Hint: Skip forward in the above video to 3:10.
By Tavia Nyong’o
A closeted middle-aged man obsesses over good-looking college gay and launches campaign of pathetic vitriol against the object of his prohibited desire. He is interviewed on TV by a smirking good-looking anchor who is not himself entirely out. The mind reels. America: do we queers have to ALL the work of alchemizing your confused Ids into infotainment? Oh good, here comes a tweet from 50 cent:
“If you a man and your over 25 and you don’t eat pu**y just kill your self damn it. The world will be a better place. Lol.”
Why 25 I immediately wondered? Was a pussy like a rental car, to be handled only by those who’ve reach a certain level of maturity? My mind leapt back to Bad as I Wanna Be, Dennis Rodman’s biography, where that particular above-25 year old bad boy notoriously refused to eat out Madonna. His loss. But maybe it was just punks like Rodman at whose 50 Cent’s vitriol was directed? Probably, but that didn’t stop The Advocate from crying foul and linking him, with arch unfairness, to the recent rash of gay teenage suicide.
As an adult I admit to finding news of teenage suicide heartbreaking. But I am young enough to remember a time when I confess to finding the phrase “teenage suicide” hilarious, reeking as it did of concern. That is, of the condescending, sentimental and moralistic attitude parents, teachers and adults take to the aggravations and ambiguities of being an adolescent, which you kind of have to survive in spite of their help. Heathers (1989) was my generational call-to-arms against both high school bullying and the inept adult response that halfheartedly steps in to confront it, only to see, reflected back, a less compromising mirror of its own determined hostility to queers, youth, and other marginal types.
Reflecting on the lifesaving black humor of Heathers now, and it’s over-the-top bad taste anthem “Teenage Suicide, Don’t Do It,” I realize that it modeled for me a set of disidentifications with high school hierarchy that were never simply about “growing up” and “getting out,” as seems to be the case with Dan Savage’s undoubtedly heartfelt “It Get’s Better” campaign:
I’m not sure my 13 or 14 or even 18-year-old self would have been able to identify with Savage or his hubby. And my 35-year-old self isn’t so optimistic that it does just “get better.” Another member of this blog once criticized the LGBT obsession with saving gay youth as perpetuating the general American idolatry with youth over aging, and that is a valid point. It’s not that there aren’t vulnerable young people, but there are vulnerable people of all ages. Lots of folks, particularly the gender nonconforming and/or trans, never “grow out” of the kinds of social reprisals for being physically different the hubbies talk about. Lots of people’s families of origin never accept them, or are too damaged and fucked up for anyone to want to go back to, even if they could. And then there is that little issue of aging. Who’ll spare a thought for the old queen?
I appreciate the thought, but maybe it shouldn’t be our business to try to paper over the contradictions of our society with salvific images of the family, which queers always seem to believe we can win back from the Christian right, and which the Christian right keeps so effectively beating us over the head with, even and especially when the person doing the beating happens to be a closeted homo.
Which brings us to Bishop Eddie Long.
Eve Sedgwick and Michael Moon once quipped that celebrity culture is all about the pleasure of watching people tell transparent lies in public. I thought about this as I watched Bishop Eddie Long’s statement this past Sunday, responding to charges that he sexually coerced young men he had selected to be his “spiritual sons” in the unwisely named LongFellows Youth Academy, where commandment #8, I shit you not, is “Be Physical.”
I’m not religious, so I guess its alright if I throw the first stone here. Bishop Long’s masculinity academy strikes me as mighty problematic in precisely in the way all covert covens of male bonding tend to be. For us black people, masculinity has a particularly magnetizing appeal, insofar as — a raft of critics from Phillip Harper to Mark Anthony Neal have shown — being denied manhood makes the appeal of unvarnished masculinity all the more glittering. That’s glamor is what’s behind the braggadocio of someone like 50 Cent, and its very much this kind of male energy that Long has been openly trying to tap in his version of muscular Christianity, to square the circle of manhood and masculinity rather than, as feminist and queers have been calling for for years, rethinking and perhaps abandoning the whole patriarchal kit and caboodle.
Much ink has been spilled over Long’s alleged “grooming” of boys, from as early as 14, to be his favored “spiritual sons,” (although charges of statutory rape or child molestation cannot be filed against him because the age of consent in Georgia is 16, and no one has yet alleged any sexual activity prior to that age). I’m more interested however, in how this horrific nightmare of the seduction of the innocent operates as the flip side of a powerful fantasy around the redemptive power of education, Christianity, manliness and the family that continues to exert its magnetism on all Americans, but especially I think on African-Americans.
I was a teenage Jack and Jill “beau,” so I well recall being hazed into the correct deportment of the Negro bourgeoisie. Its effects were more lasting than the peer bullying I (very luckily and through no virtue of my own) did not receive. Particularly stinging in this education was a moment we boys were chastised for goofing off in rehearsal with the reminder that there would be white people at the debutante ball. If we muffed things up what were they going to say? “What more can you expect from a black person?” of course.
This burden of being a role model and a savior for the race, to represent is felt, I should think, particularly punishingly on young black men. Not because they have it harder than women (au contraire mon frere) but because they were held up by institutions like Big Daddy’s Muscle Academy as the sole people able to restore gender normativity to the race, regardless of whether or not you are one of the “select” to make it onto the private jet.
Literary theorist Candace Jenkins discusses the “salvific wish” black people can get trapped in, which is the fantasy that if we just regulate our own conduct and affairs properly, we can somehow save our people through the example of our moral fortitude. I think there is a bit of a queer salvific wish going on in the “It Gets Better” videos, which exhibits a similarly melancholic refusal to work through the grief that might come with the recognition that it doesn’t always get better, that in many ways its gotten a lot worse in this country, and that making a YouTube video, reaching out a hand, each one teaching one, or any of the other individualizing modes or participation which sentimental culture makes defines as “doing something,” isn’t always going to cut it.
When it comes to the state of adolescence, and of getting queers and minorities out of it unscathed, I guess we are all Waiting for Superman. But can schooling really be saved? Maybe the secret truth we repress is that school sucks, even when we find a way to make it work for us. Maybe that assistant attorney general in Michigan is simply acting out demons that still bedevil him from his college days when he was clearly not invited to all the frat jock parties. And he’s taken it all out on the gay kid who has the gall to be actually popular. The civil servant’s cyber-bullying blog, http://chris-armstrong-watch.blogspot.com/ has unfortunately been taken private during the time its taken me to complete this blog entry. But trust me, his accounts of gay nazis assaulting defenseless freshmen at decadent college secret society parties read like something cut and paste directly from satirical site ChristWire.org.
And, from the looks of it, Chris Armstrong is indeed just the sort of overachieving, All American college stud that strikes fear and loathing in all us dweebs and nerds. He is excelling in precisely the way that gay men — gender-conforming, educated white gay men — increasingly get to in contemporary American society (at least once they make it out of the charnel house that apparently is our high school system). It’s fascinating to me how much Andrew Shirvell appeals to the weakling in all of us, how so much of the cyber-bully’s rhetorical energy is devoted to “exposing” Armstrong as a racist who abuses and looks down on decent working class and African-Americans. Here is the much lamented American victim culture on ersatz display, and it’s another reason to suspect the filaments of self-pity and resentment that so tantalizingly undulate around each new pop cultural hot button issue.
Naturally, I hope Armstrong gets his restraining order against his fevered “admirer.” But when American masculinity is driving into a rut, and not even 50 Cent at the helm of the Pussywagon can stop it, what’s a poor schlemiel to do?