I’m reading a book right now that’s so profound, I’m forced to slow myself down so I can fully grasp its concepts and their meaning in my life. Not too long ago I decided “family” wasn’t a useful term for me…there had been too many failures, too much hurt and disappointment. Community, I decided, was the better option since it could be imagined and constructed in myriad ways. Then last week, my friend Rosa loaned me her copy of Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman. And now I’m wondering if my rejection of the practice of family is a cop out. I met Ms. Schulman two years ago when I was struggling with my commitment to playwriting. When she kindly (and rightly) suggested that I “lacked ambition,” I sat down and spent some time thinking about just what I *did* want for my work. And that led to my decision to self-publish.
This book will definitely shake you out of your complacency. I often attribute destructive behavior among black youth to a failure of imagination. And that’s also why I champion a greater range of films, books, songs—just MORE art (especially in schools) so that these kids know there are other possibilities for their lives. Sarah Schulman concludes: “Familial homophobia is deeply human, as all evil is the product of human imagination.” But that means we ought to be able to imagine different, more humane ways of treating one another, right? There are so many quotes I’d like to share with you, but will wait until I’ve finished the book. For now, I want to talk about Schulman’s statement regarding the choice to be homophobic. I tire of people talking in abstract terms when it comes to oppression—racism just IS, it’s not like people are mean or anything, or actually INTEND to exclude others. Which is total B.S. but it’s part of the stories (lies) we tell each other and ourselves in order to avoid accepting responsibility for the harm our actions (or lack thereof) cause others. Schulman urges her readers to “transition from understanding homophobia as a blindly passive state of being to seeing it as a strategized, customized series of decisions” that “involve consciousness, awareness, and agency:”
Each person makes decisions, on some level, about which forms of homophobia to participate in, which forms to instigate, which forms are too dramatic. They are constantly selecting and deciding.”
Think about the choices YOU make every day—to intervene or stay silent, to laugh at a joke, or vote for a homophobic candidate. It’s not enough to just “wish” that things could be different. Schulman goes so far as to suggest (rightly, I think) that there’s little incentive for straight people to oppose homophobia since the end of discrimination will lead to diminished power and privilege for heterosexuals. And at the end of the day, many homophobes actually enjoy oppressing others—they take pleasure in the power to shun and shame others who are themselves blameless. Yesterday on Facebook, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar drew my attention to this article by Bishop Desmond Tutu in The Washington Post: “In Africa, a step backward on human rights.”
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are part of so many families. They are part of the human family. They are part of God’s family. And of course they are part of the African family.
Yet too many of these families are failing their LGBTQ members. Schulman feels that if enough families fought for and truly loved and supported their gay members, then society would have to yield to the demand for equal rights. Yet I keep thinking of Anna Julia Cooper‘s argument for domestic purification, and the many times I have taught and critiqued A Voice from the South (1892):
The atmosphere of homes is no rarer and purer and sweeter than are the mothers in those homes. A race is but a total of families. The nation is the aggregate of its homes. As the whole is sum of all its parts, so the character of the parts will determine the characteristics of the whole.
That’s giving a whole lot of power to the domestic sphere…and I would never try to diminish the potential of women to transform the world, but I guess I worry about appealing to mothers to “get it right.” Because I know that parents can love their kids and still betray them. I’m not even halfway through this book, so I’ll have to finish it up and write about these issues some more. I initially wanted to tell you about a case of discrimination that was brought to my attention by Edi over at Crazy Quilts. Apparently homophobic adults have rallied in an effort to ban three LGBTQ books from a high school in New Jersey—but their main goal seems to be ousting President Obama’s director of DOE’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, Kevin Jennings (read more here). The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has already sent a letter of support for the school’s media specialist—here’s an excerpt:
I am writing to you and your fellow administrators on behalf of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, to express concern regarding challenges to three books in the Rancocas Valley Regional High School Media Center’s collection. We understand that community members have expressed objections to the titles, Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology; The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities; and Love & Sex: Ten Stories of Truth. We urge both the committee considering this request and school administrators to
uphold the freedom to read and the importance of intellectual freedom by supporting the inclusion of these books in the collection.
Like all books in the media center, those under consideration may not be right for every student or every reader at Rancocas Valley Regional High School. But the library has a responsibility to represent a broad range of views in its collection and to meet the needs of everyone in the community it serves – not just the most vocal, the most powerful, or even the majority. While parents and community members may rightfully voice their concerns and select different materials for themselves and their children, those objecting to particular books should not be given the power to restrict other users’ rights of access to the material.
Now, what will YOU do with this information? I know I need to do more…