Guest Blogger

Lost in Assimilation?

Filed By Guest Blogger | January 15, 2008 1:32 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: assimilation, lynching, normativity, queer, race, sexuality

[Ed. note: This guest post comes to us from Clarence Patton, Acting Executive Director of the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.]

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I was just a baby activist in college, there was ongoing tension between two sects of “The Gays”: those of us who felt it was important to be accepted given — or even because of — our differences and those who believed that it was important to emphasize the idea that we are just like straight people, with just a smidge of difference, and should be accepted despite our differences. In essence, the debate was between the “Queers” and the “Assimilationists.” I was part of the first group. At one point, the tension between the two groups reached such a crescendo that the Queers copied images from lesbian and gay porn, bordered it with lines from the Declaration of Independence and wheat-pasted it all over campus with the tag line: We Are Not Just Like You. The Assimilationists were both incensed and mortified. We Queers were just tickled…

As the LGTB-rights agenda has shifted in recent years to closely mirror the assimilationist viewpoint, moving away from demanding “liberation” to a more pragmatic and achievable agenda aimed at political and social rights, is it possible that we have lost sight of a basic truth of our marginalization?

Historically, the marginalization of many communities in our country’s history has been rooted in or justified by the need to maintain certain normative and oppressive sexual power structures.

For instance, the rationale among many for the subjugation of African-Americans after emancipation was to keep white women safe from the danger of black men. While most Americans have an idea that the nation has a history of lynching — though likely no idea of the extent of lynchings, nor how far into the late 20th Century they reached — many are unaware that castration was often as much a part of lynching as the noose, a newly resonant image given events in Jena, Louisiana, at Columbia University and elsewhere recently. Every black man until recent decades knew not to look at white women for fear of being beaten or lynched and made an example of like Emmett Till. Lest he suffer the consequences, my own maternal grandfather left his home in Alabama for Chicago at age 12 after being accused of “looking wrong at a white woman.”

Of course, the post-slavery narrative of hysteria around black sexuality followed the Ante-Bellum/Slavery history of white male subjugation and rape of black women (and by extension the emasculation of black men) contained its own schizophrenia around white and black sexuality. See: Strom Thurmond and others. Diane Roberts’ book The Myth of Aunt Jemima does an excellent job of outlining the split personality way in which whites — abolitionists and apologists alike — reacted to and used black sexuality to their own ends.

By the 1960’s, changes were on the horizon. Mainstream messaging and overt talk about the fear of sex between black boys/men and white girls/women went on the down-low. Instead, we developed new wink-and-nod codes to signify the same idea. There was the need to maintain “separateness” — a drive that reached its crescendo around the unthinkable idea of black boys and white girls in school together. (Of course, no one was ever concerned about white boys and black girls together; see : Strom Thurman and others.). There was the lack of integration on teen dance shows and at sock-hops — John Waters has managed to make a movie, a musical and the same movie again about this. By the 1980s this short-hand was so sophisticated that all Ronald Reagan had to do was go to Philadelphia, Mississippi and declare that he was in favor or “States’ Rights.” By the 1990s, Papa Bush had only to invoke Willie Horton. Whatever was said out loud, the subtext was always fear of black male sexuality.

With respect to the marginalization of lesbians and gay men, when the layers of rhetoric around the oppression and are peeled back, they reveal a similar strain of guilt/confusion/envy/repulsion among homophobes and heterosexists. At its root, anti-Queer sentiment is based in a visceral sense that what we do is wrong and distasteful. Our staunchest opponents do not care about nor are they compelled by how much we love each other, how successfully we raise our children, or how dutifully we pay our taxes, or how we serve the public good in numerous, other ways. In the final analysis, they just think we’re nasty.

Anti-Queer arguments based in religion, culture and the creation of children are all smoke-screens to cover up something that’s really very base: disgust. Trying to rationalize and cover up disgust with other excuses merely serves to justify the perpetuation of political, social and physical violence against Queer communities. But if we pay attention to the messages from the LGTB movement – particularly the messages we send ourselves — it would appear that we have forgotten that our marginalization is based in others’ discomfort around our sexuality, and we’ve responded by not talking about our sexuality and instead talking about love.

Love isn’t the answer when Queers are being accused of recruiting, contaminating, enticing and luring more and more people into the mysteries and ecstasies of our sexual depravity. Love isn’t the answer when the media and public respond with hysteria that there are “men on the down-low” as though it’s a new, dangerous dynamic peculiar to only among African-American men as opposed to all of the closeted masses. Love isn’t the answer when we’re accused of threatening the “institution” of marriage – an enterprise with a 50% success rate, or held partially responsible for bringing about terrorist attacks..

The answer is sexual freedom, in which self-expression and fluidity in sexuality is seen as enriching and valuable, not nasty. But we no longer have a sexual freedom – or even a personal freedom or liberty - movement. But that shouldn’t be surprising – we are after all Americans, and most Americans have no idea that they don’t truly have sexual freedom. This is a battle we must wage.

And this battle didn’t begin with us. The tradition of fighting against the sexual empowerment of anyone except well-resourced, white, straight men is long and continues today. From the role of sexuality in the repression of African-Americans to the suffragette movement, where leaders and rank-and-file participants were derided as being loose, lesbians, godless, and witches. One-hundred years ago in 1907, an anti-suffragette scientist wrote that “women's desire for the vote came from their "katabolic" condition, which, if unchecked, would unsex them and depopulate the cradle.” Talk about anti-sex hysteria.

But when vibrators were banned in Alabama in 1998, women there did not march en masse to the State House in Montgomery for the right to their orgasms by any means necessary. After all, vibrators are nasty, right?

We must not lose sight of the fact that the Queer struggle is rooted in exploding the strictures on sexual freedom in America. The fear of us is the fear of an America in which every adult is free to find sexual satisfaction with the consenting adult of their choice in whatever manner they choose. We would do well to remain clear about the motivations of our enemies when we go up against them — and respond by denying our nastiness, not just proclaiming our love; they certainly have not forgotten.


Originally posted at Movement Vision Lab. Patton's organization is mentioned for identification purposes only.


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Awesome post, Clarence. Thank you.

One thing I always think about... Neither the Queers nor the Assimilationists seem to follow my life. While I drift from one to the other depending on the situation and circumstances, both seem to want undying dedication to the "cause."

The amount of bias the author reveals with this line is stunning, "In essence, the debate was between the 'Queers' and the 'Assimilationists.'"
So, in essence, the battle was between those who liked themselves and those who didn't? Defining your terms to denigrate those who disagree with you is a great trick, if a little intellectually weak. What's next: "pro-family"? Those who think we're all human are "assimilationists"?
"As the LGTB-rights agenda has shifted in recent years to closely mirror the assimilationist viewpoint, moving away from demanding “liberation” to a more pragmatic and achievable agenda aimed at political and social rights,"
Meaning, as the group grew up? Matured? As the millions of people who don't live in gay ghettoes or gay echo chambers and wanted the freedom to live their lives without having to match some one's preconception of what gay means had the nerve to ask that gay rights organizations deal with those little things, like hospital visitation, inheritance, marriage? All of those assimiliationist ideals? Those trifling, fantasy-world issues that affect people's lives from day to day (and from life to death) aren't what matter: what matters is that we're different! We screw differently! Yay!
That's abhorrent. "Love" isn't the point; the author is right about that. Freedom is the point, and I certainly hope the author isn't suggesting that gays have an exclusive right to or lock on freedom. Sexual freedom can and should be enjoyed by gays and straights (and bis, etc. Like many of those with identity-group blinders on, the author seems to have forgotten the world is not divided into two types, in an us-versus-them scenario; there are more variations on sexual identity than gay and straight), and there is no earthly reason other than some need for a divine destiny to claim that gays are The Chosen Ones to bring this home.
If one wants to be or be thought of as fundamentally different than straight people, fine, knock oneself out. But those who choose that path shouldn't pretend that their desire to be different somehow overwrites biology and has created some New Species, some other.

To Bil:

Meh, I think that representing the argument as some kind of divide between people is oversimplifying the whole situation a bit, as if there's one type of assimilationist, as if there's one type of rad queer, as if they're completely separate groups, as if there aren't people who just don't care.

I think if we keep the discussion related to tangibles, like what kind of world do we want to see, how can we get there, etc., then we can have a more productive conversation. It's better than running around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming about the children when a Republican gets caught having some public sex or keeping everything in the abstract all the time and criticizing those activists who are actually out there doing stuff.

Just sayin', answers to questions about what we want, how we'll get it, who we are, etc. will all be found in the process of bridging the gap between theory and praxis. And right now the queer communities could use a lot of that sort of bridging.

Hopefully that's what we're doing with this Project.

Nice post, BTW.

Torrent:

I dunno if it's a "gay ghetto" dynamic at place here. I've never lived in one, almost never visit them, and I can still think that pushing a marriage-only agenda is pretty short-sighted. I actually think that the drive to marriage is being pushed primarily by an over-reliance on ID politics, the top-down sort where people think that a certain identity can have specific media and non-profit outlets speak for the whole group, ignoring class criticism that could go along with that, etc.

That's why I don't think that a simple queer/assimilationist dichotomy is productive (how meta-queer of me, I know). Too much diversity/possibility there to reduce everything down to those words, whether we're in one camp or the other, whether we're trying to pin some community ill (HIV, "immaturity", lack of class consciousness, exclusion, etc.) on one group or the other.