14 December 2010

Everything They Say We Are

I want to have adventures and take enormous risks and be everything they say we are.

--Dorothy Allison
That quote comes from a post at Shiri Eisner's Bi Radical blog called "The myth of myth-busting: normalcy discourse and bisexual politics", a post I discovered via a friend's link on Facebook. The post questions and challenges the assumptions of another blogger's post called "Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, or: 'how I came to stop worrying and like the word bisexual’, Part 2", which sought to counter some "myths" about bisexuality, namely:

  • Existence. Yes – we do.
  • Monogamy. Yes – we can.
  • Fidelity. Yes – we can. And – we do.
  • HIV & AIDS. No – it’s not all our fault.
  • Confusion. No – we’re really not.
  • Indecision. No – that’s not what fluidity means.
  • Greed. Yes, we can have just one piece of cake.
  • Pants. Yes – we’re as capable as anyone else of keeping our various bits in them.
  • Choice. No – we cannot choose to be straight; we cannot choose to be gay; we did not choose our sexual orientation in some thoughtlessly frivolous moment of rapacious abandon. Who does?

Eisner summarized this as:
No, we’re not promiscuous. No, we don’t sleep around. No, we’re not infectious. No, we don’t choose to be the way we are (SRSLY, why would anyone choose that?). Yes, we’re normal. No, we don’t threaten your sexual identification. Yes, we are just like you. No, you are not in danger of being like us. No, we don’t threaten your beliefs, your society or your safety.

Needless to say, all this is aimed towards the ubiquitous (all-existing, all-domineering) Straight White Middle Class. The one we don’t threaten, yes?
She then offered a point-by-point exploration/rebuttal. And now a complex discussion has begun in the comments section of the post, at the moment focusing on the last part of that summary (the "ubiquitous [all-existing, all-domineering] Straight White Middle Class").

In the comments, the original blogger, TSB, has, it seems to me, a moment of missing the point, or at least missing the point about the power of the word "normal" and the work it does to create unmarked and marked categories (for more, see this PDF). "I guess, my point," she says, "is you posit a monolithic concept ('normalcy') and spread it far & thin ('in our society') and give it a great deal of unshiftable power ('forever') that I do not agree it has." I'd agree that the word "forever" suggests an immutability that it's probably best to reject, but otherwise the commenter here is actually making Eisner's point for her. This is, in fact, the trouble with "normal". While certainly there are variations on what in any region, city, town, neighborhood, street, house, family is accepted or not as "normal", that doesn't mean we can't speak generally of what is and isn't unmarked. The desire to be normal is the desire to be unmarked, to be the default. What is unmarked is what is, sometimes, most common; as often, it is what is most powerful: it is what is able to shape and construct perceptions of the norm.

Once "normal" gets tinged with morality, it becomes a weapon of power: normal equals good and desirable and is opposed to abnormal, which is bad and should be eradicated.

The discourse of normality often pops up, as here, with anti-choice, biological-determinist discourse. "Choice" is entirely the wrong word to use, because the folks who hate queers don't care if choice is involved. (A terminal disease is not a choice, either.) If your sexual identity is not a choice, then it's something that could be cured, perhaps, or segregated from normal society, or at least pitied as an affliction. If it is a choice, then it's a bad one. Damned if you choose, damned if you don't.

Much of the original list is aimed at a certain type of traditionalist morality, a morality that sees monogamy, fidelity, and abstention as inherently good. It sees any behavior other than monogamy, fidelity, and abstention as not only abnormal, but shameful. It is suspicious of experimentation and ephemerality (it would certainly never want something to be "a phase", even though all of life, against the fact of nonexistence, is just a phase). If "Yes -- we can" then "we" must try, must put forth effort, must aspire. We are able, we are capable. We can be normal. We can be good.

Dorothy Allison's essay "A Question of Class" is a worthwhile follow-up to this discussion. As is Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.