OK, I know I’ve already devoted precious blog space to deconstructing the “normalcy” of NBC’s television show “The New Normal,” which features a gay male couple. But here it is, registering on the radar screen once again. A few weeks ago, the January 8 episode of “The New Normal” contained a scene that was highly offensive to intersex people. The beginning of the scene features Gary, the director of the surrogacy agency that’s helping Bryan and David (the gay couple) have their child. Gary, depressed and despondent, is lamenting the fact that he’s single and that he keeps ending up with “losers” every time he goes on a date. Cut to a scene at a restaurant, where Gary is on a first date with a man who says, “And then, at age 6, I learned that I’m intersex.” Insinuating, of course, that Intersex = LOSER. (You can watch that scene here, at about 5:35 minutes.)
If that line was meant as a joke, the intersex community certainly didn’t laugh. A couple of days after the episode aired, Organisation Intersex International (OII) put out a call on their Facebook page encouraging people to report this episode to GLAAD as an act of defamation. “With intersex babies being subjected to nonconsensual infant surgeries proven to be harmful every day b/c of prejudice against those that do not conform to sex and gender norms,” their site read, “the last thing intersex people & their families need are jokes portraying them as inferior to others.” Especially on a show that’s intended to show how “normal” gay people are.
Of course, pitting one oppressed group against another isn’t anything new. The LGBTQ community itself has seen its own share of infighting. (Should we include the “B”? Or the “T”? Oh wow, now we have to add this “I” thing?) But lots of other us-vs.-them dynamics have cropped up as well. A week after the episode aired, Nico Lang wrote a piece for the Huffington Post charging “The New Normal” with racism – or “gaycism,” a term coined by a GQ writer describing the trend of gay TV writers/producers of finding creative ways of embedding racist stereotypes in their programs. “Hipster racism,” they call it – using blatantly racist comments in a satirical way in order to sound edgy and, well, not-racist. Ellen Barkin’s character, for example, makes all sorts of overtly racist comments – and the other characters respond by rolling their eyes and ignoring her, because her comments are so ridiculous, and because we’re so 2013, so beyond petty forms of racism.
Except we’re not. In fact, this form of racism can be even more covert, insidious, and dangerous than anything the Westboro Baptist Church says. People can read Stuff White People Like and think they’re making fun of White people (oh, we who shop at Whole Foods, listen to NPR and TED talks, and take a year off in order to find ourselves), showing just how post-racist they are. But they don’t see that they’re potentially offending people of color, suggesting that they aren’t interested in eating healthy or pursuing intellectual interests, and failing to recognize that class-privileged activities like taking a year off (and shopping at Whole Foods, for that matter) might be highly desired but financially inaccessible. To use the words of Nico Lang in his piece, it’s “using mock racism to disguise plain ol’ racism.”
I see two problems (at least) with these forms of marginalization. One is that the use of “hipster racism” (or any form of racism, really) seems to lower the threshold for other offensive behaviors. To me, the intersex comment on “The New Normal” was so obviously out of line – but to a regular viewer who’s accustomed to the edgy and satirical [racist] humor on the show, the intersex thing could easily fly under the radar and be seen as funny. What’s more, not only does one form of oppression open the door for other forms, they can then start to feed off of one another and contribute to an overall belief system – an “intolerant schema,” as psychologist Allison Aosved and her colleagues refer to it. If racism is fair game, according to the “intolerant schema” concept, then so is sexism, sexual prejudice, class prejudice, and religious intolerance. And intersex-phobia, if the January 8 “New Normal” episode is any indication.
Back in 1983, Audre Lorde had this to say in her famous essay, “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression”:
Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.
That brings me to my second concern, which is based on the simple truism uttered by Abraham Lincoln a century and a half ago: A house divided cannot stand. If one marginalized group is pitted against another, both will fall – and the dominant group will remain in power, untouched. The National Organization for Marriage, it was revealed last year, deliberately used this strategy in their campaign to block marriage equality efforts in Maine. Check out the statements below, which were taken word-for-word from NOM’s internal campaign strategy documents:
The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…
The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote, and will be so even more so in the future, both because of demographic growth and inherent uncertainty: Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity – a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.
A house divided. Divide and conquer.
How easy it might be to think, Well, “The New Normal” was making fun of intersex people, but at least they’re showing a gay couple. But the reality is this:
Every act of racism hurts the LGBTQ community.
Every act of sexism hurts the LGBTQ community.
Every act of elitism and class oppression, ageism, ableism (the list goes on) hurts the LGBTQ community.
And even one little joke about intersex people hurts the LGBTQ community – and all other oppressed groups, too. As Audre Lorde said in her same essay, “When they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”
May we remember these words, and hang together united.