Sarah Schulman discusses homophobia, family and her book Ties That Bind

Latest book explores how homophobia germinates in the family unit

What does it take to be a visionary? For starters, you might want to pick up Sarah Schulman’s latest book. The Utne Reader has named the award-winning novelist and playwright one of the 50 visionaries who are changing your world.

In September, Schulman released The Mere Future, a novel that is as satirical as it is prophetic. Schulman’s newest publication is the non-fiction Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequence. It’s a groundbreaking work about how homophobia germinates in the family unit. While Ties That Bind addresses both victims and perpetrators of homophobia, Schulman is concerned with bystanders who sit back and allow discrimination to take place. She recently spoke to for an interview:

Mark Ambrose Harris: The brutality that results from homophobia in the family unit is an important theme in many of your novels. What inspired you to write about familial homophobia in a work of non-fiction?

Sarah Schulman: There is no book addressing homophobia in the family. In fact, I had to coin the phrase “familial homophobia” because this experience that most gay people share did not even have a name. That the causes, dynamics, consequences and solutions to familial homophobia had never been thought through was indicative of how difficult the subject was to broach and how central they are to us moving forward in our understandings and implications for action.

MAH: What kind of changes are you hoping will result from this book?

SS: I believe that we can shift the cultural stigma from homosexuality to homophobia. So that homophobia is seen as the problem, as something that is anti-social, destroys families and causes violence. And that it therefore requires active intervention by third parties.

MAH: As a writer, do you have different processes depending on whether you’re working on a novel, a work of non-fiction, or a play?

SS: No. A particular idea may be harder or take longer, but the difference in experience is not based on the genre.

MAH: As you explain in Ties That Bind, UK authors like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters have such great visibility because their publishing houses have treated them like authors, rather than niche markets. How is it that the American book industry is so far behind in this regard?

SS: Prejudice. It is not about sales. Every publisher that has never published a lesbian novel has published books with straight protagonists that sell less than lesbian fiction sells. What is really at stake in the publishing of authentic lesbian work, or producing it on the stage, is that the gatekeeper (producer, editor, publisher etcetera) would have to reconceptualize themselves. Instead of seeing their experience and their dominance as neutral, natural, objective and value free ie “just the way things are,” they would have to face that their dominance is enforced, and that they do not “deserve” their advantages. This is shattering information that they wish to avoid. Why this is different in France, England… is not clear to me. It probably has something to do with the Puritan roots of the USA, and our roots in slavery and supremacy ideology. Remember, the white people who settled this land were basically the Jerry Falwell’s of their day. They left England because it was too liberal.


MAH: I know that your next work deals with gentrification. Can you discuss what this new book will cover?

SS: The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness To a Lost Imagination will be published in September 2010 by The University of California Press. It covers the inter-dynamics of AIDS and gentrification and their consequences on how we think.

MAH: Any chance you might stop in to Montreal for a book reading?

SS: I would come to Montreal anytime. I love that city. Just invite me and I will be there.

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