The Problem of the Reparative in the Shadow of Stonewall
By Jonathan AlexanderJuly 1, 2019
Gay pride. Celebration. Fighting back has turned into jubilant parades, the much-remarked upon spectacles of flamboyance and delightful excess that mark a key moment in what used to be called “gay liberation” — a movement of activists in the ’60s and ’70s that envisioned, by some accounts, not just equal rights for lesbians and gays but the freeing of all people from the constraints of a legally, socially, culturally, and politically enforced heterosexuality. Think bisexual chic. Think gender-bending and androgynous glam. But also think lesbian feminist separatism, the delights of non-monogamy and multiple hookups, and the beginnings of truly intersectional critique in statements such as the Combahee River Collective’s declaration that the “liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy.” The ravages of AIDS, the resurgence of conservatism and the counterrevolution, as well as exhaustion and, in some cases, the attractions of capitalist consumerism in the 1980s, tempered and changed the radicality of the preceding two decades, leading to the more culturally and politically assimilationist strategies of organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the move toward fights for equal rights, such as marriage and open military service. But even in 1953 — in 1953 — One magazine, the first widely circulated periodical to address the needs and interests of lesbians and gays, considered the question of “Homosexual Marriage?” The editorial board actually argued against the idea, declaring: “We simply don’t join movements to limit ourselves!” Marriage, a “dubious proposition” is the limitation, a “trade” of respectability for loss of sexual freedom.
I write these sentences, and I realize how easy it is to critique, to say that the radical visions and utopian dreams of our queer and trans forepeople have been betrayed, sold out, forgotten. A fair assessment might ask us to consider how radical marriage equality actually is for many in our country, a tremendous step forward in extending rights and protections to gay and lesbian people. And even the HRC only seems “conservative” by some measures, not at all by others. My getting married to a man in California seems all but conformist, a bourgeois capitulation. My getting married to a man in my home state of Louisiana seems significantly more in-your-face, a bolder step, a declaration of war even on the values with which I was raised, and that still largely hold sway in many parts of our country, in many parts of the world. Radicality is contextual.
In assessing how far queer people have come in the 50 years since Stonewall, we might bear in mind such contexts and how the development of rights, much less the evolution of a radical queer vision, proceeds differently, in different times, across different spaces. I was thinking of such temporal and spatial difference when reading about the Canadian government’s decision to offer reparations to queer people who had been victimized by homophobia. That’s right: reparations. Specifically, in November 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized to Canadians who had been victimized by the “gay purge,” the “government program, which lasted for more than 30 years and ended only in the 1990s, caused thousands to lose their jobs and sometimes face prosecution because of their sexual orientation. The policy affected Canadians in the military, the public service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” But Trudeau didn’t stop at an apology. According to The New York Times, the Canadian government agreed “to pay up to 110 million Canadian dollars, or $85 million, to compensate victims.” Trudeau said: “It is with shame and sorrow and deep regret for the things we have done that I stand here today and say: We were wrong.” And the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to this act of reparation couldn’t help but make a compelling contrast:
It’s something we can be extremely proud of in Canada […] At a time when America is going backward and trying to reintroduce discrimination, we are moving forward and facing this historic injustice, making reparations to the victims and an unshakable commitment that this discrimination will never be repeated.
Reparations. A powerful word, and one that isn’t often associated with LGBT/queer people in the United States. We more often hear about reparations with regard to African-American descendants of slaves. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, has written eloquently and powerfully about “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. Coates's case is clear: “The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable.” More pungently and directly, he argues that “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people — 395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.” The horror of blacks forcibly relocated to this continent to serve the interests of whites has only ever been compounded during the century since the end of slavery as African Americans and their descendants have systematically been kept impoverished and unequal through a variety of racist and often legal techniques, including redlining, segregation, and police profiling, just to name a few. Add to that the long and awful history of lynchings, of KKK terror attacks on black families and individuals, and the day-to-day grind of pervasive racism and its proliferating microaggressions, and the balance sheets of our society weigh heavily in favor of a white-dominated culture that has yet to address adequately — much less redress — the lingering toxicities of structural racism. This isn’t news. Indeed, Coates quotes a Quaker, John Woolman, who in 1769 already recognized that “[a] heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us […] and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”
Reparations are about what is due to a people because of past injury, particularly injury that continues to be felt in subsequent generations. And no doubt, much is due to African-American folk in this country. My question as a queer white American is what, if anything, is due to queer people who have suffered their own systematic injustices in this nation? To be sure, those injustices are not the same as those committed against black folk; slavery is a very particular horror, and the damages accrued through systematic racism and through systematic homophobia are not the same, even as we should note the overlapping injustices committed against people who are both black and queer; they have faced bigotry, alienation, and terror on multiple fronts. Homophobia in black communities is very likely not dissimilar from homophobia in any other community, and there is no doubt significant racism in many queer communities. We all have much work to do, individually and collectively to battle homophobia and racism, both outside and within our immediate circles.
But if we are thinking collectively, my question remains: Is offering reparations to queer people a viable way to address the damages accrued through long-term effects of homophobia? Does the larger culture owe queer people some form of compensation or reparation based on past injustices? Following Coates, the argument in favor should at least rely on both the systematicity of injury and the lingering effects of disadvantage. Again, equivalencies with black folk are hard to see. The history of homophobia is more diffusely spread over numerous kinds of institutions, cultural practices, and social forms. Slavery was an institution that, on a grand and specific scale, organized and mobilized racial hegemony and bigotry through a particular set of economic and political processes. Homophobic oppression has certainly been mobilized for political ends and in widespread ways, such as through various religious and governmental prohibitions, but seems to lack the specific scale of slavery that can be addressed through reparations.
With that said, homophobic practices and policies litter our own US history, and queers have yet to enjoy federal and state guarantees that they will not be discriminated against in employment. Lillian Faderman’s 2015 book, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, remains a powerful compendium of state-sanctioned discrimination. Many other histories document such bias that has yet to be fully addressed, such as the fact that the McCarthy hearings targeted homosexuals, who were long banned from governmental employment. Bias, prejudice, and bigotry continue to affect the lives of many queer people. Our current president has targeted trans people in particular, wanting to deny them military service. Openly queer teachers are still subject to scrutiny and, in some cases, even dismissal. And some jurisdictions still attempt — sometimes successfully — to block LGBT people from access to adoption agencies. To be sure, justice for LGBTQ people can be served, but likely only in very particular ways. The Canadians recognize the long-term effects of homophobia in their attempt to redress unjust employment practices and offer remedy to those victimized through homophobic policies. But this case is quite specific with regard to whom it identifies as harmed — gay people, yes, but gay people who lost a very specific job as a result of a specific historical event.
Intimately coupled with such lingering material effects of homophobia are the psychological damages wrought on queer people, even as they are also equally diffuse. Some homophobia can be identified and called out. But other forms of homophobia are spread through a variety of small daily assaults and microaggressions. While often quick and sometimes even subtle, they accumulate, leaving internal scars that sometimes manifest as self-harm. In different pages, here and elsewhere, I’ve remembered, recounted, documented, and critiqued my own damages — the constant homophobic bullying I experienced as a teenager; the assaults on my soul by Catholic and Protestant dogmas, voiced through pastors, priests, and lay people declaring that people like me would be consigned to the fiery pits of hell; by a medical establishment that all too frequently refused to see my health in terms of my gayness and that nearly kept me from seeing my hospitalized partner in the days before gay marriage; in the on-the-job discrimination that I have faced with school administrators wanting to keep me from certain tasks and opportunities. Surely, I have also experienced compassion, generosity, and even acknowledgment for what my queerness brings to the table. But I live with the damages done — the assaults, the verbal taunts, the fear of imminent victimization, even the periodic death threat. And while I live in California, in an urban area in which I enjoy, for the first time in my life, relative peace and freedom from harassment and even some possibility of tolerance, I still awaken at night, fearful, checking the lock on the door, wondering if everything will change back, will revert, will prove any hard-won respite just a temporary blip, an aberration, a lapse in the steady onslaught of homophobia that has otherwise characterized my life.
Am I owed recompense for this history of violence against me? Are others like me owed reparations for surviving the sustained hatred of so many others? And what of those who have not survived, for whom the possibility of imagining that “it gets better” was taken, their capacity to imagine better lives stolen?
With all of this said — and while I can make the case for damages done, harms experienced and not always survived — I cannot make the case for queer reparations. Whereas other communities can at least rhetorically speak to commonly held experiences of oppression, queer folk often cannot. The struggles faced by trans people vary quite widely from those experienced by gay men; race, gender and class further striate the difficulties faced by LGBTQ folk. How would we ever figure out who has suffered most from homophobia or transphobia and how they would be compensated for that suffering? What could be provided in order to make good on these struggles, especially given that reparations are largely imagined as monetary and material? Indeed, the argument for reparations has been about systematic disenfranchisement in material concerns: housing, access to employment, access to credit, and so forth. Our history is uneven in its documentation of such experiences for queer people; we have suffered, but not always in ways that are parallel to the systematic treatment of black folk in the shadow of slavery, so specific material reparations would be difficult to imagine on a large scale. And when we consider how homophobic legacies are enmeshed with pervasive cultural sexism, the abuse of children, and reproductive rights — the difficulties for imagining a comprehensive and satisfactory approach to reparations becomes more complicated still. My imagination fails in trying to grapple with how a culture might make amends to those identities, citizens, and fellow human beings it has harmed in the past. The problem is too big, its everydayness making it hard to assess in any systemic way or redress in any equitable manner. I am haunted by this larger question. I do not have a simple answer — which isn’t to say that offering reparations to redress the horrible legacy of slavery is in any way simple. It’s not. But reparations for black folk would go a long way to addressing a particular problem with a painful history and awful legacy.
Still, an important question remains for me: how can a culture, a community, a nation make good on a vast if often uneven historical wrong? Relinquishing an argument for queer reparations doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done. We queers need other solutions. Certainly, those fired from federal or state employment should be made whole, as we say, along the lines the Canadians have been enacting. And to prevent such abuses from happening in the future, we should continue to seek basic rights for queer people to support themselves and build meaningful families. Just recently, Congress has been considering a Democratic bill, the Equality Act, that would at the federal level extend housing, employment, and health-care protections to LGBT folk. Granted, such repair would constitute only a small portion of a significantly larger — and significantly more complicated — puzzle for picturing how to remedy the legacies of homophobic violence. But it would still be a significant gesture to repair some specific damages done.
We also need to continue to celebrate who we are and protect — and grow — the communities we have built. Such communities often form through chosen association as opposed to familial birth, clustering folks together over multiple generations in neighborhoods and locales. Many queers value the hard-won availability of communities they can choose to join, even as the ready availability of such communities is not equally distributed across our country. Moreover, recent generations of queer people have benefited from both the steady extension of rights to queer people as well as a culture that seems increasingly tolerant of our presence, even if we again need to note the uneven distribution of such rights and tolerances. Still, we should celebrate what we have gained, even as we fight for what is still needed.
Could it be that counseling and therapeutic services should be offered free of charge by the government for queers struggling with self-image due to harassment and oppression? Such a remedy is trickier, for some queers are going to see this kind of “reparation” as bleeding into the reparative, a frightening word in the context of “reparative therapy,” or the ethically repugnant attempts to “fix” homosexuals, curing them of their desires. The history of such repair is horrific. At the ONE Archives on the University of Southern California campus you can learn about a small electronic machine that midcentury Christians could use on their own children to whisper mantras of hatred into their ears and shock their genitals when they expressed inappropriate sexual desires. While such machines are likely less in use now, the call to “repair” homosexuals can still be heard. Our own vice president, during a former campaign, argued that “[r]esources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
We do not need “repair,” queer people claim. And I agree. I don’t need to be fixed. But I need to acknowledge — and want others to acknowledge with me — that it took me decades to get to the point where I could say that — and believe it. I lost my childhood to homophobia. My young adulthood in the 1980s was entirely framed by the specter of AIDS as the just death for homosexuals. I now savor my middle age as a time in which I am more comfortable in my own skin, more accepting of my own desires, more at ease with myself. I have learned, slowly and with much difficulty, to tune out the voices implanted inside me by religious, governmental, and community institutions that would otherwise have had me hate myself — that frankly wish I had not been born.
I have learned much from queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who recovers the word “reparative,” contrasting it with “paranoid” strategies of reading and approaching texts. In the latter, we doggedly seek to expose structures and systems, often of violence or oppression. In the former, more reparative vein, we pursue possibilities of surprise and pleasure, allowing ourselves to connect with less suspicion, more openness. Sedgwick is talking about how we read critically, a paranoid approach interrogating a text for its hidden secrets and agendas and a reparative reading approaching a text with less suspicion, more willingness to be surprised by its complexities, nuances, possibilities. A balanced approach might use both strategies. I sense in Sedgwick’s formulations more than an approach to reading texts, but also an approach to reading one’s life. And part of what I have had to do is learn to be open to, even surprised by, my own desires, my own possibilities of connecting with others, appreciating how I am drawn to others. I have had to learn to balance a necessary paranoia — will this person harm me because I’m queer? — with a curiosity about others, a desire, even a need to be open to relating, to discovering, to knowing other people.
The damage caused by homophobia is that it seeks to implant deep in the souls of queer people a fear of others, an instinctual turning away from the kinds of sustaining and nurturing connections that all of us need. The damage of homophobia is that it also implants a comparable fear in straight people as well, straight people whose own lives might be expanded, made richer and more loving by knowing people with different desires. We all collectively — straights and queers — need to continue to examine our own internalized homophobia in an attempt to overcome such fear.
Coates ends his essay on reparations for African Americans with a call for all to grapple critically, affectively, collectively, and personally with our histories, with the paths that have brought each of us to where we are: “And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” We have not all come from the same spaces of equality, freedom, ability, or imaginable possibility. We are learning more and more about the damages done to generations of black folk. We also need to account for how some of us — queer, gender nonconforming — were not meant to survive our childhoods intact — whole, healthy, desiring, capable of loving.
I have learned to live with myself. I have survived my childhood. I know that not everyone is so lucky. And even now, it does not get better for all queer kids. I worry about those kids. And thinking about those kids, I have tried to balance my own paranoia and my own need for the reparative. So I’ll tell you a story about that balancing.
Just recently, I de-friended someone on Facebook — I know, I know, such a petty thing to do, and I was a little bit ashamed. But then again not. In the decade I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve connected with a variety of kids from my old high school, although few of the people I might actually have counted as my friends when in school. Still, a number of young men have become FB “friends,” yet another variety of relationality spawned by our connected world. Most of these folks I didn’t really know in high school, some of them pretty tangentially, and even a couple I can’t recall at all, though I accept the friendships and the obligatory Messenger chats that are quick catch-ups — you good? yeah, I’m good. I’m good too!
But one young man — funny, I call him a young man, when he is my age, pretty much exactly my age — someone I do recall, though we were never friends, I de-friended. He had posted up a picture of an attractive young blonde woman force-feeding another attractive young woman a bottle, with the caption reading something along the lines of “The LGBT community stuffing their sexuality down our throats.” It was a disgusting meme. I was repulsed — perhaps especially by how the image perversely deployed its infantilist eroticism to malign queer people. Even more to the point of my disgust, the sentiment here just got everything wrong. Yes, some queers are flamboyant, and our demands for various equal rights and, well, freedom from living in fear, have likely struck some as “outrageous” — but really, what the fuck? I’ve lived my entire life, and especially as a child growing up in a Christian culture and attending Christian schools, having not just heterosexuality thrust down my throat, but also being force-fed a steady diet of self-hatred. The irony here reminded me of claims that queers recruit and that young people better watch out. Again, are you fucking kidding me? Christians recruit. Let’s be clear. Christians recruit. Their god tells them to go make other Christians. So claims of queer recruitment and the LGBT folk forcing their sexuality down the throats of others is quite simply projection. They accuse us of what they have done for so long, so very long, immiserating the lives of countless millions of people over time.
Do you wonder why at times I have thought that Christianity, much like all religion that has evangelical fervor and fundamentalist dimensions, should be banned from civil society? Christians indoctrinate children. I refer to their churches and their schools as indoctrination camps. They twist as many souls as they claim to save — and I say that knowing, knowing in my heart, that they have indeed helped some people, that they have at times fed the poor, healed the sick, offered comfort to the weary and despairing — but at what cost? At what fucking cost to the rest of us? As my friend and fellow editor here at LARB told me, “We cannot celebrate a culture and a people who comfort with one hand while concussing with the other.”
So I de-friended this person because I didn’t want this bullshit appearing in my feed. In my 50 years on this planet, I’ve heard enough of this, and have fought to get to the place where I can say no, I just don’t have to listen to this shit, much less be exposed to it when I’m otherwise just going about my business.
But I took another step. I am friends on Facebook with one of the administrators of the old high school, someone I knew when I too was attending this high school so long ago, so I contacted him and told him this story, the story of the de-friending, and why I had done it, and how I hoped that times were changing enough so that young men, perhaps some young men who might be like me, wouldn’t have to endure the abuse I had. I sent two messages through Messenger. Here is the first one.
Mr. XXX -- my FB feed says that you're in retreat with other XXX faculty. I wish you all the best. I write, out of the blue, because I recently took the very rare step of defriending someone on FB a couple of days ago. A high school classmate posted a picture complaining about members of the LGBT community jamming sexuality down the throats of everyone else. You’ll have to excuse my vitriol if I respond by saying that I’ve never seen anything the queer community has done that could compare to the way that homophobic heterosexuality was jammed down my throat nearly every day of my high school experience — by people calling me faggot, queer, homo. Unfortunately I know some faculty turned a blind eye. And I heard that one faculty member condoned this kind of treatment. And yet another actually told homophobic jokes in class. That I survived high school is the miracle for me. I know the religious orientation of XXX is intolerant of gays and lesbians, but I do hope your faculty will be mindful of the damage done to hearts and minds and souls through homophobia. If at any point you want to talk about this, I'm happy to do so. All best -- j.
I received no response to this message, although I could tell through Messenger that the message had been “seen.” So I sent another one.
Mr. XXX —
I'm sorry if my message took you by surprise. I know you're about to start the new year, so my message was likely unwelcome. And to be fair, I respect the work that many faculty did when I attended XXX. AAA, BBB -- they meant much to me, and I remember them fondly.
But the message from the classmate was triggering, for sure. I was bullied and abused by many classmates. They'd call my home and threaten me and my parents. And yes, unfortunately, some faculty -- through turning away or through their own actions -- were complicit. Not all, for sure. And I hold dearly the memories of those like AAA and BBB who tried to nurture me. But psychic violence perpetrated at that age, so consistently, is hard to forget.
In so many ways, I've had a great life. I've moved on, married, built a family and career. My husband and I have been together for over 20 years, and my fifteenth book comes out this fall. My mother lives with us now, and it's my delight to help take care of her in her final years.
But I remember. I feel the twitch of abuse under my skin, remembering the taunts, jeers, insults, threats. I have had to learn that it may never go away.
I am not inviting you to feel bad about this. I have no negative memories of you at all. But I saw your FB posting and wanted someone at XXX to know. I am a survivor. I am a gay survivor. I am a gay man, and, while I know it's asking for the impossible, I'd like someone at XXX to acknowledge that the homophobic abuse I endured should be endured by no one at a Christian school, regardless of the particular faith's beliefs on sexuality. As educators, we should protect our young people, and teach them not to savage one another. All of our students, straight or gay, deserve to know that they are loved and appreciated.
Times have changed, and are continuing to change. I remain hopeful.
So, what do I need from you? Nothing, though an acknowledgment would be appreciated. More than that, in my wildest dreams, Mr. XXX, you, as Director of Student Activities, could invite me to speak with your faculty. I'd gladly share my thoughts -- cordially, collegially, respectfully. Or perhaps you invite me to dinner, maybe with AAA and others, just to chat. I'll actually be in Louisiana next month …
I wish you and your colleagues -- and your students, all of them -- all the best, Mr. XXX, as you begin this new academic year.
Again, I received no response to this query, though it had apparently been seen. I cannot deny disappointment in not having received at least a kind word in response. I know from another teacher with whom I’m still in some contact that the administrator shared my message, that there was some discussion about what might be possible. Good news, potentially. But nothing yet. And I don’t entertain much hope for movement.
But I feel the movement inside me. I feel my own openness. I feel myself moving toward possibility, connection. I am cautious, but not paranoid. No, I have not repaired the damage done to me. I still grieve my childhood. But I don’t let that grief — that grief given to me by a church, a school, a family, a culture — continue to abuse me. I offer myself — and these others, these who are guiding the lives of other people’s children — I offer us the possibility of reparation. They haven’t taken up my offer yet. But I offer.
It’s not enough. I fear it will not be enough.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 16 books, including Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (2016) and a critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology(2017), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He can be reached though his website: https://www.the-blank-page.com/.
Feature image by yosoynuts.
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