Hate, Coming Out, and Creating Discomfort: Y/N?

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The Berlant and Freeman article did not resonate well with me and I wish to discuss three main points in the article, and my objections to them.

1. "I Hate Straights." I think there is a lot wrong with this concept and the arguments surrounding it. I do believe there are a lot of reasons to be angry, and I don't wish to deny or downplay the very real effects of discrimination and hate that queers face in our world. However, while it is possible for anger to be productive, I don't think that hate ever is. First, I think this concept incorrectly conflates "straights" with "heteronormativity." There are heterosexual people who do not, actually, fit into the parameters of heteronormativity. For example, the idea of the "welfare queen." While the "welfare queen" may be heterosexual, she violates the tenets of heteronormativity by being a single mom, by being poor, and by being a woman of color. Her predicament of being poor and a single mom on welfare is explained within society by her supposedly incorrect or inappropriate sexuality. The figure of the welfare queen faces just as much discrimination as a queer person, but it is just a different kind. I think "I Hate Straights" perpetuates the incorrect and unproductive hetero/homo binary -- something which, paradoxically, queer theory wishes to challenge. I also think it forecloses important possibilities of coalition between queers and other marginalized groups, such as working class people and people of color. It also fails to take into account the intersection of gender, sexuality, class, race, etc. While a white gay man certainly faces challenges and discrimination from a heteronormative society, he may be relatively better off than a poor, black single mother.

2. "Coming Out." This is another place, I think, where privilege goes unexamined. White, middle-class queers have the means to become financially independent, should family ties be strained or severed by the process of coming out. However, not everyone has this possibility. For example, I have a friend who has not come out to his family, though he is out with almost all his friends. He knows that if he were to come out to his family, the results would be the loss of financial support from his family and possibly he would not be able to finish college without that support. I feel it is not my place to insist that he be "out," nor do I think that his decision not to come out to his family makes him a bad queer. Coming out is not a possibility for people who rely on family ties for survival (which is common among the working class and people of color), and sometimes can be out-right dangerous. I believe that coming out should be a personal decision that each person needs to make based on his/her own situation, and I don't think that choosing not to come out is a failure on the part of that person.

3. Creating Discomfort. Here I am referring to the quote at the end of the article which reads, "queers are thus using exhibitionism to make public space psychically unsafe for unexamined heterosexuality." I think this is an interesting strategy, and I think it can be useful. I think part of challenging heteronormativity involves forcing people to confront the fact that sexuality is not as simple and clear-cut as it may seem. I think making people uncomfortable and getting "in-your-face" is a good strategy for doing so. However, I think it is wrong to insist that everyone use this strategy. Just like the issue of coming out, there is unexamined privilege within this strategy. For some, visibility is not an option, or would be life-threatening. Taking over a bar or other "straight space" also requires a community of queers, and for people living in rural areas, perhaps this is not available. I think this sort of militant visibility has its place, but it cannot be insisted upon as a general strategy for the whole queer community.

4 Comments

I was having very similar thoughts on this article and I was particularly confused as to whether the authors found these strategies useful or not.
I think the three points you bring up here all contradict what queer has promised to do. "Queer" can be theorized as a way to trouble, question binaries, and unite non-normative subjects. The objections you raise here seem to contradict this. The "I Hate Straights" pamphlet seems like a strategy that isolates certain groups of people with non-normative sexualities (ie the welfare queens). In practical terms, these groups can be useful in coalition building, but aren't these also subjects the queer movement should be concerned with? And if queer is troubling dichotomies, why reenforce the potentially false dichotomy of gay/ straight?
All of these tactics used rage in one way or another. I think this application of rage is incorrect, though I do see the value in rage itself. Rage can rally people towards action, but it shouldn't be the focal point of your resistance especially when that rage is directed towards potential allies or people suffering from intersecting oppressions.
I also really like your discussion of failure in terms of coming out here. Not following the coming out narrative in a timely fashion is a queer "failure" according to these activist groups. How does that affect these subjects who have not yet come out for whatever reason?

I also had a similar response to this article. I will respond to the points you touched on in order.

1. "I hate straights": Your point is well-taken in criticizing the reaffirmation of a mutually exclusive binary between homo/hetero. As Cathy J Cohen would state, this operates under the assumption that queerness as an identity for LGBTQ (mostly white) people, assumes all heterosexuals, and people who are not out of the closet, exist on polar opposites of the same spectrum. Heterosexuals are defined as oppressors in this context and LGBTQ folk are oppressed. Cohen notes that this leaves out immigrants, people of color (especially women and LGBTQ people of color), homeless populations and incarcerated populations. Cohen argues for a coalitional politics that centers queer resistance on shared relationships to power as opposed to privileging white conceptions of gender and sexuality. This engages with Chela Sandoval's "Methodologies of Oppression" as privileging gender and sexuality as the sight of the most oppression suggests other oppressions are less serious, less traumatic, and/or less numerous. It also suggests that LGBTQ folk can not also oppress people through racism, sexism, xenophobia and ableism.

Another concept I want to use as a criticism is Julia Serrano's definition of "Subversivism". Serrano defines "subversivism" as politics within LGBTQ communities that are intended to destabilize heteronormativity through subversion. However, in the process they actually normalize new dualisms and/or repackage and reify already existing forms dualisms and forms of exclusion. Serrano goes on to draw a distinction between a "scene" and a "social movement" where a scene is defined by communities of people who operate with either/or frameworks (either you are queer or you are not); social movements by this definition are coalitional when necessary, broadly based in their approaches, inclusive in their membership and operate in a both/and framework.

2. "Coming out": On one hand coming out is a privilege. The narratives most widely known of coming out stories are often specific to raced and classed experiences. On the other hand, coming out may largely be symbolic as the closet isn't a material space but a concept which may be imagined. By this I mean one may not be operating with the degree of secrecy they believe they are, friends and family may know despite their coming out (thanks Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick). Additionally, coming out isn't a singular event but a repetitive process one must constantly engage in. For example, I identify myself as a queer male. At work this is how I present myself. In my home state of North Dakota, and in family situations, I mostly identify as gay because it is easier to define. Alone on the street at night I may define more as masculine and hope to present as neutral or straight. These contexts differ based on location and feelings of safety, there are no constants.

Coming out narratives are not universal. Critiques offered by LGBTQ people of color suggest a relationship between how race, gender and sexuality are conceptualized. In some contexts this presents itself more explicitly in transnational contexts, but it also has glaring moments within local and regional contexts. For example: First Nations and indigenous folks who "came out" in the 70's and 80's have a different experience than those who are white and came out during this period. This goes beyond understandings of gender and sexuality by entering into the realms of cultural differences as related to race, geographic positioning and class. Families of First Nations and indigenous LGBTQ folk may take more issue with loss of culture within their communities than how one "does" their gender or to whom one is sexually attracted. How gender and sexuality is conceived is specific to space, place and culture.

3. Creating Discomfort: This is a tactic that is useful in certain contexts and for certain aims. Butler has made assertions suggesting something as common as a heteronormative, nuclear family walking down the street is a form of public sex. This assumes both partners in this family are a couple and that the child(ren) in question are natal to both of them. This reading of Butler is stating is heteronormativity has become so normalized that when one sees a heteronormative nuclear family we do not think of how this family came to be. They are not gendered, and not sexual, they simply just ARE. However, the sight of same-gendered people holding hands in public may draw attention because the imagined unnaturalness of same gender sexuality makes it impossible to go unmarked as heterosexuality often is. That is, sexuality and gender are made visible when they are being represented in a way that is not normative. Thereby queering spaces as Queer Nation did, or more recently as Bash Back! has, potentially interrupts the stability and naturalness of heteronormativity. At the same time, this relies on LGBTQ visibility as the primary focus thereby privileging those who can afford such visibility. What this tactic does not do is offer protections in workplaces or housing, it also doesn't create spaces where dialogue can occur between communities marked by difference.

Nyssa, I have to admit I had many of the same feelings while reading the Berlant/ Freeman article last week. I think your analysis of the “I Hate Straights” concept and its conflation of heterosexuality with homonormativity is quite astute. However, while I recognize the personal hardships and disparate positionalities different queer identified folks are coming from in terms of approaching “coming out” or other forms of visibility, such as public displays of affection (for reasons political or otherwise), I must wonder about the collective versus the individual. Part of what the “I Hate Straights” campaign is reacting to is the way that “straight” is unquestioned in the way that “gay” or “queer” might be. Because “straight” is normal, “gay” and “queer” become the alien, the bizarre. If this is the type of normalizing force we are fighting against, what is the risk of having individuals who cannot/ will not “come out” or be “seen”? I am not here to judge people’s individual choices, but we have to ask what the consequences of these types of silences will be. As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you”. People are more likely to change an opinion when they are emotionally involved. Think of all the straight parents of queer persons who only realized the dangerous possibilities of homophobia when their own child “came out”. Think of all the straight people in the world that still don’t realize they know a queer person (let me guarantee you, they do). I will concede, it is asking a lot to insist that every queer person be “visible”, but why is “visibility” even possible? Is this generation not more “visible” than the one before? Than Audre’s?

@nyssa Great direct engagement here! Thanks for getting us started on an important critical engagement with the text.

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