Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Resistance or affirmation: What is queer?

On Saturday, I attended a conference at Morgan State University (in conjunction with BMore Proud) entitled Intersections:  Sexuality, Gender, Race and Ethnicity.  It was great to connect with others engaged in issues of sexuality, and I was part of a panel discussion on the complexities of sexual identity.  I talked about the fluidity of women's sexuality and how that presents challenges and opportunities for the traditional models of coming out in psychology and the GLBTQ community.  The other panelists included Dr. Andrea Brown, who talked about the intersection of race/ethnicity and sexual identity, with a particular emphasis on the role of the black church, and Genevieve Carminati, who discussed the (often ignored) role of social class in women's sexuality.  I think we did a good job of exploring the theme of the conference and I am always inspired by working with my fabulous colleagues.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Dr. Antonia Randolph, a sociologist from the University of Delaware who discussed her research on hip-hop and what it says about race, gender, and sexuality. Her main theme was that there are "queer" elements present in hip-hop that challenge the mainstream ideals of gender and sexuality.  She wasn't claiming that hip-hop artists are actually gay/lesbian/bi, nor even that they are necessarily going to be allies for GLBTQ issues.  She was merely claiming that there are themes within the hip-hop subculture that are not consistent with mainstream heteronormativity. 

This (infamous) kiss between Lil Wayne and Baby, for example, illustrates the strong affection male hip-hop artists openly express for each other.  These close bonds between men may be coded as similar to father-son relationships, as part of a broader construction of kinship among those in street culture.  Lyrics of hip-hop extol these male-male relationships, indicating their primacy even above the traditional family unit involving wives and mothers (fathers are typically absent in the world of hip-hop, replaced by the paternal care from those in the street culture). 

I don't know enough about hip-hop to say whether the themes Dr. Randolph identified are typical or not.  What struck me was the question of whether these are, in fact, "queer" -- that is, do they fundamentally challenge the values of mainstream culture?  At one level, she is correct to say that these are non-normative, in that American (heterosexual) men are generally prohibited from expressing strong affection for other men; this affection should be directed toward heterosexual relationships and those of the nuclear family which are supposed to be the most important and central bonds for men (and women). 

Yet at another level, the hip-hop narratives were completely consistent with the dominant paradigm of American masculinity.  These hip-hop artists glorify a masculine subculture in which they are independent from (and dominant over) women.  There is a long tradition of all-male enclaves, from the fraternity to the gang, and it has been commonplace for men to form strong bonds with each other, even though they may not always express their affection openly or directly.  While it is true that the nuclear family is strongly valued in our culture, there is also a tension between the vaunted masculine independence and the ties of the nuclear family.  To be a man is to be free and answer to no one, certainly not to a woman.  Express too much affection for your mother and you risk being labeled a "mama's boy"; for your girlfriend or wife, and you are "whipped."  Heterosexual men tread a delicate balance in our culture. They must establish heterosexual credentials by forming intimate bonds with women, but maintain their independence from women at the same time.  By rejecting the nuclear family bonds for those of the street culture, male hip-hop artists stake out their masculinity.  I'm a man, I can do as I like: I don't answer to my mother or my girlfriend or my wife. 

So we are left with the question of whether these close relationships among men in hip-hop are countercultural or culturally normative.  Do they resist cultural pressures, "queering" the text, or do they epitomize normative masculinity?  I suspect they may be both.  Cultural representations and practices can have multiple layers and convey divergent messages simultaneously.  Our attempt to resist a cultural norm may simultaneously affirm and reject that norm.  By prioritizing their relationships with other men, hip-hop artists may decenter the nuclear family as the putative core of a man's life.  By doing so, they highlight the tension that the nuclear family represents for constructions of masculinity, and they create an alternative kin network of the street that continues to reify and valorize traditional models of masculinity.  These relationships are a bit queer at one level, but they also serve to reinscribe the core values of gender performance at another level. 


Randolph, A.  (2011, March).  Wayne loves Baby and other queer lessons from hip-hop:  Notes toward a race and sexuality research agenda.  Keynote presentation at Intersections: Sexuality, Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Baltimore, MD.

Brown, A., Carminati, G., & Stearns, D.  (2011, March).  Sexual identities:  Complex, contextual, and fluid.  Panel presented at Intersections: Sexuality, Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Baltimore, MD.


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