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Homophobia and HIV Risk: What's Family Got to Do With It? Part Two

June 14, 2011

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Sarah Schulman: My only concern is that there be a balance between this sort of work and seeing how much pain fundamentalism can create in the lives of queer people. At the same time, we don't want to make assumptions that secular people, or Democrats, are these great friends of queer people. This gets used in Islamophobia, and all kinds of anti-Muslim sentiments.

The truth is, there are families that accept and embrace and respect and cherish their queer family members, regardless of their religious framework.

Darnell Moore: I'm glad you brought that point up. I'm reminded of families who, while they may sit in churches that will send their queer child to Hell through a sermon, and they may go back the next Sunday, they go home and they make a heaven for their queer child -- which says something about the capacity of families to withstand the pressures that are pushing on them from outside forces. There's strength there.

I have witnessed firsthand people who maintain what I call their public ideological frameworks: Out in public they'll say things like, "I'm not down with that same-sex marriage stuff. I don't think Adam should be dating Steve." But for the most part, let somebody call that mother's child, or that father's child, something like a faggot. Most of those parents will come forth to protect their children. Or, in their home and in their space, even while they may think everybody else is going to Hell, they create space for their child.

It's a very awkward paradigm, and I'm not saying it's right. But it does reveal this capacity on the part of some family members and parents, to love in spite of societal pressures that often construct the hate that they disseminate otherwise.

Sarah Schulman: Right. And these are key people, because they can become people who speak back to ministers, who work to transform their church. But they have to be activated on their true feelings.

Olivia Ford: Coming back around to the notion of accountability: What sorts of community-accountability models might be possible to address homophobia directly to families while keeping LGBTQ youth and family members in a safe space, where they're not put on the spot to either act as sole educator or, eventually, apologist on behalf of their identities?

Sarah Schulman: I'm a professor, and I teach in the City University of New York. I have a lot of immigrant students, working-class students, Italian-American students, who are queer and whose families are like a place of hell for them. What my colleagues and I have found is that we can say to the kids, "We will talk to your parents. Bring your parents in." It's the stepping-in of authority figures to let the families know that the institutions are on the side of the queer person.

I think that has enormous impact.

Darnell Moore: It's scary to talk about accountability language, though, as well, because it's wrapped up in ideas around who decides to do the interrogating, and the calling out of right and wrong? There are a lot of different layers to conversations like this, when you talk about families and the power to hold accountable -- particularly when we're in a point in time when the prison-industrial complex and all these other complexes are being developed. So I'm also very cautious when talking about accountability.

Olivia Ford: I have a devil's advocate question, speaking again about agents of institutions -- teachers, social workers, religious leaders -- intervening with families on behalf of LGBTQ folks. What role could difference, and perceptions of relative privilege and oppression, potentially play in these interactions? Say an "institutional person" comes to talk to the family; what to make of a situation in which the family's response is: "That's just some rich white person (or person who they perceive as having more power than they have) coming down here and telling me how to run my family" -- letting that be the reason to dismiss what the person intervening has brought to the family's attention?

Sarah Schulman: First of all, if it's a rich, white person it's not the appropriate person. But secondly, there are always going to be people who pathologically cling to supremacy ideologies, including homophobia. And no matter how many people around them tell them what they're doing is wrong, they're not going to change. But I believe that most people will change. So it's true; there will always be people for whom this will not be effective.

Darnell Moore: Thank you for the probe. One way I think about this is, for instance: Let's think about this idea of coming out. The rhetoric is, "Come out, everyone! Come out and name who you are."

I always encourage folks to think about what accesses and privileges are often necessary in order to undergo the coming-out process? That's not to say that I'm slamming anyone as it relates to this. But I do think it's worthwhile to think about the many contexts that make coming out possible for bodies.

I think it would be irresponsible of me, as someone working with a family, not to think through what those contexts were. For some, it's just not physically safe to come out, for whatever reason; someone's coming out could clearly mean the end of their lives. I've worked with youths who were physically violated because of naming their sexual identity. I would not want a child to go back to a home, to be paralyzed because of something like that.

The prescription we have that may work in certain circumstances won't always work in every circumstance, based on the context that frames them; we need to be thoughtful about that. Many of the prescriptions that we have are often connected to mainstream movement-building types of work that often don't think clearly through the realities of every community, of the ways different bodies move through different spaces, and the ways that class, economics, race, all these things, play into it.

As far as interventions within families: The very simple foundation of social workers, counselors and other providers -- to do no harm -- is one place to begin. How do you define harm, then? What does harm mean for a youth who is attempting to grow and become the full person that they're supposed to be?

I think when their sense of self as it's developing is impeded, as well as their safety -- physical, emotional, and even spiritual safety -- where it's so divisive that it wreaks havoc on that youth, then these are grounds for measures to be put into place to protect the child.

That's the rubric I use to begin thinking about what it might mean to hold families accountable, even while I still struggle with figuring out what that might look like as a process. Maybe you all can help me think about that.

Sarah Schulman: Well, one step could be a straight family member saying to the authority figures inside the family, "If the gay family member is not going to be treated as fully equal, I am not participating in this event." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's when other people around the life of the homophobe intervene and explain to them that they are not going to collude with that behavior.

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