I was speaking with a friend yesterday – let’s call him Tom -- about his own discomfort with the idea of needing to belong in a ‘gay community’.He said, “Well, by saying LGBT we’re excluding the straight people – where’s the S?” Ordinarily this is a line of argument I have very little patience with, and I would associate it with the reactionary masculinist arguments that would suggest that feminists victimise men. But he was right, entirely, in suggesting that we do leave straight people out, and though I wonder if this is how he meant it, I think we do leave them out to the most dangerous of consequences.
For one, we do so by appropriating entirely to “ourselves” – the LGBTQ, the sexual deviants and minorities – lives outside the capitalist, heterosexual matrix. In doing so, we ignore and distance ourselves from the fights of many heterosexual men and women against the sexual norms that marginalise heterodox desires, uncomfortably and haphazardly contained within institutionalised heterosexuality. We make ourselves so firmly and unproblematically “other” that we fail to see there are other others there too – polyamorous straight women, people living in odd combinations of friends, cousins, dogs and old teachers who are now family. We fail to problematize the lives and desires of “girls next door” and “ordinary women” and to study the ways in which institutionalised heterosexuality itself has many dissidents from within, and a micro-politics of normative desire that we are often wont to ignore. Feminists, in particular, have flagged up some of this in the academic scholarship – particularly in postcolonial literatures and histories that discuss how people experience spaces, intensely through the ways in which their bodies are expected to conform to cultural notions of sex and gender.
How much of this has managed to filter through the dense language and thick books of theory and postcoloniality into popular discourse and politics however, needs to be re-examined. This is particularly true in the context of the burst onto the scene of a popular postfeminism, where we’re all only too eager to declare feminism’s work done and dusted, and recede into our middle-class enclaves of security and benign traditionalism. In this frame, we like to say that we choose to have arranged marriages if we’re straight, and if we’re gay that we aren’t “that kind of gay man” – you know, that we’re ‘normal’ and grow up, get married and have babies like everyone else. We aspire so much to be ‘average, middle-class’ that we prune away at other desires, and refuse to fight the fights that a sexual rights movement was birthed to fight in the first place. We leave our polyamorous cousins and our radical queer friends, where thousands of women who sought acceptance to the mainstream have tended to leave (to borrow a phrase) the consortium of loose, forward and pub-going women who have no place in nationalist myths, or in legends, except as ‘the other’ – a creature who defines what ‘we’ – god forbid – are not.
A girl posting on the wall of an activist group’s page on Facebook, for instance, writes, justifying why she thinks it’s okay for women to choose to be housewives: “Well, there came an era when women got aware of their rights. so they went on to snatch them from the society…When they've almost achieved what they wanted to i.e. respect, status and equality, they see no point in rebelling and hence have no problem in getting married and becoming housewives.” This choice needs to be problematized louder in the popular discourse, and one way to do it, would be to open the LGBTQ to the dissenting S.
Secondly, I do understand what Tom says about the difficulty of conceiving of and representing a ‘gay community’ – shorthand here for LGBT. Much as feminists have taken on the task of politicising and self-reflexively deconstructing the category of ‘woman’, “we” who call ourselves a ‘gay community’ or ‘queer activists’ will have to do the same for those whom we claim to represent. What Tom is pointing to in fact is the fact that if a “post-gay” moment has arrived, where gay bars are obsolete and the community of same-sex desiring and differently sexualised individuals is no more than a dating club for many, that shows that “gay” is no longer a category that represents a single set of political desires – it’s split down the middle by class, and by differential aspirations.
As Yasmin Nair writes, the dominant story of the ‘gay community’ is “the fiction and fantasy that gays… all desire one kind of life (bourgeois, happily married, and mysteriously and universally endowed with health-care benfits).” The ‘gay community’ this fiction claims to represent is easily accommodated in a neoliberal economy and this was evident from many of the wittily disturbing placards seen in New York earlier this year, during the days before gay marriage was legalised in NY state. Legalizing gay marriage, we were told, would pour thousands of dollars into the economy in wedding expenditure, and in the buying of suburban homes.
Left behind, still second-class citizens, then, are polyamorous queers, and those gays and lesbians whose life-paths are not centred on marriage as the climactic attainment of full adulthood, ostracized in the same discourse that has, in the last ten years demonised the unemployed poor, the lower-classes, single-mothers and anyone else who doesn’t pay their dues to the neoliberal machine – straight or gay.
So I wonder if it’s time to stop calling it a ‘gay movement’ then and call it instead, a movement for equal sexual citizenship – open it up to the straight people: a ‘waifs-and-strays’ radical left movement anyone?
Sneha Krishnan is a first year D. Phil student reading Development Studies at Wolfson College, Oxford. She will be writing a thesis on sexuality and space in the city of Chennai. She is currently working on theoretically understanding exclusion and concepts of home.