failed to address—a queer pop politics resonant with my own point of view.

I wrote the piece with a very specific audience in mind: queer studies scholars, and folks who happened to have read my book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. You know, the typical readers of an academic press blog, which in my mind tapped out at a couple of hundred self-selecting folks, max. I wrote the piece with an eye (and ear) towards subtlety and nuance, as many academics—specifically literary and gender studies scholars like me—are wont to do.

I wrote about how Macklemore’s Billboard Hot 100 hit (which never broke the Top-40), “Same Love,” struck the wrong chord with me, because it opened with someone speaking from a gay/questioning perspective, before immediately discarding the possibility of a gay/questioning rapper by reinforcing the narrator’s heterosexuality and love of girls.

Regardless of how odious I found “Same Love,” and as much as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis aren’t pop stars who appeal to my personal tastes, my own, very short blog piece ended on an emotionally sincere and positive note. I described how Mary Lambert—the queer female artist who sings the vocal hook—moved me to tears with her voice and some, if not all, of the lyrics she sang. The takeaway (for those who didn’t read to the end, or had trouble parsing through my obtuse academic language inappropriate for a venue like an academic press blog) is that we find emotion, affiliation, and resonance in the strangest of sources, even when we are otherwise not inclined to do so. I liked Lambert’s hook and what she stood for as much as I chafed at Macklemore’s and Lewis’ message and performance.

And yet many readers fixated on the things I said with sarcasm and humor about Macklemore, Lewis and the privileged position from which they speak as white, heterosexual (as the song emphatically reminds us) men. Other readers considered me ungrateful, regressive and damaging to the cause for not embracing a positive song written on “my behalf,” and for “my benefit” as a queer person, at the same time they insisted the song wasn’t written for me: instead, they insisted, it was intended for potentially homophobic straight men who would actually listen to a “guy’s guy” and change their minds about how “evil,” bad and disgusting homosexuals are.

Straight allies were offended that I wasn’t on the bandwagon, simply because someone straight made an effort to NOT hate me and what I stand for. Gay people were worried that I would alienate potential allies, because rocking the boat or expressing a dissenting opinion about a “positive” representation would mean we were ungrateful. We wouldn’t want that because we need straight people to approve of us to get laws passed, and no one will ever stand up for us again if we demand more. All of them neglected the fact that we’ve bravely, repeatedly stood up for ourselves throughout the course of human history: that for the most part WE had to be the change we wanted to see, and sometimes that change required a disagreement or a full-blown fight instead of an apology.

On the one hand, the responses that ensued—the hate, contempt, sexism and homophobia spewed at me for critiquing “Same Love” for its half-baked notion of equality—took me by surprise. Who knew Macklemore had so many fans?!? On the other, the sexism, violence and homophobia from straight and gay folks alike—mostly men—were sadly predictable. Some of the more violent ad-hominem comments I refer to in this piece have since been moderated out of the blog’s thread, not at my request, but because the editors felt these comments crossed a certain line with homophobic and hints of sexually violent content.

It seems that in whatever context, the fact that I am a “Gender Studies Professor” offends nearly everyone, because I might actually force people to think about their sexism and misogyny—gay men and women included. Dick jokes and crude speculations about my hatred of penises abounded on Facebook from gay and straight men alike, irrespective of the fact that as a big old dyke, I don’t exactly have “peen” on the brain 24/7, nor do I use it as my measuring stick (so to speak).

I was accused of not accounting for Macklemore’s intentions or his “intended audience,” when readers obviously hadn’t bothered to take into account mine, or even to read all the way to the end of my piece. I listened to the damn song in its entirety a gazillion times before I disagreed with its premise and decided it wasn’t my cup of tea. Anyway, using the logic of intentions is deeply flawed. But saying something “academic” of this nature is sure to solicit more vitriol, so I should move on.

I was confronted multiple times over with the notion that I, as a queer person, should be grateful for any scrap of approval tossed my way by straight people because they have the power, and they have access to the “mainstream.” Self-identified “straight but not narrow” sensitive dudes were the most freaked out about what I had to say, and I can’t imagine they’re just huge Macklemore fans, despite what a good jam “Thrift Shop” is. If you’re really not so narrow, why do you have to go through the trouble of telling us you’re straight first? Are you genuinely disturbed that you aren’t reaping praise simply for being sensitive and empathetic? Is the bar for being a “good guy” set that low?

It’s telling that nearly all of my detractors rushed to Macklemore’s defense and no one even bothered to mention Mary Lambert, or her centrality to what I wrote about the song’s resonance with me as a queer woman. Both gay and straight people suggested I was suffering from internalized homophobia, and accused me of being an “unhappy,” “bitter,” “man-hating” “grumpy cat” (which I hadn’t realized was an insult).  Touched as I am by the trolls’ concern for my happiness, since when did political dissatisfaction and a difference of opinion mean we lacked joy, love, friendship and a sense of humor?

If expressing my discontent with how I’m spoken for by a straight white rapper is internally homophobic, then so be it. I have no shame in being a homosexual who demands more from her allies than empty lip service in a song that is actually kind of dumb (except for the vocal hook). I’m not saying people shouldn’t listen to it or like it. If they want to play it at their weddings, gay or straight, more power to them. I’m just saying I want more, better, smarter. If that ain’t gay pride, I don’t know what is.

This is not to say that the only feedback I’ve received has been negative. In fact, I actually appreciated and learned from some of the numerous exchanges I’ve had in response to this piece on Facebook (dick slinging misogyny aside), and I’ve happily dialogued with anyone who was willing to address me sincerely and directly from beyond the shield of internet anonymity, regardless of whether or not they agreed with me. I’ve taken this time to write a follow-up for this blog in an effort to collate my responses to some of those conversations with genuinely engaged interlocutors.

I’d like to close with a happier tale of one particular exchange I had on Facebook with Christina Torres, one of my former undergraduates at USC, who now works for Teach for America. She considers herself an ally to queer causes, and she asked me point blank: if Macklemore’s route isn’t the way to go, then what is? “How can we better educate allies (including myself) on how to be good allies (or is that even important)?”

I told her I could go on at length about the many ways one might ally with LGBTQI politics and people without pulling a Macklemore, but the simplest answer I could share in the truncated format of a Facebook wall comment was that allies should go the extra step and radically CHANGE HETEROSEXUALITY; dare to imagine beyond a certain kind of normativity, and challenge the power that adheres to these very categories. Why do we continue to rely on the idea that “sharing privilege” will make things better? Why not make things better by undoing privilege; by abdicating the power that inheres in classed, racialized, gendered, sexualized categories? Radically reconceptualizing what is “normal” gives us plenty to do before writing songs about being gay but not really; about liking gays, while asserting staunchly that one has been all about the girls since ‘pre-K.” Everyone seems happy with the fact that Macklemore’s song provided a “start,” despite the fact that these battles have already “started” over and over again. Sometimes a start ISN’T enough, and any ally worth their salt should realize that for us to demand more from them is not ingratitude or a sign of self-hatred, but a glimmer of that hard-won thing we call “pride.”

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at University of Southern California. She is co-editor for NYU Press’s Postmillennial Pop series and is also co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies.

Husbands, wives, and other queer categories

—Arlene Stein

A few weeks ago, the man who washed my hair in a beauty parlor—he was perhaps 30—nonchalantly referred to the person he shares a home with as his “husband.”  That term, along with “wife” and “fiance” are rolling off the tongues of more and more people I encounter, suggesting that “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” and “partner” or “lover,” may soon be quaint reminders of an age before gays and lesbians could marry.

For most of us the urge to be married is not about changing the world, but about gaining access to the same rights, privileges, and social affirmation that coupled, middle class people enjoy in this country. Because of the centrality of marriage in our culture—as a route to gaining decent health care, inheritance rights, and community membership—I can’t begrudge anyone for wanting that.

Even in relatively liberal parts of the country, such as the suburban New Jersey town where I lived for many years, we’re still marginalized.

When our son was in middle school, he was asked to fill out forms that asked him for his mother’s name, his father’s name, and their respective telephone numbers. Lewis brought that form home, and placed Nancy’s name in the space for “mother,” and where it asked for information about “father,” he crossed out the word “father” and wrote in “mother” with my name next to it.

Lesbian mothers across the nation similarly report that when they’re out in public their children are frequently queried: “Who’s your daddy?”

Today, top-rated television shows feature gay (and to a lesser extent, lesbian characters), and many of the culture war battles I describe in my book Shameless have subsided—for the moment. But we’re not yet intelligible according to the codes of the culture.

When heteronormativity rules, queer intimacies are often read through a heterosexual lens, transforming sexual and affectional ties into biological ones, effacing the nature of gay and lesbian relationships. This is particularly troublesome for children of same-sex couples, along with non-biological parents, because it de-legitimates the bond that produced the child—and delegitimates the child, too.

No wonder marriage is so attractive to many queer people today. It would accord many of us instant recognition, belonging and ease, furthering what some have described as the “normalization” of homosexuality.

Yet I can’t help but think about those who are left out of the wedding party: single people, people whose material circumstances prevent them from marrying, and couples who choose, for any number of reasons, not to do so. That’s why, for my own part, I’ll continue to the use “girlfriend” or “partner” to describe my significant other, blurring the distinction between those who marry, and those who do not.

Arlene Stein is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture (NYU Press, 2006). You can follow Arlene Stein on Twitter @SteinArlene. She blogs at

“Same Love,” same old shit?

—Karen Tongson

In my first book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, I write extensively about driving around in cars listening to music; about commutes for pleasure in the Southern California landscape with the power to transmogrify nostalgic and wholesome American Graffiti-style cruising, into the kind of cruising Al Pacino polices and dabbles in (undercover, of course) in the 1980 thriller of the same name.

We cruise along; our drives down Southern California’s palm-lined, pot-holed thoroughfares are scored by songs of adventure, longing and regret. This is the only way I really listen to new music these days. Sometimes I sing along. At other times I surrender to the candied ambience of pop, becoming happily attenuated to its comforting predictability. But something happened recently that nearly jostled me out of the cushy bucket seats in the lesbionic/So Cal sorority girl Jeep I inherited from my mom. In what was surely part of the media ramp-up to June, aka “national pride month”—isn’t there something deeply sinister about that phrase?—I heard this on the radio:

It felt like a slap in the face.

As one who belongs to a generation of queers with a special ear for Cole Porter’s clever innuendo—queers accustomed to projecting our homo desires into popular love songs, and reading ourselves into the narratives of amorous legitimacy—the bald earnestness of  “Same Love,” a “conscious” rap about rejecting gay stereotypes in support of same-sex marriage, felt vulgar. More crass than Katy Perry’s made-up confession that she kissed a girl and liked it. (At least there’s some fantasy swirling around in that formulation). Meanwhile, the carefully calibrated “politicized” verses of “Same Love” by Seattle-based white rapper, Macklemore and his creative class posterboy producer, Ryan Lewis, (featuring vocalist, Mary Lambert), felt lacking in any genuine allegiance with queers.

In the opening verse, as soon as the scenario is established in which the narrator, “Ben” questions his sexuality as a child through a tantalizingly Sedgwickian identification with his uncle, the mother corrects his misidentification and reminds young Ben that “you’ve loved girls since before pre-K.”

Macklemore (foreground) and Ryan Lewis (background) performing “Same Love” on The Colbert Report, May 1, 2013.

In fact, Ben’s gay (mis)identification is constructed as the source of his own preconceived notions—his stereotypical views—about what constitutes gayness: an aptitude for art (“‘cause I could draw”), a genetic predisposition (“my uncle was”), and a precocious anality (“I kept my room straight”). Just as his mama corrects him and draws attention to the stereotypes animating the proclivities that might lead him astray to being gay, he is corralled back to fulfill his destiny of becoming a straight-but-not-narrow male ally for people like his gay uncle who are targets of the religious right’s scrutiny and hypocrisy. (Read the lyrics in their entirety here.)

“Same Love” was produced in 2012, during the campaign for Washington Referendum 74, which would legalize gay marriage in the state. By all accounts, the song was written with a sense of local duty, as part of the effort to push Referendum 74 through. Furthermore, Macklemore wanted to respond forcefully to homophobia in hip-hop, perhaps even bolstered by events like Frank Ocean’s more ambiguous “coming out.” Though I don’t question the earnestness of Macklemore’s and Lewis’ intentions to help out queers like you, me, Frank Ocean, and Macklemore’s uncle, the rhetoric of “sameness” and the white male hetero privilege that affords such statements of equivalency feel totally patronizing.

“Same Love” is aptly titled, and unwittingly plays upon the classical tropes of homosexual narcissism, while also trotting out the newer rhetoric of equivalency, brandished visually during the HRC’s most recent campaign in which red equal (=) signs were posted on Facebook with rash enthusiasm. A graduate student in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, Emily Raymundo, wrote a smart and rousing screed about that particular phenomenon, so I won’t go on at length about why this mass display of hetero-allegiance with the HRC totally pissed me off. Suffice it to say this: nice as these gestures are intended to be, why does it take a thousand straight people on Facebook switching their profile pictures to legitimize a broader conversation about LGBTQIA issues? Maybe we don’t want to be “liked” by you on social media or in meatspace.

Why does it take a white dude who phobically disavows his own fleeting homosexual identification as just another instance of “buying into stereotypes” to make the case for gay marriage, and gay biologism on pop radio on our behalf? Maybe the music on the radio already feels queer to us, has already been made queer by us.

Why did so many pop critics, mostly male (because most of them are), jizz all over “Same Love,” including it in their year-end top-10 lists, and praising it for its depth and profundity?

Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (featuring Mary Lambert) is the poppy end of hip-hop. It may well be the most profound ditty either genre has ever produced.”[1] As a pop specimen, the song is nowhere near that awesome or deep. The rap feels labored, and the instrumental backing track sounds like the piano riff in “Seasons of Love” from Rent mated with the anemic, pseudo-blues chords from John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change.”

Aesthetic quality aside, all of what I’ve said thus far is pretty obvious. The fish was in the barrel so I pointed and shot. And I don’t even have time to get into the video and its homonationalist—nay, let’s just call it nationalist—depiction of the “life cycle” from birth, to love, to homeownership, to marriage, to death, intercut with Civil Rights-era documentary footage for emphasis. It’s so neoliberal, using that word would be redundant. So what’s the point of writing about “Same Love” during “pride month” for a special series of posts about LGBTQIA issues, if we already know this object is bad and its producers are, despite—or because of—their sensitive guy intentions, kinda douchey seeming? (See this video in support of my last claim.)

Because I heard it again on the car stereo later that same night.

Because I fortuitously managed to miss all the authoritative and conscious rap verses about choice, birth, religion and marriage to tune in just in time to hear Mary Lambert’s vocal hook ushering us out of “Same Love.” I heard a velvety lady voice that would be at home reinterpreting the deep catalogues of womyn’s music and lesbian balladry; a voice evocative of a postmillennial Joan Armatrading, leavened by a little Joni, a smattering of Stevie, and a healthy dollop of Sarah McLachlan.

Lambert sings the hook; Lewis claps in the background. The Colbert Report, May 1, 2013.

It felt like it existed outside of the storyline, in the way queer things have always exceeded narrative’s normativizing outcomes. She sang of her love, not of a same or equivalent love: “My love, my love, my love she keeps me warm.”

She said nothing of marriage, but sang tenderly of a warmth, a feeling—the slightest adjustment of temperature and pressure, which requires no validation from the likes of Macklemore, and no expressive DJ roof-raising in the background from Ryan Lewis.  Her voice quivered as it crescendoed its way through the final catechism, “love is patient, love is kind (not crying on Sundays…not crying on Sundays).” And on that Sunday, I cried a little in my car.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at University of Southern California. She is co-editor for NYU Press’s Postmillennial Pop series and is also co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies.

[1] Gary Nunn, “Same love; different lyrics” for The Guardian (UK):

Interview with Bernadette Barton, author of Pray the Gay Away

One of our authors, Bernadette Barton, was recently interviewed by Feminists For Choice about her book, Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays  (NYU Press, 2012). Check out an excerpt of the conversation below! 

Feminists for Choice: What inspired you to write Pray the Gay Away?
Bernadette Barton: I write about what I call the “abomination incident” in the introduction to Pray the Gay Away. A neighbor told me being gay was an abomination after I came out to him. Although this kind of testifying is relatively commonplace in the Bible Belt, I had never before encountered a stranger who felt entitled to judge me as sinful, and tell me so, based on my sexual orientation. I grew up in Massachusetts in a politically progressive family and was unaccustomed to this kind of interaction. So, even though I had lived in Kentucky for 11 years by this point, I had not experienced much homophobia. My experience as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, surrounded largely by lesbians, led me to believe that this sort of homophobia had ended.

I was both surprised and troubled by this encounter–the abomination incident–in 2003. Shortly thereafter began the 2004 presidential election season with an anti-gay marriage amendment on the Kentucky ballot. At this point, the homophobic discourse in the public sphere amped up considerably. Marrying a same-sex partner was compared to marrying a dog, horse, child and cousin. Homosexuality was constructed as polluting and contagious. And yard sign and bumper stickers displayed people’s public attitudes about gay people, many of which were in opposition to gay rights.

It became forcefully clear to me that homophobic attitudes and actions were alive, and integral to many people’s understanding of their social worlds. Since I had found my relatively small encounters with stranger homophobia so disturbing, I began to wonder how such attitudes affected gay people who grew up in the region. I was relatively lucky not to negotiate bigoted beliefs directed against my person-ness until I was in my mid-20s. What would it be like, I imagined, to process this kind of condemnation while one’s identity was still forming? Thus, Pray the Gay Away was conceived, and I formally interviewed 59 people from the Bible Belt and have had informal conversations with over 200 others.

FC: Why did you focus on the Bible Belt area specifically?
BB: I focused on the Bible Belt because this region has a number of unique features that affect the lives of gay people. The Bible Belt is, first of all, dominated by people who either actively espouse conservative Christian attitudes about social issues, or defer to those who do. In other words, as I describe in Pray the Gay Away, the Bible Belt is a place of “compulsory Christianity” and those who are not Christian, or not a practicing Christian, or who are socially progressive Christians rarely say so, generally preferring instead to present the appearance of agreeing when they do not (an action called personalism) in order not to offend anyone.

This personalism, a façade of agreeability, is another unique feature of the Bible Belt, compared, for example, to the Northeast. Composed mostly of southern states, the Bible Belt fosters a culture of politeness and direct contradictions of statements of facts or opinions is considered rude. This means that when someone makes bigoted comments about gay people, those present are generally reluctant to challenge such statements for fear of conflict. This sequence of events then supports an overall negative impression of homosexuality, and strongly affects any gay people who might be present.

Finally, though I am originally from the Northeast, and have roots on both the east and west coasts, I have lived in Kentucky for the past 20 years though graduate school and a faculty position. Social norms about religion in the region confused me, so different were they from my own Catholic upbringing. From this seed of confusion, and distress over many homophobic public displays during election seasons (bumper stickers, political ads, and candidate debates) was born a desire to understand the lives of Bible Belt gays. I further believe that the Bible Belt is little understood by those who live in other regions of the United States, and is a place subjected to much stereotyping. I was thus interested in dispelling such myths, and giving voice to a group of people many perceive as simply victims.

[This content originally appeared on Feminists for Choice. Read the entire interview here.]

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Same-sex couples (re)consider wedding traditions

—Karen M. Dunak

With the Supreme Court considering the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, numerous reports recognizing the economic viability of the same-sex wedding industry, and the first legally recognized gay wedding being celebrated (and protested) in France, it’s no wonder issues related to same-sex marriage are experiencing a surge in media coverage.

A recent article in The Atlantic, for example, reports that with legal recognition of their unions, many contemporary same-sex couples are negotiating the traditions and terminologies associated with marriage. Like many of their opposite-sex peers, couples weigh the pros and cons of name change, consider the importance (or limitation) of language such as “husband” and “wife,” and decide what the affiliated cultural associations of marriage mean to them and their relationships.

Gays’ negotiation of tradition is not a new phenomenon. As I argue in my book As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America, queer couples have consciously negotiated the traditions associated with the white wedding for decades, even in the years before same-sex unions began to be recognized legally across the United States. Despite widespread views that the white wedding—with its acceptance of idealized gender roles, market prescription and participation, and religious expression—is a conservative and conformist site of American culture, many same-sex couples have used the celebration to express alternative views of life and love.

As they’ve celebrated, brides and brides, grooms and grooms have accepted, rejected, and amended established traditions, proving the wedding’s flexibility and relevance to contemporary life. At their base, same-sex weddings, especially those of the 1990s and early 2000s, challenged tradition and accepted authority by rejecting the notion that a wedding was celebrated by a man and a woman. Beyond the challenge of two men or two women standing before wedding guests, couples took a cue from their opposite-sex peers as they hand-picked elements of the celebration to fulfill individual desires for the wedding and personal visions of their relationships.

Some women challenged gendered expectations of assumed femininity by wedding in pantsuits, while others referenced the fulfillment of “childhood dreams” in their selection of long white wedding gowns. Many couples integrated witnesses’ participation into the celebration to reject what they saw as the unnecessary isolation of the couple being wed and to indicate the importance of community to their unions. Two San Francisco grooms wed in the early 1990s combined elements of Jewish liturgy with a country-western theme in a nod to both their faith and their personal aesthetic. The lack of established tradition in queer weddings meant couples felt free to create their own.

While offering opportunities for personal expression and fulfillment of individual desire, weddings have likewise served a political purpose. As The Atlantic piece suggests, the terminology of “husband” and “wife” or a shared last name communicate a vision of partnership and family with which many Americans are familiar. Such practices help to legitimate queer unions to the broader population. In a similar way, weddings provide a recognizable site where those uncertain about the nature of gay unions are presented with an image of love, commitment and dedication, all of which tend to increase the likelihood of support for marriage equality.

Queer couples’ willingness to celebrate their unions publicly and without apology has exposed the broader population—from members of the wedding industry to colleagues and students to friends and family—to the committed, loving relationships same-sex couples share. Wedding celebrations, where the language of love and commitment are so central, has weakened the resolve of those who are inclined to argue that queer unions weaken marriage as an institution. In this way, reconsiderations of tradition and meaning reach beyond the couple being wed to raise questions among and shape the views of a far larger audience.

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, August 2013).

»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on a selection of our new and classic LGBT Studies titles, when you order via our website. Sale ends on July 1, 2013.

June is LGBT Pride Month!

Here at NYU Press, we take serious “pride” in our diverse collection of LGBT studies books (and authors). So, in honor of LGBT Pride Month, we are launching a series of articles from our wonderful authors on all matters queer or soon-to-be queered. Kicking us off is Abbie E. Goldberg, on the apparent paradox of gay parenting in red states, in her recent article for the Huffington PostRead it below, and then stay tuned for more in the series!

Gay Parents in Red States: Not an Oxymoron
—Abbie E. Goldberg

As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times addresses, lesbian and gay parents are often rearing children in unexpected places. Namely, according to the analysis of U.S. census data, more than one in four same-sex couples in Salt Lake City, Utah, are rearing children. Besides the Utah capital, other large urban areas where high percentages of same-sex couples are raising children include Virginia Beach, Va.; Detroit, Mich.; and Memphis, Tenn., all of which are places where more than a fifth of same-sex couples are bringing up children. Indeed, according to the article, “a striking percentage of same-sex couples are rearing children … in conservative places not known for celebrating gays and lesbians.” For example, among states, Mississippi has the highest percentage of gay and lesbian couples raising children (26 percent), according to the analysis of U.S. census data.

As the Los Angeles Times article notes, “this fact may seem at odds with perceptions that San Francisco and New York are the centers of gay and lesbian life. Pop culture depicts gays and lesbians turning to adoption, sperm banks or surrogacy to form families in decidedly liberal cities such as Los Angeles.”

So why are same-sex couples raising children in these areas, as opposed to moving to more gay-friendly and urban areas? Among the key reasons are cost of living and family ties. Indeed, as I told the Los Angeles Times, “When you ask, ‘Why are you living here?’ [lesbian and gay parents in rural areas] almost always say family. It shouldn’t really be surprising. They value family–and now they’re creating families of their own.”

Little research has focused on the experiences of lesbian and gay parents living in rural and/or conservative geographic areas. Yet it should. As I describe in my book Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood (NYU Press, 2012), lesbian and gay parents–and prospective parents–in rural and/or conservative areas of the U.S. often encounter many barriers and challenges related to their sexual orientation. In an ironic twist, many of the states with the highest percentages of same-sex couples raising children are those with the most anti-gay laws. For example, they are among those with constitutional amendments banning marriage for same-sex couples, and those that prevent same-sex partners from jointly adopting children. Thus, lesbian and gay parents living in these areas encounter legal obstacles in building and protecting their families, which contributes to a sense of legal vulnerability. As Gregory, a 40-year-old gay man whose partner legally adopted their son because their state did not allow same-sex partners to jointly adopt a child, shared with me, “It’s not just my rights. It’s the child’s rights. If I get killed in a car accident … the child has no rights to inherit anything from me. He has no rights to my Social Security. No one does, actually” (Gay Dads p. 83).

Becoming parents may make same-sex couples more sensitive to legal inequities and the importance of legal equality (e.g., with respect to gay adoption, and with respect to marriage equality). For example, I found that many of the gay men in my study felt that parenthood had fostered in them a greater sense of awareness–even activism–about legal equality, such that they were more impassioned advocates of gay rights than they had been pre-parenthood. The couples I interviewed voiced their sense that not only would access to adoption and marriage provide legal recognition of their family ties, but it would provide social recognition. They felt that being able to have both men adopt their child, and being able to get legally married, “would probably add some validation to our family as a unit … in the eyes of … society in general.” As Russell, 41, explained, “It’s weird that [my feelings about marriage equality] have changed, but [they have]. I think that with the addition of Christopher, it becomes more important. I don’t want him as a child to feel second-class status about his family” (Gay Dads p. 89).

Now well into the second decade of the 21st century, we are marching toward a future where equality for LGBTQ people seems possible–at least in some parts of the country. But it is important not to forget all those LGBTQ people, and same-sex couples with children specifically, who reside in the “less obvious” places in the U.S., and who deserve–but often lack–legal rights and protections. Moving is neither possible nor desirable for many of these families. Thus, our efforts to secure equal rights for all families must extend into these regions, until equality becomes the national language.

Abbie E. Goldberg is Associate Professor of Psychology at Clark University. She is the author of Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood (NYU Press, 2012).

»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on Gay Dads (and other select LGBT Studies titles), when you order via our website. Sale ends on July 1, 2013.

“I’m Black and I’m Gay”: The everydayness of Jason Collins

—Mark Anthony Neal

As a lifetime New York Mets fan, I rarely need to be reminded that spring training signaled the beginning of a new baseball season. Yet, for a few years, I could have been reminded by the seemingly annual press conferences from Mets catcher Mike Piazza in which he announced to the world that he was not gay. That Piazza felt compelled to hold a press conference to announce such non-matters, speaks both to the proverbial stakes for male professional athletes (particularly in the so-called four “major” sports), and the absurdity of the national discourse regarding sexual identity.

There was no such press conference for Jason Collins, a twelve-year journey man in the National Basketball Association—just a Sports Illustrated cover story in which he admitted that he was “Black” and “Gay.” Indeed there was a mundane quality to Collins’ admission—it’s not like Collins is the first Black and Gay person to walk the earth. Perhaps, far more remarkable is that Collins has survived the last few seasons as a Black athlete who sits on the end of the bench, in a position that long served as the NBA’s quota program for a league that is still to visibly “Black” for some.

This is not to say that Collins’ “coming out”—a term that really just reproduces the very marginalization that homophobia constructs in the first place—was not brave and that the kudos that he’s received from Team Obama and high-profile colleagues like Kobe Bryant (only a few years removed from his own courtside use of a pejorative directed at Gays) and the always-already surreal Metta World Peace, were not thoughtful. It stands to reason, though, that President Obama will not be making a call to every Black man or women who will admit to a friend, family member, clergy leader or employer that he or she is gay—or more importantly, he won’t be calling those who will be shunned from the comforts of family and community because they did.

But what exactly are we really celebrating in highlighting the decision of one Black and Gay man to tell the world how he has lived everyday for much of his mature life?

As is too often the case in these matters, the attention that Jason Collins is getting is really about the need of our society to pat ourselves on the collective back for being open and tolerant enough to allow a veteran basketball player, close to the end of his career, to tell us that he is Black and Gay. In this regard, I’m not impressed. Nevada State Senator Keith Atkinson recently also admitted that he was “Black” and “Gay” to his legislative colleagues during a debate on Same-Sex marriage, which apparently doesn’t make us feel as good.

To be sure, Jason Collins represents an important moment in professional sport in the United States. As he symbolically raised his hand, hopefully he will find others willing to raise their hands alongside him and encourage a generation of younger athletes to be comfortable enough in their own skins to feel free to express whoever “they be.”  Until then I’m just waiting for the press conference or cover story that announces that such things no longer matter.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press, 2013), and the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

Book giveaways!

It finally feels like spring! We’re celebrating the season by hosting Goodreads giveaways for two new titles from our spring catalog. Check ‘em out below, and enter to win a copy of one—or both!

A powerful examination of the portrayal of black men in popular culture

Illegible Black Masculinities
by Mark Anthony Neal

Released April 22, 2013

“[N]o one but Neal would manage to produce a theory of black masculinity capable of explaining the smoothness of Luther Vandross, the cosmopolitan genius of Jay-Z, the enigma of Leroy from Fame, and the sheer brute force of Snoop from The Wire. Genius.“—Jack Halberstam, author of Gaga Feminism

2 copies available. Giveaway ends on May 10, 2013. Enter to win!


A creative reinvestigation of murder, insurance fraud, and a Supreme Court ruling

The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, and the Love Letter
by Marianne Wesson

Releases May 24, 2013

“Known for her legal thrillers, University of Colorado law professor Wesson employs her expertise to great effect in this exhaustive study… [A] true crime drama that’s well researched, easy to read, and oddly compelling.”
Publishers Weekly

3 copies available. Giveaway ends on May 24, 2013. Enter to win!

Good luck, and spread the word!

Marriage equality and the law, 1967 and 2013

—Howard Ball

In 1967, when a good cigar only cost five cents, a very different U.S. Supreme Court, led by a very different Chief Justice (Earl Warren), faced a choice between a states rights and an equal protection of the laws argument. The same choices face the Justices this term, but I am fearful that the outcome will be very different in 2013.

In 1967, the case Loving v. Virginia came to the Court because Virginia (and 15 other states) enforced its anti-miscegenation statute prohibiting marriage between Caucasians and blacks. At this time, the jurists formed an exceedingly diverse group, much more so than the sitting Court. For one thing, the majority of them had political careers prior to joining. Thus, this intimate contact with politics gave them a much greater sense of the real world than the cloistered world of arcane legalism would have.

Also of note was that the Court was mostly composed of either moderate or liberal jurists; there were no arch conservative “originalists” such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito sitting as we see in the current Court. And the Loving decision was but one example of the Court’s rock solid commitment to civil rights and civil liberties in the mid-20th century (1953-1969).

Virginia’s lawyers argued that in a federal system, the state has the power in the 10th Amendment to establish rights and limits regarding marriage. The lower federal courts accepted this argument, yet without a dissent, Chief Justice Warren categorically rejected it. He wrote that “the 14th Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” The Court’s commitment to racial marriage equality in Loving came even though 72% of the American public opposed inter-racial marriage that year. (In 2011, 97% of persons under 30 years approved of inter-racial marriage. Clearly, values evolved towards equality.)

In 2013, two cases are in the Supreme Court. One, U.S. v. Windsor, the plaintiff, an octogenarian lesbian whose wife of more than four decades died and who had to pay over $300,000 to the IRS because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denied federal benefits to same-sex married couples, argued that the law was an unconstitutional violation of the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. In the second case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, lawyers challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 8, passed in 2008 by the voters in California. It invalidated an earlier California Supreme Court decision that allowed same sex marriage. The arguments by the lawyers for the gay and lesbian petitioners are based on the concept of equality in the Constitution and are reminiscent of the Loving decision.

In contrast to the expectations of petitioners in 1967, however, the outcome in 2013 is uncertain. First of all, only one sitting Justice, Elena Kagan, has any prior experience outside of the judiciary (she was the U.S. Solicitor General in the first Obama Administration). Two had prior work on the Senate judiciary committee (Stephen Breyer) and as counsel for the ACLU (Ruth B. Ginsburg). All the other members came to the Court from lower federal appellate courts, having no real political world experiences to draw upon. Furthermore, unlike the Warren Court, there is a hard and fast ideological split on the Court: five very conservative jurists and four moderates. And there has been, for more than a decade, an “appreciation” by the conservative majority of the primacy of states’ rights vis-á-vis federal power, a general wariness about the Court moving too hastily when deciding controversial social issues, and an originalist commitment to the historic values and traditions of the American society.

There are only a few options available to the Court in deciding the same-sex cases:

  1. Dismiss the cases as improvidently granted, which would leave DOMA in place and have the 9CA overturn of Proposition 8 restored,
  2. (a) Overturn DOMA, ending a federal imposition and enabling, in the 9 states and the D.C. that allow same sex marriage, all married couples to receive federal benefits, and (b) validate California’s Proposition 8, enhancing, in both cases, the principle of states’ rights in the face of federal laws.
  3. Overturn Proposition 8 and DOMA on individual rights, privacy and “equal protection” grounds, using Loving as precedent.

I am not holding my breath that the last option will be the majority’s choice. It will be one of the first two possibilities; either one will sadden but not surprise me and most Court observers. Paradoxically, unlike public opposition to racial intermarriage in 1967 rejected by a unanimous Court, in 2013, although 58% of Americans support same-sex marriage, it may be rejected by a five person majority. Oh, for the return of a good five cent cigar and the Warren Court!

Howard Ball is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and University Scholar at the University of Vermont and Adjunct Professor of Law at Vermont Law School. He is the author of At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death with Dignity in America (NYU Press, 2012) and The Supreme Court in the Intimate Lives of Americans (NYU Press, 2002).

Hooking up as Women’s History

—Leila J. Rupp

Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions of women to history, society, and culture. For me, it’s also a good time to reflect on connections between the past and present.

This may seem very far afield from women’s history, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hookup scene on college campuses—specifically the ways in which parties facilitate women making out with other women (presumably for the pleasure of male onlookers) and in some cases, threesomes between two women and a man—and how this practice might be tied to history.

Interviews with queer women students at my campus make clear that these socially approved activities in the hookup culture also provide the opportunity to experiment with or act on already acknowledged same-sex desires. For example, one biracial and bisexual student I interviewed identifies as straight and never thought that she’d ever have a sexual experience with a woman. Then, she said, “[There were] a few times when I was intoxicated and I was at a party where…I just made out with one of my friends on the dance floor.”

She acknowledges she “may have fallen into that trap of, like, kissing a girl to impress a guy,” but mostly, she understood, it was more of just her own desire to experiment with a woman. Another student who identifies as lesbian/bisexual said it was “super easy” to hook up with boys, and then say, “‘Oh, I like girls.’” She also found participating in a threesome was a way to be with another woman, being that she was “too shy to try and hookup with girls all by themselves.”

Such comments remind me that heteronormative spaces have facilitated love and sexual activity between women in many different times and places. Take, for example, the existence of intimate sexual relationships between co-wives in polygynous households in China and the Middle East, prostitutes in brothels, and women in prison. Romantic friends in heterosexual marriages in the Euro-American world of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the “girlfriends” in avant garde cultural environments (such as Greenwich Village and 1920s Berlin) suggests that bisexual behavior between women, even without the concept of a bisexual or lesbian identity, flourished in a variety of societies. Compulsory heterosexuality and the expectation of marriage and child-rearing meant that women’s same-sex desires and sexual behavior often did not pose a threat to the gender order and sometimes even made for more harmonious heterosexual households by providing sexual pleasure for women.

So when I think about hooking up, I connect it to these historical practices. Who knew Women’s History Month could be so sexy?

Leila J. Rupp is professor of feminist studies and associate dean of the division of social sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is author of many books, including Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women.

Single on Valentine’s Day? Celebrate your inner Bartleby

—Michael Cobb, author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled

[Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on our blog last year on Valentine's Day. We loved it so much, we had to share it again.]

I used to nurse my single self each Valentine’s Day by blasting Morrissey’s “Will Never Marry.” His voice is softly defiant: “I’m writing this to say / In a gentle way / Thank you, but no / I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone.” How could I resist such self-indulgent melancholy? Morrissey is a fascinating single icon, refusing confirmations of his sexual identity, reveling in his secrecy about whom, if anyone, he has kissed.

This ritual of Morrissey devotion drove a friend crazy: How could I celebrate a life without marriage? How could I appreciate being single, which he, like so many coupled people, assumed is a terribly lonely thing to be? According to my friend, who was in a romantic relationship, I was too comfortable in my singleness.

To choose single life is to choose the scent of rotting vegetables and unused product portions drifting out of the fridge; the numerous wedding invitations with an “and guest” violently scrawled next to your name; the pathetic glances of people saddened that you have nothing of substance to report about a “love life”; and the perplexed utterances of wait staff asking, “Just you?” One might think being single is a condition that must be cured—and certainly not one to take lightly. (This is why Liz Lemon is such a refreshing antidote. In more than a few scenes of “30 Rock” we watch her, alone in her apartment, eat something, choke, and self-administer her own Heimlich maneuver to be saved from death, at least this time. Last season she recovered from a breakup by adopting a cat, which she petulantly names after one of the most famous American singles, Emily Dickinson.)

But I know that the moments I’ve felt the loneliest are when I’ve been in a relationship, wondering why there’s so much distance when there should only be closeness. The coupled are supposed to be the lucky ones, so why all this sadness? Is it possible that the coupled inoculate themselves against this haunting sense of disconnect by refusing it away, and pushing their confusion onto the single, insisting, again and again, that it’s the single who are lonely, not they?

With Emily Dickinson (Liz’s cat) in mind, it might not seem so unlikely that “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s 19th-century story of a stubborn, insubordinate law copyist and the lawyer who can’t seem to fire him, offers up a solution to the age-old conundrum of what to make of a “lonely,” single person on Valentine’s Day. [Read Cobb's full summary of Bartleby's story here.]

The key to understanding anything about single life in a world rabidly devoted to the supremacy of coupling off is to think of a single character who can strip away all the sad and pathetic descriptions that are placarded on singles by those who don’t feel singles could ever exist happily or grandly alone. Here’s a pantheon of some of my other favorite real-life Bartleby’s: Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Martin, David Souter, Octavia Butler, Janet Reno, Proust, Baudelaire, and so on.

These people made the world a richer, if not larger place without the romantic support the coupled world deems so invaluable. Yet rather than view the singles in our midst as those who might also harbor such extraordinary powers, we view them with suspicion, as the ones who are supposed to be much lonelier than those who are coupled. Why not regard them with curiosity and even possibly affection and leave it at that? We can marvel at their self-possession. The single’s value, like anyone’s value (coupled or not), surely exceeds any one relationship in his or her story. And that story need not be any more or less tragic than anyone else’s.

Michael Cobb is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, also published by New York University Press.

Gay rights, a gay mayor, and the tiny town of Vicco, Kentucky

—Bernadette Barton

Last November, I was a guest on a radio call-in show based in Baltimore, Maryland. We were discussing my book Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays and the host asked me how close Kentuckians were to marriage equality. Maryland, of course, had just approved same-sex marriage, and residents were abuzz with their victory, or disturbed and grouchy, depending on their perspective. Regardless, same-sex marriage was in the air.

Headphones on, piped in from an NPR studio in Kentucky, I had a full moment of feeling flummoxed. We are, in fact, nowhere on marriage equality in Kentucky. We do not even have a statewide Fairness ordinance that protects gay people and those who are perceived to be gay from being fired from their workplaces, or denied public accommodations and housing. Indeed, activists are extremely careful about the language they use when discussing gay rights. Kentucky passed a statewide anti-gay marriage amendment in 2004 that lawmakers frequently reference when people lobby for gay rights. For example, the state university where I work finally approved domestic partner benefits for employees two years ago. But, if I choose to put my partner Anna on my plan, she would not be referred to as my “partner,” but rather officially called my “sponsored dependent,” a term that conjures up a foster child to me.

Johnny Cummings, the mayor of Vicco, runs a hair salon three doors down from City Hall.

So it was all the more delightful when Vicco (pronounced with a short “i” like “thick”), a tiny municipality in Kentucky with 334 residents passed a fairness ordinance this January. Vicco joins Lexington, Louisville and Covington as regions of Kentucky with a public commitment to gay rights. A young gay male student of mine, “Michael” stopped by my office last week to share the news.

“Dr. Barton,” he exclaimed, “Did you see the New York Times article on Vicco?”

Michael grew up 20 minutes from Vicco on the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia border and had experienced much homophobic bullying growing up in the region. Michael remembered Vicco primarily as the place people made alcohol runs since it had a liquor store. We laughed, appreciating tiny Vicco, with its gay mayor/hair stylist, the tight web of relationships characterizing small communities, and the eccentricity of the Bible Belt. While we may be far from marriage equality in Kentucky, Vicco’s bold stand for gay rights is a step forward.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).