Getting What They Deserve:

The Politics of Blame in Homophobic Discourse

by Kristen Nummi Nummerdor

 
When I heard that the GaMIT National Coming Out Week drop poster that
hung in Lobby 7 had been torn down on October 11, and the words "kill
all faggots," among other choice epithets, had been scrawled on its
remains, my reaction was neither shock nor surprise. Rather, it was
the familiar queasy anger that happens every time a poster comes down,
every time a slur is written or shouted, every time hatred bares its
teeth on this campus. No matter how much I think it won't bother me
the next time, no matter how much I prepare for the inevitable "hate
incident," that feeling still creeps into my stomach; I still am sent
reeling, and I grow yet another layer of skin.
	Ironically enough, GaMIT had also taped two large comment
sheets to the pillars in Lobby 7, so that passersby could stop to
write their answers to the questions "Why is it great to come out at
MIT?" and/or "Why does it suck to come out at MIT?" An answer to the
latter question seems pretty obvious, considering the most recent drop
poster vandalism. It would seem that what makes it difficult to come
out at MIT, or anywhere for that matter, is the prevalence of
homophobic incidents-like people in your living group bitching about
fags all the time; people harassing you and your lover while you hang
out in your dorm or on the street; people throwing ketchup at you;
people calling your home with death threats; people treating you with
thinly veiled pity; people spray-painting your house; people
threatening to kill you on SafeRide [sic]; people lighting your
dorm-room door on fire. All of these incidents have occurred at
MIT. If there is one big reason why it "sucks" to be out at MIT, that
would most certainly be the omnipresent hostility that queer people
face on a daily basis.
	Bearing this all in mind, I was more than a little disgusted
when I stopped to look at the comment sheets and read a few statements
declaring GaMIT to be the thing that makes it suck to come out at MIT
- That's right-it is not homophobia, not shitheads that vandalize drop
posters that makes it rough to be queer at MIT. Rather, according to
these comments, what makes coming out so tough is MIT's queer student
group, whose activities were deemed to be "counter-productive,"
"offensive," and even "harmful." Indeed, more space was used on that
comment sheet for the purpose of whining about GaMIT than was spent on
all the other topics put together!
	Of course, it is highly suspicious that whenever the topic of
"the campus climate for queers" is raised-whether on a comment sheet
or otherwise - straight and gay people alike seem to end up spending a
good deal of their time fervently bashing GaMIT, rather than
addressing the very real problem of homophobia that exists here. That
is to say, rather than engaging in an analysis of how homophobia is
wielded against queers and how we might be able to effectively combat
such manifestations of hatred, it is all too common for discussion to
be shifted so that queers - particularly out, vocal queers - become
the scapegoats upon which the blame for an anti-queer atmosphere is
eventually placed. The lens of scrutiny is thus pointed away from
homophobia and how it operates, and is pointed, as it usually is,
toward queers and their "behaviors" (whether those behaviors are real
or conjured up in the homophobic imagination). Discussion of combating
homophobia is obscured, and forgotten, with the usual laundry list of
the supposed "problems" with GaMIT - they're too loud, too queeny, too
angry, too lewd, too militant. Who can really blame anyone for bashing
on GaMIT and ripping down their posters, the detractors might
reason. After all, they're so... queer.
	And so it is those damn GaMIT queers who are fancied to be the
entity that is really "harmful" to gays and lesbians here at MIT, the
ones that make it so hard to come out, the ones who are
"counter-productive" and "offensive." Those who have torn the
posters, spat the epithets, thrown the punches, and those people (gay
and straight alike) who have avoided contact with anything overtly
queer as if it was the plague, are fashioned to be far less
detrimental to gays and lesbians than a faggot in drag.
	It is only as a part of some incredibly twisted fantasy that
flaming queers can be seen as somehow culpable for anti-queer
sentiment. "Well-meaning" people that foster this attitude perpetuate
exactly the homophobia that they purport to reject. Those who denounce
a drag queen being bashed, but at the same time wag their fingers and
admonish her to "tone it down," have done nothing substantial to
challenge the underlying basis of homophobia. Indeed, they are
policing the victim, rather than the criminal. They are foolishly
attempting to end homophobia by insisting on the erasure of queerness,
rather than of hatred of queerness. Such an approach is not only
naive, futile, and a waste of energy, but it goes even further to
participate in and maintain homo-hatred.
	So to those folks who spent their energy writing the
abovementioned comments on that pillar, and to all those who would
imagine GaMIT and flaming queers to be the big roadblock to gay
acceptance: I'm not sure what planet you live on, but during your
spare time you might want to come visit Earth and take a look at some
of the serious issues that face queer people in the United States
today. And after you have thought a little about the gravity of that
situation, you might want to reexamine the dangerous and shaky
ideological foundations you had to build upon in order to come to the
conclusion that an overtly queer student group is somehow an "enemy"
of gay and lesbian people. 

the necessary disclaimer

For me to write this article about anti-queer sentiment-and to posit that homophobic representations of queer people operate in a manner such that queers themselves come to be blamed for the hatred harbored against them - is a difficult task, yet one that I believe to be vitally important. It is difficult precisely because I am queer and because I am choosing to write about anti-queer sentiment as it relates in part to GaMIT, a group that I was active in for a number of years. In another situation, such valuable experience might be seen as making me ultra-qualified to speak about queer issues on this campus, much as a brain surgeon would be seen in a discussion of a frontal lobotomy. But far from providing me with a position of authority, these traits will most likely be seen as my Achilles' heel in being able to write in a "fair" and "unbiased" fashion. That is, I might be discounted as being "too queer" to be able to talk about homosexuality "rationally." I might be viewed as hysterical, as reflexively sticking up for an organization that is seen as a haven for my perversions, or as exaggerating the gravity of homophobia in our culture today. Such devices of disqualification are all too familiar to the queer speaker or writer, and it would be a pipe dream to imagine that they wouldn't rear their ugly heads with the publication of this article. Even though I risk being discounted solely because of my unabashedly queer subject position, this issue is far too important not to write about. The statements like those on the comment sheet are disturbingly common, and they indicate that there is a dire need for a re-thinking and subsequent abandonment of assimilationist gay tactics, and a for re-focusing of gay activism into something that effectively challenges the authority of homophobic discourse. To counteract the homophobic tendency to brush aside the claims I make about anti-queer violence, I have included in the remainder of this article-and in a number of accompanying sidebars - a host of facts and data to further buttress the points that I make. I list so many facts and examples in order to "legitimize" my claims, that this article becomes almost painful to read. I do so because I recognize that although it might be relatively easy to discredit the statements of a bulldyke, it is pretty hard to argue with the unrelenting examples of homo-hatred that I include below.

open season on queers

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published a report that documented the nature and extent of anti-queer violence and victimization for the cities of Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, and San Francisco, from 1988 to 1992. In 1992, there were a total of 1,898 total reported anti-queer hate crimes in those 5 cities, where "hate crimes" included harassment, threats, physical assault, arson, vandalism, police abuse, and murder. In 1988, only 697 incidents were reported. That is a 172' increase over a 5 year period. The dramatic rise in anti-gay incidents for each individual city is shown in the accompanying table, "Anti-Gay Episodes." Further, a study released by a San Francisco human rights group in 1994 showed that the majority of anti-gay slayings involve a higher degree of violence and are more grisly than most homicides. The virulence of anti-gay attack is elaborated in an accompanying sidebar, "Anti-Queer Crimes." Of course, the incidents I present here are only a few examples of the scope of hate crimes which occur in the U.S. today, and one must keep in mind that these numbers represent only those crimes which were reported in the first place. Many queer people who are victims of hate incidents do not file reports for a variety of reasons: because they do not believe that anything can or will be done, because they fear that filing a report will expose their sexuality, because they are wary of reporting due to a well documented history of anti-queer violence perpetuated by police departments. It is also important to remember that queer people might not report hate incidents because, over time, we become so inured to being taunted and threatened that such incidents seem too frequent and familiar to warrant reporting. About a year ago, I was threatened by three teenagers at a bus stop while holding my girlfriend's hand. They taunted us and threatened to kill us with a knife, in plain view of witnesses (who did nothing), until we reached our stop. Though this incident was horrible and frightening, I did not report it to the authorities. I knew that my attackers would receive no more than a slap on the wrist (if any punishment at all), and I feared that reporting might inflame them further. Indeed, I have not reported any of the anti-gay harassment that I have experienced, from harassment in my dormitory to literally being beaten in the street-all because it just didn't seem like reporting would change anything. queer-bashing:all in good fun Not surprisingly, the current epidemic of anti-queer hate incidents has been accompanied by an increase in anti-queer political rhetoric, particularly with the rise of the Christian Right, the resurgence of the Republican Party, and the popularization of "angry white male" backlash against increased public visibility of gays and lesbians. "Angry white male" homophobic diatribe is mass marketed through the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and other "entertainers." Consider the following statement made by popular radio talk show host J.R. Gach, of WGR-55 A.M. in Buffalo, New York: "Society has had enough with people cramming their sexuality, pardon the pun, down our throats... Don't rub our nose in it. And if you do, be prepared to have some people show their dissatisfaction by beating the hell out of ya... I think they're getting exactly what they deserve." Actor Mel Gibson expressed similar sentiments during an interview for the newspaper El Pais: "They take it up the ass." Pointing to his butt, Gibson admonished, "This is only for taking a shit," then launching into a tirade against gay men. When asked by Good Morning America to respond to gay groups' charges of defamation, he replied, "I don't think there's an apology necessary, and I'm certainly not giving one." And, all in the spirit of "good fun" that radio shock jocks use as their pathetic excuse for peddling hate, Chris Daniels of KRZR in Fresno, California sponsored a "Mr. Manly" contest during which he encouraged participants to prove their manhood by making homophobic and sexist statements. According to the show, "None of my friends are zucchini-sucking, locker room soap chewing, enema-sniffing, KY jelly smearing... sausage stuffing, door-knob sucking, bull-dyke fearing flip boys." These are only a sampling of the kind of homophobia that can be found all over your radio dial, on the screen, and in the papers. All this, of course, supposedly for the purpose of benign entertainment. But the proudly public and righteous expressions of homophobic sentiment made by entertainers, not to mention the Christian Right and Right-wing politicians, cannot be thoughtlessly dismissed as benign. The homophobic garbage dished out in the media is a form of glamorized, slicky packaged, acceptable, and popular hate that reinforces harmful anti-queer sentiment, all while being passed off as a harmless joke. It doesn't take a genius to see that anti-queer violence and hate does not happen in a cultural vacuum; if the denigration and demonization of queers is scripted as a nation-wide punchline, the murder of a fag or a dyke becomes an unremarkable event. Obviously, such examples of "entertainment," in tandem with very real attacks on queer civil rights by the church and the state, play their part in nurturing a particularly venomous and violent atmosphere for queers in the U.S. today.

there oughtta be a law

The recent anti-gay legislation that is being spearheaded by the Christian Right and Republican politicians is another example of widespread, popularized hatred of queers in the U.S. Perhaps the most widely publicized model of such legislation is Colorado's Amendment 2, an amendment to the Colorado state constitution that specifically excludes lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals from existing state and local laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Amendment 2 also forbids all state and local government from taking action to remedy discrimination against queers, and it repeals the five local ordinances which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The 1992 referendum approving Amendment 2 was followed by a burst of anti-gay activity; 81 homophobic hate crimes were reported during the two months following the election, and the Colorado media received a stream of testimony from gay people reporting that they were fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes after the vote. A similar situation erupted in Oregon in 1992 when the anti-gay initiative "Question 9" was placed on the statewide ballot. Question 9 was similar to Amendment 2 in that it sought to ban any protections against gay discrimination, and it went even further to demand that the state department of education teach that homosexuality is "abnormal, perverse, unnatural and wrong." A long year of rabid and vicious anti-gay campaigning certainly took its toll-968 incidents of anti-gay violence were reported during 1992, including 2 murders, 2 rapes, a cross burning, 143 reports of vandalism, 69 physical assaults, 166 instances of threats of violence, and 796 instances of harassment. This dramatic peak in hate incidents simply cannot be divorced from the insistent and pointed peddling of anti-gay rhetoric by the proponents of Amendment 2 and Question 9. Cloaking their homophobic agenda under the slogan of "gay rights = special rights," they portrayed civil rights protections as being unfairly beneficial to queer people. Of course, the rhetoric of "special rights" is far removed from the truth-civil rights protections that include the category of sexual orientation ensure that heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals alike may not be discriminated against. In other words, these laws ensure that no matter who you happen to sleep with, that fact cannot be used as a reason to fire you or stop you from dancing with your lover at a nightclub. But by evoking the image of special rights, and by threatening that a looming "gay agenda" would lead to the end of civilization, the supporters of Amendment 2 and Question 9 were able to package homophobia in a manner that was wildly acceptable to the public. Anti-gay campaigners warned that gays are out to molest your children; they prophesied that queers will drag America down into a sewer of illness and decay; and they insisted that homosexuals will not rest until everyone is recruited into their "lifestyle." They effectively portrayed queers as greedy villains who are attempting to "oppress" straight America with their queerness and their "gay agenda"-and 53' of the voters in Colorado, 43% in Oregon, as well as much of America, seem to have bought that story lock, stock, and barrel. Amendment 2 and Question 9 are only two examples of a recent flood of anti-queer initiatives that have been spreading like a disease across the country. Such initiatives have been proposed in the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Maine, Kansas, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Missouri. A number of the abovementioned initiatives are summarized in the sidebar to this article, "Proposed Anti-Queer Legislation."

congressional acts of hatred

Congress has also joined in the anti-gay legislative flurry. Two bills have recently been proposed in the House and Senate that would prohibit the use of Federal funds to "promote" homosexuality. The text of H.R. 862, introduced in February 1995, states that "no Federal funds may be used directly or indirectly to promote, condone, accept, or celebrate homosexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality." Senate bill S.25 is similar in tone, declaring that "no funds... may be used by any entity to fund, promote, or carry out any seminar or program [or establish any position], the purpose of which is to compel, instruct, encourage, urge, or persuade employees or officials to... embrace, accept, condone, or celebrate homosexuality as a legitimate or normal lifestyle." Of course, these bills are blatantly discriminatory against queers when one considers the fact that the Federal government "embraces," "accepts," "condones," and "celebrates" heterosexuality-most notably through its recognition and promotion of heterosexual unions through marriage, along with all of the economic and legal benefits acquired thereof. Tax breaks from marriage, spousal benefits, property rights, parenting rights, and so on are all made possible through the government-sanctioned institution of marriage; to pretend that Federal funds are in no way diverted in promotion of heterosexual "family values" is preposterous. While the text of these discriminatory bills might seem vague and almost innocuous, if signed into law they would have far-reaching effects in a number of areas of public life. Federal funding is a major part of many of our societal institutions, including the military, public schools, public television and radio, museums, health care facilities (including those which specialize in psychiatry and psychology), research institutions, a wide variety of social programs, and so on. If any of these institutions were to "embrace, condone, celebrate," or merely "accept" any reference to homosexuality, they could face losing their funding. Nowhere can such a predicament be more clearly seen than in the case of the clash between ROTC's "don't ask, don't tell policy," and MIT's policy of non-discrimination against gays. It is obvious that MIT, as a technological research institution, depends on a great deal of funding from the Federal Government, especially through the U.S. military. If the above bills were to become law, MIT would have to rescind its non-discrimination policy in order to continue to receive federal funds. The current battle over ROTC at MIT would become irrelevant if the Institute, or any other campus, were required by the Federal government to completely surrender its stance on anti-gay discrimination.

ABCs, but no Qs

Yet another hotbed of anti-gay activity is swirling around the issue of homosexuality and education. Battles are being waged concerning school board policies on how and if homosexuality should be taught in schools. Typical of this type of anti-queer legislation is Washington's initiative 166, which states, "A school, through any employee, volunteer, guest, or other means or instrumentality, shall not present, promote, or approve homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, or transvestism, or any such conduct, act, practice, or relationship, as a positive, healthy, or appropriate behavior or lifestyle." Policy 6540: "Prohibition of Alternate Lifestyle Instruction" was recently approved by a vote of the Merrimack, New Hampshire school board. The policy states that "The Merrimack School District shall neither implement nor carry out any program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative. A program or activity... includes the distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services on school grounds, or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle." Newt Gingrich has also joined in the fray of homophobic ranting on the subject of school policy. Gingrich has denounced counseling programs for lesbian and gay high school students, maintaining that such programs serve to "recruit" children into homosexuality. Gingrich has also condemned the children's storybook, Heather Has Two Mommies, claiming that the book is bad for young minds. These attacks on homosexual representation in schools go hand in hand with the rest of the Republican/Religious Right's "Family Values" campaign, which is a veritable pep rally for the shameless promotion of heterosexuality over and against anything else.

i now pronounce you wife and wife

Finally, while on the subject of "family values," it is important to note the current struggle over the legalization of gay marriage or same-sex domestic partnership. The recent rumpus in Hawaii over the possibility of statewide acceptance of gay marriage has inspired proposed legislation in other states that would serve to nullify any gay marriages that might take place there. Such legislation attempts to codify marriage as an institution that may only exist between a "natural female and a natural male." The state of Utah passed a bill banning the recognition of same-sex marriages that are performed outside of its borders-a policy that is contradictory to the prior legal precedent of recognizing marriages as being valid across state lines. Other states have considered similar legislation to foil any gay couples who might travel to Hawaii to marry if and when the state ever agrees to legalization. It is also important to note the interesting paradox of the Right on the subject of gay marriage. On the one hand, queers are considered to have crossed a sacred line between morality and immorality, between upstanding citizenship and uncontrolled depravity. Queers, it is argued, have too many sexual partners, cannot commit to meaningful relationships, cannot partake in what is considered to be a model of the traditional family. This is one acknowledged tactic of homophobic discourse. At the same time, when some queers insist that they want to settle down, that they want to have only one monogamous lifetime partner, that they want to emulate the values of the "traditional" American family by asking to be granted the privilege of marriage, they are still considered too deviant, too queer, for the sacred rites of holy matrimony. Cleaning up our queer acts and presenting a picture of a "respectable" citizen still doesn't "cut it." If homophobia were logical, if it were "linear," then one might imagine that convincing heterosexuals that we too can be just as "wholesome, family-oriented, and decent" as they are would cause them to embrace us, having seen the stereotypes crumble before their very eyes. But precisely because homophobia is nonsensical, because it can contradict itself, because it can make one point at one time and make an entirely oppositional one at another-precisely because the effectiveness of homophobia lies in its chameleon-like illogic - assimilationist approaches to gay acceptance that assume a "logical" or "fair" homophobia are doomed to fail from the start. No matter how "good" and "clean" gays and lesbians strive to be through the ritual of marriage, it seems they are still too "queer" in the eyes of society. The fact that queers fuck members of their own sex is still cited as the deciding factor for discrimination.

what the hell is happening here?

At this point the diligent reader who has made it this far into the article might be wondering what all of this stuff have to do with that damn comment sheet. While the many instances of anti-gay discourse I have described above each have their own unique homophobic flair, there is a certain amount of similarity in the way that those discourses have been deployed against queer people. Indeed, just like the case of the comment sheet, the focus of scrutiny in these contemporary discussions on gay rights always seems to be placed on the behaviors of queers. When have they "pushed too far?" Are their sex acts immoral? Are they recruiting young people into their ways of life? When are they "asking for too much?" Queers are always on the defensive, they are always already assumed to be in the wrong, to be up to something evil, to be scheming to take over the world and paint it pink. This particular brand of homophobic discourse is always interested in drawing an arbitrary "uncrossable line," and then accusing queers of crossing it. The line can change in its shape and form, but the homophobic narrative remains the same. Conversely, those who attack gays are never put through anywhere near the sort of rigorous examination that queers are. That is, no one has bothered to ask whether anti-gay legislation has "pushed too far." No one has ever demanded that straights get their "agenda" out of our schools. No one worries about whether straight people have "special rights." No one seems to wonder whether homo-hatred is really all that good for our children, our families, and our society. Those who attack queers are never on the defensive-indeed, their own behaviors, their own "morality," their own mental health as those things relate to their sexuality are never up for question, scrutiny, or judgment. There are no lines that queers can draw which straights cannot pass over with impunity. And so the contemporary discussions about "the state of queer people today"-such as why is it good to come out at MIT or why does it suck to come out at MIT - never focus for more than a minute on how to challenge homophobia. Rather, they inevitably gravitate toward a fervent and righteous discussion of what lines queers have crossed - a discussion of what queers have supposedly done "wrong," and how those transgressions can be used to explain and excuse the homophobia being wielded against them. And because homophobia is not logical, because its power lies in its exemption from having to maintain any fixed position, the lines that are defined as uncrossable can be drawn and redrawn to suit the agenda of the homophobe. So it should not be at all surprising that GaMIT ended up being the object of scrutiny on a comment sheet designed to talk about homophobia at MIT. Sickening, but certainly not surprising. After all, GaMIT queers are the ones who have been placed in the position of being examined, being judged, and being diagnosed with illness or moral depravity. The extra-sickening-and fatally misguided - aspect of this situation is that gay people themselves, in a desperate attempt to differentiate themselves from the "real" perverts, are wielding this typical narrative of homophobia to demonize GaMIT and its behaviors. It is gay people who are drawing the usual lines of acceptable behavior; it is gay people who are saying that the queers of GaMIT have "gone too far," or are "asking for too much." It is gay people who, through their own homophobic imaginations, have come to see GaMIT as more of an enemy to them than a gay basher could ever be. For gays to attack GaMIT with the same old rhetoric - that which designates lines between sick and healthy, between perverse and normal, between immoral and moral, between excessive displays of queerness and necessary ones - is not just a painful waste of time and energy, it is reinscribing exactly the homophobic values we purport to stand against. And it is crippling any hope we might have for effectively challenging homophobic discourse.

[thistle homepage] [Volume 9] [9.13 - contents]