A (Somewhat Lengthier) Conversation with Sarah Schulman

Facebook message from Sarah:

Jerry,

Is there a way to re-do our interview so that it is interactive- based in human communication? So that, for example, when you asked me about gay people refusing to be in their families, and I replied that the book argues the opposite- you could then come back and and forth with me so we could figure out together why you got that impression. It could be a beneficial conversation that would reveal the ideas at the core of the book. If it can only be rigid pre-conceived questions that can’t change based on new information, it just can’t really address the complexity of a new idea. Know what I mean?
I understand that you don’t want the hassle of having to transcribe a conversation, but could we do one question at a time, so that we can put the INTER back into INTER view?

Let me know. SS

(My response was, obviously, affirmative but pretty long – if anyone wants to read it, I’ll put into the “Comments” section – our e-mail exchange is as follows, unedited and uncut).

JW: What was the catalyst for “Ties That Bind?” Was there a particular incident that sparked your writing it?

SS: The problem w number 1 is that i honestly dont remember. Would it help if i asked you if there is some other way of getting at what you want to know about how or why it was written in a way that deepens but doesnt sum up what is in the book…help me get at what you really want to know/understand here.

JW: Okay, how about “Why did you decide to write about familial homophobia?”

SS: TIES THAT BIND is the first book to examine the experience of homophobia in the family. In fact, I had to coin the phrase “Familial homophobia” because- amazingly, there was no name for the most pervasive experience that gay people share. I had to look in the air and see iron-clad but invisible structures that are determining in the lives of all people, but that had never been articulated or identified. For after all, the family is the place where all people gay and straight first learn about homophobia. It is where straight people are first rewarded and gay people are first punished. Through enormous intellectual will, I spent many years observing, understanding and identifying these structures, and figuring out how to talk about them in a way that would provoke recognition in the reader. How is familial homophobia enforced? Who benefits from it? What are its consequences? How can it be changed? There is, of course, a long tradition of this kind of work- whether it is Said’s revelation about Orientalism, Susan Brownmiller’s discovery that rape is a cultural political crisis, not a personal problem, Rich’s articulation of compulsory heterosexuality etc. I had the good fortune to have spent my life reading books by people who were able to uncover that forces deemed “neutral, natural and value free” are actually, as Rich said “imposed by force.” So that lifetime of reading gave me the tools to be able to undertake this project. I realize that is more of a “how were you able to do this work?” answer and not a “why.” But why individuals take on these kinds of huge tasks is something that can’t be explained really. It’s a combination of neurology, ie the way one’s mind works, and incredibly depth of optimism that may also be biological in nature. Who knows?

JW: What was your first experience with familial homophobia, and how was that enforced?

SS: You know it is so pervasive and on going that to falsely select episodes would be to undermine the experience. I did include a few pages of personal experience in the book but i regret it now because it allows people to pretend that famial homophobia is a personal problem when in fact it is a cultural crisis which is one of the books foundational revelations.

JW: But another of the books contentions is that everyone’s personal experiences with familial homophobia are what, in fact, generate the cultural crisis – that is, if it weren’t happening in families then it wouldn’t be allowable in general society. How can you separate the two arenas?

SS: No. I do understand that the family is the place where all people first learn about homophobia. But for most other conflicts that arise in the family, there is a possibility that the person can find solace or some kind of corrective in the society. In our case, however, the shunning is mirrored in the larger society- with arts and entertainment as the mode of enforcement. To not be represented in a media culture, after all, is to be severely disadvantaged. We can learn from the achievements of the anti-rape movement or the movement against domestic violence, that this hall of mirrors of enforcement does not have to continue. But in order to change the paradigm we have to stop privileging the family. The family does not have the “right” to shun its gay members and it is up to the rest of us to intervene to make that clear. That intervention can range from the gay person’s friends talking directly to the family to make them accountable for their behavior, to homophobia families being court ordered into treatment, the way they currently are for addiction or violence. The idea is to shift the focus from homosexuality to homophobia. To acknowledge that homophobia is the problem. That it is pathological, anti-social, destroys families and causes violence. And to create consequences for its enforcement.

JW: If arts and entertainment are the modes of enforcement and you state that to not be represented is to be disadvantaged, what about the misrepresentation of gay culture? Any representation increases visibility, but is the visibility/enforcement we’re getting in the mass media going to ultimately help or hurt us?

SS: Yes, I wrote a book about this in 1998 called STAGESTRUCK: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America. In it I said that AIDS proved the no longer deniable existence of gay people- so to contain our representation, the dominant culture (corporate culture) created what I called a ” fake , public homosexuality” that fit their needs. This was so amplified by corporate structure that it actually replaced authentic representation created by the gay subculture. What we’re facing now is the consequence of that- which I am addressing in more detail in my next book THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND, which will be published in 2010.

JW: Two questions: 1) Personal third-party intervention also involves the probability of destroying the relationship that allows you to get close enough to the family to intervene – that is, if one intervenes with a friend’s family, the danger is that the friendship is lost and the ally gone. How can you intervene without destroying the relationship? 2) Court-ordering families into treatment is certainly a goal, but how realistic is that immediately given society’s current attitudes towards homosexuality? How do you envision the process we would need to undertake to achieve that sort of intervention?

SS: Your first question is so filled with fear that it borders on the incoherent. Let me try to disentangle. The family is causing the pain by excluding and shunning their gay family member. That is a BAD relationship. It is a relationship in which the straight people in the family exploit the gay person’s lack of power in order to feel the joy of supremacy.
The friends, the state, the institutions in which this family lives, have the opportunity to help move the straight people from causing a terrible relationship to creating a positive one. Through phone calls, letters, ringing the doorbell, sending video testimony, taking out ads in the local newspaper, whatever, the 3rd parties have the opportunity to end the cruelty towards the gay person in the family by creating consequences for the straight person’s actions. It is true that some people are so pathologically wedded to shunning that no amount of support from others toward postitive change can move them. But most people will advance towards sanity if they get the message loud and clear from those around them that their homophobia is the problem.

JW: So if I’m understanding you correctly, your version of third party intervention calls for the phone harassment, doorbell-ringing, ad-buying, “Mr. Smith is a homophobe” picketing used by pro-lifers on doctors who perform abortions as part of their practice or the tactics employed by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Do you really believe shaming and public humiliation are necessary to “create consequences” for homophobic families or will those methods entrench homophobia rather than effect any behavioral changes? (Note: the following response is three e-mails combined)

SS: No. That is not what I am saying. Can we talk on the phone? What you have stated is the opposite of what I am saying. These are the problems of email. Lets talk about it.

Lets try it again:1. The family is harassing the gay person. The person has not done anything wrong and yet they are being punished. They have tried many times and in many way to work with the family for change, but nothing is happening because they are in there alone. The cruelty of the family is having a terrible consequence on the person’s life. Now what do we do to create a better situation?

Just to explain why what you characterized as my position is the opposite of my position:

Your scenario is that there is no originating action. The homophobic family is neutral, natural and value free, they have done nothing wrong. Then, the bad gay person harasses and hurts them. In my scenario there is nothing superior about heterosexuality. Heteroseuality and homosexuality are natural human variants. Yet, the family feels falsely that they are superior. They then enact a wide variety of shunning mechanisms on their gay family member that are punitive. This causes individual and social harm. There is no response from the rest of the family, the victim’s friends, the state, the arts and entertainment industry and the other institutions and communities in those straight people’s lives. The gay person’s can only separate and lose their family, they have no choice.The thing that can be changed here is the lack of response from others. It is true that there are some people who are so pathological and deeply committed to the pleasure of feeling superior to others, that regardless of the social norms around them, they will be rigidly fixed in a shunning position. But MOST people respond to social norms. And social norms are created by the people around them. To date, in many cases the friends of the gay person have been invisible in this scenario, to the gay person’s harm. The family false feels supported in the idea that the gay person doesn’t matter. This can be changed..

JW: I appreciate the clarification, and I understand the difference. In respect to calling you for a phone interview, again, it’s not physically possible. I have no landline and my cell phone will not work with a digital recorder. And I’d want to have that conversation recorded. If you’d like to elaborate further on third party intervention, that would be great, and I’ll join that elaboration with your other answer. If not, we can move on to a question that came to mind in light of Maine’s rejection of gay marriage today. In your chapter on gay marriage, you mention the creation of national and local gay subcultures as shelters necessitated by our having to exist within the larger culture and that the desire for gay marriage is a refusal of those subcultures. Could you explain that in more detail?

SS: Sure. I think it’s obvious that monogamous pairing for life is appropriate for some people. However, it has never been successful for many straight people. The gay liberation movement, which separated love and sex from monogamy for life, created cultural space for folks gay and straight to have more freedom in how they lived their lives. The trauma of the AIDS crisis- a historic cataclysm whose consequences have not been explored- had a determining affect on gay people. Although the true message of AIDS (as I learned from co-directing the ACT UP Oral History Project) is that a group of despised people with no rights joined together and forced this country to change against its will, thereby saving each other’s lives. Unfortunately this reality is not widely known. Instead most people have internalized two messages from the mass death experience: 1) Gay sexuality is dangerous and 2) if you are queer, no one will care about what happens to you. For this reason, post-epi-center AIDS queers have done what Jews did in America after the Holocaust- assimilated into the very cultures that allowed their destruction, thereby losing the greatest strengths of t
heir own culture.

As a result, we are now living in the Gay ’50’s. An era in which we are so self-oppressed that we feel that we only deserve rights to the extent that we are like straight people, or like they hope/pretend to be: monogamously coupled by law for life with children. The other sexual realities of our lives are never discussed in public. All we put forward are couples and families (many of whom are bored to death of each other, sexless, and a negative social force) who resemble heterosexual structures. And we claim that this means we are real human beings. Fortunately, this lunacy will not last. It hasn’t worked for straights and it won’t work for us. Most lesbian mothers will be single mothers, I predict. And soon we will have our own sexual revolution and can return to some kind of sanity.

JW: Our own sexual revolution? That’s an interesting thought – perhaps you could expand on that. What form would something like that take, from what sector of our community might that come and how do you think straight society would view that?

SS: You know, one essential requirement of being an educated person in this era is the knowledge that things do not necessarily progress as time moves forward. For gay people, sexual revolution would mean a return to what we have already discovered, that sexual practice/partners/proclivity should be based on the individual’s interests and pleasures and not on fufilling other people’s expectations.

JW: One last question: What would you like most for readers to learn from “Ties That Bind?”

SS: Seeing ourselves and each other as real human beings means opening many new doors.

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