Familial homophobia: Interview with Sarah Schulman
- Published: 16 January 2010
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In her groundbreaking new book, Ties That Bind, New York novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman coins the term 'familial homophobia' and issues a wake-up call to GLB(SGD)Q and straight people alike on an insiduous phenomenon that's become a cultural crisis. She spoke with Katrina Fox
Why has it taken so long for a book like this to be written?
Yeah, it’s strange. It’s the most common experience we all share, yet I had to coin the phrase ‘familial homophobia’ because there wasn’t a word for ‘it’. I guess it’s because it’s so painful that people haven’t taken the time to analyse it. It’s so pervasive and so hard to accept that it’s a phenomenon. It was kind of hard to write so I can see why people wouldn’t have wanted to.
What’s been the reaction to the book?
It’s been amazing. Well, first of all I have not gotten a single review in any straight publication, including Publishers Weekly, which is highly unusual, so it’s a complete and total shut-out by straight people. However, gay people are receiving it with an emotional urgency that I have not experienced since I published my book Rat Bohemia at the height of the AIDS crisis.
I’m getting three to five contacts a day, by Facebook, by email, or letters or calling me at home because they are so moved by the book. Every day people are contacting me telling me how much it speaks to them. So the fact that it’s so resonant with gay people and yet simultaneously is so completely ignored by straight people speaks volumes right there.
Yet the straights probably need to read it more than the gays?
I wrote about this in my book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDs and the Marketing of Gay America, which is now 11 years old. Once AIDS happened and straight people could no longer pretend that gay people didn’t exist, they started this selection process which I called the fake public homosexuality where they pick images of gay people they find very palatable and elevate those. And the things that make them face that their own power is falsely constructed, they repress. So I guess my book is not in the palatable category.
Do you think the straight press ignoring your book is a form of homophobia in itself?
They want to believe their supremacy is natural or neutral or just the way things are and any kind of analysis that says that it’s imposed by force or constructed is something they are not prepared to confront. So they want it to be that any time we are considered is that what they call tolerant is their benevolence and you can see that consistently if you analyse what gay materials are allowed through and which ones are not.
One review in British lesbian magazine Diva mentioned the book had a whiff of victim about it. What do you think about that?
I wrote to [editor] Jane [Czyzselska] and she acknowledges that things are very different in Britain. I’m not saying homophobia in the family is different, but in Britain openly lesbian novelists with lesbian protagonists are accepted as real human beings who actually write real books, so people like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters are treated like people: they are nominated for prizes, their books are considered by mainstream venues, they are on television and when you go there as an American you get that treatment too.
When I have books published in Britain I’m in The Guardian and all this type of thing too. But here in the US there is not a single openly lesbian novelist with lesbian protagonists who is treated like an American. So we are in a really different position.
The British books are imported. Interestingly there was a very fascinating biography of Patricia Highsmith that was published here and Jeanette Winterson was invited by the New York Times to review it – no American lesbian was invited to do it. So in Britain there’s more representation.
There is a line in the book where you say ‘The weak need help’ when you are referring to gay people who are scapegoated. There’s a sense then that we are ‘victims’ but doesn’t that play into stereotypes about gay people being weak and victims, so it’s kind of a catch 22 situation?
Well I think gay people are victimised by familial homophobia and there’s no reason not to say so. I think it has enormous impact on people’s lives so why pretend otherwise?
Gay rights activism has predominantly focused on a proactive approach by queer people to get equality, but this is something quite different in that third parties ie family members are being called on to stand up for us and risk their own privileges and standing, for no other reason than it’s the morally right thing to do - what you call 'compassionate intervention'. How feasible do you think it is?
Oh it’s enormously, totally doable. When I was a kid growing up, if you heard a next door neighbour beating up his wife, you wouldn’t do anything; it was considered not your business. Now everyone knows you are supposed to call the police. Everyone understands that you have a responsibility as a citizen to intervene – third party intervention.
And homophobia in the family can be elevated to that level of understanding because we already have the precondition of recognition that certain types of abuse in families require third party intervention. So in the US if you are a teacher and you see a child abused, you are required by law to report it.
But I’m not just advocating third party intervention by other family members, I’m advocating by gay people themselves. If your family is causing you enormous pain by marginalising you or demeaning you because you’re gay, why shouldn’t I call them and tell them that you are an honored and respected person and that I care about how you are treated? You know, we never do that. We privilege the family and allow them to act without consequence so I am advocating third party intervention whenever the person asks for it.
Is it going to be hard for us as a queer community to take that more passive approach of ‘please help us’ as opposed to the direct action of demanding our rights?
No, I think it’s the same approach because the last social movement in the US that was successful was ACT UP, yet ACT UP was people who did not have AIDS intervening on part of people who did, which is third party intervention, and going to the powers that be and demanding they change their behaviour or face consequences. So I think we already have this paradigm in place.
How would you envisage an organised campaign against familial homophobia? Or is it something that will only work at an individual level?
We need to look at the example of how rape got politicised in America. I’m 51 so when I was a child if you were raped in NYC you could not get a conviction unless you had a witness.
Today rape is a crime in the world court, so we have seen a profound transformation on how rape is viewed globally and how rape victims are viewed globally, even though rape is still a tactic of war and used for entertainment and we still live in a rape culture. But it’s viewed profoundly differently globally – in one generation.
And the ways that this changed was by all these multipronged approaches – you had social workers acting differently, you had courts acting differently, film and TV changing their message about rape. You had people treating each other differently about rape.
When you have repeated messages over and over in all the different levels of social interaction and something is transforming in the culture, you end up with a different understanding. So it’s not just one strategy, it’s about people taking responsibility wherever they are situated.
But how does this strategy of intervention work for a gay person in an isolated, rural area where the entire community believes homosexuality is a sin and/or abomination?
People always pick that religious example. You know I don’t even have the word religion in my book. I don’t even deal with it. There is this tendency to blame homophobia on religion but frankly what we are seeing is there is profound familial homophobia in every social sector. I mean, people who run Hollywood and television and the American theatre and publishing marginalise gay experiences.
Sure, I recognise that, but how does that strategy work for someone in that example?
Well, with the most, most, most extreme example you have different strategies, but that’s not usually where we are at. Usually you have a situation where a family ‘tolerates’ the gay family member which means they accept them as long as they maintain them on a secondary status; that they’re not as important.
And they give them certain rules they have to abide by in order to be part of the family, like sometimes they can bring their partner but they can’t talk about gay things or it’s understood that straight things are more important. So the other family members should not be participating in that.
A lot of times families don’t realise their gay member is a respected, beloved person with a community that is accountable to them, because the gay community is invisible to them. So if a family member, say a sister or brother received 50 telephone calls from people they have never heard of who had been their sibling’s support system for 30 years, they may realise that people are asking them to be accountable.
I remember when David Wojnarovich the famous artist died of AIDS the family came to the memorial service and there were 300 people there, but they thought he was an alone homosexual and had no idea that he was famous and beloved and had this huge community and most people feel that way about their gay family member.
Do you think gay people are partly responsible for that because as you say in your book we have a tendency to withdraw into our subcultures especially if we’ve been rejected by our families – we create our own?
Well, more than that. We replicate it, we replicate the punishment. We all know from our own experiences that gay people can do very profoundly cruel things to each other and there is no consequence.
One of the reasons I think gay people want marriage so badly is to be protected from each other – that is, if you’re married to someone and they want to disappear one day or never pick up the phone they would have to show cause whereas now they do.
An example in the book is with the lesbian custody case. Here in the US we have many couples who have children in the context of a relationship, then they break up and the birth mother tries to take custody away from the other partner punitively and in many jurisdictions she’s allowed to because the court says that they don’t legally recognise the relationship.
So you end up in these situations where gay people have really learned from the larger culture that they can do anything to each other and no one will make them be accountable and of course their friends back off when they should intervene.
In the book I have a long interview with Kate Kendall about the role of friends and friendship intervention. Of course there are some people who are so pathological that no matter what anyone says to them they are going to be combative and unaccountable, but that’s not most people. Most people will respond to people sitting them down and saying ‘I care about this person is treated and how you behave’.
I say sometimes we live in an emotionally anarchistic state – no one is caring about what happens to us. You can do really anything to a queer person and nothing happens.
And many of us have taken on that self-loathing and don’t expect any better so the victim becomes the oppressor in some situations…
Right, because there is no consequences. I call it extending the hand of the state.
You talk about homophobia being a pleasure system. In your view, where does this cruelty stem from? Is it innate in our species or a consequence of our power structures and the industrialisation of society?
It’s an interesting question. All through history there have been people who have exploited others and people who have fought for justice. There were slave owners and people who fought against slavery.
What is it in a person’s character that makes them exploit others? That I don’t know the answer, I really don’t. But what I do know is that that concept that homophobia is not a phobia but a pleasure system has been so powerful for people who have read the book.
It’s the one idea that almost everyone has responded to. Because they start to review the faces of people who have been profoundly homophobic to them and they realise the people are not afraid; that they are enjoying their power. The word phobia constructs us as though we are the menace and dangerous – and it’s the opposite.
You say in the book that those with the most power (straights) have the least knowledge about other people’s lives. Should we be trying to get this discussed in schools or on the curriculum?
Sure. I run the ACT UP Oral History Project with Jim Hubbard and we’ve noticed that almost no 20th century US history classes include AIDS, gay liberation and ACT UP even though it’s an essential part of American history, so anything that brings this subject matter into mainstream discourse is positive.
If so, how do we overcome this fear of critical thinking and analysis that young people in your university classes find upsetting? That they’d rather be ignorant of things that hurt them. How do we overcome their wanting to remain ignorant. Is it a case of forcing them to look, to confront?
No, I think it’s about repetition in different spheres of life. If a therapist confronts a family of a gay person and the family decides, ‘Well fuck this, I’m leaving therapy – I don’t want to be told this,’ they may go to a movie and the movie tells them familial homophobia is anti-social. Then they turn on the TV and there are people telling them it’s anti-social. It’s that repetition of message.
Most people are homophobic because they think they’re supposed to be. They’ve been trained to be. And most people unfortunately do what they think are supposed to do. Very few people will be homophobic if there is a high cost to them.
Talking of popular culture, two TV shows that spring to mind where homosexuality is central are Will & Grace and The L Word. What are your thoughts on these shows? Are shows like this helpful as a tool to challenge familial and cultural homophobia or a hindrance?
They are two very different cultural phenomena. Will & Grace was a network show so it was seen by millions of people and of course Will was desexualised, he had no rage, experienced almost no homophobia – he was not a real person. So it was a false, dexualised, homosexual who was never treated cruelly by straight people that was projected to tens of millions of people.
The L Word is a different thing. I don’t know the exact numbers but I believe the subscriber base was around 500,000 which in the US is really small when you consider that CSI has 32 million viewers; so it’s not mainstream network television, it didn’t last and it had no impact, because when it went off the air there are no TV shows with lesbian protagonists.
It’s indicative of where people are at. It means that even if straight people see gay people on TV, even if they have gay friends or family members, they’re still going to vote against us having equal rights, so I don’t see there is a relationship between visibility and people losing their homophobia – I don’t think that’s ever been shown.
So what would you like to see happen?
I’d like to see lesbian protagonists who are realistic – that is to say that they experience homophobia in addition to other human experiences, fully integrated into all forms of representation.
On the subject of media, in the book you callout lesbian and gay editors of queer magazines for putting straight celebrities on the cover or celebrities who came out after they got famous as lacking in self-esteem. Their argument is putting a celebrity on a cover means more copies sell (as with any other magazine). Isn’t this more an indictment of a celebrity-obsessed society that queer people are also caught up in? And a practical business decision that more copies sold means they can continue producing new issues?
It has to do with what readers they attract. I remember when we had radical queer publications in the US like Outweek. They would put women and people of colour on the cover and sell many, many copies, but when The Advocate put a woman or person of colour on cover they wouldn’t sell as many copies because they had attracted a race of prejudiced readership.
If you build from the beginning a multi-cultural readership they will respond when you have multi-cultural covers. Black people buy magazines with black people on the cover, so if white magazines only have white readers then put a black person on the cover their prejudiced white readers aren’t going to buy the magazine. That means that they have already built their readership base around prejudiced people.
How much then does the ‘gaystream’ press perpetuate cultural homophobia?
Well, they’re just not showing any leadership. There’s so much going on the gay, lesbian and especially transsexual and bisexual world that’s fascinating and complicated that many people could be interested in, but they follow the leader rather than set trends. And the most intelligent, interesting people don’t have venues. Sometimes I think it’s all run by a bunch of dummies who get together to make decisions and they don’t have a vision. Why are they in the queer press business?
Some of them are in it just for the money.
Well, that’s why they produce magazines like that.
How can the already existing ones change and still exist?
If you start an organisation with all white males and you want to bring other people in, they’ll never come in. You have to start it at the beginning in an integrated way. The New Yorker sells copies every week and they have no one on the cover.
Let’ s return briefly to gay marriage. It’s not as cut and dried as ‘They have it, so we should’ – ie as an equal rights issue for you, is it?
One thing that’s changed since I wrote the book is that gay marriage is pretty much dead here. Unless the Supreme Court rules in favour of gay marriage – if that happens there will be gay marriage in America – but if they rule against it we won’t have gay marriage for 50 years.
Because the voters have made it very clear that in every single ballot – 31 votes – we have lost. Every time it goes to popular vote, we lose, without exception. So American people, regardless of how much they watch Ellen, there is no relationship between watching Ellen and giving gay people rights. Zero relationship.
American people do not want gay marriage and it’s the greatest strategic defeat in the history of gay politics. We have never lost anything the way we have lost this, which is quite interesting and worthy of thought.
But it’s the key thing queer rights activists are focused on, both in the US and other western countries.
Things are changing here very rapidly. We are in a very interesting phase in the US. We’ve had Obama for a year and he really hasn’t done anything. It’s an interesting place but a dangerous place and things could go either way.
But gay people are changing by the day. I get contacted by so many people I can’t tell you. A kid called me and said I go to university and I called a public meeting to do civil disobedience and someone said I should talk to you. So I said ‘What do you want to do civil disobedience for?’ and he said ‘I don’t know, shall we do it around marriage?’ But civil disobedience is a tactic. It has to be part of a larger strategy, not just do it.
He didn’t know that but what’s happening is 20-year-olds are changing. I teach in the public university and deal with students from the poor and working classes in NYC every day and 10 years ago they were much more conservative than they are now because there are no jobs. The yellow brick road of Yuppydom that bought off two generations of Americans and basically gave them instructions and if they followed they got money to buy consumer goods – that is over.
So students have to cobble together how they are going to earn a living and that means figuring out who they are; because everyone is doing it eclectically there is a lot more individuation and I think younger gay people are rejecting the national agendas which are marriage and the military and are looking for things closer to home.
The whole thing is realigning now and in a few years it will be articulated, but of course it could all go to the extreme right as well. It’s a fascinating time and gay identity is changing enormously.
Marriage is about to be over. And anyway, any ideology that tells young women to get married is appalling as far as I’m concerned!
What about it being an equal rights issue?
I understand that, but they’re not going to get it.
What do you think will happen then? Will gay rights movement change its focus?
Oh, it’s already happening. The national organisations – which are insipid – are losing credibility and the paid leadership who is running everything is losing credibility. What I’m hoping will happen is that people will start defining different issues based on their specific experience – where they live and what’s affecting them personally instead of following a national agenda.
It struck me that your strategy of compassionate intervention and requiring people with privilege to give that up could be applied to other social justice movements. What are your thoughts on the concept of unity of oppression? Everyone seems to be concerned with their own issues, but they overlap but there’s not enough coming together to see how we can all help each other.
It’s always been that way. At least in this country men had to vote for women to get the vote. White people have to take part in dismantling racism or it doesn’t change. There’s always a necessity for dominant cultural people to participate in the transformation of power paradigms – it has to be. So when you put it on the table, there are people who will rise to the occasion. They are in a vanguard but they can make a huge difference.
So are you optimistic about the future?
I’m totally optimistic! I feel like people in their 20s are more exciting than they have been in a long time. I have a lot of faith in them and they are going to have to rethink a lot of things for themselves because they are not going to bought off.
Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman is published by The New Press.