An Excerpt from the 2009 Kessler Lecture Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia And Its Consequences

Despite the emphasis on gay marriage and parenthood that has overwhelmed our freedom vision, how gays and lesbians are treated IN families, is far more influential on the quality of individual lives and the larger social order, than how we are treated AS families. Tonight I will try to articulate how and why systems of familial homophobia operate and more importantly, how they can be changed.

Imagine if a family responded to the coming out of one of its member like this:

They discuss as a family their special responsibility to protect her from pressures and cruelties that they themselves will never face. They promise not to exploit or enjoy privilege that she is denied, and to commit their family’s resources to accessing those privileges that she is denied, and to commit their family’s resources to accessing those privileges for her and other queer people—who she treats like full human beings. And they insist that their gay family member treat other queer people with accountability as well. In their larger family, friendships, workplaces, in their production and consumption of culture, in how they vote and what laws they both support and access, they intervene when queer people are being scapegoated by directly addressing the perpetrators. This is not an impossible scenario. Yet today families are more likely to “tolerate”, that is to keep us in a position of lesser value, than to learn from us and be elevated by our knowledge.

Because of the twisted paradox of dominant behavior, gay people are being punished within the family structure even though we have not done anything wrong. This punishment has dramatic consequences on both our social experiences and our most trusting loving sexual relationships. Strangely, I am saying this in a moment when most people will tell you that “things are getting better.” The AIDS crisis forced Americans to start the process of acknowledging that gay people exist. Thus, even though there are many institutions today that still pretend that we do not exist, there are other institutions that acknowledge, in some form, that we do exist. It’s a bizarre set of daily contradictions that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people must balance and internalize. Some television shows have central characters who are homosexual, other television shows convey entire worlds in which homosexuality is never acknowledged, still others show us only as pathological and predatory. You never know what you’re going to feel around each corner.

However, the acknowledgement, when it does occur, is often problematic. Does the fact that openly gay people are allowed some rights in some circumstances mean that “things are getting better?” Or does the fact that so much profound exclusion and distortion pervades, have more negative meaning than it did sixty years ago when there was no visible movement? I think it’s obvious that deliberately excluding people when you know they exist is a more destructive and sadistic action now than it was in the past when so few of us were known. Knowing queer people, seeing our wish for justice, and still denying us basic legal rights, denying us integration into the public conversation of the culture and excluding us from authentic mainstream representation, is a condition of oppression that should no longer exist. Considering how much work we have done and how enormous our effort to create social transformation has been—we’re not where we should be. Change is not the same thing as progress. Don’t confuse them. Yes, the ways we are contained are different. The ways we are situated as lesser-than are far more sophisticated than they were when I was 8, 16, 25. But compared to where we should be, right now we are no where. We’ve been bombarded with so many false messages about how much better off we are, that we’ve gotten confused about what we really deserve and what both Liberation and Equality would actually look like. And how truly possible they are. Being niche marketed a product is not citizenship, it’s the end of autonomy not the beginning. Now, it is true that there will always be some people for whom monogamous coupling for life is the best option. And gay people on that path should have full equality. Of course, many gay people do not equate monogamy and marriage, and just you wait until straight “allies” figure that one out. But whatever “marriage” means to anyone should be fully legally protected. Obviously. But there is an ideology emerging from our paid leadership positioning the pretense of monogamous life coupling as the best and superior and most desirable way to be gay. Even though straight people vociferously refuse to vote for equal rights, even with these dire requirements, they are happy to let it become our only visible public image. And because we now believe what corporate America tells us about ourselves, there are now some queer people who now negotiate acceptance by their families as long as they get gay-married and have children. As a feminist, I have to say that I am appalled by any ideology that tells women to get married, gay or straight.

This marketing of marriage has gotten us off track of thinking critically about the truth of our own condition and how to create radical social change that we need to be see as real. Very little is known about how our oppression is constructed and its consequences on us. Our reconceptualization of our own destiny has only just begun. The most progressive impulses in American Life: Black Power, Feminism, and Gay Liberation, were rooted in agendas that came from real people’s true lived experiences in contrast to the lie of who they were being told they were. But we, LGBT people in the year 2009, are listening to everyone but ourselves. We listen to corporate culture, corporate media, Hollywood, our president, our insipid national organizations, Showtime and Ellen. We have let all this capitalist noise obscure what we are really experiencing.

For example, when I look at what I am really experiencing today in the American Theater and US Publishing, things are worse for authentic work with lesbian protagonists than they have ever been in my lifetime. How can it be that “things are getting better” if there is not a single lesbian play in the American repertoire? Not a single multi-character play with a lesbian protagonist, taking place in an authorial universe, where people talk to each other with gravitas like the work of Tony Kushner or August Wilson, allowed to succeed in New York, performed around the country, that actresses study in scene work in conservatory. We are still relegated to cutesiness, solo performance, or vaudeville-like direct address and kept out of the blue-ribbon format. How can” things be getting better” if in the early 1990’s mainstream publishers allowed 5-10 novels to be published annually with lesbian protagonists, and today it is one every 2-3 years? Because, in the process of self-deception, we make the crucial mistake of dismantling our most effective apparatus:
–Subculture that produces authentic representation of our true experiences
–The Culture of Opposition in which we refuse to be lied to or about
–The Community Relationship which has historically been our richest and most humanizing creation.

If we had lived in privatized family units in 1984 in the way that we are told to do in 2009, we NEVER would have been able to respond so effectively to the AIDS crisis. Could we rise to the occasion so magnificently today? If you look at our recent track record—losing 31 out of 31 anti-gay ballot measures— now that “things are so much better”, today we are unable to win anything. This twist, calling a constant state of injustice “Progress” gets played out in a number of distorting ways, as we pretend that we are accepted when we are not.