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Category Archives: sexuality

This week, I’ve been provoked into critiquing the casual ease with which people who, by all indications, ought to understand how to avoid stereotyping reproduce the reduction of groups people to the least common stereotype.

Now, I have myself been nailed for this. I wrote in a response paper for my Ethnic Studies 10AC course that “when I think Asian, I don’t think turban” as part of my discussion of the ways Indians get elided. And I was meaning this as a commentary on other people reducing Sikhs to turbans, but that wasn’t clear, and I got a very snarky comment in the margin from my TA. My fault for not being precise. Bad 17 year old me!

I want to distinguish the objects of my ire here from the Unintentionally Hilarious Figure  version of stereotyping, where people had actually found a pattern among groups of people but then just reported it without the necessary commentary or critique:


(I’m pretty sure this got from the Atlantic to me via @anetv  but Twitter’s extreme non-searchability precludes verifying. I’ll give her credit anyway.)

Instead, what I’m interested in is the ways that knowledgeable people, generating a name or an image, are using extremely loaded iconography that reproduces stereotypes when they don’t have to. They’re starting from scratch—with the acknowledgement that “scratch” is “the ideas already swirling around in culture around the objects they’re describing”—and yet they deploy these stereotyped ideas, seemingly without sufficient thinking-through.

This first came to my attention when I was forwarded a call for papers: From Veiling to Blogging: Women and Media in the Middle East. This was a goodly while ago now, but it sat there in my inbox until quite recently. The subject is not my area of expertise, so I wasn’t going to submit and should probably have just deleted it. But every time I came to it, I just got mad and tempted to fire off a reply to the listserv about it. I didn’t, because I burn enough bridges on a day-to-day basis without resorting to nuclear tactics, but it was really frustrating.

What was particularly problematic about it was that the people doing the special issue should have known better. The general public discourse around this may well be still about “white people saving brown women from brown men”—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak specified men doing the saving in the case of sati, but the way some feminists have picked up the veil and run with it makes it an equal opportunity formula—but academics should really know better, because “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is as old as I am.

And indeed the organizers did, in fact, know better, because the actual text of the CFP started out by framing the special issue as a critique of precisely the way that “Middle Eastern women have traditionally been viewed as weak and submissive, passively accepting male authority and leadership rather than seeking to be a leader in their own right” as well as how “women of the Middle East have been portrayed as helpless creatures who are often hidden behind the veil, quietly waiting to be liberated.”

It’s therefore baffling to me why on earth they’d frame the topic as “from veiling to blogging.” Why imply that’s a chronological shift in “women and media in the Middle East” rather than (as they probably intended) in the thinking on women and media in that region? Why redeploy the veil at all, given the enormous risks of re-instantiating the very discourse they’re attempting to dispute?

The second entry in the “wow, you didn’t think that through” file, and the one that solidified my determination to write this blog post, comes from reading the article Minimalist posters explain complex philosophical concepts with basic shapes, which I got from @mikemonello

So there I am, scrolling down, not finding the geometric shapes particularly illuminating—the black and white X for Nihilism, sure, but many of the other Venn diagram-looking ones didn’t strike me as the “surprisingly simple and accessible package” the article’s introduction had promised—when I get to Hedonism and come to a screeching halt.


Really? A pink triangle for Hedonism? What decade is this that we’re still reinforcing the idea that gay sex is about irresponsible pleasure-seeking and gay folks have a worldview in which, as the poster-makers describe Hedonism, “Pleasure is the only intrinsic good. Actions can be evaluated in terms of how much pleasure they produce”?  I mean, yes, clearly that’s the world Rick Santorum and other far-right ideologues live in, but the rest of us get that homos are no more or less irresponsible in their pleasure-seeking than anyone else.

If these are people who have enough grasp on philosophy to make posters summarizing it, they should be no strangers to sophisticated thinking. And they should therefore have enough intelligence and sense of the world to think of something considerably less reductive. Like the veiling example, some people may not know better, but these people should.

And I guess that’s the issue. How will the general public know any better if we who do aren’t more careful in how we communicate, to each other (the CFP) and to people in general (the posters)?

I’m a little behind on watching Glee. Really, I’m perpetually behind on all TV; I don’t think there’s been a time since Star Trek: Voyager went off the air that I tuned in to watch something in a regularly scheduled time slot—not least because that was the point when I stopped having regular access to TV.

No TV, plus a number of other factors, mean that I am late to the party on discussing Glee‘s “The First Time” episode, which aired on November 8, 2011. But it annoyed me enough that I’m going to write about it anyway.

The episode has gotten some positive press because it depicts gay teens making the same virginity-losing decisions as heterosexual ones, rah-rah once again Ryan Murphy makes the world safe for people like him.

Though, in their defense, I think that the decision to be really vague about both the heterosexual and homosexual sex scene avoided the whole problem of the double standard whereby a much lower bar for what’s offensive exists for gay sex than heterosex, so yay for that.

Glee tends to do an ok job representing white gay men—Kurt is a little stereotypical, but to some extent that’s because they cast Chris Colfer and that’s how he is, so I’m ok with it—but a pretty horrendous job with everybody else.

In particular, in this episode, the character of Rachel is done a disservice–and through her, so are teen girls.

Rachel has very clear plans for herself, such as moving to New York City, attending the fictional New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts, starring on Broadway, etc. One of these plans, the series has established, is not to have sex until she’s 25. In “Grilled Cheesus” (2.02), Rachel and Finn have this exchange:

Rachel:I need to know that when I’m 25, and have won a bunch of Tonys, and I’m ready to have intercourse and babies, that those babies will be raised in a certain way.

Finn: You’re really not going to have sex until you’re 25?

The show has enough continuity that this is referenced again in “The First Time” (3.05)

Finn:Why now? The last time we talked about this you said you wanted to wait until you won a Tony.

Rachel: Or any other major award. Emmy, Golden Globe. People’s Choice would’ve gotten you to third base.

Now, I’m not claiming that this is a good plan, necessarily. It’s indicative of someone who underestimates the power of social norms on them and overestimates their own control of their life to be able to plan so far out. It is, that is, the plan of someone quite young, as Rachel is.

But Rachel, over and over in the show, is someone who sticks to her guns. She decides what she thinks is right and she goes for it wholeheartedly. And, especially if it has to do with her career, god help you if you get in her way. This person would totally believably have sex to further her acting ability, despite Brett Berk’s contention in Vanity Fair’s “Gay Guide to Glee entry that

as desperate, conniving, and monomaniacal as Rachel is about advancing her acting career, it is neither believable nor even amusing to imagine that she might be “convinced” to try out intercourse in order to better her portrayal of a character like Maria in the high-school production of West Side Story. (It is, in fact, grotesque.)

Grotesque it may be, or “supremely stupid, even considering ‘Glee’s’ tenuous tether to reality,” as Mark A. Perigard described it at, but it is actually pretty believable because it’s congruent with the Rachel who sent exchange student Sunshine Corazon to a crack house because she felt threatened by her talent.

However, for all her selfishness, Rachel can be selfless too. In 1.13, after telling Finn that Quinn had misled him to think that her pregnancy was his child (for selfish reasons), she was genuinely sorry and offered to let Quinn hit her if it made her feel better. Rachel organized interfaith prayer with one glee club member who tolerates her (Mercedes) and one who verges on hatred (Quinn) when Kurt’s dad Burt had a heart attack in 2.02.

She arranged with Finn to throw the duets competition in 2.04—unexpected from the super-competitive, rival-sabotaging Rachel—so that new member Sam could win and feel welcomed to the team. In 3.06, Rachel withdrew from the class president election in order to help Kurt’s chances at winning and thus help him get into NYADA.

This Rachel might well have been selfless enough to offer her virginity to Finn as a consolation prize for losing out on his football dreams.

But the writers shouldn’t have gone through with it. Not like that. Because, at least under our culture’s odd relationship to sex (which the show seems to share), the first time is supposed to be a special event for Rachel, but in this episode it wasn’t even about her.

And, like, I’ll admit that as a Faberry shipper (Rachel and Quinn) Finchel (Rachel and Finn) is objectionable all by itself, but I have a more specific critique of Finn here. Even in this episode when we’d imagine Finn will be set up as a good boyfriend so that he “deserves” the ending, he feeds Rachel, a vegan, actual meat. And then doesn’t confess. And then takes advantage of Rachel’s sympathy for him.

That’s pretty horrifying, and that fact has gotten missed in the discussion about the show, at times glaringly so, as when Jerome Wetzel of Examiner.comconcludes that there’s nothing more to critique after the have-sex-for-acting plot is resolved, commenting that “once Rachel and Blaine stop trying so hard and enjoy being in their respective relationships, sex does happen for each.” Blaine and Kurt do indeed “do the deed” out of enjoying being with each other, but not Rachel.

And, you know, I get it. Kids make bad decisions. I know I made some. And they make the decision to have sex for worse reasons than wanting to comfort their partner. As Vanity Fair’s Berk reminds us, “an overwhelming physical desire for Finn, or some socially motivated goal of impressing her friends” would have been more in line with “the two core incentives for teens.” And like Berk, “I appreciated that she, as the girl, was the instigator” rather than the usual storyline of “boy pressures girl.”

But if Glee is trying to do the Very Special Episode shtick, they needed to do better. Because I, too, “wish I could un-see that Endless Love remake these two created in front of the fireplace at the Hudson/Hummels, and un-hear Rachel’s creepy pledge to ‘give Finn something no one else will ever get'” (Berk).

I wish they hadn’t even filmed it. I wish they had written Finn differently so that he wouldn’t take advantage of Rachel’s moment of generosity. I wish they themselves hadn’t taken advantage of the character of Rachel. Because that just replicates in the structure of the episode that story of girls being pressured into sex for reasons that have nothing to do with them that they tried to avoid in the narrative itself.

Reports that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was accused of sexually harassing some women in the mid-1990s, accusations that were settled out of court at the time, have been at the top of Google News for at least a week now.

The headline slid down a little when Andy Rooney died and to make way for election results, but never “below the fold,” not least because the number of women allegedly harassed has continued to grow—four at last count. This has seemingly become the only story in the 2012 campaign.

My first instinct is to be sick to death of sex scandals. Far too often (and ever doing it is too much for me) people’s fitness to hold office is assessed on the basis of having sex other people disapprove of. I get annoyed when substantive issues get shoved aside in favor of tabloid-esque coverage.

Of course, it’s not a greatfirst instinct, since that’s not what’s going on here, as sexual harassment is categorically different from an affair or sexting or gay sex with consensual adult partners—the things other politicians have found to end their careers.

Indeed, some of the coverage, in particular one opinion piece that got me fired up enough to write this blog in the first place, shows why, as much as it shouldn’t be the only story, the accusations against Cain should be a story. Joe Klein of Time argues that “fleeting moments of human frailty, especially of the testosterone-addled kind, are inevitable and should remain private, absent extenuating circumstances (like physical assault). I’m generally opposed to the press setting moral standards that most of us can’t meet”

No, no. No no no. Just, no.

Assuming you have a right of access to other people’s bodies is not “human frailty,” nor is it “inevitable.” Nor is refraining from doing so a “moral standard” that anyone should have trouble meeting as much as what’s required by basic human decency. Having testosterone, however much it might “addle” you, does not give you a free pass. Physical assault is not the only kind of inappropriate behavior for which one should be called out, and keeping abuses of power private does little to discourage them.

Klein adds, “Yes, sexual harassment is different from general poking around since it is a form of aggressive behavior–but it is also more difficult to prove (although the two women in question received cash settlements from the Restaurant Association, which means that we’re probably dealing with some form of industrial-strength obnoxiousness here).”

Seriously, you’re going to defend something you call “general poking around” as not a form of aggressive behavior? See above re: assumption of a right of access.

That’s before we even get to the echo of the old assumption that women tend to make up sexual assault, and the fact that Klein contains this with the mention that there were settlements and “industrial-strength obnoxiousness” doesn’t make up for that suggestion. Yes, of course women might say this happened even if it’s not true, because they are treated so well when they come forward and being violated is so easy to talk about.

All of this points to why it’s vital that this conversation be had, not just with Cain, but with any case where there’s this sort of question of coercion or hostile work environment or power differential. First, if people hear this often enough, they’ll get the idea that it’s not an acceptable way to behave. And second, if it’s true, it’s something people have a right to know before they go electing someone to the highest office in the land.

Because yes, I’ll come out and argue that if Cain is, in fact, a harasser he’s not fit to run the country. Importantly, again, it’s not just because there’s a sex scandal—I am a firm believer in the fact that any kind of sex anybody wants to have with other consenting adults is perfectly acceptable even if I personally find it revolting.

But there aren’t consenting adults here; what makes a sexual harasser unfit for duty is the abuse of power it represents. That’s where the problem lies. That’s why that person shouldn’t be given any more power and should possibly lose the position they had that they decided to abuse in the first place.

Of course, it is totally reasonable to argue against the way in which the news has come to focus on this to the exclusion of all other topics. As Klein points out, “there is far more important business–like Herman’s Cain prohibitive lack of knowledge about almost every relevant issue–to be discussed.” There needs to be more substantive debate about Cain—and someone needs to remember that there are other candidates, two or three of them still serious contenders.

But then there’s the elephant in the room (har, har). This sexual harassment case isn’t just an issue of gender (which isn’t to imply that it ever is, but it sometimes gets treated as such); it’s also bound up in issues of race.

“The notion of black man as sexual predator is a particularly toxic stereotype–and it may intensify the self-righteous satisfaction some Republicans are getting from supporting a conservative black man for President. As in: those liberals pretend to be pro-black, but every time a Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain comes down the pike, they throw sex at him.”

On one hand, I’m deeply uneasy with the ways in which that “toxic stereotype” probably has a whole lot more to do with the wall-to-wall coverage of this Cain story than the journalists and readers want to admit. The story makes sense to run and catches people’s attention because it meshes with this idea.

There is something deeply worrisome about this being the basis on which African-American republicans are undermined. That’s a reason to resist the frenzy—though as stated above I don’t think there’s any reason not to talk about the issue altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a problem when race and gender get pitted against each other like this. Thinking back to Clarence Thomas—an obvious precedent—there was this weird thing where somehow Anita Hill had to either have solidarity with (implicitly white) feminists and call out Thomas’s misconduct or have solidarity with African-Americans and keep quiet so that there could be a black Supreme Court justice.

Here again, there’s some implicit demand to either not critique Cain—what the right is implicitly saying “liberals” ought to do if they are really “pro-black”—or be take a stand against sexual harassment if one is really“pro-woman.”

The problem is that, as many an intersectional theorist and woman of color feminist has argued, you can’t separate out those things. You’re not black plus a woman, so it’s not one or the other. It’s also not one or the other in critiquing the behavior of such an African-American man.

The weight of history makes this tricky to navigate: the “myth of the black rapist” relies on the assumption of black men as less civilized, less controlled, and having outsized sexual urges, and I know that this is bound up, to greater or lesser extent, with the Herman Cain Sexual Harassment Extravaganza of 2011. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth even as I say Cain’s not fit to lead if the accusations are true.

We have to call out the racist logics that make this a “good” story—i.e. exciting—even as we insist that it is still an important story. A pretty tall order, but I think it’s possible.

A blog about same-sex marriage was in the queue, but given the recent developments in New York it’s suddenly extra timely . . . so here it is now ahead of schedule.

I find that the straight people I know are way more excited about gay marriage than the people I know who might actually enter into one. Maybe it’s just the very queer lot I hang out with, and maybe I should just speak for myself: I am decidedly ambivalent about same-sex marriage.

“It must be admitted from the outset that there is something unfashionable, and perhaps untimely, about any questioning of marriage as a goal in gay politics.” After all, “at this point the only public arguing against gay marriage, it seems, are those homophobic dinosaurs,” the usual, selective-Leviticus-reading suspects, so “why join them?”

Michael Warner wrote this in 1999 (on pages 119-120 of his “Normal and Normaller: Beyond Gay Marriage“), but it’s still quite true. Robert McRuer points out in Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability that, “according to the liberal consensus,” gay marriage “is not only ‘progressive’ but unequivocally a Good thing” (p. 79).

Despite the current gay marriage cheer fest, however, there are ways in which it’s not such “a Good thing.” After all, as Warner notes, “there were cogent reasons that the gay movement for decades refused to take the path on which it is now hell-bent,” and it’s not like these have gone away (p. 123). Warner lists a dozen reasons, but here are my two:

One, battling this one issue out in legislatures and courts is absolutely the wrong thing to be expending the entirety of activist energy and funding on. Achieving same-sex marriage seems to be eclipsing activism around AIDS and healthcare and repealing laws that criminalize consensual sex. These latter are far more important things than helping white, middle class people access the white, middle class privilege of property ownership and other financial benefits.

As McRuer points out, “most of the complaints about lesbian and gay partners not being able to get health insurance through their spouse have not included an acknowledgement of how many people in general don’t have adequate health insurance, let alone a broader critique of the corporate health insurance industry” (p. 82-3).

This sort of privilege tunnel vision didn’t have to happen. “The mere posing of the issue was a jolt. It made the heterosexuality of marriage visible, to many people, for the first time. It drew attention to the exclusions entailed by marriage, through provisions for inheritance, wrongful death actions, tax rates, and the like” (Warner p. 122).

That is, the discussion about gay marriage had great potential to really interrogate what this institution ought to mean, but ultimately the way it has gone down it “fails to challenge the bundling of privileges that have no necessary connection one to another, or to marriage; indeed, if successful, it will leave that bundling further entrenched in law” (Warner p. 143).

The fact is that the way we attach immigration benefits and health care access and all kinds of miscellaneous financial benefits to this institution has exactly nothing to do with whether people love each other and have a commitment, and this would have been a great time to hash out what we want marriage to be, but we didn’t.

Instead, the cry has been: We just want to be able to have the same private (but state-ratified) contract as anybody else, why must the state intervene to prevent us? Or, put differently: This heteronormative institution is great! It works! Let us in!

This, of course, begins to get at the second reason I’m not ready to board the Gay Marriage Express. I’m really not comfortable with perpetuating the state legitimation of relationships.

Among those dozen reasons Warner lists for not pursuing gay marriage are two that are relevant here: “queer thought both before and after Stonewall centered on the need to resist state regulation of sexuality”; “it especially resisted the notion that the state should be allowed to grant legitimacy to some kinds of consensual sex but not others or to confer respectability on some people’s sexuality but not others’” (123).

Contrary to these positions, pursuing gay marriage insists that it is exactly the state’s job to regulate and legitimate and make respectable people’s sexuality. The argument is that without state recognition couples are subject to deprivation, such that that recognition must be extended if there is to be equal protection under the law—and never you mind the fact that formal equality rarely translates into substantive equality unless you are those white, middle class, resource-having folks.

But here’s the problem: “squeezing gay couples into the legal sorting machine will only confirm the relevance of spousal status and leave unmarried queers”—or unmarried people in any other category—“looking more deviant before a legal system that can claim broader legitimacy” because it is inclusive of more and more people (Warner 143).

That is, “even though people think that marriage gives them validation, legitimacy, and recognition, they somehow think that it does so without invalidating, delegitimating, or stigmatizing other relations, needs, and desires” (Warner 133)—which clearly isn’t true.

Same-sex marriage perpetuates the privilege of a very narrow set of relationship configurations as legitimate and as having access to resources. That’s a problem. Also, by increasing the legitimacy of that position, it means that not participating is deviance by choice rather than normativity being denied to you.

However, there’s a flip side to this, which is among the some reasons I’m not ready to totally condemn same-sex marriage. If gay marriage is legal, refusal, on one hand, makes you deviant, but on the other it now means something, politically, to not get married. The same argument looks different when you look at it from this direction.

I’m not the only one to notice this. As RichardKimNYC tweeted (which came to me through an indeterminate chain of retweets): “Yay! Now my decision to never ever get married is a choice reflecting my belief in marriage’s banality. #NYM”

Or, also, Warner: “introducing the mere possibility of marriage would vastly broaden the meaning of gay couples’ refusal to marry. In fact, it would make gays’ rejection of marriage a more significant possibility than it is now, by making it a free act” (157-8). I think that this is compelling. Not compelling enough that this should be all we work toward, but compelling enough not to condemn the attempt altogether.

And then there’s the fourth reason. Though I don’t think trying to secure the rights was the best thing, and though other people are excluded, I’m not sure whether that means I should forego the rights on principle. Hospital visitation or social security or health insurance would be pretty nice. Everybody should have them, but given how they’re apportioned right now should I turn my back on them in a gesture that nobody will even be able to see?

In the end, I’m not going to rush out and get married (or civil unioned). I’m not going to march for it or throw money at it. But if it came down to it and I needed the resources state recognition provides, I think I’d do it. I’d feel a little guilty, but I’d do it.

So there I am, minding my own business the Sunday before last, when the Internet goes crazy. Or, rather, one of the corners of the Internet that I keep an eye on went crazy.

From D. Agron’s Tumblr at

I’ll admit it: I have a Google alert set for Dianna Agron. It’s what I do these days when I like an actor (which others, I’ll never tell!). So when the actor in question—who’s female and heretofore evidently heterosexual (Achele shippers notwithstanding. Also, check out Urban Dictionary’s Acheleography definition; it’s hilarious!)—wore a “Likes Girls” t-shirt to perform a Glee Live show in Toronto, my inbox became a popular destination—15 news stories in the first 24 hours, then 16 more over the next 3 days (many thanks are due to threaded emails that it didn’t actually fill).

There were questions: Did Glee’s Dianna Agron come out as bisexual with a tshirt? and dry factual headlines: Glee’s Dianna Agron “Likes Girls” T Shirt in Toronto and (not-so) subtle digs at fans: Dianna Agron Wears “Likes Girls” T-Shirt, Gleeks Freak Out.

And there was squee. Oh dear God was there squee. Some of my favorites from the tumblr tag “dianna agron come out riot”:


chikaru: so dianna agron likes womenin other news water is wet, pope is catholic etc

Then, about 12 hours after the first alerts had come through, the tone shifted. The second set of headlines included: Dianna Agron explains ‘likes girls’ t-shirt worn during live show and Dianna Agron Talks About Gay Issues.Basically, these stories said: “Ha ha, just kidding, she doesn’t have the gay. No worries!”

Along with this batch came Agron’s own essay, published at her tumblr, which is what the walking back of the gay speculation was drawing on—as far as I know, she hasn’t given any interviews on it yet. The piece was sort of a “gay pride month is really important because clearly it’s still not that awesome to be gay, so I’m going to stand up for gay rights” statement.

And honestly I still can’t decide how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s like, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You get to go back to having heterosexual privilege when you take the shirt off.” But on the other hand, she is putting herself on the line in some sense, because she is choosing to stand with (and temporarily as) a category that’s socially devalued. And putting herself—her career, perhaps—“at risk” in that limited sense is certainly better than no sense at all.

But what really stood out to me about her essay was the logic by which she counted herself among those who like girls:

I love my family, my friends, my co-workers…and they all consist of girls AND boys. I do tell them that I love them. Yesterday, during our second show, Instead of wearing my usual shirt during “Born This Way” I decided to wear one that said “Likes Girls”. It should actually have read, “Loves Girls”, because I do. The women in my life give me things that the men in my life can’t. And vice-versa. No, I am not a lesbian, yet if I were, I hope that the people in my life could embrace it whole-heartedly. And let me tell you, I can easily spill (quite comfortably) what I admire, respect and think is beautiful about any of the women in my life. Piece of cake!

Last night, I wanted to do something to show my respect and love for the GLBT community. Support that people could actually see. Which is why I decided to change my shirt for the show.

Reading this, I had a total sense of déjà vu. I’d read this before:

I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support [ . . .].

The above quote is from Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (from the version in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, p.239), and the resemblance is sort of uncanny.

There’s the same move to relate loving and supporting women with having same-sex sex—deliberate and political on Rich’s part, not entirely elaborated on Agron’s.

At the same time, both authors also insist that they aren’t identical. Agron says “I love girls. Just not for fucking.” Rich distinguishes between the above “lesbian continuum” and “lesbian existence,” which she defines as “both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence”—meaning that this is where we get literal, actual lesbians (p. 239).

Rich, then, would argue that Agron is actually sort of a lesbian, sex-free love of women notwithstanding, since she’s on the lesbian continuum.Indeed, Rich wanted to “consider the possibility that all women [ . . . ] exist on a lesbian continuum,” because this would let us “see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not” (p. 240).

What Rich wanted to do in the essay, as the title suggests, was figure heterosexuality not as a “natural” disposition—either for all women, in which case lesbians are unnatural, or for most women, which makes lesbians natural (whatever that means) but unusual—but something that had to be imposed to make women identify with men’s interests rather than their own (which has its own set of problematic assumptions—I’ll get there).

She questioned “why species survival, the means of impregnation, and emotional/erotic relationships should ever have become so rigidly identified with each other,” contending that, however related they seem to us now, there was nothing inevitable about this outcome (p. 232).

Ultimately, through proposing this continuum, Rich wanted to help women “feel the depth and breadth of woman identification and woman bonding that has run like a continuous though stifled theme through the heterosexual experience,” with the goal being “that this would become increasingly a politically activating impulse, not simply a validation of personal lives” (p. 227).

That is, it isn’t just to get women to come together and identify as or with lesbians for a round of kumbayah, but to further feminist action. That part remains unrealized in Agron’s rendition, and that possibility is a danger Rich herself realized about the term.

Rich wrote an addendum to “Compulsory Heterosexuality” the following year–when it was to be anthologized in Powers of Desire, in order to respond to some queries from the editors of that volume–in which she addressed this issue: “My own problem with the phrase is that it can be, is, used by women who have not yet begun to examine the privileges and solipsisms of heterosexuality, as a safe way to describe their felt connections with women, without having to share in the risks and threats of lesbian existence” (249).

This definitely gets at what makes me uncomfortable about Agron’s statement.She can be edgy and wear a “Likes Girls” shirt as a way to proclaim her love for the women in her life because she has enough privilege–as heterosexual, but also as white, as normatively gendered, as meeting standards of attractiveness, as wealthy, and as a celebrity–to insulate her from what that would entail were she someone else.

Rich wanted to make it “less possible to read, write, or teach from a perspective of unexamined heterocentricity” (p. 228), but 30 years down the line being unexamined is clearly still possible. Certainly, Agron’s post did not succeed at really examining her own positionality, since the larger argument is grounded in a presumption that straight people ought to be nicer to those poor queers.

I’m sure she doesn’t realize it, but this relies on an assumption of heterosexual superiority. They are apparently in a position to tolerate us because we are the lesser objects of tolerance in the equation (see Wendy Brown’s2006 book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire).

This isn’t to pick on Agron. These are things I think about because it’s my job. These are ways of seeing I am trained in. Her job and her training are something else. She did ok. She really did. For a young person (though, I have to remind myself, not as much younger than me as it feels like) whose fame has led to her opinion—about anything—being news, she’s doing pretty well.

But it is to temper the praise she’s getting for being SO progressive. Seriously, you’re going to ask “Is Dianna Agron more supportive of LGBT rights than the rest of the “Glee” cast?” on account of one blog post? And this blog post? She’s not some kind of new gay patron saint.

I’m also not trying to hold up Rich as the true homosaint. I will be the first to tell you that there are a number of problems with her piece—I was, literally, when we read this in my Queer Theory class a couple years ago. Rich wants to open the arms of lesbian feminism to heterosexual women and express that, though heterosexuals get more privilege, it’s the structure of the system that makes that so and not necessarily heterosexual woman going around acting to oppress, which is great.

But, like many a second-wave feminist, Rich doesn’t get that men aren’t the enemy. They benefit from the unequal distribution of power, sure, but they don’t completely control it. In fact, men can be allies to change things—just like Rich argues that heterosexual women can.

Rich seems to mistake the situation as one in which men are running the system in a smoky room somewhere, trying to trick women into heterosexually identifying with men’s interests rather than their own true female/lesbian continuum interests. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, not least because women don’t inherently care about the same things.

Indeed, the assumption that all women share interests simply by virtue of their membership in the category demonstrates that at that point Rich did not understand her own race or class privilege all that well—I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she does now. She makes offhand references to the importance of race and class, but they aren’t a substitute for a thorough and integrated understanding of how gender and sexuality are racialized.

In the end, what’s interesting about both Agron’s essay and Rich’s is that they both want to trouble or push the boundaries of categories but end up reinforcing them instead.

Agron wore a tshirt that was meant (when it was printed) to indicate same-sex attraction to proclaim both her platonic love of the women in her life and her support for those who do have such attractions. That’s a blurring of boundaries that had a great deal of potential to make things queer–but she contains it by making an unequivocal statement that “I am not a lesbian.” Why not refuse the question altogether as irrelevant? Or, why not refuse the privilege or the position of superior tolerate-er of the tolerated?

Rich wanted to insist that lesbians and heterosexual women had something in common, breaking down the hetero/homo divide, which again had potential to reorient us away from hard binaries to something more complex. However, in recognizing only hetero and homo–and especially in holding on so tightly to male vs. female as precisely an antagonism–she stopped short of the radical intervention her piece could have made to thinking systemically about power, inequality, and change.

Putting these two pieces side-by-side, then, produces an interesting look at how far we’ve come–and how far we have yet to go.