Gay Normality and Queer Transformation
By Peter Drucker
Over the past forty years, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) movements over much of the world seem to have gone from victory to victory, to an extent that would have once seemed almost unimaginable. Given the furious opposition that the first anti-discrimination laws provoked only a few short decades ago, the fact that the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 by majority vote endorsed protection of sexual minorities is a milestone. The fact that same-sex marriage has not only been won in Denmark, South Africa and Argentina but is also being seriously considered in Nepal, Vietnam and even conservative parts of the United States surely exceeds almost anyone’s expectations. By comparison with the 1960s and 1970s, when gay liberation ‘touched very few’, John D’Emilio has observed, beginning in the 1990s ‘the world turned’ for millions of LGBT people (D’Emilio 2002, p. ix).
Yet many LGBT activists are not entirely happy with the movements they have built and the world they have won (Weeks 2007). Recurrent backlashes against the advance of some lesbian/gay people’s integration into society continue to occur, unpredictably and sometimes ferociously (Herzog 2011, p. 1). Harsh legislation in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, often funded and backed by the US Christian right, show the intensity of sexual reaction. The explosion in 2013 of opposition to same-sex marriage in France showed how much anti-gay prejudice still lurks beneath the surface, even in countries where toleration seems solidly established. But backlashes are not the only problem. In fact, however intense, they often seem remarkably short-lived. The problem is not so much winning and holding on to victories, as the form the victories take.
Living at the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, gay activists in 1969 would probably not have welcomed the prospect of gay men in the military – or at the use of arguments for sexual freedom to justify wars in western Asia. Even if they had welcomed legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, they would probably not have given high priority to estate and tax planning for affluent same-sex couples. And given the inspiration those activists drew from black and immigrant struggles, they would have been distressed to see LGBT people and immigrants being pitted against each other today in much of Europe, and LGBT people being pitted against Africans and Arabs on a global scale.
LGBT people’s victories over the past forty years are both real and important, and hopelessly enmeshed in real and significant defeats. The paradoxes surrounding LGBT victories are due in part to the setbacks that other movements have suffered in the same years, notably labour and poor people’s movements, anti-war movements and the political left. Since LGBT victories have been and are being won in an increasingly unequal, polarised and violent world, the victories have taken on a disturbing colouration. LGBT people may in a sense be freer today in much of the world than they once were. But the freedom they enjoy is increasingly dependent on a marketplace that is much more hospitable to people with money, whatever their sexuality, than to those without. Early post-Stonewall LGBT communities, though small, conflict-ridden and fragile, had their own non-commercial gathering places, music, literature and ethos. Today much less of that is available, and it often comes with a price tag.
The results are the increasing commercialisation of the gay scene, the drift to the right in LGBT movements and the weakness of a left alternative. In countries where LGBT movements have seemingly been most successful, LGBT lives are increasingly circumscribed by a politics of reconciliation with everyday life under neoliberalism, which Lisa Duggan has defined as the ‘new homonormativity’. If heteronormativity is the institutionalisation of heterosexuality through the implicit assumption that people are straight unless otherwise labelled, homonormativity is a mindset that does not ‘contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them’ (Duggan 2002, p. 179). The rise of homonormativity by no means implies that the larger societies are less heteronormative; on the contrary, homonormativity reflects and adapts to the heterosexual norm. At the same time the superficial multiculturalism characteristic of neoliberalism barely masks growing racial inequality, fuelling waves of homophobic reaction in the Islamic world and Africa and among racialised others.
In hindsight, the lesbian/gay upsurges of the late 1960s and 1970s bore the seeds of both ongoing queer resistance and of a kind of ‘gay normality’ that reflects LGBT people’s often incomplete, often unconscious internalisation of the new homonormativity. The victories of lesbian/gay liberation were in part genuine advances for all LGBT people, and in part gains specifically for an emergent lesbian/gay elite that reaped disproportionate benefits from them. Now the agendas of homonormativity and of queer resistance are parting company, at different rhythms in different parts of the world, with many LGBT individuals still combining elements of both in their consciousness.
Queer resistance is only slowly developing the theory it needs to guide its strategy. Among the key elements of a new radical queer paradigm is a rediscovery of Marxism.
Marxism’s unique strength is its understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, and of the key role the working class can play in resisting the power of capital. Historical experience – not only in Russia in 1917 and France in 1968, but more recently labour’s role in toppling dictatorships from Brazil to Poland to South Korea to Tunisia and other countries – has demonstrated the working class’s revolutionary potential. But Marxism’s special claim to LGBT activists’ attention hinges on its effectiveness in creating a multidimensional, radical sexual analysis and politics that addresses nationalism, race and gender as well as class and capital. Particularly since the 1980s, the increasingly clear inefficacy of earlier forms of working-class organisation has spurred Marxists to pay attention to other potential agencies of social transformation, such as indigenous peoples, women and LGBT people. The reinvention of a class-based politics of anti-capitalist transformation can only take place in interaction with non-class-based currents like radical queers.
This article is meant as a contribution to the development of a queer politics of anti-capitalist transformation. Its first section reinterprets the history of lesbian/gay liberation from 1968 to 1973, situating this ‘revolutionary parenthesis’ within the longer history of ‘homosexuality’ and the decades-long process of the formation and ascendancy of gay normality. The second section analyses how by the 1990s, as part of a reshaping of the gender and sexual order under neoliberalism, gay normality almost imperceptibly squashed the rebellion of lesbian/gay liberationists against 1950s-style homosexuality. This section sketches five homonormative features that define the newly hegemonic pattern of gay normality: the lesbian/gay community’s self-definition as a stable minority, an increasing tendency towards gender conformity, demarcation from and marginalisation of trans people and other minorities within the minority, increasing integration into the nation, and the formation of newly normalised lesbian/gay families.
Yet the same neoliberal period has seen the rise of an alternative queer scene, whose proponents’ rejection of overconsumption, respectability and conformity puts them in opposition to gay normality. They identify with broader communities of oppressed or rebellious people, resist dominant gender norms, highlight power differentials that dominant lesbian/gay imagery tends to elide, and sometimes form alternative families and communities. The article’s third section argues that thanks to queer resistance, the potential still exists to restore and deepen the once-strong link between sexual and social transformation, by deepening a nascent agenda of blurring sexual boundaries, subverting gender and championing trans liberation, global and anti-racist solidarity and polyamory. The article concludes with a call to ‘queer the future’ by creating the conditions for the erotic life that people have long dreamed of: polymorphously sensual rather than genitally obsessed, egalitarian rather than possessive.
1968-1973: A Revolutionary Parenthesis
The gay normality that today fits increasingly well into capitalist society is in line with ‘homosexuality’ as it was invented towards the end of the nineteenth century. But it represents a break with lesbian/gay liberation as it was defined and pioneered in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lesbian/gay liberation was in fact a rebellion against the homosexuality of its time.
The homosexual identity that began to take form in the decades following the Second World War was a new variant of the hetero/homo binary invented in the late nineteenth century. In its earliest and most working-class forms, it overlapped with ‘sexual inversion’, the variant in which homosexual men were supposed to be effeminate and lesbians masculine. But its full-fledged form was reserved for people who did not radically change their gender identity or sex role in adopting a lesbian/gay sexuality. In the same-sex relationships formed according to this pattern, both partners considered themselves part of the same community.
This new same-sex formation depended on the maturation of a new, Fordist regime of capitalist accumulation. The spread of gay identity, especially among the mass of working-class people, took place to a large extent during what Marxist economists refer to as the expansive long wave of 1945-73. After 1945, rising living standards and full employment in capitalist countries under the Fordist order meant more job opportunities for some people, including some homosexuals, who had previously been marginalised. Rapid increases in women’s waged work began to transform gender roles. ‘In these days of frozen foods … compact apartments, modern innovations, and female independence, there is no reason why a woman should have to look to a man for food and shelter’, one US lesbian wrote as early as 1947. ‘Never before have circumstances and conditions been so suitable for those of lesbian tendencies’ (Faderman 1991, p. 129). Propitious conditions also included unprecedented urbanisation, a massive extension of education, and state welfare programmes that dramatically decreased people’s reliance on their traditional families. On a lesser scale, dependent industrialisation in much of Latin American and Asia was reflected in rapidly expanding LGBT scenes in countries like Brazil and Thailand.
The new gay identity fit into the growing sexualisation of consumer capitalism. Following the rise of heterosexual romance in the nineteenth century, society was more explicitly and pervasively sexualised under Fordism in the second half of the twentieth. The ‘capitalist impulse seized upon sexual desire as an unmet need that the marketplace could fill’. By the 1980s the sex industry, narrowly defined as prostitution and pornography, was a multi-billion-dollar sector, while going beyond the sex industry narrowly defined, openly erotic images, male and female, were used to sell everything from jeans to phones (D’Emilio and Freedman 1997, pp. 327-9). The sexualisation of life under Fordism entailed, not a genuine eroticisation of everyday life, but rather what Herbert Marcuse analysed as repressive desublimation, integrating sex into ‘work and public relations’ and making it ‘susceptible to (controlled) satisfaction’ (Marcuse 1964, p. 75). It embedded sexual life in the consumer market and unequal social relations, including class, gender, the heterosexual norm and the family as a reproductive and consuming unit.
The foundations of gay identity were laid on a modest scale in parts of Western Europe and North and Latin America in the two decades after the Second World War through the expansion of a lesbian/homosexual commercial scene and the efforts of small ‘homophile’ groups. By the 1960s, there was what seemed at the time a ‘spectacular expansion of the commercial subculture’, particularly in major metropolitan centres (Weeks 1981, p. 286). At the same time, particularly from the 1950s, largely middle-class homophile activists like the Dutch COC, the US Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, and the Brazilian columnist Hélio played a disciplinary role in facilitating homosexuals’ transition to more standard gender norms (Warmerdam and Koenders 1987, pp. 125, 153, 169; Floyd 2009, pp. 167-8; D’Emilio 1989, p. 460; Green 1999, pp. 190-2). In this respect lesbian/gay identity was a precursor of today’s gay normality.
But the big breakthrough for lesbian/gay identity in the years after 1968 was partly a break with middle-class homosexuality, inspired by a vision of liberation that at least for a few years was inclusive of drag queens, hustlers and sexual outlaws generally. The rise of revolutionary militancy across the capitalist world in the 1960s found expression among lesbians and gays as well. Lesbian/gay liberation was consciously inspired by left feminism and black and anti-imperialist struggles. By the late 1970s and 1980s radical lesbian/gay politics was having at least a modest impact on the international radical left, including the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the Brazilian Workers Party and South African anti-apartheid movements.
Also important in preparing the ground for the explosion of lesbian/gay liberation was the growing rebelliousness drag queens and male hustlers, who fought the police at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959, committed civil disobedience at Dewey’s lunch counter in Philadelphia in 1965, and rioted in and around Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966 (Stryker 2008, pp. 53-5, 59-65). The 1969 Stonewall rebellion in New York, a founding moment of lesbian/gay liberation, continued a series of trans revolts linked to broader social radicalisation. In imperialist countries, decades of struggle by lesbian/gay movements led to victories – particularly anti-discrimination laws (beginning in Canada in Québec in 1977, in the US in Washington DC in 1973, and in Europe with the French law adopted in 1985) – that made mass, open lesbian/gay communities possible for the first time in history.
Starting with May 1968 in France leftists began to play a prominent role in the lesbian/gay movement, through collectives and publications in cities including London, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Toronto and Saõ Paulo. Within weeks of Stonewall the Gay Liberation Front was formed in New York as a self-proclaimed revolutionary group (D’Emilio 1983, pp. 232-5). Similar groups formed in 1970-1 in Argentina, Britain, France, Anglophone Canada, Quebec, Mexico, Belgium and Italy. In 1972 sixteen groups from ten countries created an international gay revolutionary network (Bréville 2011). The new gay radical left was internationalist; radical lesbian/gay groups took their place from the beginning in anti-war actions. The FHAR in France was particularly notable for its anti-imperialism, reacting against the ways the French racist far right linked the twin dangers of Arab immigration and homosexuality (Shepard 2012).
The actions of the new lesbian/gay left marked an at least temporary revolt against the gender-normative, predominantly middle-class homosexual identity that 1950s homophile groups had been helping to consolidate. Allen Young of GLF demanded ‘an end to the gender programming which starts when we are born’ and declared that ‘in a free society everyone will be gay’ – that is, would transcend the categories of heterosexual and homosexual (D’Emilio and Freedman 1997, pp. 321-2). Lesbian/gay liberation was rejecting a minority-group model in favour of a vision of universal sexual liberation.
Lesbians played an integral and visible role in a rising socialist feminist current; lesbian feminists easily understood that freedom and equality for lesbians required women’s emancipation, so that women would have other options than marriage and economic dependence on men. Not only lesbians but even gay men after 1968 focused on sexism as the root cause of their oppression (D’Emilio 2002, p. 56). Lesbian/gay liberationists fought for a world in which women would have as much power as men, be as strong as men, and play as great a role in public life, while men would be as gentle and emotional as women, play an equal role in the home and be as nurturing for children. They used drag and ‘genderfuck’ to cross and confuse gender boundaries. If masculinity and femininity could come to be seen as arbitrary distinctions, they reasoned, a fixed preference for a masculine or feminine partner (in sex, love or life) could be seen as neither more normal nor stranger than a fixed preference for blonds or brunettes. In a liberated culture everyone would in principle be open to erotic ties with men or women, and any preference that might exist would lose its social significance. In this sense, everyone and no one would be gay.
By the mid-1970s, however, as the New Left shrank and its remnants turned to Maoist and other forms of ‘party-building’, the anti-machos had largely lost out among gay activists. The gay movement began to marginalise and exclude the trans people and gender dissenters who had played a key role from the 1966 Compton’s rebellion through Stonewall (Stryker 2008, pp. 85-7). Full-fledged drag, already frowned upon by would-be respectable homosexuals in the 1950s, once more began to seem embarrassing in the context of the androgynous imagery that was in vogue through much of the 1970s. Many gay liberationists saw trans people as ‘not liberated’. By 1973 the San Francisco Pride celebration split, with the larger event banning drag. That same year a trans leader was forcibly prevented from addressing the celebration in New York (Stryker 2008, pp. 98, 102).
Neoliberalism and Gay Normality
An earlier version of the argument in this section was published as Drucker 2011, esp. pp. 11-26.
Today, LGBT lives and struggles have to be situated in the context of neoliberalism, the specific period of capitalism the world has been in for about thirty years now. For decades under neoliberalism legal equality has been, in Lisa Duggan’s words, ‘an empty shell that hides expanded substantive inequalities’ (Vaid, Duggan, Metz and Hollibaugh 2013). This reality has been concealed behind a ‘truce’ between the gay mainstream and capital, which welcomes gay ‘consumers and professionals in return for acquiescence and accommodation’ (Hennessy 2006, p. 389).
Some queers have (approvingly or critically) affirmed the existence of a link between gay identity and capitalist consumerism, as when Michael Warner declared, ‘Post-Stonewall urban gay men reek of the commodity. We give off the smell of capitalism in rut’ (Floyd 1998, p. 187). In fact the decades of neoliberal privatisation and deregulation have also to some extent been decades of what Alan Sears has called ‘moral deregulation’, in which some of the sexual restrictions that acted as barriers to capital accumulation have been cleared out of the way. This has facilitated a proliferation of LGBT clubs, bars, saunas (for gay and bisexual men), publications, chat sites and more. Undeniably, this sexual liberalisation has expanded sexual possibilities. New gay and lesbian niche markets have become the dynamic centre of spaces in which men and women can explore, act out and celebrate their same-sex desires. Working-class LGBT people in the wealthiest countries have benefited from opportunities for sexual exploration and enjoyment that were once the preserve of the rich.
But whatever queer market enthusiasts imagine, neoliberal moral deregulation has not only expanded sexual possibilities but also fostered new kinds of conformism. The gay commercial world may be big, but it is no model of diversity. While there are profits to be made from LGBT niche markets, there are far more in uniform spaces targeting consumers with the most effective demand, where people with the wrong bodies, the wrong clothes, the wrong sexual practices, the wrong gender or the wrong colour skin are viewed as bad for marketing and regularly excluded. The growth of the commercial scene has thus increased stigmitisation and marginalisation for many LGBT people.
In an economy of greater inequality, moreover, participation in a commercialised scene requires the ability to pay. And even when commercial spaces serve as outlets for behaviour perceived as transgressive, sexual daring is usually confined to ‘private life’ and ‘free time’. Carryings-on that may be admired in a club on Saturday night could mean big trouble at work or on many neighbourhood or centre-city streets on Monday morning. Even people who are ‘out’ at work and in public usually nonetheless self-ghettoise all sorts of actions and images that are central to their sense of LGBT identity. All this means that neoliberalism has laid the foundation for a new gay normality. Homonormativity, in Duggan’s words, delivers ‘a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption’ (Duggan 2003, p. 50). The emergence of lesbian/gay petty-bourgeois layers leading relatively comfortable lives has fostered the rise of homonormative ideologies in a tolerated corner of a heteronormative world.
This new homonormative order fits within a gender order in which direct male domination of women is camouflaged in superficially gender-neutral institutions. The capitalist family has traditionally been a mechanism both for inculcating hierarchical and authoritarian social relations and for reproducing the workforce through women’s unpaid labour. However, neoliberalism in many ways undermines the direct domination of wives and daughters by husbands and fathers (Brenner 2003, pp. 78-79). Under neoliberalism, the ‘traditional mandate that women serve others’ is contradicted by the imperative that they ‘compete with others as fully autonomous individuals’. Women can increasingly be found exercising authority as corporate managers, lawyers and top officials (Hennessy 2000, pp. 5, 23-4). Neoliberalism thus to some extent undercuts the family’s effectiveness as a site for inculcating traditional hierarchies. This is reflected in the contradictory impact of neoliberal policies on women. The increased prosperity and economic independence of a layer of bourgeois and middle-class women is bolstered by the cheap labour of other women, above all black and immigrant, who continue to labour in ‘pink-collar ghettoes’ at substantially lower wages.
The institution of marriage has also been reshaped. On the one hand, the state still uses marital status to channel many benefits to couples, especially prosperous ones: life insurance benefits and exemptions from capital gains and inheritance taxes. On the other hand, when it comes to welfare and unemployment benefits, the neoliberal state increasingly evades its responsibilities by penalising couples – sometimes married couples, sometimes all couples, but always disproportionately working-class, low-income and poor people.
As the forms of gender oppression have changed under neoliberalism in class-differentiated ways, so have the forms of heteronormativity. On the one hand, market expansion has been good news for some middle-class LGBT people. Not that life can ever be wholly pain-free for LGBT people in a society where exclusively heterosexual desire is the norm; in a heteronormative society every LGBT person must confront a moment of acknowledging difference, which can often be traumatic. But the discomfort of difference was softened among some middle-class and upper-working-class social layers that prospered in the 1980s and 1990s, especially but not only in imperialist countries. The combination of commercialisation with growing tolerance for some normalised gay identities has facilitated the imposition of norms that define some LGBT people as at home in society and excludes or marginalises others. The new gay normality has not been absent from Latin America, South Africa and East and South Asia, but it has been especially bounded there by class and geography.
Throughout the world capitalist system, lesbian/gay identity took new forms from the 1980s, acquiring a hegemonic position in a new same-sex formation that fit increasingly well into the emerging neoliberal order. Five homonormative features defined the newly hegemonic pattern: the lesbian/gay community’s self-definition as a stable minority, an increasing tendency towards gender conformity, demarcation from and marginalisation of trans people and other minorities within the minority, increasing integration into the nation, and the formation of newly normalised lesbian/gay families.
Lesbians’ and gay men’s self-definition as a minority, building on the steady consolidation of the categories of gay and straight over the course of the twentieth century, expressed a social fact that became even more pronounced under neoliberalism. To the extent that lesbians and gays were increasingly defined as people who inhabited a certain economic space (went to certain bars, bathhouses and discos and patronised certain businesses), they were more ghettoised than before, more clearly demarcated from a majority defined as straight. The tendency of many early theorists of lesbian/gay liberation to emphasise the fluidity of sexual identity and speculate about universal bisexuality faded away as the community’s material reality became more sharp-edged. The more same-sex desire was seen as the virtual monopoly of a lesbian/gay minority, the less its manifestations – however open and unashamed – posed questions about the way of life of the straight majority.
The decline of butch/femme role-playing among lesbians and of camp culture among gay men also helped harden gender boundaries. Drag queens who had played a leading role in the 1960s uprisings found in the 1970s and later that as tolerance of lesbians and gays in general increased, tolerance for gender nonconformity in lesbian/gay spaces decreased. As the decline of Fordism put welfare state programmes under pressure, a renewed emphasis on the centrality of the family put a brake on the relaxation of gender norms that had characterised the 1960s. This conservative turn in the broader society was accompanied by a shift among gay men away from the androgynous imagery and occasional gender-bending of the early 1970s. Susan Stryker has identified 1973 in the US as the year that the masculine ‘“clone look” of denim, plaid, and short haircuts replaced radical hippie/fairy chic’, signalling the return of a more gender-normative gay male style (Stryker 2008, p. 95).
Within the medical establishment, increased willingness to accept homosexuality as not intrinsically pathological went together with a sharper focus on gender nonconformity, distinguishing and isolating trans people from gays. Soon the pathologisation of trans people expanded, when the 1980 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders – the first one to appear since the 1973 edition that had removed homosexuality from the list – added the new category of Gender Identity Disorder (GID). The medical profession’s growing interest in ‘trying to understand, engineer, and “fix” gender’ was in part ‘an attempt to stuff the feminist genie back into its bottle’ (Stryker 2008, pp. 111, 113). Lesbian/gay communities increasingly defined themselves in ways that placed trans people and other visible nonconformists on the margins if not completely out of bounds. By the 1990s the consolidation of the new lesbian/gay identity, combined with the stubborn persistence of gender nonconformity in same-sex communities, spurred on the definition of distinct trans identities, as the word ‘transgender’ came into widespread use.
Alongside demarcation as a stable minority, growing gender conformity and the separation of gay from trans, a fourth feature of the new gay normality has been the increasing incorporation of some lesbians and gay men into the imperialist nation. Gay/lesbian middle-class overconsumption has acquired an imperial dimension through the tourist market. Tourism embodies the contradictions in the lives of people who spend much of their waking lives working for wages, which they value largely for the ability they earn to escape. But leisure like work has class and racial dimensions, for LGBT people – self-interestedly portrayed by the gay tourist industry as ‘TurboConsumersTM’ – as for others (Mitchell 2011, p. 672). Casualisation of wage labour and the growth of the informal sector in dependent countries under neoliberal globalisation have included the growth of the sex trade. Economic internationalisation has included the rise of international sex tourism, in two directions: the arrival of tourists from imperialist countries taking advantage of cheap sex for sale, and the arrival in imperialist countries of sex workers. Undocumented immigrants form a high proportion of sex workers in much of Europe; trans people form a high proportion of same-sex sex workers almost everywhere. Wholesale exclusion of trans people from most sectors of formal employment is one reason for this. And the tourist industry, which disproportionately targets high-income travellers, is increasingly central to many economies, reinforcing the centrality of luxury consumption in general under neoliberalism.
In an imperial order, gender identity and sexuality are closely linked, especially for men. Masculinity has been defined in feudal and capitalist societies for centuries by a positively valued propensity for violence, whether in the military or in sublimated form in sport. Incompetence at fighting and sport and exclusion from the military were therefore markers of insufficiently masculine men – while atypical competence, athleticism and military careers were markers of insufficiently feminine women. Exclusion from the military, and therefore from the ranks of full male citizens, has often been one of the last forms of discrimination to fall. It was for example explicitly reaffirmed when homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967 (and only lifted in 2000), and perpetuated in US President Bill Clinton’s curiously contradictory ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, adopted in 1993 and only lifted in 2011.
The demand to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation in the military has been a constituent element of a new, nationalist homonormativity. This has been particularly evident in Israel, where Jewish gay men’s inclusion in the army was a marker of their incorporation into the Zionist project – understandably viewed without enthusiasm by Palestinian queers. More generally in the twenty-first century, the instrumentalisation of lesbian/gay rights in the service of imperialist and Islamophobic ideologies, which Jasbir Puar has defined as ‘homonationalism’, has helped integrated lesbian/gay people into the neoliberal order (Puar 2007, pp. xxiv, 38-9). Particularly in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, where both same-sex partnership rights and anti-immigrant racism are strongly developed, this homonationalism has been key to taming lesbian/gay identity.
The US too has seen the rise of a homonationalist gay right. In the Cold War years the US military had become a mainstay of racial liberalism, symbolised by Colin Powell’s rise to its command, and even a certain kind of feminism, incarnated in the George W. Bush administration by Condoleezza Rice. Imperialism acquired a gender dimension, portraying women in the US as ‘saviors and rescuers’ of oppressed women elsewhere – especially Muslim women, as part of the Islamophobic ‘clash of civilisations’ or ‘war on terror’. Europe and North America are portrayed today as bearers of sexual enlightenment – mainly women’s emancipation, and to a lesser extent LGBT rights – to an Islamic world seen as benighted and backward. Imperialist ideology has also always had a sexual dimension. The novelty is that it now has a same-sex dimension. The general orgy of patriotism in the US after 9/11 was picked up in US LGBT communities as well: ‘The American flag appeared everywhere in gay spaces, in gay bars and gay gyms, and gay pride parades [featured] the pledge of allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, and floats dedicated to national unity.’ Many middle-class gays and lesbians also responded to appeals to save the US by continuing to buy, ‘marking this homonational consumer as an American patriot par excellence’ (Puar 2007, pp. 40).
A fifth, and increasingly central, defining feature of the new gay normality is the role of same-sex marriage. While the rights to marry and to adopt children bring immediate, practical, crucial benefits to same-sex couples from many different class backgrounds, they can be the culmination of some gay people’s integration into the productive and reproductive order of gendered capitalism. The call for these rights is a demand for equality, but also in some cases for equal class and racial privilege.
Neoliberal cutbacks in social services, by privatising the provision of basic needs, have been restoring the centrality of the family unit to the social reproduction of labour – in classed ways. Legal same-sex marriage or partnership can in this context secure not only much-needed benefits for same-sex couples generally, but also specific advantages for middle-class and more secure working-class lesbians and gays. One Canadian study showed that legal recognition of same-sex partnerships resulted on average in higher incomes for high-income LGBT people and lower incomes for low-income ones. This pattern also correlates with race (Barker 2012, p. 100). The restriction of state recognition of same-sex relationships to couples produces new forms of exclusion: for those most dependent on the welfare state in countries like Britain, Germany the Netherlands, legal recognition of their partnerships can lead to cuts in benefits (Browne 2011; Woltersdorff 2011, p. 177). Consolidating partnerships can reinforce inequality within couples as well as between them: a study in San Francisco in the 1990s demonstrated the reality of an unequal division of labour in the home (Barker 2012, pp. 155-6, 199, citing Christopher Carrington).
The more prosperous lesbians and gays with children can now, like many of the most prosperous parents generally, ‘outsource support and caretaking’ (Woltersdorff 2011, p. 176). Those doing the caretaking today are naturally likely to be immigrants and/or non-white. In general, as the number of children being raised in households headed by same-sex couples rises, same-sex marriage and adoption can serve to legitimise and regulate the growing role of lesbian and gay couples in social production, consumption and reproduction.
While neoliberalism has created the conditions for the new, specific constellation of gay normality, the antisocial impact of neoliberalism has given many LGBT people reasons to question gay normality. Contrary to much anti-gay rhetoric, the prosperous couples focused on by glossy lesbian/gay magazines were never typical of LGBTs in general. A recent US study showed that 39 percent of LGBT adults in 2013 had incomes under $30,000, compared with 28 percent of adults in general (Pew Research Center 2013). Trans people are even worse off: 2006 study found that in San Francisco 60 percent of them earned less than $15,300 a year, only 25 percent had fulltime jobs, and nearly 9 percent had no source of income (Wolf 2009, p. 147).
Alienation has mounted among less privileged LGBT people from the commercial gay scene. Alternative scenes have proliferated. Within some of these alternative scenes, a queer identity has coalesced that is seen at least in part as in opposition to homonormativity. The queer scene crosses class divides: there are certainly middle-class self-identified queers, including a disproportionate number of students and academics. But the class atmosphere of the queer scene, while not exactly working-class, is different from that of the commercial scene. The prevalent queer rejection of overconsumption, respectability and conformity puts queers in opposition to neoliberal gay normality. And queer spaces offer more room to, or at least solidarity with, LGBT people who have lost out under neoliberalism, thus forming an oppositional subculture of gender and other queers.
Various sexually dissident communities, such as increasingly militant trans people in much of Latin America and South and Southeast Asia, have become more visible and vocal. While they were slow at first to adopt the label ‘queer’, in the twenty-first century it has become increasingly common at least in LGBT academic milieus in Asia. It also became popular in Taiwan in the 1990s before being picked up in the People’s Republic in the twenty-first century. In India in 2002 the lesbian group Stree Sangam changed its name to LABIA and its self-definition to a ‘queer and feminist collective of lesbian, transgender and bisexual women’ (Shah, Raj, Mahajan and Nevatia 2012, pp. 189-90).
The nonconformist sexual and gender identities that have grown up among more marginalised layers worldwide have tended to be non-homonormative: to identify with broader communities of oppressed or rebellious people, to resist dominant gender norms, to highlight power differentials that dominant lesbian/gay imagery tends to elide, and/or to form alternative families and communities. The queer generation has tended particularly to play with issues of gender, inequality and power difference in other ways that expose their artificiality and facilitate their subversion.
The contradictions of gender and power have been particularly visible in transgender and gender-bending subcultures since the 1990s. Younger trans people – who increasingly call themselves ‘gender queers’ – are more likely to take on gender identities that are neither feminine nor masculine. This flexibility is built into the very definition of the term ‘transgender’; the term is not just a different way of saying ‘transsexual’ but encompasses a whole spectrum of gender diversity. Queer-identified trans people do not necessarily reject hormone treatments or surgery, for example, but they can be selective in what they do or do not choose for themselves. The result can be ‘”intermediate” bodies, somewhere between female and male’ (Rubin 2011, p. 251).
The current crisis of capitalism can be used and is being used to restore a utopian dimension to LGBT politics. Yet a queer anti-capitalist alternative has still barely begun to take shape. Even today, when neoliberal capitalism as it took shape in recent decades is clearly in crisis, LGBT organisations are still rarely forging strong links with the labour movement or the political left. That could hardly be expected while the left and labour globally are still in such deep disarray, and even new activist currents that have emerged in response to the crisis, like insurgent young Arabs, the Spanish indignad@s and Occupy, are so embattled.
Fortunately, there are still many LGBT people that the lesbian/gay right and centre are not about to integrate. Class and race are obviously crucial factors that divide many normalised gay people from the new gay right. Most LGBT people are working-class – in the broad sense of having to work for an employer in order to survive – and many rebel against the limits of politics of middle class-dominated lesbian/gay groups. Imperialism is another key factor in politicising LGBT people. Even the sometimes intense repression experienced by LGBT people in countries like Lebanon and Palestine fail to convince most of them to side with the US, Israeli and European ‘liberal’ forces that are assaulting their nations.
A broad queer resistance to neoliberalism and gay normality will have to take widely different forms as it grows up in different places and circumstances. No one identity, ideology or political current can or should dominate it. It should have room for people who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer, for anarchists, greens, militant social democrats, left feminists and anti-racists, and more. Increasingly, however, queer radicalism is defining itself as not only anti-neoliberal but also anti-capitalist. This does not imply subscribing to any blueprint of a socialist alternative, much less following the lead of any organisation. Rather, it entails accepting the growing weight of evidence that neoliberal policies are not simply mistaken or the result of a temporary advantage enjoyed by right-wing forces, but rather the result in this prolonged time of crisis of the inherent, systemic logic of global capitalism: capital has responded to its crises since the 1970s with a global, structural offensive that has succeeded in endowing it with ‘increasing flexibility, mobility, and concentrated power’.
Queer transformation will have to proceed in different arenas, mobilising different constituencies with a range of different tactics. It will not be possible as long as ‘cultural and identity issues are separated, analytically and organizationally, from the political economy in which they are embedded’ (Duggan 2003, p. 3, her italics). To achieve full sexual liberation, a queer politics has to challenge and win power at the level of the economy, state and other sites where power is concentrated, embracing a strategic project with multiple dimensions. On the one hand, broader, class-based and other social movements – like healthcare struggles and labour – as well as the political arena can and should be ‘queered’ in order to shape a vital sexual dimension of societal transformation. On the other hand, autonomous queer movements need to expand and radicalise their assault on the homonormativity bound up with neoliberalism. As noted above, the new gay normality has five features. The key imperatives of a radical queer sexual politics can be identified in opposition to those five features, point by point.
|Neoliberal gay normality||vs.||Radical queer sexual politics|
|Stable lesbian/gay minority||vs.||Blurring the boundaries|
|Gender conformity||vs.||Subverting gender|
|Exclusion of gender & other queers||vs.||Queer inclusion / trans liberation|
|Homonationalism||vs.||Global & anti-racist solidarity|
The prevailing sexual and family order is structured under gendered capitalism by having the vast majority of children raised and socialised by at least one biological parent in families formed by sexually and romantically linked heterosexual couples. These are the families in which the great majority of LGBT children grow up. LGBT lives in this situation entail a constant choice between, or more accurately a varying combination of, adaptation and ghettoisation. Most LGBT people can only survive, let alone prosper, by doing waged work in heteronormative companies or institutions, and if possible falling back on heterosexual family networks. But work and family life of this kind involves constant adaptation to heteronormative environments. So most LGBT people escape from the dominant forms of work, family and leisure or complement them with life in a separate LGBT world. Gay normality combines life in a heteronormative world with retreat into an LGBT ghetto. To escape this, a queer radical politics has to envision a future beyond the gay/straight binary.
Even today, a queer sexual politics can start blurring the boundaries of the binary. Radical queers challenge the social frontiers between gay and straight – simply by acting sexually in heteronormative settings, for example through same-sex tongue-kissing in straight singles bars. At the same time, being queer does not necessarily imply a one-sided, unchanging sexual orientation. Sexual desire and behaviour are fluid, changing in many people’s lives over time and in different circumstances. So tactical flexibility in proclaiming sexual identity, as opposed to a rigid imperative of ‘coming out’ into a minority, can be another way of blurring the gay/straight binary. Many LGBT people around the world feel free to express their same-sex desires in an LGBT milieu without having a uniform, unchanging identity. Haneen Maikey of the Palestinian LGBT group Al Qaws has gone so far as to reject the division between LGBTQ and ‘friends’, writing that Al Qaws’ ‘goal isn’t building bridges between the LGBTQ community and society but to swim in the same river to change its course together’ (Maikey 2012). In black and immigrant communities in imperialist countries, too, there should be room for both the tactic of working discretely within existing families and communities and the tactic of claiming a public LGBT identity, even at the risk of cutting people off from their families and ethnic communities. A powerful strategy can be founded on a multiplicity of tactics, all aimed at creating a pervasively eroticised world of ‘polymorphous perversity’.
A second axis of queer transformation is subverting gender, which structures the reproduction of the heteronormative family, of human beings as producers and thus of capitalism as a whole. Obviously women and women’s movements are central agents in this project, with lesbians playing a key role. Reproductive freedom, as left feminists defined it from the 1970s, includes sexual self-determination. Left feminist challenges to neoliberalism through demanding both better conditions in wage work and a higher value on care work can converge with LGBT efforts to build alternative households and communities founded on more humane and expansive values than romantic bonding in the interests of successful market competition. At the same time, many third-wave feminists are increasingly sensitive to how historical, variable and contingent gender can actually be, and how arbitrary it can be to ‘reduce the wide range of livable body types into two and only two genders’(Stryker 2008, pp. 3, 4, 11-2).
Challenging gender boundaries can thus help open the way to more inclusive queer communities. In the dependent world particularly, the diversity of LGBT communities has resulted in an alliance model of organising as an alternative to the model of a single, broad, unified organisation. Shifting alliances among autonomous groups can facilitate the development of a truly queer conception of a ‘multiple, malleable, dynamic’ sexuality (Wekker 1999, p. 132). Trans issues in particular are increasingly central today given the disproportionate and growing importance of transgender patterns in dependent countries, especially among poorer people. In imperialist countries too, trans issues were by the late 1990s seen as cutting-edge. Fights for a ban on discrimination on grounds of gender identity, full access to freely chosen medical care, safe and accepting schools and homes for trans young people, protection in prison from rape and other forms of violence, safe toilets and gender-neutral pronouns for those who do not identify as either male or female can move everyone closer to a world in which the social significance of gender distinctions is far less, and power differentials based on gender vanish altogether. This suggests that the categories of lesbian/gay, bisexual and straight, and even the categories of male and female, may already be losing some of their centrality for sexual politics.
A fourth axis of queer transformation is solidarity across racial and national boundaries. LGBTs in the world today have converged enough to have a certain real commonality, which is an objective basis for solidarity. For anti-capitalists, solidarity rests on the basic understanding that all oppressed people are contending with a global neoliberal order, which can only be effectively resisted and defeated through a unified global fight-back. Because capitalism has now conquered the entire planet, opposition to it has to take account of the ‘interpenetration of … local arrangements with capital’s global structures’ (Hennessy 2000, p. 9). In other words, human beings’ sexual lives worldwide need to be understood as part of a global totality, and at the same time as overdetermined by a wide array of local factors.
Yet bitter experience has taught that global unity needs to be based on autonomy for and leadership by blacks, people of immigrant origin and people in the economically dominated countries if it is not to be a cloak for control by white Europeans and North Americans. Traditional calls by labour and socialists to unite in international, multiracial movements have increasingly been seen as Eurocentrist. The question has even been asked whether speaking of totality – of the global system as a whole – at all necessarily implies an ‘imperial, American universalism’ (Crosby et al. 2012, pp. 140, Roderick Ferguson, 138, Kevin Floyd). The question can and should be turned around, however: is it possible to effectively challenge an imperial, Eurocentric universalism without constructing a powerful, anti-imperialist, anti-Eurocentric alliance? Queer scholars of colour in the US and Britain particularly have done a good and vitally necessary job of exposing racist and Eurocentric assumptions and dynamics within queer studies and within LGBT communities. The task remains of demonstrating the full centrality of anti-racism to global anti-capitalist struggles today.
Queers on the radical left have increasingly made solidarity with black and immigrant LGBTs a priority, as when Judith Butler in 2010 refused the Civil Courage Prize offered to her by the Berlin Christopher Street Day Committee to distance herself from ‘complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism’ (Schulman 2012, pp. 128-9). For many queers worldwide, the Palestinian struggle is also a fight against Israeli self-legitimation through highlighting lesbian/gay rights in Israel (‘pinkwashing’), a fight waged by the coalition Palestinian Queers for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). The Lebanese LGBT group HELEM, insisting that ‘sexual liberation cannot be achieved through imperialism [or] detached from the wider struggle for democracy’, joined in 2003 in Lebanese mobilisations against the Iraq war, and in 2006 joined the grassroots solidarity movement against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; Beirut’s LGBT community centre became part of Beirut’s busiest relief headquarters (Makarem 2011, pp. 107-9). Many Africans organising against anti-LGBT laws have at the same time rejected using such laws as pretexts for aid cuts, which disregard the agency of African LGBT movements, create the ‘real risk of a serious backlash’, ‘reinforce the disproportionate power dynamics between donor countries and recipients’, and help cut off LGBTs from broader civil society (Nana, Abbas, Muguongo, Mtetwa and Ndashe 2011).
A fifth axis of queer transformation, in face of the construction of normalised nuclear gay families, is organising personal and domestic lives in ways that are freer, more flexible and more open to the wider community. One tactic – often the only one available to trans people in many countries – is to form or join alternative households and communities of sexual dissidents, like South Asian hijras or runaway young people in New York. Another preferred tactic for many, particularly in dependent countries where LGBT people often depend on their families of origin for survival, is molecular queering: the process of infiltrating queer intimacy into existing families while trying to avoid complete breaks. Examples include parents who have invited their son’s male lover to move in with them from China to South African black townships to Brazilian favelas.
Finally, queers who neither choose to continue living in their families of origin nor are forced into sexually outlawed communities engage in a day-to-day process of experimentation with other ways of shaping their families. Discussions of sexual liberation in queer milieus increasingly focus on the idea of polyamory, of ‘(usually long-term) intimate and sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously’ (Barker 2012, pp. 176, citing Jin Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin and Christian Klesse). Its advocates take up the call of early lesbian/gay liberation for non-monogamy, while being less subject to co-optation by commercialised sex on demand because more insistent on ongoing emotional bonds.
A project of queering intimacy and domesticity should be the basic matrix for queer positions on same-sex legal unions, challenging the inequality of heteronormative marriage while moving beyond marriage as a middle-class strategy for advancement in neoliberal society. The challenge is to demand changes in partnership laws that go beyond reform, designing a challenge to inequality in rights to marriage that also challenges the broader inequalities of which marriage is part and parcel. This means for example fighting for the rights to medically assisted reproduction, for automatic parental rights for all female co-mothers from the moment of birth, for support to children from the community as a whole, for decoupling the rights and responsibilities of social parenthood from biological fatherhood, and for individual rights to health care, welfare benefits or legal residency for those LGBTs who are not in couples and may not want to be part of couples. In the longer run, a radical queer approach should lead to disestablishing marriage and creating instead ‘an intimate union status expressly tailored to protecting intimate care in various forms’ (Vaid, Duggan, Metz and Hollibaugh 2013).
At the same time, queer transformation cannot be a merely personal or cultural project; it requires a social transformation that LGBT people cannot bring about on their own. Queers need allies. Queer anti-capitalists are a natural component of the ‘99 percent’ that movements like Occupy and the indignad@s have worked to rally against the crisis. To be effective allies for a queer politics, broader, class-based and other social movements need to be queered: opened up to queer people, queer leadership, queer issues and queer approaches to organising. Only queered movements can address basic LGBT needs like housing for queer relationships and safety and independence for queer youth.
Movements around health care from ACT UP to the South African Treatment Action Campaign have been exemplary cases of queered social movements. ACT UP transformed the way drugs were tested and approved in the US, won protection for HIV-positive people under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and inspired radical anti-AIDS organising around the world. TAC built on earlier links between LGBT and anti-apartheid activism to win unprecedented access to HIV drugs for poor and low-income South Africans, and became a central player in the fight against drug patents in the hands of pharmaceutical multinationals. At local level, the New York group Queers for Economic Justice, founded in 2002, has been a unique example of an alternative queer way of organising, meant to ‘challenge and change the systems that create poverty and economic injustice in our communities’ by taking up and queering a wide range of social issues like housing (DeFilippis 2011/2012).
Going beyond these movements, since the working class in the broad sense is indispensable to social transformation, labour activism too has to be queered. This can involve work-related organising that existing unions are not yet tackling – in the sex trade, for example. Radical queer labour organising will require rejecting the ‘stifling economism’ of most unions, and building a ‘class culture with very different dynamics’, ‘an alternative social world’ with a ‘transformative political culture’ (Hollibaugh and Singh 1999, pp. 75, 77, 80, 83).
Queering the Future
True freedom for LGBTs would necessarily involve sweeping transformations affecting far more people than just LGBTs. Specifically, it would require a reconfiguration of sexual life that abandons sex’s supposed foundation in each individual’s sexual orientation or ‘sexuality’; a transformation of basic household units based on the abolition of gender as we know it; a transcendence of the global hierarchy of nations and ‘races’; and a re-opening of the left’s horizons to make it possible once more to challenge the parameters of capitalism.
Today’s alternative, non-homonormative sexualities often pose a challenge, at least implicitly, to the reification of sexual desire that the categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight embody. Queer radicalism needs to hone this challenge and make it explicit, in ways that contest the consumerism that gay normality entails. Just as the fantasies of consumers under neoliberalism should be challenged that obtaining the ‘right’ commodities will secure their happiness, the romantic illusion should be contested that defines individuals and their happiness on the basis of a quest for the ‘right’ partner, and in particular a partner of the ‘right’ gender. Our attitude to all sexual identities should include recognising the need for ‘unlearning’ them: understanding their historical and material roots and limitations and moving beyond them towards more expansive ways of living and loving (Hennessy 2000, pp. 229-30).
Only in this way can we begin to create the conditions of possibility for the erotic life that people have long dreamed of: polymorphously sensual rather than genitally obsessed, egalitarian rather than possessive. This means re-situating sexual life in the wide panoply of human affection and connection. It means infusing human productive and reproductive activities in general with beauty and erotic energy. And it means breaking the gay/straight binary, so that same-sex desire is merged into a broader universe of desire that is welcomed and understood in all its diversity and commonality.
A new radical queer politics will require both radicalising a broad segment of LGBT people and winning much of the radical queer milieu to a broader conception of social and political revolution. If the queer left can address and meet these challenges, it can make a vital contribution to a rebirth of hope in a world that so badly needs it – hope for an escape at last from the confines of neoliberal crisis and violence, to a world of pervasive pleasure and genuine freedom. In the struggle for this new and better world, the queer left can see to it that the process of transformation is enduringly inspired by the dear love of comrades.
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