How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

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Boys Will Be Boys

Can’t say I’m all that pleased with the new New Republic. When the current subscription runs out, that will bring to an end thirty years of worthwhile magazine reading.

Here’s part of what’s wrong. The new New Republic is so gay-friendly that its editors don’t seem to notice certain inconsistencies.

For instance, in the July/August issue, Naomi Fry reviewed Entourage the movie and gave a thumbs down to the sort of male culture that animates the film (and the show):

It was an era of vulgar, cheerfully exaggerated gender roles, in which the perennially thong-flashing Britney Spears and her backup dancer Kevin Federline’s ill-fated nuptials (celebrated in September 2004, just two months after Entourage’s debut) featured bridesmaids and groomsmen wearing Juicy Couture tracksuits whose backs were emblazoned, respectively, with “maids” and “pimps.” Spears’s mental breakdown was a still-unimaginable three years off, the financial market’s collapse four. Yes, there were a couple of wars, but they were far away. Life was good. . . .

As the years passed, however, Entourage became harder to stomach, and its inclusiveness less convincing. This was partly the fault of context. Post 2008, life turned more difficult for a lot of people, and the happy-go-lucky, Teflon quality of the show’s protagonists, with their effortlessly achieved Maseratis and mansions, began to grate. The “bros before hos” ethos fell out of general vogue, as did the notion that a group of horny white men fucking their way through Hollywood could count as an arrangement in which we’d all end up the victors, no matter our gender, race, or sexual orientation.

This is a lesson that some of the most successful recent navigators of popular culture, too, have grasped. Nowadays, our male celebrities can still have a bro squad in tow, but the carousing has to come with a twist, which is why Drake, for example—the half black, half Jewish rap superstar from Toronto, whose famously hangdog quality complicates an otherwise swaggery persona—is a genius worthy of his moment. Entourage, however, continued virtually unchanged. Years into its run, we could find the boys still metaphorically strutting around The Grove mall in Los Angeles, a somewhat worse-for-wear Horatio Alger with a Yankees cap, Ed Hardy shirt, and Seven for All Mankind jeans. By its 2011 finale, however, everyone seemed to understand that it was time to pack it up and move on.

I’m not sure if this was the reason I never sat through more than four episodes, but Fry’s point is worth making. Hetero boys being boys can be downright vulgar.

But the same issue has an article about gay culture in Louisville and its author, Michael Lindenberger, nostalgically makes the point that even after the legalization of same-sex marriage, readers of the magazine should not let go what was good about gay life in the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s a description of one night out on the town:

Walking south on Fourth Street, toward the Ohio River and Main Street, they spotted a sign up ahead, a block south on Chestnut: THE DOWNTOWNER. COCKTAILS. “We saw this pack of people going straight into the door and we just squeezed right on through,” Stinson said. “There was this small cabaret room in the back, just packed in with people. This beautiful blond-headed lady on a small stage was playing the piano and singing. People were just having the greatest time.” A booth opened up, and the boys crammed into it, three on a side. “So here comes this waitress,” Stinson said. “My cousin George right away was giving me the nudge: ‘Get up, and let her sit down.’”

“‘Wellll,’ she says,” Stinson said, laying on an exaggerated Southern drawl. “‘Is it you boys first time here?’”

“‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

“‘Let’s just get this playing field straight. You think I am a boy or a girl?’” The waitress pulled up her sweater, exposing a chest covered in hair.

The boys had unwittingly wandered into what was for many years the only gay bar in Louisville. The Downtowner opened in 1953, after the Beaux Arts, a bar in the hotel of the Henry Clay Hotel at Third and Chestnut, which opened in the 1940s, became what’s widely considered the city’s first gay establishment. But the Beaux Arts and a similar place within the nearby Seelbach Hotel called the Beau Brummel, had been a place where men could meet discreetly and in relative safety. The Downtowner, with its waitstaff in drag and performers onstage, was something else altogether. Louisville also had gay pickup spots, including Cherokee Park in the east end, the oval in front of the Louisville Free Public Library, and Central Park, a half-dozen or so blocks to the south on Fourth Street. “It was either the bars or [the park],” David Williams, one of the editors of the gay newspaper The Letter, told me. “We had little groups—or families. I was the matriarch of one of the families. We’d go to the park and play volleyball and go home and have a potluck dinner. We took care of each other.”

Here boys are being boys but this time the entourage is acceptable even though as testosterone-driven as the characters in Entourage. Why? Because homosexual sex is better than heterosexual sex? Because gay men are more restrained in satisfying their sexual desires than straight men? Because gays hang out with prettier women than straight men? Because gays are less clannish than heteros?

Turns out, the gay culture of the 1960s is more worthy of preservation than the hetero feng shui of 2000s Hollywood because participants in the former were victims of injustice and those part of the latter were simply an aspect of the majority society. This is in fact the great crisis for any minority group who achieves some correction to a former imbalance. If your identity is based on being the minority, then once you enter the mainstream and become part of the majority you lose your identity.

So which is it, do gays want to be normal (Andrew Sullivan’s word) or queer? And in sexy America where promiscuity is normal, can gays really retain a separate identify from straight men?