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“X-Ray of Civilization”: David Wojnarowicz and the Politics of Representation

13 Dec

by Leon Hilton

Untitled still from the film "Silence = Death" (1990)

David Wojnarowicz often said that he wanted his art to be an “X-Ray of civilization.” Eighteen years after his death, at the age of 37, from AIDS-related complications, his work has apparently lost none of its radioactive power. When Martin E. Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, caved to demands from the Catholic League and several prominent Republican congressmen—including soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner—to remove a video piece by Wojnarowicz from public exhibition, it was as if he had inadvertently exploded a time-bomb loaded with the shocking affective charge of a bygone era of queer expression. An event that, for many, felt like an acid flashback to the bad old days of the 1990s Culture Wars has actually revealed a much more far-reaching—and disturbing—discursive constellation of political agendas. What might have been dismissed as a wearingly familiar debate about censorship and government funding of the arts has turned out to reveal a lot about the still-uneasy status of queer representation in the national political imaginary.

The offending video, a four-minute excerpt of a thirty-minute work called “A Fire in My Belly,” was displayed as a part of a temporary exhibition on the theme of American portraiture and sexual difference called “Hide/Seek,” organized by the National Portrait Gallery. Wojnarowicz completed work on the video in 1987 after spending several years gathering research material and images in Mexico and Latin America. Dedicated to the memory of photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s close friend and former lover whose death from AIDS marked a decisive turning point in his artistic and personal life, the video is assembled out of a rapidly inter-spliced collection of footage, some intentionally staged, some found and repurposed. Crafted in Wojnarowicz’s signature raw, quasi-punk aesthetic, the video is a discomfiting mélange of quickly shifting images: a white porcelain bowl fills with blood; two hands attempt to sew a bisected loaf of bread back together; the lips of a face are pierced by a needle and thread, sealing up the mouth; a young man removes his shirt, then his pants and underwear. The full-length video also includes harrowing footage of Mexican street life, a bloody cockfight, and a brutal wrestling match: the violence of the filmic cut resonates and amplifies the violent thrust of a proliferation of bodies smashing into each other on screen. (Art critic Holland Cotter has written an interesting take on the piece for the New York Times’s Arts Blog). In the version of the video displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, Wojnarowicz’s video is accompanied by excerpts from experimental musician Diamanda Gas’s Plague Mass, in which the singer shrieks verses from the Book of Leviticus enumerating Biblical laws regulating the treatment of the “unclean.”

The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue honed in on one image in particular—a shot of a crucifix and wood-carved Christ figure, blood dripping from its wounds, a black smear of swarming ants covering over its prone body. “It would jump out at people if they had ants crawling all over the body of Muhammad,” Donohue protested in an interview with the New York Times, “except that they wouldn’t do it, of course, for obvious reasons.” Shamelessly insisting that the display of this image constituted “hate speech” against Catholics and Christians more broadly, Donohue’s bizarre logic was reiterated by Rep. Eric Cantor, who told Fox News that the display of the video was “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during this Christmas season.” The video was taken down on November 30, the evening before World AIDS Day.

Despite Donohue’s and Cantor’s almost willfully asinine contention that “A Fire in My Belly” is anti-Christian, Wojnarowicz’s video—and indeed his artistic project as a whole—both draws from and radically reconfigures the centuries-old representational tradition of Christian martyrdom in Western art. Wojnarowicz’s imagery takes clear inspiration from both high Renaissance tableaux of Christ’s suffering on the cross and the colorfully gory vernacular depictions of religious figures he encountered while traveling and working in Mexico. The beautifully composed Christ image in “A Fire in My Belly” combines the artist’s longstanding appropriation of religious iconography with another of his frequently evoked subjects: ants and insects constitute one of the most striking formal motifs in Wojnarowicz’s artwork, crawling over the surface of paintings, looming ominously in enlarged close-up photo-collages, and traversing video frames. But ants here also play an important aesthetico-political role: they manifest the artist’s sustained and rigorously developed interest in finding beauty in the abject, the marginal, and the subterranean. Minuscule organisms teeming beneath the surface of the visual world, ants in Wojnarowicz fervent imagination signal a kind of return of the repressed: a simultaneously mesmerizing and repellent reminder of the primordial origins of the social itself. Viewed in this context, the ant-covered Christ is less a desecration than a political intervention, a reorientation of the visual field that lends the iconicity of the crucifixion a newly recharged corporeality.

But what seems to be truly unconscionable for critics of Wojnarowicz’s art is its forceful imputation of the analogy between the Biblical torment of Christ and the contemporary suffering of queer bodies and subjects. Far from a reductive or simplistic attempt at shock value, as Donohue and Cantor would have it, Wojnarowicz’s ant-covered Christ fires on a number of representational and figurative levels at once and becomes the locus for a range of intersecting cultural imperatives. In its abject prostration, the figure calls discomfiting attention to the parallels between Christ’s tribulations and the stigma and paranoia surrounding the queer body during the initial flare-up of the AIDS crisis. Wojnarowicz’s Christ image also functions as a visual reprimand to the viciously disingenuous response of the Catholic Church to the epidemic, and its refusal to countenance the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the disease. Christ, here standing in for the penetrated and vulnerable queer body, bears witness to the damage inflicted by the paranoid fantasies propagated by church, state, and the mass media. Wojnarowicz’s ant-covered Christ is thus simultaneously an icon of queer identification, and a castigation of the institutions and individuals who so uncannily reiterated the humiliations visited upon Christ in response to the threat he posed to the stability of the social order.

Responding to the recent controversy in a letter published in the Washington City Paper, Diamanda Galás herself underlined this point in her inimitable fashion: “What the Catholic League and certain members of the House presumably wish to remove from their consciousness,” she writes, “is thirty years years of death sentences handed down to their parishioners and citizenry, who were told not to wear condoms, and the mistreatment of those stigmatized as miscreants and sinners by their viral status and/or homosexuality and/or status as drug addicts. They wish to remove the UNSEPARATE CHURCH AND STATE conduct throughout the epidemic, which this film articulately reflects.”

* * *

Inevitably, far from eradicating “A Fire in My Belly” from the visual field or the national consciousness, the Portrait Gallery’s action has instead produced what Michel Foucault would call an “incitement to discourse”: suddenly Wojnarowicz’s haunting, beautiful, and wholly unique vision is everywhere, his name making headlines and snapshots from his work traveling widely across newspapers and the web. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and New York Magazine posted links to the banned video on their websites. Expressions of outrage quickly circulated across the Internet—through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms—often accompanied by links to the video’s YouTube page. Transformer, a Washington DC gallery located not far from the National Mall, announced that it would screen “A Fire in My Belly” on a 24-hour loop in its front window until the piece is reinstated at the NPG. In an action reminiscent of a similar response to the controversy surrounding a planned exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs at the Corocoran Gallery in 1989, a group of activists projected Wojnarowicz’s work on the NPG’s walls. And on December 4, two agitators were detained by police and then expelled for life from the Smithsonian after showing the video on their iPads inside the “Hide/Seek” exhibition itself.

Considering the outpouring of support for the banned video, it would be tempting to conclude that the usual suspects on the Right had fallen for Wojnarowicz’s bait. In seeking to censor his images, it might be argued, Donohue, Boehner, Cantor and company actually wildly increased the visual purview of the work and redoubled its political potency. Wojnarowicz, of course, was no stranger to run-ins with state authority, and cannily used his work’s provocative formal qualities and subject matter in order to promote both his career and the his political agenda. In 1990, he successfully sued the American Family Association’s Frank Wildmon for copyright violation when the AFA used out of context snippets from his work in a pamphlet they circulated to lobby against funding the National Endowment for the Arts. (Interestingly, that case also revolved around Wojnarowicz’s queer redeployment of religious imagery). In one sense, the latest imbroglio around Wojnarowicz’s incendiary images simply confirms the hypnotic power they seem to hold over the would-be moral custodians of the visual field. Certainly as a student of Wojnarowicz’s work and the period in which he lived, it has been perversely gratifying to witness his singular vision return with such urgency to the front lines of the contestation over the questions of sexuality, art, and state power.

But both the censorship of Wojnaworicz’s work and the response it has engendered also indicates—and, perhaps, diagnoses—the pernicious conditions under which representations of non- or anti-normative sexual identities and politics are produced, circulated, and regulated. And the furor provoked by the incident suggests the extent to which ongoing tensions surrounding the inclusion of certain queer people and bodies within the national imaginary are largely played out within the order of “representation” as such. The piece was, after all, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian and hence, in a very official sense, an institution whose federally mandated mission is to preserve and visually represent the nation to and for itself. The familiar mantra heard from conservative complainers—that the video was “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars” (as Georgia’s Rep. Jack Kingston would have it)—has simply cemented and reiterated the association between the politics of (visual) representation and the entrenchment of neoliberal economic imperatives at every level of the political system. While the wholesale decimation of public support for the arts and humanities in any form has been a bedrock of the conservative agenda since the Reagan ascendancy, the invocation of queer, “anti-Christian” artwork as a justification for slashing public funding as such has attained scary new mouthpieces in the era of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. As NPG director Sullivan put it in his interview with the Times, “Obviously the Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian. It’s just one of many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts, and so forth. We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.”

Beyond the economic register, we might also be prompted to consider the ways in which the contested image of the suffering queer Christ covered with ants—created at the height of one moment of particular “gay panic”—now resonates within the broader context of the ongoing debate surrounding the legalization same-sex marriage and the open acceptance of gays in the military? And what of the heightened national attention now being paid to the vulnerabilities of queer youth to bullying and suicide? The reappearance of Wojnarowicz’s work within the political present serves as a depressing reminder of just how impoverished the vision of queer politics has become since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Wojnarowicz’s (and Galás’s) deeply unsettling, politically uncompromising words and images render even more stark the emaciated political imagination of the mainstream LGBT rights movement. The focus for the past decade on marriage and military rights once again exposes the degree to which the fantasy of the healthy body (most often white, most often male) serves as a regulatory norm for the kinds of citizens deemed worthy of representation and rights (a notion that Jasbir Puar has so forcefully developed in her work on the biopolitics of what she has termed “homonationalism”). Indeed, we should wonder if it was purely coincidence that this controversy erupted the very same week that the Pentagon released a study concluding that the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy would not have any significant negative effect upon military readiness.

More distressingly still, certain voices from within the gay community itself have voiced their disapproval of both the display of the video and Galás’s response, contending that both “make us look bad” or “prove [Donohue’s] point.” This anxiety, of course, only confirms the power that privileged modes of visual representation have to determine who and what is deemed worthy of national inclusion. And ultimately it reveals the way certain queer subjects and representations—healthy, aspirationally middle-class, white, and married—are easily assimilable into the discourse of the nation, while the freaks so beautifully invoked in the work of Wojnarowicz and Galás become figured as threats to the coherence and impermeability of the national body itself.

For my part, I wonder if what we can learn from this incident is that the unstinting work of artists like Wojnarowicz and Galás should be viewed not as moribund artifacts from a more radical queer past, but, as José Esteban Muñoz helps us to imagine, visionary invocations of a future whose time has yet to come. In this sense, perhaps we can read “A Fire in My Belly” as a wake up call addressed, precisely, to us—illuminating an alternative route through the treacherous present, and providing an X-ray of a civilization that was, and still is, yet to be.

Kenya: A World AIDS Day without Queers?

1 Dec

Guest blog by Keguro Macharia.

I am tempted to title this post A Series of Unfortunate Events, to disavow an insidious homo-killing logic. But I am a proper Kenyan. Raised on the milk of paranoia, I cannot ignore the proximity of coincidence. Three is a magic number.

On November 16, 2010, Kenya joined 78 other countries in a UN vote that elected to un-protect sexual orientation. The vote was on a resolution to investigate “killings based on discriminatory grounds,” a resolution designed to recognize a “non-exhaustive” range of vulnerable groups that includes human rights defenders, indigenous communities, and street children. As noted by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (ILGHCR), “[f]or the past 10 years,” sexual orientation has been included in this grouping, understood as a category based on which individuals are targeted for “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.” It’s worth noting, “The amendment removing the reference to sexual orientation was sponsored by Benin on behalf of the African Group in the UN General Assembly and was adopted with 79 votes in favor, 70 against, 17 abstentions and 26 absent.” Kenya could have chosen differently.

On November 22, 2010, David Kuria, manager of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) and one of Kenya’s leading gay activists, announced that GALCK had not been invited to participate in World AIDS Day events arranged by the National AIDS Control Council. Since 2006, GALCK has been invited to join other health providers and NGOs engaged in HIV/AIDS activism. World AIDS Day events have provided an important space in which proximity and association suggest possible political and social coalitions. As I note elsewhere:

In Kenya, LGBTI activism has taken place, most fruitfully, as a strategy of association rather than an articulation of identity. There are no pride parades, as one might find in New York or Madrid, and no public celebrations of LGBTI identity. Instead, LGBTI activists have mobilized around HIV/AIDS activism. December 1, World AIDS Day, has become an unofficial Pride day, and LGBTI activists march with other HIV/AIDS activists.

The decision not to invite GALCK has important implications for the public life of Kenya’s LGBTI activists.

On November 28, 2010, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s Prime Minister, ordered the Kenyan police to “arrest gay couples.” While “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices between men” are illegal according to Kenya’s Penal Code, no legal basis exists to arrest “gay couples.” Identity is not a crime, as Kenyan columnists reminded the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has since released a press statement that claims he was quoted “out of context,” a too-common Kenyan defense. Strange how often Kenyan politicians never really say what we hear them say.

Three dates. Three seemingly unrelated events. A paranoid (il)logic of coincidence.

Unlike Malawi and Uganda, both infamous for their attempts to legislate a range of queer intimacies, Kenya is considered relatively liberal. Tourist agencies promise discretion as they pursue pink currency. Kenya has a robust online queer presence. LGBTI-friendly initiatives are well-funded by a range of international NGOs. LGBTI-themed seminars are held in Kenya’s numerous conference centers. LGBTI individuals have been profiled in the national newspapers. Kenyan-based human rights organizations support queer rights. And, recently, Esther Murugi, Special Programmes Minister, defended gay rights.

LGBTI activism is as sutured by economics as it is by politics. Kenya’s official and unofficial policies toward LGBTI activism are as influenced by regional and continental politics and allegiances as they are by international social and economic factors—Kenya’s tourist economy, for instance.

Over the past two years, LGBTI issues in Kenya have received an unprecedented amount of press coverage. Public spaces are opening up in remarkable ways. Simultaneously, as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest, there is an equally strong backlash that is as much about economics—how NGO money flows into the country—as it is about politics.

For instance, during the recently-concluded national referendum on a new constitution, opponents of the measure tried to incite LGBTI-panic by claiming the constitution permitted gay marriage. It was the first time that LGBTI politics had been used as a wedge issue, and it said something significant about their social and cultural capital.

The struggle for LGBTI rights in Kenya, as elsewhere, is a struggle over claiming public space. It is a struggle over what opinions can be aired in public and how they will be covered by the press; it is a struggle over which writers have access to opinion pages, radio programs, and TV shows—it’s easier to publish pro-queer, anti-homophobic articles in the Guardian than in the Daily Nation; it is a struggle over which public spaces and events are open to LGBTI organizations; it is a struggle over the possibilities for economic, social, and cultural visibility.

It matters that GALCK was not invited to participate in World AIDS Day events. It matters that LGBTI organizations, many of which are dedicated to working with MSM populations, have no public presence during World AIDS Day events. It matters that the criminalization of gays has important health consequences. It matters that LGBTI lives in Kenya can be pawns in someone else’s chess game. It matters that World AIDS Day can be the occasion for anti-LGBTI actions, even as the logic that claims African AIDS is primarily heterosexual makes such an action unsurprising.

It is morning on the East Coast, early afternoon in Nairobi. Multiple threads converge and snarl here. One wants to believe in the comfort of coincidence, or the accidents of calendars. And that a series of unfortunate events do not mask a more insidious homo-killing plot.

Don’t Enlist, Don’t Serve

11 Nov

by Troy Williams

There are many things worse than discrimination. Being hit by a mortar blast, losing a limb, living with post-traumatic stress disorder or killing another human all come to mind.

These are just a few of the deadly realities queers will face if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is ultimately repealed. The one upside to a Republican-controlled House is that we may be able to maintain the protections of DADT indefinitely. However, if the pro-military faction of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political movement succeeds in repealing DADT, closeted soldiers will lose the opportunity to easily escape the horrors of war. DADT has saved an untold number of queer lives. We should praise President Clinton and award every politician who works to keep it in place.

Now, I agree that DADT is discriminatory. It makes liars of soldiers who have sworn oaths of honor and integrity. But war is much worse than discrimination. The ongoing WikiLeaks revelations continue to expose what progressives have argued all along: war brings out the worst in humanity. We see clearly now how politicians, commanders, rogue soldiers and private mercenaries employ torture and thuggery to enforce American hegemony.

Yet I have absolute empathy for these soldiers. I don’t blame them for fighting to stay alive. Few go into the service because they want to fire a weapon at another human being. Most are inspired to enlist by genuine patriotism. Many who are economically disadvantaged need the military to finance college. When a soldier finally acknowledges her sexual identity she may be struck with the fear of losing her rank, career and college fund. Not to mention the shame of being dishonorably discharged.

Yes, it’s horrible to be discharged for being gay. But it’s even more horrible to be tortured by your fellow soldiers.

The culture of the military encourages hazing, misogyny and homophobia. Sexual assault against women and gay servicemembers is frighteningly common. Dr. Mic Hunter, the author of Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America’s Military lays out the ugly facts: one-third of all the females seeking services at the VA report experiencing an attempted or completed rape. Thirty-seven percent experienced more than one. Four percent report being gang raped. Not by insurgents, mind you — by fellow soldiers. Between 20 and 24 percent of female veterans and 10 percent of male veterans report being raped. Research on civilian rape regularly concludes that only 60 percent of sexual assaults are reported. This number is presumably much lower in the military.

People who do report are often stigmatized and possibly retaliated against. Hunter writes, “Only 12 percent of those who had been sexually harassed used the formal complaint system, because they believed the reporting system was merely in place to protect the chain of command.” (p. 187)

How well do you really think an out gay soldier will fare in this military? Honestly?

War fucks people up. When you kill you lose a piece of your soul. When a soldier dehumanizes people in order to kill them, the effects are equally devastating on that soldier’s psyche. The gay community is rightfully concerned about youth suicides. But suicide rates for veterans are also escalating. The Wall Street Journal reported, “A 15-month-study on the rise in suicides over the last two years found 160 suicides among active-duty personnel, 1,713 suicide attempts and 146 deaths from high-risk behavior, such as drug abuse, in the year ended Sept. 30, 2009.”

And the numbers are rising. The Army reported a record number of suicides for June 2010 — at least one per day. Today we have more vets dying of suicide than in combat. Returning soldiers experience high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Divorce rates have also soared. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant among Iraq veterans.

Homelessness is also increasing among them.

Yes, there are worse things than discrimination.

Again, I don’t blame individual soldiers. They make the ultimate sacrifice. Our country should give them absolutely everything they need, including free medical and psychiatric treatment, full-ride scholarships, job training and abundant financial reimbursement. We should hold back nothing.

Our gay leaders have little to say for the plight of veterans. Their only plea is, “Let us in! Let us in so that we can be equal!” I respond, “No. Keep us out! Keep us out of the corporate war machine. Don’t let gay kids kill other gay kids in foreign countries. Protect DADT so queer soldiers have a way to get the hell out of the military when a future hawk president like a Mitt Romney decides to invade Iran.

I get what military service means to the marginalized gay community. It is the ultimate symbol that we are at last “good” Americans. We want to prove that we will bleed and die for this nation. Our desire for inclusion has made us silent to the fact that the military structure itself is a corrupt and corrupting force. National gay leaders may personally denounce war but they won’t mobilize against militarism. They won’t defend queer Iraqis who have lost their lives because they were on the receiving end of a U.S. cluster bomb. Rather, they actually insist that gay people deserve the right to deploy the same cluster bomb. Have we all gone insane?

Repealing DADT will not be a progressive victory for human rights. It will not be a step forward for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Rather, it will mean that we will perpetuate the same system of violent oppression. Worse, we will be fodder for future wars. Queers will fill bloodied body bags and flag-draped coffins. For which war profiteer are you willing to die? Halliburton? Bechtel? The Republican Party? They are not worthy of our sacrifice.

My advice to enlisted queer Americans is to get out while you still can. To those of you thinking of serving — don’t! To professional gay lobbyists, stop militarizing our politics. Instead, redirect the untold millions you spend on repealing DADT to college educations for low-income queers. Fund full health care for queer veterans. Encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans to denounce war and proclaim peace. Let’s get back to the work of social justice. Long Live DADT.

Celebrating Refusal: The Complexities of Saying No

23 Jun

By Jasbir Puar

Bravo to Judith Butler for turning down the Berlin Pride “Zivilcourage Award”. As Tavia writes, Judith Butler 1, Homonationalism 0. But is this really a victory for the anti-racist queer groups of color who Butler named as the truly courageous? Who are the other winners and losers in the collision of European anti-racist political activism with US academic notoriety? What are the conditions of possibility for this event to have happened at all? Let’s think for a minute about the lead up and repercussions of Butler’s refusal.

On Thursday, June 17th, e-mails started circulating among transnational queer and trans activists and academics regarding Butler’s acceptance of the award. This spontaneous surge of energy, driven in part by the Berlin Academic Boycott, resulted in many letters to Butler which elaborated the problems with the Christopher Street Day (CSD) Pride, noting that the CSD has espoused explicit anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, practices of exclusion, and homonationalist complicity. After meeting with local groups and being apprised of the history of tensions and grievances, Butler responded by offering the prize instead to GLADT (Gays and Lesbians From Turkey;, LesMigraS (anti-violence and anti-discrimination support group for migrant women and black lesbians;, SUSPECT (a queer anti-violence movement-building group), and ReachOut (a counseling center for victims of right-wing violence;, with mention of the coalition work these groups do with Transgenial CSD, an alternative Pride-event (See English translation of her speech:

In essence, local queer groups of color did a tremendous amount of last-minute, frenetic labor, meeting with Butler just days before the award ceremony in order to alert her to the intricacies of the Berlin scene, drawing upon Butler’s own commitment to queer anti-racist coalitions to do so.

Let’s recognize, as Tavia notes, that Butler put her celebrity-theorist status to good use. But let’s also celebrate what she directs our attention to: the hard groundwork of queer of color, anti-racist organizations that put their lives on the line everyday, for whom violent retribution is a reality. Pointing to a primary facet of homonationalism — the manufacturing of a global progressive image through the negation of national difference — Butler states in an English interview after the award ceremony, “They didn’t need to look all the way to the United States to find someone with civil courage.”  (For the audio of this interview, go to

Indeed, Butler’s naming of anti-racist queer groups -– and her refusal of the award — were also made possible by several decades of work by activists and theorists of color, and a representation of and for them that Butler, out of necessity, relies upon to make her stance. This structural power grid is a prime example of the dynamics between “Darstellen” (representation as portrait, as a “re-presentation”) and “Vetreten” (representation as proxy, as someone who is a representative) elaborated upon by Gayatri Spivak. According to Spivak, both forms of representation are inseparable from each other, intractable and also immanent to any process of political address. Cultural capital accrues to those who represent the “Others,” rather than to those who are represented, producing a version of what Michel Foucault calls the “speaker’s benefit.” In representing these organizations (Butler as proxy for queers of color), Butler is also perforce re-presenting herself (Butler as portrait).

Unfortunately, media portrayal in this instance only extends the structural inequities of representation by omitting mention of the groups that Butler hails and citing solely the Transgenial CSD, an alternative but nevertheless white-dominated Pride event. (See press release by SUSPECT for more details:

Despite the best efforts of individuals and groups, there is a danger that the structural positionings of privilege may rearticulate themselves. The real potential of Butler’s refusal will be revealed in its impact upon activist and institutional organizational relationships in Berlin as well as transnationally. The initial press statement released by SUSPECT has been translated into several languages and has generated statements of support from queer of color as well as straight and queer migrant and anti-racist movements internationally — from groups as diverse as X: Talk Migrant Sex Worker Rights Project in London, Asian Arts Freedom School, the Safra Project, Blockorama Toronto, and the list is growing (To contribute a letter of support, go to

Finally, and most crucially, this event has succeed in opening up critique of the citational practices that continue to fuel academic/activist hierarchies that often ignore (or trump) foundational and risky work by queers of color. To clarify genealogies of terms and conversations circulating among different media and social and national locations, SUSPECT has generated a website listing activist and academic work by queers of color. (For the growing bibliography see

In reference to the celebration of Gay Pride, Butler states, “I’m all in favor of getting happy. But I am also in favor of the struggle for social justice.” ( SUSPECT and other queer of color activists and academics remind us of the complex assemblages of knowledge production, alliances, and circuits of power that inform this struggle, offering hope and new possibilities for radically transformed political futures that resist militarism, homonationalism, and gay racism and imperialism.

Judith Butler 1 – Homonationalism 0

21 Jun

By Tavia Nyong’o

Ironically, the very reasons I gave Berlin Pride a pass this year — rampant commercialism, body fascism, and apolitical torpor — are the reasons I wish I had now been there to see Judith Butler turn down the organizer’s Prize for Civil Courage. Delivered in German to a surprised but delighted crowd, Butler’s scathingly political remarks rained on the parade of complacency with her pointed barbs against anti-immigrant and anti-muslim racism.

While the press focused on her critique of commercialism (which, truth be told, can hardly hold a candle to the corporate crassness of your average Pride event in the US nowadays), they had a much harder time bringing into focus her critique of homonationalism, which she also delivered in a longer talk at the Volksbuhne on Friday evening. They also neglected to mention the organizations she cited as deserving the recognition she declined (Gays and Lesbians from Turkey, lesbische Migrantinnen und Schwarze Lesben, Reach Out and SUSPECT) in what might be the new definition of a politically efficacious speech-act from an intellectual: ceding the platform granted you by the celebrity system and professorial authority in an act of humility and solidarity with those whose work is ignored and scapegoated rather than rewarded and encouraged. In a sense, declining an award for civil courage was the only way of possibly displaying such courage under these circumstances.

The drone of vuvulezas and eery recrudescence of German flag-waving occasioned by the World Cup may quickly drown out this strategic strike against Pride-as-usual. But, due to the exigencies of Pride’s coincidence with that other spectacle of homoerotic nationalism (watch men watching the games and you will see what I mean), there is an opportunity to build momentum through the breach Butler opened has up.

Mainstream Pride was moved a week earlier because of the all-powerful World Cup schedule, but the alternative Transgeniale march — anti-commercial, filled with trans- and feminist politics and at least aspirationally anti-racist and inclusive of queers of color — stayed on the traditional “last weekend in June.” Next weekend also sees a big conference on queer studies and anti-capitalism at the ICI, a sort of anti-Ladies Auxiliary to the Big Boys doing Real Theory at the Volksbuhne the same weekend.

So it seems like the spirit of queer discontent is not going down without a fight. Pride avoiders of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your rainbow chains!

UPDATE June 23rd: Click here to read an English translation of Judith Butler’s speech.

The Artist Is Object – Marina Abramovic at MOMA

5 Apr

By Jack Halberstam

You walk up to the second floor of MOMA and find the centerpiece of Marina Abramovicz’s retrospective – a live durational performance piece titled “The Artist is Present” featuring Abramovicz herself sitting motionless at a table across from, well, whoever decides to sit down with her. When she first performed the piece in the 1970’s, it was with her then lover and collaborator Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). But now instead of staring intently into the eyes of a trustworthy companion, Abramovicz stares down any and all comers. The day before I visited, a young woman had dressed up exactly like Abramowicz, in a long flowing blue dress, and she sat down across from the maestro in exactly the same position, determined to wait her out. The stare down lasted the whole day and the young woman, a performance artist herself, titled her piece “Anxiety of Influence.” Unlike an earlier male performance artist who had sat across from Abramovic and tried to distract her with various antics (he called his piece “The Other Artist Is Present,”) Anya Liftig’s “Anxiety of Influence” paid homage in kind rather than  trying to share the stage. See the interview with the artist here:

Abramovic’s works are shocking (risking death), moving (evoking tears and anger), irritating (literally in the sense of flesh rubbing on flesh as well as figuratively in the sense of different frames of reality grinding against each other), grating (as in set your teeth on edge): they are perhaps best appreciated through re-performance in the sense that it is difficult to apprehend the degree of difficulty of any given performance simply by hearing an account of it.  Many of her pieces are re-performed at MOMA for this special retrospective by students. Some hold their poses gracefully on crucifixes and against walls, others weep with effort, grimace, sweat, grin and bear it. What makes the pieces so difficult to perform and re-perform? Sometimes the source of agony is obvious: sitting naked on a saddle projected from a wall while holding a crucifix pose seems excruciating, but sitting back to back with a partner with whom one’s hair has been plaited, seems more like a study in patience than pain. And yet, it was the woman in the latter performance who was weeping and the woman in the former who looked cool and comfortable. One student re-performer lay naked under a skeleton (“Nude With Skeleton”) looking out at the gallery goers and occasionally catching someone’s eye, she too seemed composed. Was it the fact of being able to make eye contact that helped some performances feel bearable while others, a performance where you sit back to back for example, were about the shunning of contact and intimacy? Or, as in the central performance by Abramovic herself, was it the contact with another in a mode of alienated intimacy that was painful – looking but not looking, seeing but not seeing, connecting but not connecting? Abramovic is the artist of unbecoming. What is hard is the performance that discovers disconnection through an act that should be about connection.

For me, Marina Abramovicz’s work falls into a category of thought, performance and art that I call “shadow feminism.” In this genre, we find no “feminist subject” but only un-subjects who cannot speak, who refuse to speak; subjects who unravel, who refuse to cohere; subjects who refuse “being” where being has already been defined in terms of a self-activating, self-knowing, liberal subject. We find a feminism that stages a refusal to become woman and that locates this refusal deep in the heart of masochistic pain/pleasure dynamics?

With the notable exception of work by Linda Hart’s work on Fatal Women and Gayle Rubin’s early essays on S/M, power and feminism, masochism is an underused way of considering the relationship between self and other, self and technology, self and power in queer feminism. This is curious given how often performance art of the 1960’s and 1970’s presented extreme forms of self-punishment, discipline and evacuation in order to dramatize new relations between body, self and power. Freud referred to masochism as a form of femininity and as a kind of flirtation with death; masochism is in fact, he says, a byproduct of the unsuccessful repression of the death instinct to which a libidinal impulse has been attached. While the libido tends to ward off the death drive through a “will to power,” a desire for mastery and an externalization of erotic energy, sometimes, libidinal energies are given over to destabilization, unbecoming, and unraveling – this is what Leo Bersani refers to as “self-shattering,” a shadowy sexual impulse that most people would rather deny or sublimate –if taken seriously, unbecoming may have its political equivalent in an anarchic refusal of coherence and agency.

A remarkable amount of performance art—feminist and otherwise—from the 1960’s and 1970’s experimental scene explored this fertile ground of masochistic collapse. Faith Wilding’s performance piece, “Waiting,” charts the life narrative of women as a series of unfulfilled wishes, as anticipation without end and as suspended life. Chris Burden allowed himself to be shot in his performance piece “Shoot” from 1971. In 1974 in “Rhythm 0” Marina Abramovic invited her audience to use and abuse her with 72 objects she laid out on a table. Some objects could give pleasure, some inflict pain, the weapons included a gun and a single bullet. Abamovic had this to say after the performance: “The experience I learned was that…if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed…I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere.”  In 1965 at Carnegie Hall NYC, almost ten years earlier, Yoko Ono sat on a stage, fully dressed and gave her audience a pair of scissors. Yoko Ono’s nine minute long performance “Cut Piece” involves the artist sitting on stage while members of an audience come up and cut pieces of her clothing off. The act of cutting here is assigned to the audience rather than to the artist and the artist’s body becomes the canvas while the authorial gesture is dispersed across the nameless, sadistic gestures that disrobe Ono and leave her open to and unprotected from the touch of the other. The audience is mixed but as the performance unfolds, more and more men come to the stage and they become more and more aggressive about cutting her clothing until she is left, semi nude, hands over her breasts, her supposed castration, emotional discomfort, vulnerability and passivity fully on display. How can we think about femininity and feminism here in the context of masochism, gender, racialized display, spectatorship and temporality?

While many feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Monique Wittig to Jamaica Kincaid have cast the project of “becoming woman” as one in which the woman can only be complicit in a patriarchal order, feminist theorists in general have not turned to masochism and passivity as potential alternatives to liberal formulations of womanhood. The archive of masochism that Marina Abramovic puts on display at MOMA is also an archive of shadow feminisms – feminisms rooted in pain and desire, struggle and desire, broken relationships and desire. Like some of the images in Lady Gaga’s recent video output that Tavia N’yongo and I have analyzed here on Bullybloggers, the versions of womanhood preferred by Abramovic join lack of affect to S/M scenarios, nakedness to a refusal of truth and disconnection to an anti-identitarian set of impulses. Like Gaga’s archive, Abramoviz’s performance history is shot through with violence, pleasure and nonsense making gestures. Like Gaga, Abramovic wills herself to become an object and as an object she stands in potent opposition to all of the clichéd forms of rationality that collect around embodied subjectivity. More and more, the artist is object. Here today, Gaga tomorrow.


19 Feb

Immoderated by Lisa Duggan

Are you nauseated and frightened by the growth of Tea Party organizing, and the zany old white people in funny hats at the center of the current media blitz?  It’s time to fight back!  Join The Cocktail Party, a barstool-roots movement for left wing urban homosexuals and the people who love us.  The major planks of this new movement’s platform include:

*Nationalize the banks
*Soak the rich with high taxes
*Abolish the Senate
*Abolish the Electoral College
*Free public education through college for all
*Free day care for elders and children
*National health care
*Universal accessibility
*Abolish all student loan, credit card and mortgage debt
*Withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, shift resources to the Arts, and to an independent Haiti
*Forgiveness of all debt of developing countries
*Outlaw invidious discrimination
*Abolish prisons for all non violent crime, prioritize community rehabilitation for all crime
*Decriminalize sex work and drugs
*Open borders
*Abolish marriage

This platform is a work in progress.  We seek additional ideas from all leftist urban homosexuals and their comrades.  We acknowledge that this platform will take some time to implement.  We crafted this list of policy goals with the intention, minimally, of  driving the Tea Partiers crazy with rage.  Because we are exactly who they think we are–a motley crew of miscegenated sex crazed lushes who read Marx and Fanon, seeking to support our lifestyles by taking resources from the rich and powerful and redistributing them with abandon.

(Note: We are not publishing further comments on this post.  There are too many; we are not able to process them. Please email with comments and questions.  We will publish consolidated comment excerpts periodically.)

Save California’s Universities

4 Oct

By Judith Butlerberkleyprotest460

(originally published in The Guardian Oct. 4, 2009)

The promise of affordable higher education is dying. The University of California’s students and faculty demand answers.

It may seem that the thousands of people on September 24th who converged on the University of California at Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza, home of the free speech movement, were simply upset about money.  Where has all the money gone? Who has taken it away? And perhaps there is no one to blame. The University of California finds itself with a shortfall of $1.15 billion for the next two years, the result of an $813 million cut in state funding and another $225 million increase in costs for student enrollment. Everyone knows that the state government is dysfunctional, that public funding decreased by 40% between 1990-2005, and this year alone brought another 20% reduction, accelerating the abandonment of the premiere public university by a California state government fully paralyzed by minority rule (two-thirds of the legislature is required for sealing any budgetary deal) and Proposition 13 (the 1978 ban on increasing property taxes that strangleholds any attempt to increase revenues for public services).   It would seem like the UC is in the same situation as other public services and institutions: lay-offs, cutbacks, decreased services and the prospect of a seriously compromised education for undergraduates and graduates alike. So what’s the problem?

Mid-summer when no one was around, UC president Mark Yudof invoked “emergency powers” to implement furloughs on staff and faculty, and sent word to campuses that drastic cuts had to be made in operating expenses. Claiming that the UC system has no unallocated or unreserved funds from which to draw in such dire moments, Yudof proceeded after brief consultation with other administrators within the system, to devise a plan, which includes a graduated salary reduction program for all staff and faculty who make more than $40,000 a year. One might have expected faculty and staff to understand the dire circumstances that led to these lamentable cuts. But it became clear that certain cuts actually devastated some programs, while others absorbed the setback with ready reserves.  Any set of cuts to basic funding involve decisions about how to allocate the funds that remain, how to set priorities, including decisions about whose livelihood will be maintained, and whose will not.  The administration did not wait to reach a settlement with unions; the faculty briefly canvassed were certainly not party to the decision.  As a result, the bad news that deans handed down at the beginning of the semester eliminated 2,000 positions, gutted programs that trained high school teachers in science education, closed courses in East Asian languages and advanced Arabic, overburdened classrooms, shut students out of their majors, let scores of lecturers go, and closed the university library on Saturday. In addition, the administration then demanded of students tuition and fee increases of nearly 40%, imperiling the very notion of an affordable public university, forcing many students to leave the university or scramble for  full-time jobs.

UC president Yudof tried to explain himself by speaking on Youtube. But this began a series of public blunders that have only helped to solidify a sense of incredulity and outrage on the part of faculty, staff, students, and the wider public: the result is a profound and growing skepticism about Yudof’s ability to advocate for the future of the public university.  One does not have to be a brilliant logician to understand the folly of his logic:  (a) there are no reserves of money from which we can draw at the present time and (b) our reserves are down by two-thirds.  Those of us who were trying to develop a balanced critique of both the paralysis of the state economy and the questionable governance by University of California administrators were suddenly rocked into enraged incredulity when Yudof inexplicably gave an interview to The New York Times Magazine (9/27/09) in which he bragged about his own $800,000 salary, shamelessly displayed his anti-intellectualism, described his entry into the field of education as “an accident” and then complained that he tries to speak to faculty and staff about the budget, but it is “speaking to the dead.”

Suddenly, the problem was not only fiscal – “we don’t have the money” – but a more profound loss of confidence in the mode of governance and the figure of authority entrusted with making the case for public education to the state and federal government during these hard times.  Faculty, staff, and students are collectively outraged that the University has failed to make public and transparent what the cuts have been and will be, and by what criteria and set of priorities such cuts are made.  Rage also centers on the devastation of  “shared governance”  – the policy that faculty must be part of any decision-making that affects the academic programs and direction of the university. In its place, a “commission” was appointed by the administration with paltry representation by faculty, emphatically missing are those in the arts and humanities.

No answers are forthcoming to a set of burning questions: Why in this age of slash and burn has the administration of the University of California has bloated by 283 percent, as their own public financial reports make plain?  And why does the University of California spend 10 million a year on inter-collegiate athletics and over 123 million on a new athletic center?  During a time of corrosive neo-liberalism and rising doubts about education and the arts as public goods and worthy of state support, the administration ducks and hides when it is not boasting about its own stupidity, fails to take up the task of making its decision making process transparent, refuses to honor the mandate to bring in the faculty to share in establishing priorities, and weakens the safeguards against a rampant privatization of this public good that would undercut the university’s core commitment to offer an education both excellent and affordable.

So many skeptics murmured that the call for a Walk Out and Teach In on September 24th would come to nothing. So when over five thousand students, staff, and faculty crowded the open common of Berkeley alone (and several thousand more on the other 10 campuses), every major national and international media outlet took stock.  The vocal and theatrical demands of the demonstration were not, as Governor Schwarzenegger quipped, just noise coming from “another screaming interest group.”  On the contrary, a rare solidarity among unions, students, and faculty sought to “save the university” and their cry clearly struck a chord across a broad political spectrum. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, joined other faculty for a pointed speak out the night before. Faculty and students clustered into an array of groups, pursuing strategies from mainstream lobbying to anarchist display.  The administration was clearly shaken, and subtle hints of division among administrators could be detected. Some congratulated the demonstrators, and others hissed.

My wager is that the walls of the university will shake again – and again – until the message is received: this fiscal crisis is also a crisis in governance: the administration needs to make their books transparent, re-engage shared governance, and set their priorities right so that the United States might continue to claim a public institution of higher learning where a student does not require loads of money to receive a superlative education – after all, this is the promise that we see dying at this moment, and the very thought apparently sends us into the streets en masse.

Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.

Match Points?

14 Sep

By Jack Halberstam


In the 1980’s I remember watching John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and other bad boys of tennis throw their racquets around, yell at referees, jump up and down in anger on the court and generally vent like spoiled schoolboys about a missed shot or a lost point. McEnroe’s favorite cry of disappointment – “You cannot be serious!” – even became a popular catchphrase. People thought of this behavior as “passion,” as evidence that white male American players in particular were invested in the game, and on-court outbursts stood as proof of a kind of emotionality that made the player “human” as opposed to the robotic coldness of a Scandinavian player like Bjorn Borg or the explosiveness of an Eastern European player like Ilie Nastase. Last night when Serena Williams was called for a foot fault at 5-6 and 15-30 in the second set, when she was already down a set, she turned to the line judge and directed a few choice words of disbelief her way. Later Serena Williams commented at a press conference that she had almost never been called for a foot fault in her whole career, let alone at such a crucial point in a match at the US Open. After Serena’s outburst, the line judge, an Asian American woman, approached the chair umpire and complained that she felt threatened by Serena! The big wigs were called onto the court and Serena was given a point penalty that, at match point, gave Kim Clijsters the match. This was a terrible call, a terrible moment for women’s tennis and more evidence of a double standard in sports around male and female behavior and in relation to what is perceived as racially specific conduct.


TENNIS-OPEN/As Tavia Nyong’o commented in his superb blog on Caster Semenya: “World-class female athletes have long made people anxious, particularly gorgeously muscle-bound black ones.” What was true for Semenya might be true for Williams – the public and the media has no neutral language with which to describe and explain the extraordinary performances of Black female athletes. Black female athletic performances that are, literally, beyond the pale have tended to solicit suspicion and disdain while white female athleticism, especially when it is packaged in a Playboy ready form, receives acclaim and respect. It is no secret that the Williams sisters in tennis have had a love-hate relationship with the media and the public, nor that Serena in particular has been berated for her “masculine” physique. In fact, in February 2009, The Huffington Post ran an interesting op-ed on the omission of the Williams sisters from the 2009 Australian Open’s “list of the 10 most Beautiful Women” in the tournament. The list was topped by Jelena Jankovic and included more than one blond Russian. The absence of Venus and Serena from this list spoke volumes about the misplaced emphasis in women’s sports, and women’s tennis in particular, on appearance over performance but it also implicitly referenced the lurking charge of “lesbianism” or “gender transgression” that hangs over many a performance of female athletic excellence. The recent case of Caster Semenya is just the latest in the long history of gender confusion in relation to women’s sports and Serena Williams’ outburst illuminates the treacherous path walked by female athletes who compete at the highest level, blow away the competition and refuse to or simply cannot conform to normative standards of female beauty.

Again, as Tavia noted in his analysis of the freak show attitudes provoked by Semenya’s extraordinary athleticism, virtuosity is both compelling and confusing to people. Many, many athletes who win at the highest level of competition also have some unique physical attribute, what NYT sports writer Maurice Chittenden calls a “freakish advantage” (  In an article from 2005 on top athletes and their physical oddities, he notes that Michael Phelps, the US swimming champion, has outsized feet that work like flippers; the same was true of Ian Thorpe. David Beckham has “bandy legs” that help him to put curves into his kicks; Lance Armstrong has very low lactic acid levels so his legs can keep going and going. And so on. Sports champions are often, literally, freaks of nature, so why we would stumble over the spectacle of a woman with a six pack but not a man with size 17 feet? Obviously, the boundaries for female athletic virtuosity must not leave the domain of acceptable femininity where femininity is too often defined in opposition to athleticism, activity and aggression.

So while the female body draws negative attention for athleticism that tips into muscular masculinity, behavior and conduct for female athletes is also judged according to a different set of rules. When Serena Williams cited John McEnroe and his antics as an influence for her own on court passions, McEnroe quickly distanced himself from her and suggested that she had crossed lines he would never have even approached. In fact, almost any kind of showy behavior by athletes of color draws negative attention while almost any kind of bad behavior from white athletes is thought of as “spirited.” When Justine Henin showed terrible sportsmanship at the French Open in 2003 by not backing up Serena Williams’ complaint about an obvious missed call, the French crowd began to boo Williams instead of Henin and Williams became so unnerved that she went on to lose the final set after having led 4-2. The headlines after Serena’s defeat and the hideous display of group racism within the crowd, crowed about the end of Serena Williams’ unbeaten run. When a Williams sister wins easily, it is called “boring”; when she fights hard, she is labeled erratic; when Venus or Serena question a call, they are charged with petulance but when they are don’t, they are pegged as indifferent to the sport.

Tennis has often been cast as the sport of ladies and gentlemen. It is implicitly a class bound activity that favors the kids who grew up with tennis courts in the backyard and expensive coaches. Much has indeed been made of the humble beginnings of the Williams sisters who spent the first years of their life in Compton, LA before moving to Florida and training with other teen tennis stars. Implicit in all of the coverage of the Williams’ family—including their mother Oracen and their father Richard—is that somehow, the Williams just don’t behave properly in the dignified world of tennis. When Venus won Wimbledon in 2000, her father danced in the stands shouting: “Straight out of Compton!” When Venus started a clothing line, it was seen as a distraction from tennis; in general, Venus and Serena’s outfits on court have been seen as unbecoming to the game and they are both characterized as excessive, too much, more spectacle than tennis.

Just to put the focus on Serena Williams’ behavior in perspective, imagine a discussion about Roger Federer’s effeminacy in relation to his designer sports wear or his tendency to cry when he loses. Imagine a real interrogation into the fist-pumping behavior of all kinds of white American tennis players who leave their sportsmanship in the locker room and resort to “mission accomplished” tactics while crushing opponents who have often learned to play tennis in far less rarefied and privileged circumstances. In fact, the most recent fist-pumping, great white hope for US women’s tennis, Melanie Oudin, a nineteen year-old blond pony tailer, has been discussed as a “Cinderella” figure, as someone who will single-handedly rescue US women’s tennis! This Cinderella story consigns Venus and Serena to the role of the “ugly sisters” and promises a new queen, a palatable tennis princess and a return to tennis whites.

The Unforgivable Transgression of Being Caster Semenya

8 Sep


By Tavia Nyong’o

World champion runner Caster Semenya returned to a hero’s welcome in her native South Africa last month, where the public denounced the “gender testing” she was forced to undergo after her gold medal in Berlin. Outraged by the racist and sexist comments of rivals who told journalists that you could tell she was  a man just by looking at her, the president of South African athletics, Leonard Chuene, resigned from the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF). “This girl has been castigated from day one, based on what?” he told the LA Times “You denounce my child as a boy when she’s a girl? If you did that to my child, I’d shoot you.”


South Africans aren’t the only ones angrily comparing Semenya’s treatment to that of Saartjie Baartman, the nineteenth-century Khoisan woman who was exhibited throughout Europe as a sexualized monstrosity. White audiences guffawed, prodded and poked at her exposed body, which they laughingly demeaned as that of a “Hottentot Venus”: the inverse of European standards of beauty. Challenging Semenya’s femaleness, people now assert, is imperialism all over again. Its an especially shameful and traumatic humiliation, they stress, for a teenager to experience. The South African newspaper, The Guardian and Mail wrote:

At 18, Caster Semenya is quite probably frightened and confused. Her dignity has been attacked, her profoundest sense of self laid bare with potentially damaging psychological consequences. But when she returns home, she seems assured of a special welcome from family and friends who have never sat in judgment on her nature. They have always accepted her simply as Caster, the girl who can outrun them all.

Her case is understandably upsetting, but I for one object to the manner in which Semenya is being spoken for and defended in passages above. Is it her defenders who are perhaps embarrassed and ashamed by her exuberant embodiment, more than her? Semenya, according to her family and friends, is a rough and tough tomboy who excels in sports, scorned skirts for trousers from the very beginning, and shrugged off teasing and bullying about her gender long before the issue exploded in Berlin. Young though she may be, who is to say Semenya cannot know and enjoy who she? Who is to say that her “profoundest sense of self” lies with being considered and treated like a “girl”?


If ever a case called for an intersectional analysis that included queer and trans perspectives, as well as anti-racist and anti-imperialist ones, this is it. Whether indignantly paternalistic, like Chuene, or more “liberally” expressing concern over a fragile, damaged psyche, like the Mail and Guardian, Semenya’s defenders are clearly dealing with a gender panic of their own.

And who wouldn’t be? World-class female athletes have long made people anxious, particularly gorgeously muscle-bound black ones. The splendor of their world, which a bystander like myself can only imagine, must be one in which conventional barriers of the body are left behind in the dust. In the name of protecting African femininity from a western, scientific gaze, Semenya’s defender also disguise their own patriarchal investment in naming and controlling this gender excess. But as her career already illustrates, such gender excess is hard to control.

As From a Left Wing writes, apropos of Semenya and of similar cases in women’s soccer:

What is it we are looking for in a women’s game? Surely not a confirmation of the “femininity” of the people on the pitch. It must be something else – like how the women’s game allows us to escape from narrow ideas about who and what women are. Why shouldn’t women’s football be exactly the game to welcome gender-bending warriors like the intersex athlete, and the transgender warrior?

The real challenge when an ugly, gender-disciplinary inquisition like the one the IAAF has started crops up is not to allow ourselves to be blackmailed into simplistic reassertions of gender normativity for the sake of the vulnerable child. Here Semenya herself leads the way, in her succint response to the ordered test:  “I don’t give a damn.” Instead of making her a traumatized symbol of a violated continent, how about adopting some of her contemporary, wordly pugnacity?

And instead of insisting upon the naturalness of her gender, how about turning the question around and denaturalizing the world of gender segregated, performance-obsessed, commercially-driven sports, a world that can neither seem to do with or without  excessive bodies like Semenya’s and their virtuosic performances?

The rush to compare Semenya to Saartjie Baartman, while obvious for nationalistic reasons, misses something crucial. Baartman was exhibited and castigated for what the imperialist eye took to be her abberant femininity. A better comparison here would be to the many trans bodies (like famed jazz pianist Billy Tipton above) who have been disciplined and punished for their female masculinity. As in Semenya’s case, female masculinity is often associated with forms of disguise and deceit (the stigma of “doping” and of South African Athletics perhaps trying to “pass off” a male runner as a woman is clearly relevant here). But it is also associated, and for related reasons, with the extraordinary. Runners like Semenya are as much virtuoso performers as are players like Tipton. And the virtuoso always risks being scapegoated as a freak, even as they exhibit a skill that is, in a sense, always already in all of us.

We are drawn to the virtuoso, the virtuoso draws us out, but it is that very intensity of response that can lead to the kind of panicked rush to quarantine virtuosity, or explain it away as plain freakishness. Female masculinity like that of Semenya or Tipton can be thought of as virtuosic performances of gender.

We need more virtuosos like her just around now. The long sordid history of considering transgender embodiment an intrinsic hoax is still relevant, regardless of whether one wants to claim Semenya as a trans figure. It reflects the essentialist conviction that bodies must have a stable sex that presents itself in appropriate dress, voice, attitude and behavior, and that anybody who does not must by definition be engaged in a deception. This essentialist imperative to expose, examine and fix the transgressive body is also what is motivating the IAFF’s panic around Semenya. It represents the latest intensification of gender essentialism, in which the body itself — its genetic makeup, hormonal levels, etc. — is taken to participate in a kind of self-deception; one that, we are told, will take weeks if not years to fully unravel. The threat hanging over Semenya — to be “stripped” of her medal — is a clear giveaway that the logic remains one of a deceit demanding forcible public exposure.


The essentialist response to this essentialist attack on Semenya is to reassert the commonsense of the gender binary: “In Africa we know men from women.” The anti-essentialist response is to acknowledge how easily rattled our dependence upon the coherence of that fictional binary is. One such anti-essentialist strategy is humor, which unlike humorlessness can admit that exceptional bodies, in their incongruity, hold potentially important insights into the non-congruence of all bodies to the purported “norm.”

The offensive but infectious “She’s a man” humor all over YouTube (see above) and internet doesn’t get us very far politically. But as a vernacular response it reminds me less of Baartman than it does of another nineteenth-century “freak,” Peter Sewally, who was apprehended in women’s attire in antebellum New York. Like Semenya, Sewally was also forcibly submitted to a genital examination to establish his “gender,” and prints of him as the “Man-Monster” were displayed for sale, much as images of Semenya now circulate worldwide for cheap amusement. (I write about Sewally in my recent book, and so does Jonathan Ned Katz.) The important lesson from Sewally (or for that matter, Baartman, as revisioned by Suzan-Lori Parks) is how unapologetic he remained in the face of public ridicule and legal reprisal. “

In his defiant nonrespectability, Sewally serves as an important historical example of what queer theorists like to call transformational shame. The more ambivalent YouTube responses to Semenya (like the one below) do seem also to dabble in the  shared and public indignity of sex. Lets just say I’m more interested in a somewhat phobic response to Semenya’s physicality that digresses into a speculation about how drag queens he knows tuck their meat than I am in patriarchal threats to shoot anyone who challenges the sex of his child:

jesseowensI’m tripping, as I finish this overlong entry, about these events having been ignited in, of all places, Berlin, where Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s documentarian, took her famous photographs of African American sprinter Jesse Owens at the Nazi Olympics in 1936. I’m reminded of how modern international athletics is so deeply shaped by its disavowed eugenicist history. Black athleticism, as Paul Gilroy argued in his oft-misread polemic, Between Camps, increasingly stands in for a superhuman commodified physicality that remains, nonetheless, paradoxically attached to what he calls “infrahumanity,” or humanity on a lower spectrum or frequency.

Gilroy presciently warned of a genetic turn in race-thinking, which the current attempt to reinstate the gender binary at a chromosomal or endrochrinal level is reminding us of. Our challenge then, is to think against this ongoing regeneration of eugenic ideals, based on bodily capacities that black people are supposed to possess in excess (to the detriment of our intellectual capacities), while sustaining hope in the immanent possibilities Gilroy also sees in infrahumanity, possibilities which I’ve tried to identify here with Semenya’s virtuosic performance of gender.

Who knows, but on the lower frequencies, Caster Semenya runs for all of us?

APTOPIX Germany Athletics Worlds


UPDATE Wednesday: Shortly after posting this, this story came down the wires, ironically confirming just how unforgiveable Semenya’s transgression was:


Like everyone else thrust into the public eye these days, Semenya has got an instant makeover to render her a more suitable standard bearer for national femininity. All I’ll say about this development is that it is just further proof of Judith Butler’s thesis in Gender Trouble, that, while we often think of sex or gender-deviant bodies as failed copies of a natural original, “natural” gender is actually a mimetic attempt to forestall the uncanny prospect of their being no original gender at all, simply copies of copies. This magazine distinguishes itself in the transparency of its appeal to such a strategy. “Look at Caster now” can only mean: refer back from this image, which we present to you as the true, real Caster, to the prior, excessive and disturbing image one, and you will somehow have your perception of gender stabilized. That such stability of gender is never achieved is unfortunately not a good enough reason for people to stop trying.


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