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Which wars count, and which wars don’t? We might spend ten minutes during primetime to discuss the War on Women, make a few documentaries on the War on Poverty, and write and read a slew of books about the Mommy Wars. All of these capital-w Wars involve figures who are simultaneously marginalized and empowered: women, for instance, are constantly objectified in news media, pop culture, and political debates (Limbaugh’s demand to see a Sandra Fluke sex tape being exhibit A), but they are also capable of representing themselves. Poor women have less of a voice, of course, especially if they are black (“welfare queens,” anyone?), but public discourse still recognizes the agency of such women in public forums – even as access to those forums are more and more restricted by voter ID laws and other examples of institutionalized racism.
But what about the voices we do not hear, because we deny their very legitimacy? I’m talking about queer and gender-nonconforming children. While I hesitate to engage in any kind of “Oppression Olympics” by establishing a hierarchy of privileges, let’s take a moment to consider what might be, almost literally, the mother of all wars.
Bringing your kids up queer
In 1991, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, largely recognized as one of the mothers of gay/lesbian studies, queer studies, and queer theory, published a significant article whose outrageous title ruffled more than a few feathers: “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay.” (Sedgwick is, of course, parodying a standard conservative trope: the claim that LGBT activists are just trying to “recruit” young people into their ranks.) Her article begins by noting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had just published a study on youth suicide which found that (in Sedgwick’s paraphrase) “young gays and lesbians are two to three times more likely than other young people to attempt and to commit suicide.” But this new data wasn’t welcomed by everyone, even within the very department which produced it. The Secretary of Health attacked that portion of the study, declaring that “the views expressed in the paper run contrary to” the aim of “advancing traditional family values.” There you have it. At the opening of the 1990s, a top official in president’s cabinet announced that protecting queer children and young adults from violence and premature death was not in the interests of the United States government. And federal and state programs certainly followed this de facto policy, as any cursory glance at the congressional record of that decade would show.
But have things changed? Have they, per Dan Savage and his liberal ilk, “gotten better”? Or has the war on queer kids simply intensified in new and more insidious ways? When I say “queer kids,” I don’t necessarily mean mini Harvey Milks or hyper-sexual toddlers. The resistance mounted by conservative to any suggestion that their children be educated about queer history and political movements indicates that our culture assumes “queer” means “perpetually horny.” Of course, children can and do engage in proto-sexual acts with each other, as anyone but the most fervent disciples of Doctor Laura might concede. But I’m talking about a voiceless population more difficult to locate than kids who know they’re gay at 11 years old. I’m referring to the children whom Sedgwick calls “proto-gay”: kids who don’t fall into normative psychiatric models about “proper” gendered behavior and development. So the current statistics which indicate that depression and suicide for LGBT youth are higher than average, and significantly linked to periods in time when discriminatory laws are enacted and anti-bullying laws struck down, are important, because they show us that the fight for LGBT-identified children is far from over. But it’s also missing a crucial problem: the fact that we can’t give voice to the voiceless. And in this case, the voiceless are the proto-queer kids, or the children who simply fail to live up to early childhood gender norms.
Failed children, failed parents
What does a parent do if they see their child acting in a way which doesn’t conform to standard gendered behaviors? They freak. When I was in pre-Kindergarten, my teacher offered to paint the girls’ nails. So that boys wouldn’t feel left out, she gave us the option of wearing clear nail polish. I must have thought this was a rip-off, a way of forbidding me access to colors which the girls seemed free to play with – because I remember asking my teacher to paint my nails red, too. (Of course, I wasn’t yet aware of the ways in which the imposition of colored nail polish on little girls could serve to limit as much as liberate.) I went home and showed my mother my proud victory over unfairness – and she scrubbed my nails clean in a panicked frenzy. I had broken a cardinal rule of boyhood, and I was, almost violently, made to know it.
But this wasn’t done out of hatred, but love. That’s the danger here. Many of the parents Sedgwick references in her article are described as trying desperately to fit their children into the very gender norms which psychiatrists argue are already inherent to all children. They do this because they love their children, and don’t want them to suffer. This is an admirable aim, but its violent end – exemplified in years and years of news items documenting the murder of gender-nonconforming kids by their own parents – indicates something more insidious than love. This is a genocide, and it’s largely unreported. How many parents actually kill their babies for their queerness, and how many simply enact daily microaggressions against them? How many murders aren’t recorded as hate crimes, because the police simply don’t know to ask the question, “Did you kill your son because of his gender expression?” We know that many more potential parents harbor disgust toward improperly gendered children than murder them. How many potential killers are out there, in the bodies of otherwise loving mothers and fathers? How many parents are implicitly teaching their children to fear the queer, to detest the Other within themselves? After all, not every boy who plays with Barbies goes on to like boys – but, if taught to be ashamed of his dolls, he might go on to hate the boys who like boys. He might go on to hate the parts of him that remind him of those other boys, those boys who couldn’t get themselves to like girls.
All of this violence likely emerges out of a fear that our children will not grow into proper, straight, cisgender human beings. That possibility certainly reflects back upon parents. What does it say about a father if he has a sissy-boy son or a tom-boy daughter? It means that he is a failure, because his child is a failure. As Sedgwick notes in her brilliant essay on this subject, there may be many nominally pro-gay and pro-queer psychiatrists out there, but not one of them will tell a parent to be proud that their child isn’t normatively gendered. No one will say, “What a wonderful feminine son you have!”, and mean it. These same people who grudgingly or even happily accept the existence of adult (and, they hope, normatively gendered) gay men and lesbians are some of the same people who oppose anti-bullying initiatives in schools, because they believe that bullying is merely another form of free speech, and a kind of positive discipline which “toughens up” boys and teaches girls how to be “good,” and not sluts or dykes. We can allow queer adults, because they’ve escaped the clutches of child-rearing, and nothing can be done about them. But queer kids – and, to an extent, all kids are queer, or I should say as-yet unschooled in the ways of 21st century North American gender norms – are abominations and must be erased, violently.
Parents versus children: the parent of all wars
Let me reiterate that I see no inherent superiority of one oppression over another. My position as a gay man doesn’t make me more or less privileged overall than straight women. Nor are we “equal.” Our situations are incommensurable, and the desire to try and determine some fundamental oppression or some equivalent experience is just another kind of oppressive thought pattern: it assumes that everyone’s experience must roughly be the same, and that difference should be effaced in order to make things easier to understand.
Still, we might see oppressive thought patterns as originating in early childhood, in the ways we teach our children to treat themselves, and to treat others. What is at the heart of any straight man’s experience? The fact that he is not queer. How was he taught that he was not queer? By having his sexual and gender experiences constantly reinforced, by being taught to despise or fear any potential queer element within him, however arbitrarily that may be defined. If you cry, you’re a fag – and if one of your buddies cries, he’s a fag, and you should tell him so, otherwise you might allow that fagginess to invade your space, invade your self, invade your body. You might turn out not to be all that different from “the queer,” from the Other, as you were originally taught to think and hope you were.
So the violences we enact upon those who have voices – adult queer people, women, poor people – are perhaps rooted, in some way, in the daily violences and aggressions which we enact upon those who are voiceless. The queer child does not know they are queer, and while that means they can’t mount any organized protest as adults can, it is also their threat to a patriarchal, homophobic society: they are unashamed, not yet brought into order. And perhaps that’s where libertarians and feminists should find their strength. Not in some false ideal of giving voices to the voiceless, which always entails a kind of presumptuousness and violence. But rather in combating prejudice and systemic violence wherever we find it. We should seek to be watchdogs, and to fight violence in every possible manifestation – beyond the identity group “wars” we name daily on primetime television. Rather than just defending the groups we recognize and associate with, we should fight domination and hierarchy in every area of life.
Brendan Moore is an undergrad studying English and French. He lives all over the place. He enjoys a good beer and subversive feminist stand-up. Both at the same time.