Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Judith "Jack" Halberstam and the It Gets Better Project

I attended a lecture by Dr. Judith "Jack" Halberstam entitled "Transgenders in a Global Frame" that described the various ways in which the gendered categories of Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual are imposed by the United States, and the West generally, on more localized and more gender ambiguous forms of sexual and gender behavior. Of course, this critique leans toward a kind of anti-imperialist rhetoric that tends to see the colonial or local as subaltern and therefore in some ways more congruent with emancipation. 

At the same time, in Western countries, Halberstam argued, that gender norms, particularly those of women, have been scrambled by models of transgenderism, insofar as 51% of women over 45 in the United States are single, suggesting something fundamentally askew in the production of feminine subjects, ready for state legibility. Instead, Halberstam promoted some notion that gender is a kind of ecology, wherein we might migrate to differential performances of gender and sexual life depending on where we are in life, and how we transform.

None of these claims are particularly revolutionary, and none I particularly took issue with. The notion of  gender as ecology makes a great deal of sense particularly with regard to the constant extension of human life in time might suggest a temporal evolution of sexuality and gender identity.

I questioned "Jack" with regard to "imposition" of gender/sex norms as being completely uniform, insofar as groups in Uganda fighting the execution ban have attempted to "take refuge" in LGBT set of identities at least to appeal for international aid against the law. Halberstam reminded me that it was U.S. pastors who helped initiated or at least fostered this law in Uganda in the first place, something I was already aware. But here is the problem with that argument:

On the one hand the state imposes a sexuality on its subjects and this is done with the aid and abeyance, perhaps initiative, of an imperialist/missionary element from the United States. Somehow LGBT groups in the West are responsible or complicit with this process in Uganda because they insist on identification with their categories and cause in order for those suffering under the threat of the new legislation and massive social intolerance to receive succor or aid, and they thus quash the fragile ecologies of gender/sexual life in these other nations. But at the same time, were this law to have passed, as soon as the subjects were to have emerged, i.e. identified themselves, power could do nothing productive with them, but to kill them (which at least for Foucault, the floating influence behind her argument, would be a rather unproductive use of power). LGBT groups operating within a liberal imperialist tradition are therefore retroactively to blame for these deaths which do not really mobilize more bodies ready for governance, or biopolitical regulation, but only death.

Halberstam closed her talk with a discussion of Dan Savage's "It Gets Better Project" that made some rather scattershot and I would say fucked up claims. She suggested that "It Get's Better" is a project that is comensurate with a cultural of neoliberalism, that insists on a generalized faith in the "future," as in market futures will generate profit and social equity if we only have faith in them. This was a claim that garnered at least my tacit assent, but then Halberstam seemed to indicate that somehow the rash of finally publicized suicides (queer teens are 75% more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens) by imputedly gay teens were not a socially significant phenomenon because the suicides were just boys. 

This last comment pissed me off to a significant degree, for obvious reasons, in large part due to the fact that outwardly perceived gay men, tend to be the object of public scorn and violence more often than lesbian women in the United States. Her suggestion to my mind seemed like a sort of knee-jerk reaction of a former 1970s radical feminist attitude that treats all men as pristine representatives of the patriarchy. At time, I will admit I thought there was something somewhat cute for me in the "It Gets Better Project," a reaching out across queer generations in a way that queer life in the U.S. tends to prohibit or make untenable.

Later in the year, Dan Savage came to town to discuss this project and basically give a live version of his column "Savage Love," a largely sexual and relationship advice column with national attention. And although I loathed and found completely disagreeable some of Halberstam's grisly conclusions, I have to say that her argument that Savage's project was commensure with neoliberal culture held. 

Savage continually made light of people who responded to the "It Gets Better" project with suggestions that "It Gets Worse" or "It Doesn't Get Better," by indicating that all of these videos to some degree affirm his message despite their interpretations to the contrary with your typical B.A. educated, dismissive certitude. In one response to a student question, Savage actually attempted to depoliticize the work of attempts to reach out. This student asked something to the effect of, "But shouldn't we also be saying that, what you are experiencing is discrimination, this is wrong. And it is part of a system of injustice." Dan, insisted that in the aim of safeguarding said queer child from harm we shouldn't be making such statements, or ask them to. It was in that moment that my lukewarm support for Savage's vision of thethe project was washed away and I found myself agreeing with that single claim made by Halberstam that Savage's work is in fact commensurate with the culture neoliberalism. If we depoliticize the struggle, by excising claims to justice and against oppression what we get is sentimentality and the weak claim that "everything will turn out right in the end." The ways in which the GLBT establishment attempts to depoliticize and make bipartisan what are concrete claims for liberation and against discrimination cut in precisely the same way as the way Savage wants to circumscribe the meaning of his project. So extending Halberstam's logic here is much more useful, than in the tortured logic she proposed above, that LGBT groups were somehow retroactively responsible for Ugandan violence against non-heteronormative peoples. 

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