Queer Theory Talk at Socialist Alternative (Melbourne) meeting 2004.
It might seem obvious to start a talk like this with a definition, first answering the question “what is queer theory?” But, by the proud admission of many queer theorists themselves, the term is wilfully ambiguous, non-specific, and shifting. One advocate of queer avows that “there is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers”, another happily describes it as “a largely intuitive and half-articulate theory.”
So, I think I’m going to start not by defining what queer theory is, but what it isn’t. Firstly and most obviously, it’s an academic theory, and not an activist one. The shift in self-description from “lesbian”, “gay”, “bisexual” or any other category to “queer” was not spontaneously demanded by protesters sick of shouting so many syllables through megaphones. Prompted largely by the academic Judith Butler writing in the early 1990s, queer theory has an analytic focus on the relationship between sex, gender, and desire – that is, between the gender roles prescribed and normalised by society and the categories of sexuality. This was not sparked by the rise of women’s action collectives seeking to engage with issues of sexuality or any other shift in activist forces on the ground.
Queer theorists like Butler profess a heavy theoretical reliance on and celebration of French historian Michel Foucault. Foucault’s perversely mystifying philosophy was originally conceived as a deliberate assault on marxist explanations of history. He characterises “power” as a vague, dispersed, and amorphous thing, not as something concretely wielded by our governments or rulers. To offer one quote from his “history of sexuality”: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” In arguing that it is impossible to resist repressive power from outside the discourses of ideology that exist, Foucault has been used to decidedly reactionary and anti-activist ends, supporting a view of organised struggle as futile and unnecessary.
And, just as queer theory is not an activist tool but an academic fashion, it is not a programme for the liberation of the oppressed. Following Foucault’s ideas about power being dispersed throughout society and not located with any particular class, many queer theorists would prefer not to see homosexuals as oppressed at all. Those who, having grown up in this society, feel unable to deny the fact, argue that this oppression cannot and need not be fought by a mass movement of ordinary people. Their investigations of the construction and regulation of sexuality in society are not aimed at proposing means of liberation, but rather simply at refining their preferred terms of definition. Arguments are over questions of identity and not of rights.
Queer theorist David Halperin has explicitly celebrated this:
“Ultimately, I think, what the shift away from a liberation model of gay politics reflects is a deepened understanding of the discursive structures and representational systems that determine the production of sexual meanings, and that micromanage individual perceptions, in such a way as to maintain and reproduce the underpinnings of heterosexist privelege.”
So, Halperin wants an understanding of why society is so heterosexist, but does not believe in the need or possibility for trying to understand how to actually change this. The emphasis on the individual – and on personal articulations of identity – is tied up with this pessimism about the possibility of broad-based progressive change.
Marx famously said that until now, philosophers have tried only to interpret the world; the task now is to try to change it. Queer theory is quite explicit in its refusal to propose ways to change the situation queers find themselves in today. And this rejection of a liberationist programme stems from an incorrect analysis of sexuality as being an issue of personal identity and not of structural oppression.
Queer theorists who do seek to address society’s heterosexism and homophobia see oppression as stemming exclusively from the societal normalising of identity categories. The identity categories of fixed chromosomal or biological sex, fixed gender, and fixed sexuality as expressed in a fixed preference for the gender of object choice – these identity categories themselves are seen as the source of sexual oppression. There is no conception of how these socially constructed identity categories are connected to – both reinforcing and being reinforced by – the material structures of capitalist society. And so, for all its radical veneer of newness, confrontation, and academic innovation and difficulty, queer theory is actually unable to explain why sexuality is such a regulated aspect of society today. And it is unable and indeed unwilling to propose ways for queers to go about freeing themselves from the constraints on their lives and their sexuality that capitalism imposes.
So in this talk I’m going to try to spell out why the ideas of queer theory aren’t actually all that radical, and why revolutionary marxism – so mischaracterised and dismissed within the academy – remains the only means for understanding the basis of queer oppression and the strategies for fighting it
I’m going to trace the history and trajectory of queer theory and its rapid rise in popularity, then I’m going to talk quite a bit about the Gay Liberation movement of the early 1970s, both as a point of contrast to the kind of “radicalism” queer theory tries to paint itself as, and as a way of trying to point to the origins of some of the ideas of queer theory in the politics of this earlier movement. I’m going to finish by talking a bit about how marxists explain queer oppression, how it relates to the other forms of oppression in class society.
Well, as a start to talking in some more detail about queer theory itself, people may have noticed that I’ve slipped into using the word “queer” as a kind of synonym for lesbian and gay. I do this not only out of convenience or abbreviation. Actually, I think that a more inclusive understanding and naming of the many people who are oppressed because of their sexual practises, and a sense of unity in struggle amongst these groups, is the single most positive outcome of the rapid rise of the language of “queer”. Socialist Alternative has actually run workshops at Queer Collaborations (the annual national student conference) arguing in favour of the more inclusive term “queer” rather than its rival acronym “GLBT”. Much of the debate at Queer Collaborations – and in general around the milieu, such as it exists – centres around discussion of the specific problems facing each particular identity group oppressed by homophobia.
Bisexuals argue that they face a special kind of oppression as they claim they do not fit in to the gay or straight communities. Transgender and transsexual people speak of how their plight is ignored not just by the state’s medical and legal institutions but by the lesbian and gay communities. Other groups marginalised by state-sanctioned definitions of gender and sexuality – such as intersex people – also stake their claim to special consideration, and hence the joke that every few years another letter is added to the “GLBTi” acronym.
All of this discussion of personal experiences and individual articulations of identity acts as a diversion from the more political issues of debating the origins of the oppression of all these groups, and discussing ideas for fighting that oppression. And so it’s in this context that Socialist Alternative has supported the use of the umbrella term “queer” as a means of bypassing these diversionary and largely irrelevant debates and fostering a sense of solidarity amongst the oppressed.
So, “queer” as a broad term including all the various groups in society oppressed by homophobia is more than just a synonym for “lesbian and gay”. It is this, but also it’s a term that can include people who do not fit into these categories. Academic Alexander Doty has suggested that queer “marks a flexible space for the expression of all aspects of non- (anti-, contra-) straight cultural production and reception”, and that the term is attractive because it necessarily retains “some ambiguity, that would describe a wide range of impulses and cultural expressions, including space for describing and expressing bisexual, transsexual, and straight queerness.”
Something approximating this definition has gained widespread acceptance throughout many universities in the western world, and is fairly dominant within the small activist queer milieu. But whilst I think this is positive, I would argue that in and of itself it doesn’t really mean much. It’s important to remember that the reason SA has argued for the use of the term queer was out of political strategy, and not moral righteousness.
Using a broad and inclusive umbrella term like queer is most useful if it succeeds in sidestepping the whole question of how individuals personally choose to articulate their sexuality. It can help to shift debate onto the more substantial and more political questions of how to explain the regulation of sexuality and how to build a movement to fight it. Of course, socialists defend people’s right to define their own sexual identities, to articulate their desires in whatever way they wish, without feeling confined to narrow categories of gay, straight, butch, femme, and so on. But the point is that finding a nice way of expressing this individual identity isn’t going to change the society that makes that expression so marginalised and difficult.
Like many postmodernists, queer theorists see identity as being the main battleground for oppressed groups. Queer theory, with its proposal of a broader and more flexible sense of sexuality, is a progressive response to the identity politics of the 1980s, which emphasised the need for autonomy between an infinite number of narrow compartmentalised communities of “butch lesbian” or “camp gay men” or whatever it may be.
Queer theory is a step forward from this divisive and fracturing view. But it still sees restrictive identity categories themselves as the root of sexual oppression, rather than seeing that structuraloppression limits the expressions of sexuality availabile to people, and that it is only through fighting to change those structures of oppression – to fight for equality in employment, housing, healthcare, superannuation, relationship recognition, parenting rights, and so on – that space for freer expressions of sexuality can be won.
I think it’s worth looking briefly though at the history of the re-appropriation of the word “queer”, from hated term of homophobic abuse, to confrontational self-identity, and finally to routine term of description. For whilst I’ve argued that in the present context that “queer” is a preferable term to “GLBTi” or whatever, I do think that the political aims of its early advocates were rather misguided.
Probably the single most significant force in popularising the new use of “queer” was the short-lived American organisation “Queer Nation”, active around 1990-91. Very quickly after being established, Queer Nation boasted chapters throughout the US with weekly meetings attended by hundreds. The group was staging well-publicised actions ranging from kiss-ins at local shopping malls to marches for abortion rights and pickets against businesses guilty of firing employees for being queer. All this shows the potential that still exists today for a broad-based movement amongst queers.
However, Queer Nation squandered this opportunity. Its leaders were not interested in building a broad-based movement involving as many people as possible, but rather in small actions publicised primarily only within the existing group. Their radical veneer of calls for “direct action” really meant a fairly apolitical desire to posture and to shock.
Queer Nation was founded with a manifesto entitled “I hate straights” – thus, whilst embracing queer theory’s new inclusive identity formulations, the group still retained the separatist identity politics of the preceding decades. Autonomous organising is central to this brand of identity politics, which queer theory fails to reject – the idea that only queers, who experience homophobia, can be involved in a fight against it. Any hope of building a broader movement involving anti-homophobic straights or members of other oppressed groups is explicitly rejected – as the “I hate straights” manifesto antagonistically attests. Straights are seen as the enemy, rather than the capitalist system which sets up the false divisions between people.
As an aside, I want to provide just one example of this kind of extremist autonomous organising from a local context – the Melbourne Uni student union’s queer department “activist handbook” from the year 2000. In it there is an article by a student activist of the time, called “Kampaigns, Kollectives, n Kweers…or how not to organise a heterocentric revolution.” The article is accompanied by a picture of a man and a woman with a line through them, and the heading “fuck off breeder scum.” The writer discusses the need for autonomy of queer activist collectives, saying:
“I do not believe that the right exists for a radical straight to challenge a moderate queer over their actions and reactions to their own oppression….There should be no assumed duty for a moderate queer to justify their actions concerning their oppression. There should also be no assumed duty for a moderate queer to justify their actions concerning their oppression to any heterosexual.”
People might want to talk more about these sorts of ideas in recent Australian student politics during the discussion. Suffice it to say that any hope of building a movement that can appeal to left wing heterosexuals is being explicitly rejected, as is the potential for the left wing of any queer movement to argue for left wing ideas to “moderates.”
But now, back to Queer Nation. Their political confusion and backwardness is reflected in the politics of these early groups adopting the term “queer”. Asked why they chose the name, two founding members of Queer Nation said in 1990: “it’s the idea of reappropriating the words of our oppressors and recontextualising the term ‘queer’ and using it in a positive way to empower ourselves…. That confuses our oppressors. It makes us feel streonger. We have disempowered them by using this term.”
Essentially, the idea being expressed here is that a tiny minority of people simply by adopting certain language can affect the actual conditions facing the mass of sexually oppressed people in society. Clearly, it cannot. Whether or not Queer Nation members themselves felt personally “empowered” by using the term, the vast majority of people would continue to regard it as a term of abuse. Indeed, many would regard their routine public use of the term as an acceptance of oppression, rather than an attempt to challenge it in any meaningful way. Certainly, the real oppressors in society will not have felt the slightest bit threatened by Queer Nation’s posturing.
Queer Nation’s use of the term reflects the political focus of queer theory on identity rather than material oppression, as I’ve gone over. It is also a version of lifestyle politics – the product of a movement that, originating in academia, is overwhelmingly based in the middle class, and seeks instead of changing society to change the individual lifestyles of those ‘priveleged’ enough to be involved.
Regardless of what Queer Nation may have thought, the cultural meanings of words cannot be “reappropriated” without a mass struggle oriented to broader society. Through the mass campaigns of the 1960s and 70s, black power activists in America demanded the use of the term “black” instead of “negro” or “coloured” which carried connotations of the colonial past. Women’s liberationists demanded the use of the word “women” instead of the trivialising “girls”.
These demands were won through widespread struggle, but importantly they were also demands that were situated within a broader programme for social change. Cleary, if women were still being paid less than men then they were still suffering sexist oppression, even if they weren’t being called girls. And if blacks were still overrepresented in prisons then calling them by a polite term was hardly going to improve much.
However, queer theory’s foregrounding of identity and language above material circumstances and above liberationist ambitions meant that gaining acceptance for the term “queer” was seen as an end in and of itself. So, whilst today we are no longer polemicising against the term (as socialist organisations from our tradition were doing, as recently as 1994) – I do think that in using and supporting the use of the term queer we need to be careful to see it as a strategic political tool, and not as anything radical in and of itself.
There is actually a history of reappropriating terms of description for homosexuals. The Gay Liberation movement conscious used the term “gay” as a self-description for the newly “out and proud” generation. So now seems like a good time to talk a bit about this movement. I want to start with a quote that kind of sums up the mood of optimism and real radicalism that characterised the movement, at its height:
“It was simply not possible for any oppressed people, including lesbians and gay men, to achieve freedom under this system…Nobody sane would want any part of the established order. It was the system – white supremacist, misogynistic, capitalistic and homophobic – that had made our lives so hard to begin with. We wanted something entirely new. Our movement was called lesbian and gay liberation, and more than a few of us, especially women and people of colour, were working for a revolution.” This is a quote from Barbara Smith who had been involved in the Gay Liberation movement from its inception. I think that it’s not just the optimism of the quote that contrasts with queer theory’s inward-looking defeatism and preoccupation with the academic and the personal. It’s also the politics of confronting the entire system, not simply trying to reform (or rephrase!) things around the edges. This reflects the historical context of the gay liberation movement – arising out of the immense increase in political struggle that swept the world in the 1960s and 70s.
The Gay Liberation Front’s name refers to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, reflecting the radicalising and inspiring effect that the mass anti-war campaign had. Gay Liberation emerged concurrently with Women’s Liberation, the spread of the student movement throughout the world (inspired by the uprisings in Paris in May 1968), a rise in industrial militancy, and the continued struggle of Black Americans for equal rights.
This context meant that, from the start, Gay Liberationists saw that the role of a movement for lesbian and gay rights was to actually fight for change to the society that oppressed them. And, seeing the strength of the movements around them, they believed that this was actually possible. But more than this, the rise of Gay Liberation alongside the various other progressive movements had political consequences – from the outset, there was a strong sense of solidarity with other oppressed groups. Gay Liberation chapters publicly debated Black Panther groups, and over a period of time, actually convinced the large and well-respected militant group to formally endorse lesbian and gay rights. In 1970, writing from his jail cell, Black Panther leader Huey Newton announced his solidarity with the Gay Liberation movement, saying “homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in this society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society.”
This reflects an orientation of Gay Liberationists to forging links with other oppressed groups, seeing their struggles as linked by their common enemies in the rulers of society. It also reinforces the point often made by socialists that in the course of united action in struggle, people’s ideas can actually change, and through patient argument people can be won from confused and conservative ideas to more leftwing positions.
By contrast, queer theory, as an academic discourse, is isolated from any political movements, and thus lacks a milieu of activists to test its ideas and to enrich its understanding of contemporary political realities. Regardless of how much more formally agreeable some “queer” formulations of identity may be to early gay liberationists’ somewhat simplistic formulations, the bottom line is that formal (or academic) discussions of language or of personal identity mean little without reference to an activist campaign.
Gay Liberation, painted by conservatives and queer theorists alike as “quaint” and outdated today, remains infinitely more radical than queer theory. Much is made of the inroads “queer” has made into universities. Gay Liberation made inroads into the lives and consciousness of the mass of ordinary people. Far more than simply popularising the self-chosen word “gay” as a proud declaration of identity, gay liberationists shifted the political terrain to the left, in a way that the George Bushes and John Howards of the world have still not been able to roll back, some three decades later.
Gay liberationists did not settle for their own personal ability to “come out” – they built a public and fighting movement that made it possible for ordinary men and women, far removed from the movement, to also see that they were not alone, and to find the confidence to come out and to participate in the movement fighting for their rights. For all its flaws, what made Gay Liberation so radical was its activist base, its links to other mass movements in society, and its orientation to actually changing things. Because of this, the Gay liberation movement remains today more important to the politics of sexuality and the attitudes of the mass of the population than the more recent phenomenon of queer theory.
But, as we know, the realities of the society we live in today are still far from the genderless, sexually free utopia envisioned by early gay liberationists. Explaining this brings me to explaining a marxist explanation of oppression, and how to fight it. The most radical edge of the Gay Liberation movement – and indeed of all the progressive movements of its era – emphasised the need to completely transform society in order to win true liberation – not just personal liberation, but true material freedom for all. They rightly saw the capitalist system as the source of their oppression.
The single greatest weakness of these movements including Gay Liberation was their failure to see the centrality of the working class in bringing about their aims of transforming society. Gay liberationists saw their links with other oppressed groups, they were rightly mistrustful of gay business owners and conservative “respectable” lesbian and gay groups, many of them even saw the nuclear family under capitalism as being the key source of their oppression – but they did not see the class basis of oppression that Marx and Engels identified. Incidentally, I haven’t had time here to talk about the role of the nuclear family structure under capitalism in maintaining queer oppression and sexism – people should probably talk more about this in the discussion.
The oppression of lesbians and gays, or any other group in society, serves only to divide people and undermine their ability to unite to fight around progressive demands. The only people that benefit from this division are the rich and powerful – the ruling class of our society who profit from the labour of working people.
In fact, a queer CEO – part of the ruling class – actually has a material interest in perpetuating the oppression of lesbians and gays that keeps the workforce divided. Whereas a straight worker for this queer CEO’s company actually has a material interest in overcoming this oppression, as without being able to unite with the entire workforce (and ultimately the entire working class) – irrespective of race, gender, or sexuality – they will never win in their struggle for a better deal from the bosses.
Thus, in fighting against queer oppression, ultimately it is class rather than sexual identity that is decisive. Furthermore, without seeking to win the support of the majority of the population – that is, a majority who are heterosexual and working class – a small minority such as lesbians and gays can never hope to build a movement strong enough to win much from the government, let alone to transform society altogether.
Only the working class, on whose labour the ruling class relies for its profits, has the power to grind society to a halt by collectively refusing to work. This social power – the ability to hit the bosses where it hurts by stopping the flow of profits – makes the working class the key to winning any kind of progressive change, and to transforming society for good. Without an orientation to involving working people – both queer and straight – a movement for queer liberation will not be sustainable. People might want to talk about some of examples of this in the discussion.
So, to finish, by coming back to queer theory. Do we really believe that queer theorists, inventing new vocabularies and referencing French philosophers, are able to win a mass appeal amongst working people? Will queer definitions of sexuality be of any use to working class youth forced out of school because of homophobic abuse? Will arguments about the linguistics of gender reassignment surgery be relevant to queers for whom this will never be a financially available option? What use is queer theory’s fascination with identity categories without reference to the social structures that reinforce them? Much is made of Foucault’s dating of the invention of the word “homosexuality” to 1870. This is rightly taken as proof of the historically contingent and artificial nature of categories of sexuality. Yet, without an understanding of the need of capitalists to reinforce the nuclear family as a means of reproducing the labour force and of taking care of domestic labour for free, how else can the enthusiastic embracing of the new categories of sexuality be explained?
Marxists today, in opposing homophobia and every other form of oppression wherever it rears its ugly head, draw on a tradition of theory that is aimed at actually being put into practice. We want to transform society, and through an orientation to the working class, we have an idea of how that can actually happen. And that is far more radical that all the posturing of all the queer theorists.
I thought I’d finish with two quotes. The first is from David Halperin again. He is talking about the stunting of human desires under capitalism, and he says: “queer does not designate a class of already objectified pathologies or perversions, rather it describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogenous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance.” Well, this is a nice idea. I agree with him that we cannot tell what forms human sexuality may take in the future. But I don’t believe that we can create the space for human sexuality to flower just through queer theory’s emphasis on simply articulating one’s identity in ever new linguistic formations.
Rather, I’d agree with Frederick Engels, who asked, in 1884:
“What we can conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is…limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up…[by which he means a generation not stunted by the structures of society today.] When these people are in the world they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practise and that will be the end of it.”