An interview with Sarah Schulman, whose Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, was just published by the New Press.
PW: What would you like readers to take away from Ties That Bind?
SS: On the highest level, I would love readers to be inspired to re-think tired paradigms, and be encouraged by creative reimaginings of how we can live with more awareness and accountability. We are in such a fascinating and complex time now, and many ideas that were censored during the cultural freeze of the Bush era may have a chance to be heard. I would love for people to be invigorated by new ideas, and to enjoy them.
PW: The subtitle of your new book is Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. What are some of those consequences?
SS: My argument in brief is that the family is the place where most people, gay and straight, first learn about homophobia. And that the maintenance of gay people as lesser-than is subsequently enforced through the arts and entertainment industries and government policies, resulting in a diminishment of gay people’s status and self-perception. I explain clearly, and with examples and arguments, that familial homophobia is not a personal problem, but is instead a cultural crisis. And that we can learn from the enormous paradigm shifts in how domestic violence is viewed, that abusive behavior inside families is a broad social concern and responsibility. Gay press reviews have been superb, and I recently had a standing room only reading in Chicago. The excitement and embracing of the book’s ideas is very exciting. Ironically, of course, there has been a parallel blackout by the straight press. This interview is the very first engagement with a mainstream publication acknowledging that the book even exists. It’s a strange through-the-looking-glass experience, one that I have had all my life. It speaks volumes that work that LGBT people love and embrace is often ignored completely by mainstream institutions.
PW: In what ways does familial homophobia differ from societal homophobia overall; is one or the other “form” more harmful?
SS: Now that most people know an openly gay person, I have come to realize that the word “society” is basically a euphemism for our families. It is in the family that people are often first rewarded for being straight and punished for being gay, even though there is nothing wrong with homosexuality and nothing right with heterosexuality. And this later gets played out in all of our social institutions.
PW: You’ve recently been awarded the prestigious Kessler Prize. Could you briefly describe that award, and its significance in your work?
SS: The Kessler is the highest honor in the gay world. It recognizes sustained contribution to LGBT studies; previous winners include Judith Butler, Samuel Delaney, Edmund White, and Adrienne Rich. This recognition highlights that the community supports and praises my efforts to create complex sophisticated lesbian representation in novels, nonfiction and on stage, and my belief that this work can and will be integrated into mainstream American arts and ideas. These kinds of awards exist because of the exclusion of gay and especially lesbian artists from mainstream reward and recognition. I believe that all people can learn to universalize a lesbian protagonist in a book or play or film or TV program, and that this process has been stopped by fearful gate-keepers (producers, editors, agents, etc.) who pre-emptively keep this work from the public, by enforcing the “Bush doctrine” internally despite their private beliefs to the contrary. Being awarded the Kessler means that the LGBT community has had it with the exclusion of our authentic expression from center of the culture, and believes that lesbian writers should not have to eliminate or code lesbian protagonists in order to be appreciated for the quality of our contribution.
PW: You’ve written more novels than nonfiction books and plays. Is that your preferred category?
SS: Yes, I consider myself to be primarily a novelist. I do love to write plays, but the theater is far more conservative than the book business and the censorship is more pervasive. But I am a very, very optimistic person, and I believe that anything that humans create, humans can heal. Right now I am working on projects in all genres. I have a book coming next year from the University of California Press, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, about the consequences of AIDS on housing and art production. I’m almost done with a new novel, The Healing, which is a remake of Balzac’s Cousin Bette set in Greenwich Village in 1958. I recently had a reading of a new play, The Lady Hamlet, at the American Repertory Theater in Boston, and I’m waiting to hear its fate. Plus, my collaborator of 24 years, Jim Hubbard, and I continue to create the ACT UP Oral History Project (www.actuporalhistory.org), and I’m trying to figure out the best way to publish these interviews