Political Rants and Raves

School Daze

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.

No one can possibly be against the children in this society, of course. So appeals to the effects of culture on our most vulnerable simply shut the conversation down when it ought to get going.

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, 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

Screen grab of Chris Armstrong's Facebook page, grabbed off Andrew Shirvell's cyber-stalking website.

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?

Go Blue!

By Tav

Free radical, philosophical dilletante, music completist.

22 replies on “School Daze”

I wish I were in a clearer, smarter, wittier frame of mind so I could express how much I liked this essay. I’ve felt like a curmudgeon in regards to the whole “It Gets Better” script being sold because I am surrounded by proof (in the forms of so many wonderful, resilient but emotionally and psychically battered friends) that it doesn’t always get better, that some wounds bleed for life, or that it’s just the flavor the of shit being shoveled that changes, not the actual fact of shit steadily being shoveled. But we are not supposed to talk about that, especially when doing so exposes the lies of a queer “community,” or an African American “community,” or at least exposes the codified ways those very communities eat their own through racism, homophobia, classism, etc. I think I’m rambling now, so I’ll stop typing. But this was a good piece.

PS — I’m far (FAR) from a fan of Fitty’s but his dissing of “grown ass men” who don’t eat pussy is so not a homophobic taunt. Immature, stupid and laughable? Yeah. It’s all of that under the guise of being something cool. But folks is doing way too much in linking his foolish tweet to queer youth killing themselves.

come great points here, my friend.

i had some facebook interations with Andrew Shirvell: check this out. You’ll notice his use of misogyny as an ‘insult’ at the end. Typical, eh?

Also of note, GOProud’s ‘homocon’ headlined by Ann Coulter. The promotional tagline on flyers? “Our gays are more butch than their straights”

patriarchal, heteronormative, insecure, gender-conformist nonsense. as per usual.

Direct interactions with M. Shirvell? You’re a braver soul than I. But thanks for preserving the hilarious evidence. He really does sound like the guy who writes In fact, if this weren’t blowing up all over the media and government in Michigan (and sadly wafting its noxious fumes over a certain college student body president) I’d suspect this entire thing of being a prankster’s snow job!

I am also in no way a 50cent fan, but I did not read his post as a direct homophobic taunt, though it does of course draw on homophobic discourse. In the black community, it is considered unmanly to go down on a woman. She can ‘service’ the man of course, but not the other way around. So I saw 50 thinking he was striking some kind of blow for the modern black straight male by saying he needs to get with it and engage in joyful cunnilingus. He just did it in a stupid, hamfisted way.

i think there’s a certain kind of aperture for kick-ass-ness in the “It Gets Better (in the passive voice)” campaign.

that is, if we (queers as opposed to gays; radicals as opposed to liberals; punx as opposed to student body presidents; genderdeviants as opposed to cis-minded folks; JDs/Veronicas as opposed to Heathers…) take advantage of it to put videos out there that say what we actually believe. in my case (though hopefully not only for me) that means among other things:

that nothing gets better in the passive voice.
that there aren’t individual solutions except ones where you abandon people to die.
that moving to The Big City doesn’t make you safer.
that making webvideos is not, in fact, “doing something to help the youth”.


that we, through collective action, can make things different, and even better.

and that those of us who have survived being young queer and trans folks believe that “we” means young queer and trans folks.

and that we’re trying as hard as we can to work on making more kids queer and trans so that “we” keeps growing.

that last seems like the actual subtext here. do we want to take up eve sedgwick’s challenge and actually work on actively bringing kids up gay? not just picking up the pieces when kids turn out to be queer and trans, but strategizing and acting to change social, political, and cultural structures to encourage queerness and genderdeviance. and yes, try to prevent any more generations of young people from being raised to be straight and traditionally gendered. because that’s not something that we think is good for human beings.

dan savage can have the homonormative approach if he wants it. it’s lovely that he’s made a project that’s so hijack-able to tell an entirely different story.

now all we have to do is make videos.
i bet ours’ll be more fun to watch than his.
especially for young queer and trans folks.

This isn’t a direct response to Tavia’s brilliant post, but more in relation to the by now ubiquitous narrative about extreme homophobe = repressed homosexual that’s being bandied about in response to Shirvell’s bigotry. Frankly, I’m not even interested in whether-Shirvell-is-or-isn’t type conversations, but the rather simplistic narrative that this endorses. Doesn’t this completely let heterosexuality off the hook? (and also implicitly suggest that if only all repressed homosexuals came out/came to terms with it, that would put an exclamatory end to homophobia?)

rozele, i must say i find this tribalism trend in queer thought very disturbing. who the hell is “we” queers anyway? apparently you have the last word on what authentic resistance and “transgression” is…this is frankly, the other side of the coin of the nauseating “it gets better” hubbies.

making/creating queer youth? this is precisely the attitude that destroys queer desire, or any desire for that matter. i take homonormative to apply not only to the complacency of lgbtq people to assimilate the ideology of the ruling class, but also, the capacity for queers themselves to be caught in norms that also produce normative ideas and ways of being. i am so bored by the queer exception, the privileged space we are implored to occupy. it is a bloody burden. and really, its making queer unfun. there will be a day when your beloved “queer” is obsolete and kids will be laughing about our terrible antics.

i hope that one day our only option isn’t between the privileged snots and their pursuit of happiness on the ski slopes and on the other hand, the self-righteous ressentiment of “queer” enjoyment.

I have to echo Ernest’s sentiment and say I really enjoyed what I read here. Especially questioning the notion that, “it gets better”. I think with the economy the way it is, we’re going to have a lot more people who will be stuck in their terrible situations, and the only thing that will make “it better” is real societal change, not fantasies of escape.

I take issue with the author’s dismissal of the efforts of good people to raise awareness of a serious issue. From a purely pragmatic perspective, material conditions surely improve for youth reaching the age of majority once they are able to escape oppressive, even dangerous familial situations. This does not eliminate the difficulty that queer people of all types will experience in life, nor does it minimize their current suffering. The message of this campaign is that of persistence and resilience in the face of the misery that many queer youth experience. I hope the author was not nearly as cynical as a teenager as at present. I was genuinely disturbed by the author’s condescension in writing off Savage’s video as “heartfelt” whilst going on to dismiss his efforts as “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.”

heya j –

i’m confused at your description of my position as “tribalist”. what i’m arguing for – as it seems like you would too – is a queerness that wants to grow and take on a kaleidoscope of different forms. and for doing things to foster that growth.

that, i believe, means actually taking on the challenge of encouraging folks of all kinds to resist both the dominant straight/cis/gender-normative/marriage-and-family model and the ‘minoritizing’ homonormative one based on ingathering the hapless born-that-way gays. or, as we used to say in the streets: 10% is not enough! recruit! recruit! recruit!

[that there was a historical “we” – the loose constellation of folks from GLF veterans to ACT UP stalwarts to sex wars survivors to left-liberal campus LGBT activists to Gay Shame punx i’ve shouted that chant alongside. the “we” in my original comment was mainly a manifesto “we” – a gesture towards creating an off-the-page point of affinity, and towards marking a political position.]

i’d be fascinated to hear how – to quote myself –
strategizing and acting to change social, political, and cultural structures to encourage queerness and genderdeviance “destroys queer desire”. unless you want to accept the dogma that folks are irredeemably stuck in innate sexual and gender categories, the things that make queer desires and expressions easier or more difficult to hold and act on can be changed. and should be, if more queer desire of more kinds in more places and more people is a desirable thing – and i certainly hope you think it is.

so nu? queer isn’t an “exceptional” space or a “privilege”. it’s the umbrella word some of us have been using for a few decades to describe a position opposed to hetero- and homonormativity.* let’s get rid of it by making it unnecessary – by doing our best to have each generation that arrives include fewer folks who accept, support and defend the dominant -normativities. ain’t nothing there about ‘authenticity’, ‘transgression’ or whatever your other shibboleths were – not here, and not in my original comment either.

i can’t wait to hear the snark we all get from kids in a few decades – i hope it’s as loving and pissy as what we give Homophiles these days. what i know for sure, though, is that i want there to be as many of those kids giving me that snark as there possibly can be. that’s what i want to work on.

okay: that and a gauge so that i can tell whether i’m actually having fun or just the ‘self-righteous ressentiment of queer enjoyment’. i’m guessing that when i’m on the dancefloor it’s probably the former and when i’m getting flamed in theoryspeak it’s the latter, but i’d love to have a foolproof test… and perhaps some pH paper so i can distinguish between ressentiment and garden-variety resentment without having to reread kierkegaard.

* i’m talking here from the riot grrrl contexts i came up and out in, where “queer” marked a politics of gender and sexuality that was intersectional, anti-racist, class-aware, and sex-positive. when my crew got more into the analysis, folks like cathy cohen kicked our asses to understand that to think meaningfully about being outside and opposed to heteronormativity, we had to consider the queerness of, for instance, heterosexual women targeted as “welfare mothers”. which made for a gap between self-identified queers and the larger set of targets of dominant sexual and gender ideologies.

rozele- i guess my main point is: how do you distinguish btn the normativizing effects of queerness and that of straightness? i have always felt the more i am enjoined to “participate” the less i enjoy myself, as this call is only another form of discipline and control. i think the queer community risks enacting this very conundrum, thereby circumscribing the fostering/flourishing of “queer” (or just human) possibilities and creativity, for lack of a better way to put it. resistance is thwarted from the start.

on this point i would take issue with yer notion of “recruit, recruit”–this is in fact an inherently conservative move (not to mention absurd). the call or command. likewise, i find “queer” to be problematic for the same reasons, as this term is supposed to function as an umbrella term, in a way a universalizing term, but only denotes those who recognize themselves as called: you can see then, the problems this produces for what you or i might call “queers” in other parts of the country and world who do not see themselves in this call–is this not residual colonialism?

i am much more interested in the notion that hetero “welfare mothers” might be understood in terms of “queer”–i would agree with this and a whole lot of other social categories as being understood in ways that may seem counterintuitive. so i think my point is, our taxonomies have reached a limit. why not understand queer in terms of “welfare mothers”, such that class is the prevailing category and sexuality the subtext? so what do we give up when we mark out a political position as you put it? what do we lose in btn? what do we foreclose?

i think it is disingenuous for you to say it isn’t resistance or transgression that you are discussing–even if you don’t use those words. afterall, what is the purpose of creating alternative models to Savage’s video, or chanting “recruit” or ACT UP or riot grrl? resistance will not be found in the likely places, ya know. of course there is a place for said activism, but i think we have reached a threshold in which every move is co-opted from the beginning. we repeat the logic and enhance the system that produces us when we re-act, so to speak. so, it isn’t just that the It Gets Better campaign is normativizing in terrible ways that foreclose the stories of those who do not embrace or embody the ideal of liberalism but it is in fact a dangerous and inherently conservative move to assume the productive, transgressive potential of reacting, of push-back. hope this clears up some of what i said earlier. cheers.

j –

if every move is co-opted from the beginning, then this entire conversation has no point, since no challenge to existing structures of power can have any effect – if you believed that, you wouldn’t be participating in it.

as i hoped i made clear, what i’m talking about is resistance, explicitly as opposed to ‘transgression’, ‘authenticity’, etc. and that distinction is why the riot grrrl/queer nation definition of “queer” that i’m either propagandizing for or clinging to, depending on your perspective, is explicitly not an umbrella of identity, and even more explicitly not a universalizing term.

it’s a political position: queer = [quoting myself above] opposed to hetero- and homonormativity. which pretty immediately implies using an analysis of class, race, gender, ability, nationhood, and other axes of power to understand how they intersect with sexuality. and which means that the opposite of queer is not heterosexual but straight and gay and LGBfakeT and all the other identity-based categories which mark a politics unconcerned with normativity. personally, i like to use ‘straight’ as shorthand for them all, especially the homosexual ones. but that’s because i came up in the punk scene.

yes, this is a familiar distinction. pre-purge Mattachine was queer; post-purge Mattachine was straight. the GLF was queer; the GAA was straight. ACT UP is queer; the HRC is straight. the NGLTF can’t quite pick a side, which makes it straight.

the point of cathy cohen’s intervention was not to redefine ‘queer’ as a class or race category (which would make no damn sense at all – we’ve already got some of those to work with) but to call out what it actually means to take sexual normativity seriously.

her point was precisely the opposite of your interpretation: not that our taxonomies have reached a limit but that using a political distinction (a nonce taxonomy, if you insist) around sexuality means not reducing it to identity and not turning it into a universal solvent, but examining its connections to folks who may never use the term we define the distinction with. and take seriously what we find in that examination. for instance (using her “welfare mothers” example), that focusing on ‘gay marriage’ and access to military employment are largely a sideshow and at worst deeply harmful to queers; or that access to basic healthcare, food and shelter are critical to queers.

the bigger implications, though, are perhaps more the point. ‘normalization’ requires a single standard to set up as a target. in kathleen hanna’s phrasing, “one way / one light / one stupid truth”; in david wojnarowicz’s, “the illusion of a ONE-TRIBE NATION”. that’s specifically the danger built into the way that you’ve been using ‘queer’ here – as an identity term, a synonym for ‘LGBT’. and specifically the trap that cathy cohen was reminding us not to fall into if we wanted to preserve any political use for the term.

when queer = LGBT, it switches sides, joins the homonormative position, becomes straight. just as “gay” did through the efforts of the GAA and its successors down to the HRC, which reveals its understanding of the word’s assassinated rebellious past in its refusal to name itself identifiably even with this most assimilated of labels.

finally, back to recruiting:

queer recruitment means encouraging folks of all ages to act against the normative standards we’re all being sold. which takes many forms: resisting state marriage as an institution*. challenging anti-queer preachers and anti-trans gay columnists and xenophobes, whoever they fuck. fully exploring sexuality and gender presentation until finding anchor points that feel right for now. changing those anchor points when they stop working. organizing against punitive requirements for and limitations on public assistance, and creating community-based alternatives to that assistance. etcetera.

even if you’re holding onto the fantasy that gender innately structures humans’ desires (that all of us are “born that way”, whatever that way is), queerness is a political position that everyone can either fight for or fight against. the question is where you position yourself – queer or straight?

as my favorite riot grrrl era t-shirt challenged those of us who were at that time male-identified: “pick a side, punk boy!” you’ll just have to imagine the glam-retro woman in the 1940s skirt and shirtwaist accessorized with a smoking bomb ready to hurl at an enemy or hand off to an ally…

* i’m speaking here specifically of state-sponsored marriage, as opposed to ceremonial acknowledgments of a relationship. legally marrying for healthcare or a visa is deeply ethical, otherwise it’s a deal in which the couple gets nothing more than they would in an unlicensed ceremony in exchange for losing control of the structure of their relationship (especially when it ends). to me, participating in institutional religious marriage also props up an inherently oppressive structure of power, but that’s another kettle of worms.

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