TW: sexism, heterosexism
Freddie DeBoer has become a problem.
His most recent post which caught the blogosphere ablaze with contentious argument, was about the saccharine but ultimately irrelevant depiction of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie as a same-gender couple having a moment after the announcement of the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Hollingsworth v Perry and United States v Windsor (which overturned California’s Proposition 8 and section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, respectively).
(A comic originally published here, about how many queer activist spaces like pride have become increasingly inhabited by only certain types of queer people and straight people.)
DeBoer’s argument should be immediately suspect since he is speaking on the issue of how queer people should be national represented while being straight (and cisgender) himself. He has a track record for actually silencing marginalized and oppressed groups of which he’s not a member as a means of actually proclaiming himself to be the only true advocate for the rights of the people he’s speaking over.
The form that often takes is one in which he declares someone or something else to not be serious, and consequently unable to represent a group or issue effectively, and while that’s not central to this argument, there’s an implication of it. He charges that the presentation of Bert and Ernie as a (closeted?) queer couple works with “liberal” stereotypes of queer people as (among other things) “childish” and “silly”. I’ll admit that I’m sympathetic to this view point, but DeBoer’s argument here seems to be that presentations of queer people as either of those attributes are to be struggled against.
His problem isn’t the pigeonholing of queer people – it’s pigeonholing them “wrongly”. As he argues, “I don’t think that a group that has for decades labored against a brutally oppressive regime that humiliated them, assaulted them, and systematically denied them equal rights should be analogized to imaginary characters that have been built out of felt for the edutainment of children”. This is, of course, deeply ironic coming from someone who until recently wasn’t very interested in the whole “marriage” thing since that’s assimilationist, but of course, DeBoer might be willing to talk out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. One side will be fallacious arguments about “assimilation” while another centers the struggles of queer people exclusively around marriage rights. That’s another issue, but that he can so easily switch between these supposedly antagonistic perspectives says something both about DeBoer’s queer-positive activism and the nature of those positions.
In any case, DeBoer’s whole argument seems very much like a straight guy trying to speak to queer issues like queer people do without acknowledging his own ignorance on them. The New Yorker was making a flawed statement, sure, but it was one that treated the “triviality” of a fan interpretation of Bert and Ernie’s relationship as a serious issue. Granting marriage reforms the status of “important” is something even queer individuals often have trouble doing, declaring it irrelevant compared to either other queer issues or other systemic discrimination or patterns of violence. If we want DeBoer’s support we have to remain “serious”.
Similarly frustrating, the major thrust of DeBoer’s argument was that Bert and Ernie are sexless in a way that real queer people aren’t. Sure, but the presentation of queer people (by both queer and straight people) as defined through their sex lives is something many queer people find upsetting, damaging, and even triggering. There is a discussion to be had about how popular acceptance of queer people often corresponds to the perception of them as sexual, but arguing that every presentation of queer people should push those limits polices the representation of queer people too. That’s beyond fighting fire with fire, but an example of another straight person privileging his opinions about how we should be represented in the media, just with slightly unusual opinions.
In effect, this isn’t being an ally, but co-opting a liberation movement. This isn’t about modifying the public representations of queer people so that queer people decide how they want to be viewed, but fitting the depictions of queer people to DeBoer’s (non-standard) expectations. This isn’t a thoughtful evaluation of queer people’s issues that avoids clichés of “assimilation” or “marriage before all”, but rather the mixing and matching of those two tired and inadequate perspectives.
Freddie DeBoer isn’t calling out the problem – he is the problem.