“No one will have to call themselves gay. Maybe that’s at the bottom of my impatience with the term. It answers a false argument, a false accusation. Which is that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me.” — James Baldwin
What is it about not being able to call us faggots without consequence that aggrieves straight people so?
There is a sense in which homophobes are aggrieved by their inability to dehumanise gay people without backlash. How is it possible that you get to be gay but I cannot express my opinion on your gayness without being labeled a homophobe? At face value, this seems like a valid complaint. If you consider queer people’s humanity a matter for debate. An opinion about whether gay people deserve to exist, love, move and have their being is not a valid opinion. It is bigotry.
The idea underlying this argument is that the fight for LGBT rights is part of a culture war that has at its core the elimination of straight society as we know it, and not merely an assertion of inherent fundamental human rights. The question whether gay people are entitled to equal protection and benefit of the law and the same freedoms that straight people are assumed naturally entitled to (and which gay people would be entitled to were they not known to be gay), is presented as a question of policy and not fundamentally a question of morality. How it is that gay people, as human beings of equal worth and dignity, must continue to fight tirelessly to be regarded as part of the South African community of moral equals? Why are gay people forced to become activists for simply trying to live their lives?
For James Baldwin homophobia, like racism, had always been a moral sin. A stain on the soul of a society. It was for him, the result of a nation at war with itself, the external manifestation of a deep self-hatred. A central thesis of Baldwin’s work is that we invent the Other —‘the nigger,’ ‘the faggot’— because we need it to be able act out all of our violent fantasies onto it. And that how we treat the Other reveals more about ourselves than it does about the Other. In his meditation on salvation, To Crush the Serpent, he expands this idea:
“ Those ladders to fire — the burning of the witch, the heretic, the Jew, the nigger, the faggot — have always failed to redeem, or even to change in any way whatever, the mob. They merely epiphanize and force their connection on the only plain on which the mob can meet: the charred bones connect its members and give them a reason to speak to one another, for the charred bones are the sum total of their individual selfhatred, externalized.”
He went on:
“The burning or lynching or torturing gives them something to talk about. They dare no other subject, certainly not the forbidden subject of the bloodstained self.”
In a 1984 interview on being gay in America, Baldwin captured the essence of homophobia: control.
“It’s a way of controlling people. Nobody really cares who goes to bed with whom, finally. I mean, the State doesn’t really care, the Church doesn’t really care. They care that you should be frightened of what you do. As long as you feel guilty about it, the State can rule over you. It’s a way of exerting control over the universe, by terrifying people.”
Rendering the humanity of gay people a matter for debate serves this control objective well. It forces them into a near-impossible position of constantly defending, negotiating and proving their humanity. It is of course true that homophobia is deplorable and should be fought. But at what cost? Are our lives not enough? No one talks about how debasing and humiliating it is to fight homophobia. You know you are a gay man who does not have a vagina, nor want one. Yet you fight to prove this. You know that you can procreate. Yet you fight to prove this. You continue, over and over again, to try to prove your humanity to people who will never see you as fully human. As Baldwin said:
“ As long as I react to “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence of assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place.”
So am I saying we should stop fighting? I do not know. But perhaps it is time to give straight people their problem back.
What the devil can’t brook is a society in which we live and love freely without fear or shame and without feeling the need to justify our humanity. And now is the time to march towards Baldwin’s New Jerusalem, where we simply take up space and proffer no explanations because the world also belongs to us.