The campaign has particularly focused on issues where the national discourse is distorted by hatred – such as immigration, racism (in law enforcement and elsewhere), and LGBT rights. In honor of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is every year on May 17 – and in honor of those prophetic women and men who have in their way, through the development of queer theory, confronted structures of oppression with transforming power of love – I want to reflect with you about our understanding of sexual preference, sexual identity, as well as race and gender.
Standing on the side of love. So simple. So basic. The heart leads us, and the heart yearns for connection in love. That's clear, that's basic. Who needs theory? Didn’t the Beatles have it right: "All You Need is Love"?
The thing is, the head is all the time cooking up one idea or another, and the ideas sometimes get in the way. Sometimes we need good theory just to clear the obstructions of bad theory so we can get back to the basic: standing on the side of love.
I propose today to lead you on a journey – a quick tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – back to a trust in the heart, back to love. It is an Eliot-esque journey, for T.S. Eliot said:
“We shall not cease from explorationWhen we come back again to no side but the side of love, perhaps, we’ll find that our journey has helped us understand our original stance a little better. Perhaps we will, in some sense, know the place for the first time.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Concept Number One: Ignore It – Or Try To.
According to this concept, the thing to do with sexuality that may be different from your own is ignore it. What consenting people do in private is irrelevant – it has nothing to do with our shared life. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity. So let’s ignore it. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and treat all people as just people. In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind.
Concept Number Two: Honoring Identity
The problem with concept number one is that people want to be seen and honored, acknowledged and respected for all of who they are.
During the four years in the early 90s that I was a professor of philosophy at Fisk University – a school with a predominantly African American student body – I saw every day how important African American identity was to my students.
Once I was a visiting faculty at Ripon College in Wisconsin. I remember being at a reception and chatting with one woman who professed colorblindness. She didn’t understand why there would be a school where all the students were African American. What difference does race make? Let us judge people, just as Martin Luther King himself said, by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But after a few years at Fisk, that perspective had become so distant for me that I couldn’t even think of how to explain why I didn’t share it. In that moment, adrift on a sea of white, from the faces in the room, to the thick cover of Wisconsin snow outside, I was stymied.
It wasn’t until later that I thought: hey, wait a minute. What about our gender identity? If someone were to say to that woman, "I can’t tell whether you’re a man or a woman," I don’t think she would have been re-assured. More likely, she’d have been insulted.
When my name, Meredith, preceeds me, people sometimes assume I’m a woman. That’s OK – not a problem for me. If, however, they were to continue to regard me as a woman after we had met face to face, I imagine I’d find that disconcerting. Further, if I were to enter some situation where a number of people were doing that, I’d be a bit spooked, wondering what sort of Twilight Zone I had fallen into. Many of you, too, would find it disorienting if the people around you couldn’t -- or earnestly pretended they couldn’t – tell whether you were male or female. It’s not that we think there’s anything wrong with being the opposite sex – it’s just that we like to be recognized for who we are.
Similarly, for many people of color, racial identity may be important. It’s a part of who they are, and they don’t want that socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless.
Similarly, many LGBT folk want to be recognized and accepted for all of who they are. We are all entitled to equal concern and respect. But we don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same. We shouldn't have to hide our identity.
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This is part 1 of 3 of "Queer Theory"
Part 2: Sexuality Is Not Natural
Part 3: Bearing the Unbearable Ambiguity of Sexuality