Chanting and Other Matters Queer
By Aaron Taub
Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 16-19
This critical essay was prompted by the specific chants and events of an October 31, 1992 demonstration organized by Queer Nation/Atlanta, participated in by other organizations such as ACLU, ACT UP/Atlanta, NOW, and Straight But Not Narrow and targeted against the Cracker Barrel corporation. It was one in a fairly regular series of demonstrations, which as readers may already know, began some two years ago, when the corporation first fired several gay and lesbian employees. Despite such tepid overtures as offering one of the most vocal employees her job, the company has refused to rehire the fired employees, to give back pay, or to institute a company non-discriminatory employment policy. In addition, it has actively sought and received federal intervention that would allow it to avoid presenting the issue to stockholder meetings. Although I had been mulling over a number of the ideas contained in this essay long before the demonstration, it was the demonstration itself that inspired me to write. Because of this, my discussion will be both specific and general, rooted in the particular events of October 31, yet extending beyond to a much broader range of issues of radical resistance.
While I am not an active member of Queer Nation/Atlanta, I have participated in a number of their Cracker Barrel demonstrations and have an enormous amount of respect for their accomplishments. For two grueling years, they have relentlessly publicized Cracker Barrel’s bigotry in the gay and straight media both in Atlanta and nationwide. In addition to demonstrating, they have purchased shares in the corporation, maintaining a dissonant presence at stockholder meetings. They have also made critical connections to Cracker Barrel’s racism by pointing out the insult to people of color posed by the mammy dolls that Cracker Barrel sells. Therefore, I find Queer Nation’s persistence on these and other fronts in the face of fierce indifference and hostility to be an extraordinary inspiration.
Yet while I applaud the actual work of Queer Nation, I find myself increasingly critical of some of the tactics and chants that are employed at their demonstrations. One of the most infuriating chants was “We’re your family, not your enemy; someone you love is queer.” The central problem with this chant is that it blurs conflict and a crucial dialectic between queer and homohating* identities. Simply put, I do not include myself in the family of bigots and I am an intractable enemy of people who fire queers. While perhaps seeking to point out to bigots that queers exist in their midst, the chant implicitly posits a larger community of shared relationship and interest. This “closeness” implied by its first two clauses—”we’re your family; not your enemy”—is problematic for a number of reasons. First, queers are genuinely threatening to the entire world view of bigots. To see us as defiant empowered beings rooted in our queer lust questions the entire cultural foundations that bigots have worked so hard to establish. It forces them to confront others who will fight
their fundamentalist Judeo/Christian obliterations of our bodies and our transgressive desires. Another cause of my reluctance to accept the chant’s usage of the term “family” is because of its accepted definition within contemporary queer parlance. When we ask “Is s/he family?,” we want to know if a given individual is queer. Faced all too often with the possibility of expulsion from the nuclear family, we seek to create alternate networks of relationality. In this framework, every queer becomes a potential family member, almost a blood ally in an alien, often hostile universe.
Equally important in our deconstruction of this chant is the need to combat the implications of “not your enemy.” I would argue there is simply no ground for compromise with people who hate and kill queers. An experience at an earlier QN demonstration made this quite clear. Last summer, when we crowded the Cracker Barrel restaurant at a peak hour and a waitress announced a wait of over an hour, a woman behind me said, “I’m not going to let sinners keep me out.” This woman is one component of a large, well-funded organized movement that is killing, bashing, and discriminating against queers on the streets, in Hollywood films, in the chambers of legislatures that refuse to include us in hate crimes legislation, in governments like Colorado that enact new and hateful amendments to their state constitution, and ones like Georgia that refuse to repeal their already existing sodomy legislation. I therefore believe that to deny Cracker Barrel and other homohaters an “enemy” status is to deny them responsibility for the innumerable acts of evil they have perpetuated against us.
In addition to the chant’s gruesome inaccuracy in invoking family and lack of enmity, I believe it fails even if one went along with its implicit purpose of educating bigots. I argue this because I do not believe revelations of nearby queerness would really change the opinions of homohaters. First of all, I would think that by now, most people are at least vaguely familiar with Kinsey’s research on the widespread existence of homosexuality in the culture. Having dialogued with far too many bigots, I can attest that they usually counter Kinsey’s not-very-startling revelations with the notion that homosexuality is a choice; they also argue that merely because sinning is widespread does not mean that it ought to be condoned. While this is certainly not the place to enter the exhausting nature/nurture quagmire, suffice it to say that since most bigots do not really believe in queer identity, they would hardly believe that someone they love is queer, as the third and equally disturbing clause of the chants says. More importantly, many queers get ostracized and completely cut off from bigoted families and societies just like those eating (and waiting over an hour to eat) at Cracker Barrel. So that faced with the grand ferocity of our desire, bigots completely separate themselves from their “loved” ones. Again, while it seems plausible to conjecture that even these rejected queers are still loved by their families, that possibility seems completely secondary, if not totally irrelevant. What does matter is that abusive power is wielded against queers; that they are losing out in an oppressive, homohating matrix.
A similar but far more useful chant (and one that indeed has been chanted at previous QN demonstrations
that I have attended) would be “2, 4, 6, 8: How do you know your preacher/doctor/sister, etc. is straight?” This chant successfully troubles the bigot’s idea of a queer-free zone, yet does not fall into the falsely-intimate touchy-feely realm of “We’re your family, not your enemy.” It forces bigots to question the supposed security of their most sacred spaces and destabilizes the very foundations of their bigotry.
Another problematic chant was “Gay, straight, black, white; same struggle, same fight.” While the effort of creating solidarity between liberation struggles is laudable, the chant posits a disturbing sameness that conflates different forms of oppression.
While my point is not to argue for a vertical hierarchy of oppressions, the fact remains that queer and straight people of color necessarily are subjected on a visible skin color, while for queers, this subjugation is based on sexuality. Some argue that this means people of color are more oppressed because they cannot hide or be closeted. Others maintain that queers lack the natural family and community spaces that people of color have and that being closeted is not a privilege but a denial of self. Again, regardless of which position one takes (and there are certainly a range of complicated positions in-between), what is indisputable is that these anti-racist and anti-queer-hating movements are different (though admittedly related) work. They require different strategies of combatance, often involve different communities of resistance, and at times, focus on different targets.
While my central involvement with this chant has been with QN/Atlanta (Atlanta being the primary site of my activism in the last two years), I have also experienced it in other contexts. Last summer in New York, I participated in Queer Nation/NY’s “Take Back the Streets” march, at which this chant was also recited. Following the march and the glorious burning in effigy of Cardinal O’Connor outside St. Veronica’s church on Christopher Street, I became engaged in an intense exchange with a woman who was furious that the chant had fizzled out.
She argued that this lack of enthusiasm was the result
of racism of the predominantly white marchers. While she conceded the validity of my critique, she felt that it was a subtlety, even a luxury, and that what really mattered was forcing primarily white marchers to face (their) racism. I agreed that racism may well have been the cause of the chant’s unpopularity and that all white people have to constantly fight racism that is manifested both within them/ourselves and in the surrounding culture, but that one does not combat racism by invoking politically problematic chants.
What I did not express to the woman in New York and what I do want to express now is that by thinking critically about our necessarily reductive but nonetheless powerful chants, we empower ourselves and make our movement(s) that much stronger.
A related happening was the conclusion of the October 31st demonstration with a singing of “We Shall Overcome.” As a song made famous in the civil rights movement, this is a song that has a particular historical rootedness. Surrounded by barking dogs, hoses, frothing-at-the-mouth crowds, and brutal police, this song’s very dignity and power also possessed a ferocious radicalism that because of contemporary circumstances, it currently lacks. Moreover, it is a song that was sung primarily by African-American people for their own political freedom. QN’s rendition of the song loses that necessary historical specificity, a loss which a group of primarily (though by no means exclusively) white people should certainly not be the ones to bring about.
The question of specificity of participant and struggle are not simply critical to me as a white person fighting societal and internalized racism, but also as a Jew seeking to free myself from a homophobic and misogynistic ultra-Orthodox upbringing. While Judaism has obviously lacked the cultural and political power of Christianity and while it has all too often been the brunt of Christian hate, I believe that it is critical for me as a former frum (Orthodox) Jew and for other Jews to fight the powerful lobbying drives of Orthodox Jews against gay rights ordinances. One of my most haunting memories is as a queer teenager browsing my father’s collection of hate rags published by Agudas Yisroel, an ultra-Orthodox cultural and political organization and seeing an article proudly proclaim the group’s anti-queer work. I remember my anger, the visceral reaction of my body in the form of shivers and sweat and most of all, my terror. These formative memories continue to shape my resistance to orthodox hatred.
While I would argue that we should all level criticism at the anti-queer initiatives of the ultra-Orthodox (just as we have at those of the Catholic Church and Protestant fundamentalists), I nevertheless believe that it is particularly critical for queer Jews to do this work. Mounting a critique from an inside position is important for several reasons. First it lends an essential urgency to a given struggle, making clear that resistance is not an exercise in abstraction or universal good, but rather one shaped by configurations of power. Even if all could agree on eventual goals, what often happens in the day-to-day process of a liberation movement is that those who possess the most power at the time (straight white, male) tend to dominate decision-making and action. Stemming from an awareness of power imbalance is the need to recognize the importance of self-empowerment, that is, the oppressed liberating themselves. Because self-liberation can only happen through active participation in struggle, it seems crucial for those who are most oppressed within a particular matrix (whether class, gender, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation) to actively participate in and lead the struggle against those oppressive forces. In other words, while this essay is not specifically about gay Jewish identity, the analytical tools of specificity and difference that I use to understand the benefits that result from my whiteness necessarily affect/intertwine with other, less privileged aspects of my identity.
In this essay, then, I have tried to use my experience of discomfort at a demonstration as a means of thinking carefully about particular chants and actions and their implications for queer liberation. I have argued that queer liberation must make connections to other struggles, but cannot conflate those struggles themselves or appropriate their songs and rituals. And I have done this by positioning myself within my various communities (Jewish, queer, and radical), by saying that we grow stronger not only through our needed struggle against enemies, but also through self-critique and reflection.
And if at certain moments, my tone has appeared defensive, that defensiveness is real. While I can politically justify self-examination, it still remains somewhat awkward and even painful. Our triumphs seem so few; our enemies so formidable. Why spend limited and precious energy on internal critique? Why expose oneself to making enemies from friends and colleagues? Why risk fracturing an already small and overworked community of resistance? Despite these reservations, I remain committed not just to the points raised in this essay, but more importantly, to the larger practice of internal debate and critique not only radical praxis but also ideology and theory.
Aaron Taub is a graduate student in the department of history at Emory University.
*. * I use the term “homohating” instead of “homophobic,” because of the latter’s stifling psychologizing connotations. “Homophobic,” meaning fear of homosexuality, has been used by some to argue that those who hate/bash queers fear the homosexuality within themselves. I am not terribly interested in “understanding” the murky, subterranean motives of my oppressors; I am more concerned with the more immediate and realizable objective of fighting their oppression.