Hillary Clinton, Gay Rights, and Cultural Relativism

12 12 2011

I’m not a cultural relativist. Sometimes customs are culturally relative, and sometimes, quite frankly, they are not. I don’t believe that sexism, racism, child abuse, animal abuse, rape, torture, murder, or homophobia are excusable depending on cultural context, because in each context these atrocities share the traits of hatred, violence, and exploitation committed against a sentient being. Let me get this caveat out of the way first: on some issues we are in no place to judge the practises of other cultures, and on other issues we most certainly are. In return, these other cultures are allowed to judge us on our faults. With that out of the way, LGBT rights are not an imperialist vision; they are a humanist one.

Given my wariness of cultural relativism, I was elated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s amazing speech at the United Nations in Geneva. In her speech, Clinton declares that the Obama administration will defend LGBT rights as a part of its human rights and foreign policy, and that the President will command all government agencies operating overseas to defend LGBT rights through various diplomatic strategies. She makes several points about how and why the world community should end persecution of LGBT people: first, LGBT rights are human rights; second, homosexuality exists in all cultures; third, religious and cultural beliefs do not justify persecution of LGBT people; fourth, the world must confront persecution of LGBT people, not dismiss it; and fifth, we must employ practical means to obtain equality for LGBT people. All of these points are interesting and relevant, but the most provocative to me are the second and third points, which challenge the cultural relativism cited to defend persecution of LGBT people.

In her second point, Clinton challenges the assumption that homosexuality and LGBT rights are purely Western, imperialist conceptions being foisted on non-Western cultures. This is simply not true, Clinton shows, because homosexuality exists in every culture, and homophobia is a problem in every culture. It is, in other words, a human condition, and creating artificial cultural barriers to LGBT liberation would do a disservice to LGBT people:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbours.

And just in case anybody insists there are no examples of efforts to advance LGBT rights in non-Western cultures, Clinton deftly turns the tables:

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Clinton has obviously done her fact-checking (which is to be granted, given that she is America’s chief diplomat): heteronormative sexualities, if not exactly ubiquitous, are well-distributed among the world’s cultures, hence LGBT rights are a relevant concern to all of the world’s cultures. It is now common knowledge among well-informed people that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not the product of a particular culture; they are a product of living organisms in general, from shellfish to human beings. It seems absurd, then, to say that these sexualities are the luxurious fad of one particular society (the West) of one particular species of animal (homo sapiens), hence it seems absurd to suggest that LGBT rights are relevant only to that society or species.

In her third point, Clinton criticises the notion that cultural or religious beliefs somehow justify persecution of LGBT people, and roundly dashes it to pieces. (I exaggerate, but still, she could have, and she probably would have if representatives of countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan weren’t present.) She does this by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of other persecuted peoples. Specifically, she draws an analogy between crimes against LGBT people and crimes against women, both of which derive from patriarchal hegemony:

[The justification for persecuting LGBT people] is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

Cutting off a woman’s clitoris is universally wrong because it causes unspeakable pain, stress, and health problems for the victim, whether she is from Sweden, Somalia, or Seattle. This is because every person of every culture possesses a common human physiology; the nervous systems of all human beings are basically the same. I suspect every woman feels immense pain when she is mutilated, burnt to death, or stoned to death, despite the cultural situation. And when proponents of cultural relativism cite reasons for their stance, those reasons fall nothing short of pathetic: women shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with men other than their husbands, women shouldn’t be allowed to experience sexual pleasure, or women shouldn’t be allowed to live if their husbands die. Forgive me if I find these justifications more solipsistic than utilitarian, and hence hardly socially beneficial. They’re just the laws of self-serving tyrants who view women as mere incubators. Similarly, every gay person experiences unconscionable pain and horror at being hanged or crushed to death for being gay. Opinions, insecurities, and concerns specific to a culture do not justify violence against women or gay people, because we all share the same basic human physiology despite cultural context. I think this is what Clinton was pointing at.

I won’t mince words. Hillary Clinton is right, and the cultural relativists are wrong. Heteronormative sexuality is found everywhere in the world, and LGBT rights are no more culturally relative than women’s or racial minorities’ rights, because all are products of a common human mental and physical experience. For some reason, though, this is a sensitive topic for many anti-imperialists, who often happen to be from the West. It seems to me that a lot of this cultural relativist dogma stems from white, middle-class people who feel guilty about their colonial heritage, and they spout this disingenuous nonsense about relativism to soothe their own conscience. But think about it. Arguing that women’s or LGBT rights are culturally relative is basically discriminating against women and LGBT people who live in countries, like Iran, which don’t recognise their status, and that isn’t very feminist or pro-gay, is it? It isn’t even very pro-human, as Clinton showed, and I can’t help but respect her for sending such a bold, unapologetic message to countries which still use cultural relativism as a loophole to commit human atrocities. It was truly a satisfying vindication of LGBT rights.

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What Does It Mean To Be A Drag Queen?

28 10 2011

What social purpose does drag serve? Do drag queens reinforce gender stereotypes, or challenge them? I would wager the latter.

I once took a women’s studies course in university called “Introduction to Gender Theory”, or something like that. Oh my god, I was in heaven. For me, it was like going to church and singing, “Hallelujah! I have reached the Promised Land, and it is full of all sorts of delicious fucking freaks.” The course was basically an introduction to, well, gender theory, but from a poststructuralist perspective. That basically means when you look at identities and what makes people who they are in a critical, sceptical light. Anyway, at one point in the course handbook the professor discussed drag and explained how some people see drag as reinforcing gender stereotypes by embodying what they think women should be, which is traditionally feminine. The flip-side of this argument, however, is that drag queens are actually challenging gender stereotypes by mocking traditional feminine expectations placed on women.

The latter argument makes more sense to me, and here’s why. Drag is an incredibly complex form of art. It sends out so many messages at once that it is easy for the untrained eye to miss the ultimate point. It is so sophisticated, so full of so many layers of meaning, and so wrought with irony that it is almost too difficult to distil its essence in words. You can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s a man with fake boobs and high-heels, so he must be saying, ‘This is what women are like'”. That kind of answer is just too pat, and it’s an intellectual cop-out. Drag deserves a more nuanced explanation. When men do drag, they do so with a subversive goal in mind: to satirise the crass feminisation of women.

OK, so there are many different types of drag, and each has a unique purpose, but I believe the one I described above is probably the commonest or most salient of them all. And while most drag queens might not be able to articulate what I have just stated, I think they’d probably agree. For them, it is a highly instinctive and subconscious act. It usually is with artists.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at drag queen Tammie Brown (who I believe was a contestant in the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race). Do you really think she is saying, “This is what women should be like”? She looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Messner and Faye Dunaway’s version of Joan Crawford, for goodness’ sake. Tammie Brown’s art is so absurd that you cannot seriously think she is saying that women should have 1940s hairstyles, Joan Crawford lips, skin the consistency of puddy, and eyebrows in the middle of their foreheads. It’s satire. Drag queens are not stupid; they are socially savvy, culturally perceptive, and very streetsmart. I haven’t met an autistic drag queen yet (although that would be fucking awesome). What drag queens like Tammie Brown are doing is creating an over-the-top caricature of feminine standards of beauty placed on women. By embodying a cartoonish femininity, they are saying at least two things: “The feminine expectations placed on women are so aburd as to merit the sharpest satire” and “As a man, I will relieve women of this ridiculous ‘duty’ by placing it on my own shoulders”. Drag queens—at least the highly abstract and conceptual ones like Tammie Brown and Raja—are all about confusing people with regard to what men and women should be and do, and they achieve this by transferring traditional responsibilities from one sex to the other.

Sometimes, the drag community’s mockery of sexism is accompanied by a mockery of racism, too. This is a delicate subject, and it deserves the utmost sensitivity, but I do think some forms of racial drag actually satirise racism. Consider Shirley Q. Liquor, a.k.a. Charles Knipp, a white man from the American south who dons blackface in drag. Now, she’s controversial. She’s been on CNN, and leaders in the black community have vilified her as racist, but other black people have defended her in praise of her mockery of racism. One of these is RuPaul, who included Shirley on her album RuPaul RED HOT. In RuPaul’s own words, “[c]ritics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots.  Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever.  I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD”. Now, just as one woman cannot speak for all women, one black person cannot speak for all black people, but it helps to know that some black people see a certain satire in Shirley Q. Liquor’s art. And I think RuPaul sees the sweet irony in Shirley Q. Liquor’s absurdist blackface. From my perspective (and please correct me if I am misguided), Knipps mocks racism by donning blackface and showing how absurd racial stereotypes are. And when it isn’t clear that he is mocking racial stereotypes, I sort of think he is expressing a deeply human affection for the quirks he recognises in the black women he knew growing up. That said, I highly recommend against doing blackface unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and context of your art and you have support by a sizeable contingent of the black community, and if you fail to heed this warning and proceed to do blackface in a messy, thoughtless way, you are probably an ignorant fool.

Just in case some of you still think Charles Knipps is racist, let me share with you a horribly beautiful video of him impersonating Barb, the stereotypical “narthern” Great Lakes housewife with an obnoxiously twangy, vowel-fronted North-Central American English accent:

I know. Now he’s doing drag in whiteface. So that’s just in case you think his racial drag is mere racism, and not an ironic mockery of racism. Now, we might be able to say, “Oh, look. He’s racist toward white people, too.” But I don’t think we have to say that he’s racist toward anyone. In every face he does, he is mocking some stereotype or another by exposing its absurdity as plainly as possible. It’s hard to take patent bullshit seriously.

Drag queens are inscrutable creatures; they create a disturbingly comical image of beauty, challenging our assumptions about what is pretty, who should be pretty, and why. The simple-minded philistines among us, with their intolerance for irony, will view drag queens as horribly sexist, racist monsters, but those of us with a capacity to think critically and apprehend the intent behind the art will think the exact opposite—they will view drag queens as highly perceptive cultural critics of sexual and racial stereotypes, as people who have been to hell and back and have something to say in defense of the underdog. The purpose of drag is to mock feminine expectations placed on women, it is to toy with our cherished notions about who can be feminine—women, or men?—and it is to defuse racist stereotypes through crass caricature. At the same time, though, drag queens seem to exult in a certain bizarre, twisted, exaggerated beauty in the very femininity they satirise, perhaps because they value it for its own sake regardless of which gender is performing it. You can have crazy eyebrows or an overdrawn lipline whether you’re male or female. It’s all supposed to be messy, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. At any rate, drag challenges our deepest assumptions about who we are, who we should be, and who we can be, and this is an invaluable tool for deepening and enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.





Sometimes It’s Hard To Be A Drag Queen

3 07 2011

I’ve always been preoccupied with gender theory, but I’ve never been able to distil the mechanism of homophobic sexism into as few words as RuPaul. She has such a down-to-earth, unpretentious, matter-of-fact style of stating things, and such a cutting perspicacity, that I simply had to write a blog entry on what she had to say about the way the world views feminine men. In a word, she slams patriarchy square in the jaw by exposing the way it reacts to drag. Patriarchy reacts negatively to drag and homosexuality because these are heteronormative, in the same way it reacts to feminists because they are heternormative, hence drag queens and gay people have something in common with feminists.

Let me start by explaining the way homophobia and sexism are related. Both homophobia and sexism are products of a patriarchal society. A patriarchal society is a society in which males dominate females through a strict set of biologically-justified sex roles. In this system, the man conquers the woman socially, legally, economically, and sexually in order to keep her as his own private incubator, so that the genes of other men don’t compete with his. (I know. How barbaric. Who would want to have those genes?) Obviously, if a man is not interested in sexually conquering a woman (and thus not interested in conquering her in any other way, insofar as sexual conquest is inextricably intertwined with other forms of conquest), he cannot fulfil his role of taming women and maintaining dominance. Well, gay men cannot fulfil this role, since they are not sexually attracted to women, therefore, in a way, they are traitors to the patriarchal cause of dominating women. In other words, gay people and feminists share a cause—the dismantling of traditional sex roles—hence both groups are scorned by the patriarchy for failing to preserve the patriarchy, which is essentially a sex-based hierarchy contrived by heterosexual males.

Besides, as a man, why would I want to control a woman? How could I live with myself, knowing the smug tyranny that has infected my soul? It is a repugnant pride in one’s own sex, a need to create an identity, to forge a sense of being in contrast with others. It is an act of the ego. How could I be comfortable with that? To be so arrogant towards half of the human population, I would have to be a truly ruthless, heartless person—or else extremely scared and insecure. Why would I want to be like that toward my fellow human? And straight men have no more reason to participate in this nonsense than gay men do, because it shouldn’t make a difference whether or not you want to put your penis in a vagina.

(Disclaimer: I love men and straight people, and most men are not like this, but most people who are like this probably are men. There is a difference between “most men do this” and “most people who do this are men”. Most men don’t rape, but most rapists are men.)

Now that I have shown how both gay men and feminists threaten and thereby stoke the wrath of patriarchy, let me give you RuPaul’s refreshingly concise and conciliatory spin on the topic. In a gay.com article, she attributed antagonism toward drag queens to patriarchal expectations: “In our culture, lesbians, because it’s a masculine culture and a patriarchal society, it’s okay for them to behave in a masculine way”, she says, “but it’s not okay for men to behave in a feminine way.  In fact, even among gay people, it’s looked down upon.  So, will there ever be a day where people won’t look down upon men who act feminine…I don’t think so. (Laughs).” I hope there will be, if only for the sake of all of those poor little sensitive intelligent boys who are savaged and reprimanded daily by their overbearing fathers for being too “girly”—whatever that’s supposed to be. But the point RuPaul makes is that patriarchy embraces masculine people because they fit the mould of what is considered ideal human behaviour, but reject feminine people because they do not fit this mould.

Let’s look closer at this point. Femininity is associated with nurturance, weakness, and submissiveness, whilst masculinity is associated with discipline, strength, and aggression. In patriarchy, masculinity, not femininity, is the prototype for human behaviour, because patriarchy values discipline, strength, and aggression over nurturance, weakness, and submissiveness. On top of this, women are associated with the feminine role, and men, with the masculine role. (Even if these roles do not accurately describe their respective sexes—what matters is that these roles are believed to describe their respective sexes, even when they actually don’t, because people can persecute others based on entirely fallacious assumptions). That women are associated with the feminine role automatically means that they are not the human prototype. When women assume the aggressive role, they are transgressing, and when men assume the submissive role, they are transgressing. Women must always be the “feminine” non-prototype, and men, the “masculine” prototype.

So, in a patriarchal society, in terms of power and respect it is easier to be a man, or to be like what a man is believed to be (even if he isn’t), because patriarchy values masculinity, and men are associated with this valued virtue. Well, drag queens are a slap in the face of this system. As RuPaul said, they toy with the ego and identity, which means they also toy with masculine identity, and this scares the living daylight out of people who take their identity seriously. It’s easy for a woman to wear a pair of pants, because she is exemplifying the supposed “masculine” role, but it is hard for a man to wear a dress, because he is exemplifying the supposed “feminine” role.

Ultimately this double standard is rooted in misogyny. Again, to be clear, this does not mean that women actually are feminine—it only means that they are expected, obligated, or perceived to be feminine, even though many of them are not. Many women don’t wear makeup, but they are treated as though it is their wont to do so. In other words, it is enough to believe that women are supposed to be feminine in order to persecute them accordingly. (Analogously, a person can be bullied for being gay even if they are actually straight.) Given this, any man who assumes a feminine role, which is reserved for women, is a “traitor” to his sex, for he is abandoning the masculine prototype for something feared and abhorred—the underprivileged opposite. It is precisely this irony that drag queens embody.

It is very important that drag queens mock ego and gender identity the way they do, because it forces people to confront their fears and surmount them. It also challenges traditional notions of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. RuPaul accomplishes this feat with particular panache—and she has the philosophical wit to justify it. We should also remember how gay men and feminists both suffer from patriarchy by challenging it—this is a reason to celebrate solidarity. Why is drag such a fundamental horror to us? Why does a man donning a dress and wearing lipstick scare people so much? Why are we so obsessed with preserving our identity, with focusing on who we are? Why not experiment a little? We are who we want to be. What in the world could a drag queen do to you and your cherished nuclear family? Teach them a lesson on reason, humour, common sense, and humanity? Watch re-runs of She-Ra: Princess of Power with them? Oh, I feel so sorry for you. Maybe you should take your spouse and your children to a drag show some time and undergo a very long-overdue paradigm shift. I don’t mind if you have to pull out a nipple to feed baby, either—I’m all for public breastfeeding. In fact, public nudity should be legalized. (It already is in Seattle.) See? I support everyone.





Support Gay Youth! And Love!

16 12 2010

For me, the musical highlight of the year is the recent re-release of Erasure‘s “A Little Respect“, not only because the song is sublime musically, but also because every purchase of this track (on iTunes) is a donation to an organization devoted to the protection of rejected youth. This release is a re-recording of the original 1988 soul-pop anthem; this time around, though, it features the choir of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York non-profit foundation dedicated to the nurturance and uplifting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning youth. The Hetrick-Martin Institute is also the home of Harvey Milk High School, a high-school in Manhattan named after the gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated, and designed specifically for youth who have been rejected by their families because of which sex they are attracted to.

The Hetrick-Martin session of “A Little Respect” was motivated largely by the recent spate of gay teenage suicides attributed to bullying in the United States. The suicides have affected multiple races and genders–victims have been black and white, female and male. And, certainly, they have affected the poor as well, since so many distraught and runaway urban youth have few financial resources to depend on. And who cares whether they are gay? Straight people are oppressed for supposedly being gay, too. Consequently, the bullying epidemic has affected almost every class of society within the United States. Shouldn’t everybody be concerned?

The Huffington Post, an aggregated blog based in the United States, posted the original video for this re-recording, but it’s already on YouTube. I adore Andy Bell’s fluorescent make-up:


The song is unnerving. With its kaleidoscopic tapestry of guitar strings, adroit, gradual melodies, insistent bass-drums, and poignant, yearning lyrics, it is truly a hymn to the woes of the inner self, and the turmoil that lurks within. All of this is supplemented by a brand-new arrangement of elegant, sweeping synthesisers courtesy of veteran synthpop genius Vince Clarke, who forms a part of the band. (It does not hurt that the Hetrick-Martin choir assists lead vocalist Andy Bell in building a soul-based vocal ensemble.) Ultimately, it is a message of love and compassion. It always has been about love and compassion, hasn’t it?  That selflessly unfamiliar yet resounding source of pleasure and knowledge one has in the wellness of others? And not just love toward kin, but also love toward the alien. That kind of love is most constructive, most forgiving, most pure.

So while we should fight tenaciously for equality, we should also shed love and compassion on those we deem our “enemies”. Indeed, rather than describe them as “enemies”, we might try to describe them as neophytes to the art of liberalism. That is more diplomatic. This doesn’t mean they don’t do wrong–it only means that we should love them nonetheless, simply because love is good for people, and it makes them better. That is a hard feat to perform. But isn’t it good for all of us in the end?

But that is another blog entry.

Before I bore you to death–dance music! Andy Bell (the lead singer of Erasure) has been quite active in his solo career. Following up with his shamelessly beat-laden (and, oh, I  love it) album Non-Stop, Bell has released a double CD featuring the three singles “Running Out”, “Will You Be There”, and “Non-Stop”, off the same album. Those who adore the quasi-italo-disco sound of Vega or Neon Indian will most likely quiver with delight over this release, given the “Vega Italo Dub Mix” of “Running Out”, which was released under Bell’s club-friendly pseudonym “Mimó”. So we have a very active Andy Bell who enjoys the nightlife. So he should. I do.

And if that weren’t enough, Erasure are planning to release an all-analogue album in 2010. Don’t quote me on that. I remember it from the fan-page discussion threads, but the fan-site doesn’t have a search engine, so I can’t confirm. All I remember is hearing Vince Clarke saying that it would consist of a home-grown, original, analogue synthesiser sound, which is fantastic, since I’m so tired of that cheap, shitty, sampled digital crap which most dance/pop/rap artists use nowadays.

To top things off, these exponents of the pro-gay youth movement are planning to tour the British forests next year. Yes. That’s right. As part of the British Forestry Commission’s annual Live Music series (Britain still has forests, apparently, and its Forestry Commission entertains cutting-edge synthpop acts like Goldfrapp) Erasure will be playing their famed hits in places like Thetford Forest, near Brandon, in Suffolk. (The irony.) I didn’t think Britain had any more forests–I thought they were all mowed down in the Iron Age. I suppose they re-grow them where they seem to be dwindling. Being from Seattle, I am surrounded by a swathe of green, wet, oceanic moss-forests, so it seems odd to me. Well, they visited Seattle in 2007 on their “Light at the End of the World” tour, so let’s hope that they can trudge their way through the moss-forests for a 2011, or, more likely, 2012 tour. If one is lucky enough to live in Britain, one can buy Erasure Forest Tour tickets here.

Basically, love gay people, and be jealous of puny British forests for the tolerant people that inhabit them.

Over and out.