When A Joke About Queer People Becomes A Metaphor For Respectability Politics

· Updated on November 6, 2018

There’s a funny story my family likes to tell about being gay.

In the mid-1980s, my late Aunt Sharon came out as a lesbian. She had just finished law school, a setting that embraced her “lifestyle,” and was deposited into a world where queerness and family aren’t easily bridged. Unprompted and unsolicited, she blurted out her identity to my grandfather, as my grandmother and Aunt Colleen stood watch.

My grandfather stared at her, confused but not angry, at the head of the kitchen table wearing boxer shorts and a dirty tee. He was silent and stony for some time while she pouted, awaiting his analysis.

“That doesn’t explain why you don’t have a job.”

His tone was sharp, flat, with a tilt at the end. A job. The two words were little barbs he poked into her, telling her that he could give a shit about her sexuality: he just wanted to know why she’s unemployed despite both an undergraduate and law degree. Why does a job matter? Aunt Sharon must have thought through fat sobs. Do I not matter?

We still laugh at this story. My family gets together and we laugh and laugh and laugh about how Aunt Sharon’s coming out to grandpa was overshadowed by her unemployment.

I learned the lesson from this story quickly. As Aunt Sharon’s queer nephew, I came out as gay in 2007 and I wanted to avoid the laughs. It took me two years and perhaps a lifetime of thinking to prepare myself. I moved to Los Angeles after college and, two years after select friends and family knowing about “it,” it was time to let my parents know. There were hurdles: I needed a stable job, stable transportation, stable housing, and stable control of student loan debt. With young life’s landmarks wrangled, I was well equipped to tell my parents that, yes, I am a functional adult – and I’m a big fucking queer.

My coming out was ultimately underwhelming: I had made myself too presentable successful, even in the eyes of my Catholic, Georgia based parents, to my military father and my Puerto Rican mother. A near decade after my coming out, the searing laughter at Aunt Sharon lingers still as my younger sister, Mickey Fitzpatrick, must confront this adorable family issue with her own coming out.

“Do you think telling mom and dad at Thanksgiving is a bad idea?” she asked me by text a few months ago.

“I don’t think it’s an awful idea,” I texted back, hesitant only because of potential familial confrontations. A job rang through intergenerational lifelines, nuzzled between words.

She’s in a liminal albeit secure phase of her life. She recently began a sociology doctoral program at a southern research institute after completing undergraduate studies. She’s an overeager, overachieving student who lives a queer life away from our parents. Still, like me, she doesn’t know how to approach sharing her identity: she doesn’t want the instability of young adulthood to cloud her queerness.

“If this goes south, I have to make sure I’m already financially stable and not dependent,” she tells me, emphasizing that she can’t depend on someone whose view of you can easily shift. Her negotiation is tangled at the intersection of familial understandings of the world: she is the only daughter in our family of six, one framed by Hispanic, Catholic, southern, and military cultures. It’s complicated.

“I feel a sense of internalized homophobia for myself because of the way that mom attempted to really femme me up,” Mickey says. “There are a lot of checkpoints that she wants me to hit that I know I’m not going to. With dad, it’s a whole different ball game…His reaction makes me nervous because of his ties to the military and the Republican party.”

The blocks that Mickey and I (and even Aunt Sharon) face aren’t new, and they affect the greater queer community: these are matters of respectability, that you can live a queer life but you can only do so within society’s understanding of life at large. Socioeconomics and ethnocultural understandings of behavior are to blame, as are gendered roles and “traditional” life benchmarks. This problem occasionally trends in queer media, as Queer Eye’s Tan France’s family were only proud of him after watching the show while drag queen Monét X Change’s mother’s acceptance of their lifestyle was tied to Drag Race’s popularity. As Eileen Myles wrote in “An American Poem,” “I’ll be a poet.” They then reveal what lies beneath such a thought: “What could be more foolish and obscure. I became a lesbian.”

Yuvraj Joshi, human rights lawyer and doctoral scholar at Yale Law School, has been interested in this phenomena for years. “I think of respectability in contrast to respect,” Joshi explains, noting respect as an “acceptance of difference” while respectability “suggests acceptance of the norm.” The matter places the pressure on others ceasing their “unacceptable difference” instead of blanketing acceptance toward another approach to life, to alternative ways of living and thriving.

The trickle down of respectability is much more than Aunt Sharon getting a job, but alters human rights and recognition of queer persons. “Even where legal recognition has been afforded to same-sex relationships, it has tended to center on their normalcy rather than their diversity and inherent worth,” Joshi says. The 2015 marriage equality ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges is a great example of this: instead of changing or adapting what marriage means, same-sex couples were instead slid into a heterosexual norm to illustrate that they, too, are worthy. “Put another way,” Joshi explains, “Respectability — not respect — underpinned the legal right to marriage equality.”

As my family is evidence of, the weight of respect comes with an assortment of internalized problems: Joshi points to shame, conspicuous consumption, and conformity as a few byproducts of being respectable. Yet, as Mickey and I discussed, the fact that we’re able to have such a conversation represents luxuries and privileges we have been afforded. “Benefiting from respectability entails drawing on existing economic, social, and cultural capital that is accessible to relatively few queers,” Joshi says. “Respectability is measured by proximity to white, male, middle-class heterosexuality, and not everyone is able or willing to fit the mold.”

Whether intentional or not, I have put myself up to a mold that was given to Aunt Sharon by my grandfather as the marker of my own queer acceptance. This, in some ways, has been a driver to leap over common benchmarks, to be as successful as possible in order to still be seen as part of the family or worthy. My sister – who is pursuing a doctorate in sociology – and my Aunt – who had a law degree – participate in bowing to the pressure too. You could call it an accidental form of queer excellence.

D’Lane Compton, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans, sees this behavior as a queer norm. Compton suggests queer persons’ over-education – 46 percent of lesbian and gay individuals and 33 percent of bisexuals have college degrees – as proof of our inclination to overcompensate. “That’s a huge statistical difference,” Compton says. “It’s actually a remarkable difference.” Similarly, gay people typically make more money than their straight peers. While an explanation for this remains elusive (Higher education? Lack of children? Whiteness?), the fact persists.

This may relate to a queer intelligence at play, of juggling different, intertwined identities in order to be deemed worthy. “At every turn, we’re going to be ostracized or have to deal with microaggressions,” Compton says. This all informs very complicated queer self-concepts which are the manifestations of our own mental intersections. “We have these ideas of who we are but we have this single self-concept of who we are and they all affect one another,” Compton explains. “Our different identities intertwine.”

While Millennials wrestle with prioritizing selves to be respectable, this issue may minimize under the heels of our increasingly queer next wave of adults, Gen Z. “They’re working within the system to change the system,” Compton explains, reflecting on their experience with queer students, which stands in contrast to Millennial queers looking for loopholes or working around respectability problems.

Compton theorizes that younger queer persons are dismantling respectability by reconstructing the map to success, a quality that many queers at large participate in. We seek peers and public figures who have thrived despite adversity in order to thrive ourselves. It’s the “power of the role model and visibility,” of queer and non-queer minority figures overcoming barriers, that is yielding change. “That’s where we’ve taken our map from,” Compton says. “We’re piecemealing this together depending on our resources.

For now – for my family, for my sister, Mickey – this future may appear far away, as if the workload of acceptance only gets heavier with each reveal of the self, given the initial jab at Aunt Sharon. Are we all jokes to them or will they eventually see us completely?It’s not the duty of the marginalized to educate the oppressor,” Mickey says. “But, in instances like this, you can’t kind of just do whatever you want or be whoever you want to be…What experiences can I share with someone who is holding me to their standards so they can understand my humanity instead of my merit?”

“Regardless of what I accomplish in my life, I am still a person – and still deserve respect regardless of my job, ability to pay my bills, my sexuality,” Mickey says. “I’m still a person and I deserve respect.”

Perhaps this is the part of the story that we’ve forgotten to tell in my family: maybe Aunt Sharon spat back at her father – my grandfather, the Fitzpatrick patriarch – to say that her worth isn’t predicated on a paycheck. Yes, that may help a man like my grandfather and people like my parents understand a queer person better – but our lives and our paths and our ways of living are not the same. This needs to be recognized.

Perhaps this was why Aunt Sharon sobbed at the barb that we still laugh at. Perhaps she knew that, one day, people like her would redefine the definitions that sought to steal her power. She happened to be too early for respect.

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