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Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences
by Tracy Baim
2010-02-17

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Written by Sarah Schulman. $23.95; The New Press; 192 pages

Author and playwright Sarah Schulman is among our community's most prolific writers. She is that rare combination of thinker and activist, so both her fiction and non-fiction work is informed by a wealth of real-world experiences, especially her tremendous role in the ACT UP/ New York movement.

Schulman's newest nonfiction book, The Ties that Bind, is a slim volume that packs a powerful punch. It tackles the very notion of the personal being political—where it is we often first experience homophobia, within our families.

While there has been great progress on gay issues at the political level, and likely far more parents today have an open mind about homosexuality, when it "hits home" some of even the most progressive families have "issues" with their own children being gay, lesbian, or even transgendered. That is the core of The Ties that Bind: the long-term consequences of "familial homophobia."

Schulman herself has experienced this problem first-hand, and she details this in the book, using her own life as an example of how the homophobia we experience at home oppresses us throughout our lives. Schulman believes that the homophobia our families deal out also has major implications within the greater society, not just on the individual target.

One of the main ways the gay movement is different from other movements for civil rights is that for the most part, gay people are raised by people who are not "like" them, whereas when it comes to race or religion or gender, most people are usually raised by people who are "like them", so that when society comes crashing into their lives, they have some strength at home to help them cope. These are generalizations of course, but based on the reality of most gays and lesbians.

Even those of us who grew up in very progressive families have experienced some forms of familial homophobia. My own experience is an example; I had adult gay and lesbian role models in my childhood, because my parents had a wide mix of friends. But when it came to my coming out my mom did have slight issues, mainly what I call the "Cher" response ( when Chastity came out to her ) : she worried about the hard life I might have. But she rather quickly changed course and my mom was the one who found out about a job opening at GayLife newspaper for a part-time reporter, thus starting me on a gay media path just one month out of college.

So my own experience with familial homophobia is minor, but I did witness huge differences for my peers—many took decades to come out to their families, and some never did before their parents died. This book does an excellent job of showing how these family-based strains and problems exponentially increase in impact as we grow up and try to manage our way through society.

A fascinating chapter in the book is about how gays use the court system against one another, a "heterosexual" privilege argument, where a lesbian birth parent fights against a partner for custody using the courts to deny her former partner any parental rights. There are many examples of this ugly side of the community, and Schulman shows how we sometimes re-brand the homophobia we grow up with to tear each other down.

Schulman also addresses the same-sex marriage movement, criticizing the approach on several grounds. One, she says it is a "desperate desire for relationship recognition" but that: "Gay marriage does not so much protect the couple from the state as it protects the couple from each other. … It is a third-party acknowledgment and recognition that people who have shared love have basic responsibilities toward each other." A second motive, she says, is to "force the state to legitimate the emotional life of the gay person as a balance to the deprivation of recognition created by the family."

The shunning from family is part of the reason the gay subculture was created to begin with—people created new families of choice. Schulman writes that some people chose this subculture "in order to minimize contact with the official culture and its people. … Others of us have tried to transform [ the mainstream ] and failed. We've gone head-to-head with the glass ceilings … we are then forced back into the subculture simply because they won't let us into the big world." If you sense a very personal connection to this for Schulman, you are correct, as the book includes a lot about Schulman's own feelings of shunning of her professional work because she is a lesbian.

Schulman takes a closer look at how lesbians are often excluded from mainstream culture, and how lesbian works also often shunned by gay men in positions of power within the entertainment world. "What are the stakes in this?" she asks. "Why is having authentic lesbian content excluded from mainstream representation reinforcing the shunning and oppression in gay people's daily lives? The key answer is POWER. Truthful lesbian representations teach straight people, through some trickle down theory, to be kinder to gay people. But it's not just that. With lesbian representations, lesbians can see truthful depictions of themselves and thereby realize that they are human."

This more personal take on this topic is an important contribution to our understanding of homophobia and its costs. I would recommend this not just for activists, but also for therapists and those dealing with family dynamics—families of all kinds. What we need is a paradigm shift, one that does not set up heterosexuality as the "norm" and everything else as "other." Once the status quo shifts within families, and all diversity is welcome, only then can all LGBTs grow up to feel fully part of society. It is a change that will take decades to have an impact, but it needs to start with the current generation, and it needs to start at home.


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