Thursday, July 23, 2009

Legalize Gay

I recently was walking past American Apparel and saw this shirt that said "Legalize Gay". I was running late for a meeting so I couldn't stop and purchase it on the spot...I had to wait and hope that such a beautiful shirt would be still available two hours later.

It was still available two hours later. It was available in numerous colors and numerous sizes. I got a small, hoping it would shrink a little and then look super gay. But that's neither here nor there. My purchase of the shirt was done with a hint of irony. Actually, it was bought because I thought it was ridiculous and hysterical. I found it ridiculous and hysterical because I didn't get it and wondered why we should ask to "legalize gay". Of course, you, the reader, might be asking why that is odd so I will explain.

It seems odd because I am not sure how one "legalizes" an identity or perhaps why one would seek such legalization? It seems odd to ask for the government to "legitimate" an identity through legalization because specifying particular identities limits other possible identities. If I change my mind and don't want to be "gay" anymore, am I still a legal or legitimate being if I choose to "be" or "do" something different than "gay"? Such a demand seemingly limits other possibilities not yet "legalized" and as such gives the "government" the capability to delegitimate those identities that are not "legal". Along with this comes of course other areas of life that work along side the "government" such as the medical profession and education system that will also not recognize or "pathologize" those "identities" not legal - and therefore abnormal or delegitimate.

Of course, I recognize the impetus behind the shirts is in relation to Prop 8 in California and the argument to legalize "same sex marriage". Believing that if "gays" can marry, they become first class citizens, failing to see the loss that such a gain simultatenous entails. But I want to think about this in a different way. It seems odd that we "fight" to keep the government out of our bedrooms by relying on that very government to legislate such a request. We want you out of our bedrooms, but we want you in our bedrooms at the same time because we ask that you are in our bedroom so that you "see" that what we do is not "illegal" or something that will put us behind bars. Of course there are benefits to this...the legal realm provides a certain amount of possibilities - legitimate possibilities and safety from the prison. Yet, it also while producing possibilities of legitimacy, simultaneously occludes other possibilities - further marginalizing those possibilities that do not yet have "movement" to seek legitimation or possibilities that refuse to rely on the "legal" to make them legitimate. This can poignantly be seen, not in the realm of the legal, but the realm of the psychiatric where homosexuality was depathologized only to provide the space for gender non-conformity to be pathologized in the form of Gender Identity Disorder. We see in this that as the "homosexual" became officially healthy that other transgressive ways of being (i.e. a sissy boy; a manly girl) became officially 'unofficial' and deemed unhealthy.

What then does it mean to "legalize gay"? Does it mean to normalize the "gay" and move away from the arguably transgressive "nature" that was once associated with "gay" but perhaps moreso these days the "queer"? Does legalizing "gay" also normalize it to be "like them" just as some have sought the "gay" to be...we're just like you and deserve the same rights...While such a strategy provides recognition in the "traditional" sense, does it fail at changing anything? Does "legalizing" gay inevitably defeat what is most desired?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Politics of Bruno

Sacha Baron Cohen's recent film, Bruno, has been causing quite the stir. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation rebuked the film for reinforcing negative stereotypes with the president of the organization stating "the movie was a well-intentioned series of sketches _ some hit the mark and some hit the gay community pretty hard and reinforce some damaging, hurtful stereotypes." While it is understandable having seen the film the ways in which some of the skits could be read as "hurtful" or as "reinforcing stereotypes" such a reading is perhaps problematic as it does nothing to engage the brilliance of the film.

To explore the brilliance of the film, I want to start by noting that I believe GLAAD, similar to other political advocacy groups, engages a politics of identification. In engaging politics in this way, they seek to argue for "positive" images that people can identify with - images that make those who are "different" look reasonable or understandable or intelligible to a "mainstream" audience. There are of course benefits to doing this so I do not mean to delegitimate those benefits. However, in doing so such politics must also engage in the process of disidentification - to distance themselves from images that are negative (i.e. damaging stereotypes). As such, these politics get caught within, as Tim Dean notes, the dialectics of identification and disidentification. What though, might happen if we sought to engage politics away from this dialectic to think about or engage these issues differently? This engagement is not one about positive and negative identifications, but about exploring the ways in which lives are regulated, constrained, liberated, etc. in different ways.

In watching Bruno, I can tell where people might get upset - especially "gay" people. Images of a father holding a baby in a hot tub with sexual acts occurring right next to the baby, "unmentionable sex acts" occuring between two men, etc. Yet, the issue is not that these images are negative, the issue is that we still have an aversion to sex and seeing sex up close and personal makes us uncomfortable...and in such discomfort we seek to distance ourselves from that (i.e. walking out or violently attacking those engaged in such acts) or regulate the ability for such images to be seen (i.e. censorship). Baron Cohen's film exposes this brilliance by doing it, by making people react to these images and in such reactions we see the discomfort and hate people have for difference, for lives that are outside of the norm and unrecognizable...AND in such unrecognizability, people do violence...they ask for a baby to be removed from its home, they throw chairs at two men "wrestling", they seek to turn people "straight"...and in trying to do so, they seek to make, in this case Bruno, normal, the same as everyone else.

Bruno then is a brilliant social commentary that seeks to do politics in a different way...seeks to through the joke, through parody, mock those things that seem to have become "legitimate" or "recognizable". For instance, he mocks transnational adoptions by the stars not because those children do not deserve to be adopted or to have a "life", but because such adoptions provide a certain type of capital to those provides them with this humanitarian gold star and publicity. It also raises fascinating intersections of issues - the role of "culture" in raising a child, the normal "familial structure" that is imagined to be "best" for the child, and the complexity of race relations within the contemporary world. Reading the film at its surface level, as most seem to do, fails miserably to engage this complexity - in part because this complexity fails at allowing us to think about, well, the complexity of these issues that have a history, often times violent, a present, often times violent, and a future, one that is perhaps reparative, but perhaps violent. It is significantly easier to, as GLAAD does, to take a clear-cut stance that divides representations into "positive" or "negative" because it provides a foundation, a starting point...when depending on the context and the bodies involved...those judgments vary as do the starting points.

So then, the beauty of Bruno's politics are that they seek to illuminate the problems of identification and how in such identification and its dialectical process with disidentification, exclusions still occur...what his film does produce, in the wake of this critique is an possible politics that seeks not to say "good" or "bad" but challenge its viewer to think about why discomfort, disgust, violence, or anger emerges in the context of difference, of otherness? What pushes people to the edge and asks them to push back to re-establish boundaries - boundaries that challenge one's coherent view of the world? What challenges us to see the world in ways that go against the normative frameworks of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality? And how in going against such normative frameworks are 'we" changed but also the world changed to allow different viable possibilities to emerge?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reflections on MJ: The King of Pop

As the spotlight shone down on an empty microphone, the memorial service over and the sound of his music yearning for his voice, I realized I had just witnessed the end of an era for no longer would that microphone be sung into by the King of Pop as his voice is now present only in memory - memories memorialized in his albums. And it is those albums and the sound of his voice, that brought the world together again to say goodbye and begin to heal our own wounds - wounds created by the loss of our King.

Michael wanted to heal the world and he sought to heal that world through his song, through asking his listeners, asking us, to believe not just in his message, but in ourselves and our own ability to heal the world. We are not alone he told us and we weren't alone today as the world came together to mourn the loss of our King. It is there, in the state of mourning, that a thank you should be given to his family as they opened up their own grief to mourn with us, to help us mourn, and in such mourning begin to celebrate the life of the one lost. While some may have called it a spectacle, a bunch of "hoop-la", they miss the beauty of the moment as millions across the globe entered public spaces, sat in private spaces, to watch on TV or live stream on the internet to be together and mourn the lost object of Michael Jackson. This coming together traversed not only the boundaries of private/public but national boundaries and as some have noted illustrated Michael's message in "Black or White" where it doesn't matter if you're black or white. Yet, in this mourning, we see a beautiful figure in Michael Jackson and it is that beauty - a rather queer beauty - that I seek to reflect on.

As I listened to the stars speak of their memories and experiences of Michael, it was apparent that this man was loved by many, even after he had found himself so often in strange predicaments, inevitably creating him as a strange man in the minds of many. While Al Sharpton noted to Michael's children - "your daddy wasn't strange, what was strange was what your daddy had to deal with", his sentiment fails to recognize the importance of Michael's strangeness and how it was his strangeness that captivated us - that made Michael beautiful.

Michael was strange because he believed in kindness - a queer thing to believe in these days - and his message was always one of kindness. In his soft-spoken voice he spoke of his love of the world and of children - sentiments that are often positioned with the feminine. He believed, even with all he had been through and all that goes on in the world that it could be healed. Yet, in such a soft-spokenness he disrupted our images of the masculine male and as such was seen as "strange" for what kind of man would act like that? A "kind" man would but in such kindness must be positioned as "feminine", as less manly. I would argue it was this kindness that was misunderstood and allowed him to be derided for being “jacko the wacko” for being a boy in a man’s body...for being "crazy". Perhaps, as his actions are positioned as "crazy", we can see that it is kindness that is crazy as we would prefer to not allow ourselves to believe in it, questioning it and anyone who embraces it as "strange". But, Michael was put in strange predicaments because he lived in a strange world in a body that was strange...but it was this strange body that allowed us to see other possibilities and it is in his strange body that he had such power.

Michael Jackson was a queer body as he transgressed so many of our naturalized categories. He challenged our assumptions about race, gender, age, and sexuality. He was black, but white - telling us that it didn't matter. Yet, it does as we hear people ask if he wanted to be white, question him for having "white" kids, or claim him for "their" group - defeating his message of healing. He was man but could pass as woman at times, transgressing the gender binary and causing us to take a second look or even mock him for looking so strange. He wanted to show other possibilities, to show it didn't matter...but we want it to matter, we wanted to box him produce him as a coherent "subject". He transgressed sexual norms as people pondered his sex life and accused him of perverse sexual dealings with children. Yet, these disruptions are not as disruptive as his disruptions of age and that adult-child binary.

It is his traversing the adult-child binary that is most fascinating. Berry Gordy Jr. noted that in his personal life, Michael was shy and child-like. Brooke Shields noted that Michael had to grow up and lose out on his childhood as he entered the adult world of the music industry as a child. He was an adult but always seemed child-like but as a child he had to be adult. His growing up was to quick but as a grown up - he grew beside himself to be "child" while "adult". And it was his original loss of childhood that perhaps provoked him to fight for the child and embrace his own child-ness - to forever traverse that strange boundary between the adult and the child. Yet, when "adults" embrace their childness and when men love children such beings are produced as having had something gone awry - something all to evident in Michael's life.

Yet, it is his child-like status that will allow us to remember Michael forever, for the child is never to be lost, the child is to outlive the adult and in dying as the shy, quiet child-like man he was in his personal life, Michael will live on forever young, forever growing beside himself as his life expands across the globe and throughout time to perhaps continue on in his quest to heal the world. In dying as the child, he remains forever child...never an old man, never anything but that which he sought his whole life to find and protect.

In mourning his lost, the world perhaps found moments where it came together and began to see itself healing from its loss, bringing to fruition - albeit fleetingly - Michael's dream…And, in such a moment, the world perhaps began to see healing in other ways as people reached across to aisle to grasp the hand of an other to fleetingly feel connected as they watched Michael go out with style in New York, Milan, Ghana, Hong Kong, and beyond.

And so with that, I end this reflection...thanking Michael for always sharing his genius with the world, even in strife, to help make it a better world. I thank him for his queerness...for transforming his body in strange ways to perform different possibilities, even if such possibilities often got him in the tabloids for being "wacko". You will live in your music as your voice becomes a testament to your dreams. May you rest in peace.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Apology as Speech Act

J.L. Austin in How to do things with Words, notes that there are two types of speech acts – the perlocutionary and illocutionary. For him, perlocutionary speech acts may invite certain effects but are not effects in and of themselves – for instance hate speech can be viewed as possibly producing certain effects BUT is not an injury in and of itself. However, illocutionary effects are an effect in being uttered - for instance where hate speech can be viewed as wounding or injurying the subject that such utterances are hurled at…Austin’s famous example of the illocutionary speech act is that found in the marriage ceremony when the "preacher" states "I now pronounce you husband and wife" as it, when uttered, is the effect (being married). The "preacher" or "justice of peace" who is vested with authority utters phrases that "do" what they say. Of course, this utterance in the current political climate around same-sex marriage is quite interesting when one thinks about the ways such an utterance is controlled by the government and who it sanctions with the ability to have such an utterance made to "do" what it says. As such, this control produces different types of subjects (legitimate subjects that speak – straight - and illegitimate subjects that (can’t) speak – gay/lesbian) causing the various rights-based issues present in the marriage debate. Of course, these issues are further complicated by critiques of marriage in general begun by the feminists and taken up and added to by numerous queer theorists (i.e. Michael Warner, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler).

But, as I contemplated these types of speech acts and the complexity of language, I was drawn to the phrase “I’m sorry” – the apology. What does this phrase do? How does it act? It obviously can act in many different ways and produce different effects. It, in being uttered, seems to produce the subject that was violated and the subject that violated. It allows those involved in the space/time of the utterance to have the injury recognized as the utterer finally allows the one hearing the utterance to see themselves as an injured subject and be recognized as such AND with the utterer recognizing him/her/hirself as the violator and being recognized by the other as the violator.

So, the utterance of “I’m sorry” alludes not only to some violation but produces the subjects of such violation and the subjects own recognition of the violation. The utterance (apology) recognizes some form of injury that needs to be addressed and is that which addresses the injury. Yet, is the utterance “I’m sorry” effective? And how is the effect of such an utterance “determined”? Is it a perlocutionary speech act or an illocutionary speech act to follow Austin's work OR does it traverse those two possibilities…never solely one or the other…dependent on the context in which it was uttered? (i.e. a judge pronouncing a same sex couple as "married" in most states is ineffective, it does not produce the effects the phrase is meant to produce BUT in being uttered allows for the possibility of such an effect to be fought for)

What do I mean by this?

If the apology is an effect in itself, what is it an effect of? Does it negate the injury that asks for such an apology? Does it make possible a recognition of injury or trauma that was previously unknown or unintelligible because of the pain associated with it? Is it immediately healing, closing the wound and having the effect of not producing a married couple, but producing a "healed" relationship?

Or does it only allow for the possibility of an effect to emerge, depending on the subjects that utter and hear such utterance? Does it only open up the possibility for healing to emerge, for recognition to become possible? If so, it’s effectiveness is perhaps dependent on how the utterance is 1) uttered by the subject speaking, 2) taken up by the one who “hears”, and 3) the relationship (history) between those two subjects? This third component is the interesting piece for, as Butler notes, the strength of a speech act depends on the power it achieves through repetition and citation – allowing such speech to gain “authority”. Yet, if one always apologizes, this repetition works in the opposite way…taking away the authority of the utterance. This is of course on the individual level since the “apology” has gained its status "institutionally" by its constant use as a way of relating with/to others or educating people into sociality by different discourse communities (notably the law, religion, and education).

But, it is this individual level that is perhaps interesting to think about here in terms of how it - the apology - loses authority if constantly repeated. If one constantly apologizes, its ability to “heal” lessens as one becomes “use” to hearing the apology. It becomes transformed into something else – such as an excuse. It is possible in thinking about the apology to see the critical interventions that uttering “hate” speech can have. For instance, if one constantly uses a hateful word (i.e. fag, bitch, cunt) those who hear it can become desensitized to it whereby there is no or “less” injury, but rather a place to parody or subvert such speech…something that can be seen when bullies get mocked for being “bully”. This of course varies on the word being uttered as seen in how some terms (i.e. queer) have been challenged while others with a different history (i.e. the n-word) maintain their ability to wound. But, if we could or would (try to) censor such language and disallow its use – which at times may be productive/beneficial/necessary – we may actually allow such a term to gain strength in its wounding capacity as it does not become excessive, inflated, over-used. Rather, it maintains it's strength as being "taboo", as being hateful.

But that is not my point here - Judith Butler explores that in her text Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative from which i developed these thoughts. My point is thinking about the apology. And it would seem then, that unlike the injurious possibility of words where words wound - "excitable speech" - that the apology as a speech act maintains its authority in not being repeated by the same individual over and over to the same person(s). Its political significance is in its sparing use for grave issues and those grave issues are one's in which reparations are necessary in order for the trauma inflicted to become recognizable, intelligible, etc.