Thursday, December 27, 2018
Prof. Ho continues his discussion of Boy Erased.
For me, both the film and book versions of Boy Erased were timely because it made me ask whether we might now be more fully steeped in an age of assimilation. Some of those changing attitudes about sexual minorities during the 2000s resulted from successful gay rights campaigning that coincided with marriage equality litigation. In those campaigns, often the image projected was one that promoted shared similarities between the heterosexual mainstream and gays and lesbians that made apparent the discrimination underlying their exclusion from marriage. This got us to marriage equality. As a result, the option to assimilate became much more salient. The option presented itself as a possibility for sexual minorities to exist openly in society and be tolerated. Instead of conversion, sexual minorities could live explicitly with their sexual preferences and identities but also embody the norms and virtues of the mainstream. Once marriage equality was fully achieved, that choice to assimilate became more possible.
What does this mean for true equality? The focus on gay conversion in Boy Erased ought to also remind us of the choices that sexual minorities often face when trying to decide whether or not to live and express themselves authentically. If not persecution and violence, then perhaps conversion. If not conversion, then perhaps pretending or passing—which can mean staying the closet. If neither conversion nor passing, then perhaps assimilation. In his 2007 book on the subject of assimilation and its effects on civil rights, Kenji Yoshino does a better job than I do in explaining “covering,” which is a version of assimilation where individuals tone down their diversity in order to obtain a degree of tolerance and safety from the dominant society. It’s a strategy of negotiation that is based on expectations that the dominant society places on a perceived outsider both to fit into that society, but also behave in a way reflective of that society’s ideas about diverse individuals. Assimilation only gets us to the mainstream’s tolerance of diversity because it’s based on what degree of diversity and authenticity that the mainstream society can endure. It’s not about full acceptance or full authenticity of diverse individuals.
In 2018, the U.S. may not be a collective society where conversion is the most-discussed, most-endorsed way of dealing with sexual minorities who try to live openly. With marriage legally available in 2018, our options are now broader, but more respectable. We can only have gay families and marital troubles. The laws allow us too the possibility of having the 2.1 statistical children of traditional nuclear families. No more is the age of conversion upon us, we are now in an age of possible assimilation. This was what watching Boy Erased ultimately conjured for me.
Assimilation leads us to complacent second-class citizenry. It’s respectable and likeable but not equal. As the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop demonstrated, marriage equality has its limits. So does assimilation.
Boy Erased reminds us of where sexual minorities are in the struggle to live fully and authentically. It’s not a holiday film, for sure—but it’s a good one for reminding us what we might reach for in 2019. We may no longer be in a world where “curing” people of their “deviant sexuality” is a prevalent and acceptable consequence of coming out. However, what does it mean “to come out” if conversion and passing or more desultory forms of conformity have been replaced with assimilation? Will we ever be in an age of authenticity?