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
gentrified neighborhoods had not yet pushed me to the outer limits
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
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
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
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
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
Mr. Utanazad, "life in the margins" as
you name it, is as real as you write. But to point to the discursive
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
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
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
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
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?
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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