Exceptionalist vs. Assimilation :: Two Sides of the Equality Coin
Last month, a police warning that laws against nudity and "lewd behavior" would be more strictly enforced at Dallas Pride, along with a plea by organizers that men wear bathing suits rather than underwear, ignited a national conversation about how we as a community should be presenting ourselves to the world.
"I got involved in gay politics 20 years ago in order to win the right to serve in the military, have a job, and get married, among others," wrote blogger John Aravosis. "It had nothing to do with public nudity."
"My partner and I are upstanding citizens," college student Jerry Imburgia commented. "We want the gay community to be seen in a positive light."
Dallas activist Hardy Haderman countered that "the assimilationists insist we tone down and throw away all our joyous sexiness."
"To make the parade more 'family friendly' and to accommodate comfort for the increasing number of attending heterosexuals and corporate sponsorship, participants are being asked to cover up!" another local activist, Daniel Cates, added. "The 'queer' is effectively being erased from our pride celebration."
While this particular controversy revolved around the men in skimpy outfits who have become ubiquitous at Pride celebrations, the argument is as old as the gay rights movement. In the 1950s and early '60s, men made sure to show up for demonstrations in suits, the women in dresses. They disparaged anything outrageous in the belief that showing the world homosexuals were just like everyone else would win acceptance.
One of the movement's most active leaders, Harry Hay, vehemently disagreed. Hay, who would go on to found the Radical Faeries, believed that being queer meant rejecting social strictures. Hay, who was also an out-and-proud member of the Communist Party, believed that equality would only be achieved when society itself fundamentally changed, and that LGBT activists, by their very nature, placed themselves in the revolutionary vanguard.
After the Stonewall Riots, groups like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance championed tearing down existing institutions, beginning with the family, and replacing them with an egalitarian society without assigned gender roles. But history repeated itself. These groups fell by the wayside and were replaced with mainstream organizations like the Human Rights Campaign.
Still, the raging debate over Dallas Pride shows that there are plenty of people who don't share Aravois' goals of fighting in the Armed Forces, working within the corporate structure and institutionalized monogamy. The halls of academia are full of theorists who continue to work toward what Columbia Law School's Urvashi Vaid has called "a future beyond equality." For them, as another prominent queer theorist, Michael Warner, put it in a book title, "The Trouble With Normal," is that "The New Normal" is too goddamned, well, normal.
"What we wanted all along was to change straight society," Warner once told me. "Instead, we fixated on these little tokens and lost the vision of transforming the way people live."
Since this is a debate rooted in academia, it’s only fitting that the two sides should be given highfalutin names. On the one side are the, assimilationists whose end point was parodied by the pair of suburban clones in the film "American Beauty." On the other side the exceptionalists, while not exactly manning the barricades, continue to fight in grass-roots (and usually short-lived) organizations like Outrage and Sex Panic.
While the radicals have plenty of energy, the other side has the money and, increasingly, access to the higher reaches of power in business and political circles. As Atlanta lawyer Peter Green explained, "Every social justice movement faces the same dynamic. You had black radicals and separatists who denounced the Civil Rights movement as being ’assimilionist.’ Same with feminism, where arguments about the structures of the Patriarchy oppressing all women continue to be made. Assimilation almost always wins out and I myself am perfectly happy with that. If others want to organize radical movements, more power to them, but I wish they would not confuse gay rights with their pet causes."
If history is a guide, the exceptionalists have their work cut out for them.
In one of her early essays, Joan Didion pointed out that America has a way of co-opting radical movements. As groups ostracized because of their religion or national origin, such as Jews and Italians, ascend into the mainstream, they adopt its values. Taking a long view, the same process is happening for blacks, women - and, yes, gays.
Putting aside plans for a second American Revolution, at its root, the debate boils down to this: Are we just like everyone else except for what we do in bed? Or as Hay said, "just like hets when it comes to sex, and in most other ways we are different."
What both sides have lost sight of is that, in the process of entering the mainstream, we’re changing it. A widely reported study done in San Francisco showed that at least half of the partnered gay couples surveyed had some type of open relationship.
Take another example, the workplace. Just four years ago, New York magazine published a long piece about gay men that had to stay in the closet to survive working on Wall Street. Senior executives at Merrill Lynch and Bankers Trust said they couldn’t name one gay co-worker. Trading floors were bastions of head-butting competition, the day spent in nasty pranks and hazing that would make a fraternity brother blush.
Today, those same firms not only embrace out-gay employees, but so do their office mates. The same is true for most every other field, from truck driving to law, advertising to the military. Along with acceptance has come a sea change in the macho atmosphere. If we’re not totally to thank for the fundamental shift that has taken place at work, we have certainly contributed to it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in religion. Out-gay parishioners and parsons have brought about a theological revolution. Where once it was unthinkable for any major denomination to hold the belief that scripture not only doesn’t condemn same-sex relationships but condones them. Today, holdouts like the Christian Right, the Roman Catholic Church and ultra-Orthodox Jews that are the outliers. (And if the recent remarks of Pope Francis are to be believed, the Roman Catholic Church is beginning a shift on its views of gays.)
If the Pope can change His mind, all bets are off. When even the Boy Scouts have thrown in the towel, it’s difficult not to see how we, in fact, are transforming society.
People like Vaid, however, see such signs as ephemeral at best. "Without a broader definition of equality," she said last year, "the LGBT politics currently pursued will yield only a conditional equality, one that will always be contingent upon ’good behavior.’"
In other words, we always have to be the queer version of what used to be called "the good Negro" or "a credit to his race." "If we are trying to persuade our straight allies to help us more in the cause and court more corporate sponsors, why wouldn’t we want to appear more ’mainstream’?" Stephanie Ojeda asked in the Dallas Voice. "We’re trying to show GLBT families as part of the make up of the modern American community."
If the Dallas contretemps proved anything, it’s that Gay Pride remains ground zero for the two competing visions. At least the assimilationists and exceptionalists agree on one thing: They both deride Pride marches - albeit for highly different reasons. The one side decries leathermen in jockstraps and hot bodies barely stuffed into tighty whities; while the other bash corporate floats and anything that smacks of being "family friendly."
For a while, a few activists staged counter "Gay Shame" marches to protest corporate sponsorships. When San Francisco Pride organizers first named Chelsea Manning, the WikiLeaks whistle-blower, as their grand marshal and then rescinded the invitation, it crystallized the naysayers’ belief that Pride had been terminally co-opted, "beholden to corporate donors," in Bill (stet!!) Browning’s words. But the San Francisco march went on with more than 2,000 marching behind a "Free Bradley" banner without a hitch. It was largest, non-corporate contigent in the event. In Dallas, it was, reportedly "business as usual" With some of the boys on boxes who either didn’t get the memo or blithely disregarded it.
The "assimilation v. exception" battle will likely be carried on in other fronts, and that’s a good thing. Until we achieve full equality, we’ll continue to explore who we are and where we fit into society.
It’s in our DNA. The adjective "queer" means odd or unconventional. But as a verb, it means to throw a monkey wrench into well laid-out plans. As long as we keep arguing, we’ll keep queering the wider world, whether from a wood-shingled house in the suburbs or in meeting halls.