I was recently listening to Philip Adams interview notable gay writer Edmund White on Late Night Live. At one point in the interview, White made the suggestion that there is some ‘destiny’ for gay people that extends further than merely ‘fitting in’.
What a curious idea! And one not at odds with my own views about notions of oppression and liberation.
You see, I think today’s buzzword for civil rights movements is ‘equality’. We think about feminism today as a struggle for ‘equal pay’, or the gay movement pushing for ‘marriage equality’ or issues of race and religion being dealt with in ‘tolerant’ and ‘equal terms’. This is fine, I suppose, if we were living 100 years ago.
But we are not. We are living in an age that can look back at the massive social, cultural and political upheavals of the 1960’s, where the buzzword of the era was not something as banal as ‘equality’, but was instead ‘liberation’ and ‘freedom’. These words carry a great deal more gravity than ‘equality’.
Equality is inadequate, because the very process of defining yourself as an equal involves a symbolic acceptance of the dominance of your oppressor. You cannot have equality without someone or something with which to be equal. Your very definition, your position as a knowing, acting subject, is already framed by the existence of another.
Liberation is completely immanent to the idea of true subjectivity. To be truly free to define who and what you are, you must first be liberated from the [cultural, symbolic, political] oppression of the Other. A big ask, and some might argue impossible. I’m an optimist, and I think it’s worth the fight.
But if you give up that fight, say, by pushing in from the margins, arguing that you should be not only accepted by the mainstream, but integrated into the mainstream…then you are arguing for your irrelevance and to dissolve what makes you uniquely powerful.
There is a role in society for the fringe, and it is to bring new ideas and perspectives to bear on the mainstream. It is the duty of the radical to change the banal, to provide inspiration and alternatives. This is the role, as I see it, for the gay community.
In the interview, White describes the passage of gay identity from the closeted 50’s, to the liberation movement of the 60’s, to the celebration of the 70’s, followed by the decimation by AIDS of the 1980’s. What remains, Adams and White suggest, is a vacuous image-culture, a shadow of the former vibrant gay identity. Where once gays were bastions of culture, wit and class; so many now are reduced to superficial gym-junkies. It’s a scathing critique, and quite confronting to listen to while doing bicep curls.
But there is still wit out there; I know it because I encounter it whenever I go to gay events. And there is still a palpable appreciation of culture, of art, of the intellect. It should go further. The front of the war for gay liberation is shifting, and disconnecting from politics and intellectualism has lost ground for the movement.
If there is one desire I have for young members of the GLBTQI.. ad nauseum community, it is for them to become political again and to re-engage with the arts and culture. That is the role for the gays: to bring colour to an increasingly monochrome world. As we approach that goal of ‘equality’, we should be reassessing it as a step on the road, not an endpoint.
Of course gays should have equality…why should anybody not be equal? Legalising Same Sex Marriage isn’t simply a legal convenience; it is symbolic in that it legitimises gay couples. That’s important, not only because we all want an egalitarian society, but also because we want to legitimise those groups that exist in the margins – to give them the freedom to pursue their own manifest destiny, whatever that may be.