The concept of shame is a concept that has arguably had a strong impact on communities of individuals that are “different” and for the communities for which these “different” communities are defined against. These communities of “difference” are “shamed” for not being normal, for being different, for not following the straight and narrow by which the “normal” communities define themselves. Politically such communities of difference can unite and fight back to show that “they” are not abnormal, but in actuality…to borrow from Andrew Sullivan “virtually normal”…“we are just like you”. These communities, in making this claim, seek legitimation, recognition, and rights – important things indeed. Yet, in making this claim towards normalcy, what is given up? What is lost when communities or the voices that can speak for a community displace the “negative” the “shameful” in order to be like the rest, to be recognized as, in part, human?
As the “gay” community celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots – for all intensive purposes the event that is considered to have started the modern gay rights movement – I want to think about the negative, the shameful and how in displacing such things, something is lost. As the trannies and queens of Stonewall fought back, harkening in the gay rights movement, so the story goes…Pride set in. It was with Pride gays, lesbians, and the rest of the gang could march down the streets, assert their rights, fight for those rights, and be recognized, at least by some, as subjects. Yet, as the movement continued, this Pride arguably began to displace some of the shameful antics of those “queers” so that the others might fit in and get their piece of the American Pie. I was reminded in a recent interview of Edmund White in Out that the movement has changed drastically from the days of Stonewall. White notes that the leaders of the movement have shifted from the “political radicals” to the “stuffy middle class gays”. And it is arguably these “middle-class gays” that now determine the focus of the movement – namely marriage and adoption rights. Yet, in fighting for these “rights”, other issues are left untouched, except by those political radicals still out there. And in this, those who started the movement, those who were the one’s most often violated, most often visible again have taken the backseat. The queens that threw the first heel, the trannies and street trash that made up much of the Stonewall crowd are still waiting for their turn, still living their “shameful” ways…while the “stuffy” gays buff up their “rights” to be like, well to be normal.
I was reminded of all this recently when attending a Pride celebration with a friend. This friend had never been to a Pride celebration before and in many ways was rather surprised at the event…the costumes, the skin showing, the public intimacy, the “freaks”…were all a bit much for him, perhaps even making him uncomfortable as we sought refuge in a trendy sushi bar whose clientele was much more middle to upper class, and arguably quite white. However, I do not want this to accuse him as an individual for this discomfort, to psychologize him and his unease because this was not about him as an individual but about the bigger issues and the tensions between Pride and shame. Having seen only the “good” gays represented in television and the “bad” gays either made invisible or pathologized and shown to not be “representative” of the “community”, it makes sense that Pride festivals for many “gays” are uncomfortable because everyone and everything comes out of the woodwork. The space of Pride is rather queer…it is not “straight”, it is strange and in such strangeness it is rather fleeting…but a mere day when “I” can do things in public I cannot do in most other “spaces”. Yet, back to the discomfort and how such discomfort seems to emerge when the “good gays” see that which is considered shameful, excessive, bad taste…causing the Pride celebration to become splintered and/or at times “cleaned” up to become a “family” event.
The queer space of Pride struggles with itself as different bodies seek different things…as some bodies seek to show the “good” side of things, the “family friendliness” of the gays while others seek to disrupt these notions, to challenge the normative family to expose, to play with something different…leaving me to ask…Why must Pride be a family event? Why must “we” cater to the concept of the, I would argue “straight family” to celebrate Pride or to be a legitimate public event? One could feasibly think about different concepts of the family, often created by different facets of the “gay” community and how perhaps these families are the ones that deserve to have space, to have an event catered toward them that is in a public space? What would it mean to argue for the legitimacy of these “families” or does arguing for such legitimacy rely on the normative structures, forcing these “queer” family structures to become “normalized”?
I ask…Since the “straight” family has so often abused the “gay” body by kicking them to the streets, by sending them to therapy…why not celebrate the families that the “gays” create, the houses, the connections that are made as the abused bodies of many gays repair their wounds, their losses, not to be victims of the family…but as creators of new families…of families chosen, not born into? And in some cases, families that are “blood” related with the advent of HIV/AIDS and the family tree one could feasibly construct with the line by which one’s infection has followed…(see my earlier post of HIV/AIDS and Family bloodlines)
For more interesting work on Shame see:
Leo Bersani. Intimacies. 2008 (see also Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave” 1988)
Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. 2004
David Halperin. What do Gay Men Want: An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity. 2007.
Heather Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. 2009.