A Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber described two kinds of relationships that inform our experience of reality: I-Thou and I-It.
Where an I-Thou relationship is characterised by its participant’s (theoretically mutual) awareness of each other’s personhood, an I-It relationship is more utilitarian: there’s a subject and an object, an actor and an acted-upon. The person half of the relationship has a purpose for the thing half that goes beyond that thing’s existence, unless it is art.
Speaking of art, the film critic Laura Mulvey popularised a corresponding idea in the consumption of art: the “male gaze”, which is a way of depicting women and the world as existing primarily to augment male personhood through the promise of pleasure and dominance. Put differently, a man was the number of women he bedded.
Heterosexism is the default assumption of heterosexual superiority and normality. But it further breaks down to “hetero” and “sexism”: hetero meaning “other” and sexism being a form of oppression that, systemically speaking, targets women. It’s patriarchy. Heteronormativity is not just the normalisation of heterosexuality but also the normalisation of women’s sexual objectification as “the other”.
How did women become an “It” to men’s “I”? Society first positioned itself as an “I” and turned each man into an “It”, seeing those men’s value in what (and who) they did more than in who they were (and in the fact that they were). Traditional masculinity rewards men for being warriors, using the glory of self-sacrifice to eclipse the military/athletic disposability of their bodies.
This societal I that relegates men to “It” status is big, being the collective, while that “It” status is rendered astonishing to observers because these men are rewarded for their dominance over women. How can they be objects even as they objectify? It does not make sense! Until it does: people do unto others what has been done unto them.
It seems counterintuitive to propose that the root of patriarchy is men’s insecurity on measuring up to this greater “I’s” expectations. Even a Donald Trump’s brashness would be him turning all measures of competence so completely on their head that it is no longer he, but anyone who expects that he will aspire to genuinely great leadership, who seems crazy and foolish. The paradox of patriarchy is that as the Republicans’ prize and scandal, Trump is patriarchy’s product precisely in how he makes a mockery of all the values patriarchy ever promised the world. He models it by exemplifying its un-self-aware insecurity and therefore its emptiness. The Emperor has no clothes on. Woeful, this thought, that it is not only possible to be history’s biggest example of what a non-man is, but to also be how history decisively proves that aiming to be a man is aiming too low.
I titled my first book You Have To Be Gay To Know God because there is no authentic I-Thou relationship with a transcendent “I” unless that “I” has no conditions to recognising and celebrating your personhood except that you’re human. Set over-and-against our unconditional personhood, society tells men they’re not real men unless (fill in the blank): even the message, “real men don’t rape”, simply shifts the problem that caused rape — the need to prove one’s personhood in terms of what society recognises men for, which is dominance — into a more hetero-expectant and hetero-respectable picture.
To be authentically embraced as a “Thou” and have the capacity to do the same for others, the “I” you look to for your personhood’s validation has to be genuinely okay with you rejecting all (especially society’s) unreasonable expectations for you as its “It” beyond what is necessary to live well with others. You have to know experientially that this super-I sees you as its Thou even if the societal I sees you as a defective “It” against its needless rules. If you can’t know God while being gay, you can’t know God while straight either. If your God can’t love a version of you that’s homosexual, there’s no way in hell he genuinely loves the version of you that’s heterosexual. Is God really a God who reduces people to elemental systems designed for things and not people? Then religion was not made for the living but for the dead; its God deals in lifeless things, not live humans.
Harry Hay and Matthew Fox have argued that homosexual relationships are necessary: they challenge the notion that sex is power and must therefore be had across, and reinforce, power differentials (instead of being had along and not along power equalisers). Heteronormativity is the cultural normalisation of othering. Let us not pretend rape culture and femicide appeared out of thin air when we cultivated them.
I used to walk through the world as an “It” under the scrutiny of a bigger societal “I” that declared me a failure because I did not meet hetero-respectable hetero-expectations. But I realised that I was not the only person who failed to be the correct sort of “It” to this greater “I”: every day, the number of people walking beside me increased. Women realised they were being beaten and killed because they failed to be obedient “It” units to men’s “I” subjectivities, which, in turn, were degraded by society’s dehumanising expectations of “real men”. The tragedy was those men could never relinquish the rewards for participating in this existential slavery because, as one of the authors of #FeminismIs quipped at its Rosebank launch, “Privilege is niiiiiiiiiiiice.”
The people walking beside me included white men who’d been conscripted, and who’d known at some level that they, too, were “It” soldiers to a government that promised to bestow their humanity some breathing room only if they succeeded at stealing humanity from others; at its fulfilment, this promise turned out to have been a complete lie. You cannot dine with the devil without becoming the meal and all that.
The theme for this year’s Walk on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia is Solidarity and Alliances. Same-Love Toti is running Durban’s leg of it on May the 12th —Saturday, 10am — and I’m walking. The reason I think you should support this kind of activism is that your personhood is only safe from conditionality to the extent that other people’s is.
Being apathetic towards the struggles of “the other” (when they don’t resemble those we immediately prioritise) is the passive aspect, the flip-side, of using those others to further our egos’ agendas. I am not saying that failing to participate in activism recommended by myself or another feminist is failing to be a decent human being, for then I would be furthering my ego’s agenda through you.
I am saying that those times we absolve ourselves from the responsibility to defend others just because we are not actively inflicting oppression, let alone watching the coats of those who are, is when we fool ourselves into seeing indifference as something other than the insidious violence it always turns out to be.
Please comment, retweet and follow: @SKhumalo1987; please also look out (or use!) the hashtag #YouHaveToBeGayToKnowGod
(Kwela Books, 2018)