“Ties That Bind” By Sarah Schulman: Familial Homophobia

Sarah Schulman is brilliant, vulnerable, and relentless. Ties That Bind should be required reading for every family—gay and straight. Ellen Bass, poet and author of The Courage to Heal

Prolific author Sarah Schulman‘s powerful 2009 book The Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences came out in paperback this year. It’s an emotionally and politically stirring book—and yes, one I’ve actually read—that’s especially relevant right now when many LGBT folks face holiday-related challenges.

So, what is this new term, familial homophobia? Schulman came up with it herself in order to describe the too-common phenomenon of gay people being “excluded from family love and approval” to various degrees, something she knows all too well from personal experience. From the book description: “With devastating examples, Schulman clarifies how abusive treatment of homosexuals at home enables abusive treatment of homosexuals in other relationships as well as in society at large.”

As expressed by Schulman to Dick Donahue, Publishers Weekly (2009), this phenomenon—that “(i)t is in the family that people are often first rewarded for being straight and punished for being gay”—permeates other cultural institutions as well. Whereas the gay press, for example, heaped praise on her book when it was released, she tells Donahue, “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.”

A prime example of this relates directly to the above. Although she was interviewed for Publishers Weekly, her book was not—“which is crazy, because almost every book gets reviewed there.” Indeed, a Google search today finds no review ever done by PW.

Maybe the mainstream world simply can’t handle the following type of message:

Anything that creates homosexuality as inferior is pathological, is untrue and has negative consequences on people and on society. If your family is victimizing you or harassing you through shunning, exclusion, diminishment, you need to know that it’s not your personal problem. It’s not because of you, it’s not because of your family. It’s because you live in a culture that allows that to go on without any reaction.

Can therapy help? Well, Schulman devotes a whole chapter to “The Failure of Therapeutic Solutions.” She makes it clear that she has felt burned by therapy and that she’s far from the only one who’s had such experiences when trying to deal with familial homophobia.

Schulman notes that while many therapists advocate breaking away from one’s homophobic family, she’s more in favor of gay people fighting to maintain the connection while working to change the dynamic. “What is essentially wrong about the say-nothing-and-separate approach is that it allows the homophobes to own the family.”

June Thomas, Lambda Literary, sums up what Schulman wants from us all, gay and nongay:

…(S)he counsels intervention—observing familial homophobia and doing nothing is akin to passively watching physical abuse—and reconciliation through negotiation and due process. This may sound legalistic, but being heard is one of our most basic rights, and one that gay and lesbian people have repeatedly been deprived of.

Thus, as further explained by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in Utne:

If your parents direct you not to bring your lover to a family reunion, it’s time for your sister to demand that your lover be included. If commercial publishers refuse to print lesbian work, straight best-selling authors should protest. Ties That Bind argues that this type of allegiance is far more important than gay access to problematic institutions like marriage.

In reviewing Ties That Bind, Andrew Ross, chair of the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at York University, states: “Schulman’s lucid dissection of the role that families play as incubators of homophobia could hardly be better. This [is] a truly indispensable book. It should blow away the hot air generated by the public debate about ‘family values.’”

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