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The Student Demand

17 Nov

By Tav Nyong’o


A question has been ringing through my ears this past week, growing louder with my every attempt to brush it away.

“Who the fuck made you master?”*  It was a question asked, no shouted, in a moment of despair and righteous discontent. An angry, no, an uncivil question, and to that extent, a question without any answer in a civilized society whose underside, as Walter Benjamin well knew, contains countless barbarisms.

“Who the fuck made you master?”

The questioner has been mocked, admonished, even physically threatened for daring to ask it. In this era of viral publicity, bullies morph into the bullied and back again with dizzying speed. We feel constantly pushed around and always on our last nerve. But we should always stop and pay careful attention to those moments when someone — a young black woman in this instance — is threatened with physical retribution for asking an inconvenient question.

The questioner’s location as one of the privileged few at Yale University should not distract us from the relevance of her demand for the rest of us. We all have parents, bosses, teachers, authority figures charged with our safety and well-being. Many of us are fortunate to receive the care and support that is promised and expected. But all of us know or have experienced situations where an authority figure has grievously failed. It is disorienting and difficult, which is to say it takes tremendous courage and conviction, to stand up to that authority figure and simply ask where their authority comes from. Democracy, real democracy, always begins with a question that cannot but provoke a conflict with the status quo: who made you the boss of me?

I could only bring myself to watch the viral video in question this morning. I felt I already knew its content and, even more, I knew how it would be received by an anti-black, anti-woman, anti-intellectual culture. I knew the clip could not possibly provide a full or accurate picture of the black and native student struggle at Yale, and that it would be all the more of a misleading caricature for being a decontextualized fragment of something that did indeed happen.

But when I did finally watch it, the angst with which the questioner spoke those words moved me in a way that I was unprepared for. What few seem to notice or give credence to was what it had cost her to lose her temper in that way, to meet the establishment defenders of “free speech” with her own brand of “fearless speech.” What was that cost, I wanted to know? And aren’t we all now, because of that cost she paid, in her debt?

Black studies as a the critique of Western civilization teaches us to ask: What do we owe each other for the sacrifices we each are called upon to make to rebuke and repair this world? How can we — those of us who profess to educate — accept the student demand not only as a rebuke, which it certainly is, but also as a gift?

I am now glad the video has been seen by so many, not because it provides visual proof of  a privileged millennial “crybully” asking to be protected from free speech and intellectual inquiry, but because it forces again a question America keeps refusing to answer:

Do black lives matter? And, if they do, or if they should, don’t we have to immediately change everything about how a society and culture founded in white supremacy and settler colonialism continues operates?

How can any institution — a school, a corporation, an army, a police force, a prison — expect to continue along with business as usual after conceding that it is founded upon structural racism and colonial settlement?

And yes, who, exactly, made you master?

Black students in Missouri, South Africa, New Haven and beyond have in the past few weeks renewed the promise of a #BlackLivesMatter movement many of us feared was beginning to falter. Without conceding an inch on questions of police and vigilante violence and killings of black women, transgender black people, black men of all ages, these students have broadened the scope of concern from the moments of our dying to the days of our living. This is crucial for those of us who don’t want to live our lives in a constant state of mourning, even as we honor and remember our dead. Those of us who need to dance at the revolution, who have to sing at the sit-in, who want to feel the joy and solidarity of being alive while we still can. Those of us who understand that beauty, friendship, peace, and mutual aid are always fragile things in this turbulent world, and never to be taken for granted or dismissed as secondary pursuits, (to be taken care of perhaps by the women and queers, as the sad militant pursues his ever more totalizing view of some ever more grim and punishing “reality.”)

I was asked recently: was it ethical for a student to go on hunger strike to oust the president of the University of Missouri for incompetence in addressing racism and economic gender inequity? I felt a note of care and concern for the consequences of “student extremism” was behind the question. I don’t know how I would have counseled a friend who was considering such a path; I haven’t yet walked in those shoes. But I do know that hunger strikes belongs to a venerable tradition of non-violent resistance to civil government. It is a complex and rich question that Patrick Anderson’s insightful book, So Much Wasted, explores in greater detail than I can here. But how could I do anything but honor and salute the bravery of a student who stood publicly to declare unacceptable the arbitrary withdrawal of health care — and in particular of reproductive medical care for women —  because of political and budgetary pressures?

It may seem wrong to endanger our health, but it is right to stand by passively as the health of thousands is endangered by the  sanctimonious and the greedy?

The new black student movement is teaching me that it is not enough to protest wrongful death, or to chant each others names (as we must) when another one of us is murdered. We must also challenge the terms of our living as well as our dying; we need an actual say in how we live and thrive, how we learn and grow.

We need to “decolonize our gratitude” as someone told me on Twitter; we must challenge the quietist assumption that black and brown people should express more and frequent gratitude over just being allowed to live (rather than killed), over being given educational opportunity (rather than being jailed or beaten), over being citizens of a wealthy and privileged nation at a moment of great chaos, poverty, and disaster in our present world (rather than held in infinite detention at the bleeding borders where the desperate, fleeing extremism, meet the accusation that they themselves are the bearer of the horror they flee).

The new black student movement is changing the terms upon which our culture responds to the performative utterance: Black Lives Matter. Only yesterday, the best that the irrelevant could say in response was to retort, “well, All Lives Matter”! But the student movement has already moved us well past this feeble stutter. Now we actually have to face the question: if black lives, like all lives, matter, then what? Why would expect that answering in the affirmative — yes, black lives do matter — would be the end of it? The students aren’t looking for a cheap affirmation. They already know that their black lives matter; it’s a rhetorical question!

The real challenge is not just to verbally concede the equality of human dignity and the unacceptability of racist speech, conduct, and of violence targeting black, brown, muslim, Asian, and indigenous people. The real challenge is, having conceded this principle, to follow up on actions that actively transform this situation. “Act from thought should quickly follow,” the poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “what is thinking for?”

No one thinks it acceptable, in the name of transgressive free speech or adult child development, for white Ivy League students to mock and abuse native American and black students by dressing as rastafarians or Indian chiefs for Halloween. This is not a question of “safe space” or hypersensitivity: common sense tells us that no civil society could accept such behavior without public reprimand. You cannot study and live together with someone you think of as your inferior, or treat as a laughingstock. You cannot leave the slain unburied in the hot sun for hours, or leave the murders of indigenous women unsolved and uninvestigated. When we act in uncivilized, barbaric ways towards Muslims, blacks, and native peoples, we deserve to be admonished, upbraided, and chastened to do better.

No one thinks it acceptable for Americans to continue to lampoon sacred native rituals in “war dances” or paint their faces at sports competitions featuring teams with names like “Redskins.” The resurgence of native survival and resistance  — no, of intellect and creativity — in North America and beyond is one of the most exciting developments in recent years, where have you been? Do you want to live in the world of Clinton the Second or Bush the Third, or is another world not only possible, but already present in the epistemologies and ontologies of the oppressed?

Movements like #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are first and foremost movements among black and native communities to regain the self respect with which we can say, without fear of reproach or ridicule, that triumphalist signs of genocide, slavery, and segregation cannot possibly remain at the symbolic center of our culture. Rhodes must fall. So must any other name that serves to honor those who would prefer we never walk their halls except as servants. I once took ironic pride in belonging to institutions named after racists, anti-semites, and other disreputable characters. My very presence was a rebuke, I once thought. But I am starting to wonder whether I need to start dreaming bigger dreams.

The students are doing nothing more than demanding that society actually live up to the values it professes. And they bear the unbearable truth that society can never openly admit: that to actually live up to its stated values, it would have to become something wholly other, even something unrecognizable to its former self.

Transformation is never easy, and rarely is any local struggle fully cognizant of the broader canvas. What is more, the passionate rebuke of the status quo is difficult, dangerous, emotional work. These students are adults, not children, and it is wrong to infantilize them, and a mistake to draw on our expertise in child psychology or our experience as pedagogues to talk down to them.

At the heart of all the student demands heard ringing through the world these past weeks and months, there is this singular fact: the fact of the student demand.

What does the student demand?

The student demands to know who made you the master and her the dependent. The student demands to set the future conditions for her study, which she understands to be a collective study, a study that cannot be contained by Ivy or state school walls.

The athlete demands to know who made you coach, and why he has been robbed of an education and possibly injured for life while you make millions off of his play.

The student demands the right to reclaim her study; to know the world in order to change it. That demand is the freest, most fearless speech we may have the privilege to hear. Will we listen?

*A free, indirect paraphrase of a range of student speech acts heard recently, rather than a direct quotation of any individual person. Thanks to Zahid Chaudhary for reminding me to add this clarification. On free, indirect discourse, please see Typewriter.

Queer Complacency without Empire

22 Sep

Lisa Duggan

When I teach undergraduate Queer Studies, we begin by listing all the meanings that students can generate for the term queer. Then we group them into three categories: (1) Identity, or queer as a synonym for LGBT populations; (2) Practice, or queer as a broad umbrella term for dissenting sexual practices and gender expressions, and (3) Politics, or queer as a designation similar to feminist that appears quite independently of an advocate’s identity or sexual/gender practices. Our discussion of these divergent meanings usually leads us to understand that they all exist simultaneously, often used by the same individual at different moments. Though I prefer the third usage, I often find myself unselfconsciously using the first two. In the context of Queer Studi, it’s important to sort these meanings out in our readings and conversations. Each has different resonances and implications.

The most recent special issue of differences, “Queer Theory without Antinormativity,” volume 26, number 2 (May 2015) edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, runs through all these meanings without much attention to the distinctions among them. In the introduction to the volume, Wiegman and Wilson alternatively refer to queer theory, queer studies, queer inquiry and queer critique, also without any noted distinctions. But perhaps most fatally for this issue’s project, they use the terms norm, normalizing and normativity also with little effort to map the historically shifting and overlapping meanings of the terms.

It’s not that they make no effort to historicize. They do point out, via Foucault and others, that the juridical meaning of norms as rules that order and restrict shifts to a biopolitical, statistical meaning of norms as averages at the beginning of the 19th century. Their critique of queer theory (or studies, critique, inquiry etc) rests on the arguments that (1) queer theory is universally underpinned by a foundational antinormativity, and that (2) this antinormativity is dyadic and oppositional, based on the earlier notion of norms as rules, rather than on the more generative, expansive, individualizing concept of norms as averages that require variation.

What is wrong with these arguments? Everything. Though the editors’ introduction provides a wide-ranging and inclusive survey of work in queer theory, their grasp of what underlies the scholarship published after 2000, especially in the field of queer of color critique, is faulty. They seem deeply familiar with work published in the 1990s, but when they extend their critique of that work forward in time they run rapidly off the rails. For instance, beginning with Licia Fiol-Matta’s Queer Mother for the Nation, published in 2002, much new work in queer studies abandoned the notion that queer identities or practices are somehow inherently radical, or that queer politics is necessarily oppositional to historical forms of political and economic power.

Fiol-Matta’s study of the deployment of the queer figure of Gabriela Mistral as a support for the dominant forms of racial capitalism and nationalism in Latin America decimated those assumptions of inherent queer subversiveness, and deeply influenced the flood of work to come in queer of color critique and transnational queer and feminist studies. Wiegman and Wilson’s readings of that post 2000 work are flattening and distorting; in describing it all as underpinned by a dyadic antinormativity they are blind to the major developments in queer thinking that emerged with this work over the past 15 years.

But that isn’t the only stream of queer publication that they get wrong. They also search out instances of dyadic oppositional antinormativity in work that they otherwise acknowledge does not fit that frame. In discussing Lee Edelman’s NoFuture, after acknowledging that he generally evades the oppositional framing they argue underpins the whole field, they find one footnote where he appears to fall into that trap. Via that footnote they include him in their survey of the field united in their version of antinormative error.

In addition to misdescribing “the field” that they variously name as queer something, Wiegman and Wilson also offer a narrow and ahistorical definition of norms and normativity by which to measure the adequacy of those terms in the work of queer writers. They hew to the Foucauldian definition, and chide queer authors for using a “wrong” notion of norms as restrictive rules. In this they are wrong on two counts: (1) There is no historical supersession of statistical norms over rule based norms, both are in wide current use in the social and political world, and (2) They totally neglect the civilizational, imperial history of norms as racial ideals used to measure the “development” of inferior races. Developmental norms are pervasive in the history of empire and settler colonialism, and they appear in psychology also as “developmental” norms drawn from the highest racial “achievements” of prosperous male Europeans. Queer work that engages with racial capitalism, empire, transnationalism, and decolonial movements invokes these kinds of norms as ideals—the nuclear monogamous family, the “democratic” capitalist state, the rise of rationalist science, etc. These of course include sexual ideals as norms, appearing as the very logic of racial, class, gender and religious hierarchies. This work does not propose any simple, dyadic form of queer antinormativity as opposition. Nayan Shah, Roderick Ferguson and so many others map complex forms of aspiration for inclusion as well as modes of exclusion in a constantly shifting historical political economy.

(My own use of the term homonormativity does not focus on dyadic opposition to dominant norms, but rather maps a complex set of changing historical relations to an unstable political economy—homonormativity only becomes possible during the 1990s in the capitalist “democracies.” It takes an unsympathetic, even hostile reading to reduce this term to one pole in the abstract dyad norm/antinorm.)

So far I have concentrated on the introduction to the special issue. (For more, see Jack Halberstam’s previous Bully Bloggers post.)  Only a few of the other essays in the issue actually echo or support the framing offered there. Essays by Annamarie Jagose on Judith Butler and Wiegman on Eve Sedgwick continue the stuck-in-time 1990s focus of the issue. Heather Love provides a historical frame, offering post WWII sociology of sexual deviance literature as a site for productive excavation for queer scholars. She seems to be addressing scholars in the literary humanities only, as those of us trained in history, anthropology, sociology or the interdisciplinary fields are generally quite familiar with this literature—and perhaps more critical of it than Love? Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black draws from his PhD training in sociology to offer a critical framing that brings together sociology of racial and sexual deviance to produce a wide ranging critique of the normalizing work of sociological knowledge production—normalizing in the racial imperialist, developmental sense, not the dyadic rule bound or statistical sense. Anthropologist David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender provides an observational, empirically based ethnographic study that probes the racial and class meanings of language shifts in political context. Love’s isolation of the work on sexual deviance, and her largely uncritical observational stance, give her article an unintended overall tone of political, especially racial complacency compared to the vigorous critical lens provided by Ferguson. And when she cites Sharon Marcus to critique the “dominant” deviance paradigm in queer studies, and argues that the field is invested in the idea of an impossible absolute withdrawal from the social (p. 89), I honestly have no idea what work she could be talking about? That paradigm went out by 2002 (in the queer studies “field” that I read), and the withdrawal from the social characterizes only a tiny archive at this point.

The last three essays, by Madhavi Menon, Erica Edwards and Elizabeth Povinelli, seem not to belong in this issue at all. These three essays are confined to the section on “Case Studies” in the issue, perhaps because they bring in the political economy and the state? They position their discussions of normativity within a complex historical, racial and imperial frame that cannot be reduced to the abstract framing norm/antinorm. In “Sex After the Black Normal,” Erica Edwards draws upon and extends the long bibliography in black feminism and queer of color critique to make an important contribution from within those fields. In her richly documented article, she argues that black women’s sexuality has been used to facilitate neoliberalism in the U.S., and also to support collective alternatives that expose its instabilities. This is precisely in line with the arguments that Rod Ferguson and others make, and does not flatten those contributions, or elevate her own as somehow so much more complex as to be different in foundation.

Elizabeth Povinelli’s article “Transgender Creeks and the Three Figures of Power in Late Liberalism,” is in my humble opinion outright brilliant—original, provocative and important. Drawing on new work on the nonhuman world and the active environment, Povinelli extends the possible meanings of “queer studies” in hugely productive ways. But in doing so, she also draws upon, incorporates and extends earlier work, and invokes the normalizing force of neoliberal markets and extractive capitalism, via a discourse of sexual pathology and normalization in a settler colonial context. In these usages of the notion of the norm, she blends the Foucauldian meaning with the imperial one. She is working from the complex multidimensional work on norms, that Wiegman and Wilson reduce to simple dyadic oppositional antinormativity.

It’s hard to understand the motivation behind this issue that works so hard to diminish work in queer studies through reductive readings and via a singular definition invoked as an abstract standard. I have the uneasy feeling that the motives are political, that the work being reduced to unrecognizable simplicity is somehow too left, too committed to the critique of racial capitalism for these editors. They don’t seem to be offering renewed vitality or renovated methods and approaches in their return to the work of the 1990s in particular. They seem to be calling for a new queer complacency, where we revel in the norms that, in averaging differences, reflect our beautiful diversities (cough, gag):…..more Queer Theory without Empire than without antinormativity.

Straight Eye For the Queer Theorist – A Review of “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” by Jack Halberstam

12 Sep

Straw-man-argumentStuart Chase’s 1956 Guide to Straight Thinking is sometimes credited with the first use of the term “straw man.” He used the term to describe the rhetorical practice of basing a strong argument on the misrepresentation of another position. The straw man/person represents a figure without depth or dynamism that is easily knocked down. And so if one represents feminism in terms of a unified group of man-hating, chainsaw wielding, separatist lesbians, rather than as a wide array of positions held by many different groups with or without chainsaws, then it is relatively easy to persuade a neutral audience that feminism is dangerous. Straw men, or in this case straw womyn, stand in for the complexity of a flesh and blood opponent. The term draws upon the image of the scarecrow on the one hand and on fairground games on the other – the term “Aunt Sally,” for example, is often used as a synonym for Straw Man and comes from the fairground game where a target (often an “ugly” woman or racialized in someway) is set up for others to knock down.

A recent issue of the journal differences engages in the production of straw people and does an Aunt Sally on queer theory. The issue, differences Volume 26 #1 (May 2015), edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, and titled, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” asks the question: “What might queer theory do if its allegiance to antinormativity was rendered less secure?” The answer goes something like this: if its allegiance to antinormativity were rendered less secure, queer theory would be…more complicated, more dynamic, and, broader because other important and pressing concerns that have been obscured by this singular focus would come to the fore. What are those concerns? What does this new, shiny, more complicated (queer) theory look like? We never find out. More interested in critique than in outlining new methodologies, archives or theories, this volume is content to say, repeatedly, that oppositionality is not all its cracked up to be; that the humanities orientation of queer theory has concealed the fact that the social sciences are important too; and that queerness as a category has an increasingly elusive relationship to activism, political change and social transformation. None of this is controversial, and it could even be the basis of some interesting new directions in the study of sexuality and gender. But this issue does not lead us there.


What is queer theory without antinormativity, we may ask with the editors of this special issue? Without a critique of normativity, queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking. And, without these clear alternatives, that is what this volume threatens to become.

Inexplicably sharon wasn't interested in a second date.

Inexplicably sharon wasn’t interested in a second date.

It draws sexy energy from a title that proposes a new kind of queer theory namely, a queer theory without antinormativity but, like a date with a lover who promised hot sex but falls asleep by 9pm, or like an iphone update that claimed it would transform your gadget but actually just ate up all the battery, the issue titillates only by virtue of nestling up to titillation, it thrills only by offering to declaw what is thrilling, it excites by promising to name the fugitive source of an entire genre’s critical excitement. But when push comes to shove, and there is a lot of shoving in this issue despite its seemingly civil tone, queer theory without antinormativity might just be…well, theory, theory about theory.

What’s the basic argument? Queer theory has been characterized by an antinormative stance that has gone unquestioned (until now) and that is the basis for the claims that queer theory lays to a radical political project. This commitment to antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson say, characterizes the work of all kinds of queer theorists who might otherwise disagree. The problem with antinormativity, as far as Wiegman and Wilson are concerned, is that it derives from a fundamental michel_foucault_by_ivankorsario-d5qvsbtmisreading of Foucault’s theory or norms; it makes certain positions seem inevitable – a critique of disciplinarity for example; and, antinormativity’s uncontested rightness eliminates the possibility of taking up any other relations to norms or normativity. Furthermore, antinormativity, they propose, has become “canonical” in the field and therefore has acquired, ironically, the status of a norm, proving once and for all that norms are unavoidable and cannot be opposed.

Let’s take the first point in Wiegman and Wilson’s critique – the idea that antinormativity emerges from a misreading of the norm in Foucault. They write: “Even as it allies itself with Foucault, queer theory has maintained an attachment to the politics of oppositionality (against, against, against) that form the infrastructure of the repressive hypothesis” (12). By contrast, Wiegman and Wilson propose to offer a different methodology for reading the norm and they will do so through a return to the idea of the norm as it is found in Foucault “in order to revivify what is galvanizing (indeed what is queer) about its operations” (12). This is an odd claim at best – first, is it even possible to “revivify” what is not dead but is in fact “galvanizing”? Just asking. But, second, I cannot find this mythic other methodology anywhere in their text. Their anti antinormative methodology seems to amount to the claim that we are all subject to norms. Norms, they remind us, neither restrict nor ostracize, they are neither “controlling” nor are they “tyrannical,” and we are all equally subject to their powers (“we question the political common sense that claims that norms ostracize, or that some of us are more intimate with their operations than others…”). This claim is then followed by a series of quotes from Berlant, Edelman, myself, Sedgwick all clustered under the leaky umbrella of “queer theoretical ambitions” and organized by the common belief that norms are bad.


Few of the theorists mentioned in this essay, if any, have advanced the theory that norms single out certain people or that they target only certain bodies and then tyrannically restrict their capabilities or legitimacy. Instead, the rather impressive group of theorists gathered under this capacious and yet nonsensical heading of antinormative queer theory (Berlant, Butler, Duggan, Edelman, Eng, Ferguson, Halberstam, Halperin, McRuer, Muñoz, Puar, Reddy, Sedgwick, Warner) have all published extremely complex accounts of the relations between nationalism and norms, sexuality and terror, identity and repetition, race and disidentification, sexuality and death, pessimism and optimism, negativity and utopia, recognition and failure. No single theory of norms unites these works either through their embrace of the antinormative or through their understanding of the political. They have no single object, they do not share a goal, they follow multiple methodologies and none of these theorists unambiguously embraces a singular, critical stance from which it unfairly draws energy and through which it proposes to change the world. The antinormative position is, I will say it again, a straw queer, an Aunt Sally, a rag and bone target for any straight thinkers who want to score points in an academic marketplace of diminishing returns.


Like the bad critical theory essay in which everyone is wrong because the author is right, or in which the author notices something that everyone else in the history of critical thinking has ignored, or in which an intrepid and insightful author uncovers a fallacy upon which an entire area of study has depended, this journal issue requires big targets, thinkers united in their false assumptions who can finally be revealed for what they are – naïve, blind, simple folk who see tyranny where there is only discourse, who confirm the status quo through opposition, and who create a new canon while claiming to bring the house down.


What, I ask you, do Wiegman and Wilson want? They tell us they want to “channel the energies of queer inquiry otherwise.” Ok – point us in the direction of “otherwise.” And I really mean that  – I want to understand the project here, but it feels elusive. They tell us they will promote scholarship that moves “athwart” rather than “against” (although they are clearly against antinormative queer theory, not athwart it…what is athwart, critically speaking?). And they offer to “rethink the meaning of norms, normalization, and the normal” while imagining “other ways to approach the politics of queer criticism altogether.” Let me translate dear reader: we critics, who read athwart not against, who offer critique without solutions, who know something is wrong but cannot offer to replace it, will keep thinking about this in the hopes of generating something that is not more of the same.

Ok, that sounds harsh so let me break it down:


1. Most of the theorists assembled under the heading of the anti-normative produce the very 51TjyujvLxLscholarship that Wiegman and Wilson call for – namely a critique of simple notions of the political as oppositional . Consider Lauren Berlant’s idea of a relation of “cruel optimism” that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Or think of Lee Edelman’s reminder that the impulse to call for a politics around the figure of the child ensures the reproduction of the status quo. Or look again at Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black and his analysis of the way that canonical sociology requires the Black body as a foil for the production of the truth of statistical norms.

2. If you don’t want to commit to some kind of critique of norms you may be doomed to “straight

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

thinking.” Straight thinking is characterized by a matrix of rhetorical operations that support the common sense of the moment, commit to foreclosing on critiques of the status quo and reinvest in the ordinary, the good and the true. Such rhetorical operations have propped up the very distinctions between straight and gay/lesbian/trans or between abled and disabled or between whiteness and of color that have allowed for legal, social and political benefits to accrue to one group at the expense of the other. Abandon antinormativity and you slip quickly into acquiescence.

3. Antinormative thinking, as represented in this issue, simply means scholarship with an urgent, complex, politically explicit agenda. It is the opposite of the seemingly objective “deviance studies” scholarship that Heather Love writes about in this issue but it is in line with some of the writings by Evelyn Hooker, Mary Macintosh and others that she claims queer studies has rejected. Like other essays in the issue, Love’s piece works around a false claim and a false dichotomy. She claims from the start that there are “ongoing conflicts between humanists and social scientists” within the field of queer studies and that these conflicts turn on “the question of whether the empirical study of sexuality should be understood as social recognition or as epistemological violence” (77). Such conflicts were very common in the 1990’s but disciplinary skirmishes have long since diminished under the pressure of new insights about the arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries (Latour). Critiques of the social sciences from within queer studies by Rod Ferguson and others are not disciplinary quarrels so much as they are historically situated accounts of how non-heteronormativity gets located firmly at the heart of U.S. racial formations and links the “multiplication of racialized discourses of sexuality and gender” to the “multiplication of labor under capital” (12). By separating an account of sexual deviance from its imbrication in the production of knowledge on racial deviance in her essay, Love straightens the lines between sexuality and race in a way that literally undoes the work of queer of color critique. What Ferguson had intricately described as meshed, Love unties and analyzes separately.

And later in Love’s essay, she takes aim at the romanticism of The Undercommons to reveal how attached humanities scholars can be to their own subversive potential. What Moten and Harney describe as the role of the “subversive academic” in The Undercommons, Love rejects as a kind of unconscious political violence: “if we are in, we are also of” she writes. Championing the “queer ordinary” and describing the queer academic as a “professional knowledge worker,” Love settles into and accepts her role as observer of ordinary life. Her stakes are clear: the antinormative queer scholar or the fugitive scholar of the undercommons are just engaged in a “romantic disavowal of our position as scholars.” With no account of the activist worlds that informed early queer studies research, no recognition of the disciplinary violence that goes into establishing a definitive split between the “truth seeking” missions of the social sciences and the “civilizing” goal of the humanities in the first place, with no references to the difference that race makes to either professional knowledge production or the definition of deviance, this is an essay that refuses to grapple with its own site of enunciation – for whom is the ordinary smooth and even? For whom is it absolutely unattainable? For whom is it unacceptable?


And so it goes, the straw person argument allows for the wholesale ransacking of several decades of exceptional work from a range of positions and disciplinary locations, emerging from different activist histories and focused upon various political and even utopian horizons. This issue claims to re-evaluate but it comes to eradicate; it claims to survey a field but it creates a position to lambast; it claims to speak for the ordinary but it colludes with the status quo. So, to clarify the argument here: if you still believe in the socially engaged academic and if, like them, your work continues to circle back to performativity, cruel optimism, intersectionality, queer of color critique, queer negativity, critiques of homonormativity, disciplinary critique and the undercommons, this mini-movement is not for you. And for those of you who are still wondering what the answer is to the question posed by this volume of differences in the first place, namely “what is queer studies without antinormativity,” I think I have an answer for you – it is disciplinary, neoliberal, no stakes, straight thinking. You’re welcome!

After the Ball

8 Jul

By Tav Nyong’o

One of my favorite albums growing up was the soundtrack to the reggae classic The Harder They Come, and I loved in particular the song “By The Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians. It’s lyrics adapt Psalms 19 and 137, which lament the bondage of the Israelites, and issue an ethical challenge that continues to haunt makers, documenters, and critics of black performance to this day:

For the wicked carried us away captivity
Require from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?

In words a seven year old can understand, this sung lyric performatively stages the constitutive ambivalence of coerced performance. How can we sing when we are oppressed? How can we sing when that singing is required by our oppressors? How can we sing without somehow colluding in our oppression in a strange and hostile land?

One might think this question is paradoxical or beside the point: if you don’t want to, or can’t, sing for in a strange land, then why are you? But if you dwell on the question a little, if you let the song settle into you, I think you will see that the question only makes sense if you are singing it. It only resonates when couched in the very idiom it challenges. It is a question about complicity that is immanent to the scene of complicity. Singing or not, we remain strangers in a strange land.

Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s classic work of new queer cinema, screened at Prospect Park over Pride weekend, before a crowd through which the day’s news of gay marriage for all was rippling. Sometimes one is lucky enough to be in the right place and time to hear the hinge of history turn. There in the heart of gentrified Brooklyn, on the day the president eulogized the slain in Charleston, all kinds of queers and othered gathered in a park, and there was an opportunity to wrestle with the ways we are and aren’t one community. Park Slope lesbians and Bushwick hipsters, socialists and liberals, homeless youth and homeownersexuals. Black, Asian, Jewish, Latino, and possibly a transracial or two. The defiantly and the demurely gender nonconformist. Transgender and not, people of color and people of pallor, all gathered to watch a film that is now 24 years old (in one more year, it will be able to legally rent a car).

When this public screening was announced earlier this spring, a vehement internet campaign arose against the program, which featured no living members of the ball community. It quickly extended to screenings of the film itself, which are seen by some as furthering exploitation and catering to a white gaze. Why should the filmmakers continue to be lauded, critics demanded, and continue to profit off the lives and creativity of the film’s subjects, many of whom died in poverty of HIV/AIDS-related causes? In response to criticism, the original opening act for the film backed out, and, after several days of impassioned and sometimes vituperative exchanges on social media, Celebrate Brooklyn announced it was going back to the drawing board.

Paris is Burning is a film that, over the years, has remained a flashpoint of the very issues it sought to document and explore: racism and self-worth; transphobia and transgender worldmaking; families of origin and families of choice. The dreamworlds of work and ambition, opulence and violence, in New York City, circa 1987. It has drawn its share of detractors over the years, most famously in an impassioned but problematic takedown by bell hooks. Not stopping at faulting director Livingstone for exploiting her subjects, hooks criticized the ball children for embracing aspirational class, racial, and gender status in a white heterosexual capitalist patriarchal society. I was unpersuaded by this critique when I first read it over twenty years ago. It seemed to me elevate hooks’ personal reaction to the status of a representative feminist of color reaction, but this failed to account for the incredible thrill the film gave me and so many queers of color around me, despite our ambivalence. It also completely shortchanged the aesthetic merits of the film itself, which are substantial.

I came away from this and other critical reactions to the film thinking that it is always best to try to walk a mile in someone else’s pumps before you criticize how they choose to survive oppressive conditions. A more useful, if unfortunately less circulated, analysis came from Phillip Brian Harper, who pointed out that the real problem lay neither with the filmmaker nor her subjects, but with the economic and racial conditions that precluded working class people of color from making their own films, and thereby realizing the full benefits of creative control over their own community and art forms.

Harper’s critique has grown newly relevant in the intervening decades, as a technological revolution in communication has brought the means of representation into the hands of a wider and wider population of producers (albeit under highly problematic terms, as any student of new media knows). It has also changed our expectations of documentaries like Paris if Burning. Webcams and Reality TV have increasingly inured us to the idea that broadcasting our daily lives is a potential revenue stream, if only we make that life interesting/outrageous/abject enough. In this new environment, I suggest, in which performance is almost a default setting for everyone, a film like Paris is Burning just feels different than it once did. Octavia St. Laurent’s and Venus Extravaganza’s expectations of celebrity, that once seemed tinged with pathos, now seem like viable career ambitions. Dorian Corey’s world-wise wisdom about the illusions of fame seem to come from a vanished queer world now lost in the glare of mass media visibility. Everyone these days, it seems, is trying to serve executive realness, even actual executives. And to that extent its increasingly hard nowadays to understand the degree to which the film once gripped us as a powerful critique of wealth and fame, and as exemplifying the cultivation of queer and trans worlds as viable alternative modes of sociality. It is one of the many costs of our new incorporation into official national culture that what once looked like radical outsiderhood is now fodder for the latest crop of internet memes and reality show catch-phrases.

The Internet uproar that followed the initial announcement of the Celebrate Brooklyn had at least one positive outcome: the organizers did the outreach they should have done in the first place, brought the ball children to the table, and let their planned evening be upstaged by a Houses United ball. Watching the ball, I did feel the contradiction in having the solution to this performative dilemma be … more performance. Vogueing and walking on the Celebrate Brooklyn stage — welcome as it was — does nothing to transform the real conditions of poverty, racism, and transphobia. Understanding this, some activists are increasingly reluctant to countenance performance for the public in any setting, castigating all circulation of vogueing beyond the ball scene themselves as cultural appropriation. Even a pop star like FKA Twigs, who assiduously credits her dancers, acknowledges herself as a dancer who is learning the form, comes under fire for not being an authentic participant in the culture.

If the Houses United brought to public attention the ongoing vitality of the balls and the houses — reminding us that although many stars of the film have died, their houses are still going strong — it always did so under terms that José Muñoz once termed “the burden of liveness.” This is the burden under which queers of color are expected to perform liveness and vitality under conditions of temporary visibility that erase our histories and futures. This burden need not always weight us down entirely, it need not preclude us from ever singing in a strange land. But I do think a hint of it is always there on even the most glorious and celebratory occasions.


Perhaps it is by understanding Paris is Burning as part of our history that we can shirk the burden of liveness and come to a new appreciation of the film. The film wouldn’t still be controversial, after all, if it weren’t such an enduring classic. It is a testament to the achievement of both Livingston and her subjects that thousands of people would show up, a quarter of a century later, to watch and cheer, many of us having memorized every line. Rather than standing in for ball culture — an unfair expectation of any single film, no matter how amazing — the film could be understand as part of queer history, and specifically part of the ball culture’s history, and even part of its futurity as well.

After all, the widespread success of the original release led to the spread of ball culture beyond its New York City origins. My own first contact was with houses in green leafed Connecticut. Marlon Bailey’s prizewinning study Butch Queen Up in Pumps documents another such regional scene, in Detroit, Michigan. The circulation of ball videos online has led to the dance and culture spreading so far and wide globally that one choreographer, Rashaad Newsome, has called the culture “open source.” The idea that ball culture can and does circulate through open source modes of sharing, exchange, adaptation, and transformation will not please those who feel it to be the exclusive property of the ball children. And certainly, recognizing the open source basis of culture should also not be license to pillage, to take work without credit or compensation, or to only focus on minority culture when it is in the white glare of media hype. But shutting down screenings of the film, or shutting the culture off from outsiders, seems counterproductive in the long run, and overprotective of a culture that thrives precisely due to its own internal strengths.

Its all the more quixotic to seek to protect ball culture from commercial exploitation given how successful the ball scene has been at maintaining itself as a viable underground movement long after many other “subcultures” have burnt out or turned mainstream. Not even as powerfully a commercial force as RuPaul has managed to denature the art form, or alter the terms under which it sustains the communities to which it belongs. Watching the Houses United ball, I was reminded again why that is: while the form is very presentational and solicits the onlooking gaze, it possesses its own internal logic and aesthetic standards, and rarely stops to educate its audience about. To walk a ball is the only real way into the performative logic of vogue and runway, and that seems both right and just. Just because the ball is on display, just because a dancer is in your video or at your concert, it doesn’t mean that everything is on display. The right to opacity, as the poet Edouard Glissant put it, is still maintained (Teju Cole discusses Glissant’s theory of opacity here.)

The status of the ball as a rite of opacity was underlined to me at one point when the commentator told the audience: “If you don’t get the secret, well then, that’s the secret!” I knew what they meant, and I was okay with not knowing entirely what they meant. I knew the children were not walking for me, even if I was there and privileged to watch. If the wish to be in on the secret is part of what keeps the cool hunters forever sniffing around the ball scene, trying to break off and cash in on an iota of its glamor, the public performance and dramatic display of the openness of the secret is what keeps them clueless and forever guessing.

“The Republic of Love”

20 Jun

By Anne Mulhall

On the complex achievement of the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland

The importance of the political mobilization of working-class communities in Dublin in the process of building a self-organized and powerful anti-austerity movement cannot be overstated, and this was a decisive factor in the marriage referendum passing. Voters in Jobstown and young emigrants coming #hometovote were not voting in solidarity with the government and the State, but in defiance of the multiple impoverishments and oppressions that the State has enacted on the majority of those who live here. The political and relational texture and hopefulness of these and other mobilizations, disruptions, acts of citizenship against the State, produced in excess of the managed marriage campaign, are perhaps occluded when the Irish marriage referendum is viewed solely through the lens of the established radical queer critique.

Almost a month has passed since the verdict of ‘Yes For Love’ was returned in the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland. For the people who drove the campaign; for those who canvassed during the hard emotional slog of its last month in particular; for all those who told their stories of hurt, of lives lived in closeted fear and repression in newspapers, on TV, across social media, to family and friends; for the LGBTQ young people who had not before witnessed the extent and depth of homophobia written in to longstanding norms as to what and who constitutes the ‘nation’; for those who had to face the harsh truth of homophobic discursive violence enacted under the guise of ‘democracy’ and ‘balanced debate’ and smile and thank the homophobes for their consideration; for the thousands of recent young Irish emigrants who came #hometovote on the eve of the referendum; and especially for all those personally invested by way of their own positioning as ‘queer’ in the resounding victory, the outcome catalyzed a confusion of raw emotional responses. There was of course joy – the joy that was broadcast across a transnational stage, an unfettered jubilation. But the tears of joy were complicated. They communicated emotional and physical relief and exhaustion, a kind of system-wide collapse into elation. They articulated – for many, not for all – gratitude and vindication at the ‘majority’ acceptance that the vote represented. As time passes, the more difficult constituents of those tears becomes more clear, perhaps – anger that the rights of a minority were the gift of a majority to bestow; anger at the emotional and political costs exacted by the campaign itself; anger and sorrow for personal and collective histories mired in pain and exclusion that cannot be recuperated. The referendum result sent a message back to the past, a friend who unlike me has been in the queer trenches for many decades said to me recently, reflecting on the meaning of this long and at times ugly road – a message back to the past that all of the hurt, the neglect, the violence, the lives lost were not entirely in vain. That this vindication is in part for all of those who did not live to see it.

Messages to the past, and a promise, perhaps to the future. For many, the result has opened out potentials for a different way of being for young and future generations of LGBTQ people (and as always, the homogenizing this entails is deeply problematic). Given the majority vote, given that the grounds of the vote exceeded the ‘marriage equality’ remit, but also given the centrality of marriage and the family to the Nation’s symbolic image of itself, and how that symbolic image operates within the State’s machinery of inclusion and exclusion, it is difficult to see how some other forms of institutional homophobic exclusion can continue unchanged. The most immediate of these is the legislative sanction of discrimination on grounds of ‘ethos’ that persists in the Irish school system. A legacy of the organization of education under late colonial rule and of the theocratic nature of the Irish state for many decades after its inception, 96% of primary and 51% of post-primary schools in Ireland are under the patronage of religious orders. While discrimination on grounds of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, age, disability, and marital status are prohibited by equality legislation, Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act includes exemptions on the grounds of ‘religious ethos’. This exempts schools from anti-discrimination legislation in both staff recruitment and student enrolment, and it also allows in the law for dismissal of staff if they are deemed to undermine the ‘ethos’ of the institution. This has in the past been used to sack women ‘living in sin’ so to speak, and it continues to provide a mechanism to exclude children from racialized, migrant and religious minorities from State-funded schools, though this racial ‘filtering’ is of course vehemently denied. The main lobby for striking Section 37 from the Act has been the LGBT lobby, and it is difficult to see how the Department of Education can continue to stall on this given the political and ‘moral’ force that the referendum vote represents.

Those most invested in retaining these religious exemptions within the State’s public education system are, of course, the same interest groups who were the bulwark of the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum. But while the interventions of Catholic clergy were muted and by no means unanimous, the No campaign was driven by a small but ubiquitous collection of right-wing lay Catholic fundamentalists, many of whom are associated with the Iona Institute, a ‘think-tank’ established in 2008 as self-appointed guardian of the ‘traditional family’ and Ireland’s system of compulsory reproduction. There is a direct genealogy between the No campaign and those US-funded and inspired groups that first formed in Ireland in the late 70s with the express purpose of fully embedding coerced reproduction in Ireland via the now notorious 8th amendment to the constitution that gave “equal regard” to the life of the woman and the fetus. The defeat of the No campaign struck a serious blow to Iona and its fellow-travelers. While commentators such as Katha Pollitt have highlighted the rapid gains made by the gay marriage lobby in the US at the same time as women’s reproductive freedoms are being severely undermined and curtailed (and one could make similar observations in the Irish case), a defeat in the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland would have been a devastating set-back for the abortion rights campaign here, perhaps primarily because of the strong endorsement the ‘direct democracy’ of a referendum defeat would have given to the vanguard of what is a much wider anti-abortion lobby. The media presence of Iona and co is far in excess of their representativeness in contemporary Ireland, yet their complaints of ‘silencing’ and media bias are almost as frequent as their appearances in major national newspapers (Breda O’Brien has a regular column in newspaper of public record the Irish Times while John Waters and David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, write for the Irish Independent), on radio and on television, with the State broadcaster RTÉ being particularly culpable of unfailingly providing them with a platform whenever The Family and its cognates hove into view.

fig 1

[Courtesy of Oireachtas Retort]

These protestations of ‘silencing’ are perverse if familiar given the strategies adopted in advance of the referendum. The lines were drawn in January of last year, following the appearance of Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill), drag artist and long-standing community activist and public face of Dublin’s queer scene, on Saturday Night Live, a chat show on RTÉ hosted by Brendan O’Connor. On the show, in response to O’Connor’s questioning, O’Neill named O’Brien, Quinn, Waters and the Iona Institute as homophobes. Quite reasonably so, as it is difficult to know what else one should call people who suggest that queers should abstain from sex (because “intrinsically disordered”), oppose programmes to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools, call for the continuing enforced closeting of teachers, declare LGBT people to be unfit to parent children, regard same-sex relationships as inherently inferior to the great gold standard of hetero coupling, and so forth. Iona and Waters promptly slapped a small avalanche of lawsuits for defamation on O’Neill and on the national broadcaster. In a particularly craven performance, RTÉ removed the video of O’Neill’s interview, issued a public apology the following week via O’Connor’s show, and agreed to a payout of 80,000 to the aggrieved parties. This, of course, was not silencing or censorship of the most egregious kind, but was, the national broadcaster agreed, in the interests of ‘democratic debate’. The deployment of ‘hate speech’ frameworks in the service of regimes of subjugation was abundantly clear. As Panti herself said from the stage of the Abbey Theatre in a performance that went viral, the people who wield hate speech as a form of power are now enabled to deploy the frame of ‘hate speech’ to silence the resistance of the subjugated. It is as Panti said “a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick, because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia – homophobes are the victims of homophobia.”

RTÉ’s immediate capitulation in Pantigate encouraged a number of complaints of ‘bias’ in relation to programmes featuring The Gays. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint made just a couple of weeks after O’Neill’s interview, about a lifestyle feature on RTÉ Radio One’s The Mooney Show. The broadcaster Derek Mooney (himself a gay man) remarked to his guests, who were discussing their relationship in a personal rather than political capacity: “I hope you do get married. I hope it comes in.” This was ruled by the BAI as constituting bias, and a breach of “fairness, objectivity and impartiality.” Effectively, well before the announcement of the referendum date, any discussion about or involving LGBTQ people was ruled inherently ‘controversial’, ‘political’, and as many commentators observed the BAI ruling(s) made the inclusion of at least one bigot compulsory in any such discussion in the interests of ‘balance’. As a consequence the quest for ‘balance’ took on a near-pathological aspect during the referendum campaign proper as radio and television broadcasters timed contributions to the ‘debate’ down to the second in fear of litigation.

The fulcrum of the No campaign was the argument that including same-sex marriage in the constitution would catastrophically change the nature of the institution (which is, of course, about producing children) and fatally damage children’s ‘right’ to a mother and a father. Groups such as Mothers and Fathers Matter and First Families First emerged to flank the usual suspects. Lurid fantasies populated the mediascape and seeped out into the general populace, suddenly abuzz with the spectres of mothers marrying daughters, gay men stalking the streets in search of vulnerable women from whom to harvest eggs and/or rent wombs, small armies of fatherless children wandering the streets of Copenhagen in search of their ‘donor Daddy’. And so on.fig 3

By dint of ever more high pitched repetition, the No campaign and the media apparatus that accommodated it succeeded in making freedom to express homophobic bigotry appear as not just normal and right, but pretty much a duty in the service of democracy. So it was that rantings about, for instance, the prospect of predatory gay men buying children to satisfy their paedophilic desires could be framed as legitimate fears to be answered with a concerned tilt of the head and even-handed discussion – not just on the canvass, but in everyday interactions with total strangers.

The volume and intensity of such constant assaults were turned up when the campaign posters appeared a month before the vote, urging people to Vote No for the sake of the children. Reactions to these posters crystallized certain underlying conflicts within the LGBTQ ‘community’, ideological fissures and demands that were by and large contained for the sake of ‘unity’ in the service of the bigger picture – intense homophobic violence now with the considerable pay-off of less homophobic violence in the future. Pictures and videos circulated on social media of mostly young people, left activists among them, defacing and removing the offending posters. Demands from Yes Equality core organisers were issued on Twitter and elsewhere asking the poster guerrillas to desist from ‘undemocratic’ actions. Twitter exchanges went beyond demands for compliance, and veered into familiar ‘democracy talk’. Poster defacing was an “anti-democratic act”; the poster-removers didn’t “represent civilised YES voters” and were also needless to say “fascists”. Threats to report people to the police were made. “No to poster removal!” declared one passionate democracy-lover; not a battle-cry to kick-start a love revolution, but reflective of the ‘liberal’ attachment to a politics of respectability and hostility to political action outside the parameters of an NGO-led campaign.Fig 4

The Marriage Equality movement in Ireland and elsewhere has been rooted in the kind of neoliberal marriage politics that has migrated from its origins in the assimilative, conservative drive toward respectability in a putatively ‘post-queer’, ‘post-AIDS’ American LGBT ‘rights’ discourse, whereby marriage has somehow become the apotheosis of LGBT struggle, and does the State some pinkwashing service.

The appropriation of this discourse by political and market interests in Ireland was in motion well before the event of the referendum. The campaign has done much to humanise Minister for Health Leo Varadker (who oversees a collapsing health system and who came out in January), great white hope of Fine Gael, the major party of government and right-wing cheerleaders for permanent austerity. Varadker posted not one but two rainbow twitpics from the campaign trail:Fig 5

Fig 6Fig 7Tourism Ireland lost no time in capitalizing from the new markets in destination wedding tourism that ‘Yes for Love’ opened up, releasing this video with indecent haste the morning after the count:

Later that week, Fine Gael had its very own meme released on Twitter, circulated by the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald (who is as I write at a meeting of the EU Commission that is deciding on how best to ‘manage’ the criminalisation and letting die of migrants at and inside the borders of Fortress Europe). Similar painfully transparent efforts were made by Labour TD and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Joan Burton – a much-reviled figure in the Irish political landscape, most recently notable for overseeing the slashing of lone parent payments and access to third-level education for some of the most deprived families in the country. In a radio interview the day after the referendum, Burton proclaimed that “We are now a rainbow nation, and that means a nation of inclusion and diversity”.Fig 9

The attempt to leverage the referendum result for PR purposes has been somewhat inept then, and adapts for Irish vested interests the strategic weaponization of LGBT rights that has happened elsewhere (LINKS). The utility of ‘gay marriage’ for political interests keen on the appearance of ‘equality’ while busily decimating what little remains of the economic, social and democratic ground that is the starting point for redistributive justice has, however, been clear since former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s salvo in 2012 that “the right of gay couples to marry is, quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation”.

The architects of the Marriage Equality campaign in Ireland carefully fostered the allegiance of these and other politicians. Established in 2008 as a single-issue grassroots campaigning organization, resistance to the top-down approach weakened once preparation for the referendum began in earnest with the establishment of Yes Equality, a coalition campaign set up between Marriage Equality, GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network), and the ICCL (Irish Council for Civil Liberties) in 2013. LGBT Noise, an unfunded grassroots organization of mostly young LGBTQ people that focused on actions, including several large ‘marches for marriage’, was important in the longer campaign, though hardly mentioned in post-Referendum reflections. The Yes Equality campaign coordinated canvassing in constituencies across the country for the two months prior to the referendum. However, at the community level campaigning took on a more autonomous cast, as local people organized the canvassing of their communities and shaped their approach to local factors. Approaches designed to appeal to ‘the middle ground’ would not, after all, hold much water in the working class communities of Dublin. To this extent, organizing on the community level produced something in excess of Yes Equality HQ.

The political and discursive terrain of the Yes Equality ‘core’ borrows heavily from an established North American lexicon of same-sex marriage as an instrument of neoliberal governance. For instance (with thanks to Aidan Rowe for pointing out this leaflet; you can read their writing about the Referendum here. Also see these pieces by Jen O’Leary and Ariel Silvera.

“Research shows that marriage is good for people: married people are healthier, happier and earn more. Marriage is also a commitment device, it keeps couples together and families together. It is accepted by the majority of people as good for society e.g. the family unit looks after itself, takes on a caring role for the members of that family and therefore is less dependent on the State for support…. On top of this, introducing civil marriage equality is austerity proof. It won’t cost the State anything but will improve the lives of thousands of people and arguably improve Irish society in general.” (Five Reasons to Support Marriage Equality, 2014)

This is all to say that up to a certain point, the official campaign for ‘marriage equality’ in Ireland did not diverge in any substantial way from the familiar white middle-class neoliberal register. Once the heavily and cleverly strategized referendum campaign proper got under way a few months before the vote (involving many LGBT and other organizations and advisers beyond the core Yes Equality coalition), the pitch shifted. The focus was on the personal, on family ties and friendship circles, on the ‘positive story’, on self-revelation and emotional truth. And the address was, of course, to the straight population. The straight citizen-public had to be persuaded not primarily of the economic logic involved in welding queer couples together with ‘commitment devices’ and ‘forever love’ (to quote Zappone), but of the ‘sameness’ of lesbian and gay love and family-making. From a particular perspective, this normativizing drive is a corollary of the argument for marriage as neoliberal devolution of State and collective social responsibilities to the family, both being held in position by the marriage contract. If lesbian and gay people are ‘just like us’ (the ‘B’, the ‘T’ and needless to say the ‘Q’ were consigned to unspeakability for the duration), then they deserve what ‘we’ have – equality granted on the basis of sameness, on a shared humanity – but a humanity that does not diverge in any alarming way from what ‘we’ recognise as ‘just like us’, a fellow ‘citizen’ who does not disturb the established image the nation has of itself, but makes of it, as Burton had it, the ‘rainbow nation’. The ‘republic of love’.

To return to ‘Postergate’ – responses to this crystallised an important if difficult aspect of the Yes Equality campaign: the urge on the part of some of its managers to a disciplinary and totalizing control of the field of political action. However carceral and, to use Panti’s word, oppressive that insistence on uniformity and control was for some, the Yes Equality campaign did the job of winning the referendum that could not be lost. But the terms in which that disciplinary demand was made were too often suggestive of something in excess of pragmatism. The skirmish about the No posters exposed this excess of vigilance; one could feel the communicative ether vibrating at times with the pleasures extracted from the policing of dissent. In addition to its generally liberal complexion, among the campaign management were well-known right-wing conservatives such as Noel Whelan, former Fianna Fáil politician and adviser. Whelan had magnetised a considerable portion of snark when, during Pantigate, he published an article in the Irish Times mildly rebuking ‘liberals’ for calling homophobes homophobes, and advised that this was not the way to win over ‘middle Ireland’. Clearly people came around to his way of seeing things, though; Whelan was in fact invited in to the core coordinating group two months before the referendum, and he was clearly central to the management of the last crucial weeks of Yes Equality’s campaign. In his contribution to the GCN (Gay Community News, the main LGBTQ publication in Ireland) post-referendum special issue, Whelan noted that he was brought on board to advise on strategy to win over “the middle ground older audience”, the main focus of the campaign according to him. This entailed “maintaining discipline and keep[ing] everyone on message.”

There is no doubt that Whelan’s advice and Yes Equality’s strategy was a phenomenal success. At the same time, the strategy, while pragmatic, was for some at least coextensive with their ideological position on what constitutes legitimate political action and what actors are accepted as legitimate political subjects. In other words, in retrospect the campaign touched on fundamental conflicts about what constitutes politics as such, a question that includes but goes beyond the normativizing mystification of love and marriage that most partook of, with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm and ‘sincerity’, for the sake of winning the referendum that could not be lost. Despite Whelan’s and others’ focus on ‘middle Ireland’, the Yes vote was highest not in ‘the middle ground older audience’, in fact, but in the working class communities of Dublin. This took many by surprise, given that the urban working class have never been the ‘target audience’ for the marriage equality lobbyists. Working class communities (and of course the rural population en masse) have long been derided by a Dublin-centric middle class consensus as regressive and socially conservative forces, ‘failed’ citizens whose conservatism is assumed to manifest itself in part in an unreconstructed misogyny and homophobia. Junior Minister for Equality Aodhán Ó Riordáin attempted to play this supposed inherent conflict when he fretted publicaly about the possibility of anti-austerity activists – solidly based in Dublin’s working class communities – voting against the referendum in order to register their hostility toward the government.

The tensions involved in the pursuit of single-issue agendas to the neglect of all other struggles for social and economic justice was manifested in an online battle of the Facebook comments that followed a visit by the unpopular Taoiseach Enda Kenny to Panti’s bar in Dublin – Pantibar – last December. Panti posted a picture of Kenny with some other Fine Gael TDs to social media to a mostly outraged response. Kenny’s visit to Ireland’s best-known gay bar happened at a highly charged moment for the anti-water charges movement – the largest social movement that the country has seen since the inception of the State. A couple of weeks previously, the Tánaiste Joan Burton had attended a graduation ceremony for a community education project in Jobstown in Dublin, one of the most inter-generationally deprived communities in Ireland. Emerging from the ceremony, Burton (along with key marriage equality campaigner Senator Katherine Zappone) was met by over 1000 protestors who were vocal in articulating their rage at the Labour minister. A single brick was thrown but hit no-one; Burton caught a water balloon to the side of the head and went to her car, which the protesters surrounded for some hours before dispersing. Reactions to the protest were astonishing. The protesters, mostly people from the local community, were described in the media as a ‘baying mob’, a ‘frenzied mob’ engaged in ‘thuggery’, stirring up ‘fear and menace’ with their ‘ugly antics’. Burton herself wrote that ”The whole affair was sinister and it was disgusting. The shouting I could deal with, but the spitting, the virulent sexed-up language, the homophobia was disgusting. You could only wonder what kind of minds could think up such language.” This is of course the same ‘homophobia’ that Ó Riordáin imputed in a less explicit way to politicized working class communities that was supposedly endangering the marriage referendum’s safe passage. The incident was narrated in almost hallucinatory terms across the national media as foreboding the end of democracy, the rise of fascism, the spectre of mob rule and ‘demophobia’ orchestrated by the ‘sinister fringes’. Comparisons were made in all seriousness with ISIS and the worst atrocities of the Russian Revolution.Fig 10

This was the prevailing political atmosphere into which Panti released the photo of Kenny at the gay bar. While Kenny’s photo op reflects the middle-ground strategy of the marriage equality campaign, responses to it suggest again that ideological fissure that opened very briefly during ‘postergate’. Broadly responses were divided between celebration of the perceived momentous occasion of the head of government – up until the previous year opposed to same-sex marriage – being photographed in the best-known gay bar in the country, and on the other hand an avalanche of rage at Kenny and his government, architects of the State regime of deepening and permanent ‘austerity’, its systematic disenfranchisement and dereliction of the most impoverished and vulnerable communities, and its relentless attacks on the under 30s through an implicit policy of forced emigration or dependency on, yes, Family, the result of extensive welfare cuts to those under 25, high unemployment, compulsory labour schemes, cuts to third level grants accompanied by hikes in tuition fees, and soaring rents. These are, of course, the very ‘targeted populations’ who made the referendum win such a resounding one, transforming the vote from a close-run gamble to a resounding victory. While the Union of Students in Ireland and BelongTo, an LGBT youth advocacy NGO, made a concerted and successful effort to mobilize the youth vote, neither the mobilization of recent emigrants in the #hometovote push nor the powerful Yes majority returned by working class communities were part of the Yes Equality strategy. Whelan, for instance, passes over the working class vote in silence, while more than one journalist insisted that it was ‘middle Ireland’ what did it.

“Coolock 88% Jobstown 85% Ballyfermot 90% Stoneybatter 86% Liberties 82% Darndale 80% Ringsend; 85%. 6% of people from Coolock progress to 3rd level. 88% voted yes, we meet attacks on our dignity with an understanding of exclusion. There was no fanfare or celebration of how we had ‘allowed’ the same rights, the implications of having that power over your fellow human beings have been made all too clear. Its time to break down the barriers,” says Dara Quigley, a young woman from Coolock in Dublin. The importance of the political mobilization of working-class communities in Dublin in the process of building a self-organized and powerful anti-austerity movement cannot be overstated, and this was a decisive factor in the marriage referendum passing. Voters in Jobstown and young emigrants coming #hometovote were not voting in solidarity with the government and the State, but in defiance of the multiple impoverishments and oppressions that the State has enacted on the majority of those who live here. The political and relational texture and hopefulness of these and other mobilizations, disruptions, acts of citizenship against the State, produced in excess of the managed marriage campaign, are perhaps occluded when the Irish marriage referendum is viewed solely through the lens of the established radical queer critique.

The functions that marriage and family perform within the machinery of the State are nowhere so apparent as in the migration apparatus. One of the repeated arguments for marriage equality was that it would for the first time grant ‘full and equal citizenship’ to lesbian and gay people in Ireland. In other words, ‘same-sex’ couples will no longer be excluded from the protections afforded by the State through the institution of marriage. ‘Citizenship’ here carries other connotations: acceptance, belonging, inclusion; dignity, propriety, respectability, maturity. Within the idealising and normative terms of the marriage equality campaign, marriage equality is also about love – about the ‘forever love’ that is supposedly deserving of full State recognition, and also the love extended from one citizen to another in the act of voting Yes to Love. A couple of weeks after the marriage referendum, the Immigrant Council of Ireland publicised a meeting in Dublin with its partners in HESTIA, a project that is investigating ‘Trafficking for Sham Marriage’ between Eastern Europe and Ireland. The timing is I’m sure coincidental, but the juxtaposition articulates the function of marriage as a filtering device for inclusion in and exclusion from the protections of the State. There’s the kind of marriage that grants ‘full and equal citizenship’ on the one hand, and then there’s another kind that is held under suspicion, subject to racial profiling, interviews with immigration officers, the kind of marriage that words like ‘sham’, ‘bogus’, ‘illegal’ and ‘deportation’ stick to. Marriages of convenience are not, in fact, illegal in Ireland. Unlike other EU countries, there is no legislative or constitutional differentiation in Irish law between ‘genuine’ marriages for love and marriages for more pragmatic purposes (although of course marriage is not grounds in itself for residency in the State). The same constitutional enshrinement of marriage and the family that made it necessary to hold a referendum on ‘same-sex’ marriage is one reason why it has proven difficult to introduce legislation on marriages of convenience in Ireland. But nonetheless all marriages involving certain categories of ‘non-citizens’ are suspect; all are potentially ‘abusing’ the State and its mechanisms. ‘Marriage for Love’ in a form recognisable to the State’s norms becomes the filtering device here, acknowledgement of its presence being one determinant of the right to remain. For people in the asylum system, access to civil marriage for same-sex couples could even add an additional barrier to family reunification, as the legislation stipulates that there must be proof of State recognition of relationship equivalent to that available for LGBT couples in the Irish State. This can be nothing other than a deliberate instrument of exclusion given the status of queer relationships in the states that most people have traveled from.

The complexities of race and migration in relation to marriage equality had no place, of course, in a campaign like Yes Equality, which appealed to the familiar, the homely, to reassuring sameness and the norm in all respects. The whiteness of the campaign was striking, though not surprising given that the target ‘audience’ was, as Noel Whelan says, ‘middle Ireland’. The campaign managers and strategists who featured in GCN’s special issue were likewise uniformly white. Similarly, on posters, leaflets and in campaign videos, whiteness predominated. Part of the persuasive strategy of the campaign was to create points of identification, showing the ‘audience’ people like themselves, families like their own. The failure to address migrant communities or to include LGBT migrants and people of colour in the Yes Equality campaign compounded the alienation, marginalisation and exclusion that are the experience of minority communities in a white nation. The invisibility of LGBT migrants, in particular, indicates the border politics at play.Fig 11

Fig 12

This kind of erasure has serious effects on LGBT people in minority communities. It legitimates the belief that being queer is ‘a white thing, it has nothing to do with us’. It confirms the lived experience of structural racism, to see the nation’s ideal image of itself and find that you have no place in it. It helps breathe life into the dogwhistle politics that stir up racist, anti-migrant scapegoating.

The video below, made by Anti Racism Network Ireland (ARN), a radical grassroots activist organisation based in Dublin, attempted to make an intervention when these dynamics became clear in the last few weeks of the referendum campaign. It was addressed not so much to the ‘majority’ community, but to migrant communities: to provide a message of acceptance and belonging to LGBT people in those communities; to underline the need for solidarity across communities and identifications; to show that there is no homogenous ‘migrant’, ‘African’, ‘Muslim’, as some newspaper reports drumming up fears of an orchestrated No vote from the so-called ‘New Irish’ had speculated. The short video conforms to the Yes Equality aesthetic and is ‘on message’, but the quiet radicalism of many of those who spoke to camera and of people from various ‘migrant communities’ who shared ARN’s message in their networks again produced something in excess of the marriage referendum itself – a step toward transformative change rather than an end-point.

Ann Mulhall teaches in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. She is an activist with Anti Racism Network Ireland (ARN).

“Same” Sex Adultery, Bigamy, Gold Digging and Divorce, or, What Is to Be Done After Marriage “Equality”?

30 May

The recent vote in favor of marriage equality in Ireland raises many interesting questions about the implications of broadening public support for “same sex” marriage.  Does this support corral LGBT and queer populations into a normalizing, conservatizing state institution as many on the queer left in the U.S. have argued for years?  Or might a victory for marriage “equality” like the one in Ireland open up some possibilities for organizing for broader social and economic justice, as many on the queer left in Ireland now argue?  Bully Bloggers is beginning a series on marriage ambivalence with this toast from University of Utah queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton from 2014, at a moment when the rising possibility of legal gay marriage in a state run by homophobic Mormon Republicans created considerable euphoria across the progressive political spectrum.  The similarities between Utah and Ireland seem illuminating right now–a gay marriage victory against all odds in a conservative religious environment can feel dramatically empowering from the center leftward.  Below, Stockton plays with the ambivalence of the moment for her, a long time queer opponent of the emphasis on marriage in LGBT politics.  Next up:  a post from Irish queer theorist and activist Anne Mulhall, analyzing the context for and implications of the recent Irish vote.

–Lisa Duggan


How I Toast Marriage While Being Against It

by Kathryn Bond Stockton

What follows is a speech I was asked to give for our annual Gayla during Pride Week, October 2014, at the University of Utah, where I teach queer theory and raced sexualities. The assigned theme for my talk was “beyond marriage equality”—to be given to an audience largely excited that Utah had been granted marriage equality for about two weeks in 2013, albeit before it was halted again. Indeed, three days after my speech, and by the time Laverne Cox closed our Pride festivities, we had been granted marriage equality, to the great delight of so many in my state

TOAST: To our period of marriage equality—and the remarkable people who were part of it

Do I have your attention? Hear me say: don’t listen to me. Whatever you do, don’t attend to me. Turn away in your minds. Why? I may provoke you. (I’m a professor, that’s what we do.) Oh, I’ll do it sweetly, gently, warmly—I love so many of you. But you’re about to witness one of the weirdest talks embracing marriage equality that you’ve yet encountered.

Here’s what I’m guessing is true of you tonight. You have a lively, liquid idea of the word “gay,” or the word “trans,” or the word “queer,” and what it means to wed it to “marriage.” So let me be straight with you. As you know, weddings are Camp, no matter how sincerely enacted. (Think of the weddings you have attended, maybe your own: the excessive clothes, the unnatural settings, the stupendous cakes, the bad family photos, or the waiting in line at City Hall, all for the state to tell you you can love the person you’ve been loving—and that you can wed yourself to their stuff. You marry their house, their mountain bike, their benefits, more than you marry an actual person, and that’s a little odd.)   Weddings fit the definition of Camp—they’re like drag queens—they are “artifice”; “love of the unnatural”; “excruciation”; “relish for exaggeration”; “a good taste of bad taste.” And my fellow campy queers, Camp, you’ll recall, is a form of generosity. Camp embraces what it knows is out of date, tacky, embarrassing: namely, marriage. We queer folk are being generous to marriage. How delightfully démodé of us, how supremely retro we are being.

Not all of us, of course. And this is important. We’re so clever that some of us are marrying and some of us are not. That’s so brilliant. In that brief little window of time in Utah last winter, I had a chance to say no to marriage. That was deeply thrilling. With my partner of twenty-four years—I’m still deadly attracted to her (don’t look at me, I’ve told her, don’t look my way tonight; I’ll lose my place, I’ll drop my lines—she’s that cute)—I volunteered to refuse the right to marry. Someone’s gotta do it. Someone’s gotta say: “marriage shall not get the credit for our love.” We queer folk spent so many centuries crafting lifestyles the world so greenly envied. That is why we were hated, in part. A huge part of homophobic thinking has resented us for the lives we’ve led, viewing queer life as a form of hedonism. I take that as a compliment. Thus, as I’m rather fond of saying: no one—not even right-wing wing nuts—has been deeming queerness unnatural. They’ve deemed it hyper-natural—everybody’s going gay, if we let them—because it has seemed like seductive cheating to live our lives (marriage-free, child-free, soaked in pleasure).

And, indeed, queer folk have had the good sense to decouple sex from nesting: have your sexing outside your nesting; nesting kills sexing! or at least it can. We’ve had the sense to split “orientation” (the kind of person I try to sleep with) from the key question of sexual subjectivity (who I want to be, how I want to be gendered, when I sleep with that kind of person), leading, for example, someone who was male-assigned at birth to present as a woman so as to be a lesbian. We’ve had the sense to raise kissing to an art form (some of us making orgasm the prelude to kissing, what we do to get to kiss, so profound is the contact just at the surface, at the lip of surface—catching your lover’s breath just so, making an intercourse at the hint of skin). And we’ve had the sense not to fetishize longevity. Give me two hot years of relating over thirty years of worn-out loving. Divorce, for this reason, can be heroic. Feminists have known this for a long time. And queers before gay-marriage came along tended to thematize the bravery of leaving, in some cases (not in all, of course). We’ve had a way of reminding the world that it takes guts to extract oneself from marriage—and it takes privilege, good old money, since many women especially have had to stay in relationships if they would keep their standard of living, or their children.

So we’ve been telling a few white lies (we don’t call lies “white” for nothing) when it comes to “marriage equality.” We keep saying we won’t change marriage. Newsflash: marriage has always been changing. Is marriage now what it was in the U.S. in the 1950’s when my parents married? Thankfully, no. (See Mad Men.) Is marriage here, in the U.S., what it is in many other parts of the world? Marriage never was, never is one thing. If there were time, I would tell you that in order to trace the evolution of “marriage equality” as we now envision it, we would need at minimum to discuss Jane Austen, in whose novels people marry houses, though they have to think they marry and mate strictly for love. We would have to examine the invention of “the homosexual” in 1891, along with the development (also in the nineteenth century) of vulcanized rubber (you know why that’s important), never mind the changes of the twentieth century that change marriage: two world wars (what in the world were those soldiers up to?), the birth of birth control, Stonewall drag queens, people “transitioning,” and a little something—don’t get me started on more white lies—about the thing called “mixed-race” marriages. And let’s remember, conservative straight folks put gay people at the heart of straight marriage, thus changing marriage. The definition “one man, one woman” effectively means “no gay marriage”; every time it’s said, “gays” are the ghost that is conjured by the phrase, leading us to hear, leading all to hear: “one man, one woman, no gays.” We’re a threesome, in a legal sense.

Will we change marriage, we queer folk? Will we insert our beyond inside it? (“Come here, marriage….   Come to Daddy….”) Of course we’ll change marriage. If we’re lucky! If the queers I so respect, I so adore, I so celebrate for their new marriages—thank you for marrying, someone had to do it, someone had to grasp the equality we’re asking for—if these folks have their marriages upheld, marriage overall has the chance to become more sex variant, more trans-rich, more divorce-friendly, and, dare I say, more replete with kissing (or is that my obsession? I can’t tell; my partner looked at me). Speaking of my partner looking at me…. I’m throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the lovers, the many lovers, here. Un-nest yourselves, from inside your nests, while you build your nests. Keep desire alive! (May I queer Jesse Jackson?) Celebrate your partner when she most annoys you. It proves she isn’t you. And that’s a good thing. She’s a sexy stranger you can have sex with. And whatever you do, don’t “share” your day—not with each other. Nothing is more deadening. Nothing’s less creative. Nothing’s more routine. She spews on you, while you’re not listening; you spew on her, while she’s not listening. Don’t share your day. Just “make out” at the point of contact. Cruise her, don’t abuse her with your day.

But where are we headed on the matter of equality? That’s the hard question.   Marriage, as you know, is not a good way to get crucial benefits delivered to people; to make lives secure; to break up dyads; to end the grip of racism; and marriage perhaps is not a good way to redistribute wealth (unless you divorce).

I really hope that while there’s time, while we don’t have rights (at least this right) inside red states, we queer folk (and queer straight folks) can show that we care about things beyond our rights, beyond the rights that dangerously make us resemble white, straight, middle-class men of means, who, for a long time, had the rights and benefits of marriage to themselves, making a onesome inside their twosome. Imagine our becoming vibrant champions of anti-poverty, anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, while we don’t have rights. Take that, blue states! Wouldn’t we be modeling something even grander than coalition-making? Wouldn’t we be modeling trans-categorical-political-focus, or at least binocular focus, tri-nocular focus, showing our focus on issues not solely tied to our rights, which would have the benefit of honoring queer folk who have felt excluded in queer life (poor queer folk, queer folks with disabilities, many queers of color)?

We have earned the right to be cleverly contradictory. Say yes to marriage!; say no to it, too. There’s no such thing as homosexuality—but of course I’m going to Pride!  Let’s have a red-state political strategy, but let’s show the blue states it’s more radical to live here—to think here, to learn here. The queerest thing about me? I love Utah. We must be a hive of ideas.

And lucky for you, or maybe not, you can hear me spout off on my queer approach to the practice of income redistribution in a talk I’ll give to Student Affairs this coming January. It is entitled “Sameness, Underwear, Pleasure, and Need.” But I’m warning you: don’t listen to me.

Here’s my colleague, Cliff Rosky….

Kathryn Bond Stockton is Distinguished Professor of English and Interim Associate Vice President of Equity and Diversity at the University of Utah









“Self-Portrait 2015” Roderick A. Ferguson University of Illinois, Chicago May 8, 2015

12 May Demand

PiperCubIt’s a strange thing to find yourself as a character in the book you just wrote, especially when the book is neither fiction nor autobiography. Those of you who have read The Reorder of Things will recall that I began with a collage by Adrian Piper called “Self-Portrait 2000.” The collage in part “depicts” Piper as a downed airplane. But it also contains a sharp letter to Wellesley’s then president for allegedly violating the terms of Piper’s hire. And the collage is further intensified by presenting a poem to God that rails at God for producing a botched-up version of humanity. In The Reorder of Things, I use the collage as a way to open the book’s interrogation of how state and capital have followed the academy’s example in relation to the management of diversity. Like the academy, the state and the financial institutions it refuses to regulate, abandon the visions of equitable distribution and social justice fostered by the student movements of the 1960’s—especially in terms of their promotion of interdisciplinary scholarship and faculty and student diversity. Instead, all three institutions have actively worked to sabotage projects of intellectual and demographic redistribution while all the while promoting a love for diversity.


Enter the “Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative to Increase Diversity and the Interdisciplinary Culture at UIC.” As the name suggests, the initiative was intended to be a way to transform the University of Illinois at Chicago by hiring twenty-five junior and senior faculty who would be distributed among five research clusters—the Racialized Body, Middle East and Muslim Societies, Social Justice and Human Rights, Diaspora Studies, and Global Urban Immigration. While the official name of the cluster initiative implies that it was a mandate from on high, the categories that came to define the clusters were designed by the faculty and were the result of two competitive proposal phases that involved the entire campus, not just the faculty in Liberal Arts and Sciences. The faculty who wrote the proposals talked of meeting in coffee shops and in department conference rooms to hammer out what would be a truly historic dream if realized.

It would have been the first time in the history of the American academy that an institution—public or private—would reinvent itself based on interdisciplinary categories, categories produced in fields such as ethnic, cultural, gender, postcolonial, disability, and queer studies. It would have also been an epic achievement for a university with a working-class student body. This vision of what could have been, and indeed, what should have been, attracted those of us recently recruited from other institutions to the exciting but now short-lived UIC experiment.



The university insists that it is only “delaying” rather than canceling the clusters. This distinction is telling as it exemplifies a university administration attempting to establish itself as the rational arbiter and enforcer of hires around diversity while it strips those hires of any real substance. Our collective letter to Chancellor Michael Amiridis provides necessary context:

In addition to stopping the current searches, the Interim Provost and Dean explained that the entire cluster program was being delayed, and that before it could restart, the substance of the positions required recalibration that would supersede both the agreed to conditions of the cluster proposals (all applications were signed by Executive Officers and Deans) and the extensive internal peer review process that selected these clusters over others. Such an abrupt cancelation of four high-profile searches (not delay as recent communications have indicated), and a drastic change to the peer review process, fundamentally endangers this major diversity initiative at our public urban university and threatens to tarnish our national reputation and ability to recruit in the future.

It is important to note, as the above paragraph attests, that the prior agreement authorizing the clusters has been voided. The new conditions call for a reappraisal by the Deans of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As the letter states, “Over the course of the first three years, the PIs made requests for meetings with Dean Tantillo to discuss search processes; we never received a positive response and instead were re-directed to meet with Associate Deans who were not authorized to make decisions on the hiring process.” In other words, after the searches were authorized, we are now told that the searches can only be re-authorized by the very administrative players that abandoned them in the first place.

If not “cancellation,” perhaps we should call it an “indefinite or permanent delay?” That would, of course, allow us to continue with the fiction that UIC’S diversity initiative has not been cancelled, and its commitment to diversity will march on, one day reactivated by people who never meant it to survive in the first place. As one of the persons hired to realize this initiative, there’s no way for the administration’s actions not to be dismaying, but as a theorist, I can’t help but be intrigued—even by the maneuvers that have undermined what my colleagues and I have tried to accomplish. This part might be a lesson to us all.

The discourse that has caught my eye is the university’s use of “student demand.” In addition to the looming shadow of anticipated budget cuts, the dean at the April 16th meeting said that the clusters had to be delayed because of a lack of “student demand” for those areas articulated by the clusters—intersectional feminism, social justice, Middle-East and Muslim, political economy and globalization, and urban diaspora, in particular. This is an especially astonishing claim on a campus with a growing Latino, Asian, Asian American, Arab, Arab-American, Middle-Eastern and Muslim student body. What is even more interesting is that many of the students from these groups have for years demanded areas of study like the ones that have been cancelled. If these students’ demands are not the ones that the university acknowledges, who and what are the interests behind the administration’s deployment of “student demand?”



Think back to the moment of the sixties and seventies student movements and how large the word “demand” loomed in radical manifestos, manifestos that called for widespread social change. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front of San Francisco State issued their “TWLF SF State College Demands,” listing the establishment of a “School for Ethnic Studies” as their number one demand. In 1969 the Lumumba-Zapata student movement at the University of California at San Diego, upon hearing of the institution’s plans to build a new—“Third”—college responded by writing, “We demand a Third College be devoted to relevant education for minority youth and to the study of the contemporary social problems of all people.” In that same year, African American and Puerto Rican students at City College in New York would issue their “Five Demands” intended to change the university’s institutional and intellectual structure to speak to the histories and realities of students at that institution. The sixties and seventies saw the emergence of the category “demand” as the keyword of student militancy directed at university administrations, directed at them so that knowledge might be reorganized rather than diminished.



As they vie for control of that category, university administrations attempt to absorb and neutralize the possibility of radical change on college campuses; those administrations are increasingly doing so by laying claim to the idea of “student demands.” Instead of using the discourse of “student demand” to promote the progressive reorganization of knowledge for the good of faculty and student development, the administration uses the category to arrogate power unto itself. In this way, the figure of the student becomes the ethical motivation and justification for expulsion rather than redistribution, determining what forms of knowledge and critique can be expelled from intellectual space and livelihood. Steven Salaita’s firing is a case in point. In her justification for terminating him, the Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise implicitly invoked “student demand” as the rationale for that decision, stating “We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” As an institutional discourse, student demand, thus, provides a handy justification for a diverse array of administrative expulsions, ones that could conceivably involve courses, people, hiring initiatives, and so on.

With the rise of the administrative control of student demand, the student is turned into an absolutely serviceable abstraction, the evidence of which can be seen in the simple fact that the administrators who deploy the figure of the student are actually not the ones—for the most part—who teach them, listen to them, or learn from them. In the end though, a move like the one that we just saw at UIC is not only an attack on diversity and interdisciplinarity; it is also an assault on academic freedom. The classical definition of academic freedom means that the faculty controls the curriculum and therefore presides over the hiring of those persons who will execute it. As the new enforcer of student demand, the administration can then say it is best positioned to manage the curriculum and hiring. The result of this is the overturning of academic freedom. If neoliberalism, as Lisa Duggan has argued, is the upward redistribution of resources—in this instance toward the administration, the administrative seizure of student demand is neoliberalism par excellence.



It has only recently occurred to me that anti-intellectualism might be something more than “anti-intellectual,” more than the description that so many of us use when we find ourselves in the throes of institutional distress, more than a grievance or an annoyance. I have only now begun to think about how anti-intellectualism might seriously be the “mature” and defensive expression of academic institutions, an expression that retaliates against past and present campus uprisings and a formation worthy of serious theorization. Consider all the meetings with and speeches by administrators in which intellection is turned into the clumsiness of prima donnas, and bureaucratic thinking is taken to be the privileged capacity of reasoned individuals to properly run the university, individuals whose intelligence is measured by how much can they dilate over the bottom line, people who—by some bureaucratic clairvoyance—can determine which undergraduate fields will yield jobs, profits, and a future, a clairvoyance that allows them to judge which forms of knowledge are worthy of life or death.

In the hands of the administration, “student demand” becomes the reason to discourage speculative thought, producing a situation in which the most extreme forms of anti-intellectualism are found among an institution’s elites. As an institutional discourse, anti-intellectualism is necessary to make the administration the center of university authority, allowing it to impose administrative control over all intellectual activity, activities that should be the province of students and teachers. In the days of the sixties and seventies, the student—no longer content to be defined by external forces but self-marked by gender, sexual, ethnic and racial particularities—was the catalyst for the multiplication of forms of knowledge within the academy. In our moment and through a backlash against the prior one, the figure of the student—cynically—becomes the administration’s alibi for the degeneration of knowledge. I began this piece with Adrian Piper’s “Self-Portrait 2000.” I’ll end with two other “portraits” that bear upon this discussion. Ai Weiwei’s “A Study in Perspective” is a series of photographs in which the artist gives the middle finger to structures of power in Paris, Berlin, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Hong Kong. The series is designed to critique governments’ dismissal of everyday people’s freedoms. Commenting on it, Ai said, “I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.”


On April 29th UIC students mounted a demonstration in support of the Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative and demanded that the cancelled searches be fully reinstated. A group of protesters who were inspired by Ai’s “A Study of Perspective” staged their own version of the series. In the photo from the UIC demonstration, we see three fingers shot upwards at University Hall, the building that houses the UIC administration. Similar to Ai’s critique of governmental abuses, the UIC photo contests the administration’s disregard of faculty members and students’ freedoms to set their own agendas for intellectual expression, particularly around curricular development, interdisciplinary hiring, and diversity. Moreover, we might read the three fingers as a sign that challenging structures of power is a collective rather than individual endeavor, one that demands that we counter the necessarily anti-intellectual nature of neoliberal practices by returning to the boldness of intellection. Indeed, the UIC photograph suggests that a finger, rather than being an apolitical symbol of vulgarity, might—to quote Audre Lorde—be “loaded with information and energy.”


He Does Class and Race, She Does Gender and Sexuality (and Class and Race): Heteronormativity in the Left Academy

4 Apr

By Lisa Duggan

Parts of this blog post have been adapted from my 2014 American Studies Association Presidential Address, forthcoming in American Quarterly.


Have you noticed? The way that so many left academic couples divide up the intellectual and political world in their scholarship and institutional alliances? So many of the straight-identified men analyze the dynamics of class, and sometimes race, but leave gender and sexuality out. As a set-aside agenda of sorts for the women and queers to undertake. The female partners of these men often (not always) address gender and sexuality, usually along with class and race (though again, not always). It’s kind of like the primary responsibility for housework—there’s a double day for the feminized, who also legitimate the guys. Who can say he’s not a feminist, not a queer ally, if his consort and/or close comrades take care of that for him?

Of course it’s the scholars of color who do the yeoman’s labor to analyze race, and there is plenty of default white feminist and queer scholarship floating around out there! But in my primary field of American Studies, serious inroads have been made in putting empire, colonialism, diaspora and migration, and the historical dynamics of racialization on the central intellectual agenda along with the history of capitalism in left scholarship. A lot more progress than in, say, geography or sociology—the precincts surrounding the work of David Harvey, for instance. In those quarters capitalism too often seems to float free of colonialism and the racial state. Race appears as a topic, or a population, but not as a central historical dynamic.

In American Studies, the progress has not been easy or automatic. In her 1997 Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, Mary Helen Washington pointed out that relationship between the fields of African American Studies and American Studies had been distant and troubled. In that address, Washington is especially determined to outline the significant difference between simply including African Americans as a population or a topic, and the more challenging task of reconstructing the field with Black Studies as an integral optic and approach. The task is to reimagine the history of capitalism, for instance, as the history of racial capitalism, as Cedric Robinson pointed out so persuasively in 1983.

The challenges from the fields of Latino Studies, Asian American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies have all made waves, and all have encountered similar barriers when making the crucial argument for distinguishing between pleas for simple inclusion as populations or topics, and the fundamental call to reimagine the field of American Studies from top to bottom–the call that always meets with the most resistance.

In the most recent issue of Social Text devoted to the legacy of José Muñoz, Kandice Chuh formulates this issue as the problem of “aboutness” that is central to what she calls the “field coverage” model of knowledge production. She argues that questions like “What is Asian American Studies about?” or “What is Asian American about this book, music, or performance?” lead us into a “silo mentality” that cordons off critical challenges. Rather than engage the challenge of Asian Americanist critique in the quest to open new avenues of inquiry and raise reorienting or disorienting questions, the field coverage model allows the persistence of the patterns of ignorance that sustain hierarchies of knowledge in the academy.

When I was on the job market in the early 1990s, a faculty member on a search committee at Wellesley College piped up to say “People like you don’t even know who the presidents were!” I replied that I not only knew the presidents, but could describe their wives’ inaugural ball gowns. This weird exchange illustrates the reversal/projection whereby someone who knew nothing about the field of sexuality studies assumed I would know nothing about mainstream historiography—in which I had earned a PhD! Ignorance in this context, as Eve Sedgwick pointed out some time ago, is a mark of privilege.

Chuh presses for intellectual anti-parochialism that refuses “aboutness” and its practices—the adding of populations to classrooms and topics to syllabi without any fundamental reconstruction of our knowledge projects. She frames Asian Americanness as a problem space for the consideration of everything, from the onto-epistemology of modernity to the circulation of capital.

Gender and sexuality studies joins American Studies with this kind of refusal of identitarian logics, engaged with historical political economic forces and political aesthetic questions via a feminist lens, or what José Muñoz has called a “queer optic.” This is not simply Women’s or LGBT studies, aiming for inclusion in the classroom and on the syllabus.

One of the most important books establishing this broad ground of critique for queer studies within American Studies is Licia Fiol-Matta’s A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral (2002). This book does not frame queerness as the site of identity and oppression, joined with a plea for inclusion. Fiol-Matta’s account of the work of the figure of poet Gabriela Mistral traces the uses of this representation of queerness for the project of racial nationalism in Latin America. Queerness in this analysis is not the subversive outside of normativity, but is rather incorporated within the colonial imaginary as a site of racial and gender pedagogy. There is no way to overstate the importance of this book for the kind of queer studies centered in American Studies over the past decade.

Fiol-Matta’s book was followed by Roderick Ferguson’s groundbreaking Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003). From the perspective of transgender sex workers (and drawing from Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film Tongues Untied), Ferguson launches a sharp and thorough insider’s critique of Marxism and sociology.   Jasbir Puar’s 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, analyzes the work of queerness within post 9/11 imperial politics, as integrated within the “civilizational” discourse designed to demonize the Arab and Muslim world. In 2011, Dean Spade published a trenchant critique of the limits of law reform from a transgender perspective in his Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Trans Politics and the Limits of Law. Also in this spirit of queer transformation, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s 2013 poetic masterpiece The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study enjoins us to regard Black Study in the same anti-identitarian spirit of transformative insurrection from within and outside the university.

The impact of this groundbreaking work is substantially diminished when it is included, even welcomed, but understood as “about” LGBT populations and the topic of sexuality and gender. Such modes of categorization fence out the deep critical challenge of queer studies, adding in some scholars and texts, but leaving the overall project of American Studies relatively untouched. These strategies of inclusion leave intact conventional presumptions about who needs to know what, who should read whom, and where a given critical lens is relevant.

Which brings us back to that academic couple. Recently on Facebook, I asked the hive mind to post the authors and titles of work by straight-identified men that fully integrates gender and sexuality as an analytic. As I expected, there were some excellent books on that list—Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, Curtis Marez’s Drug Wars, and many others. But they could be listed, there was no avalanche, even drawing on every field of scholarship that my 1500+ friends represent (and quite a few of those authors were pretty queer, not exactly straight-identified even if heterosexually involved). It’s worth asking—does the deployment of gender and sexual analysis marginalize or ghettoize work by straight-identified male scholars? In order to become one of the Big Men, is it in fact advisable to avoid gender or sexual analysis? It sometimes seems that white guys gain cred/privilege/status by undertaking scholarship on race (in a way that many scholars of color find problematic). But that kind of crossover does not seem to work for the field of gender and sexuality studies. The cred can come from the partner and comrades, right?

I hope I’m overstating the current situation, in angry dyke mode (my favorite)! I hope the intellectual ghettos, minority set-aside programs, and political marginalizations are ending more quickly than I can see.



A Lover’s Discourse on a Bridge, by Sandy Soto

22 Mar IMG_2796



attente / waiting

Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being,

subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns).

–Roland Barthes

Last Monday, my blasé sorting through the day’s mail turned to femme giddiness. Tearing open a cardboard book box, I caught a flash of the black and red: Bridge had finally re-made its way home. Since 2008, when the book last fell out of print, the hunger for its reappearance had been collective and collecting. Such is the staying power of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, co-edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981). Its comings and goings and returns across 34 years and 5 presses:

  • 1981, Persephone Press
  • 1983, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (2nd edition)
  • 1988, ism press (adapted Spanish edition, co-edited by Moraga & Ana Castillo, translated by Castillo and Norma Alarcón)
  • 2002, Third Woman Press (expanded 3rd edition)
  • 2015, SUNY Press (4th edition)

bridge covers

Easy to type up that matter-of-fact list. And comforting to finally be able to type the last the most recent entry with certainty. But the listing feels stagnant, not beginning to capture the moods, the attente / waiting, the uncertain periods of betweenness, what Moraga called in a radio interview earlier this month, “the pause.”

For many of us, those pauses between editions held anticipation:

  • Will it come back again?
  • And, if so, what changes will have been made to the Table of Contents? And why?
  • What is Anzaldúa’s relationship to the book now [before her death in 2004]? Moraga’s?
  • What about Moraga and Anzaldúa’s own relationship to each other?
  • The original contributors’ relationships to their own now-dated writings and to their former selves?
  • Do younger generations have an investment in “women of color feminism” / “U.S. Third World Feminism”? And, if so, how would that politics differ from what was imaginable during the 1970s feminist scene that helped shape the first edition?
  • Will I ever be able to put the book on a syllabus again? And, if not, how to teach photocopied selections from Bridge in a way that captures the sheer power of the book in all of its complicated and wonderful physicality, its cover-to-cover wholeness, its assembling through/across/within difference, rather than in spite of it?
  • If it finally is republished, will my own interest in it still be as alive as it once was?


Souveinir / remembrance

Happy and/or tormenting remembrance of an object, a gesture, a scene, linked to the loved being and marked by the intrusion of the imperfect tense into the grammar of the lover’s discourse.

–Roland Barthes

The anticipation and unknowingness generated in and by the pauses, for me, is part of the pleasure of relating to Bridge as a living process. Each return, if and when it does come, adding yet another layer of texture. If you were to count the number of unique prefaces, forewords, introductions, and afterwords written or co-written by Moraga and Anzaldúa—never mind Kate Rushin’s introductory “The Bridge Poem,” or the translators’ notes and publishers’ notes—you’d easily get to a dozen. That’s a lot of situating. And that material in and of itself tells a particular story about Moraga and Anzaldúa—their changing political views over time and even their implicit disagreements with one another about the bounds and strategies of women of color feminism.

But what’s been most interesting for me as a follower is to think about the unsituated changes, trying to guess at and learn from the reasons for the quiet alterations. (My sleuth-love of the small detail is a topic for a very different kind of confessional post.)

  • How/why did Anzaldúa’s name go missing as co-editor on the Spanish edition?
  • In Moraga’s new Introduction, “Catching Fire,” how does her editorial bracketed insertion of “Indigenous” change the meaning of the Combahee River Collective’s self-naming?

“‘If Black [Indigenous] women were free…everyone else would have to be since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression'” (xix).

Moraga attaches this endnote to “[Indigenous]”:

“Black women are Indigenous women, once forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland. If not in the specifics, the major ideological tenets of the 1977 Combahee River Collective statement can serve today as a treatise for Indigenous women’s rights movements globally” (n. 6, xxv).

  • And, on the 4th edition’s Table of Contents, how/why did Max Wolf Valerio’s name get reverted back to the 1st edition’s “Anita Valerio” when the 3rd edition allows him to be listed on the TOC as who he is: “Max Wolf Valerio”? If the answer to that question is that Max was Anita in 1981 and that “It’s In My Blood, My Face—My Mother’s Voice, the Way I Sweat” somehow reflects Anitaness and not Maxness, was that Valerio’s own understanding and decision? SUNY’s? Moraga’s? Some happy combination? Who gets to decide? And/or, if Moraga wanted the 4th edition to be more loyal/faithful to the 1st edition than was the 3rd, then why are the other changes not disloyal (Donna Kate Rushin is now Kate Rushin; 3 additional poems by Rushin are included in the 4th edition; new artwork on the cover and between the covers; etc.)?


These are actually not such “small detail” kinds of questions, after all. They go to the heart of the politics of representation, difference, self-naming, agency—to name just a few of the bricks that give Bridge its force. We can’t know what Anzaldúa would have thought about these questions or about the 4th edition, even if the statement provided by the her literary trust (presumably written by AnaLouise Keating) notes that she “would be pleased with the additional possibilities this publication promises” (xxvii). We can count on Moraga to be characteristically open about her process. One thing that I’ll always love about her style is its raw honesty, her generous willingness to put herself out there.

But I’d also love to keep learning from and knowing about the other contributors to Bridge. In relation to the many introductions, prefaces, forewords and afterwords that give Moraga and Anzaldúa the power and freedom to grow, move, change, and reflect over time, we have such little access to the changes/thoughts/reflections of Valerio, Genny Lim, Jo Carillo, and doris davenport, to name just a few.

And I encourage those of us who are readers/fans/teachers/followers of Bridge to do more than celebrate it! It deserves to be celebrated, for sure. But it also deserves good solid readings and re-readings. For if Bridge is truly a living process, it belongs to all of us, doesn’t it?

Escape Velocity, or, There Must be 50 Ways to Queer ‘The Family’

19 Feb

By Lisa Duggan

I’m teaching an introductory undergraduate course in LGBT history and politics this spring, encountering anew the alternating confusion, resistance and delight of students as they start to take in the full implications of the simple claim that gender and sexuality are historically constructed. As they arrive in my classroom, most understand LGBT “identities” as inborn or otherwise fixed; they bring with them an understanding of politics shaped by the marriage equality movement (though some come with versions of radical, genderqueer politics already well developed). They take the ride with me through Freud and Foucault, reading history, anthropology and queer theory texts with eyes wide open, questions flooding the room. It’s always fun to hear them work through ideas that challenge their working assumptions.

But eventually we arrive at an impasse. Having shed notions of biological or psychic fixity, having worked through ideas about historically embedded social and cultural construction, many feel frustrated. They want to know how some of us come to embrace dissident gender and sexual practices, while others do not. They want to know how gender and sexual identities come to feel so real, and for some so innate and fixed. Something is missing: how do we link the historical forces that shape genders and sexualities with lived subjectivities? Queering psychoanalysis goes some way toward addressing these questions, but for students with a keen awareness of transnational and temporal variation, those theories can be too universalizing.

I struggle with ways of addressing these questions, this frustration. Dissident gender and sexual practices and modes of living emerge in specific contexts, there is no way to generalize, to abstract any “cause” beyond local conditions and meanings. For myself, I have come to understand my own “difference” as an exit strategy, more about making an alternative world than about abstract sexual desire or gender identity.

I grew up in the Vortex of Hell, located in the spaces in and between Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Born in 1954, I first learned about family and the bonds of intimacy from my alcoholic Irish Catholic father and reserved, caustic lapsed southern Baptist mother in a ticky tacky suburban tract house, and from the gleefully sadistic nuns at Star of the Sea elementary school.   My father was intermittently violent, and my mother clinically depressed. The nuns provided a model of alternative, non-family living so horrifying in its manifest meanness that Sister Miriam Patrice effectively controlled us by threatening to make us live with them if we misbehaved. Both settings taught me more about the stoic endurance of church and state approved long-term commitments and the twisted paths of confined desire, than about the vicissitudes of human interdependence and intimacy.

Under the circumstances it was hard to know what to want.


By high school, heterosexual dating looked like a viable exit plan. Though I announced to all assembled in any setting that I would never marry (that path had not worked out well for my mother), I plunged into sex and romance with gusto. My mother interfered at every turn, restricting my choice of boyfriends, policing my attire, telling me my “emotional dependence” on boys was pathetic. Her ambivalence about the actively heterosexual life was palpable. She wanted me to be Mary Tyler Moore of the TV show, a respectably straight and ladylike but largely celibate professional.

Clearly this was the unlived life for which she yearned. Born on a Mississippi dirt farm, raised in poverty and partly in an orphanage, she aspired. Her mother, Golden, shot and killed her own father at the age of eleven to stop him from raping her. She married Claude Green, becoming Golden Green, and considered naming my mother Olive. They settled instead on a made up southern name composed of two aunts’ names, Marinelle. Divorced, remarried, and repeatedly violent toward her step children, Golden was treated with electroshock therapy. My mother and her sister were sent to live with their grandmother on the farm, then left at a southern orphanage (that she referred to as a “boarding school”) for a number of years.

Marinelle Green honed her focused aspirations and planned her escape. With steely determination she put herself through Louisiana State University working as a police reporter on the night beat. But after World War II options for women contracted, she married a Catholic and popped out two infants in quick succession, then found herself trapped by her own adherence to the rules of gendered respectability. Her class aspirations drove her forward then stopped her dead in her tracks, tied to an alcoholic who sold concrete for the mobbed up real estate industry in Virginia Beach. She began to use abstinence as birth control and withdrew into depression. She was personally offended when a highway near her house was named the Powhite Expressway.

Marinelle wanted me to escape. Her plan: I should have no feelings. Because she believed feelings led to heterosexual marriage and childbearing, this plan would keep me from ending up like her. The problem: I wouldn’t cooperate. I was passionate—angry, rebellious, sexual. She was disgusted. A pitched battle raged through my teenage years. She wanted me to stay home, read Victorian novels, and aspire as she had. Instead I hiked my skirt hems and dated a football player. I fucked my boyfriend in the living room and left the condom under the rug—risky behavior before Roe v. Wade in a Catholic household. In hindsight I realized my mother wasn’t all wrong to be worried. I moved out just after high school graduation, and borrowed the money to go to UVa.

There were other people in my childhood world, though I barely noticed. My father had his own backstory of misery and near escape. Born into a long line of Irish alcoholics, his brother poured gasoline on him and set him on fire when he was seven. The charity hospital saved his life with experimental skin grafting techniques. His father beat and humiliated him. His mother died with the delirium tremens in the state mental hospital. He joined the army, natch. My biggest fight with him as a teenager, after a childhood filled with his attacks and creepy sexualized efforts to make up after, featured my sitting in the living room reading The Communist Manifesto and his angry claim to have fought the communists in World War II. I calmly pointed out, as he stood over me swinging his belt, that he had fought with the communists in World War II. This further enraged him, as a historian was born.

After military service and marriage David Duggan went to college on the GI Bill, a psychology major. He then got the job selling concrete and went into and out of employed status with the rhythms of the local real estate economy and his drinking. My mother ridiculed him, he raged. When I engage in a favored practice I call Diagnose That Relative, I label him a narcissist with borderline tendencies. My mother I see as a depressive schizoid. The whole scene was later described by my brother’s social work professor as a “maximally distant” family constellation. That’s one way of putting it. I certainly didn’t learn much about close connection. I learned a lot about how to escape, something everyone in my family set out to do at some point, with disappointing results.

At UVa from 1972 to 1976 I joined a reading group at Black Flag anarchist press and co-founded the Radical Feminist Union. I listened to Joni Mitchell sing “we don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall.” But when my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1974, I married my political theory instructor in blue jeans and work shirt in front of a Justice of the Peace who told us the story of Adam’s rib. It wasn’t that I was close to my mother. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. But I panicked, unmoored and suspended at the point of free fall. I didn’t yet understand why. I had no clue then that even the most abusive relationships of childhood form our internal worlds and patterns of intimate connection. I knew nothing of complicated grieving. I was a political theory major, though my new husband was training to be a psychoanalyst. I fled into marriage as into a bomb shelter during an air raid.

It lasted longer than one would think—three years. Enough time for the claustrophobia to set in. My husband Richard was a nice guy, fundamentally egalitarian, not in any way a patriarch. But we socialized with other married couples, mostly leftist male grad student instructors and their wives who divided up by gender for conversation and chores, who expected the wives to care for future offspring. A few of the guys cheated and lied to their wives. The other guys knew and kept their secrets. I needed an exit strategy. I followed a butch lesbian librarian named Purple home and crashed her parties. I got stoned and had sex with the bisexual co-founder of the Radical Feminist Union and her girlfriend.

I didn’t come to lesbianism via the standard 1970s coming out narrative. I never experienced a suppressed inner desire for women that finally found expression, both personal and political. I hit on lesbianism as an exit strategy, an escape narrative, a way not to repeat my mother’s life, my own childhood domestic confinement. I experienced gender dysphoria in that femininity felt like a trap, but I liked the clothes a lot. At first I tried the then currently fashionable androgyny, in flannel shirts and boots. But I left my flannel shirts unbuttoned below the décolletage, and felt desire for creatures with many so-called masculine features. I was thrilled to discover that I could find thrillingly sexy masculine partners who could not, or would not, reproduce the gendered norms of domesticity and sociality. I could wear skirts without regrets. In that time and place, queer life appeared to me as a free zone, a place for experimentation and innovation in the forms of gender, intimacy and social life, a landscape for desire as yet uncolonized by the lifelong monogamy of the couple form legally enshrined in wedlock.

Of course this vision was largely a mirage in the desert of my marital confinement. It took me awhile to make a transition to a more complex and less utopian world than I imagined. But still. It was worth the effort. I went to graduate school and followed the first butch I found down the street into a world of ecstasy, possibility and trouble. I never made a monogamous commitment (though I often practiced de facto monogamy) and I never learned to cook. My bonds with friends and comrades defined my life more fundamentally than my sexual or romantic partnerships.


But this is not a story of simple escape from suburban domestic confinement to a utopia of radical politics and queer nirvana. The social and political worlds I inhabited marked my existence with conflict, loss, pain, confusion and profound hurt as fully as with connection and engagement. Any history of this period will elaborate. I understand my own path, not as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, but as a trajectory shaped by my childhood, my race, gender and class, and the time and places that I lived.   For many others, families and/or religious communities have provided the intimate context and foundation for progressive politics. Kinship, domesticity, religious faith and reproduction have widely varying meanings across time and space.

My own story leads me think of gender and sexual desire as always deeply embedded and context dependent—generating strategies rather than identities. For me, a queer life generated the escape velocity I needed to break intergenerational continuities, and attach to the other worlds and ways of the kind that my beloved friend José Muñoz both lived and wrote into being.


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