Thursday, December 20, 2007

Jennifer Baumgardner: Fruitopia

It’s funny. In his review of my book Look Both Ways, Noah Berlatsky refers to me as privileged and clueless. At first, I was put off by his comment. I’m a single mother of what I like to refer to as my illegitimate child, a woman in a sexist society, a bisexual woman in a gay/straight world, a rural transplant to the big city, and I have very spotty health care coverage. I scanned his opening line -- the one that referred to the largest, most impactful social movement of the last 100 years as “largely bourgeois” -- and thought, “he thinks I’m in need of a clue?” I wondered, has he heard of abortion rights (which impact poor women much more than they do wealthy and are a public health innovation on par with the polio vaccine), the women’s health movement (which pioneered labeling on medication, made it so that women were included in drug trials and medical research), or the battered women’s shelter movement (which took us from two ad hoc shelters in 1970 to a network of thousands of safe houses across the globe, saving countless lives)? To reduce the feminist movement to Betty Friedan and rebelling against compulsory homemaking is to go out of one’s way to make it a movement that benefits white, middle-class women primarily.

Similarly, to diminish the importance of individual self-actualization (i.e. having full human rights, getting to be a whole person, being included in the American dream with its pursuit of happiness, etc.) as some sort of triviality next to, say, participating in a group protest against Starbucks is to be strenuously moronic. To wit, James Farmer, the incredibly brave and accomplished civil rights leader (who died in 1999) has spoken heartbreakingly about how hard it is to simply “feel” entitled, how after all of the struggles and change he and his peers wrought, he still felt second class. Inhabiting a blithe sense of privilege wasn’t something he knew in his lifetime -- and Farmer wanted to feel that privilege.

To be fair to Berlatsky, though, he was riffing on my arguments in his dis. I describe Anne Heche -- she of the famous Ellen relationship -- as privileged and clueless, and in Look Both Ways I argue that both characteristics enabled Heche to have a certain power in the world as a woman in a same sex relationship. Ellen had always been deeply private, closeted, and terrified to show affection outside of the confines of a gay margin (which felt utopian to her, no doubt, when compared to the stifling mainstream world in which she compelled herself to be closeted.) As Ellen later recounted (I found this on the website, she had never been demonstrative in public with previous girlfriends:

Anne went to grab my hand, we're walking down the street, she wanted to hold my hand and it made me feel really uncomfortable, even though I'm about to make this huge announcement to the world that I'm gay. I didn't want to hold hands because people would look at me and it would make them uncomfortable and it would make me uncomfortable and I realized I still have a sense of shame about who I am. How am I supposed to say it’s ok that I'm gay, but yet I still don't deserve the right to show affection in public the same way other people show affection?

Anne Heche, for her part, was used to engaging in PDA without thinking twice, because her prior relationships were heterosexual. Heche’s sense that she shouldn’t have to change her status in the world because the object of her affections had changed was revolutionary -- it goaded Ellen to be very dramatic and activist in her initial outing. In Look Both Ways, I recount how Ellen told The New York Times Magazine: “A gay person would never have let me be so public because a gay person would know what would happen.” Because Ellen was with call-me-crazy Anne, though, we didn’t just have a coming out episode of Ellen, we had wives holding hands on Oprah -- in 1997!

I think the notion of a gay utopia is premised on the idea that we want straight people to have some of our values, particularly our commitment to the liberation of the individual (to be whoever she or he or ze is) that the queer rights endeavor has pioneered. (Also our values of egalitarianism, stylishness, and great sex.) But don’t we also want gay people to have straight expectations? Not to “pass,” or become palatable, or go back in the closet, but simply to expect what Anne took for granted: to not have to be careful and quiet about her love life because she was in love with a woman?

My dream is not that we continue to create beautiful safe margins in which we all try to fit, but that we carry the sense of self we’d have in a utopia around with us wherever we are. A Fruitopia is ultimately a state of mind.

©Jennifer Baumgardner. Used by permission.

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