I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better, but I don’t mind
You just kind of wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s alright.
(Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’)
This is going to be a long post, and it will take a while before the relevance of the title becomes apparent. Bear with me.
A few months ago, the Law department in my University invited the Reverend Dr Dale Kuehne to be a distinguished guest speaker, making a presentation and leading a discussion about ‘sexuality and the public good’. Now, I’m cynical (or just old and queer) enough to be immediately worried when people start linking those two ideas together. Particularly when the people doing it are American pastors.* And particularly particularly when they’re doing it in the context, not of theology, but of law. So I did a bit of googling, and found that Kuehne has recently written a book, Sex and the iWorld,** which he summarizes thus:
…its conclusions… can’t be classified as politically correct. Indeed, I’ve tried to make the best case I can that the biblical teaching that limits sexual relations to a marriage relationship between a man and a woman is actually beneficial to all. What is unique about the book’s approach is that it relies not on exegesis but on an argument that the reason these guidelines are there is that our deepest desires for relational intimacy and fulfilment are actually separate from the pursuit of sexual relations. I believe that this message is ultimately good news for us all, as ever-increasing numbers have been seeking to find in a sexual relationship what can only be found elsewhere. The book seeks to help us all from getting lost on a never-ending quest for acceptance, love, and fulfillment while looking in the wrong place.***
(My emphasis.) The rhetoric here is all very bland and weaselly and moderate and polite and hey-it’s-just-what-I-believe, and at first glance you might think Kuehne’s somewhere on the compassionate end of conservatism. That would be hard to square with the reviews the publishers have chosen to publicize the book with, though:
Dale Kuehne tells the story of how the sexual revolution emerged. He convincingly demonstrates that the shifts are not inconsequential. Sadly, he is right–our very lives and the well-being of society are at stake. Sex and the iWorld is a great apologetic for God’s designs.
This is a very important book–clarifying complex issues, jolting us out of complacency, and demanding action. Biblical Christians must confront this book’s stark challenge.
So – of course – what Kuehne’s book is actually saying is not compassionate, moderate, polite, or bland at all. He is an extremist, eliminationist homophobe, who argues that ‘society’ would be better off if straight people weren’t allowed to have sex outside marriage, and queer people weren’t allowed to have sex at all.**** In fact, queer people should not exist as queer at all. For the good of society.
Now, obviously I don’t agree with Kuehne’s views. Possibly also obviously, I don’t think his anti-liberal, extremist views should have been granted legitimacy by his being invited as a distinguished speaker at an academic institution – particularly since no-one else was invited to share the platform with him (in fact, the person who chaired his talk has also published work arguing that the laws set down in Leviticus are ultimately beneficial for human relationships). But that’s not what this post is about.
When I heard about Kuehne’s visit, I wrote to various people, including the academic whose name was on the publicity email ‘for further information’, to express my horror at his invitation. The academic concerned wrote back assuring me, in effect, that Kuehne would not be preaching or ranting, and that the event would be very civilized and polite and academic, and that this would make the event a safe space for queers.
And that’s what this post is about.
Because, in the end, what horrifies me is not that some Christian ministers are eliminationist homophobes (I knew that), or that some academics think there are good reasons to invite extremists to speak in an academic institution (I knew that too), but that some people think that it is ‘safe’ for me to be in a room listening to someone argue that I have no right to love the woman I love, to live the life I live – in the end, no right to exist – as long as that person doesn’t raise their voice or use any bad words.*****
I mean, I know that too, but it never stops horrifying me; it never stops exhausting me. It’s taken me months to write this post partly because it makes me so tired and so scared and so weepy every time I think about it, about trying to push through the mealy-mouthed cotton-wool swaddling of liberalism – tolerance and politeness and niceness – to what is really being said. Which is not liberal, it is radical. It goes down to the roots of my life.
It makes me think of the bit towards the end of 1984 where O’Brien tells Winston Smith – kindly, politely, without raising his voice or saying any bad words – that he is doing this for his benefit, that he needs to destroy everything Winston loves, everything he values in himself, everything he believes, for Winston’s own good and for the good of society. And I think most liberals would agree with me and Winston and George Orwell that that’s more horrifying and more destructive than the naked violence Winston undergoes earlier in his incarceration and torture. So I find it remarkable that when those tactics appear in real life, I’m told I ought to be grateful that the person telling me I should be destroyed for my own good is not also hitting me with a stick and calling me names. (Don’t they know that members of the Inner Party never do their own manual labour?)
Jenny and I and a colleague and a bunch of awesome students from the LGBTQ Society showed up to picket the event, in the end, and were repeatedly invited in by the organizers to ‘join the conversation’. If I hadn’t already been gay and in love with Jenny, I would have become so when she said ‘Of course you’d love us to come in and have a conversation! I’ve been doing this for twenty years, I’m very good at it, it’ll make your event much more interesting! But you’re not paying my expenses and giving me CV points, are you?’ In other words, the success of the event depended on the willingness of queers and allies to show up and contribute for free: on the exploitation of our time, and our emotional and intellectual labour.
And what was being asked of us, as queers, in that room, was very different from what was being asked of straights. Not only were we being asked to labour for no return, but we were being asked to do much harder and more difficult work. I have been invited to speak in lots of universities and a few public events, so I can actually make a direct comparison here. And I can tell you that it is easier to present your research in a neutral, academic way (especially when it legitimizes the way you already live your life – Kuehne is heterosexually married – and when it is being legitimated by an official invitation from an institution which is hosting you with tea and biscuits and dinner and accommodation), than to sit in a room and defend your right to exist without raising your voice, without getting emotional, without being rude. In that room, queers are being asked to do the work of bracketing off and swallowing down our deeply-felt rage and pain, and perhaps our fear and grief and trauma, about living in a society which thinks it’s okay to coolly debate our right to exist. Straights are not asked to do that work. Nothing even close. And even if we tried to level the playing field, by saying WELL I THINK YOUR RELATIONSHIP DAMAGES SOCIETY DALE KUEHNE! I THINK YOU SHOULD SPLIT UP WITH YOUR WIFE AND HAVE SEX WITH MEN FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE FOR THE GOOD OF SOCIETY!! HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL???, those statements would remain hypothetical, weightless, inconsequential, and the massive asymmetry would remain. Because there is no-one writing books and being invited to speak at universities arguing that, for the good of society, sexuality should be restricted to same-sex relationships. Straight married couples do not need to check ahead with guesthouses to make sure they don’t have a policy of not admitting married heterosexuals. The UN has not ruled that it is okay for countries to execute people for being heterosexual. No-one shouts STRAIGHT BOY! at people in the street and expects it to be understood as a term of abuse, and a threat of possible violence.
So I didn’t go to the talk, I didn’t ‘join in the conversation’, because I refuse to do that work, because I know that being in the same room as people who don’t think I have the right to exist makes me crazy. I know this from experience. It makes me exhausted and furious, it makes me want to scratch my own skin off, it wakes me up at 4am for nights and nights afterwards, it makes me spend hours and hours ranting in my head or to anyone who will listen, trying to state my point of view so many times that it gets some gravity, that it feels like ground under my feet that can’t be pulled away at the whim of the Church or the State or the next self-described liberal who wants to earnestly explore the possibility that hey wow, maybe we should listen to other points of view, did you know that some people don’t like queers, isn’t that interesting to explore and think about and debate?
No. I have spent thirty-five years learning not to listen to the point of view that queers are second-best, wrong, shouldn’t really exist. I’m still learning. That’s interesting.
Hence, then, the Bob Dylan quote at the top of this post. I’m sure Dale Kuehne wouldn’t have treated me unkind, but I’m also sure that he would have wasted my precious time. And that’s the point. Because the time and energy of queers and women (and members of all oppressed minorities) is extra precious, because we have to spend a certain proportion of it, all the time, being ready to defend ourselves, our most basic right to exist; figuring out how safe we are in every situation; worrying just for a split second every time we mention our girlfriends or someone addresses us as if we were straight and we have to decide how to respond; wondering whether those kids at the back of the bus going mumblemumblemumble GAY mumblemumblemumble GAY AHAHAHAHAHA GAY are just being oh-so-hip-and-young-and-Zoe-Williams-esque****** or whether they’re going to, you know, verbally abuse us, beat us up, kill us. Politeness, neutrality, academic conventions, in that situation don’t make it easier, they make it harder, they add an extra layer of work for us. All the time I was arguing and talking to people about this whole event, I kept thinking of the time Jenny and I were on a Pride march in London: it was rainy and miserable and we’d been walking for a long time and it was kind of dull, really, and energy levels were pretty low when we reached Trafalgar Square and we saw the National Front – seriously, the National Front! – three old men with hand-lettered signs in German Gothic lettering about how gays were EVIL and would BURN IN HELL, behind a police cordon – and I swear, energy levels just lifted straightaway. Because here we were, thousands of us, beautiful and strong and proud and filling the streets, and there they were, three of them, left behind by history, irrelevant, marginal, wrong.
That didn’t keep me awake at night. It didn’t cost me hours and hours of time and energy, blaming myself, second-guessing myself, thinking round and round and round in circles: but if I could only have explained it right, if I could only have said it properly, maybe I could have got through to them, they were reasonable people after all, they were moderate, polite, tolerant, so it must be my fault, or maybe there is something wrong with the way I’m thinking about it, but there can’t be, look at Jenny, look how happy she makes me, why can’t I get that through to them, what should I have said, how could I have put it, what should I say, what’s wrong with me that I can’t explain what’s so obvious to me… It wasn’t collaboration or conversation or collusion; it was just confrontation, and it felt pretty good. Great, actually.
It’s sometimes easier on us to see prejudice in its rawest form. Dan Savage writes about this brilliantly in his book The Kid:
Social tolerance has become the norm for most straight people, which is nice, but at the same time appearing tolerant has become the norm for everyone else. How are we supposed to tell the nice straight people and the bigoted straight people apart if everyone has the same look on their face?
Unfortunately, we can’t, at least not until they run for office [or write books, I guess!]. And, again, this may be progress, but it’s a kind of progress that induces paranoia on the part of the tolerated. When you can’t tell the difference between people who hate you and people who don’t, it’s easy to feel you have no choice but to assume the worst. In some circumstances, the socially intolerant will kill us (R.I.P., Matthew Shepard)… Carrying this ‘Gee, does anyone in this room want to kill me?’ tension around with us wherever we go takes its toll…
The most recent attacks on gays and lesbians by religious conservatives arrived disguised as compassion… [They] wanted straight people to believe that the only thing preventing them from living in a world free of homosexuality were those stubborn gays and lesbians (‘Why can’t they just give themselves to Jesus Christ?’). By arguing that we didn’t have to exist, [they] implicitly argued that we had no right to exist… Christian conservatives in America were attempting to inspire visions… of homosexuality as a ‘behaviour’ that must be eliminated to purify American culture. And they were calling it compassion!
The distance is short between some people’s arguing that gays and lesbians as a group have no right to exist, and someone else’s taking it into his own hands to end the existence of an individual gay or lesbian person… Homosexual behaviour cannot be eliminated without eliminating homosexual people.
(Dan Savage, The Kid [London: Fusion Press, 2000], pp.15-19)
I’m going to end with a link someone sent me recently that made me cheer: it’s a manifesto from the American bishop John Selby Spong, saying that he will no longer agree to debate with homophobes:
Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture’s various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.
When I picketed Kuehne’s visit to my university, I had a placard reading MY RIGHT TO EXIST IS NOT A MATTER FOR DEBATE. This is exactly why.
*not that the Church of England has a stellar record on sexuality, obviously.
**The book itself is not held in any libraries at the University of Bristol, which is unusual for someone invited from overseas as a ‘distinguished speaker’; one Amazon review by a theology student with a background in critical theory says that both the Biblical exegesis and the analysis of postmodernity in the book are deeply flawed.
***For this and the two reviews below, see this page from the publishers of the book, Baker Publishing Group.
****I’m unclear on the mechanics of this – perhaps some sort of butterfly-effect thing, whereby every time Jenny and I (or Elton and David or George and Brad or Ellen and Portia or whoever-and-whoever-they’ve-just-met-in-a-bar or whatfuckingever) start getting a bit amorous it sets up vibrations in the universe which cause a HOODY to go out and HAPPY SLAP someone? I guess I would have to read the book to find out. One of the students who went to Kuehne’s talk said the only example he could actually come up with of the cost to society that queer people exact was that children need both male and female role models. So if a same-sex couple are raising a child, someone of the opposite sex will have to come to their house occasionally (or the child will have to go to school, or watch TV or read books, or something, I guess. You know, unlike the children of straight couples). Anyway, the point is that the opposite-sex role model is supplied not by the couple itself, but by SOCIETY, so there is your cost right there. GAY COUPLES DRAIN THE LIFE BLOOD FROM SOCIETY BY HAVING FRIENDS. I am not sure how this works for childless couples, but Jenny and I do have friends, so I guess we are indeed draining your life blood, society. Sorry (if you’re reading).
*****Anyone who’s read my giant HP fic: in other words, Dale Kuehne must be all right because he has a nose.
******To put Zoe Williams’ argument in context (‘when schoolchildren call one another “gay”, they do not mean homosexual… most of the children called gay in this context obviously won’t be gay, and won’t even interpret it as homophobic abuse’), recent research shows that 65-75% of gay children are homophobically bullied, and 17% of those children receive death threats. So, the research says: children are getting death threats. Zoe Williams says: It’s ‘ludicrous’ to say that homophobia is endemic in schools! Bullying is normal! Trying to stop it is just po-faced rectitude! (That’s even before you get into the function of homophobic bullying, which is of course in part pour décourager les autres – to stop most children from even thinking about whether they might be gay. I certainly got called a lesbian on the street a lot more often before I got a girlfriend and started being seen regularly in the street holding hands with and/or snogging another woman – I guess now most people figure I don’t mind that I look like a dyke, whereas before they were warning me to GET BACK IN LINE AND START BEING DECORATIVE.)