Tag Archives: trivialization of queer people

The apotheosis of straight allyship

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.

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The impossibility of queerness

Niall Ferguson’s “apology” reminded me in one of the worst ways of a long running facet of a lot of heterosexist speech: that it’s not even about queer people or queerness. As I mentioned yesterday, his almost apologetic response to being told that he misrepresented the details of Keynes personal life seems to be the justification for his response, more than actually absorbing a larger point about queer families and queer people. In a very real sense, his declaration of Keynes’ queerness to be a mark of unreasonableness if not inferiority is centered around heteronormative standards and concepts. It’s not merely that Ferguson devalued queer conceptions of kinship, but that while doing so he didn’t even acknowledge that those exist.


(Jokes on him, there’s even artistic deconstructions of queer families nowadays, from here.)

Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of that sort of thing going around lately, for centuries even. It’s practically a trope at this point for straight people to discuss queer people’s romantic interests, flings, partners, and even spouses as their (followed by an apparently obligatory pause) friend. Ferguson thankfully avoids that pitfall in his not-apology, mostly by not actually discussing any same-gender relationships so much as same-gender attraction (and that even pales in comparison to his main point, which was a presumed lack of attraction to women felt by Keynes). In the past few months, however, several prominent figures in the US failed to avoid the apparently very uncomfortable issue of discussing queer relationships, as marriage policies became a focal point with gathering efforts to recognize (some) queer marriages in some states and two different Supreme Court cases.

For instance, congressional representative Steve King (R-IA) published a deliciously idiotic opinion piece in the National Review, where he explained, “You do not need a license to begin a new friendship, start shopping at a new grocery store or pharmacy, or even begin a new dating relationship. Likewise, one does not need a court order to terminate any of those relationships. This fact indicates that there is something unique about marriage that necessitates government involvement.” After all, long-term relationships between people of the same gender are obviously more similar to shopping at a specific store, or going on a single date, or being in a friendship than long-term relationships between men and women. On a similar note and within the same week, Jennifer Roback Morse, spokesperson for the National Organization for [some] Marriage, complained that recognizing same-gender couples as married amounted to “nothing but a government registry of friendships” – almost as though she and King were reading the same notes!

An integral part of heterosexism, as suggested by Ferguson’s strategy of avoidance and King’s and Morse’s use of the always awkward “… friend” discussion tactic, is to avoid acknowledging queerness as a phenomenon even exists. As I’ve written about before, this is a widespread problem in terms of how acknowledging the needs and wants of queer people, queerspawn, and queer families is treated as a distraction. Unlike the invalidity assigned to the words and deeds of women, however, it seems to acknowledge the actions of queer people (or at least, queer men), but without really examining their queerness. In a confusing way, there’s a lot of discussion of queer people without any admission of the existence of queerness.

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How to miss the point

Sigh, I’ve been trying for a while now to work out something approaching civil to say to Niall Ferguson’s “critiques” of Keynes and his astounding not-apology for the implications of it. Yes, his sorry-you-were-offended response contains an on the nose reiteration of his main point: that Keynes was (some variety of) queer and that’s a valid point to raise in analyzing his policy recommendations.

As several other members of the “self-appointed inquisitors of [the] internet” (as Ferguson called us) pointed out, this is not a new point for him, which he’s been making in several forums for almost a decade now. The only substantive evidence of this he’s ever pointed to is that, as a British public figure assessing the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, Keynes pushed for lighter punishments for Germany for “starting” the war (which every modern historian worth their salt tends to credit to a French interest in payback for the embarrassing Franco-Prussian War). Ferguson in 1995 credited that perspective in whole to Keynes falling “so hard for the representative of an enemy power”, Carl Melchior. Meanwhile, in the modern day, Ferguson explains that Keynes’ “strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath”.

You know those queer men – they’re just like women (whether straight or queer) in how they fall all over themselves when around someone they like like! They’re just so illogical when it comes to math, or science, or engineering, but those few “good ones” that are passable just fall apart near attractive people because their tiny brains can’t take it. Now, what exactly did Keynes miss because of his googly eyes over Melchior? After all, his most famous work of the aftermath of the first World War in Germany is largely seen as prescient of the destabilization of Germany and rise of power of Adolf Hitler. Seduced as he was, history has largely proven him correct, but sadly at the cost of millions of lives, including the thousands of queer men imprisoned as degenerates by the Nazi regime (and, in most cases, after the Allies liberated the concentration camps, they were merely incorporated into the rest of the prison population).


(Above, queer men imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, from here.)

Against this backdrop of Ferguson’s career-long contention that Keynes was really, really gay, Ferguson recently made an “unintentional” remark that of course Keynes famously joked “in the long run we’re all dead” because he was queer, and queer people don’t have children or reproduce, and not having children is tantamount to declaring the future is dead to you. Having won the idiots’ bingo, Ferguson is only making this non-apologetic apology after being reminded (read: informed) that Keynes’ wife did become pregnant at least once, but that that only tragically ended in a miscarriage. Ferguson outright implies an apology in this trainwreck, saying, “This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’ wife Lydia miscarried.”

Within the context of heterosexism (or as Ferguson oh so with it writes, homophobia), this misses the point that Ferguson is only valuing biological reproduction and automatically discounting a queer person from having any status understandable as parental on the basis of their queerness. Among the questions this writing raises is what exactly Ferguson is “apologizing” for – being wrong about the particulars of Keynes life? Or about the assumption of how kinship and family function? It seems like he errs rather close to the former and doesn’t even realize how he has come across on the latter.

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