who’s alienating whom?

Today as I was walking through the yard toward Lamont, sporting my high school’s Lesbian Gay Straight Alliance t-shirt (emblazoned with a big rainbow and the cheery yet cheeky slogan, “Have a Gay Day”), a student approached me and asked if I would like to join “the Bible study group” on campus. The stranger brandished no neon fliers or any other indication of a sustained and general recruitment effort, and did not stop anyone else nearby. It could have been a coincidence. Maybe the person’s recruitment strategy entailed stopping every 14th person, so I just happened to be a random target. And even if they did single me out because of my gay-friendly attire, I don’t doubt that the invitation was motivated by a sincere wish to help me. But regardless of the stranger’s intent, the encounter left me feeling unsettled, sad, and frustrated. It made me feel alien, outside the norm, and condescended to. It made me feel a little unsafe. It made me feel…what’s the word I’m looking for…oh, yes—marginalized.
(more in expanded post)
When discussing queer people, both Mansfield and Travis Kavulla—yesterday’s columnist who takes issue with the “silliness” and alienating effect of some queer-inclusive terminology—bandy about the word “marginal” so casually that I wonder whether they recognize the harmful effects of marginalization on individuals and communities. Marginalization is not merely a matter of statistics or examples exceptional to otherwise coherent theories. Those statistics and examples represent real people—people we know—members of our own community—heck, maybe even us—who face discrimination, hatred, and violence based on their imposed status as “different,” “other,” or “deviant.” Minimizing BGLT people as “marginal,” “irrelevant,” or “exceptions to the rule” in order to defend theories of natural binary gender strikes me as insensitive, intellectually dishonest, and potentially dangerous. In the first place, it’s not as if BGLT people are exceedingly rare—if we accept Kavulla’s figures, queer people represent about 10% of the American population. According to his logic, perhaps we should also apply the marginal label, domestically, to Black people (who make up around 13% of the population) and Jews (who constitute about 2%), and use this as justification for ignoring them when drafting legislation or penning American history texts (oh, wait—that already happens). Furthermore, far from being irrelevant to Mansfield’s claims of the ‘naturalness’ of a gender binary consisting of heterosexual men and women, people with queer identities actually strike at the heart of these claims, since they contest the inevitability of certain genetalia corresponding strictly to certain genders and gendered behaviors, an assumption forming the bedrock of Mansfield’s arguments. And finally, let’s not forget that at its most extreme, marginalization—the dehumanization of minority groups—has been a tactic used to psychologically facilitate genocide.

One of the most common attitudes contributing (however subtly) to the marginalization of BGLT people is—yes, our old friend heteronormativity (or what Kavulla prefers to call “heteropresumption”). The thing to keep in mind with heteronormativity is that, as with other forms of stereotyping, accuracy is beside the point. The problem with assuming the heterosexuality of an audience is that failing to call attention to this assumption reinforces the idea that heterosexuality is ‘normal,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘good,’ which implicitly designates other sexualities ‘abnormal,’ ‘unnatural,’ and ‘bad.’ Those skeptical of my jump from ‘abnormal’ to ‘bad’ might reflect on how seldom transgendered people garner affirmation for being ‘special’ and ‘different.’ A hate crime here at Harvard last year illustrated that challenging rigid gender categories is a decidedly dangerous and sometimes deadly affair. As Judith Butler contends, we negotiate our gender in a world that punishes us for transgressing the gender roles assigned to us at birth (this punishment may be as subtle as an unsolicited invitation to join a Bible study group). Each heteronormative statement—mundane and dispassionate though it may be—slightly fortifies the hegemonic gender binary urging us to reward behavior conforming to gender norms and discourage (too often through violence) ‘unnatural’ or ‘exceptional’ acts, behaviors, and identities.

The last time the word “heteronormative” generated buzz in the Crimson, Jada Pinkett Smith had given a speech in Memorial hall in which she advised Harvard women to “love your men,” offering relationship advice to all students in the audience using her marriage with actor/rapper Will Smith as a guideline. In pointing out the heteronormativity of Pinkett Smith’s comments, the BGLTSA was careful to note that they were not accusing her of homophobia (or heterosexism: see below). Same goes for my criticism, cited in Kavulla’s piece today, of the earlier, “vapid” Crimson column. Do I accuse the author of malice? No. Do I expect better from our brilliant, savvy columnists? You bet. Presenting “we Harvard women” as a salient category characterized by a burning desire for male partners, especially when the forum for this generalization is not a casual chat among friends but the most widely-read (and theoretically the most broadly representative) campus publication, unintentionally marginalizes a whole host of Harvard students. Recognizing the existence of multiple sexual orientations and gender identities does complicate speaking about love, romance, women, men, and sexuality. But the challenge of expanding our language and thereby thinking critically about heteronormative assumptions and heterosexism pales in comparison to the burdens that queer Harvard students shoulder when peers and faculty marginalize or minimize their life experiences.

Despite disagreeing on which terminologies are more alienating, Kavulla and I do agree on one point. The word “homophobic” may not be the best terminology to describe people who detest homosexuality and/or any sexuality that falls outside a perceived heterosexual norm. The ‘fear’ suggested by the root ‘phobia’ has confused people for quite a while–“I’m not afraid of gays, I just don’t like them” resounds as an all-too-familiar chorus. And while a fear of being perceived as homosexual, or fear of and disgust for one’s own homosexual impulses, may very well be a strong motivator for displays of aggressive homophobic actions, this is not always the case, and such a characterization of homophobia tends to overlook more subtle forms of discrimination and bigotry against BGLT people. Had Kavulla done a bit more research, he might have learned — to his chagrin — of yet another useful term: “heterosexist.” Heterosexism is a helpful concept since most people can immediately appreciate the potential for “sexism” to be subtle and systemic. The word may not invoke a perfect parallel, since most people associate sexism with problems of objectification, devaluation, and attempted ownership of women, rather than a deep hatred or disgust toward them. In this sense, racism may be a closer analogy to heterosexism. Nevertheless, it can come in handy in deflating the rhetoric of those who may hate or disapprove of queer people but want to make it abundantly clear to the world that they aren’t afraid of them (like that kid who jeered so vehemently at ‘fags’ in middle school, only to come out of the closet in or after high school).

Inevitably, any attempt on my part to engage a writer who treats serious matters so colorfully and flippantly will make me seem angsty by comparison. And while Kavulla’s column fairly questions the usefulness of seemingly obscure or politically correct vocabularies, he seems to view these discourse-shifting efforts as mere political games, breezily ignoring their life-or-death consequences. On a practical level, queer-inclusive frames actually do more to empower and enliven discourse than repress it, enabling people to explore previously un-navigable territories of gender and sexuality theory and praxis. True, some of these words don’t exactly roll off the tongue—growing accustomed to them takes some practice, as is the case with any new terminologies. If we keep at it, hopefully people will come around and the words will take root. Discourse doesn’t change overnight: at one time, attempts to phase out the terms ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’ may have been greeted with mockery and resistance, as was the inclusion of ‘Ms.’ in common parlance. We know that language has the power to shape culture and consciousness. But cultural change comes slowly. In my own small attempt to quicken its pace, I’ll continue to rock my “Have a Gay Day” getup.


12 responses to “who’s alienating whom?

  1. why would you feel unsettled, sad, frustrated, alien, outside the norm, condescended to, unsafe and marginalized because someone invited you to a bible study? I mean, if the person threatened you, said something rude to you, or even gave you a dirty look, then that’s one thing. But inviting you to a bible study? Do you really think they were standing there waiting until someone who supported BGLTSA walked by to ask them? If you hadn’t been wearing the tshirt, they might have been waiting a while, if that was the case. That doesn’t make any sense, so why would you assume that?

    Since when is inviting someone to a bible study so offensive? Is it because of assumptions you made about anyone so naive as to attend a bible study? is it because you assume that a person who is – gasp – a Christian must hold a set of perspectives and opinions that you find threatening? Is that not stereotyping itself?

  2. I think Katie was pretty clear about that. Essentially, there are two options: either the person saw her and simply randomly invited her, which I simply find hard to believe seeing as how they didn’t have a flyer, weren’t in a place where that would normally happen, didn’t have a set spiel, etc., or they saw her shirt or something about her and thought it would be a good idea. Katie notes these possibilities, and she doesn’t accuse the person of being bigoted or mean-spirited. In fact, she says just the opposite. In fact, she is very explicitly NOT doing exactly what you claim she is doing.

    In any event, that seems beside the point. Would you deny that things of this nature happen? That wearing a t-shirt that celebrates a gay-straight alliance is likely to garner looks and reactions that are likely to make the person wearing it uncomfortable? That, regardless of whether or not this was going on in this admittedly ambiguous situation, seems to me to be fairly easily recognizable as true.

    If you do accept that it is common for people to feel pressures, experience harassment (verbal, emotional, physical or otherwise, from subtle acts to less subtle), then what do you think of the rest of the argument?

    If you do not accept that this type of thing happens, what do you base that on?

  3. I agree with Anonymous 2 in that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and that this encounter was not necessarily motivated by disapproval of Katie’s shirt or its message. I was asked by a person with no flyers, pamphlets or “missionary” literature to join her bible study as I crossed the Yard one afternoon. I should point out that I am a heterosexual, Catholic white male who was dressed in a pleasantly drab brown coat and jeans. There would be quite little reason for her to identify me as a “potential target” for conversion because of my appearence. (I was even listening to my iPod at the time, so I was a particularly unattractive target).

    My point is not to dismiss the concerns of the columnist, but rather the inspiration for the column. Andrew said that he found it hard to beleive that it was random, though maybe it was something other than the t-shirt. Perhaps Katie simply looks friendly and approachable?

    What I feel that Anon 2 was reacting to was, in part, the tone taken towards the bible study. For instance, phrasing an invitation to such a thing as a “subtle punishment” does, I feel, marginalize Christians who participate in such activities.

    While it is realistic to see some religions actively opposing any sort of BGLSTA basic rights, believers themselves–I am such an example–do not always follow orthodoxy or agree with the official teachings of their religion. To believe so would be to lapse into stereotype.

  4. let’s not lose the spirit of the argument here. the example is illustrative of the argument, but it is NOT the argument.

    katie suggests that the seemingly alienating jargon of queer groups on campus serves an indispensable function in the harvard community: the function of signifying hurtful practices. when we name a hurtful practice, we are able to see it, call people out on it, and prevent ourselves from hurting/being hurt in the future. simply put, language/actions that deny the existence of members of this community hurt this community.

    the “jargon” we are discussing has meaning rooted in lived experience.

    this isn’t frivolity:

    “The challenge of expanding our language and thereby thinking critically about heteronormative assumptions and heterosexism pales in comparison to the burdens that queer Harvard students shoulder when peers and faculty marginalize or minimize their life experiences.”

    however, as katie reminds us, to yell “heterosexism” is not to accuse someone of malice, but to draw attention to a hurtful practice.

    don’t we WANT to avoid hurting and perpetuating systems of hurt? i think a little awareness is worth it.

  5. Anon 3 here.

    I agree that we should not overlook the spirit of the argument. I agree with almost all of what Katie said, and I certainly agreed with what esn has said.

    However, I think there is an important lesson to be taken from Anon 2’s reaction. When there is a certain marginalizing tone, it becomes hard to differentiate the argument from the tone for someone who is marginalized. In other words, were I someone involved with Bible study, I would find it hard to listen to Katie’s argument simply because of the tone and candor of her argument.

    To phrase my thoughts (hopefully) along more of Katie and esn’s lines, I’m attempting to call out a hurtful and marginalizing practice, in this case to people of a religious bent. To be aware of it in ourselves, especially when we are calling for an increased awareness, is of the utmost importance since if we marginalize those we are trying to convince, our attempts will be for naught.

    If you prefer scripture, “Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearlly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”(Matt. 7:5)

    Oh, one other point regarding what Golis said. I take that the person had no spiel, flyers, etc. as a good sign. I’m vehemently anti-proselytizing because if all that person is doing is spouting the same rhetoric, it will fall on deaf ears.

  6. Christianity is against homosexual practice, not homosexual orientation.

  7. Anon 4 here.

    While I completely agree with Katie’s point, I must point out that I, too, while rushing to section yesterday, was stopped in the Yard by a complete stranger and asked if I was Christian (I’m not) and then if I was “interested in Bible.”

  8. Hello everyone, and thanks for your comments.

    First, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to those whom my tone offended–this was certainly not my intent.

    To clarify, my negative reaction to the encounter (the reason I felt “punished” and marginalized) did not stem from an ill will toward Christians or “Christian opinions and perspectives,” or from considering Bible study a form of punishment, but from my perception that I was being targeted for recruitment specifically because of my gay-friendly attire. This perception was apparently wrong, but I don’t think it was unreasonable. As I was unfamiliar with the recruiting tactic of stopping random people in the Yard to pitch organizations without offering fliers or any information whatsoever; as, unlike in anon 4’s case, the stranger did NOT ask me whether I was Christian; and as I had already drawn strange or unusual looks throughout the day; I inferred–wrongly, but understandably–that my shirt had inspired this person to approach me, thinking, “Bible study might help this individual especially.”

    Maybe a better word than “punishment” to describe my interpretation of the event would be “correction”: given the circumstances, I felt as though the stranger was trying to help correct me. Of course, not all–or even most–Christians are in the business of correcting people who disagree with their beliefs, and not all Christians believe that homosexuality or homosexual acts are bad. But for the ones who do believe this, and who are in the business of trying to provide corrective guidance to non-believers, a logical place to start might be the friendly-and-approachable-looking girl (thanks, anon 3 :) with a huge rainbow across her chest.

    The anecdote was not the “inspiration” for my response to Kavulla’s column (I was planning on responding even before the incident occurred), but I included it because I thought it might be a helpful example of how a person who typically enjoys heterosexual privilege can sometimes get a small taste of the painful challenges queer people encounter routinely. Again, I’m truly sorry that the story I shared made people feel marginalized for their beliefs. Thanks for letting me know.

    So now that esn has eloquently summarized the heart of my argument, can we move on to discussing my actual assertions? Or are we all in complete agreement? Cuz if so, I propose we make “heteronormative” and “heterosexist” our vocab words of the week and try to use them in sentences (correctly) whenever possible… :)

  9. First, thank you, Katie, for your well-reasoned critique that avoids the polemical touch. A discussion that is at once frank and polite is so rare.

    There are a few issues at play here, and none of them concern speculation on campus evangelical Christian groups, which are surprisingly mum on the political issues like gay marriage that occupy so much of their parent faith’s attentions in the wider world.

    One of my biggest problems with the new language being wielded by gay rights activists is that this new terminology directly undercuts the progress they have made.

    For instance, we are told that homosexuality is in-born, that it is not a choice. This notion is what underpins my disgust with the system of evangelical “re-education” camps, which angles around reversing that supposedly conscious choice.

    But what can a term like “identify” possibly imply if not choice? The term seeks to put asunder the factual declaration that is the ‘be’ verb and make sexuality more transitory.

    “Heterosexism,” “heteropresumption,” and “heteronormativity” are cut of the same cloth; their use seeks to reverse a recognition of reality that should be amenable even to homosexuals.

    My point in using the term “marginal” is not an attempt to impose value judgments on homosexuality; but it clearly does have some awful undertones, as does “abnormal” or “aberrant” or “unnatural,” or “unordinary,” etc. Perhaps we can use “atypical” to describe what homosexuals are to the rest of society. The bottom line is that at some point, it’s incumbent on rational people to realize that, apart from the morality of the issue, homosexuality is outside the realm of the majority in a way dissimilar to the historical alienation of blacks or women in America.

    So, I accept Harvey Mansfield’s premise that homosexuals are atypical and that their relations seem more ornamental, and less foundation-shaking, to interactions between what I humbly call the two sexes. Lest we forget, the ultimate reason for the sexes’ collaboration is reproductive intercourse and child-rearing; I’d argue this fundamental notion might hold the key that renders the difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals more salient than the rather more artificial difference between black and white. Saying this should not be taken to be a value judgment upon homosexuals, but it usually is. To homosexuals, to whom homosexuality is a central reality, a theory which sidelines their uniqueness may seem to be a moral affront.

    In this sense, the terms of the ‘hetero-’ triad seem to be missing the point. Our world is, and has always been (even in places and times where homosexuality was widely and openly practiced) heteropresumptive and heteronormative. Again, babies and the propagation of the species. And as to “heterosexist,” perhaps that too; just like marriage or motherhood seem “sexist” to some malcontented feminists, so too do sex-segregated bathrooms and dorms seem “heterosexist.” I’d simply argue that when applied in those cases, those pejoratives lose any negative meaning.

    Katie’s post gracefully dodges the most egregious examples of gender theory gone wild. Do we, for instance, agree with the taxonomy that has led to inventions like “gender queer”? One of those who “identify” as “gender queer” is Kit Yan, the poet I referenced in my column; do we agree with his assessment that, “There may be as many as a million genders / Just floating around, searching for the right person / To snatch them up”?

    I find ironic that the gay rights movement has made so much of “the social construction of gender,” with its implication that the two sexes and their attached roles are somehow imagined and anything less than central, even while the movement’s most radical exponents seem to be the most prolific gender-constructors of them all.

    Even the much-vilified Harvey Mansfield notes that democratic societies have a proud tradition of accepting those on the margins. I’m starry-eyed enough to accept that the places in which we live are or shall someday soon become at least tolerant of homosexuality. Is this not the proud and central accomplishment of the gay rights movement, after which it can, like feminism, comfortably afford to lose steam? What has me worried is that ‘gay rights’ advocates might be asking for something much more radical, a world in which the silliness of a “million genders” is a reality.

  10. Anon 3 here again.

    I was at first greatly troubled by Kavulla’s point about “identify”; it does indeed seem to be at first blush, a stepping stone on the way towards homosexuality being a choice. However, under the proper understanding, I think that such a worry is unwarranted. I believe that the use of “identify” does imply a choice, but not in sexuality. Rather, it implies a choice about the way in which one represents their own sexuality to the world. That is, a persons sexuality is, I believe, largely fixed and predetermined at birth. However, the way in which one represents oneself or classifies oneself is a choice.

    Some choose to fall into standard “hetero/homo sexual” categorizations. I am a bit puzzled by “Heterosexism,” “heteropresumption,” and “heteronormativity” are cut of the same cloth; their use seeks to reverse a recognition of reality that should be amenable even to homosexuals.”

    How does their use seek to reverse a recognition of reality, and what reality is it that is being reversed?

    Also, I find your claim that “the ultimate reason for the sexes’ collaboration is reproductive intercourse and child rearing” to be odorous at best. Not only does this assume quite a bit about human, let alone heterosexual interactions,(for instance it assumes an evolutionary biology context) it reduces us to mere baby creating and raising machines. I think there is much more to male/female (and more generally human/human) interactions than simply propagation of the species. Perhaps I too am starry eyed and see things like love, honesty, truth, etc. to be equally, if not more important, than reproduction.

    This mistaken placement of value seems to trickle through the rest of your argument–for instance, you refer to reproductive ability as a way in which “perjoratives lose any negative meaning”. But, perhaps you can see the invention of these new terms as being born out of a conception that does not necessarily hold reproduction(or its potential as the ultimate good. Perhaps these words are created to engender (no pun intended) a greater understanding and greater knowledge, as they allow us to undestand others wishes regarding how they themselves want to classified.

    Before you think I find your post completely unconvincing, I do agree with you on one point and I think it might be your main one. There is a point at which such linguistic disections serve to trivialize important issues and also segregate people from each other simply because of a different ways of identifying themselves. By identifying themselves so uniquely, people may lose sight of the common ground they have.

    However, I don’t necessarily agree that words like Heteronormativity and the like are going so far. And I think it is improper to quote a poet as evidence of a literal division into a million genders. Poets speak quite metaphorically, so while the quote is quite evocative in support of your point, I feel like it should be taken with a grain of salt.

  11. They are *definitely* targeting people, in my opinion. A woman came and tried to get me to join her bible study group twice in two weeks. The same woman! There were hordes of people around me too, but she honed in on me and wouldn’t leave me alone! is the person who came up to you, was that person East Asian with a strong East Asian accent? Just wondering if it was the same person as mine…
    And I think I was chosen because of my ethnicity. I am of South Asian descent and look very Indian, and there are many many many pamphlets out there, particularly by the Southern Baptists, about how India is really an important place to convert people to Christianity since according to them, we are polytheistic, idol-worshippers (which violates a commandment). Judaism, Islam, not quite as bad to them because at least they’re Abramic and monotheistic. In fact, most Hindus consider themselves to be monotheistic, and think that the pantheon of Gods are just aspects of the One. Anyway, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if the original blogger is right, that they are focusing in on specific “target groups” (or maybe they consider us “at-risk” groups in terms of our poor souls).
    I’ve really started to become aware of how the rest of the world seems to view Hindus like me as paganistic, idol worshipping backwards cavepeople. When I was in Eastern Europe, people would literally *laugh* when I said I was Hindu, as though I was making a joke or something. Was wondering how many people here were aware that most Hindus consider themselves to be monotheistic? Not terribly important, just was wondering what the general perception out there is. And thanks to the original blogger for talking about her experience

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s