Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Sodomite's Sermon

Siblings and supporters of the Elders of Sodom, it is time to name the problem we're fighting when it comes to representation in the media, representation of those who I will call queer for the sake of simplicity, those of sexual orientations and gender identites that are not the default. It is time to sweep away once and for all the talk of "political correctness" and "quotas", time to sweep away this rhetoric that accommodates the caveats of cowardly prejudice disguised as prudence. What caveats do I mean? Who here has not heard someone say of those queer characters so absent from the screens, "Well, I don't mind them being there, as long as it's important to the story"?

I say it is time to raise the sword of a word, a simple word but one with an edge so sharp that surely none can fail to recognise its meaning, to bring it sweeping down to cut the Gordian Knot of tangled discourse, to cut the crap and call this what it is:

Segregation.

I do not use this word lightly. Many might think that in doing so I trivialise the struggles undergone by people of colour under that heinous system. But, in defiance of those conservatives who belittle the issue at stake here, I hope that by putting the correct name to it, I can drive home just how important it is, for any who think we can afford complacency. I truly believe that those struggles are not over, that the system of division and exclusion persists in a more subtle form, and that the problem as it stands now is shared. In many ways -- not all, but many -- our struggle is theirs and their struggle is ours, and the struggle of others too.

Segregation still exists in the media, in the movies and the TV shows, where the abject is absented, where there is the default and the deviant, the "normal" and the "abnormal". In the media, in the mainstream, the default is white, straight, able-bodied, and so on. And those of us who watch those media, as members of any group abjected on the basis of some marker of deviance from that default, we thirst for stories in which we are represented. We thirst for the art and entertainment that refreshes and replenishes. Sometimes we have our own water-fountains to quench that thirst -- queer television, queer cinema -- movies and shows that deal with our lives, our issues. This is good. But as long as we are excluded, as long as we are allowed into the mainstream only when it is "important to the story," as long as we can walk into those stories only to carry out set roles in service of the white, straight, able-bodied heroes and heroines -- as Magic Negroes or as Gay Best Friends -- this is still segregation.

The Magic Negro in a movie or a show is a house-maid, coming in from the ghetto to clean a house that is not theirs, in an all-white neighbourhood where all too many houses have such servants. So too is the Gay Best Friend. We do not live in these movies and shows; our homes are elsewhere. We are strangers in these neighbourhoods, allowed in only to fulfill our appointed task, as and when it is "important to the story" -- when the hero must be given counsel by some latter-day medicine man, or when the heroine must be given consolation by some gossipy confidante. These are the day-jobs we work in the neighbourhoods of the privileged before we go home, at the end of the day, to the ghetto.

This is segregation.

There are those who are privileged by this segregation and would like it to stay that way. There are those who wilfully misrepresent our cause when we object to this segregation. So one in ten are queer, they say, and now every tenth seat at the front of the bus is to be set aside for the queers! Now the bus driver is to ensure all seats are allocated in accordance with some quota system! Now some poor, old, white, straight man will be refused a seat! Now that seat will be set aside for some queer who is not "important to the story," some queer who's only on the bus to fill that seat!

These are lies born of paranoia that is, in turn, born of prejudice.

When we pressure for better representation, it is not quotas we are asking for. This is not "political correctness." What we are asking for is simply integration. What we are asking for is the end of segregation, the dismantling of the system, of the barriers of prejudice that exclude us. We do not want a queer character in every TV show, only to know that we are as likely to find them there as elsewhere, as likely to find them there as in reality, and not in service to the heroes and heroines, not as second-class citizens of the imagination, but as equals. We do not want a set number of seats allocated for us at the front of the bus. It is simply that we will no longer tolerate being sent to the back. We will not tolerate segregation.

When we pressure for better representation then, we need to make it clear just what we are asking for, and just how important it is, by calling it what it is. Integration. And what is integration? It is no more and no less than that when we are thirsty for the stories that replenish the soul -- because this is what all art does, high or low -- that when we are thirsty for a tale of love and death that can speak to us as much as to any other, we are not turned away from the water fountains of the privileged, forced to walk across the street to special water fountains set aside for us, to quench that thirst.

We can all advocate for integration. We can all speak up. Some of us are in positions where we can act to further integration, and I urge those who are to do so. Some are in positions of much power in this respect -- television executives, movie producers -- and where they commit to this cause, where they recognise that it is just, where they know they have not done enough in the past and promise to do more from now on, I commend them for that commitment. Those of us calling for integration may push and prod with criticism, may stress the importance of real results over empty sentiments, but we should not, I think, vent our frustration on those who are at least sympathetic. We may well need to confront them with their complacency once in a while, sting them out of their inaction with harsh words, but they are not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is what those powers-that-be are up against, the pressure exerted by the prejudiced and privileged to maintain this unjust segregation by shrouding it in misdirections and misrepresentations.

So when the prejudiced and the privileged say, "Well, I don't mind them being there, as long as it's important to the story," let us call them what they are: segregationists. They don't mind us performing a function. They don't mind us dispensing the wisdom of the Magic Negro or the comfort of the Gay Best Friend. But if we don't have to be there, if we're not there to do our job, well... it's not like we would just be there anyway, not like we might belong there, as they do, in that "nice" neighbourhood.

Recently in the blogosphere, we have seen the lies of segregationism in their most vicious form, in the words of a writer, one who claims to be a man of reason, Mr John C. Wright. As he says himself on his LiveJournal:

[I]n recent days a certain article appeared in this space, where I complained, not without abundant sarcasm and scorn, that the Sci-Fi Channel (or Syfy Channel, if you insist) had yielded to the forces of political correctness, and were persuaded (or cowed) into publically apologizing for their lack of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered characters on their programs, and promised to have writers include more.

"... not without abundant sarcasm and scorn..."

Mr Wright does himself an injustice. He was more than generous in his sarcasm and scorn. Some would say too generous, his article dripping with disdain at the "abomination," as he describes it, of, as he describes it, "homosex." He goes out of his way to ensure we know that, yes, he is explicitly "equating homosexuality with sadomasochism, pederasty, necrophilia, bestiality, and other sexual neuroses." It is the rhetoric of "moral degeneracy" used throughout history against the abject, the rhetoric of corruption and depravity, of the curse of Ham or the sins of Sodom. It may be rationalised where it occurs, but we see it for what it is, this "sarcasm and scorn." It is the ahorrence of the abject. It is the revulsion born of a deep horror. It is the profound panic and paranoia felt in the face of the Other by the segregationist, the segregationist who can only feel secure when the scapegoat symbol of all that is different -- all that is deviant because it is different, all that is diabolic because it is deviant -- is exiled to the ghettos, allowed in to the "nice" neighbourhoods only in the chains of stereotyping. And only when it's "important to the story."

But it is the lies of the segregationists that matter most, not the unreasoned fears that fuel them. Wright's statement as I have quoted it is not a lie in its own right, since that is what his complaint was -- that the SyFy Channel fell on their knees in fear and trembling, were coerced into craven supplication before the altar of "political correctness." It is true that this was Wright's complaint. It is simply that this complaint is a straw man built around a lie. It may well be a lie he believes with every fibre of his being, but it is still a lie.

The truth is simple: that GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Anti Defamation, criticised various television networks for their poor performance as regards the integration of queer characters; that TVGuide.com contacted these channels to ask for their reaction; that where not one of the other channels criticised responded, to quote from the TVGuide.com article itself: "Syfy's executive vice president of original content, Mark Stern, accepted TVGuide.com's invitation to react as well as discuss his network's plans for a more diverse future."

Here is what Mr Stern said:

"We are disappointed, obviously," Stern said of the NRI grade. "The 'F' is hard because we are trying, it is something that is in our vocabulary. But we need to work harder."

I see no cowed apology here. I see no gesture of coerced contrition. I see a sincere regret at living up to one's own standards. I see a commitment to the hard effort of integration, an assurance that it is an issue under discussion at the network, a recognition that more effort needs to be made. This is a laudable expression of support for the cause of integration.

But to the segregationist, in his panic and paranoia, this can only be a submission to a hostile agency with a far wider agenda. The segregationist cannot help, it seems, but misrepresent the cause of integration to himself as much as to others. In the eyes of the segregationist, integration is infiltration, infection, invasion, a conspiracy to overthrow the whole social order, not just to take from them the privileges they see as rights, but to deny them the very rights we say belong to every human being, the very rights that they deny us.

"The express purpose of that inclusion," says Wright, "was to influence the public mind into altering traditional laws and customs to conform to those of the political-cultural Left."

This is an outright lie. There is no express purpose in Stern's statement, only an implicit one. To quote directly from the article again:

In both the SGU and Caprica examples, the character's sexuality is merely one facet of who they are, says Stern. "It is not about, 'Oh, look, isn't that progressive, that this person is gay?' No, they are simply gay. There is no commentary necessary," he says. "And that's what were striving for, to make it a naturalistic thing."

A naturalistic thing. Not "natural," but "naturalistic." In other words, the purpose of inclusion is not even to affirm the character's sexuality. It is simply to include, to present characters whose sexuality is a facet of who they are. It is not to score a point with the liberals, not to placate the PC ideologues with a token gesture, but simply to represent reality more naturalistically. To make queer characters present in fiction simply because we are present in reality. This is not, as Wright says, "an expression of loyalty to the idea that art and entertainment exist subordinate to the crusades of politics." This is an expression of loyalty to the idea that art and entertainment are better -- more relevant, more resonant -- when they represent reality more faithfully, more naturalistically. It is an expression of loyalty to the idea that this aesthetic standard is more important than the political agenda of the segregationists, more important than their crusade.

Mr Wright asks us to imagine the outcry if the SyFy channel had apologized to a televangelist, promised more shows promoting "family values" or "displaying Christians in a more favorable light." I say, we do not need to imagine this, as we have direct experience of television networks and film studios issuing such apologies. The BBC has a responsibility to produce religious programming written into its charter, has a department specifically geared towards that end; and where in the past it has been criticised for not doing enough, it has responded not just with apologies but with strategic action. Do the integrationists raise an outcry at this? Do we seek to curtail "artistic integrity and freedom" with incensed rhetoric and incendiary condemnations? No.

No, it is the segregationists who seek to exclude, who seek to maintain the absence of the abject from the mainstream, who seek to silence. It is the segregationists who demand submission to their political agenda, demand this not just of television networks and film studios but of the world. We do not have to imagine this. We have direct experience of city councils, regional authorities, even governments humbly expressing contrition in the face of criticism by religious ideologues. Only last year in Scotland, we had a regional police force apologise to local Islamic leaders for the offense caused by posters showing a sixth month old puppy in training to be a police dog -- this being offensive because dogs are "unclean." For twenty-odd years in Glasgow, The Life of Brian was banned by order of the city council because it was held to be blasphemous. It is not the integrationists who seek to silence. Yet, the segregationists of today have the audacity to talk of us as "Thought Police."

Let me tell you a story to illustrate exactly what the segregationists are asking for. It is a story I've told before, but it's a story that bears repeating.

When I was sixteen years old in high school, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, at the height of a nation-wide hysteria born of a conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia, a panic and paranoia at the idea of gay teachers "recruiting impressionable children," the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher came up with a piece of legislation called Clause 28. If that name reminds you just a little of "Catch-22," I ask you to hold that thought.

Clause 28 was designed to prohibit the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities. At its heart, it was designed to exclude from school libraries any work of fiction that "promoted" homosexuality. Which is to say, any work that could be read as representing homosexuality in a positive light. Which is to say, for many, any work that simply represented a character's sexuality as a non-issue, as a "naturalistic thing" one might say, since the essential message of such a work would be that homosexuality is acceptable. One might debate whether this is a proper application of such vague terminology. One might debate whether "promotion" would apply only to a representation of homosexuality as more than acceptable, whether the work would really have to present it as admirable.

One might, I say, debate this.

But I could not.

As members of the school debating society at the time, myself and another student approached the teacher who ran it, suggesting Clause 28 as a topic for debate. I believe, though I cannot honestly remember, that it was headline news at the time because it had just passed through Parliament and become UK law as Section 28. It may still have been in progress though, so I will continue to refer to it as Clause 28, for the sake of simplicity. Again, if this name reminds you of "Catch-22" I ask you to hold that thought.

To us it seemed that Clause 28 was a highly pertinent topic -- completely current and more directly relevant to us as school pupils than any number of issues. For any sixteen year old in school in the UK, queer or straight, for any sixteen year old in a debating society, it was the single most obvious topic for discussion. The teacher understood this. No teacher at the time could not understand this, because they more than anyone else would be affected by this legislation. They knew that, ultimately, it was their jobs on the line if they did anything that breached Clause 28. They knew that if they did or said anything that might be interpreted as "promoting homosexuality," this might be a sacking offense.

And so the teacher, with regret written on his face, vetoed Clause 28 as a topic for debate, because to allow the debate could be construed as allowing the "promotion of homosexuality."

If any of you have not read the Joseph Heller book, Catch-22, there is a scene in it where the hero, Yossarian, turns up at a brothel to find that it has been raided by the US military. He is told that the women in it were taken away by the American soldiers, to a place unknown and to ends unspecified. He is told that when asked what authority these soldiers were acting on, their only response was, "Catch-22." He is told that when asked to produce proof of this authority, to show their mandate, the soldiers responded that the law did not require them to, the law in fact explicitly said they were not required to. Which law? Catch-22. No discussion could be had, no challenge could be made, because the very law that warranted such discussion, such challenge, quashed it.

How can I make this sink in? How can I make it clear to those who oppose integration what it is they are supporting? Let me put it this way:

When I was sixteen years old, Clause 28 was made law, and throughout the UK, in every school across the nation, a sign was nailed up above the water-fountain of the library, a sign that read, "Straights only." The books that I and others like me thirsted for were stripped from the shelves, taken away. And the same authority that mandated this segregation refused us the right to even question it.

This is why we must speak up against the segregationists. And in the new medium of the internet we have a powerful tool for gathering voices to a chorus of opposition wherever the segregationists seek to propagate their views. Even the most naive of segregationists should know that when they speak of "homosex" and "abomination", of "political correctness" and "quotas," the word will spread like wildfire, from blog to blog, journal to journal. Every one of us can be a beacon, a bonfire lit on a mountain-top, sending the signal out across the land, that here or there the prejudiced and privileged are seeking to reassert their power, to consolidate their control.

The segregationist will decry any challenge to their position that points to the roots of its folly -- prejudice and privilege. That is only a personal attack, they'll say. Give me "some argument, any argument, other than a personal attack." But even as the arguments pour in from all those who find it barbaric to stand for segregation in this day and age, will the segregationist listen? Most likely they will simply retreat into their panic and paranoia, clap their hands over their ears and cry, ad hominem. It is tempting to respond as they do, to say we hate the bigotry, not the bigot. But I prefer sincerity to an irony that will be lost on them.

Calling a bigot a bigot does not address their arguments for segregation. Those arguments are rhetoric rather than logic, and barely make enough sense to be argued with, but they are dangerously persuasive to many, to those who take them at face value; so those arguments must be addressed wherever they arise . They must be exposed for what they are, but not just with words of outrage, not just with an outcry at the underlying folly. For the segregationist will dismiss this as "a mindless (and not very imaginative) flood of personal attacks." They will dismiss this as "an organized flood of hate-mail," from persons "operating on autopilot." They will say these "boilerplate" comments look "prepared," as if we were "following a playbook, or, to be specific, following a habituated response." They will cast aspersions on the motives for this "organized outrage," say that it seems to them "a thing done to deceive the unwary." They will insinuate a lack of "independent judgement", a lack of "innocent reason." They will insinuate self-interest on the part of leaders. In short, they will attack with the very ad hominem arguments they accuse us of, impugning the source of the criticisms, not the substance, calling us "orcs" and "trolls".

So I do not call Mr Wright a homophobe. If I attack his arguments as embodying prejudice, I say this of the words, not the man. I do not call him a bigot.

I simply call him a segregationist.

I know that for me this word resounds in my head and heart with a note so deep and loud it rattles the soul. Its toll is that of the heaviest of bells, for its weight is its own history, and all that history echoes in every utterance. So when the prejudiced and privileged seek to reassert their power, when they raise up their rhetoric against us to consolidate their control, I say we should sound that bell, for its message is as clear as it is true. Where they say, "political correctness," let us say, "segregation." Where they say "quotas," let us say, "integration." Where they say, "when it's important to the story," let us say, "when we are thirsty, let us drink where you would drink."

It is not 1969. It is 2009. And it is long past time that all segregation was ended, not just for those of us I am calling queer, not just for the gays and lesbians, the trans and bisexual, the intersexed and asexual, not just for all those of whatever sexual orientation or gender identity, but for people of colour, for people of disability, for any and all whose absence from our screens is due to their abjection. For all those who have been demonised as dogs and fornicators, reviled for mere difference. We will no longer live in the ghettoes beyond their gated neighbourhoods. We will no longer enter only in the uniforms of service they demand, the snow-white uniforms that mark us as their waiting staff. We will no longer be turned away from the water-fountains.

We will no longer be turned away from the water-fountains, for the water is the water of life, and it is and must be for all who are thirsty.

And when the segregationists cry out, as the signs above the water-fountains are torn down, we will sing in celebration. We will drink deep so our voices do not crack, and we will sing in celebration. And even though our throats are raw, our voices ragged, we will not be sent across the street to drink in silence, but we will gather at those water-fountains where the signs still hang, and cry out for integration. We will gather at each water-fountain and cry out for integration until the day the sign above it is torn down, and we can drink and sing in celebration.

6 Comments:

Blogger Colin Meier said...

Beautiful, Hal.

9:59 am  
Anonymous James Holder said...

Agreed. All of your responses to Wright have been excellent.

5:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, The Protocols of The Learned Elders of Sodom . . ? :-)

Are you familiar with the Brick Testament website? I love the moustachioed Lego man in the jacuzzi: http://www.thebricktestament.com/genesis/sodom_and_gomorrah/gn19_03a.html

Actually, the index page for Genesis is quite revealing: insobriety . . . Sodom and Gomorrah . . . seduction . . . rape, treachery and slaughter . . . incest . . . prostitute . . . eunuch . . . No wonder the Bible has been so popular down the years!

10:55 pm  
Blogger Alan Yee said...

I'm a little late seeing this, but I'll comment anyway. Wonderful post, Hal. As a gay teen, I appreciate it.

4:15 pm  
Blogger emphryio said...

The "SyFy" channel is a joke though. I think if they turned it over to 5 teenagers with a video camera the programs would be better. They changed their name to "SyFy" exactly because they're attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator. (Which is like something I could imagine happening in the movie Idiocracy.) And which, you know, means not gay.

It's monopolistic capitalism. The greater good has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it.

2:24 am  
Blogger SBG said...

Wow. Every time I read your blog, you get a little bit hotter.

3:44 am  

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