Thursday, September 27, 2012

Who tells our stories?

Today I had an collision of two issues that are connected by a single question: Who tells our stories? One is overtly political, the other has politics imposed on it, and both are, in essence, about the invisibility of GLBT people in much public discourse.

The first was a guest post on Racialicious that was a lengthy complaint—or, rant, if you prefer—about how inappropriate it is to have books and films portray an upside-down world in which gay is the majority and straight is the oppressed minority. They said:
“So that’s more appropriating the issues we live with: our history, our suffering, and then shitting on it all by making us the perpetrators of the violations committed against us. How can they not see how offensive this is? How can they not see how offensive taking the severe bigotry thrown at us every day and throughout history—bigotry that has cost us so much and then making our oppressors the victims and us the attackers—is? This is appropriative. This is offensive. It’s disrespectful—and it’s outright bigoted.”
The main complaint seemed to be that heterosexuals, who perpetrate oppression against LGBT people, are by definition “privileged”, and so, should not presume to tell the stories of oppression of GLBT people. Inventing an upside-down world, even if to help heterosexuals understand oppression of LGBT people, is merely perpetuating that oppression (evidence for which is that doing an Internet search for the underlying theme yields all sorts of vile, hate-filled sites). Instead, the post authors argued, the stories must be told by actual gay people, the “gays in front” model.

Related to this was a video posted over on Joe.My.God. It apparently commented on the fact that gays are missing from pro-marriage equality ads this year. However, the user deleted the video (the post may go, too), so I don’t know for sure what was in it. Nevertheless, the comments to Joe’s post raised important questions about whether real gay couples should be depicted in such ads. My own view is: Sometimes.

Many of the comments support the belief that one of the factors that led to our defeat on Proposition 8 in California was that the campaign on our side made a conscious decision not to use gay people in any of their ads, meaning the issues weren’t “humanised”. While this belief has widespread support, I’m not aware of any critical academic research that supports it.

Still, it makes a certain amount of common sense: If an issue is affecting real people, then those real people ought to be seen in the campaign. The reality, I believe, is far more complicated.

It’s undeniably true that support for GLBT issues goes up when people know real, actual gay people. Numerous studies have shown this to be true. This is what many of the proponents of “gays in front” point to. However, this doesn’t automatically translate for campaign (or any other) marketing: Seeing a gay person on TV, even in a sympathetic portrayal, doesn’t automatically translate into support for LGBT people at the ballot box, in part because campaigns are too short.

Instead, what tends to work is a combination: Intellectual appeals to people’s sense of justice coupled with more emotive appeals to people’s innate sense of fair play and compassion. The second appeal tends to motivate voters based on what they’ve decided because of the first appeal.

We need heterosexuals to vote for marriage equality, and plenty of research shows that voters tend to listen closely to people they can identify with; so, we need heterosexuals explaining to heterosexuals all the many logical reasons why supporting marriage equality is such a no-brainer. As one commenter at Joe.My.God. put it:
“Conceptually it makes sense. The people who would otherwise vote the wrong way are low-information types who are afraid of gay people. They need to hear from other heterosexuals about why there's no need to be afraid.

“When you were seven and afraid of the boogeyman who lived under your bed, your mother or father held your hand and told you there was nothing to be fearful of.

“They didn't dress up as the boogeyman and come dancing and singing into your bedroom at night.”
That's the best summation of this that I’ve ever seen.

The other side, of course, is that people also need to see the consequences of inequality from a standpoint that they can identify with emotionally, as well as understand intellectually. The “gays in front” approach, in my view, must be part of a strategy to achieve that. The key is to connect with voters as human beings, allow them to feel what it would be like to be denied the right to legally commit to the person they love, as well as the many other injustices that flow from that denial.

Right now, our enemies and adversaries put “gays in front” every chance they get. While some of our adversaries are more subtle, our enemies use lies, smears, distortion and defamation to try and frighten mainstream voters. They try to tap into the latent prejudice people may have about people they don’t know or understand. Our side must be more forceful in calling out lies and distortions, not just because those attacks are effective, but also because standing up to bigots is the right thing to do. Here I think that “gays in front” can be very effective by showing the reality that proves our enemies are lying; done right, we don’t even have to say they're lying because it would be so bloody obvious.

My relaxed and pragmatic approach to election campaigns—use what works best—is reflected in my view of literature and film, where I also don’t think that gays always have to be in front.

I disagree with the authors of that post about an upside-down world being used to educate heterosexuals; I say, whatever works. It’s unrealistic to think that heterosexuals will seek out novels or films in which gay heroes battle oppression because most people want to see themselves reflected in the books they read or the films they watch. Yes, some people will seek out other viewpoints and voices, but such customers make up a tiny percentage of the popular market.

I do share the authors’ concerns about such things reinforcing skewed prejudice, however, the fact that hate sites exist on the Internet is not a valid reason to bar books or films from portraying anti-GLBT oppression from a heterosexual point of view. In my opinion, the small number of people who will consume a book or film won’t suddenly all become raging homophobes, and, in fact, quite a few will likely become supporters because they’ll finally “get it”.

However, there’s a larger issue that ties these two completely different things together: Who tells our stories? LBGT people must be part of public discourse, in the arts and politics alike, and all too often we’re kept in the shadows or marginalised. I absolutely agree that must end. At the same time, in politics, I keep my eyes on the prize—full legal equality—and achieving that is more important than who is out in front. I also think the arts are big enough to accommodate many different voices and viewpoints.

We all can tell our own stories, of course; getting others to listen is the hard part. Always insisting that we be in front at all times seems counter-productive to me, and kind of insulting to the people we want to listen. We need to sit down, lower our voices, and listen as well as speak.

On this blog, I have many stories to tell. Whether you listen or not is up to you.

Tip o' the Hat to Roger Green, who pointed me to the Racialicious post.