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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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Olivia Ford: What would need to happen to make people within families, straight allies or family members of LGBTQ folks, to recognize that their actions against homophobia within the family are really the first line of defense against homophobia, both within their families and in society at large?

Sarah Schulman: We need to have a paradigm shift that's similar to the paradigm shift we saw around rape and domestic violence, where there starts to be general agreement in the society that this behavior is pathological, that it's antisocial, that it's very detrimental to the society at large, so that it becomes stigmatized -- so that people start to see this behavior as wrong, as destructive, and that they feel that it's their duty to interrupt it.

I think when you look at how quickly ideas about rape and sexual abuse inside the family were transformed -- it was in a matter of decades -- that's the perfect prototype for homophobia in the family.

Darnell Moore: I think that's a very helpful way to think about it. The difficulty, then, is making the subject of the offense a normative subject -- a "normal person." Within paradigms of accountability and prevention, for victims and survivors fo rape and domestic violence, often if the subject is viewed as a normative subject, the natural response is, in part, to help. Often in domestic partner abuse between queer people, it's not even seen as domestic partner abuse, because the subject of the offense is already viewed as a "deviant subject," and therefore what's happening to them is not even seen as something that needs to be stopped.

That paradigm works, but we also have to do the other work of creating a lens through which we see human beings being victimized ,and not the "othered" subjects that we tend to make them.

"Where is the campaign aimed at straight people, telling them that bullying is not acceptable? It's only half the picture. ... [B]eing positive with clients -- that's one part of it, the personal support. But then the other part is the social transformation and it has to address the perpetrator."
-- Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman: I want to bring up the It Gets Better campaign, because it's a campaign that drives me crazy. It's aimed only at gay people, telling us to grin and bear it. Where is the campaign aimed at straight people, telling them that bullying is not acceptable? It's only half the picture. And that's why, when you were talking before about being positive with clients -- that's one part of it, the personal support. But then the other part is the social transformation and it has to address the perpetrator.

Kara Olidge: Another area where we can do a lot of work, too, in terms of a paradigm shift similar to the one that occurred around rape and domestic violence, is to make more visible the incidents that do take place. For example, a domestic violence incident might involve an LGBT person being abused, but that doesn't necessarily come up in those types of reports, so we don't necessarily have either the quantitative or qualitative information to really push the paradigm shift. I think one of the things we can begin doing as service providers is, as we work on our cases, with individuals and families, and gather this information, to really make these incidents visible across lines.

If the police make a report to a social service agency such as DYFS, the Division of Youth and Family Services here in New Jersey, let's make it apparent that this was an LGBTQ person involved. That's one of the challenges: Along with the idea that, because a person is deviant, from a stigmatized group, their issues are not something that authorities need to pay attention to; we also don't have a lot of the evidence that we need to say, "Yes, it is."

Incidences of violence in the home may go on on a daily basis; it's also a matter of teaching young people to identify abuse for what it is, and act on it, as well, because a lot of our young people will stay in these situations because they're afraid to leave their families.

But that's the kind of work that we can begin to readily do -- to ensure that these incidents are documented properly, that the information is on hand so we can start focusing on that paradigm shift.

Darnell Moore: I wanted to connect the issues of rape and domestic violence to sexism and hetero-patriarchy. In terms of national LGBTQ movement building, I think we're failing to make the connections between homophobia and heterosexism, and sexism and patriarchy. I think there is an opportunity for us to think about how these technologies of oppression intersect -- not just as a politic, but as it relates to policy work, as it relates to sort of the social transformative movement building work that we do -- and not work in "queerantined" spaces that prevent those movements from coming together.

Olivia Ford: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you all about PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. Since they're known as the go-to organization for families and parents in dealing with their LGBTQ family members and the coming-out of their children, I wonder if you have any comments on PFLAG as a resource. In assembling this panel I spoke to a few people who said, "Check with PFLAG; see what they've got to say" -- though I must say I haven't actually witnessed the organization be a particularly effective resource on the ground. What's your experience been?

Sarah Schulman: PFLAG has a long history of wasted potential. Believe me, during the AIDS crisis, the families of people with AIDS were completely absent from the activism there. I run the ACT UP Oral History Project, and I can tell you that there were about five people in ACT UP who were the parents of people with AIDS, out of about a thousand people.

A lot of these groups have been focused on people coming to terms with the loss they feel about having queer children. They have not become advocacy organizations for insisting that their family members have full human rights. That has to be transformed. That's why we're trying to start a whole parallel discourse.

Darnell Moore: In Newark there's a fledgling PFLAG that was begun, but it hasn't really gotten off the ground. I don't know why, but I don't have any sense of the visibility and work of PFLAG, at least from the spaces where I've worked. I've just heard a lot of good stories, but I haven't seen any of their work.

Sarah Schulman: We're in a political reality right now where many, many Americans know gay people, and know that they have gay people in their families. And yet, at the same time, we've lost the last 31 out of 31 ballot measures. We're seeing that people are so embedded in their need to feel superior that they are willing to deprive basic rights from people that they know and are related to. That's why it's at an emergency level, where it has to go beyond queer self-empowerment to the larger question of a different standard for what it is to be a moral person in this country.

Kara Olidge: I definitely agree with that.

Olivia Ford: Do any of you have anything you want to add that you feel hasn't come up in this conversation, that you want to share with readers before we wrap up?

Sarah Schulman: I just want to say that in the last year and a half, I've been very involved, working with the queer movement in Palestine, with three queer Palestinian organizations. I did go to Ramallah in the West Bank, and I presented my work on familial homophobia.

I had also gone to Israel, to an anarchist vegan café in Tel Aviv, an anti-occupation venue, and I presented the same work there. And then months later, I presented it in Paris. And then I presented it all over the United States. And let me tell you that all those audiences reacted the same way. Everybody sat there, nodding their heads! Homophobia in the family is a universal experience for queer people. It may be the only one. It may be the only thing we all have in common. But there it is.

"We talk about peer-to-peer influences with young people, but peer-to-peer influences cross all age groups. I think that the more we educate and get parents who want to be active and informed and educated, speaking out, we'll really help the current state of LGBTQ issues and initiatives."
-- Kara Tucina Olidge

Kara Olidge: In closing, seeing the level of activism, as I work with different groups and organizations in Newark, I think this is a topic that should be an agenda item: How can we increase the level of activism among parents? We talk about peer-to-peer influences with young people, but peer-to-peer influences cross all age groups. I think that the more we educate and get parents who want to be active and informed and educated, speaking out, we'll really help the current state of LGBTQ issues and initiatives.

So please share any information that you have, in terms of resources, on what this would look like, because I think this is a topic that really should be brought up among many of the policymakers and community organizers in Newark.

Darnell Moore: I definitely think that the "aha moment" that arose for me as we were talking was this idea of instituting into the prevention strategy conversations the family as a particular system that we need to include in policy conversations.

A second thing is, in the same way that we at Hetrick-Martin work to undo heteronormative understandings of what family means, it's also to reimagine family in this particular space that we exist in. But how might we reimagine family in a way that it becomes an emancipatory thing for those whose biological families have ceased to provide them with support?

I wanted just to end by, again, pointing back to my own context: I'm thankful for my family. While the term familial homophobia may exist, I have a family that -- given all circumstances and ways in which this particular type of family is stereotyped -- should not love a queer son like me, and my trans friend, and everyone else, and they have consistently done so. That is, I think, present within some families: this potential to become the examples we can look at for how we might all want to exist.

Olivia Ford: Thanks so much to all of you for being part of this discussion!

Read part one of this discussion.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the community manager for and

This article originally appeared in's Pride 2011 special section.

Copyright © 2011 The HealthCentral Network, Inc. All rights reserved.

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