Friday, July 26, 2013

Insidious Straight Acting Donatist Queers

People will never fight for your freedom if you have not given evidence that you are prepared to fight for it yourself. Incidentally, that’s the reason that every gay who is in the closet is ultimately a threat to the freedom of gays. I don’t want to seem intolerant to them and I think we have to say that to them with a great deal of affection, but remaining in the closet is the other side of the prejudice against gays. Because until you challenge it, you are not playing an active role in fighting it.
            Bayard Rustin, Brother to Brother: An Interview with Joseph Beam, 1986[1]

Over the past few weeks I have heard from many different venues statements about how members of the Queer Community[2] can forgo social stigma by acting “straight”. I have come across this in the form of “I have the privilege to act straight and not face persecution” as well as “gays are not really persecuted because you choose to act out like that”. These statements are not new but they seem to come at heightened levels at times of high racial tension.

I know about “acting straight” to avoid prejudice. I grew up in an “act straight” household. My act straight mantra growing up included “The open palm never touches the hip”, “Always squat never bend over”, “Always say “here, [dog’s name]” never use the word “come” to call a dog, and countless others.[3] Breaking any of the mantras resulted in verbal abuse, restriction of privileges, and at points physical abuse. “Straight Acting” might be a necessary short term reality but over the long term it helps no one, least of all the individual doing it.

There is so much insidiously wrong with the idea of “straight acting”. It is basically a secular form of Donatism. Donatism is a Christian heresy where the outward moral actions and history of a person is what validates them to be called Christians. The reality is that there is not a litmus test of outward moral actions and history of a person that defines them as “straight” or “queer”. To pretend such is to both buy into the system of prejudice and to deny the validity of certain individual’s “queerness”.

I can think of several heterosexual couples I know that involve a bisexual or transgender member. Now walking down the street on a given day are these couples “straight acting” or “queer acting” or are they just being wonderfully themselves? I remember a colleague of mine being mortified that his mannerisms did not betray that he was a gay man, that he was in some way not acting “queer” enough. I know people who, in my opinion, could not “act straight” if their life depended on it, despite possible protestation to the contrary[4], and people whose attempts to “queer it up” are so dead in the water it is not funny. Being “queer” is about being true to who you are and allowing other people to do the same it is not about fulfilling certain projections of an insidiously broken society.

This call to “straight action” is even more insidious, however, when it is brought up in relationship to race. Bayard Rustin, in an earlier part of the interview quoted above, said that we have “to say to the gay rights movement, if you want to win you must join us as individuals into the civil rights movement and to say to the civil rights people if you really want to get freedom for blacks don’t think you can do it by getting freedom for blacks alone”. A portion of the white queer community does indeed have the capacity, to call it a privilege is to defy the word’s definition, to extricate themselves as individuals from the basic cause of freedom through harmful complacency by “straight acting”. This portion does not, however, in any way represent the fullness of racial and ethnic diversity within the queer community nor even the capacity of all its white members.

Now for every group with a freedom movement there are members of that group who habitually practice harmful complacency, various relatives to “straight acting”.  The privilege, as it were, of some white queer individuals is the ability to partake of only one practice of harmful complacency in order to extricate themselves from the overall fight for individual’s freedom. Individuals who are people of color or other minority group who are also queer would have to take up multiple such practices in order to extricate themselves.

To say that the queer community can simply “act straight” to avoid prejudice denies the inherent racial and ethnic diversity of the queer community; projects a false capacity of its individuals to universally do so in any believable fashion; and also reinforces basic prejudices around what it means to be “queer” or “straight”. The saddest part, however, is that each attempt to be in the closet not only fails to challenge the prejudice against the queer community it is a failure to challenge prejudice in all its forms. The “privilege” to “act straight” that a few have is the ability to perpetuate the system that harms not only their fellow queers but all who desire freedom. Maybe I spoke too soon, as the truly saddest part is that this is how we actually define “privilege” and that any one in our society actually wants it.  

[1] Carbado, Devon (ed), Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2003. p. 278
[2] I recognize that this term is still divisive within the community as a whole. As a theologian I am using the term to represent the entire community from which queer theology derives, which is more expansive than LGBTQ.
[3] In case these are confusing: Placing an open palm on a hip was considered a very feminine stance. Bending over to pick something up was considered a seeking of anal sex. Use of the word “come” to call a dog could be taken as use of the word “cum” thus making Timmie’s call to Lassie, “Come, here boy”, no longer innocent.
[4] My protestations to the contrary I include myself in this category… so much for the “straight acting” indoctrination of my youth.

No comments:

Post a Comment