booknotes: ties that bind

Me, footnote hopping. The story of my life.

I found Sarah Schulman's Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (New Press/Perseus, 2009) reading The Tolerance Trap and requested it inter-library loan thinking it was going to be a study of the ravages of anti-gay animus within families. Instead, it is more of a philosophical-political reflection on the practices within families (and by extension within the wider culture) that create we queer people as a lesser group. Schulman draws powerfully on work done by feminist activists around domestic violence and the workings of other types of prejudice such as antisemitism to describe how queer family members are isolated and scapegoated within families -- and how the social systems these families are a part of support that violence through passive bystander behaviors. She illustrates a lot of her observations with stories about her own family's unwillingness to maintain positive connections with her because of her lesbian identity: parents who say in front of her that she was born "bad'; siblings who refuse to allow her contact with her their children.

Reading Ties That Bind was personally disorienting as an experience; I kept checking the publication date -- really? 2009? -- because so much of what she was describing felt like the climate of the 1970s and 80s rather than the early 2000s. Which is definitely a good reminder that our experience, as queer individuals, of homobigotry is far from uniform, and that our treatment at the hands of friends and family shapes how we interpret and react to the structural and more distant social inequalities that continue to color all of our lives. Because of my family's support, and because of the social norms of my immediate community (expecting nondiscrimination), when I do encounter erasure or hostility I experience it as a departure from, rather than a reinforcement of, the morality of my people. That is, not only do I believe that there's no reason to fear my sexuality would harm children, but all of my friends and family members would look at someone like they were right bastards for suggesting such a thing.

That kind of support, in turn, leads to resilience for those of us who have it: with our many-layered communities behind is, we aren't isolated in the face of structural discrimination or individual acts of bigotry. For those whose families do disown them, as Schulman points out, the recourse is the much more difficult and contingent road of creating your own support system from scratch, always with the voices in the back of your head -- the parental authorities of your childhood -- telling you how worthless, how lesser-than, you are. These messages, in turn, reinforce the messages of the dominant culture that continue to erase, tokenize, or segregate the narratives of queer lives -- treating them as specialist subjects, "adult" content, something uninteresting to a more general readership or audience. As Elizabeth of Spilt Milk pointed out just this past week, Western culture still resists the notion that queer lives are human lives and as such deserve representation within popular cultures, curricula, and as commonplace within society. This is, essentially, the same message Schulman sought to impart in 2009, and despite legal gains in the rights arena we haven't made much headway in queering the mainstream.

In short, check Schulman out if you'd like to be reminded that things don't inevitably get better, and that our survival and resilience as non-straight people still depends a frightening amount on contingencies such as what family we were born in, what location(s) we grew up, where we find jobs, and how mainstream our queer performances are (not to mention all the other intersectional aspects of self we juggle: class, race and ethnicity, gender, citizenship, religion, body size, dis/ability, etc. etc. etc.).

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