Of the many questions raised in the academy as well as the blogosphere, one stands out for its poignancy and compassion: are we as a society capable of loving queer kids? Artist David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 image, Untitled (One Day This Kid…), takes on this difficult question by juxtaposing a generic image of an all-American white boy (a self-image) with a litany of subjunctive projections (“One day this kid will…”) marking the queer child’s body as the site upon which institutionalized and internalized homophobia would inevitably rear its ugly head. The narrative inevitability of violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth that this artwork chillingly encapsulates is not merely a kid issue.
In our so-called adult world, the range of acceptable alternative gender and sexual expressions seems ever shrinking under the pressure of not just anti-gay but also homonormative
agendas. It bears noting that what counts as proper masculinity and femininity in the adult world is not all that different than those presumptions in the schoolyard; in fact the worlds of kids and adults are mutually constitutive. As Nation
columnist Richard Kim
sees it, “when faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it’s easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called ‘anti-gay bullying’ and then confine it to the borders of the schoolyard.”
To put it in another way, our “adult” response in conjunction with the media production around the suicides should not blind us by or bind us to the view that this is simply a kid’s issue. Moreover, directing all our energies to catching and punishing individual teenage bullies could well be a futile exercise in service of a mediatized outrage. Rather, the task has always in a sense been the same one: dismantling the privilege of intractable, heteronormative institutions and their death-grip on moral lives. The expressive possibilities of gender and sexuality for kids and adults alike should not be policed so zealously, insidiously, painfully. We may laugh at the video on Onion News Network, “How to Find a Masculine Halloween Costume for your Effeminate Son
” for its ridiculous parody of parental anxiety over their children’s gender performances. But one mother’s defiant blog entry, “My son is gay
,” in which she has to defend her five-year old son’s cross-gender Halloween dress-up as Daphne from animated TV program Scooby Doo
from other disapproving mothers crystallizes an endemic problem. The bully is in fact the system itself, and it is this bullying system that has to be rid of its toxicity. As José Muñoz notes, “The present is not enough. It is impoverished and toxic for queers and other people who do not feel the privilege of majoritarian belonging, normative tastes, and ‘rational’ expectations.”
Meanwhile in the absence of affirming gay teachers and role models, Dan Savage’s YouTube testimony project “It Gets Better” has emerged as a kind of redemptive narrative and antidote for toxicity. But is it disingenuous to prophesy a better future when things are arguably getting worse? The university for instance is no safe haven. One of the key findings in the first ever 2010 State of Higher Education National Report for LGBT People
is a “chilly campus climate of harassment and far less than welcoming campus communities.” LGBT inclusive policies are found at less than 8% of accredited colleges and universities. Changing the policy is one way to address this blind spot, and this is certainly an important area of intervention. Yet this too raises complex issues as some have argued that a politics of resentment looms over legislative protection for minorities who are then absurdly perceived to be relatively entitled. For instance, Morris Kaplan contends that judicial intervention by way of hate crime legislation could fuel rather than resolve serious social conflict as “racial, religious and sexual bigots may come to view themselves as ‘victims’ of hate crime laws designed to create ‘special rights’ for ‘privileged’ minorities.”
Of course, others contend just the opposite, that these interventions are key to changing mindsets and behavior.
Such nuances of a left critique in anti-harassment or hate crimes legislation are however lost in the pushback by conservatives from the likes of Clint McCance, an Arkansas school board member. McCance announced on Facebook that he would disown his kids if they were gay and that he enjoyed “the fact that [gay people] give each other AIDS and die.
” Mr. McCance has since resigned from his post. Yet the toxicity of this discursive environment is coincidental with the intensification of queer bashing all over the country in the last two months. That these gay teen suicides are suddenly newsworthy in ways they hadn’t been tells us that major shifts are happening in the US body politic. These shifts are also signaled by the inexplicable eruptions of hate crime such as: the heinous torture of a 30-old man in the Bronx
by a group of nine attackers who ranged from being just 16 to 23 years old; the emergence of anti-gay vigilantes in school boards and other areas of “public service” who see their vitriol against young queers as justified even as they hold public offices (consider for instance Michigan Assistant District Attorney Andrew Shirvell
who has since been fired
); the homosexual scandals of hypocritical, religious leaders (such as Bishop Eddie Long
, Ted Haggard
, George Rekers
and others) involving sexual coercions of teenage boys, masseurs and rent boys; and an open season queer bashing by members of the conservative right (such as Carl Paladino
, the Republican candidate for governor in New York who said that children should not be “brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option”).
These are all symptoms of sexual panic. As Bruce Burgett argues, “[s]ex, in public discourses and practices of US nationalism, occasions panic when it takes the form of what Michael Warner calls ‘matter out of place,’ when it compromises the moral and bodily sanctity of the normative citizen-subject by allowing knowledge about the ‘messiness and variety of sex’ either to contaminate official policy publics or to escape legally sanctioned zones of privacy.”
We’re at the brink of major shifts in US society that are incorporating gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer lives into quotidian, military and matrimonial structures. The concomitant sexual panic indexes an impending demise of hetero-masculinist bigotry, even as it desperately tries to hold on to its power and moral authority as queerness goes to mainstream, mainstreet USA.
But where exactly queers are heading is less clear, what with the pushback, backlash, and random attacks — the things that bullies do when they feel threatened. Meanwhile, the question of getting queers and minorities out of adolescence, out of the closet, and out in the world unscathed is like dreaming for Neverland. We might think instead of how queerness is imbricated in our liberal investments in institutions that are, among other things, heteronormative structures. Schools, like society itself, are not designed to be queer-friendly; they have to be queered. The fight for gender and sexual freedoms must continue if we are to imagine a queer future livable for our kith and kin around the world. In such a fight, the cost of non-conformity, equal rights, and visibility should not be a deathly embrace.
We’re living in a time of tremendous crises, from economic distress to various cultural wars that are fundamentally changing the racial and sexual landscape of the USA At a recent faculty meeting, Ruth Simmons, the President of Brown University, noted a terrible public mood of malaise in the US, which is expressed with what my colleague Susan Harvey calls a “destructively shrill tone of intolerance and aggression.” Consider the bullying of a Muslim high school student
by four of his classmates in Staten Island, New York, and the burnt Quran
smeared with feces found at the Islamic Center in East Lansing, Michigan (sparking retaliatory action against a church in Malerkotla, India) as just two manifestations of bullying going on in many other scenarios.
Gay teen suicides are a constitutive part of the seismic shifts we’re experiencing. The broader social turbulence of our times demands that we have a firmer grip on the stakes of our queer political projects, and what it means to have coalitions across race, sexuality and religion in a profoundly disturbing larger context. As we perform the myriad actions as an agent of change in our own way, whether in progressive collectives or through educative forums like this teach-in, we should also keep an eye out for our fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, allied (LGBTQIA), and neighbor. Be kind to one another, especially the sissy boys, tomboys, and transkids who absorb so much hate on a daily basis as well as other queer kids who are often subject to some of the most heartbreaking erasures from the familial, institutional, pedagogical, and social structures that others take for granted.
Eng-Beng Lim is Director of Undergraduate Studies in Performance Studies at Brown University, and an affiliate faculty member of Department of American Civilization, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.