it hit me the other day. zapping thru tv-wonderland i came across some “documentary” about beautiful hotels on beautiful beaches – you know, the blue clear water, white sandy beaches, lusciuos green vegetation with a lot of palm trees kind of places. booked primarly by couples, the way it looked, be it for the honeymoon, be it for a romantic getaway. you know: candlelight dinner at the beach, strolling under palm trees, hand in hand, slightly erotic play in the surf.
yep, i guess for most people watching this, these places looked like we westerners imagine paradise. and yes, it does look rather appealing, and yes, it is easy to forget the respective social realities while seeing this – since we believe that these places must be paradise (hey, they look like it) we can not imagine that the people living there do not see themselves living in a paradise.
but that was not what was hitting me suddenly when i saw this excerpt on tv. i still had the line paradise don’t come cheap in my head – and was amazed how this glossy “documentary” presented these places just as another option of holiday making – something special, right, but only insofar as these holidays have more meaning, more depth because of their construction as “love-holidays”. so holidays on paradise island suddenly seemed just like another thing you do – like something everybody does at a specific point in his / her life – as inevitable as getting married. so they not only completely disregarded the social reality of the people living in these places, but they also completely disregarded the social reality of the people visiting these places. or to ask you directly: how many of you can afford a one or two week stay at a five star resort in one of these places? please raise your hand (and can you afford to take me with you, huh?).
but another phrase started to creep up in my mind. not only is access to paradise limited to the ones who can afford it – it seems that other criteria have to be fullfilled, too. already going alone seems definitly less fun and by picturing myself on one of these beaches i realized that paradise is not for me – that paradise is nothing for faggots and dykes.
so the combination of presenting holiday spots as the place we all imagine as paradise and that making holidays there is a special, but also integral part of your life – but you meaning here a straight, wealthy couple let me realize that paradise, as defined in that instance, is not for you, faggot. so i found this advertising in form of a documentary quite telling – and it has given me a good headline for this post, too.
and it is a good example for introducing you to an article titled asking the straight question: how to come to speech in spite of conceptual liquidation as a homosexual by josé gabilondo.
but what do i want to say with that example? and what has it to do with asking the straight question? well, i want to show you an interesting point of view shown in the essay of josé gabilondo – actually two points: how do we judge progress for a minority? and secondly something he calls heterosexual interpellation. well, i actually will show you a little bit more – but then i have to start somewhere… so let’s first get to the straight question – what question? well, basically the straight question is based on a difference, the difference between heterosexuality and heteronormativity (a term coined by michael warner), or for the ones familiar with feminist theory (and she has been mentioned in that blog earlier) monique wittig‘s straight mind. so while heterosexuality describes a sexual orientation (and a lifestyle-choice, if you want), heteronormativity describes the fact that in our society everything is grouped around heterosexuality. heterosexuality is the social norm – meaning what we think, talk, research, make is organized according to heterosexual norms. this not only means that people assume automatically that one is heterosexual (except you’re a screaming fag or a bulldyke or visibly queer), but also that therefore you are living, thinking, breathing in a certain way: in a heterosexual way. that in our society everybody, regardless of sexual orientation has a straight mind. including marriage and honeymoon on paradise island. allright so far this is not really new and we treated the topic of normality already from different angles. and as we have seen, heteronormativity certainly hits sexual minorities – and also heterosexuals that don’t buy into the advertised heterosexual lifestyle, i suppose. there is a little bit more to the straight question – and we’ll get to that. later.
so what is new? new in josé gabilondo’s essay is that he turns it around. literally. he creates as an introductory example a homonormative world, the nightmare of every rightwing / religiously intolerant person. not much a work of fiction, mister gabilondo basically desribes our world and especially the legal restrictions for homosexuals in todays u.s.a. – basically just exchanging hetero for homo. and well, it gets, only using that simple, but effective technique, rather scary… for all you heterosexuals out there, that is. this not only serves to clarify the position homosexuals have today in our society – it also helps to shift the focus from the so-called gay question into the direction of the straight question. i have to admit: even for me it was something of an eye-opener. the full absurdity of certain aspects of having to subordinate to heteronormativity becomes very, even painfully clear. and it is a subordination homosexuals are submitted to as homosexuals, as members of a minority. and here comes the question how much subordination to “the norm” we should accept. of course a certain subordination is (with good reason, i believe) demanded from every member of society. but why do we have to obey laws that are treating us differently then members of society with a more mainstream sexual orientation?
but then, can we assert that we are a terribly suppressed minority? because we already came so far, gained so much in the last 40 years. in some parts of the world we get actually partnership benefits from corporations, in certain states / countries there are anti-discrimination laws and in a handful of countries we can even register for a partnership – even if in most countries it is a far cry from equal treatment. but as i said: why complain if we gained in such short time so much? well, first it is not really complaining – it is demanding equality. and is it that much? contrary to judging the success of queer politics by looking back, mister gabilondo proposes to judge the success of lgbt-politics by the difference of private expectations and the public reality. yep, that changes the perspective quite dramatically. ironically enough i think that the resulting expectation gap must be especially great for conservative gays that just want to be seen “as normal”. said differently: radical queers, fags, dykes and trannies that move in subcultures might have a smaller expectation gap, as long as they can move in social circles where heteronormativity has far less effect and as long as they can minimize their exchange with “the hetero-world”. but if you want stroll down paradise beach hand in hand with your lover of the same sex, feel the body of your man in the surf, have loud sex in your romantic bungalow…
so one side are the private expectations, expectations how we would like to lead our life, what might would make us happy . and let’s not forget that these expectations have been constructed in a heteronormative world. that our expectations come from our straight mind. the other side is the public reality, a world of heteronormativity. in this public reality we gays and lesbians are subjected to identity forming processes through heterosexual interpellation:
“Louis Althusser coined the idea of “interpellation” to describe what he saw as the mutually constitutive relationship between systems of ideas – “ideology” – and the person, as framed, evoked, or erased by the ideology in question. That is, a person comes to recognize oneself as a politically and emotionally sentient being through the sieve of ideology. To illustrate interpellation, Althusser uses the example of recognition felt by a person walking down the street and being hailed by a police officer with a “Hey! You there”.
Interpellation theory is particularly relevant to the analysis of legal personality, a metaphor which recognizes that law creates the features of the personhood in question. Heterosexual ideology interpellates gays through legal disabilities and other limits on freedom. After documenting the scope of straight supremacy in his book, Didier Eribon emphasizes that insult is the main vehicle for this type of self-recognition by the gay subject:
Thus do gay people live in a world of gay insults. they are surrounded by a language that hems them in and points them out. The world insults them; it speaks of them and of what is said about them. The words of day-to-day life as well as of psychiatric, political, and juridical discourse assign each of them individually and all of them collectively to an inferior place within the social order. And yet this language preceded them: the world of insults preexisted them, and it takes hold of them even before they know what they are.
Heterosexual interpellation – whether at the hands of friends or foes – renders the homosexual a legal person only in the subjunctive, the grammatical mood for the irreal. Notwithstanding its other virtues, the practice of “coming out” as a sexual minority merely confirms one’s lack of agency as a fleck of marginalia. What is left for such a compromised person is the inner world of expectations, whether or not those expectations are realizable as a legal matter. Because the content of ideology is subject to change, my point in the following section is to suggest that self-hailing may be possible through the tactical use of ideology. (Gabilondo, pp. 120-124)”
so the social reality might looks rather grim, being member of a sexual minority meaning being un-equally subordinated and defined through heteronormativity. and to top it all we are in many cases even agents of heteronormativity, explaining our frustration about this wide expectation gap with our unability to be satisfied with our political and social victories, our unability to fit in (yeah, why have these fags always to make such a stink and be so flamboyant) and the fact that most people are not happy with their lives, regardless of their sexual orientation.
but is demanding equality really too much? is trying to narrow the expectation gap immoral? and how do we go about (if we answer both questions with no) to change the actual social reality?
so what proposes josé gabilondo as strategies for social change? one way to change the dominant social ideology i would like to call internal. he makes a good point in pointing out the responsability of the “elite” of the lgbt community. elite meaning in this contex persons that have especially two privileges: first they can protect themselves to a great extent from the harsh impact of heteronormativity, they do not have to care too much about repercussions because of their sexual orientation: narrowing the expectation gap by finding a “better” public reality. second privilege is the possibility of individual expression – certainly an act of self-realization and therefore narrowing the expectation gap on the side of private expectations. the responsability of this elite (theorists, scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, artists, etc.) is first to provide an interpretative frame for their community, make sense of the dissatisfying situation and giving explanations that do not follow the heteronormative claims of why and what and who. to say it differently: to provide an analysis of our situation in and of the society that does not put us in the place of the despised abnormal. and therefore to be able to answer back to the straight interpellation with our terms.
the other task at hand is i guess based on this analysis: to provide an outlook of how it should and could be. this might saves us from giving up, from succumbing to the straight interpellation and should raise our expectations. in the sense of glimpses of a social utopia of complete equality – and i do call it utopia because this might be a goal never reached, but still is necessary to formulate. and in the sense of what can be done now, of something one might can call “small steps”. of showing possibilities to better our daily lives. a good example might be here the work of judith butler: while her theoretical work proposes and celebrates the disappearence of gender categories and identity based on sex, gender and sexuality, she was always very aware that for political work a clear identity (in her case: lesbian) is necessary. and combining the utopian and the pragmatic seems to me a necessity – and would avoid all these silly internal fights of people “with their heads in the clouds” and “cynics just interested to have some power”. combining both aspects in ones thinking certainly serves as a corrective to excesses on both sides. if the “elite” is able to fullfill these tasks at hand has a lot to do with their awarness that they are within their community indeed privileged. and that life as a gay plumper in iowa might has different obstacles as the life as a queer theorist in berkeley.
the other strategy i would like to call external: it means shifting the attenttion from the minority to the majority.
“A more targeted application of queer theory, the point of critical heterosexual studies is to focus more closely and comprehensively on the relationship between heterosexuality and heteronormativity. The two are different, but until heterosexuality internalizes and sustains a distinction beteen itself and heteronormativity, collapsing the two as a rhetorical matter helps to draw attention to straight supremacy, by putting the burden of disassociation from the norm on heterosexuality.
As a threshold step in this Article, I propose calling this endeavour “the straight question,” in conscious opposition to gay and lesbian studies. This phrasing instantiates a conscious power relationship which focuses on the dominant power in question rather than on the symptomology of its victims. Such a sustained reversal of scrutiny would build an ethnography of the straight question. (…) Importantly, heterosexuals also stand to gain from a more serious study of their social condition. (Gabilondo, pp. 130 – 131)”
one tool to work on the straight question provides josé gabilondo in the appendix of his text. under the title heteronormativity educational materials, he provides a questionnaire that can serve as the base of a (classroom) discussion. so he concludes with the fullfillment of a demand he formulates in his text: not only does he provide an analysis of the social reality, trying not to use “the tools of the master”, formulating a viewpoint contrary to the dominant ideology (the straight question) – and then providing us with a practical tool for our daily lives, a tool to lead a discussion about heterosexuality and heteronormativity. very neat.
so – first i would like to point out, that as usual i used an article to point out just some basic arguments, and that at certain instances i am closer, at others farer away from the original text. so i recommend you read the original text, available at the social science research network here. of course highly recommended. and even if you are not in the mood for theory: the first part (the example) is quite an amazing read. and then i would like to point out that there is a wealth of footnotes serving as pointers to a lot of essential and interesting reading.
if you would like some more information on josé gabilondo, i suggest you visit his official site.
and here you’ll find links to some more texts by mister gabilondo.
and now let’s dream up another paradise…