Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thoughts on Cleveland Pride

Families planning to sail on the Goodtime III pleasure cruiser that is docked at Voinovich park might have initially had some apprehension after they boarded upon seeing that their principal view was of the 20th Annual Pride celebration. If they did look closer, they would have seen a crowd only a little more remarkable than those at any of the festivals in Ohio. Children, couples, friends, lovers, parents, pets and churches were interspersed with the odd drag queen or leather person, and even Foucault might have felt uncharitable in deconstructing the notion of an LGBT community of Cleveland. A very poignant image for me was of my friend Matt’s friend Michael carrying a child–an image of love and an empowering metaphor for the role of LGBT people in nurturing the future of our wider society.

Predictably the Parade was the (bloodless) battleground of a theological battle between the many Cleveland churches that embrace LGBT people and a small number of placard-bearing protesters. The ripostes were humorous and dignified; the marching band drowned out the microphone. How best to deal with them nonetheless provoked some debate: my friend Brandon was of the opinion that these people were attempting to provoke a fight and were best ignored. Perhaps there is some merit to the repudiation of homosexuality as a no-man’s land in the the internal politics of the church, but perhaps we are better if we welcome the protesters as humans, showing them the love they fail to reciprocate. The rights of freedom of speech and association that they enjoy are shared guarantees, even if we have had to fight to claim them and they have not, that allow us to be there in the first place.

Inside the festival, there were many interesting booths of the usual local and national organizations. Sadly absent was a Case Western Reserve booth (the LGBT Provost’s group did march in the parade), but for those who are interested, there’s plenty of groups to get involved with. Sexual health campaigners were encouragingly omnipresent although I wish the organizers had been more sensitive that to place Flex, a bathhouse, next to the AIDS campaign of Greater Cleveland.

Other people I talked to: I’ll now be going to the ACLU brown bag lunches on Wednesdays on Chester. I spoke with a representative from the Human Rights Campaign and offered to volunteer. I took a leaflet for my mom from PFLAG. I also offered to volunteer at the LGBT Center, who never got back to me last year. I’ve actually been looking for a while to volunteer somewhere but haven’t really found the right outlet yet. Perhaps these groups could do more to encourage volunteers. There were many other worthwhile groups, including musical, outdoors and athletic groups (softball and volleyball but alas, not rugby or snowboarding).

A minor peeve: I regret that groups like the HRC in trying to attract support for legislation like ENDA (which would prevent LGB but not T people from discrimination in employment on the basis of their orientation) lack the ambition for something more intellectually consistent. Such a bill would prevent discrimination against anyone–straight people too–for any reason irrelevant to their employment. The lady we spoke to unconvincingly reiterated Politics Is The Art of The Possible, but it is hard to see how this could not enjoy more widespread support than the more limited ENDA. It would moreover resist the distasteful and essentially discriminatory exercise of compartmentalizing subgroups of the community and then arguing separately on the rights that they ought, or ought not, enjoy.

It would have been churlish of me to have attempted to have argued this extensively at Pride even if I wish they might have more rigour in their sales pitch, so I did not, and signed up. I got a stylish bracelet with the Equals sign for my trouble. Matt got an equally stylish bag.

For one day a year we get to see that LGBT people cover the entire cross section of society and not merely those we see in bars. I heard the sharing of stories yesterday of discomfort within people’s families (I’m not immune to this either) about their orientation; I saw an evanescent vision yesterday of less conformist society. With the weight of Kant and Rousseau, Pride challenges us: Dare to know; Dare to be free.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The fallacy of appeals to biology

In the past few days I’ve read several articles (such as this one) about sexuality and biology connected to a scientific study into the claim that gay men have ‘similar’ brains to women. LGBT people, like all humans, have a need to understand our origins, and these sorts of studies have an appeal for some in fulfilling that requirement. To attempt to use them as a basis to legitimize us is, however, both superfluous and misconceived.

There is an old view that retains some lustre: one founded in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, that sees in nature a revealed model for human society and that of course does not include LGBT people. The many intricacies and apparent arbitrariness of Nature ought to be sufficient warning that this continuation is suspect: just as some see in Nature a divine plan, others see chaos and if they were to follow the natural law argument ought to propose anarchy! Rather than project nature onto our society, there is more value in explaining society through parallels in nature, as we might recollect from Henry V.

The recent work with fMRI and DNA sequencing is not the first counterargument to Aquinas, nor even the first scientific one. Previously, the arsenal of evidence of gender non-conformity throughout the animal kingdom was amassed to demolish the myth of the nuclear family. The counter then, even accepting the inconsistency, was to divide homosexual acts, which of course involve choice, from homosexual nature and to condemn the former (the Catholic view). This is cruel and dehumanising, but the new science would be no better ammunition against it.

If we legitimize ourselves by our biology, in consequence we in fact proliferate a sanitised homophobia: Of all the words that are levelled at us–Poof, Queer, Faggot, etc.–the neologism homosexual is perhaps most dishonest in that the same disparagement is hidden behind a veneer of latin legitimacy. The facade works because it presents a false objectivity, and yet at the same time the medicalised term forces us to be patients suffering from a condition to be cured. It is admittedly possible to construe this as too much weight placed on a single word, but it is not too heavy a burden to place on this most recent body of biological analysis. Appeals to biology only serve to perpetuate the myth that LGBT have an aberration.

I do not mean that the research ought not be performed–it ought to be–but its limited use in moral arguments for LGBT tolerance should be recognised. We have much stronger arguments in our armoury.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Diverging elasticity and director uniformation in a nanopatterned cell near the nematic–smectic-A phase transition

Somewhat behind the times, I just realised that my recent paper in Physical Review E is finally available on the journal website (you need a subscription to download it). I'll be presenting it in digestible poster form–I printed the poster today incidentally–at ILCC in Jeju in a couple of weeks, so the timing really couldn't be better.

Messages from Home

I heard today from John. He said, simply, "Armenia's a hell of a lot different than anything I've experienced, but it's great." One happily wonders if Armenia is quite prepared for John.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Please Mrs Robinson...

It's delightful to hear that Mrs Robinson MP, the wife of the First Minister of the Northern Ireland assembly is exercising her right to free speech, however unwisely, her freedom of speech by declaring us, homosexuals, to be an abomination that may be cured by counselling. In the wake of a homphobic attack in Northern Ireland on a gay person, surely she does not imagine that her comments are not conflated with raw homophobia in the eyes of society?

Her husband, whose assembly funds the Belfast Gay Pride, reavowed his commitment to equality. Remarkably though, I am for once in total agreement with Sinn Fein: If Mrs Robinson believes in the pseudoscience of treating homosexuality as a disease, she must resign as chair of the Stormont health committee.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Legitimizing Pride

Pride celebrations are sometimes regarded by LGBT people as superfluous or, worse, somehow counterproductive. To what? To the legitimationist project of integration and broad conformity with the institutions of wider society. In its strongest form, their argument is this: LGBT people are already scattered randomly throughout the human race in all social strata and in every occupation. They have demonstrated, even in institutions such as the military, the same professionalism and commitment to society that other people have, and so they ought to be accorded the same privileges as everyone else, the implied contract being that they have to maintain the same responsibilities.

The festival is misconceived by them as a liberationist piece of theater, perhaps an attempt to recapture the spirit of the Stonewall riots, an act of defiance or even hedonism. It has been represented as so by sections of the media. To characterise it thus is nonetheless to ignore the effervescence and then equally swift evanescence of dramatic protest: once the point is made, only something more outrageous can upstage it. If Pride were that, why is the purportedly Foucauldian petard hoist year after year? Why does it gain in strength with time, with new celebrations in places long ago inconceivable, and not die out as all other liberationist projects seem to have done?

Even arguing from within their frame of reference, the failures of projects such as the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell debacle ought to be apparent to legitimationists, and the consequent paradox at the heart of their ideology manifest: if every LGBT person is expected to be undifferentiated from society, the political grassroots to pursue the goal of equality is non-existent. Pride is the start to claiming genuine political power because it uniquely crosses gender, race and class; it is uniquely open to any participant at any level from those who come to those who want to march, to those who want to help organize it.

There is therefore more to Pride than the dogma of the liberationist/legitimationist dichotomy. It is fundamentally a human event, a celebration of what in South Africa would be called Ubuntu–we are who we are because of our society–and I suspect that the majority of people go for the most human of reasons: so there are others like me. Personal beliefs, history and preferences are unquestioned, and legitimationists are indeed most welcome. Perhaps they ought to contemplate whether the norms that they would have us all conform to are founded on such a laudable foundation.