Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Gay Invisibility and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" What Comparsions of African American Invisibility and Gay Invisibility is There?
"Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.”-Adolf Hitler
On January 20, 1942, twelve senior officials of the Nazi regime assembled in a suburb of Berlin to inaugurate what is now known as the Wansee Conference. It was here that Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was finalized, approved, and initiated. Here, senior Nazi officials presented and approved a plan to carry out a genocide of the largest scale in history against the Jewish population of the Nazi empire. When news of Hitler’s Holocaust reached the United States, cries of dread flourished throughout American society as America condemned Hitler’s genocide and the poisonous ideology that inspired it: racism.
Five years later, Ralph Ellison published “Invisible Man”, reminding America that racism was not restricted to genocidal dictators; “Invisible Man” captured the plight of Ellison’s unnamed narrator as he struggled to define himself in the 1940’s American society around him, laced with disparaging stereotypes and an undercurrent of underlying but powerfully overbearing racism, forced him into a metaphorical “invisibility.”
American society has come extremely far in the last seventy-three years, and the most obvious elements of racism are now acknowledged and frowned upon. Whereas at one point those who intended to confront the racism of the status quo faced estrangement and condemnation, it can usually be said that today, those who perpetuate racism face alienation instead. Despite these advances, the fear of those who are different remains a powerful emotion in the human psyche, and this fear gives rise to a related social problem: that of sexualism. Although our culture may have come to accept, for the most part, that one’s humanity is not dependent on the color of their skin, human prejudice drives many to believe that one’s humanity is dependent on their sexual orientation. Just as the most blatant elements of racism – that is, the institution of slavery and the political restrictions on African-Americans that remained after its abolishment during the Reconstruction era – were already a thing of the past in the 1940’s America that Ellison captured in “Invisible Man”, the most grave examples of institutional sexualism – such as the American Psychological Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973 – have been erased, and culture is relatively more attentive about the sexualism that permeated society more thoroughly in the past. However, as in the society depicted in “Invisible Man”, despite these advances, prejudiced attitudes of the past remain in society and in governing institutions, and the minority in question still faces a underlying discrimination that often goes unnoticed.
It can be said that the social movements for equality with respect to sexual orientation are decades behind movements for racial equality, a reflection of the fact that barricades that divide humans on the basis of sexual orientation tend to much more substantial than racial barriers. In “Invisible Man”, Ellison’s unnamed narrator faces the latent racism of 1940’s society, and as a result, confronts a metaphorical “invisibility.” LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Americans today face a very similar situation as African Americans did in the 1940’s America depicted in “Invisible Man”, and as a result, they face a unique LGBT “invisibility.”
In “Invisible Man”, Ralph Ellison creates the metaphor of invisibility as it applies to his unnamed African-American narrator to illustrate the phenomenon wherein civilization sees African Americans as a stereotype and anticipates them to act in accordance with that stereotype, rather than comprehending them as human beings and understanding them based on their actions and identities. The narrator’s invisibility stems from an underlying societal racism and societal inequality, the unjustness of which is often unrecognized by almost everyone in society, and the existence of which many are completely unaware. Remnants of African American stereotypes from the past infiltrate the collective mindfulness of American society. Whites and those in power often trumpet ideals of racial advancement while either knowingly or unknowingly disseminating a power structure wherein African Americans are entirely reliant on whites for their success and achievement in society, and the stereotypes that cause “invisibility” are fortified and intertwined into the nature of purportedly socially progressive activities.
The narrator is first sentenced to invisibility when he encounters the parts of society that still feature a power structure wherein African American compliance and conformity are prerequisite to whites allowing African Americans the opportunity for advancement in society. In this way, African Americans and whites are bred to accept the assumption that African Americans are fundamentally unqualified of being the engines of their own success, and any success that African Americans do achieve can be attributed to the charity and assistance of powerful whites. Thus, any achievement or capability exhibited by African Americans is seen not as revealing of the character of the African Americans themselves but of the whites who provided them with the occasion to triumph and eased their progression. Essentially, African Americans are expected to assimilate by “acting white”- that is, adopting the culture and goals of white society if they are ever to succeed in society, and they are thus required to smother their own individuality in order to ensure that the white men allow them to advance in society.
As a result, African Americans become “invisible,” in that the role they play in society and the way they are perceived by others is limited not by their own identity but by the expectations and ideology imposed on them by white society; others thus do not perceive these assimilationist African American identities but instead “see through” them. The narrator’s invisibility is manifested in this manner when, at the beginning of the novel, he receives a scholarship to a state black college from a group of influential white men in his community. The narrator gives a well-received speech at his graduation and is invited to deliver it to the most influential white men in his community. Before he can give the speech, though, he is forced to undergo a demeaning ritual in which he must participate in a “Battle Royal” by fighting a number of other black adolescents in a pit for the amusement of the white men. Following the Battle, the boys are told to grab as much money as they can from a pile of coins and bills on top of an electrified mat. The white men then laugh at the African American boys’ suffering while they frantically grab for the money, experiencing painful shocks as a result. The boys later discover that this money is fake. After going through these demeaning rituals for the entertainment of the white men, the narrator is permitted to give his speech. Following the speech, the superintendent of the school approaches the narrator to reward him:
"’Boy,’ he said, addressing me, ‘take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office… Open it and see what’s inside,’ I was told. My fingers a- tremble, I complied, smelling the fresh leather and finding an official looking document inside. It was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor” (Ellison).
The superintendent refers to the briefcase holding the narrator’s scholarship as a “badge of office,” implying that the narrator should ponder it symbolic of his new status in society – but in the framework of the demeaning ritual that the narrator had to go through to get this “badge of office,” and the fact that the narrator only accomplished it by obeying the whites and performing for them like a circus animal indicates that this “badge” is representative of the narrator’s submission to the white power structure; the “office” that the briefcase qualifies him for is not that of a well-to-do college student, but that of a slave, because he acquired this reward not because of his own achievements but because of his willingness to follow the orders of the influential white men around him. This scholarship is indirectly responsible for all of the conventional economic successes that the narrator obtains, and the reality that the white men gave it to him only after he participated in the barbaric Battle Royal and humiliated him-self for the whites’ entertainment establishes that all of the narrator’s success was a result of the white men’s “generosity.”
In this way, the narrator and African Americans in the South are bred to accept that they can only accomplish success by appeasing powerful white men, such that any success they achieve is not a reflection of their own character but of the whites’ generosity. The pressure to conform to white demands forces the narrator to suppress any individuality or personal drive he has, instead implementing the social philosophy of those in power and dedicating himself to satisfying the white men around him so that they will provide him with the success he pursues. By suppressing his individuality and basing his life around the desires of others, the narrator becomes invisible.
The narrator sees another face of invisibility when he uncovers that those who fight for social equality and seek to end the more palpable and recognizable injustices African Americans face do so in a manner that continues to suppress African American identity and anything that originates from a nonwhite mind as a unfavorable and unconventional approach to social justice. In doing so, they continue to suppress African American identities, such that even those African Americans who fight for social equality must do so by acting not on their own accord but as puppets of a white activist establishment, thus subtly compelling African Americans to continue to submit to a white power structure and think of themselves as lesser human beings. Even in pursuit of social justice, blacks in Ellison’s 1940’s America cannot act on their own accord but instead do what they are told to do by powerful whites, perpetuating the invisibility caused by African Americans allegedly necessary submission to white power structures even within subcultures that accept social equality and claim to speak for the downtrodden minorities in society.
The narrator experiences this mode of invisibility when he joins the Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to organizing demonstrations and advocating for social equality and social justice. Throughout his time with the Brotherhood, the narrator is trained in the specifics of the “Brotherhood ideology” and is commanded to promote only this ideology in the orations he gives on the behalf of the Brotherhood. The narrator complies with these demands until, after organizing a funeral for Todd Clifton, a black member of the Brotherhood who was, while unarmed, shot down by policemen, the narrator feels an internal impulse to deviate from the Brotherhood’s “scientific” abstract rhetoric and speak spontaneously and passionately to the attendees of the funeral. His speech appeals to a racial identity and directly attributes Clifton’s death to racism. The next day, the white leaders of the Brotherhood meet with the narrator and criticize him forgiving such an “unscientific” passionate speech and for mourning Clifton, who the Brotherhood had condemned for his disobedience and for abandoning the Brotherhood. The narrator argues with the white committee of Brotherhood leaders, explaining to them that he found it in the best interests of the community to mourn Clifton despite any misdeeds he may have done at the end of his life, because Clifton’s death was representative of the underlying issue of racism. It is at this point that Brother Jack, the most influential Brother on the committee, reveals to him that their organization, despite being racially integrated, does not intend to serve as a means of empowering blacks, but as another way to control them and convince them to follow the orders of whites:
“’…and you were not hired to think. Had you forgotten that? If so, listen to me: You were not hired to think.’ … So here it is, naked and old and rotten. So now it’s out in the open… ‘For all of us, the committee does the thinking. For all of us. And you were hired to talk” (Ellison)
Brother Jack’s opposition to the narrator’s actions stems not from any decision about how wise or unwise they were, but from the narrator’s defiance. The Brotherhood committee holds obedience to the orders of the whites in power above the judgment of African American Brothers and above the best interests of the black residents of Harlem that the narrator speaks for. In doing so, the white Brothers reveal that even if their message advocates for social equality and defends the downtrodden, they still seek to maintain the power structure the narrator experienced earlier in life; they ultimately seek to control the African Americans advancement of social justice causes, so that anything the African Americans do achieve is not reflective of their own fortitude and will, but of the white elite’s “generosity.” Just as the superintendent and the white elite of the narrator’s hometown granted the narrator with an opportunity for success in such a manner that he was not the engine of his own achievement, the white elite in the Brotherhood present the narrator with the opportunity to advance the political causes he believes in such that he is nothing more than a puppet following the commands of the white men in control of the Brotherhood. Both the superintendent and the Brotherhood help the narrator in a way that only contributes to his invisibility, because they both deprive him of the opportunity to achieve his goals due to his own character, forcing him instead to do so by submitting to being controlled by the whites in power.
The metaphor of invisibility is extremely applicable to the modern LGBT struggle for civil rights and social acceptance, because today’s society is at a similar point with respect to the LGBT struggle as Ellison’s 1940’s America was with respect to the African-American struggle for civil rights and social acceptance. In both societies, the minority in question faces a number or stereotypes that are passionately, and often unintentionally, perpetuated by members of both the dominant culture and the minority culture. As a result, LGBT Americans are often not seen as human beings, but as a collection of stereotypes, causing them to be, in effect, “invisible.”
LGBT invisibility stems from an undercurrent of sexualism in society that often goes unnoticed because it is integrated into the status quo, much like the way the narrator witnesses a latent racism and the white power structure that is integrated into the structure of even those organizations that seem to advance African Americans place in society. LGBT stereotypes are still very much an actuality in American discourse that are very rarely denounced in the slightest; due to this, many do not recognize their status as stereotypes and continue to think about LGBT relations in a manner that prevents LGBT individuals from being recognized as socially equal human beings by those around them.
Just like the stereotypes the narrator struggles against in “Invisible Man”, stereotypes that LGBT individuals face today begin in the way that those in the dominant and conventional culture endorse a notion of “normalcy” and what it involves to be human that is to some extent denied to those in the minority and unconventional culture. Those in power distribute this notion throughout society, such that almost all Americans play a role in the perpetuation of the sexualism and LGBT stereotypes that contribute to LGBT invisibility.
As in Ellison’s 1940’s America, there still exist significant parts of modern society that are plagued with obvious sexualism and that enable the oppression of LGBT Americans. In many environments, the prevalent mindset is exceedingly hostile towards LGBT individuals, and LGBT individuals face constant threats of alienation, criticism, and harassment. In some of the more conservative regions of America, LGBT-targeted bullying is a significant problem owing to the culture in such areas alone – but even at a well-regarded university in New Jersey, harassment of LGBT individuals can make a powerful impact.
In late 2010, a student at Princeton University secretly taped Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi having sex with another man multiple times and posted the videos of the encounters on the Internet. Posting the videos online in effect revealed Clementi’s sexual orientation as being gay to the campus community, as Clementi had otherwise not made his sexual orientation public. Clementi was so gravely traumatized by the harassment that he committed suicide shortly after. Clementi’s suicide was the last of four different incidents in which LGBT teens were harassed for their sexuality into suicide to occur in a span of three weeks. Incidents like these make it clear to LGBT Americans that even in the moderately tolerant coastal regions of America, and even in the communities of well-regarded universities, sexualism exists and can make campus environments extremely hostile to LGBT individuals.
In such environments, LGBT individuals are often forced to deal with with invisibility, because they must choose to either hide their sexuality and romantic desires from the world, or risk potentially life-threatening harassment and alienation. In this way, LGBT individuals are unable to freely express an essential and significantly important part of human identity: the sexual and romantic impulse. Sexuality and love are perhaps the most primary contributors to one’s humanity, which is why it is so fundamentally debasing those LGBT individuals, are forced to hide this aspect of themselves from society in order to assure their safety and social well-being. Thus, those around ‘closeted’ LGBT individuals – that is, those who hide their sexuality from the world –do not see these individuals as who they are but instead see them distorted through a lens of forced assimilation and hetero-normativity. They do not see an sincere and unfiltered expression of LGBT individuals’ identities, and thus do not really “see” these individuals at all, making LGBT Americans, in effect, invisible.
When LGBT individuals do “come out of the closet” and make an effort to express themselves honestly as individuals and confirm their identities, the result is often violence or severe alienation, since, in homophobes’ eyes, these individuals lose their status as human beings. Homophobes too see sexuality and love as integral parts of the human identity and experience, but do not offer this qualification to non-heterosexual sexuality and love. Their inability, and in some cases refusal, to comprehend and accept LGBT love and sexuality makes them fail to perceive LGBT individuals as human beings, since they “see through” this substantial part of LGBT identity. Because homophobes qualify LGBT individuals as “less human” due to their inability to completely experience sexuality and love heterosexually, they find it morally justifiable to harass, bully, hurt, or kill these individuals.
To protest the invisibility confronted by these students, LGBT activist networks have proclaimed April 15 to be a national “Day of Silence” on which participating individuals take a day-long vow of silence to symbolically represent the silencing of LGBT students in America. The symbolism underlying the National Day of Silence parallels with the invisibility metaphor Ellison develops in Invisible Man; LGBT individuals are compelled by social pressures to remain “silent” with respect to their sexual orientations, thus obscuring their sexual and romantic impulses – which make up an enormously significant part of an individual’s identity and humanity – from the world. The “silence” protested by those partaking in the Day of Silence is what condemns LGBT Americans in today’s society to the same invisibility experienced by Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. The mere fact that the silencing of LGBT students is such a significant issue today that an annual day of protest is still held to raise awareness of the issue is are flection of how deep-seated the sexualist tendencies that lead to LGBT invisibility are. Because America features a hetero-normative culture and the majority of Americans are heterosexual, LGBT Americans’ sexualities remain hidden by default unless these individuals make the decision to “come out” to their community and reveal their sexualities to the world. Unlike race, sexuality is not immediately apparent, and it is only through coming out that an LGBT individual can overcome invisibility in a hetero-normative society. As long as the undercurrent of sexualism that dissuades LGBT Americans from coming out exists, LGBT invisibility will be a widespread and persistent struggle that most LGBT individuals have to face.
Despite the advances the LGBT rights movement has made in recent years, there remains an inescapable institutional sexualism in many parts of human society that renders LGBT individuals’ civil rights insecure. Civil rights are an essential institutional recognition of an individual as a human being deserving of certain inborn freedoms and opportunities that should not be violated. By denying LGBT individuals certain rights that are otherwise theoretically to be universal to all humans, sexualist institutions regard LGBT individuals as something lesser than humans; these institutions are blind to LGBT individuals’ humanity and they thus perpetuate LGBT invisibility.
The LGBT rights movement had success when the US Congress passed a bill repealing the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning LGBT individuals serving in the military. The DADT policy inhibited LGBT individuals from serving openly in the military. The repercussions of DADT for LGBT individuals are simple: either LGBT individuals must acknowledge a denial of the right to serve in the military afforded to all other capable citizens, which amounts to the government’s denial of LGBT Americans’ civil rights and, by expansion, their humanity, or they must suppress their sexuality if they wish to serve in the military. The former option renders LGBT individuals invisible in the eyes of the government, for invisibility is, in substance, the result of a denial of another individual’s humanity. The latter option is nothing more than a call for an LGBT individual’s self-inflicted invisibility for the length of their service in the armed forces. LGBT Americans that wish to serve in the military had no choice under DADT; they were forced to either accept institutional invisibility or accept self-imposed invisibility.
The most prevalent issue in the politics and activism surrounding gay rights has been and continues to be that of the right to same-sex marriage. On April 1, 2001, the Netherlands became the first jurisdiction to legally recognize same-sex marriage; Massachusetts became the first US state to do so in 2004. However, as of now, same-sex couples can only legally marry in nine of the fifty states, and only three additional states acknowledge same-sex marriages legally performed outside of the states. Efforts to transformation the status quo and to legalize gay marriage face substantial opposition from religious groups who object to homosexuality on moral grounds and do not want to see the state condoning or recognizing it. Numerous initiatives have been mounted to “define marriage to be between a man and a woman” or to “protect the traditional institution of marriage.”
Marriage is the definitive act of an institution recognizing the legitimacy of a couple’s love, commitment, and sexuality; denying marriage to homosexuals by “defining marriage to be between a man and a woman” is, in effect, denying to acknowledge the legitimacy of LGBT love. By extension, this amounts to a negation to recognize a significant aspect of LGBT humanity. Conceivably the next most momentous objective of the LGBT activist community is to protect adoption rights for LGBT couples. There is no federal law governing the legitimacy of LGBT adoption, but instances of this has only established its legitimacy in twenty of the fifty states, and five states have explicitly outlawed LGBT adoption. The efforts to refuse LGBT couples adoption rights are possibly as offensive and as conspicuously bad as attempts to deny marriage rights; childbearing is just as fundamental a human activity as is love and sexuality; furthermore, love, sexuality, and childbearing are intimately intertwined, and all of these must be taken into account in order to fully recognize the legitimacy of homosexual relations.
LGBT Americans who are deprived of the right to marry and adopt children by their governments are forbidden civil rights that extend to heterosexual citizens. Since civil rights serve as an institutional acknowledgement of one’s status as a human being, these LGBT Americans who are robbed of civil rights are not recognized fully as humans in the eyes of the institutions that govern them; in essence, these individuals are “invisible” in the eyes of their government.
Attempts to support and transform the system are usually a legitimate means of confirming LGBT identity and humanity, and a necessary step to battle institutional sexualism and work to battle LGBT invisibility. However, these movements are often met with counter-movements that endorse ideologies that further seek to perpetuate LGBT invisibility. The most prominent opposition to movements for LGBT acceptance and civil rights comes from the powerful American conservative Christian lobby.
Numerous verses of the Bible “allegedly” condemn homosexual behavior as sinful, which often serve as moral justification for homophobic behavior or moral criticisms of LGBT rights movements. Not all Christian organizations accept the sinfulness of homosexuality as an important part of Christian doctrine, but among those who do, the most socially harmful organizations are undoubtedly those responsible for organizing what is known as the “ex-gay movement.”
The ex-gay movement is most contentious for its claims that homosexuality can be “cured” through the use of “conversion therapy.” Ex-gay organizations such as Exodus International and People Can Change offer services for “Christian homosexuals” who wish to eliminate their homosexuality, pledging to help homosexuals “pray away the gay.” Focus on the Family, an influential Christian conservative lobby and one of the strongest proponents of conversion therapy, cites an oft-criticized 2009 study confirming that religious meditation can change one’s sexual orientation. Despite this, most conventional health organizations disapprove conversion therapy as pseudoscience, and no major medical organization has endorsed its legitimacy.
As of now, the scientific and medical consensus is that conversion therapy is psychologically damaging and can arouse unnecessary feelings of remorse, fretfulness, and low self-esteem, leading to depression or even suicide. Despite the fact that the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association maintain that current research has established that homosexuality and bisexuality are normal variants of human sexual behavior, ex-gay organizations endorse the belief that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that is ethically wrong and therefore a reflection of poor character.
Claiming homosexuality is a choice rationally implies that homosexual yearnings are not fundamental impulses (as are heterosexual desires) and thus that LGBT desires are not a consideration of one’s humanity, but rather of a lack thereof. The reality that this choice is associated with sin and moral wrong in Christian ideology means that many homosexuals are influenced that a fundamental characteristic of what defines them and their humanity is abnormal, blemished, and morally contaminated; it is foreseeable that the scientific community has found that such an ideology can be the precedent for individuals that lead to depression and suicide. Such a conviction compels LGBT individuals either to acknowledge that they are fundamentally inhuman or to make an effort to “overpower” their homosexuality. Such an exertion essentially amounts to a self-imposed withholding of the romantic and sexual impulses that comprise a significant part of LGBT identity – that is, self-imposed invisibility. Trying to “pray away the gay” is a methodical and translucent attempt to make LGBT individuals conform into heterosexual culture and destroy expression of their identities at all costs, guaranteeing their invisibility.
Throughout “Invisible Man”, the narrator perceives many expressions of racism and comes to comprehend that every facet of society influences him to accept invisibility in one way or another. At the conclusion of the novel, the narrator comes to terms with his invisibility, and even settles that invisibility is sometimes a trait to be incorporated and taken advantage of. He retreats from society into a basement underneath a whites-only apartment complex to make his home in what he describes as his “hole of invisibility.” It is here that the narrator reflects on his journey and comes to understand the fundamental pressure that has defined his struggle throughout the novel:
“Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway? – Diversity is the word. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but a lack of one. Must I strive towards colorlessness? (Ellison).
The narrator determines the “passion toward conformity” as the fundamental social difficulty that he has been grappling against throughout the course of his life. Instead, he demands an embracing of “diversity” – which, in the context of the deconstructionist, existentialist tone and message of “Invisible Man”, can be interpreted as a call for Americans to embrace the identity that emerges from one’s mind and individuality, rather than accepting socially prescribed ideology and suppressing one’s identity in the process.
Indeed, when each person is identified by his own internal impulses and emotions alone and none adopt ideologies and philosophies that are suggested by others, society has reached the height of diversity. It is worth noting that the narrator’s resentment of being forced to “become white” and his condemnation of white’s colorlessness is not an assertion of the inferiority of the white race or culture but instead should be read as a metaphorical condemnation of the bland, soulless nature of the ultimately homogenous society.
Ellison’s narrator struggles with the pressure to conform in the context of race relations and social protest, but the message he reveals in the epilogue applies to a wider, more universal struggle: that of individuality versus conformity. Ellison’s existentialist call to action fits neatly into the modern LGBT struggle with invisibility, particularly with respect to the invisibility LGBT Americans are pressured to impose upon themselves. The narrator’s existentialism appeals to the value of defining oneself based on inner passions and emotions – and what are sexuality and love but terms for those inner passions and emotions that are most visceral and crucial to the human experience? Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man seems to have come to peace with the pressures he has combated against for most of his life by embracing that which he values as the most important influence on human thought and action: his own internal impulses and emotions.
Applied to the LGBT struggle with sexualism and invisibility, the narrator makes one thing clear: above all else, the most important thing to preserve in fighting the pressures imposed on an individual by the society around him is one’s definition of self. To LGBT Americans, this amounts to a calling to embrace the totality of one’s identity as they see it, regardless of what pressures may convince them to do otherwise, be they from government, from peers, or from religion. The narrator’s calling goes out not to the wider society or to the bigots and sexualists that perpetuate LGBT invisibility, but to the invisible LGBT men and women themselves: however you are seen by the society around you and by the institutions that govern you, and whether you are inside or outside of the proverbial closet, do not suppress what you know to be who you are; do not make the mistake of “striving towards colorlessness.” Instead appreciate, celebrate, and embrace your “color,” whatever it may be.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York City, NY: Vintage International, 1947. Paperback.