Friday, February 19, 2010

Queer Protest

I promised that I would talk about the problem of protests. At the Edith Stein Conference, the LGBT group on campus organized a protest in the form of a reading of queer poetry. The poetry was, from what I heard of it, embarrassingly bad -- but that is more or less the standard for political poetry and spoken word "political actions". Okay, I was about to start ranting about political action as a form of post-modern art, and the problems therewith, but I'll try to stay on topic. The point is not that the poetry lacked literary merit, but that it was "scandalous" -- not in the strict St. Thomas Aquinas sense, where something is scandalous because it leads others into sin, but in the colloquial sense in which something is scandalous because it produces that strange sensation, a combination of discomfort/embarrassment/contempt, which most of us describe as being "scandalized" by the behaviour of another. It was quite a surreal scene: a Catholic college, a Catholic conference, a cadre of nuns, several small children running about in the JPII-Theology-of-the-Body generation style, and a group of queer identified students reading vulgar poetry about how often they masturbate. Obviously, it had exactly the effect that you would expect: most of the Catholics present thought that the poetry was obscene, and it helped to cement the idea that gay culture is totally obsessed with vapid, meaningless and self-indulgent sex.
So why have such a protest? The LGBT community generally goes out of its way to insist that it is not obsessed with sex, that it's about all sorts of more important things, like family, and love, and so forth. Isn't this kind of thing intensely counter-productive?
Well, yes and no. It's sort of the mirror image of the right-wing Christian holding up a sign at the Gay Pride parade that reads "Leviticus 18:22." It's a kind of protest that is absolutely guaranteed to fail as a means of convincing anyone of anything -- but it's not really about that. I suspect that a great deal of what is called "protest" is largely concerned with the formation and galvanization of identities. The audience for the protest is not the person or group being lobbied/protested, but the group of protesters who are learning and forming their identities through the conflict that protest always suggests. War is a fabulous tool for cementing patriotism and national identity, and anything that smacks of confrontation always has this effect as well. It's the same throughout the political spectrum: when we used to go down to the local porn shop to scream "Porn is the theory, Rape is the practice" during the "Take Back the Night Rally," it wasn't really in the expectation that we would stop the selling or buying of pornography in Brampton. It had to do with who we were as feminists, with teaching ourselves what we thought and felt about demeaning sexual portrayals of women. When Pro-Lifers gather faithfully at the "March for Life" every year, it's not because there is any worldly chance that doing so will actually cause Parliament (in Canada) to make abortion illegal. It's because it's a chance for the Pro-Life community to network, to declare our identity to the wider community, to re-affirm our dedication to the protection of the unborn/unwanted in society. It doesn't do anything in the strict sense of changing other people, but no one cares, because that's not actually the point.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Edith Stein Conference

I’m just getting back into the saddle after the Notre Dame gig – I spoke last Saturday at the Edith Stein Conference. I have too much to say about the experience to put it in one post, so I’ll be blogging about it over the next couple of days. I’ll begin with a basic run-down of what happened, and later give some reflections on different aspects of the affair.

Basically, I drove (or rather, my husband drove and I entertained Barbara, who is just short of nine months old, in the back-seat) down to South Bend on Friday. We were stopped at the US Border, and we were terrified that they wouldn’t let us through because my husband’s passport expired last September. As it turned out, they didn’t care about (didn’t notice?) the expired passport, but they were worried that I might be getting paid by Notre Dame and that the IRS might not be getting their cut. I refrained from quoting Canada/US tax treaty law at them (never be snarky to a US Border guard) and assured them that I was not being compensated for more than my travel expenses. Eventually, they let us through.

We arrived at the conference Saturday morning around lunch-time and I wandered around feeling profoundly stressed out and terrified. I had written about four different versions of the talk, and I wasn’t happy with any of them, most of them were half-finished and they were on all of these scattered sheets of paper that were in a totally disorganized jumble in a notebook. That wasn’t why I was terrified though; I was terrified because speaking in front of a group of people inevitably means contact with other human beings who I don’t know, and I am painfully shy and socially awkward. The last time I gave a talk at a University I literally ran away afterwards, as quickly as possible, in the hopes that no one would chase me down and try to converse with me.

In spite of the fact that my stomach was tying itself into the sort of elaborate knots that will earn you a girl-scouts badge, I managed to eat a small bowl of chili, and then headed over to the auditorium where I was going to speak. In the front hall of said building, there was a demonstration, a “reading of queer poetry” to protest my appearance. The poetry was embarrassingly bad, and thoroughly scandalized the mostly-traditional-Catholic audience who repeatedly described it as “obscene.” (I will return to the matter of ill-thought-out protest actions later.) Anyways, the point was that they were handing out little bits of paper that said why they were there, and what they thought I was going to say that they were so upset about. To me, it was a God-send, because I immediately realized that I could use their protest leaflet as a superior outline for my presentation.

I went to a back room and started restructuring while the organizers fluttered around apologizing for the protest and wondering whether they should call security. I tried to explain that having the protest removed would be very bad for queer-Catholic relations on campus, that no harm was being done, and that I wasn’t frightened of the protesters, which is true. Protesters I can understand. I’ve been a protester. It’s the Catholic audience that scares me. I’ll explain that later.

So I gave my talk. The focus was on how Catholics can/can’t reach out to homosexual people. The basic premise of the talk was “I don’t love gay people, I love...” fill in the names of individuals who happen to be gay identified or same-sex attracted. Basically the whole “you can’t hate the sin vociferously from every mountain top, and only love the sinner in the theological abstract” schtick. It seemed to go down well with the LGBT crowd – several of the protest organizers came up after the talk and thanked me for having come, which I think is as good as could be hoped for.

Tomorrow, I’ll probably blog about the protest thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Glad To Be Your Effigy

Well, today I showed up as a controversial blip on the gay-rights radar. It's a strange experience, to be hailed as a new and emerging threat, one of those sinister "ex-gay" speakers that the LGBT folks like to get hysterical about. Strictly speaking, I have had a sort of analogous experience in the past: I once had the opportunity to be portrayed as a loopy post-electric shock conversion therapy victim in a made for TV movie after I spoke at a local school-board during one of those "can a gay kid bring his gay date to that Catholic prom" scandals that periodically crop up. Anyways, apparently I am sounding the death knell of Notre Dame's academic credibility by going to speak at the St. Edith Stein Conference coming up Feburary 12th. It's nice to know that I have that kind of power... Mwa ha ha.
On a more serious note, it highlights another element of the culture wars that I think is particularly seductive and therefore, in many ways, particularly dangerous. It's nice to be hated. That's a very counter-intuitive statement, but there is a sense in which it is true; it's somehow exciting to feel that one is part of an epic conflict of some sort, that I really am the kind of person who could reasonably be vilified in a gay-rights hit piece. The feeling that now I'm making waves, that the enemy feels threatened, and all of that nonsense. Of course it's nonsense, but it's attractive, and I think that it's a lot of what keeps the culture-war home-fires burning. It adds a nice soupcon of adversity and confrontation to the day, provides a bit of an edge, but in a way that is ultimately safe. Or rather, in a way that is ultimately destructive because it undermines genuine dialogue and prevents healthy communication on the cultural level, while being perfectly safe for the front-line combatants.