Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality) by Bert Archer

Before Mikie went home, we went to the queer bookstore A Different Light and one of the books I bought there was The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality) by Bert Archer. I have been reading it, and I feel a need to comment on it. I bought it for the obvious reason: it's a book arguing that sexual preferences are socially constructed and not genetically predisposed. I tend to buy a large percentage of the books that argue this, and I don't regret buying this one. It does a reasonably good job of presenting the argument (not the very best job I've ever seen done, but I think it's better at it than is average for books on the social construction of sexual preference), and I strongly suspect that by the time I finish it, I'll transcribe numerous quotes from it onto my website's three quotes pages.

However, this particular book also advocates plenty beyond merely acknowledging that queer identities are socially constructed and not genetically predisposed. It advocates getting rid of queer (and hetero) social identities entirely - not just viewing the difference between queer people and het people as a difference in ideas rather than genes, as I do, but actually viewing there to be no difference, or I guess more accurately, no difference that should be significant enough to bother thinking about, to bother making any mental note of when you try to describe to yourself or someone else what any person's identity consists of. Now, in the ultimate long run, I too consider it desirable that someday, the very words "heterosexual" and "homosexual" and "bisexual" and all synonyms for them would simply cease to be used, or at least cease to be used any more often than obscure/invented words like "left-wing-sexual" or "atheistsexual" or "homosocial", because people would cease considering the gender of the people they have recently or so far in their lives been sexually attracted to to be any more useful or relevant a way to conceptualize and categorize themselves than the politics or religions of the people they're sexually attracted to or the gender of the people they typically make friends with. However, I think the idea of ceasing to consider sexual preference labels to be relevant information to know about other people while the people in question still consider those labels to be highly relevant information about themselves is utterly mind-bogglingly ridiculously stupid. If a person considers themself heterosexual or queer, you can bet that knowing that about them gives me some idea of the range of opinions and knowledge related to sexual preference they're likeliest to possess, which will strongly affect how difficult it will be for me to have pleasant conversations with them on topics related to sexual preference. This makes it relevant information to know about them.

Bert Archer has it in for identity politics. Now, it's very popular to have it in for identity politics these days, and from everything I'd previously read about how awful identity politics supposedly is, identity politics did indeed sound like a bad thing, or at least not as good a thing as the "issues-based politics" that everyone advocates replacing it with. But most writings I've read advocating a move away from identity politics simply say things like that we should form more coalitions between different oppressed groups and fight for the re-enfranchisement of all groups together - which, you know, is almost as impossible to disagree with as simply advocating that we should be more successful at fighting against oppression. Bert Archer's idea of getting rid of identity politics, however, extends to getting rid of so much that I do consider valuable that I'm not sure I'll ever again be able to hear "identity politics" denounced without running away screaming.

This book is racist. I will go further than that, and say that it is the single most racist book by a queer author on the subject of queerness that I have ever yet read. It's also sexist, but I think the racism is more obvious and easier to point out in this book, so I'll focus on that. (Though I did find a separate article by him online in which his sexism may be easier to see; he argues in the article that groping people without their permission should be legalized and that "there's nothing inherently sexually unhealthy about it" as long as one doesn't hold the victims down and prevent them from running away after you do so. Clearly he has absolutely zero concept of what it would be like to be, say, a 5'0" 100-pound woman trying to walk down a street full of 6'5" 250-pound men who all have the desire and the legal right to stick their hands in her crotch as long as they each permit her to shriek and run away toward the next one after they've had their one allotted legal feel.) Here are some pieces of what he wrote about identity politics:
'I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.'

When I first read this, maybe twelve years ago, my first impulse was to look up who the writer, Terence, was - I'd never head of him. Once I did (he was a Carthaginian comic playwright writing in Rome of the second-century BCE), that was pretty much it. I didn't think too much about it again until, for no real reason - chalk it up to temporary mental vacuity - I began a couple of years ago to think about its implications. Which are pretty vast. James Baldwin said it another way just before he died: 'There's nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else which is not in me.'

If you agree with it, if it sounds to you like a reasonable way to see yourself in the world, then it becomes an eloquent argument, in the realm of literature, for example, against the constrictive implications of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot's 'write what you know' (easy for them to say, they knew everything), and its more recent incarnation, the appropriation-of-voice debate (now thankfully mostly dormant). And in that part of the world where the personal is political, it bungs up identity politics pretty badly.

The effect of sticking to writing what you know has been quietly disastrous. Journalists regularly step gingerly around observations of those unlike themselves, making for often eggshell-thin reporting, and over the past several decades we have been deluged with novels that deal only with the precise raw material of the author's own life, novels whose narrators' names bear striking resemblances to their authors', novels that are less acts of creation than exercises in self-mythologisation. We've decided to follow Jane Austen, who never wrote scenes involving men in rooms without women because she had no idea how they acted or what they said, instead of, say, Henry Fielding, who had no qualms about writing in the voices of men, women, slaves, courtiers, courtesans, and statesmen in situations of which he could have had no experience. In matters of journalism and literature, the effects of identity politics have been deleterious. In matters of actual identity, they're getting to be cataclysmic.

As far as I can make out, the roots of identity politics - that realm of human understanding that holds that there are many discrete human experiences that are incomprehensible in any significant way by anyone but members of the core group in question (women, blacks, gays, Kurds) - are to be found in a fundamental mistrust of the human imagination. At the base of Terence's words is not only the assumption that we can imagine what it is like being someone else but the further, more profound corrolary to that assumption, which is that imagination is not some childish, frivolous thing to occupy a student's mind while the teacher talks about prairie weather patterns, not just something artists and other entertainers make use of to prettify the margins of the real world. They lead one to the utter realness of the imagination and its fundamentality to the most basic human interactions. . . .

[I]dentity is much bigger than gay, as any gay black woman knows. And you can't really open a discussion of the gay aspects of identity politics without opening the door to the whole schlemiel.

When you get right down to it, gay is only one facet of a much larger problem. This was made abundantly clear at a staged debate I had not long ago. The question of the debate was 'Is gay passé?' Flyers were posted, ads placed, and about a hundred people showed up in a little bar to hear and, during the second half, take part in what I and three others had to say on the subject. Colour-coded American-style, the panel quickly fell into the multi-mirrored infinite regress of identity, and as a result, after the opening remarks, we really had nothing to discuss but discussion itself.

The debate's primary inspiration came from an article playwright Sky Gilbert had written called 'Everybody in Leather' in the January/February 2000 issue of This magazine. In addition to Sky and I, the panel consisted of Rinaldo Walcott, a professor of various things queer and black at Toronto's York University, and T. J. Bryan (also known as Tenacious; not without reason as it turned out). As far as I can tell, based on how much she seemed to know about the subject, Tenacious was there because she was black and a woman (and tenacious), an example of the fallacy of identity as inherent knowledge.

But both she and Walcott decided that nothing about gay - ended, passé, or otherwise - could be discussed until the issue of race and class was resolved. And since this was not going to happen anytime soon, gay got left behind. Walcott derailed the debate early on in his opening remarks, calling the entire question of the end of gay and the death of heterosexuality a 'white middle-class male identity crisis.' The crowd of mostly late-twenties and early-thirties activist types actually cheered.

The assumption Walcott was making here was that sex and sexuality are inherently different among different classes and racial groups. That assumption is based on the idea that the major differences that divide us as people are group differences. I don't blame the highly invested Walcott for buying into it - he not only is gay and black, he teaches gay and black. But I, admittedly a white man, could not agree with him.

The fundamental principle of identity politics, as of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia, is that the differences among groups outweigh the differences among individuals. It is a profound elision of individuality. 'Individuality,' as privileged white male Michael Ignatieff has pointed out, 'only complicates the picture, indeed, makes prejudice more difficult to sustain, as it is at the individual level that identification and affection can subvert the primal opposition of "them" and "us." Intolerance . . . is a willed refusal to focus on individual difference and a perverse insistence that individuality be subsumed by the group.'

Everything, in Walcott and Tenacious's interpretation, changes when you cross gender, race and class boundaries. Nothing can be seen except through these filters, and anything that does not acknowledge this fact ends up being, by default, a white, middle class, and probably male analysis. Especially, of course, if the analyst happens to be white, middle class, and probably male.

I thought we'd figured out how stupid all this was.

Those of us who were in university in the late eighties and early nineties and had something to do either with student politics or campus journalism recall the golden age of identity politics. I remember the first time I noticed identity politics for what it really was, the first time I figured it was something I was going to have to pay attention to. It was at my first national student journalism conference. A good portion of the resolutions debated and passed at that conference's plenary sessions involved issues with their roots in notions of identity, of representation, of Righting Wrongs. A lot of the time was spent expanding acronyms, fitting a B in there with the G's and the L's, going through old documents and changing every reference to specific non-white races to phrases like Person of Colour, making sure Gay and Bi and Asian and Woman had equal face-time, not only in the documents but on the floor, speakers recognized boy-girl, boy-girl and whenever possible, white-non-white, white-non-white. Identity politics was never anywhere but centre stage. It was exciting. My first taste of hard-nosed political activism. So this was what the sixties must have been like. Cool. Rock the vote. Fuck the Man. Change the World.

Cultural assumptions of course had to be challenged. They still do. But man, did we sell ourselves short. We had fallen victim to what Robert Hughes has called the central myth of the traditional avant-garde - the misconception that by changing the order of language or the method of representation, we - through advertising, through journalism - could change the order of experience and so alter the conditions of social life. As the adoption of words like sodomy, homosexual, heterosexual and gay show, it is possible for the appearance and apprehension of things to change with a change in vocabulary. But the things themselves, in this case the basic structures of human sexuality, are not, however long we might like to think that they are, ever altered.

We were in university. We were learning about stuff like that. Things like language and text was all there was. No objective reality; you change text, you change the world. I believe it's called nominalism.

So what ought to have been a concise preamble to a cultural manifesto of change turned into not only the major but the only battlefield of an entire generation of student activists. Debates were fought between the Left, who thought we should smash the patriarchy by forcing it to acknowledge difference, and the Right, who were caught arguing that white men got where they were because they were generally better at what they did. Both utterly untenable, pathetically puerile positions.

The quickest way to figure out what a failure these times and attitudes were is to look back and realise that almost every major battle the Left waged, the Left won, and won quickly - and nothing changed.

If you look back at the age we were modelling ourselves after - the mythical sixties - and if you take the two major by-words - 'peace' and 'love' - you'll see they got those, and the world did change. Especially on the love front: we got the seventies. Sexual attitudes and practices changed quickly and radically and, as a result, so did the Western world, and even with AIDS, very much for the better.

But with identity politics, all we asked for, and all we got, was representation. We got inclusion in human rights codes. We got funding for organisations, for studies, for books. We got some Dead White Males - mostly Kipling, it seems, which is just as well - taken off the course lists and got Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich put on them. Within a space of no more than five years from the beginning of this eighties' onslaught, Benetton, Calvin Klein and just about every major corporate advertiser in the Western world had said, Yeah, sure, why not? and included in their ads black and gay and Asian and the differently abled. This was undoubtedly a good thing; but it was just as certainly not an especially big thing. . . .

What Walcott and Tenacious and almost every one of the members of the audience who got up to speak that night were saying fell directly in line with those principles I'd run into ten years earlier at that student conference. Nothing seemed to have changed. I was being derided for thinking like a middle-class white male under the misapprehension that middle-class white males - or upper-class black females or lower-class Asian males - cannot think beyond the boundaries of these newly confabulated and now utterly hardened identities. These folks, in their different ways, are in a rut. They've got into their rhetorical groove and are unable to see the changes wrought by people before them saying much the same things.

I quoted all that uninterruptedly and saved my comments on it until the end rather than inserting them in brackets within the text because I wanted to share with you the emotional experience of reading it. The overwhelming lesson I took from it was, "Gayle, if you are ever feeling publicly humiliated by accusations of racism or anything else, for all the nonexistent goddesses' sakes, DON'T BECOME SO OBSESSED WITH DEFENDING YOURSELF THAT YOU INCOMPETENTLY ATTEMPT TO DO SO IN SUCH A WAY THAT YOU JUST END UP COMPLETELY INCRIMINATING YOURSELF IN FRONT OF A VASTLY LARGER AUDIENCE THAN YOU WOULD OTHERWISE EVER HAVE NEEDED TO BE HUMILIATED IN FRONT OF." Because that's exactly what Bert Archer did.

I mean, where can I even begin? Most people who know me know that I write fiction with characters of different races than myself, so clearly I don't consider it inherently wrong for any author to ever write about anything whatsoever that they haven't personally experienced firsthand. But to assert that there shouldn't even be any "appropriation-of-voice debate" at all, that there is just inherently no way that a person could ever fail to do justice in their writing to a life experience that they have never personally had, is lunatic idiocy. Writers who write about experiences they have never personally had may do a good job or a bad job, but in order to do a good job they will need to research thoroughly, and they will need to understand that they do not have the authority to announce for themselves that they have succeeded in describing other people's experiences accurately. If a white hetero male writer from New York City who was born in 1930 writes a novel from the point of view of a character coming of age as a black queer female in rural Alabama in the early 21st century and the majority of people who've actually been black queer females growing up in rural Alabama in the early 21st century say that the novel seems believable, then the writer has succeeded. But if the majority of people who've actually been black queer females growing up in rural Alabama in the early 21st century say that the novel seems unbelievable, then for the writer to go around angrily asserting that he can too accurately imagine what it's like to grow up as a black queer female in rural Alabama in the early 21st century and that anyone who claims he hasn't done so has insufficient faith in the power of the human imagination is absurdly arrogant and nonsensical. The human imagination may well be capable of understanding life experiences that drastically different, but doing so is hard and doesn't always succeed and his individual imagination clearly failed at it.

And I don't think "self-mythologisation" in which "narrators' names bear striking resemblances to their authors'" is the slightest bit less valid a literary genre than any other. Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated, in which the main character happens not-entirely-coincidentally to be named Jonathan Safran Foer, is one of the best novels to come out in the past few years. And I don't think Jane Austen is the slightest bit an inferior writer to Henry Fielding. Actually, I've never read Henry Fielding so I'm not really in any position to judge - except that I obtained a degree in English literature without any instructor ever feeling any need to assign me to read anything by Henry Fielding, whereas I was assigned to read two Jane Austen novels before I even graduated from high school, and I was re-assigned to study them again in college, so clearly the prevailing opinion of English teachers seems to be that Jane Austen's writings are more important. No doubt Bert Archer would say that English teachers have bought into identity politics. And how dare English teachers consider Ezra Pound's and T. S. Eliot's advice on writing more worthy of respect than Bert Archer's, anyway?

I can't believe how snide he is. He even gets in a dig at how, although Rinaldo Walcott's officially mainstream-certified credentials as a professor may give him some sort of right to speak at the debate (though not enough credentials, apparently, to prevent Bert Archer from glibly dismissing everything Walcott says as being a product of Walcott's monetary investment in identity politics by virtue of being a professor of queer/black studies, and unhesitatingly presuming to know better than this gay black professor of queer/black studies what being a gay black person is like), TJ Bryan a.k.a. Tenacious supposedly does not have any credentials other than that she "was there because she was black and a woman (and tenacious)," which, he sneers, is "an example of the fallacy of identity as inherent knowledge." In other words: Hey, being a black gay woman doesn't inherently mean you know anything about being a black gay woman! TJ Bryan just proved it doesn't, because she got invited to speak and I, Bert Archer, observed that she doesn't know anything about it! She needs to take lessons from me to learn what being a gay black woman is really like!

And who the hell is Bert Archer to sneer at TJ Bryan for not having a Ph.D.? I'd actually heard of TJ Bryan before reading or hearing about this book. I had been to her website. I had not heard of Bert Archer before hearing about this book. Bert Archer does not have a Ph.D. either. Bert Archer's "about the author" blurb says he is "a columnist and reviewer who has written for, Entertainment Weekly, The Bloomsbury Review, POZ, The New York Blade, and the Washington Blade. He is an editor at eye Weekly [a weekly arts newspaper in Toronto that appears to be given away for free, so I can't imagine it pays much] and lives in Toronto." For comparison, I searched Google for an "about the author" blurb on TJ Bryan, and found that she "has been published in Queer View Mirror I & II, Hot & Bothered I, II & III, the Lambda award winning Does Your Mama Know?, Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories and in On Our Backs. She's working on a collection of erotic short stories called Un/cut." I do not see a major difference in their credentials here. Nor is it fair to assume that differing professional success levels (if they did differ) between a white man and a black woman in a racist, sexist world are automatically attributable to any difference in skill level.

Then he starts ranting about how although "As the adoption of words like sodomy, homosexual, heterosexual and gay show, it is possible for the appearance and apprehension of things to change with a change in vocabulary," "the things themselves, in this case the basic structures of human sexuality, are not, however long we might like to think that they are, ever altered." He appears to think this statement constitutes some sort of argument against "wasting" time worrying about "fitting a B in there with the G's and the L's, going through old documents and changing every reference to specific non-white races to phrases like Person of Colour, making sure Gay and Bi and Asian and Woman had equal face-time, not only in the documents but on the floor, speakers recognized boy-girl, boy-girl and whenever possible, white-non-white, white-non-white." But it doesn't. The "things themselves," in this case the basic structures of human gender/race/sexuality differences, did not need changing. Bisexuals already existed, so the fact that "fitting a B in there with the G's and the L's" in documents did not actually cause bisexuals to start existing where they had not before (or that making sure Asian and Woman had equal face-time did not actually cause Asians and Women to start existing where they had not before) does not constitute any kind of relevant criticism of the activism that students at the conference engaged in. What needed changing was the language and the representation. And I love how Bert Archer thinks quoting James Baldwin and trying to claim James Baldwin was or would be on his side about identity politics will give him non-racist credentials, yet then goes on to dismiss the achievement of finally getting James Baldwin's books (and the books of occasional other people who are not Dead White Heterosexual Men) taught in schools as "not an especially big thing."

How is it an "utterly untenable, pathetically puerile position" for the Left to have " thought we should smash the patriarchy by forcing it to acknowledge difference"? Pointing out how differences in the financial successes and happiness levels and such of different genders are directly attributable to the different opportunities given to one and withheld from the other certainly seems to me to be as essential an ingredient of smashing the patriarchy as anything else I can think of.

I'm not convinced that the sixties was so successful at obtaining either peace or love. I suppose they helped obtain, eventually, after the sixties themselves had ended, an end to the Vietnam War; but the end of that war certainly did not equal peace. Bert Archer asserts that the sixties were successful "Especially on the love front: we got the seventies. Sexual attitudes and practices changed quickly and radically" - but here he is pretending that the words sex and love are synonymous. If love was a bigger sixties byword than sex, why is it that the seventies contained significant relaxations of taboos against casual sex, but no particularly increased levels of emotional love?

Whatever. It made for rather unpleasant reading, and I was taken aback because I'd previously read at least two LiveJournal entries about this book by two different people who read it before I did - neither of whom, I think, is a white male - and I don't have any memory of either of them mentioning this aspect of the book. I still do not regret buying the book, because it does contain some reasonably well-written critiques of "gay gene" ideas, and it also offers the occasional mildly interesting new glimpse of what life is like for white middle-class almost-exclusively-homosexual-identified males with aggravatingly huge racist and sexist tendencies they refuse to acknowledge - which is a life I haven't experienced firsthand, and I don't find it entirely uninteresting to learn about, although I do end up feeling really glad that I'm only learning about it long-distance from a book I can put down whenever he starts driving me too far up the wall. If I had to talk to him in person I think I'd run out of the room screaming in under five minutes. Perhaps when he started groping me without permission and announcing that there's nothing inherently sexually unhealthy about doing so and that he should have a legal right to do it.

The biggest problem with this book can be summed up by the title alone: it says "THE END OF GAY" in gigantic block letters, but only adds "(and the Death of Heterosexuality)" as a parenthetical afterthought in much smaller print. Shouldn't heterosexuality, and heterosexual privilege-based identities, be the primary thing to focus on getting rid of? For Bert Archer it doesn't seem to be, and I think that's because he doesn't really desire to abolish privilege from the world. Rather, he revels in all the many privileges he has, and he just wants to abolish the one identity that labels him as something other than the most privileged group: the gay identity. He doesn't consider it sufficient to just hope that someday, in the long run, identities like gay and het will cease to exist; he wants to immediately right this moment begin actively pretending they already don't exist, that they do not affect the world we live in, that it is wrong for queer people to want to make queerness as an identity any significant part of their life or the way the see themselves - and I think the reason he wants this is that if he got it, he would get to be seen again as a member of exclusively dominant groups: white, male, middle-class, not gay. The very idea that some of us might prefer having and keeping a strong sense of our identities as members of a non-mainstream, non-dominant group seems incomprehensible to him.
Tags: books, queer by choice
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