Minority Cultures Under Domination

October 2, 2006

In my “History and Hermeneutics” class, we have been studying the history of Israel and what it meant for Israel to exist as a people under domination by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.  As a part of this study, we have looked at other cultures that have clashed, and what happens when one culture is much more powerful than another.  I present this model because I think it also mirrors what has happened in the gay and lesbian culture within the US.

The picture looks something like this:

Minority Under Domination

The point of the picture is that throughout history, in any given situation where one group has domination over another, people in the minority group will try to regain their self-image, status, and ensure their survival in different ways.  Some will struggle in resistance and some will try to assimilate.

It seems to me that assimilation is often an easy thing for the gay and lesbian community because we can choose to move in and out of our “minority culture” at our leisure.  It is for this very reason that many of our opponents resist calling us a culture at all– we are not an ethnicity, religion, nor are we bound together by roots of historical tradition.

But we are certainly distinct in our way and manner of life– not so much in our sexual practice (for we are as diverse as our heterosexual counterparts there) but we are distinct in that we are common in our difference from the majority culture around us.  We do not identify with a hetero-normative world.  We receive multiple messages– countless times each day– that we are not the same as the dominant culture in this society.

But we are not bound in any real sense to identify ourselves in this difference, and from that perspective assimilation is an easy alternative for those so bruised by this experience that they cannot find their own identity.  One need only look through the gay personal ads on the internet to find the words “straight-acting” popping up on a very regular and repeated basis.  How often I’ve heard people say, “I can’t come out at work, they wouldn’t understand.”  “My family doesn’t get it, so they don’t know.”

Assimilation is an easy alternative for us as gay and lesbian folk.

On the other side, we have resistance.  Trying to reclaim our power, we proclaim our equality.  We ensure that everybody knows when we have been wronged.  We make sure that the “other” is villified.  If we do not reclaim our self-image by overthrowing the powers that would subdue us then we do not think we will survive.  Our very existence becomes tied to winning the battle.  We all know people like that.  I’m one, sometimes, come to think of it.  Maybe even most of the time.

I’m still processing this model in my head.  I’m not sure whether or not I think there is a value judgement associated with either end of this spectrum.  I know that I certainly lean toward placing myself on the “resistance” side of the spectrum.

What I’ve been wondering lately is whether or not the goal of the resistance should be towards something that isn’t accounted for in this model at all:  integration.  Integration is different from assimilation.  In assimilating to straight society, a gay or lesbian person must lose those characteristics that make him or her gay or lesbian.

Integration, on the other hand, does not require such a loss of identity.  Pulling from the Wikipedia definition of racial integration, I got the following quote from Keith M. Woods, “Integration happens when a monolith is changed, like when a black family moves into an all-white neighborhood.”

That monolith is changing already in parts of the country.  Pasadena, where I lived before I moved to Austin, was pretty well integrated.  The gay and lesbian community is integrated into the straight community– there is not a “gay ghetto” per se.  This exists without gays or lesbians having to be “straight acting” (although some are) or being forced to be in the closet (although some are) to live in peace and harmony next to their heterosexual neighbors.  Gay and lesbian people in Pasadena have lives that look the same as those of their neighbors (ok, maybe some attend a few more dinner parties and dress spiffier).  🙂

Yet, in other parts of the country this is not true.  While I do not know of many stories of neighbors lashing out against neighbors for being gay or lesbian, I do know that there are parts of the country where this level of integration has not been achieved.  Living in Austin reminds me of my prior life in Texas.  In my early twenties as a gay man, I largely identified with my community through the “gay ghetto.”  I wanted to live in the gay ghetto, shop in the gay ghetto, eat in the gay ghetto, and pretty much associate only with those gay people in the gay ghetto.

Wikipedia’s reference on racial integration gives some clues for this phenomenon, quoting from Stephan and Abigail Themstrom’s America in Black and White:

The problem, as I see it, is that access to the public spheres, specifically the commercial sphere, often depends on being comfortable with the norms of white society. If a significant number of black children aren’t comfortable with them, it isn’t by choice: It’s because they were isolated from those norms. It’s one thing for members of the black elite and upper middle class to choose to retire to predominantly black neighborhoods after a lucrative day’s work in white America. It’s quite another for people to be unable to enter that commercial sphere because they spent their formative years in a community that didn’t, or couldn’t, prepare them for it. Writes [Harvard University sociologist Orlando] Patterson, “The greatest problem now facing African-Americans is their isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture, and this is true of all classes.”

While the Themstroms are discussing racial issues in this excerpt, the same can be said of gays and lesbians.  As I previously mentioned, we are in a world which challenges us to unlock it with exclusively heterosexual keys; if we cannot learn to adjust to that mode of access we are locked into our own world, and unprepared to face anything else.  (Of course, some of us have the difference of being able to assimilate, or stay in the closet, which leads to psychological problems of its own, but that’s another Oprah.)

What I have seen happen in some cases, then, is a blending of this occurrence (isolating oneself to the gay ghetto) with resistance, and then leading to assimilation.

In other words, gay and lesbian folk get trapped in their own world, struggle to find identity, get thrown a morsel of acccomodation, and that appeases them enough to assimilate into society– maybe not completely assimilate, but enough to stop resisting anymore.  Let’s face it, resistance takes energy.  So does assimilation, but it may not be as direct an energy drain as resistance.

I think this last pattern of appeasement has happened particularly in the church.  We have been struggling.  We have been fighting for our own identity, for our own equality.  We have been tossed a few morsels to give us hope that we are actually included in the light of God.  Some have assimilated with this hope.  For some, there is not enough energy to keep fighting, and for some, participating in a community of worship is enough.

I can’t argue with that; fighting is hard.  It is not only hard, but it is risky.  We have not only to risk our identity, but also the gains we have already made.  It is tricky stuff, this resistance.

For me, I can say that peace and justice work– resistance on behalf of the minority– whoever they are– gay and lesbian people, racial minorities, enslaved, homeless, victimized, persecuted, outcast– resistance for them is what I hear in the message of Jesus.

Jesus himself was a resistor.

Jesus did not give up.

He won’t give up on us.  And I believe that it is by our resistence that he will work through us to accomplish his will.

There’s a reason this site is named what it is, after all– the arc of time really does bend towards justice.



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