Monday, July 12, 2004

It is so silly to get upset about this, since it has no chance of getting two thirds of the votes in the Senate this week, and even if so, it would still require two thirds support in the house, and then must be ratified by the legislatures of 38 states. And yet, when I read about Bush's efforts to promote a ban on gay marriage, I get more than a little pissed off. And I know that this is the goal, to inspire a similiar feeling of "this is war" with people opposed to gay marriage, to rally the base.

Last week, I read Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal. The book is now a few years old and so some of the arguments he makes seem a little dated. It is written in response to Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal, and also in response and in retaliation against the efforts of those trying to neuter the gay/queer movement by desexualizing it, by arguing that they are mainstream, just like the rest of middle America. Sections of the book that stuck to this main argument, I had no trouble rallying behind. But in the third chapter of his book, "Beyond Gay Marriage," I got more than a little annoyed with his flippancy towards not only what marriage means to some people, but to the benefits they would enjoy under marriage, and the benefits they are denied by its denial to them. He does mention these benefits, but does not really go into explicits. For instance, lifetime partners being denied visitation rights by homophobic families even if their partner is dying. He, instead makes an argument that queers should argue for a more expanded notion of marriage, common law marriage, to include multiple partners, siblings who reside together, and other households so that no one is denied benefits. Which is a noble enough idea, albeit a pretty unattainable one. And so he is dismissive of those pushing for gay marriage, saying that they should instead work on AIDS funding, real sex education, fighting anti-porn zoning laws, and fighting anti-sodomy laws (which with Lawrence vs. Texas, also makes his book a little dated).

His analysis into how gay marriage became the issue national gay orginizations took up is pretty insightful, and he does a fine job of articulating the possible risks to queer culture if marriage were to occur. However, he probably does overstate the risks. A few years ago, I would have been more in agreement with this section of the book, but Bush and conservative efforts have probably done more to rally queers to the cause of gay marriage than Human Rights Campaign would ever have been able to.

I wonder what Warner would argue these days since at one point he says, "This campaign is not likely to result in same-sex marriage, despite the claims of its most triumphal prophets" (144). Now that gay marriage exists (in Mass. and for what may be a short time), his arguments against it because of its unattainability seem only like nay-saying. I really liked the last two sections of the book though and his analysis of shame in the first section, and below the cut are lots of quotes from it.

Reading that story in the NY Times this morning woke me up. I wish I could have this energy and this willingness to fight on my own, and it wouldn't take getting slapped to provoke me to hit back. Kerry and Edwards have said that they will go back to the Senate to vote against it even though they don't support gay marriage, but adding that they support gay rights. This is Seinfeld's addendum of "Not that there's anything wrong with that." How long until there is vocal support for things that are right? How long until Ginsberg's cry of, "America, when will you be angelic?" won't have any force? I am tired of being talked about in ambivalent terms by people who are not comfortable with my sexuality. I am going to scream and scream, outscream you. My voice is louder. And you and your ambivalence will have three options. Run from the screaming. Cover my mouth and try telling me to shut-up. Or hug me.

Many gay people as well think there would be nothing wrong with the death of Christopher Street. Neighborhoods change, times change. There will be new places to go. The gay neighborhood, for example, has already moved to Chelsea. And why not? No need to romanticize the West Village, or be nostalgic about it.

One problem with this view is that Chelsea has no non-commercial public space to match the old piers at the end of Christopher. Its strip along Eighth Avenue is wealthier, whiter, less hospitable to non-residents. The trannies are not going to hang out at Banana Republic. And the disparity is only going to get worse. 151-152

Isolation and silence are among the most common conditions for the politics of sexual shame. Autonomy requires more than civil liberty; it requires the circulation and accessibility of sexual knowledge, along with the public elaboration of a social world that can make less alienated relations possible. A public sexual culture is not just a civil liberty—like the right to deny the Holocaust and march in Skokie—but a good thing, and queer politics should make it a priority. This does not mean that I am arguing against privacy. Quite the contrary: the politics of privatization, in my view, destroys real privacy even as it erodes public activity. 171-172

Within the culture of public sex, of course, very different recognitions and very different articulacy are possible. The sexual cultures of gay men and lesbians are, after all, cultures in ways that are often forgotten, especially when they are treated simply as a mass of deviants looking for hormonally driven release. They recognize themselves as cultures, with their own knowledges, places, practices, languages, and learned modes of feeling. The naive belief that sex is simply an inborn instinct still exerts its power, but most gay men and lesbians know that the sex they have was not innate nor entirely of their own making, but learned--learned by participating, in scenes of talk as well as of fucking. One learns both the elaborated codes of a subculture, with its rituals and typologies (top/bottom, butch/femme, and so on), but also simply the improvisational nature of unpredicted situations. As queers we do not always share the same tastes or practices, though often enough we learn new pleasures from others. 177-178

A public sexual culture changes the nature of sex, much as a public intellectual culture changes the nature of thought. Sexual knowledges can be made cumulative. They circulate. The extreme instances of this are in the invention of new practices or pleasures, as Michel Foucault noticed when he remarked that, with fist-fucking, gay men had invented the first wholly new sexual act in thousands of years. Even apart from this example, lesbians and gay men with relatively modest tastes can still recognize that their own bodies have been remapped by participation in a queer sexual culture, that each touch, gesture, or sensation condenses lessons learned not only through one’s own experience, but through the experience of others. 178

When gay men or lesbians cruise, when they develop a love of strangers, they directly eroticize participation in the public world of their privacy. Contrary to myth, what one relishes in loving strangers is not mere anonymity, nor meaningless release. It is the pleasure of belonging to a sexual world, in which one’s sexuality finds an answering resonance no just in one other, but in a world of others. 179

This effect in the rhetoric of shame is more than simply an individual affect. It isolates contexts and publics from each other, dividing them by amnesias. The rhetoric of antiporn activism is full of terms like “sleaze,” “filth,” and “smut.” These words, conceptually vacuous, do nothing to say why porn is bad. It is impossible to argue with them; their purpose is not to provide reasoned argument. Their purpose it to throw shame, to make a rival point of view seem unimaginable. 181

Pornography and adult businesses jeopardize the amenesias separating sex and public culture in large part because of their physical orientation toward an indefinite public; they are media of acknowledgement. Having been reared in the bosom of Jesus, I never, it happens, saw gay porn until I began graduate school. I had had sex with men for years on the side, but I didn’t think I was gay. I thought I was just wicked. The first porn images I saw, in a magazine belonging to a friend, set me suddenly to think, “I could be gay.” Why did these pictures trigger my recognition when years of sleeping with men somehow didn’t? It’s because the men in the pictures were not only doing what I wanted to do, they were doing it with a witness: the camera. Or rather, a world of witnesses, including the infrastructure for producing, distributing, selling, and consuming these texts. This whole world could be concretized in places like Christopher Street or Times Square, but also in the formal language of pornography. In order for the porn to exist, not only did some of its producers have to have gay sex, they and many others had to acknowledge that they were having it. What is traded in pornographic commerce is not just speech, privately consumed; it is publicly certifiable recognition. This is part of the meaning of every piece of porn, and what is difficult to communicate in the dominant culture is the publicity or porn has profoundly different meanings for nonnormative sex practices. When it comes to resources of recognition, queers do not begin on a level playing field.

The implicit publicity of porn is what feels so scandalous about it. The potentially creative effect of that publicity is lost from view in those versions of anitporn feminism that describe pornography merely as objectification or violence. 184-18

“Public sex” is public in the sense that it takes place outside the home, but it usually takes places in areas that have chosen for their seclusion, and like all sex involves extremely intimate and private associations. 173

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