Not your grammy’s Grammys: in (partial) defense of Macklemore?

So, in case you were unaware or unconscious, last night was the Grammys.  Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the whole thing, because I don’t have a TV (not because I’m better than you, but because I’m poorer than you.)

Seattle rapper Macklemore, besides being my pasty Irish doppelganger (see photo), was awarded statues for best rap performance and best rap song, for “Thrift Shop,” best rap album for “The Heist” and best new artist.  Much has been written about Macklemore, both before the Grammys and after.

macklemore

Me or Macklemore?…you decide. P.S. It’s Macklemore

Many accuse him of cultural appropriation, a charge that rang especially true as he beat out black hip-hop artists in category after category, most notably Kendrick Lamar, the favorite for Best Rap Album.  As much as I would like to engage in this debate, I honestly feel that it is out of my depth.  I’m certainly not going to be one more white voice telling people of color about how they are supposed to feel about the appropriation of their cultures.  There are plenty of people who are better able to address this topic than me, and I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to leave it to them.

What I would like to talk about is the media attention around Macklemore as a voice for the gay community, and specifically his performance at the Grammys last night.  In case you missed it, click the screencap below:

The marriage ceremony starts at about the 3:00 mark, but I suggest you watch the whole thing.

The marriage ceremony starts at about the 3:00 mark, but I suggest you watch the whole thing.

First off, while I did not watch the entire awards show, I did watch Macklemore’s performance in its entirety.  Basically, he and the perpetually unnamed and openly lesbian Mary Lambert sang “Same Love,” Macklemore’s ode to same-sex marriage rights, which has been controversial, to put it lightly.

At the denouement of this performance, in a highly publicized moved, Queen Latifah (herself the subject of unceasing gay rumors) stepped out on stage and performed a mass wedding ceremony for 30 or so couples, some gay and some straight.  Then for some reason Madonna showed up and “sang” a few bars of “Open your heart to me,” which the cynic in me can only interpret as a plea to retain her “gay icon” status.”  (Sidenote, speaking of cultural appropriation, nice “pimp cane” and grill, Madge.)  But I digress.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t get choked up when I watched the clip.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t get choked up every time I hear that song.  As much as I identify with queer politics, I am also product of the culture, and I cling to the hope that I will someday also find societally-sanctioned loved (there, I said it!)

And I will openly admit to owning all of Macklemore’s albums.  Does that mean I’m 100% a fan of everything he does?  Not by a long shot.  But if I’ve gleaned one thing from the media coverage around the song, it’s that we have a lot more to talk about than just Macklemore.

Perhaps the biggest critique of this song is that Macklemore himself is not gay, and in the first verse of the song goes out of his way to make that very clear:

When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay,
‘Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight.
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She’s like “Ben you’ve loved girls since before pre-k, trippin’
Yeah, I guess she had a point, didn’t she?
Bunch of stereotypes all in my head.
I remember doing the math like, “Yeah, I’m good at little league”
A preconceived idea of what it all meant

Critics often want to view this as Macklemore clearly demarcating his heterosexuality in opposition to the gay people he’s rapping about.  And they’re not wrong.  But what they fail to take into account is that this is probably also 100% true.  I’m afraid that what happens when we focus on these lyrics is that we forget to address why the 10-year-old Macklemore would cry over the very thought of turning out gay, even as the nephew of a gay uncle.  This verse always hits home with me because I have a very vivid memory of coming home crying, after a particularly intense day of bullying, and having this EXACT conversation with my mother.

I was raised in an extremely supportive home, as it seems Macklemore was as well.  But no amount of your mother reassuring you that she’ll love you no matter what can completely block out the overt homophobia to which we are all exposed in our culture.  I like to think this is changing to some extent today, but both Macklemore and I grew up in a world without “Glee,” and without almost any examples of positive gay role models in mainstream culture.  And let us also not forget that in the 90’s, gay still meant AIDS, and AIDS still meant death.  I am gay, and I didn’t want to be gay.  I don’t think admitting to that makes me any less a supporter of human rights, and I don’t think it should for Macklemore either.  I don’t think allies should upstage the communities they support (discussed below), but I do think allies can’t be held to a higher standard than that to which we hold ourselves.  I can’t pretend to know what he was thinking when he wrote those lines.  All I know is that, were I asked to write this song, I might have started it the same way.  I think if we ask artists to be truthful, we can’t at the same time expect them to be flawless.

There is a reason this post is called a partial defense of Macklemore.  Among many critiques, I firmly believe that he should be asked to explain this.

Troubling tweets notwithstanding, there are still plenty of things left to critique about Macklemore and his Grammy performance.  First, he almost never makes any mention of Mary Lambert, the openly lesbian female voice on the song, and author of the hook that arguably makes the song memorable in the first place.  Due to the limitations of the Internet, I’m not sure if she was introduced at any point during the Grammys performance, but I’ve seen several performances of the song where her name is never mentioned.

This at best seems like an act of hubris on Macklemore’s part, but at worst it feels like an act of both lesbian and general queer erasure.  Macklemore has to have known that there would be controversy surrounding this song from the get-go.  No only does Ms. Lambert deserve to be recognized, it seems like such an easy gesture in the face of mounting accusations that Macklemore is attempting to speak for a community that isn’t his.

Secondly, while it is important to note that “Same Love” was written for a specific purpose (in support of the legalization of marriage equality in Washington state), the song is undeniably problematic.

As discussed in previous posts on this blog, the emphasis on marriage in the LGBTQ movement is controversial at best and damaging at worst.  Focusing on marriage as the sole gateway to rights reinforces patriarchal relationships between partners, as well as between couples and the state.  Additionally, it erases and invisibilizes the lived realities of poly and asexual people, as well as people who simply don’t want to get married.

But what I really don’t like about the song is the line “I can’t change even if I tried, even if I wanted to…”  For regular readers, it should come as no surprise that I think the immutability (or not) of sexuality is a moot point.  Arguing that our sexuality can’t be changed or is not a choice should not be our battle cry.  Shouldn’t we strive for a world in which that doesn’t matter?  Am I not allowed to choose what I do (and allow others to do) with my body and my heart?

All of these issues are things we’re not talking about as we rail against Macklemore for making what I sincerely believe has been a largely positive impact in the realm of mainstreaming gay rights.  Don’t get me wrong.  We should continue to have those conversations.  But I find it troubling that the antics of celebrities are creating the illusion that we’re having meaningful dialogue in this country.

When Miley Cyrus twerked, those of us who were interested talked about the cultural appropriation involved.  But most people just talked about Miley Cyrus, the way they were already talking about her (general schadenfreude with a dash of good ol’ fashioned slut shaming).   And I think a similar thing (minus the slut shaming) is happening with Macklemore.  We’re talking more about the fact that he’s a “bad ally” than we are about why a song like “Same Love” has to exist in the first place.  Why, in 2014, are same-sex marriages still so controversial that they are a ratings draw?  Why does the culture persist in ignoring songs about gay rights until they are sung by straight people?  Neither of these things is Mackelmore’s fault, although he has certainly benefitted.   Our sound-bite culture is starting a lot of conversations it’s not finishing.  So yes, let’s start the conversation with Macklemore, or Miley, or whoever it will be next week (my money is on the Biebs.)  But let’s make sure we don’t end it with them.

Advertisements

Sometimes a cigar…

Yesterday, in what I can only assume was a ploy to get people to talk about anything besides his own current scandal, New Jersey governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would allow trans* people in New Jersey to be issued new birth certificates to reflect their gender without first undergoing genital surgery.  He claims that this legislation would lead to “fraud, deception and abuse, and should therefore be closely scrutinized and sparingly approved.”

US-VOTE-2012-REPUBLICAN CONVENTIONDespite support in both the New Jersey House and Senate, the bill is far from veto-proof.  Supporters are not optimistic that the bill will pass in the near future, especially not in Christie’s New Jersey, where political revenge is anything but rare.

It is not, I would say, surprising that a member of the GOP does not support trans* rights.  For me, that’s not the issue here.  There are two issues that trouble me much more.

First, I’d like to address Christie’s “logic” (quotation marks used very much deliberately) that allowing people’s documentation to reflect their true genders would contribute to fraud.  Does this seem totally backwards to anyone else?  If, hypothetically, I were a trans* man, I have to assume that I would not stop living my life as a man simply because my birth certificate had an “F” on it.  To the average passerby or civil servant, would it not be more confusing and indicative of fraud for my documentation to present a gender that I’m not performing?  Doesn’t it seem like allowing people to claim the gender with which they most closely identify would prevent problems?

But the issue is deeper than this.  The bottom line here is that my penis does not make me a man, and my waking up with a vagina tomorrow would not make me a woman.  People don’t miraculously change genders based on the genitalia they happen to have been born with.  Furthermore, physical sex is no more a legitimate binary than the gender binary, and that idea that penis=man and vagina=woman leaves out a lot of people, most notably intersex people.

Last week, Katie Couric had trans* actress Laverne Cox and trans* model Carmen Carrera on her to show, ostensibly to talk about trans* issues and these women’s upcoming projects.

couric

Instead, the show rapidly devolved into a Maury Povich-style interrogation about the nitty gritty details of gender confirmation surgery and what each of these two women might be packing (or not) under their designer frocks.  Both women did an admirable job of redirecting the conversation and informing Ms. Couric that the

“…preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people and then we don’t get to really deal with real lived experiences; the reality. By focusing on bodies we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination. “

But the point is, they shouldn’t have had to defend their surgical choices.  By positioning genital surgery as the only acceptable marker of “true” gender transition, we ignore the fact that this is not an option for the vast majority of trans* people.  Hormones alone cost insane amounts of money and are often not covered by insurance.  Additionally, trans* people are twice as likely to be unemployed as their cis-gendered peers, making it harder for them to get any kind of insurance in the first place.  We live in a country without universal healthcare or anti-discrimination laws that legally protect LGBTQ people, and we’re demanding that trans* people magically come up with tens of thousands of dollars for gender confirmation surgery?

This is, undoubtedly, illogical and unacceptable in and of itself.  But there’s an even larger problem with this whole line of thought: maybe not every trans* people wants to have gender confirmation surgery.  Many trans* people do not overtly identify as male or female, instead opting for the use of gender neutral pronouns, an option that is unfortunately not legally possible in this country.  Additionally, surgery (and I say this as someone who has had more than his fair share) sucks.  It’s painful, it’s expensive, it’s risky, and it requires that you have time to recover.  There are countless reasons that a trans* person, or any person could have for not wanting to undergo surgery, especially if it will not make a qualitative difference in the way they conceive of their own gender identity.  Why should anyone have to go through a potentially painful and dangerous process to satisfy Chris Christie?

To be clear, I am all for gender confirmation for anybody that wants it.  I also think we should have universal health care that pays for it, but that’s another post.  The point I’m trying to make here is that trans* people, like all  people, should be entitled to the right to do whatever they want with their bodies, and equally important, to define them in any way they see fit.  If the gender and sex binaries were so natural and automatic, we wouldn’t have to keep talking about them all the time, and there wouldn’t be outliers.  We don’t have to walk around shouting that the sky is still blue, just to make sure we’re all still on the same page.

If we have to debate what makes us men, or women, or neither, that points to the idea that we don’t actually know.  I would argue that anybody who identifies as a given gender merits being treated accordingly.  But to be clear, I also don’t know; I’m not trans*.  I have the privilege of not walking around having to justify my gender identity.  What I do know is what doesn’t define our gender.  To adapt a line (erroneously) attributed to Freud, “sometimes a dick is just a dick.”

But you meant well!

Yesterday this meme was all over my Facebook wall.

facebook gay memeFirst off, let me clear, I’m happy to be friends with so many people who want to openly support gay rights.  Nonetheless, this meme is missing the mark.  It somehow manages to be insulting to virtually everyone in the world, while simultaneously claiming, in a roundabout way, to be advocating for gay adoption rights.

‘I’ve never met a gay person who “accidentally” had a kid they didn’t want.’

Where to begin?  As I discussed in my last post, the compulsory hetero/homo binary has created a world in a which a lot of people identify as gay or lesbian and still have sex with people of the same gender, for any number of reasons.  There are scores of gay and lesbian people who have accidentally made a baby.  I have met them.

And let’s talk about the quotation marks around “accidentally.”  Are we to believe that accidental pregnancy is not a thing?  The only way I can read this is in the voice of those weird sex ed movies we all had to watch:

“If you’re old enough to have sex, you’re old enough to handle the consequences.”

This kind of sex shaming allows us to distance ourselves from the realities of people dealing with an unplanned pregnancy by blaming them for having the nerve to have sex!  Which we are also doing!  Or trying to do!

Yes, often when we have sex, accidental pregnancy is a risk.  However, every time a plane crashes, we don’t say

“Well, those idiots never should’ve gotten on that plane!  If you’re old enough to get on a plane, you’re old enough for the consequences.  Oops, my flight is boarding!”

This, I realize, is not the best example since babies and plane crashes are not always equally disastrous, but sometimes they are!  By distancing ourselves from accidental pregnancy, by hypocritically judging it, we’re giving ourselves permission to not feel compassion for someone who may be going through a very rough time.

And that’s ultimately what bothers about that top half of the meme.  The phrase “a kid they didn’t want” is maybe the worst part.  In 5 words, it takes for granted that “wanting” a baby and being able to care for one are the same thing.  Now, I’m sure there are babies that are completely unwanted by their parents.  But there are also a hell of a lot of children in the foster care and adoption system who were given up or forcibly removed because their parents, in one way or another, could not provide for them.  By buying into this discourse of “unwanted babies,” we’re erasing the pain of parents who lose their children and the joy they experienced while together.  Furthermore, given the racial makeup of kids in the system, we’re once again buying into the script of the welfare queen, the drug addicted mother, the gang banger father, stereotypes that are almost without exception leveled at people of color.

“If you don’t want gays to adopt, tell straight people to quit having kids they don’t want.”

Oh you thought we were done?  Don’t go yet, we have to find out how to get gays to stop adopting.  That is what’s so crazy about this meme.  I happen to know, because of the friends I have who shared it, that they interpreted this as a pro-gay statement.  But it can just as easily be read as a very practical piece of advice on how to get gays to stop adopting.

It frames gay adoption as the problem, and not the bigoted views that would lead someone to hold that opinion.  I don’t want gays to stop adopting.  Or lesbians.  Or bi, or trans, or poly families, or anybody, as long as those people want to adopt and can provide a good and loving home for the children they bring into their lives.  Ultimately, that’s the crux of the issue.  Gay people are not adopting because we just want to help out straight people.  And we’re not doing it on a whim.  It’s not as if we got off our latest cruise, mimosa in hand, and had to decide between a shih-tzu and a baby and thought “You know, let’s take the baby, it’ll live longer.”

Gay couples struggle for years to be able to adopt children, sometimes unsuccessfully.  We’re prohibited from adopting as couples in many states, including my own.  And we can’t be certain that the laws won’t change tomorrow and take our kids away.

If straight people suddenly stop having kids they “don’t want,” there will still be gay couples who want to adopt.  You can’t solve that “problem,” because it’s not a problem.  Where is the meme that says “If you don’t want gays to adopt, shut up” or “If you don’t want gays to adopt, stop being a huge bigot”?  Queer people are not here to be your problems anymore than we’re here to fix them.  The problem is not that some queer people want to adopt.  The problem is that some bigots don’t want them to.  Where’s that meme?

UPDATE: In answer to “Where’s that meme?”, one of my dedicated readers created this meme:

fixed meme

LOVE IT!