A house divided

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.


Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, overt homophobia, racism, same-sex marriage, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized

5 responses to “A house divided

  1. Gary Hollander

    As usual, Gayle, beautifully and thoughtfully written. I don’t watch the New Normal because of the show’s overall tone, one which I find a slippery slope to all sorts of oppression. But you have certainly thought about it more than I.

    One area of interest that I continue to ponder that you raise in this post is the “infighting” you describe among people in the LGBTQ community. The reason for my ambivalence about the situation you describe in this paragraph is that I believe we are still fuzzy about our connective tissue. Are we an orientation group? A sexuality group? A gender group? A sexual minority group? Do we in meaningful ways constitute a community? In APA, I sat on the fence about adding T to the LGB Division 44, not because I don’t want them in my community (whatever that is), but I am not sure why they would not be better served in divisions 35 (women) or 51 (men) — APA’s gender groups. Further, my few intersex buddies don’t particularly see themselves in an LGBTQ community, nor do they all identify as intersex. Moreover, the rare folks among us who have a cogent view of community would be hard pressed to keep us under one umbrella that successfully meets the standard definitions.

    In the end, I don’t participate in the fighting, as much as I avoid the fight or observe it. Like other folks, I would feel more comforted by a resolution for this great debate. But we are not resolved and I believe it is not bias alone that keeps us from its resolution. We just don’t have enough thinking on it, or enough will to devote that thinking power.

  2. I don’t watch the show either, so I’m not sure why I’ve given so much thought to it – perhaps because I expect more from a show about LGBTQ issues that’s airing in 2013. 🙂 I really did just watch a couple of minutes of it, and then I decided that I’d much rather watch the Sacramento City Council meeting on our local cable channel (and that’s not saying much). 🙂

    I like the phrase “connective tissue,” and I think you’re right – our collective communities grapple with that on an ongoing basis. Sexual orientation and gender identity overlap, but they’re not the same thing, so we debate whether the “T” or the “I” belong in the same category as “LGB” (or if “B” should be included, or if “L’s” and “G’s” have the same issues). And it’s a fair debate, because not all of our specific issues are the same. However, I think we’re connected by many interlocking strands of connective tissue. I deeply agree with Audre Lorde – that more categories and more separation between and among groups will never lead to a solution. Rather, seeing how we share the common ground of oppression and joining forces based on that will, as she says in another famous essay, “dismantle the master’s house,” the “house” being the forces that keep the current power structure in its place.

    I don’t think it’s our community’s fault that this debate continues. It happens all the time within oppressed communities, and it’s one of the reasons why oppression is so powerful. I think about gang violence, and wonder, wow, if instead of fighting each other, what if they could join forces and work towards ending oppression? Or, on a much more superficial level, why two women on Jerry Springer end up fighting with each other instead of going after the guy who was sleeping with both of them. When infighting occurs within oppressed communities, the dominant group escapes without a scratch.

    Thanks for reading, Gary!

  3. Wow, that looks like a bad show. I’ve seen better portrails of gay people on Doctor Who.

    • Now there’s a show to deconstruct! You’d think with all the creative talent that’s out there, NBC could have done a lot better. But sadly, there are far too many bad shows out there.

  4. Pingback: One big happy family | The Active Voice

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