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Gay geography
Otherness is in fact a big deal

March 16, 2004

A reply to "Disgruntled impressions" by H. Utanazad:

I want to start this piece with an anecdote, a not-so-distant memory of the past, when the rent hikes in San Francisco's gentrified neighborhoods had not yet pushed me to the outer limits of the city. I was walking home, in the Mission district, from a meeting on Castro Street in San Francisco. And there it happened, "the uncanny effect of geography and time" on the written words you have in front of you now - A memory of Otherness.

It all happened in one quick moment, but the memory stays, like my immigrant-gendered queer body that has dwelled for years in a place I have come to call home. As I was walking home, a Black homeless man roaming the streets of the rainbow-flag-adorned Castro asked a passerby for spare change. The solicited White gay man refused to give money and a short exchange of words took place between the two. The ringing bell of the "F Market" electric bus was followed by the sound of the White man shouting: "Stupid son of a bitch! Go back to the Mission, asshole!"

That was when I realized why I never felt at home in a district known to be gay. I lived in the Mission, where at the time, the boundaries of the neighborhood were marked racially and economically as "dangerous." (Not anymore, thanks to Mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsome whose efforts of gentrification have made Mission into a tourist spot for yuppie bar-hoppers who live in the Snobhills of San Francisco and come to the Oxygen and Blondies on Friday nights in order to feel "baaaad." The good normal citizens who barf on Mission's side walks on their way out, as they curse in their drunk heads at the homeless for not getting a job.)

Geography matters, Mr. Utanazad, you are absolutely right. Geography matters. It marks raced and gendered bodies, not all of whom can enjoy the cosmopolitanism that some do, shuttling between Tehran and the suburbs in the U.S. And the irony of geography is in one's implicit claim to authenticity of knowledge sanctioned by sitting in an apartment in Tehran and writing about the suffering and pain of gays who cannot hold hands on Tehran's streets. And since when does two men holding hands in Tehran signify "gayness?" But what do I know? I have dwelled in the U.S. for too long, not being able to go back home to Tehran. What do I know?

Geography matters after all. Not all bodies travel the same way. Some travel and some are traveled upon. Not all queers leave home to come to gay cultural homelands in the U.S. Not all queers fit into the teleological narratives of gay homecoming -- those famous stories of leaving the home of repression to come to the home of liberation. Not all queers leave home to "come out" and get married in gay metropolitan centers.

Mr. Utanazad, you ask, "Just what exactly was she [Najmabadi, See: "Don't straighten the queers"] trying to accomplish? What was she after?" In all modesty, I could not tell you that. But, isn't this the beauty of any text? Isn't it the case that meaning is not dependent on its author's intentions? That regardless of Najmabadi's or Shirazi's intentions [See: "Being straight on queers"], their articles will produce multiple meanings? But I do not want to limit myself to the polysemy of hermeneutics. What Najmabadi's text does is also to draw the reader's attention to the production of knowledge about "normal" and "abnormal" on a discursive level. These discourses have histories of exclusion and Othering that exceed the articulation of an inside self in a simple opposition to the outside Other.

You write, "So, let's drop the pretense. Yes, you are the other. You and the countless others at the exterior of my body. My words reflect this simple fact. Big deal with the "otherness" bogyman. Enough is enough." The Otherness is in fact a big deal, Mr. Utanazad. It is how subjects come into being. It has to do with power in its much diffused and fragmented presence. It has to do with the production of knowledges that establish certain truths about sexuality that give rise to regulatory practices, such as marriage. And yes, gay marriage is shifting the heteronormative discourses on "sacredness" and is bringing under question the empty claims of equal rights of citizens in the U.S. nation-state. But, it also reiterates the norms and conditions of political and cultural citizenship.

Mr. Utanazad, "life in the margins" as you name it, is as real as you write. But to point to the discursive production of this reality is not to deny its materiality. And that materiality, the marginality of queers in the U.S, surely is not experienced in the same way by everyone. While some queers stand in line to get a license issued to them by the City of San Francisco, others are single mothers who are struggling to make it through the welfare system. Others are undocumented non-citizens, fearing deportation every day. And yes, there are also queers who are targeted by the "special registrations" that are still haunting the lives of many who pose the "threat of terrorism."

And I am sure many of us remember the words scribbled on the bomb that was dropped on Afghanistan, possibly killing many people. The words read, "hijack this -- fags!" You see, Mr. Utanazad, Othering is not just a simple "inner" vs. "outer" mechanism of selfhood. It is embedded in power relationships and has material effects. It exerts violence on gendered, sexualized, and racialized bodies who are subtly or blatantly, excluded from the realms of the "normal."

While I am happy for those queers who got their marriage license and annoyed the hell out of the right wing legislators in the U.S., let's not forget that not all queers perceive marriage as their foremost concern. As Tommi Avicolli Mecca writes, "part of me, the radical gay liberationist who leaped out of the closet in 1971 marching and screaming, is wondering why gay marriage is our big struggle right now. Why is it consuming so much of our time when we desperately need national healthcare, affordable housing and a living wage? Why are hundreds lining up daily and waiting up to three hours outside City Hall to tie the knot in a ceremony that won't be recognized outside of San Francisco? Why when all of us have seen the failings of heterosexual marriage do we not want something different from what our parents had?"

Let's not forget that the marriage license still does not give any rights that the federal government grants to heterosexual couples. And let's not forget that not all relationships follow the naturalized nuclear forms of family. Would the City of San Francisco sanction a marriage of three or more as legitimate? Is this too radical for the normalized queer?

Perhaps politics is more than just "the art of collective transformation." Perhaps it is also about coming to terms with fragmentation.

So, Najmabadi's questioning of naturalization of the "normal," does more than pointing to what you regard as a "simple fact." It is what Foucault called the "regimes of knowledge, power, and truth," to which the questioning of norms points. While a "liberated" gay subject who gets married in City Hall may be perceived as transgressing the assumed heterosexual spaces of marriage, this subject is in making. The "normal" gay and lesbian who has been produced by the hegemonic discourses of the state, in addition to competing discourses of gay and lesbian rights, is being interpellated in new ways by the state and is therefore being subjected to a different set of regulatory practices.

So, your question to your readers that whether your words or those of Shirazi create homosexuals, cannot be answered with a simple "no." Your words, along with Shirazi's, are informed by discourses that produce subjects and abjects. To say that the "homosexual" exists prior to discourse is to assume an inherent homosexuality that exists outside the networks of power and knowledge. This assumption often works within the naturalized binary framework of heterosexual (as the norm) and homosexual (as its abject other).

So the questions I pose here are, how do we become subjects? What are the relations of power that produce knowledges that we accept as "truth"? What are the powers that produce us as subjects and regulate us so that we become docile citizen subjects? And I am not just talking about the law, the marriage law, if you will. I am talking about those regulatory regimes and practices that at times informs these laws. What happens to those who are not included in those regimes of truth about normal citizens?

Gay marriage did not come out of Mayor Gavin Newsome's gay-friendly (and may I remind us, homeless unfriendly) city. It has been in making throughout the years of advocacy by mainstream gay and lesbian groups such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. It is not a new debate, but one that appears on the news at this particular historical juncture for particular political reasons. What remains to be seen, is how these debates on gay marriage would produce new discourses of morality and rights.

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