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.

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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.”

Those who live in glass closets…: Outing and the politics of compulsory homosexuality

aaronschock

Early today, Buzzfeed posted a blind item outing GOP Congressman Aaron Schock, substantiated by what essentially reads like one of Perez Hilton’s cattier blog posts.  Schock has long been known for his well-kempt appearance, rockin’ bod, and “colorful” fashion sense (I’m pretty sure if you stare at that outfit and then look at a white wall, you can still see it on your retinas.) And obviously, since any stylish, fit man can be nothing else but a 100% grade A American homosexual, these physical attributes have led many to “assume the worst.”

As if this were not enough, the “report” cites a source who says:

“here’s a hypothetical: what if you know a certain GOP congressman, let’s just say from Illinois, is gay… and you know this because one of your friends, a journalist for a reputable network, told you in no uncertain terms that he caught that GOP congressman and his male roommate in the shower… together. now they could have been good friends just trying to conserve water. but there’s more. what if this congressman has also been caught by tmz cameras trolling gay bars. now what if you know that this very same guy, the darling of the gop, has also voted against repeal of don’t ask don’t tell, opposed the repeal of doma, is against gay marriage; and for the federal marriage amendment, which would add language to the us constitution banning gay marriage and would likely strike down every gay rights law and ordinance in the country?

Are we still not allowed to out him?” (lack of respect for capitalization in the original)

Before we discuss whether we are “allowed to out him,” there are a couple things that I think are equally worth debating.

First, the main reason anybody thinks Aaron Schock is gay is because he has the nerve to dress stylishly (and occasionally blindingly) and he takes care of his body.  While I admit that, creature of the culture that I am, I would probably also see this man’s appearance as evidence that we might be on the same team, that doesn’t make it OK.  By stating publicly that by virtue of his very appearance we can tell that he’s gay, we’re not only grossly overgeneralizing about a diverse and varied community, we’re actually oppressing that very community.  What this  does is reify that there is only one way to “look” gay.  This serves to deprive the vast majority of gay men on this planet who do not look like Mr. Schock (myself very much included) of an identity that many of us are working very hard to defend.  It is also reinforces the same messages of body-shaming and economic stratification with which we are already bombarded by voices from within our own community.

Secondly, the assumption that even if Mr. Schock were having sex with men (which I do not claim to know) he would necessarily be gay reinforces a hetero/homosexual binary that completely erases the real and lived experiences of bisexual and queer identified people, as well as MSMs, the hetero- or homo-flexible, and the bicurious.  Mr. Schock’s case is not unique.  In the past year we’ve witnessed the public comings out of Frank Ocean, Robin Roberts, Maria Bello, and Tom Daley, none of whom said “I’m gay.”  They all simply said that they were currently in relationships with partners of the same gender.  Nonetheless, the media has persisted in labeling each and everyone one of them as gay.

At the root of the hetero/homo binary are two main problems.  First, as Shane Phelan has theorized:

“The threat of bisexuality has always been choice.  Bisexuality seems to call inescapably for choices about whom and how to love.  For lesbian-feminists, the threat is that bisexuals will choose a man.  For heterosexuals, the threat is that bisexuals will choose a same-sex lover.  For lesbians and gays, the threat is that bisexuals belie the claim that we can’t help our desire.” (Sexual Strangers, pgs. 127-128)

Second, bisexuality (especially for men) is always spoken about as a “phase.”  Nobody wants to believe that man can be bisexual.  This has nothing to with the nature of some inherent male trait and everything to do with the way our society defines masculinity.  The male bisexual threatens the ideal of the “phallic” or impenetrable male because he refuses to conform entirely to a societally sanctioned sexual role.

This definition of masculinity is so engrained in our society that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, producing evidence of itself in the innumerable young men who have taken their first step out of the closet as bisexual, only to eventually admit their “true” homosexuality (once again, me!).  Except there’s no such thing as your “true” sexuality outside the bounds of how society makes you define it.  It’s not difficult to conceptualize that a society that refuses to allow men to be sexually flexible is going to produce men who feel they may only identify within a binary.  Once again, I don’t know what happens in Mr. Schock’s head, pants, or bed, but for the purposes of this argument that’s not really the point.

Now, are we “allowed to out him?”  I will admit that there is a tiny angry queer in my brain that says “Yes, out them, out them all!”  It’s hard not to feel that, given Mr. Schock’s voting record, a little vengeance isn’t justified.  And yet, I have been outed.  I have been outed in places where it was very, very dangerous for that to happen, and in fact illegal for me to be gay.  I know what it is to feel you have to hide your sexuality, whatever that may be, and the powerlessness of knowing you can’t ever get that cat back in the bag.  I understand the impulse to out, but I also understand the consequences.  So, I don’t know.

What I do know is that we can’t out him as gay, or bi, or whatever.  Only he can do that.  Gay, and bi, and even queer, are labels that describe us only when we in some way accept them.  This is not to imply that this is a free or rational choice.  The decision to identify as a sexual minority is necessarily influenced by societal factors totally beyond our control.  Nonetheless, the process of coming out is, in a way, our assuming a given label that will partially define and shape our respective experiences.

Finally, I don’t think it’s necessary to out Mr. Schock.  Sure, if he is having sex with men, his voting record is unarguably hypocritical.  But even if he’s not, his voting record is disgusting.  Instead of focusing our political energies and media attention on outing this one politician, shouldn’t we be focusing our energies on making sure he’s not a politician anymore?

Mr. Schock’s orientation, whatever it may be, is not what should appall us about his voting record.  It should appall us that we’re not appalled by the voting records of the rest of the homo/bi/trans-phobic lawmakers in this country.  What does it say that we only expect people to vote for human rights when they have a personal stake in the issue?  Instead, we should be reacting to the general climate of bigotry that reigns in our country and its government under the guise of religion and “family values.”  So don’t waste your time “outing” this guy, if that’s even a thing.  Write him a letter, write the GOP a letter, sign every petition you can find, and work to elect somebody you can agree with to his, and other, positions.

So.  Are we “allowed” to out him?  Certainly.  But why waste your energy?  Use it for something infinitely greater.

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On a personal note, I’m loving how engaged you all on my Facebook posts.  But can I ask you to do it in the “Comment” section here instead/also?  I’d love to open up these discussions to people who might not be my Facebook friends!  THANKS!