Ex-Gay Ministries pray on the stigma surrounding a queer hierarchy of shame to recruit new members. Does the queer movement have a response?
Ex-Gay Ministries are able to function by praying on a person’s sense of right and wrong; ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. They play on the idea that there is one set way of living and any deviation from this is a moral abomination that must be rectified. This perpetuation of guilt is based on a hierarchy of shame that exists in both the wider culture and the queer community. It functions in much the same way as the caste system in India or colouration in Africa.
The caste system is a cross between a western class system and a hierarchy of shame. Stigma is cast upon an individual at birth and shame and reverence perpetuates the system preventing social advancement. Skin tone is paramount in the caste system and follows the principles of colourism. Colourism is a form of racism which occurs on a global scale and is based on the colour or shade of one’s skin and to what extent it deviates from the white ideal. It is distinguished by the preference of the lighter skin tones over the darker and creates problems in a number of different ethnic communities: Indian, Chinese, Hispanic, Japanese, Native American, Arab, African.
As the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tall, thin, male/female is the preferred and accepted aesthetic ideal of this prejudice, and the black, fat, short, woman/man is considered unattractive and undesirable, it is the members of the African communities that suffer most from colourism. Stanford lecturer Jennifer Hochschild hypothesised that:
‘the darker a person’s skin colour, the lower he or she is likely to be on any scale of whatever is broadly perceived to be desirable in the west’
This means that, in the US in particular, one is still better off as a dark-skinned Hispanic than an African American – because one lacks the stigma of being black and can substitute the less-stigmatised identity as an American or immigrant.
This racial and cultural divide is a more widely recognised and therefore documented example of a hierarchy of shame which also exists amongst the queer community. In the same way black men and women are judged on how black they are, queer men and women are judged on how queer they are. The argument is that both contain physical and visible elements that mark them as different and which leads to discrimination. Levels of campness or femininity for gay men or masculinity for women are the main markers of queer identity – and therefore the hierarchy is based on gender bias as opposed to specific sexual identities. A man is not bullied or judged just because he is queer; he must also retain qualities of the stereotype. Camp, effeminate, flamboyant, androgynous men are subject to homophobia, whereas ‘straight-acting’, masculine men can escape the stigma of the queer group at large and assimilate into normative society relatively easily. The same is true for women; the feminine lesbian is not referred to as a ‘dyke’ and can, for the most part, fit comfortably into a gaggle of ‘normal’ girls without drawing attention to herself. It is the busty, short-haired, male-impersonating women that are thrust to the fringes of social interaction; both queer and straight. Part of the claim for the dignity of gay men has taken the form of an assertion that they are masculine really; lesbians have sometimes justified themselves as accomplishing an essence of womanliness.
The hierarchy exists on the widest scale of society; it does not just cover the queer subculture – for within queer culture the straight-acting men and effeminate women become the heterosexuals of the wider culture. They adopt (through no fault of their own) the same attitude towards those less normal, i.e. queerer, than they are. The perfect example of this is the categorisation of the gay community. In the 1930s, sexuality was not a prominent factor in terms of deviance – however gender identity was. Effeminate men were hounded, called fairies and experienced an array of abuses; ostensibly straight men who responded to the solicitations of ‘fairies’ were not considered homosexual or different at all, they were essentially ‘normal’, so long as they conformed to gender conventions. Middle class men began to call themselves queer to distinguish themselves from the fairies who still considered themselves as having different gender identities. During the Second World War, Donald Webster Cory reported:
‘a sailor was still able to assume that the stranger who performed fellatio was ‘homosexual’, but not the man on whom it was performed. The performer was a ‘fairy’, the compliant sailor not.’
In response to the Ex-Gay movement, the Ex-Ex-Gay movement and the conservative gay rights movement have stood by many of these assertions – predominantly that we are just ‘normal’ people. So rather than creating an all-inclusive subculture made up of both different gender and sexual identities, the gay rights movement has tended to see transgender in particular as a subcategory of sexual identity, rather than recognised it as a kind of gender identity.
From the founding of the gay movement, men and women have looked down upon different gender identities while simultaneously fighting for equality. This contradiction carries on throughout the subculture; the camp gay men look down upon the androgynes and the transsexuals because they bring further shame upon the group. The hierarchy is built upon the group’s desire to rid themselves of immediate shame and long-lasting stigma. As individuals in the group feel that those queerer than themselves shame the group further, they must either separate themselves or defend the actions and lifestyles of the rest of the group.
Michael Warner, author of The Trouble With Normal, attributes the nature of the queer movement to this hierarchy; the fear of homosexual men to be seen as particularly queer. This has resulted in a conservative backlash against the most extreme ends of the spectrum. Prominent American societies (Collard’s ‘post-gay’ narrative, the Mattachine society), and individuals speaking out against the frivolities of the queer lifestyle, suggesting that ‘not all gays are this deviant’ and that all we want is a ‘place at the table’. This is an example of the ‘normal’ end of the subculture wanting to assimilate into normative society, casting off the stigma of those most in need of a support network. In this instance it is completely understandable why so many gay men and women choose to attend Ex-Gay Ministries; they arrive in shame to be absolved of their assumed sins.
Sex is the driving factor in the determination of where one lies in the group. The less ‘normal’ and more apparently public your sexual identity (gender identity) is, the more stigma you carry. Both queers and non-queers are still told that the best kind of sexuality is the one kept at home in private. This narrative of sexuality perpetuates the belief that the less sexual you appear, the more accepted you will become; this is the basic principle of the closet. The mere fact that one is told to ‘come out’ of the closet deems the individual’s sexual identity as shameful, duplicitous and deviant. Queers are forced to bare a special burden of disclosure.
The question really isn’t whether we categorise individuals by gender identity or sexual identity; it is whether we should categorise at all. It is clear that the more one categorises the more one excludes. Despite our constant desire to break down, box and judge things that we don’t understand – supposed ‘abnormalities’, deviance, desires – queers are still thriving. Activists like Peter Tatchell are attracting the right kind of attention for the movement. Queer couples are more apparent than ever in society, as are gender issues – even to the extent of prime time coverage and films like Breakfast on Pluto, Crazy, Boys Don’t Cry and the Almodovar films. Richard Goldstein comments:
‘for us (queers), it is the best of times; it is the worst of times. A mere forty-three years after cancanning queens held off the riot squad at Stonewall, queers are a staple of entertainment and a rich market niche.’
Yes, in many ways it is the best of times; but the issue of queer rights still lingers. The gay right is on the march, and unless it is met by a compelling response from the other side, its impact will alter not just the lives of queer people but the future of the left. In the US there are currently numerous anti-gay bills pending in state legislatures, and a series of major efforts to repeal gay rights are taking place across the country. Already there are Ex-Gay groups like Love in Action in Britain and France, and the teaching of homosexual sex as sin is far-reaching in most religious circles. Legal and social recognition of queers is worse than any other minority, with almost 40% of all UN recognised countries making same-sex relations illegal. And yet the queer right celebrate the passing of civil partnerships in Britain, the USA, Spain and Scandinavia.
The polarising of views between the conservative and liberal movement has forced queers into boxes, categories and hierarchies that are defined by the stigma one carries and have forced gender identity into the background. However, in spite of this, the movement is resilient. Prolific activity in the media – from protestors, musicians, drag artists – and a wealth of creative investment in the future of queers all over the world, aims to end this division and create unity between queers and the wider culture. Not in an attempt to assimilate into normative society, but to dissolve normalising social structures as they currently exist in the 21st century and end the Ex-Gay phenomenon by eradicating the stigma and shame associated with queerness.