Sarah Schulman Waxes Politic
When it comes to writing, Sarah Schulman is a Jill of all trades—she is a prolific and award-winning lesbian novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer and professor. In Schulman’s world, activism, art and academics are fully intertwined. One of the first writers to chronicle the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, Schulman continues to explore the issues that impact our community. In 2009, she was awarded a Kessler Prize for her continued contribution to LGBT studies. Despite her numerous accolades, by Schulman’s own account, her career has not been a success—she’s had no plays on Broadway, her characters have been plagiarized by RENT writers and there has been a dearth of substantial reviews of her work by the mainstream press. Nonetheless, Schulman considers herself an optimist and continues to produce groundbreaking and thought-provoking work. Her most recent book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, examines the impact of homophobia on the home and argues that like rape, it should be addressed as a cultural crisis.
You’re a rarity in that you seamlessly combine the roles of writer, academic and activist. How do you manage to balance those demanding and sometimes contentious identities?
I have no idea. People ask me all those kinds of questions like, do you ever sleep? How do you know if it’s a play, not a book? But I don’t have answers for any of them because it’s really just sort of the way I am. It’s absolutely this natural way of being that I can’t break down into a message.
According to your writing, the first step in addressing an issue is to identify it and define it, which is what you’ve done in Ties that Bind, in terms of exploring familial homophobia. What’s the next step?
Well, the real problem is getting it allowed to be discussed. Like here you have this book that took me many years to write—it took many years to get it published—and then the censorship was really profound. Now it’s published and all the same kinds of censorship are rearing their ugly heads. So there’s no review in Publisher’s Weekly, which is crazy, because almost every book gets reviewed there. I was awarded the Kessler Prize this year and we tried to get it announced in the New York Times Arts and Brief section, they wouldn’t announce it. You can do all this work and people are so interested in this book and I had so much reaction to it—very positive from gay people—but the institutions won’t let it be known that this discussion’s happening. And that seems to be the insurmountable problem.
Why do you think there’s a lack of dialogue between our community and these institutions?
They don’t think it matters. It’s complete indifference. They think it’s irrelevant. It’s through the looking glass. Just getting the Kessler Prize is such a paradox because it’s the highest honor in the gay world. It’s like people—Monique Wittig, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler—these kinds of people. And they’re saying to me that they’re so acknowledging of this gesture that I make all the time of believing that sophisticated lesbian representation can be part of American culture. That’s what they’re telling me that they agree with. But that very same action … the people that run the American theater or American publishing, they act like it’s garbage under their shoe. So how can you simultaneously be doing something so right and so, so terrible at the same time? That’s the experience I have all the time.
Has that always been your experience?
Yeah. I mean, my first book, I had like 28 rejections. People would say things like, ‘We can’t publish this because it would offend librarians.’ I mean, this is 1984, they didn’t know the truth about librarians. [Laughs]
I think I’m just the tip of the iceberg…. Myself and others represent a much larger problem, which is that we haven’t gotten anywhere. We’re just really nowhere. We’re not allowed to have authentic conversations about our own condition as part of the American conversation. Given all the huge amount of effort that multi-generations of us have made to change that, we’ve really gotten very little in return.
Some people would say that the strides we’ve made in gay marriage and domestic partnerships show real growth, but you don’t think gay marriage is the answer. Why?
Well, let’s start with why it’s not the answer. I think that the AIDS crisis has had so many consequences on how we see ourselves, how the world sees us, how we make decisions. But … there’s no conversation about the consequences from the AIDS crisis. It’s like it never happened. When I look at Jews, I think it’s a similar parallel. People undergo profound historical cataclysm when there’s a mass death experience and they get the message very clearly that they live in a world where no one cares what happens to them. … And then you have a large traumatized population. And what they do is assimilate into the dominant culture that allowed them to be destroyed. So this is an historic pattern that we’re in now. And I think in part, this moment is a consequence of AIDS trauma.
I also think that straight people make it very clear that the only grounds that we’re going to get anything is the grounds in which we resemble them. And we’ve internalized that. So people go around saying, ‘I deserve rights, I’ve been with my partner for 30 years. We deserve rights.’ Nobody deserves rights because they’ve been with their partner for 30 years. People deserve rights because they’re human. So we’re saying, ‘Give us rights because we’re just like you.' But the parts of us that are not like [them] are no longer even mentioned—I mean not mentioned. It’s like they don’t even exist.
Why do you disagree with the mainstreaming of gay culture?
We no longer really have authentic gay culture. We don’t have figures who can discuss things and communities talking things over in a way that’s not controlled by dominant corporate culture as we once did. So we’re fed our own image of ourselves through television, which we don’t control.
Now the thing is, I’m an extremely optimistic person—profoundly optimistic—and I don’t think that [gay marriage] could possibly last. Partially because monogamous nuclear families have not really worked for straight people and they have every cultural incentive with them. So I can’t imagine that it’s going to work for us. I think it’s just like we’re in the gay 1950’s and in a few years people will realize it’s ridiculous and we’ll have another sexual revolution again, just like straight people did.
You discuss homophobia as a cultural idea. How could a person apply that to her own life?
Well, the first thing is that the person has to know that I know that they are a real human being and their life matters. And the second is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality and nothing right with heterosexuality. They are equal, normal human variants. Anything that creates homosexuality as inferior is pathological, is untrue and has negative consequences on people and on society. If your family is victimizing you or harassing you through shunning, exclusion, diminishment, you need to know that it’s not your personal problem. It’s not because of you, it’s not because of your family. It’s because you live in a culture that allows that to go on without any reaction.
Now, if people can take in those two things, then we come to the ‘what do we do?’ I think that if many families knew that other people think that that behavior is anti-social, then they might mitigate that in some way. Right now there’s no force in the culture telling them that homophobia is the problem. Most forces in the culture are telling them that homosexuality is the problem. But if we can make it clear to them that homophobia is the problem, they have an option to change their behavior. Most gay people’s families don’t even know their friends. They don’t know that they’re loved people who have a context, and a social stature. If their friends told their families how much they loved this person, how valued this person is, how much pain the family is causing this person, maybe the family would think differently. But the message has to come from people they know, people they’re related to, the other straight members of the family, the people they work with, the movies they see and their government.
What do you most want to say to our community?
In order to know what’s true about yourself, you have to look at your own experience in your own life. Do not let gay leaders or straight leaders or Obama or television or the L Word, or anybody tell you what’s important to you. The most radicalizing thing is to get your own vision from how you really live. That’s the thing we’ve lost, but we can get that back in a minute.