Friday, November 19, 2010

Fag Discourse: That's So Gay, No Homo, and Childish Insults

I think kids are quite hysterical. They say the darndest things. But, in education kids are disciplined to not say certain things while being encouraged to say other things. The comical kindergarten technique of addressing an upset kid by asking them to “use their words” illuminates the power and precarity of language. The teacher wants the kid to “use his/her/hir words” but what words that kid can use are already, most likely, limited and if not limited will garner some form of discipline very quickly. By this I mean, if a teacher told a kindergartner to “use your words” and that kid told the teacher to “fuck off,” the teacher would while being highly amused and laughing on the inside find it necessary, due to professional standards, to inform the kid that such a phrase is inappropriate and discipline the student accordingly. We do not want little kids running around cursing because that would show poorly on them, their family, and the community in which they were raised. One could reference Paul Rudd's Role Models where we see a little black boy (shocking I know) who seemingly only knows how to cuss (and garners significant laughs from the audience since we rarely see the kid as black minstrel).

But, my concern is not with cussing kids. Rather, my concern, or perhaps interest is when kids - students - use phrases often labeled as “homophobic” such as “that's gay,” “no homo,” or “fag.” These phrases are common parlance on the playground, hallways, and classrooms. Homework is referred to as “being gay,” compliments to other same-sex classmates are ended by saying “no homo,” and refusing to do something seen as cool is met with “don't be a fag.” Pre-service teachers are often told that it is necessary to address such phrases when they hear them uttered, but GLSEN's research shows that unfortunately such phrases are rarely addressed by teachers. According to the 2009 report "62.4% of students who were harasseed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, believing little to no action would be taken or the situation would become worse if reported" while "33.8% of the students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response." This finding is not unique to this study, but has been consistently found in various studies on school climate. And this finding speaks directly to teacher preparation. What type of preparation do pre-service teachers receive in their programs and what are the complexities of such preparation?

There seems to be a particular fear about addressing phrases and harassment hinged on sexuality. Some teachers - new and old - comment about being unsure what to say or how to address such phrases. Other teachers - new and old - note how they just address the comment head on, informing the student who said it that such a phrase cannot be used and will not be tolerated. Often though, the intervention ends here with the student not being informed as to why they are not supposed to use that phrase. And still other teachers - new and old - address the utterance and discuss why such an utterance is inappropriate. Within education, I would argue, it is this third option that is seen as the “gold-standard” practice. It addresses the language and teaches the user of such language of the problems using such language.

However, I find such interventions quite problematic - perhaps because I find most forms of pre-packaged advice problematic. I find it problematic because it does not take into account the context - who is saying it, how they are saying it, who they are saying it to, and why? I can't but wonder if a gay student speaking to another gay student and using, for instance, “fag” in an endearing way is ever told not to use that phrase. I imagine that this will become more prevalent in schools as Gay-Straight Alliances become more visible in high schools and middle schools. If schools provide a space for gay students in the form of GSAs, how does that space disrupt the traditional hetero-normative ways of addressing homophobic language? At an earlier time it seemed to be adequate to simply make certain words off limits. But as the times change and "gays" receive more legitimacy within the political realm, do schools have to alter what language counts as appropriate?

What do I mean by this? If a gay student utters "faggot" and is told not to use that word, what does the gay kid learn? Does the gay kid learn that they just cannot win? That schools are simply too straight for their gay ways of recuperating words? Do they learn that as they find words to use within their group of friends that allow them to "recuperate" injurious speech and create a space to survive that in fact, their survival space is not the "right" kind or not "appropriate"? Are they straightened out and re-oriented towards the more acceptable approach to language? I am not sure, but I think it is an important issue to deal with.

We might also think about the use of the phrase "no homo" as not only does it allow us to engage issues of sexuality, but also race as this is a phrase that is racialized - most often heard within the African American community. Many people find this phrase problematic. I think this phrase is interesting because it illuminates the inability within masculinity to compliment another "man" without being accused of same-sex attraction. It illustrates the limitations of masculinity. But, it also produces a space for compliments to take place. Rather than remaining silence and not telling another boy that his shoes are fabulous, "no homo" allows a different form of intimacy to emerge - an intimacy that is distinct from an intimacy that is associated with "homosexuality." So, while this phrase, on one hand, can be read as being homophobic. It might also be read as challenging the homo-hetero divide allowing for some "same-sex love" that is not "gay." And I think we should produce more forms of intimacy - ways of relating to others that are understood outside of sexual attraction...but this is quite difficult and is not a move to ignore the violence that "no homo" and other "homophobic" insults can inflict when uttered in particular contexts or dynamics.

Moving in a different direction, recently I heard the use of “fag” in a way that seemed new to me. The use of “fag” was in reference to being jealous. The person being called a fag was the person whom the person uttering "fag" was jealous of - “A football game already…ugh fag…you're so lucky”. In this comment, the fag is not the abject subject it seems, but rather the subject that is supposed to be admired for being able to “go to a football game already”. The fag is the lucky one. Of course, this is quite obvious. Fags are rather lucky. And I am quite interested in this lucky fag. Fag is most often used in a derisive manner, but this moment seems to completely challenge the derision and instead deride the alternative position - the position the utterer is in - namely the "straight" position or the "not-fag" position.

Now, I am not sure if the person using this phrase thought about the use in this way. But, that is really of no concern because you are reading my blog post about this and hopefully now might think about how words are quite complex and must be explored within the context they are uttered...and perhaps this illuminates why grammar and sentence structure is so important. Recognizing how words operate within a sentence impacts the possibilities instilled in that sentence. When "fag" becomes the "subject" of a sentence instead of the object of that sentence's derision, I think that is significant, but I will let you decide as you are more capable than I...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Disappoining Glee

I am a fan of Glee. I am not sure if I am a “gleek,” but I do, every Tuesday, get excited for 7pm (CST) to roll around so I can enjoy me some Glee. But, this week I found myself disappointed even though all the commentary around me, notably Facebook, was heralding this episode as one of the best ever. I think it was a good episode. I think it addressed some interesting and very pertinent issues, but it really did so in very traditional ways providing no space to imagine life in a different way. I want to begin thinking about my disappointment with the scene that provoked it the most, moving to the second scene that disappointed me and then perhaps bring these scenes in relation with the episode as a whole and other scenes similar to this in recent television.

We saw in this episode perhaps the most violent harassment/bullying against Kurt in the show at this point. And in one harrowing scene, Kurt confronts his bully, following him into the locker room, yelling. At one moment we are sure that Kurt is about to get pummeled, but instead we see him forcefully kissed. The bully is a bully that likes boys, but cannot seem to admit it. We see, as we often see, the repressed homosexual who instead of engaging his feelings, acts out against those who do engage such attractions. This is done to distance himself from that which he seems to be – seen later when Kurt’s new gay friend helps Kurt confront this bully. After this kiss, we see Kurt stunned at what just happened and I was stunned that Kurt’s first one-screen kiss was non-consensual, forced through a moment of bullying.

One might say that we expect the first kiss to be romantic, but most often they are not…allowing this scene to be “real.” I understand that logic, but in the time/space of this show, this is the only time we have seen a gay male kiss. We have of course seen Santana and Brittney kiss numerous times, but such kissing operates, I think, on a different plane than a scene of gay male intimacy. As Martha Nussbaum points out in From Disgust to Humanity, it is more often than not the scene of gay male intimacy that provokes the most disgust AND numerous commentators on “lesbian” porn have noted that such porn – lesbian porn – is produced for “straight” men. The lesbian scene of intimacy is a rather strong fantasy for “straight” men and does not produce the level of disgust that two men kissing does.

And this is where I want to think about this scene and my disappointment. In this episode titled, I believe, “First Kiss” we see the two “queerest” characters experience their first kiss. Kurt experiences his first kiss from his bully – the repressed homosexual. And Coach Beist experiences her first kiss from her former bully – Mr. Shue. “We” could not see a romantic first kiss with these two “queer” characters for similar reasons – our disgust at scenes of intimacy that are not “normative”.

We could not see Kurt have his first kiss be the ideal, romanticized first kiss because that would not have made him sufficiently the victim. It would have made the gay scene of intimacy as romantic and legitimate as the scenes of straight intimacy we saw between all the “straight” couples. And this is just unacceptable it seems. Instead, we can only imagine the gay male as victim as we most often see Kurt OR as we saw him in the first season as the “predator” trying to turn his straight crushes gay. Now, Kurt’s presence on TV is significant. He is a significant representation to see on TV as GLBT students are present and visible in high schools more and more in contemporary society. And do face a constant barrage of harassment and bullying, often left unaddressed by teachers and administrators. This was seen poignantly when Kurt confronted Mr. Shue.

However, I wanted to see a space made for us to imagine a world where the gay kid is not solely understood as a victim. Sociologist Laura Essig noted in a recent article about LGBT youth suicide that:

“The fact that way more than five queer teens had an amazing month, had their first love, their first encounter with the richness of queer culture—from drag to politics—is not a story we want to hear as a culture. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of queer kids stood up to a bully, injected queer consciousness into a classroom or a family dinner, and generally lived technicolor lives over the rainbow rather than locked down in some black and white Kansas is lost in the news cycle. We prefer our queers as victims. They're easier to support and much less scary that way.”

So, while we do see Kurt stand up to his bully, which were fantastic scenes, we still cannot see Kurt experience the pleasure of a first kiss. We are still uncomfortable with the scene of gay male intimacy, in part, I think because of feelings of disgust that pervade our understandings of intimacy and sexuality. Of course, this intimacy will occur eventually on the show – hopefully as Kurt finds other gay teens in the area. BUT, I think it is significant that before we can get to where other forms of intimacy are in the show, we must first degrade, violate, gay male intimacy. We seemingly cannot imagine a world without the queer as victim…And I think this is extended in the use of the figure of the repressed “homosexual” who in many ways is a victim himself. He is a victim of a world that has a severe lack of imagination – that cannot imagine multiplicitous forms of intimacy. He may not be a “homosexual” or he may not want to identify as a “homosexual” not because he is homophobic, per se, but because he wants something else. He wants to create a world where he can be intimate on his own terms – not the terms presented to him through Kurt or his straight counterparts.

My disappointment was furthered when Beist admits she is a “40 year old virgin.” This rather mannish woman is seen as disgusting enough to work better than a “cold shower.” And upon learning this – that her players are using compromising images of her to “cool” down while having steamy make out session with their opposite sex partners – she quits her job. Luckily for her, the saving grace and dreamy Mr. Shue steps in to give her that first kiss and the audience feels all warm and fuzzy…after all who wouldn’t want to get kissed by Mr. Shue? Yet, who is Mr. Shue to step in and give this woman her first kiss? Is he the knight in shining armor who gives hope to all the wretched female creatures, saving them from themselves? But more importantly, who wants their first kiss to be one out of sympathy at best, pity at worst? Is Mr. Shue’s kiss really any different than the repressed bully? Is his sympathetic kiss to “build” Beist up and get her to stay really any less violent? After all, it was not consensual either…and while the two of them joked about it afterwards, I think it is important to step back from the “warm and fuzzy feeling” to think about this moment.

I think it is significant that the first kisses of Kurt and Beist were qualitatively different that the first kiss of Artie and the scenes of heterosexual intimacy seen between the “straight couples” of the show. But, this is not unique to Glee. I am not a tv critic, but these moments also brought me back to my disappointment in ABC Family’s now cancelled show Huge. In one episode we see the only gay character become the butt of a joke. And the joke – operating through a dare – was for another seemingly straight boy to kiss Alistair, the gay camper. And in doing this, Alistair experiences his first kiss with the audience seeing again the impossibility of the gay character having a first kiss that is not a violation. We cannot seem to imagine a first kiss between two men that is consensual, romantic, and intimate. Rather, it seems that to protect “ourselves,” we must first imagine that this intimacy emerges out of a victim status.

I recognize that bullying and harassment are real experiences of many youth – gay or straight. My disappointment is that the “gay” youth seemingly can only operate as victims. They are never successful, always haunted by bullying and violence against their body. And, to a certain extent this violence is an important constitutive element of being a “gay” subject. But, I think investigating and thinking about ways to read this violence is important. I think Glee does a fine job at illuminating the struggles of all the characters. No one is completely innocent, everyone struggles and the Glee kids are challenged to encounter their otherness – perhaps simplistically at times. But, I am disappointed that Glee could not be more radical in showing the possibilities for their queer characters…