Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel
Julie Bindel is a leading British radical feminist/lesbian journalist and campaigner. She recently (2014) wrote a book called “Straight Expectations” in which she tried to answer the question “What does it mean to be a lesbian or gay in 2014”.
Before going into the substance of the book, there are two points to clarify from the start:
First, it should be noted that book’s focus is gays and lesbians. As such, the book does not deal with trans issues, because these issues would not fit into the defined context that Bindel is out to analyse.
Secondly, the book examines the gay and lesbian history and context of the UK. In spite of that, it is highly relevant to the historical developments of most of the western world and has an important value for the rest of the world which finds itself in the midst of a current debate, irrespective of a different historical development.
“Straight expectations” is based on a survey that Julie Bindel carried out, as well as on a series of interviews with key figures of the gay and lesbian movements. At the same time, the book is deeply personal to Bindel, who has lived through and participated in the gay and lesbian movement since the 70s.
We are now more or less at a point where, from a legislative point of view, gays and lesbians are equal to heterosexuals. This was the result of successful campaigning by the gay and lesbian groups. The book essentially seeks to explain how the campaigning, that started as a “liberation” movement, developed into one seeking legislative equality. It also discusses the merits of this approach.
The goal of the gay liberation movement of the 70s was a new society, where people could love and have sex with who they wanted, without prejudices and discrimination. It was based on the belief that feminism and gay liberation were connected, in that the oppression of gays and all women was the result of patriarchy, i.e. straight male dominance. It aimed to transform society and liberate all women as well as the gay community.
In the meantime, however, Bindel argues that within that movement, gay men sought to lead the debate. This led to divisions between gays and lesbians. During the 80s, the AIDS epidemic hit the gay community very hard. This, together with the rise of conservatism in western politics, made the situation much worse, with new laws banning the promotion of homosexuality. The bigotry and prejudices that followed, made the lesbians run to the rescue of gay men and unite with them once more.
In response to the intense bigotry, the author observes a new shift from radicalism to equality. Gay men increasingly sought to rely on the “I was born this way” argument. They sought to argue that they should not be blamed for this epidemic or indeed for their homosexuality. That they should be tolerated.
The book considers this to be a defining moment because, in seeking to be tolerated, the gay movement stopped asking for radical change, but instead asked to be assimilated into the mainstream, and essentially conservative heterosexual society. And it appears that it was at that point when demands for equal marriage, adoption etc started being made.
In going through these developments, the book discusses the controversial “gay gene” issue. There are several studies these days focused on finding whether there is a gay gene. The results are often contradictory, but mostly inconclusive. Bindel challenges the need to search for such a gene, and strongly argues that sexual orientation is down to social and environmental factors, choice and even politics. She suggests that many gays feel that finding a gay gene might diminish homophobia, but argues that, to the contrary, this stance feeds homophobia. She believes that it is damaging to give the impression that homosexuality is not a choice, as it seems to imply that given a choice, no one would/should actually choose to be gay. She argues that this gives credibility to those who advocate conversion therapy for gays and reinforces heterosexuality as the norm. From a political point of view, she asks why can’t it be a choice to be gay? Why is it any less legitimate?
Throughout the book the author focuses on the “coalition politics” and asks questions to what extent gay men and lesbians have common interests and beliefs. Bindel’s view is that, other than bigotry the two groups do not have so much in common. She suggests that gay men, as in heterosexual discourse, took over and led the debate and the campaigning of the gay movement. Through this, lesbians lost their feminism and radicalism, and the goal of transforming society was abandoned.
On this basis, she argues, we have arrived to a gay movement which is essentially conservative. It’s focus is on assimilation to heterosexual society through marriage, domesticity, family, what she calls “Straight Expectations”. And while she accepts that legislative equality is very important, she suggests that this reinforces a divide between the gay community between the “good” and the “bad” gays. She also suggests the legislative equality has not eliminated bigotry and anti-gay hatred. From a feminist perspective, she argues these developments have not liberated women from patriarchy but further embedded them in it.
She concludes by calling on the western gay community with its relative privileges to support gay liberation in less privileged parts of the world, like India, Uganda, Nigeria, Russia.
Whatever your thoughts are on these issues, this is an important book. The analysis of the development of the movement is crucial in understanding where we stand today, and more importantly, where we go from here.
You can buy “Straight Expectations” from Amazon here.