Queering Nationalism

Maureen Curtin

Maureen Curtin teaches English and Women's Studies at SUNY-Oswego. She is first generation Irish-American, reared in the Bronx and grown in Oklahoma.

The last time I performed at gay pride, I wore a borrowed white dress and a Hobby-Lobby veil while on the back of a trailer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A friend who ran the local chapter of NOW had asked my partner and me to help promote marriage for queers. I felt giddy with defiance and irony, even while equivocal about the queer push for matrimony. Three years later, with Tulsa in the rearview and queer pride looming oddly as "US Pride," I remembered that ambivalence need not be paralyzing.

When in May the Pride Planning Committee refused a dialogue about the "US Pride" theme, a motley group met at the Peace Council. Some wanted to protest by abstention the committee's unfortunate homage to stonewalling, while others wanted to contest the loss of any further space for dissent and difference. We talked.

In addition to the proposed abstention, two ideas emerged: 1) marchers protesting under a "Global Pride" banner; and 2) presenting a tableau _ a silent stationary protest involving props and signs _ drawing a parallel between German and American histories of injustice. Adapting Pastor Niemöller's famous exhortation about speaking up for others in WWII Germany, eight of us created a tableau, challenging people to consider how we have arrived as "US":

First they came for the indigenous peoples, and I did not speak up;

then…for the African peoples, and I did not speak up;

then…for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up;

then…for the Japanese-Americans, and I did not speak up;

then…for the `commies,' and I did not speak up;

then…for the queers, and I did not speak up;

then…for the Muslims, and I did not speak up;

then…for me, and there was nobody left to speak up.

Our adaptation speaks to an ongoing struggle for the dialogue that constitutes United States democracy. The Supreme Court's 2000 electoral intervention, the Patriot Act, and commercial media have compromised the public sphere in which we might listen to one another and speak out against unilateral government operations. But I confess: I didn't imagine that standing in stone silence for an hour might be an adequate remedy.

Nevertheless, when we took our positions in the tableau, wearing posters of excerpts from the adapted text, pink triangles and yellow stars, parade-goers were moved. One woman watched and read, then turned to whisper to another. The second woman listened, and though moved, she was not a whisperer. Loudly, she exclaimed, "Deep! That's deep!" In an instant, she moved a random clutch of people into a semi-circle. They listened as she swept her arm like an orchestra conductor, linking the identities of those "held hostage…by 510 years of homeland security."

Some Americans, of course, hail homeland security as a way to protect "our" views and values. Everywhere SUVs putter the streets. Everywhere, American Muslims are in danger. All are potentially "enemy combatants," detainable in the US, outside the purview of law.

For those assailed for differing sexual, affective, and gender practices, such irrational bias makes for familiar "outsider" terrain. Patriotism seems to offer a chance for acceptance, for solidarity. Acceptance is tantalizing, of course, as Catholic bishops practice an old ploy, framing child abuse as a "homosexual problem."

Conversely, the chance for solidarity is deceptive. Claiming patriotism is a means for queers to ingratiate ourselves with those in power. The costs are high: the freedom to dissent as well as the lives of those whom the US claims to protect, typically under the banner of market freedom.

Instead, we might better urge friends and family to remember the violence and silence that has produced "US." We can work more creatively to foster dialogue and increase recognition of our mutual interdependences. We must challenge, of course, the interdependence that converts cultural differences into commodities and extends Western values and power. If we are all West, we risk all being lost. Share in dialogue the stories of our differences rather than shop the stores that would "shelve" difference and disconnect us from our ties, our pasts, ourselves, and all that we might become.