Respectability Politics 201 | By Sam Moore
Every queer person knows at least a little bit about respectability politics. The idea that in order to really be accepted, you need to act in a certain way, a way that’s respectable. Of course, respectable here doesn’t mean respectable at all. What it really means is “palatable to straight people.” It’s why the films of John Waters are always so refreshing in how unapologetic they are.
Desperate Living, the most political film that John Waters has made so far, exists in two different worlds. One of them is the essentially all-American suburbs, where Peggy Gravel, a neurotic housewife played by Waters regular Mink Stole, lives in what’s supposed to be domestic bliss. Of course, this being a John Waters film, it isn’t long until the mask is ripped from the face and the film descends into a sort of anarchic, coked-out Douglas Sirk style madness, climaxing in Peggy and her maid, Grizzelda Brown, killing her husband. On the run from the law and assaulted by a perverted police officer, the two women seek refuge in the garbage-built town of Mortville.
Mortville is populated by outcasts and down-and-outs, queers and criminals, people who, for one transgression or another, aren’t fit for polite society. But there’s something rotten in the state of Mortville; the fascist queen Carlotta, carried around and sexually serviced by a harem of men who are straight out of Kenneth Anger.
Revolution and revolt sweep over Mortville, and the film ends with a glorious declaration of victory: for once, the people who are normally losers have managed to achieve a hard fought victory. They don’t need to change who they are; they don’t need to live in fear. In a typically perverse John Waters kind of way, a town made of garbage becomes a sanctuary for those who would normally be considered unworthy of respect or humanity. The climax of the film is a rallying cry to stay as you are, and not to bow down to fascist heteros who try and keep you in line.
On the other side of the coin, I’ve seen respectability politics be used as a justification to complain about gay characters in sitcoms, New York Times cultural critics, and the Gus Van Sant film Milk.
There are plenty of reasons to complain about Milk, but respectability politics is low on my list.
Here, respectability politics are a forced mediation of two different poles with queer people on one end and straight people on the other. In order for the two to meet in the middle (what gets called “equality,” sometimes accurately and sometimes in a way that feels misguided), the former needs to make themselves recognizable to the latter. In other words, the queer community must act and talk in a way that is not “too gay.”
In Angels in America, sitting on a park bench after a funeral, Louis Ironson is told by his boyfriend that he gets “butch” around his family. He’s impersonated, somewhere between lovingly and mockingly, as saying “hi, you don’t remember me, I’m Lou, Rachel’s boy.” The reason for being Lou instead of Louis is that “if you say ‘Louis’ you get the sibilant ‘s’.” The kind of s that can be turned into the high camp lisp of a raging queen. This, in a nutshell, is respectability politics: changing a little about yourself that can be outwardly read as gay so you can avoid the scrutiny of straight people.
The problem here is, obviously, straight people. I don’t know if practices like respectability politics have any kind of malice behind them, or if legions of straight people really are incapable of understanding that people who are different from them might also act or sound different than them, but the extent to which queer people engage in self-censorship for the benefit of The Straights can’t help but give off that impression. The quietly pervasive nature of this kind of censorship gives an almost punk energy to the idea of an unapologetic, disrespectful queerness; a sense of rebellion, of self-expression and self-acceptance that respectability, deliberately or otherwise, tries to sideline.
This version of respectability politics can probably be called Respectability Politics 101, an entry level seminar on how minorities are forced to minimize their differences in order to make their way through the majority.
This gets taken to comically ridiculous extremes by the comical, ridiculous, and extreme Brass Eye. Morris’ dark comedy about late-night news was at once a parody and prophecy of what news programming was becoming at the dawn of the 21st century, and plays its stupidity dead straight, so lacking in self-awareness that warped fiction turns into a kind of fact, into what we would now call fake news. Anchor Chris Morris talks to an audience member about AIDS, and is told that the audience member caught it from his boyfriend. Morris’ response is to call this “bad AIDS,” something caught through the fault of an individual via “drug abuse, or homosexual act,” to riotous applause from the rest of the audience. Morris wears a green ribbon, with a similar design to those worn for breast cancer awareness, and says to the camera “I support those with good AIDS, because they caught the virus through no fault of their own.” This is another binary taken to extremes, where the disreputable side of the binary – homosexual acts – has disrespectful consequences – bad AIDS instead of good AIDS.
But what if that binary was disrupted?
If entry-level respectability politics is between queer people and straight people, then there’s a different version of it that seems to affect people with any kind of sexuality that challenges binaries. Enter Respectability Politics 201, informed by code-switching, gatekeeping, and the instability of binaries.
Someone once said to me that bisexual people are “only gay until a woman shows up” because they couldn’t get laid at a festival. Bisexuality is only acceptable if it errs on the side of gay instead of straight. It’s why Call Me By Your Name is a piece of “gay” art, and all of Elio’s experiences and attractions to women are either ignored or sidestepped. Overhearing a conversation about Call Me By Your Name between a group of writers who all happily call themselves queer, I heard the group consider the possibility of a sequel where Elio will date women. Of course, nobody at the table is very happy with the idea, calling it pointless and boring. To me, there’s nothing boring about the idea of seeing the entirety of Elio’s identity and sexuality explored. Call me By Your Name had a nuanced approach to Elio’s attraction to Oliver, underpinning it through art and sculpture as much as through bodies and emotions. There’s no reason to think that a sequel would somehow be less capable of exploring the many-splendored ways that desire can manifest itself, how it splits and comes together when directed toward someone of the same or a different gender. I’ll be first in line to buy the book, a ticket to the inevitable film adaptation, and the BluRay.
While bisexuality that foregrounds opposite sex relationships has become a kind of anathema to certain people in queer communities, the other side of the coin is just as damaging; the idea that bisexuality is only understandable if it isn’t too gay. If it is, if someone goes from a relationship with someone of a different gender to one with someone of the same gender, their sexuality stops being palatable to straight people, and you’re back to square one, forcing yourself to adhere to narrow definitions of respectability in order to be accepted.
It comes back to the classic assumption that any kind of expression of sexuality becomes an attempt to seduce whoever you’re having a conversation with. Let’s say you’re exchanging a few texts with an old friend when you’re out drinking at a just-above-average gay bar in an Oxford college, and you drink something called Queer Punch, a mix of sickly spirits and fruit juice. It goes down nicely and gets the job of getting drunk done quickly. You can’t remember what your friend says, because they sent their message on Snapchat and it disappeared in between looking at it and going to get another drink. You shoot off a meaningless, barely-even-flirtatious “I bet you say that to all the boys.” He tells you to slow down, or take it easy, or something like that.
You don’t say this, but you know that if he was talking to one of his straight friends, he wouldn’t have said that. If he was talking to a girl, even though he’s been in a relationship with someone for at least two years and they’re looking at moving in together, he still wouldn’t have said that.
There’s a reason why bisexuality is called “unprecedented” in the Desiree Akhavan TV series, The Bisexual, and it’s the same reason that the show’s title leaves an almost thrilling taste in the mouth: bisexuality is unprecedented, it never gets to exist on its own terms. Instead, it is filtered through either gay or straight social circles; there’s a certain degree of code switching involved.
If I mention a girl in the smoking area of a gay club, will I get sideways glances and have my presence there questioned?
Will straight people start laughing under their breath if I get too animated or theatrical describing how good Patti LuPone’s version of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ is?
Does a mention of an ex of one gender make a partner of another ask “but I thought…?” without ever being able to finish the question?
The Human Rights Campaign released a batch of statistics for what they called Bisexual Health Awareness Month in March of 2017. Whenever numbers like these come out, they tell the same story: higher rates of anxiety and depression than those reported for gays and lesbians, higher rates of suicidal thoughts. All of the bad numbers are bigger. The only ones that are smaller have to do with coming out. According to the HRC, bisexual people make up 50% of the LGBT population, but less than a third of them are out to those of their closest friends and family.
The refrain of “are you sure you’re not just gay?” is a frequent echo in queer spaces. Amongst a straight audience, many bi people’s sexuality is often labeled as a “phase.”
Bisexuality is always stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Not that kind of a hard place.
Respectability politics for bi people isn’t just about a sense of self-mediation; instead, a part of you is literally pushed aside.
Existing outside of the binary means that there’s no binary to look to when it comes to respectability politics. There’s no good bi or bad bi. Instead, there’s no bi–you’re either gay or straight depending on who you’re with.
Overheard at the box office of the Gielgud Theatre: “I can still only see you with a woman. Is that bad?”
The response in my head at the time: Yes.
This guy (who, from what I overheard, was gay) clearly had a slightly frayed relationship with the concept of gayness. Talking about going to the theatre with a friend of his, he said “he’s the only gay guy I know who cares if I do things that make me happy.” I didn’t know the context, or anything else, but it struck me as interesting. It made his comment about only being able to see his – female – friend with a woman sound a little strange. If so many gay people that you know apparently don’t care about your happiness, why would you force your friend into a gay or lesbian box? Does her attraction to men somehow alienate you? Can you only understand her identity if you make it as similar to yours as possible?
The interesting thing about Respectability Politics 101 and 201 is that they both operate under the same conditions: we cannot understand people unless they make their identities similar enough to ours that we become able to ignore the gulf of Otherness between two people. While queer people engage in self-censorship, straight people engage in self-deception, pretending that these differences are so small that they don’t exist, that these respectable queers might as well be straight, especially when they don’t ram their sexuality down your throat.
The road to equality is long, unsteady, and not all of it has been travelled yet. And it isn’t only about being able to get married.
Just as Respectability Politics 101 has caused a certain, narrow brand of queerness to be fully accepted by straight people, Respectability Politics 201 makes it clear that to step outside of binaries is still a rebellious and potentially dangerous act. Equality with an asterisk is not equality at all, but pound-shop assimilation. More should be done to embrace the messy, unapologetic, and disrespected elements of queer culture so both straight people and other queer people are forced to wake up and accept people as they are. The overthrow of fascism at the end of Desperate Living is becoming more and more necessary, both metaphorically and otherwise. Desperate Living challenges the idea that society’s losers always have to lose, and that all queer stories need to end in tragedy. Outcasts storm the castle and kill their tyrannical queen; the revolution that started in Mortville can’t stop now.
Sam is a writer of poetry, prose, and drama. His poetry has appeared in the inaugural issue of Please See Me, the Hawaii Review, and other places. His debut play, Savage, was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August of 2015. Since then he has had three plays performed at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford, most recently Like a Virgin (May 2018).