Two videos about marriage equality keep popping up in my social world, my media world and my social media world. But after watching them both on repeat despite my critical distance, I realized I had come down with a bad case of both of these viral videos. The contradictory emotional state that each of them left me in was similar to that of an amateur drag show: delight, horror, inability to look away. But these videos were actually nothing like an amateur drag show; they were totally un-glittery; totally un-queer.
One video is a beautiful, well-produced ad for gay marriage, entitled ‘It’s Time,’ the other is a rousing speech given by the beautiful, well-produced son of lesbian mothers. If these videos are emblematic of a cultural moment in the history of the LGBT movement, I’m still trying to figure out if I like it. At best, these videos represent a pinnacle in the LGBT history. They so gracefully build upon the momentum of a moment where mainstream support is building and signs of triumph are everywhere. At worst, these videos represent the end of an authentically queer movement, a successful co-optation of resistance combined with a much more insipid and powerful form of discrimination and exclusion.
And queerness matters, it matters so, so much, but I’ll explain that in just a sec. But first, lets take a long, hard, admittedly tear-filled look at the videos.
The first is an aesthetically exceptional ad for gay marriage entitled, “It’s Time,” released by Get Up! in Australia. For most of the commercial, the camera occupies a first person perspective, beginning with a gaze towards a gorgeous, young, white, unthreatening (literally) white-collared man leaning over the side of a yacht. The camera tracks forward to the object of its affection, and suddenly, creating a brief moment of longing, cuts to the image of a book over the side of the boat rail, the page blown over by the seaside breeze. The camera, affirming its subjective POV, pans around toward the young man once again; he laughs as the music begins to swell. We see his hand sketch his phone number and name in the book: Paul. The corner of a hand- our hand- leads Paul towards us. A dreamlike drone becomes brightly percussive; our love affair begins. The images evolve from moving snapshots of a perfect first date that invites us to fall in love with Paul- early sunset woven golden in his hair, his sweet, flirtatious gaze on a ferris wheel. Images and sounds of birds signify freedom and flight. We see the relationship grow- grocery shopping (for shrink-wrapped produce), beach fun with (tanned, skinny, mostly female) friends that culminates in his arm reaching lovingly to our cheek, a slightly stressful roadtrip to his parents house, moving furniture, lots of playful eating (popcorn tossed in the mouth, forks of food fed teasingly), tracking towards Paul crying after a family tragedy, more carnival rides and more beachy fun with pretty girls, a birthday cake, and finally, our love, our dear Paul, on one knee, revealing a ring, his beautiful face, that moment, the moment.
Then, the great reveal: the camera turns to show the person with whom we identified. And he is a man as well, another beautiful, well dressed man! And they hug, and the friends rush forward, and the violins climb up a major scale and dissolve into an ambient sonic swirl as the screen goes black and fading in are the words, “It’s Time. End Marriage Discrimination.”
Before I go on to deconstruct this sequence, I have to pay homage to its impeccable construction. Every single time I watched it, despite the fact that I knew exactly what was coming, my eyes got a sting in them and began to leak. It was as if the ad was to be blurred out the end by the viewers eyes, an aesthetic formal element garnered by a physiological response from the audience but expertly engineered by the film. Because that is exactly what it was supposed to do: made us fall in love a li’l bit and cry a li’l bit in under 2 minutes. It is made particularly well for the primary target audience of anti-gay marriage viewers, who are supposed to think, “Oh, i’m an asshole. This is love” or well-to-do gay men who are supposed to think, “Hey, me too!” And for everyone else, like me, it’s a touching, heartwarming portrait of true love and a heartwarming affirmation of our progressive values.
So undeniably, this ad is totally brilliant from a cinematic and marketing perspective and it comes at a pretty incredible cultural moment- the secretary of state having just declared to the world that “Gay, rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” New York just having made gay marriage legal; the policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that was repealed this past summer beginning to feel like history.
But the fact that it is so emblematic of this cultural moment is precisely what scares me, it is precisely the problem. This ad feeds its audience the most glossy, most normative possible picture of same-sex couplehood- two people that, other than being gay, have every possible form of privilege. The formula wouldn’t work the same way if the subjects weren’t attractive, rich, able-bodied white men. The subtext to the surprise ending could be read as, “See? They are just like a straight couple! Maybe even better!”
We could imagine that this couple would go on to raise a beautiful, university educated child who would say something like, “in my nineteen years not once have I ever been confronted by an individual that has realized independently that I was raised my a gay couple. And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character.”
Ring a bell? This is the final, applause prompting statement of the other marriage equality viral video of this past week, where Zach Wahls, an engineering student/ Generally Well-Adjusted Young Man gives a speech to the Iowa Senate urging them to reject a constitutional amendment that would deny marriage equality to lesbian mothers. But, due largely to the digestibility and quotability of his last rousing statement, this video went viral, especially after moveon.org reposted under the (awkward) name “Two Lesbians Raised a Baby and This is What They Got,” and helped bump it up to the position of the most-watched political video of 2011.
The speech is undoubtedly great; it should seriously be the exemplar in every public-speaking curriculum. And the speaker is great; the boy every father wants as a prom date for their daughter. Or son. So since Zach spoke so directly to all of his listener’s hearts, I’ll speak directly to him as well.
Hey, I liked your speech and stuff. I guess it was, like, pretty great that you were the most watched political youtube video this year. That is rad and all. But in case you were wondering about my opinion, (which i’m sure you were because you’re, like, super caring a really good listener) the last statement makes me cringe. Zero effect on the content of your character, Zach, really?
Actually, it probably had a massive effect on the content of your character; you probably are smarter, stronger and more critical because of the sexual orientation of your parents. Because you realized that your moms and your family had to deal with a lot of discrimination, you probably have a greater sense of justice, a more open mind, a deeper political engagement. The audience should be applauding you for this, but not for a statement that perpetuates an idea that homosexuality is okay only if it is, well, just like heterosexuality.
So do you really think that normativity should be a precondition for tolerance or did you just say that to impress Iowa conservatives? Let me know!
PS Would you, um, want to go to prom with me? Check yes or no.
Zach is so effective in assuring viewers that gay people can have (gasp!) normal and well adjusted families…
“I guess the point is our family really isn’t so different from any other Iowa family. You know, when I’m home we go to church together, we eat dinner, we go on vacations. Ah, but, you know, we have our hard times too”
…or normal and well-adjusted children:
“I scored in the 99th percentile on the A.C.T. I’m actually an Eagle Scout. I own and operate my own small business. If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”
But are “normal” and “well-adjusted” the primary values we want to build upon, preconditions for equality and non-oppression? A claim that gay people should be allowed equal rights when they are just like straight couples is embedded with a notion that gay people do not deserve equal rights if they are not like everyone else or don’t fit into societies prescription for success. The “It’s Time” video montage wouldn’t really work if the love interest was introduced in buttless chaps on a pride float, the sun glinting off the curly tendrils of his hairy back. The Zach Wahls video wouldn’t really be effective if Zach was a genderqueer graffiti artist with a face tattoo and a speech impediment, even if he was exceptionally brilliant and led a full, productive life.
But non-normative lifestyles, activities, aesthetics and desires should not only be tolerated in the LGBT rights movement, they should be celebrated. Because this is what queerness is all about.
The first time I realized that I was queer was long before I began identifying as a part-time lesbian (an identity category uniquely cringe- inducing to radicals and conservatives alike). The revelation had little nothing to do with a personal same-sex attraction, but rather a realization that queerness was a way of being, thinking, looking and living. It offered not just a different lifestyle, but a different paradigm that simultaneously clarified and complicated so many things for me. I realized so much stuff that was messed-up about society was deeply connected to our society’s oppressive and closed-minded models of romantic relationships. Heteronormativity could be attributed to so many ills.
To list a few:
– Urban sprawl and all its negative environmental and cultural consequences are inextricable from the societal pressure to find a partner of the opposite sex and build a familial world that is safe and seperate from the scary, dark, different surroundings.
– People often lose engagement with social justice issues, stop caring about their friends and buy multiple SUVs after they start raising little rascals because society tells us that the well-being of The Family needs to take precident over all else, justifying all sacrifice as noble and neccesary.
– The success of a family is gauged by ‘well-adjusted’ kids and economically stable parents: the perfect family is that which effectively maintains the status quo and feeds a capitalist paradigm.
Heteronormative Romance 101: True Love should lead to romantic commitment; True Commitment means monogamy, sex, and marriage; True Sex involves penal-vaginal penetration; True Sex is the miracle of life, childbirth; childrearing should take place in a family unit. Other forms of sexual relation considered either perverse or secondary, not actual sex but ‘kink’ or ‘foreplay’. And love, sex, family or commitment that falls out of this model has no political or cultural legitimacy. Hence, the dominant social model of families leaves us with shallow adult friendships, homophobia, community disengagement and political alientation. And that sucks, but not in a nice way at all.
It was at a queer bookstore in London (so perfect, right?) that my friend Sydney Neuman (I now think of her as Squidney Neuwomyn) asked for a recommendation and bought the book that has truly shaped the way I think: Judith Halberstam’s “In a Queer Time and Place”. The book is jam-packed with amazing nuggets of wisdom, but this is the main thing I took from it:
The narrative arc of our lives is supposed to lead from adolescence- where we struggle with identity, experiment with politics and subcultures- to adulthood, where we eventually settle upon a stable identity, trade in resistance for participation, settle down with a lover of the opposite sex, get a stable career and raise kids to successfully continue the great circle of life. But for LGBT people, subcultural or political engagement doesn’t end at adulthood and the nuclear family isn’t the expected ending to romantic relationships, so queer people live in an alternative sense of time. And because so many social and political spaces are inaccessible to queer people, they have to actively carve out their own sense of place. Queerness, therefore, creates alternative temporalities and spacialities, with radically productive possibilities. And that is wicked awesome.
I should point out that most of my friends that are the “against gay marriage” are queer-identified themselves. They have lots of good reasons, and to name a few: the increasing normativity of gayness dissolving its subcultural or radical associations; the corrupt instutution of mairrage being another tool for capitalist hegemony that, until recently, gay people were fortunate enough to absent from. And then there is the point that that struggling for this symbolic recognition overshadows the real issues: poverty, homelessness and lack of social support for LGBT people; AIDS; youth bullying and suicide; the reality that not fitting into gender binaries means it’s often impossible to fit within basic institutional structures such as restrooms, forms and pronouns.
Another reason why my anti-gay marriage friends are not homophobes is because I just don’t know very many homophobes. I’ve pranced giddily from one queer-friendly liberal bubble to the next, and I’ve met so few truly conservative people in my (material, non news-reading) life that I sometimes find myself wondering if the powerful Republican voice is a well-simulated invention of the media, like H&M models, Batboy, or Lindsay Lohan’s naked (NSFW) body.
I have to realize, however, that my privilege not only sheltered me directly from most types of hardship and pretty much every form of structural oppression, but also from common interfacing with people that have radically different political views as my own. But unlike Playboy’s images of LiLo’s nipples, homophobia is very, very real.
Constructive dialogue needs to start somewhere, so if these videos can open a few people’s minds and eyes and hearts to the possibility that love between two people of the same gender is, in fact, actual love and deserves recognition and respect and rights, then that is a triumph. It is a massive step in the right direction that I just can’t write off.
But we need to remember that it is not enough, and we need to continue carving spaces in the fight for marriage equality, the LGBT rights movement, and in society in general. We need to ensure safe space for non-normative lifestyles and relationships, for folks that don’t want (or can’t have) the storybook romance beginning with a yacht and ending with a diamond ring, that don’t raise a kid that goes into engineering and starts a small business in his youth.
Whether you do or do not follow the storybook narrative and position your life in the centre of normative expectations, I hope that you will stand in solidarity with queer people, support queer spaces and celebrate queer times.
And allow queerness to have a powerful and beautiful effect on the content of your character. Because it’s time.