Gay Assimilationists versus Radical Queers: The Death of Queerness?

Last week, while leading a discussion on queer theory, the issue of gay assimilation and radical queerness came up. In a nutshell, gay assimilationists seek complete integration within existing cultural norms and institutions, while radical queers reject integration because they view it as an embrace of the very values and institutions that have fostered sexual and gender-based oppression in the first place. Naturally, these opposing views have been the source of much debate among queer and non-queer communities. As pointed out by Jonathan Kemp in his discussion titled Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future :

In America since the mid 90s a fierce debate has raged between assimilationist lesbians and gay men and radical queers. The assimilationists want gay marriage, inclusion in the military, the right to adopt children–i.e., equal status within the status quo. Queers, on the other hand, want nothing to do with the status quo, instead regarding the most vibrant and radical aspect of homosexuality as being precisely its opposition to normative sexuality and society. (8)

This “fierce debate” began to rise during the mid 90s, and today, we can say that it has reached its pinnacle during 2013, with the well-documented and saturated debates of gay marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court (click here to check out the many articles posted on this topic in the Huffington Post). You also know that an issue has reached its apex when it appears on the cover of Time Magazinein which the magazine posits that the aims of gay assimilation, at least within the context of marriage, have been achieved: “The Supreme Court hasn’t made up its mind–but America has.”

Time Magazine Cover

Time Magazine cover for the U.S. April 8th, 2013 edition. Check out David von Drehle’s article “How Gay Marriage Won” by clicking here.

While gay marriage is now considered an “American” issue which capitalizes on the tension between gay and straight communities in the U.S. context, many people fail to realize that the tension is primarily a queer issue. On one hand, many deem that queer individuals deserve the same rights and privileges that heterosexual individuals have. On the other hand, we have people who view queerness as a threat to heteronormativity. Adding a third hand to this dilemma (and completely ignoring the facts of human biology), there are individuals who lament assimilation, for they view it as the death or obliteration of the traits that institute queerness in the first place. When discussing this tension between assimilationist and radical views, I showed my classmates a clip from Showtime’s infamous show Queer as Folk, which aired from 2000-2005.

For those who are unable to watch the clip above, here is a brief transcript of the argument that is taking place between the two characters:

Brian: You infected him with your petty bourgeois, mediocre, conformist, assimilationist life! Thanks to you, he’s got visions babies, weddings, white picket fences, dancing in his blond little head.

Michael: And you think I put them there?

Brian: Before you and your husband tied the noose around your necks, he was perfectly happy! And now he’s a defector just like the rest of you!

Michael: He was never perfectly happy! Waiting for years for you to say ‘I love you, you’re the only one I want’!

Brian: That’s not who I am!

I thought that the clip effectively illustrates the tension between assimilationists and radicals within the gay community itself. In order to provide some context for the clip above, what we are observing is an argument between the show’s two protagonists: Michael, an “assimilationist” who has married his partner, adopted a child, and brought a home within a suburb… and Brian, the radical queer who views marriage, babies, and “white picket fences” as everything that goes against queer communities. The argument arose when Brian’s boyfriend, Justin, broke-up with him because he was developing a desire for assimilationist pursuits that went against Brian’s radical queerness.

Leaving the over-the-top nature of the acting aside, this clip really does illustrate the tension that exists between these two views within actual gay communities. While it can be argued that Michael’s pursuit of happiness and his engagement with assimilationist practices should be a non-issue, Brian goes as far as to consider assimilation a disease capable of infecting other gay men (alluding to HIV and AIDS imagery that is constantly brought up in the series). Interestingly, while Brian approaches assimilation as a defection, Michael ultimately approaches Brian’s embrace of radical queerness as the element responsible for Justin’s departure:

Brian: And now [Justin’s] here in your house…

Michael: It’s a home.

Brian: It’s a farce! It’s a freak show!

Michael: Call it what you want, I honestly don’t care. But he didn’t leave because I ‘infected’ him. He left because of you. Who wouldn’t?

Which side won? As demonstrated by this scene in Queer as Folk, both assimilationist and radical queer views are complex and convoluted, and each side views the other as a major source of tension within queer communities. The issue, however, is that assimilation and radical queerness are often presented as opposing forces, but alas, I am not entirely sure about this.

Part of me wants to say that it is possible to be partially assimilationist and radical, but the more I think about this issue, the more paradoxical it feels. On one hand, I feel strongly assimilationist: I believe queer individuals should have the right to marry, to adopt/have children and raise them, to serve in the military, and to have the same rights and privileges that any U.S. citizen has. On the other hand, I often question the costs that this assimilation will have. If complete assimilation were to occur, would queer essentially cease to be queer? What will be lost in terms of gay culture and identity? Is this loss necessarily a bad thing? These are questions that I continue to ask myself every day.

But, something that I ultimately ask myself is whether a gain always entails a loss. Does assimilation imply the loss of everything that is beautiful and unique about queer culture? Perhaps not. The foundation of queer culture is based upon a fight for difference, a fight for justice, a striving to be whatever we are or choose to be, even if it does not fit within conventional social parameters. Even if complete assimilation were to occur, I think that queerness will still find a way to continue its fights and struggles, and it will continue to provide a venue in which oppression can be challenged and contested.

I think it is worth reflecting a lot more on the tension between assimilationist and radical queer views… and even more so, perhaps it is worth thinking about why this tension exists in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “Gay Assimilationists versus Radical Queers: The Death of Queerness?

  1. Terry says:

    The fight for gay liberation is aboit living our lives the way we want to without being told by our government that we can’t marry or have kids or serve in the military IF THAT IS WHAT WE WANT TO DO…and to do that on an equal basis.

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