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Papa Doesn’t Smell The Heat

10 Oct

Mykki Blanco – High School Never Ends (ft. Woodkid) (Official Music Video) from The FADER on Vimeo.

By Tav Nyong’o

My constant teaching has been this: live for the drama, but don’t let the drama live you.

You are not your gadget, you are not the face at the end of your selfie stick, or the Emoji, Bitmoji, Ebroji. You are not the little techAsian monster avatar that the sea of oblivious and negligent faces see you as. Put your phone away and talk to me. You are not the tone that is being policed, or the body that just got housed. Some of us go to protest wearing our graveyard suits, as Brother Corn likes to say. And some of want to be downlow hanging in them baggy jeans that give you nice dreams.

I can learn from you even if I can’t trust you: you just might get my stone face. But still, my teaching has been this: you are not your stoneface, your nervous giggle, your catalogue of embarrassments, or your family basket of deplorables. Get serious for a second, but not too deadly serious. Remember to breathe when you can. There is peace beyond passion, but that great gettin’ up morning already happened, and those who need to know it already do. I need the right to sing those blues.

Mykki Blanco knows it. Mykki has the right to sing those blues and swing them. I spent Sunday evening being happily triggered by his latest video, “High School Never Ends.” It’s off his excellent debut album. Debut album? I feel like I’ve known Mykki forever but we’ve only met once in an elevator. I saw him play out one night in Berlin this summer, while I was still in a cosmopolitan funk about lost dreams, the funeral circuit, fleeting youth, and black bodies getting shot down in the streets of America, hustled out of cabs for a beat down in Germany, or drowned unheralded off Lampedusa. And yeah, I kinda know how that all sounds.

High School Never Ends is “black queer studies,” as the academy wants to call it, no tea, no shade. But those theory drugs may not love you the way they love me, and that’s okay too. It is a raw video, in painful focus, and watching it on my big screen (trigger warning for class privilege?) was its own small drama in my living room. I had to turn it off before the end to spare my friends and my beloved, giving new meaning to the guest croon of French singer Woodkid: “Why don’t you just delete me?”

Why don’t you just delete me … talk about… a great pick up line! Ha! (I hope you laughed) If only, if only our lives could be blanked out like that, if only we could delete ourselves and get contorted and connected somewhere under cover of dark.

If only we could peace out just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did.

Loosely based on Romeo + Juliet (Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the only one who has figured out how to get the mainstream to pay attention to black or brown lives by encapsulating them in white roles), High School Never Ends is really a love letter to the black bwoi or gal who may be planning his next ticket to Berlin after the “Get behind me Satan” moment last night during the debates.

I was that boy once. And, like James Baldwin  before me, I hoped that Europe would be a place where I could breathe. I didn’t want to assimilate, although ich spreche ein bisschen mehr Deutsche jetzt, so there. (Shout out to LaTasha Nevada Diggs for that courage to twerk the English tongue as she is spoke!) I wanted to interinimate, a word I learned from Fred Moten that comes from metaphysical poetry but could also apply to how we move through the world. Tickets, money, passport is the drill: get your life in the dank basement of a Neukölln bar, get bounced by the style fascists at the door to Berghain, do some “research,” and sun your nude ass by one of those lakes or canals that, quiet as it’s kept, the city is really known for. Stay woke, stay hidden, stay sleep.

Wear protective coloration, develop a tolerance for second hand smoke, explore polyamory, private FaceBook group sexscapades, and collective feminist accountability. Eat, pray, love or drink, grieve, fuck, and fuck up badly, as the case may be. Get your life and try not to notice how often protective coloration doesn’t really protect you, but is a ruse of your own making, a trip you may be on solo, an emotional aphasia in which you remain stone face everywhere outside the uchromatic dark. I can tell you; I’ve been there, and I will be again.

I feel Mykki has too: she is a transformer, a rager, someone who has left and returned to performing like so many of my friends, comrades, students, and intrigues. Like me, I think she finds the exit door from professional visibility is a revolving one. “I want to be here now,” I once heard her sing, “because the future is stupid!” And here we are, stupidly, in that present. Mykki is an alter ego, of course, a messy bitch who lives for drama. But don’t conflate her with Joanne the Scammer. Mykki will clock your nazi white Ass, and, if High School Never Ends is any indication, she also subscribes to the Frank Ocean mantra “I never ever fuck someone I wouldn’t beat up” or words to that effect. Call it black queer studies, or queer black studies, or black feminism. Or call it a troubling reverie up I had one night in my brown study: not the “brown” that is halfway to white, but the rocking posture you assume to keep the body thinking and feeling when you feel yourself trapped in some white supremacist freeze-frame.

I’m not the old head here to tell you “high school ends”, “it gets better,” or any mainsplaining shit like that. I refuse to be a man, and Mykki does to, (even when she is). In the video, she plays a game of fuck, marry, kill with the neo-Nazi youth that, quiet as it’s kept, the Left in Berlin has never stopped battling. I fuck with our Anarcho-Marxist dadbros so you may not need to: each one teach one.

After turning the video off after Woodkid’s sweet solo, my dear comrade suggested immediately I teach this video in my class next semester. I jumped up for a second, But then I thought about the student demand. I thought about triggering, boundaries, and this little thing called the traumatic kernel of the Real. (A little Lacan now and then does the body good, but I can also spare you). So I’m going to let that simmer a bit, and let this one circulate in the meantime out in what some smart folks down in Durham may have begun to call the Black Outdoors.

The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman in Conversation with J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak

The Black Outdoors tickles my throat; better hyperlink. Are we there yet? Are we here now? I may not be ready for it, but I want to be ready. And I can’t not want you to be ready to; you who I fall a little more in love with every look.

I need to learn the dark arts of black feminist refusal, which are my constant study, and I’m so grateful some one schools me in them every day. “Life is a school, unless you’re a fool,” Carmen McRae once sang. “But the learning brings you pain.” She added.I hear her, but I also hear Billy sing “hush now, don’t explain.” So for  now I end this appreciation to an album and the black feminist poethics that helped me listen to it by saying, bring the pain!

And, possibly, a small proposition: Worry the line, but teach to the letter.

I hear José listening, so I’ll shut up now and thank him for tuning in from an undisclosed Caribbean location. I can say it now: no one belongs here more than us.

And so, my constant teaching has been this, with a nod to the old gods whose language I won’t speak here or now: a greeting passed from mouth to mouth, head to head, from deepest darkest Africa to chocolate city. Let the master be your messenger. Let the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house. Just don’t let yourself be caught out up in it! Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The sky is open. All the rest is commentary. And night moves.

Twinks and Trolls

4 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

Screenshot 2016-03-23 09.39.21.png

Once upon a time, I began to write a blog post about the satirical “Twinks4Trumptroll that had started appearing in my Twitter feed. Finding much-needed gallows humor in the idea of a twink for Trump, I began to follow the account. Eventually, I drafted an explanation for the appearance of this latest little monster, and I even dabbled in the wishful thinking that Twinks4Trump might successfully bait Donald Trump’s official Twitter account into responding, thus exposing him to deserved mockery and scorn.

Back in March of 2016 (that more innocent age!) it was still possible to believe that parody might still hold the power to expose the inherent incongruity of a Trump candidacy, much less a Trump presidency, and bring the hot air balloon crashing back to earth before it could land in the White House.

 I sent my draft around to some of my friends on this blog, found myself in the curious position of having to explain what a twink was, met the lesbian feminist killjoy argument that gay men really do have fascist tendencies and this wasn’t funny, and, finally, made the unfortunate discovery of the existence of one Milo Yiannopolous, the latest gay darling of the racist so-called “alt-right.” Lesbian social theory, as usual, was unerring, and for those who can stomach it, Laurie Penny has given a complete account of Yiannopolous’ hijinks at the Republican National Convention. My jaw dropped several times while reading her exposé on the dark cynicism of the gay alt-right, and their dangerous predilection for anti-black and anti-Muslim violence. (And on this score, I will be reading Bobby Benedicto’s forthcoming essay on gay necroaesthetics — which he gave an excellent preview of earlier this summer, with great interest).

Geert Wilders speaking at “Wake Up” event at RNC, in front of “Twinks4Trump” photo spread.

“Alt-right” is a fancy, internet-themed name, but the phenomena of right-wing, race-baiting gays is not new (just ask Roy Cohn)! Back in 2002, Village Voice editor Richard Goldstein wrote an entire book critiquing the media prominence given to a group of figures he dubbed “The Attack Queers” — professedly liberal Democrats (Andrew Sullivan, Norah Vincent, and Camille Paglia came under particular fire at the time) who nonetheless appealed to the conservative right by skewering “political correctness” and “liberal groupthink.” The alt-right is sort of a funhouse exaggeration and dangerous extrapolation of this kind of trolling behavior, with intelligence-free hate and fear now seen as viable career options for the nihilistic and attention-craved (one of the most frequent Google searches for Yiannopolous is “net worth”).


King of Trolls?

Actual white supremacy and Islamophobia sort of spoiled the fun of Twinks4Trump for me, and brought me to question my long-held belief in the transgressive power of queer satire and invective. I even grew uncertain of my initial assumption that Twinks4Trump was a parody, and I wrote to the account holder, Cody Permenter, to be sure. To my relief, he confirmed his parodic intent, and we pondered a little where all this would go. Although he created the account to troll Trump and his followers, Permenter told me over email that:

“When I created the account, if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind. It was more for humor and because I was bored. But I think I tapped into something, a kind of cultural critique that I can use for some good. And if not…well, at least it’s still funny, which also has value. This election is volatile and draining, and humor shouldn’t be lost no matter how ugly it gets.”

I agreed then and still do, although I increasingly wonder whether humor is enough any longer. In our email exchange, I had compared Twinks for Trump to earlier feminist and queer agitprop groups such as Ladies Against Women and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and we discussed what might happen if someone actually tried to troll the Trump campaign as “Twinks for Trump.” I think we both thought at the time that such a troll would have a disruptive impact on the Trump campaign, that it was possible to, in Permenter’s words, “troll America’s greatest troll.” As it turns out, the joke was on us: now self-avowed gay Republicans are claiming the hashtag, Permenter has been obliged to tweet out “We’re parody. And he’s…serious…oh god.”


I know that sinking feeling. Things turned out a little differently than either of us expected. Internet lore states that no position, however outrageous, will fail to be mistaken for a sincere conviction unless clearly marked as satire. The subsequent takeover of Twinks4Trump by actual alt-right operatives and attention-mongers suggest that the obverse is also true: there is no online parody so obvious that someone will not try to make malevolently serious use of it. As Whitney Phillips notes (see below), the thing about Trump’s trolling statements, for example, is that “millions of people believe in what Trump is saying.”  And, unfortunately for us, there may be no real operative distinction between “serious” and “parody” anymore: we can no longer afford to think of either seriousness or parodic intent as having any automatic political valence or implication: both can be used (and in conjunction) for evil.

For me, Twinks4Trump stopped being funny for me the day actual gay conservative politicians like Geert Wilders began to embrace it. A least it was fun while it lasted.

But why didn’t it last? Why was it possible for the Trump juggernaut to incorporate “the young, dumb, and full of cum” among the constituencies that Trump now claims he will be a voice for? The Pulse tragedy was one obvious reason (see Eng Beng Lim’s excellent Orlando Syllabus and previous Bully Blog posts by QuirogaLim and Halberstam). It enabled Trump to fold “LGBTQ” into his rhetoric in a way that shouldn’t have been that surprising in retrospect. Why did anyone assume that just because Trump was racist, sexist, and a bully, that he was also homophobic? He is a lifelong cosmopolitan New Yorker who works in the entertainment industry, and he is not religious. He is also a narcissist enraptured by his own self-professed sexual charisma and endowment: why on earth would a creature like this be upset at being called “Daddy”?

Screenshot 2016-08-04 10.52.03.png

In Slate, Whitney Phillips even makes the compelling argument that it is counterproductive to call Trump a troll, however satisfying the resultant image of the Republican presidential candidate as an orange-skinned, fright-haired creature. Pointing out the origins of trolling activity on early internet newsgroups, Phillips argues that calling Trump a troll minimizes the harm he does by comparing it to online activity that, however infuriating, we can simply walk away from. While trolling has now spread beyond its online origins (and bullying and violence are hardly less real because digitally mediated) her point is well taken: the left cannot afford to encapsulate Trumpism as trolling, when that is just a part of what is going on.

Phillip’s argument suggests to me that the conventional (if oft ignored) wisdom — “Don’t Feed the Trolls” — does not fully apply in the case of Trump’s bullying, baiting, and chaos-mongering. “Trump deserves so much worse than troll.” Phillips concludes, “He deserves the harshest fate of all: to be described accurately.” But if feeding the troll is a mistake, is there any hope of trolling him? Twinks4Trump didn’t seem to work: is there another little monster waiting in the wings? Perhaps there is: queer irreverence and invective hasn’t yet exhausted itself, and there is nothing like the shock of the present catastrophe to stir up the creative juices. Stay tuned!


27 Jun

On the massacre at Club Pulse

By José Quiroga 

June 27, 2016

“…in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn.”

James Baldwin

Orlando vigil in PRThe twenty-three Puerto Ricans that were killed at Club Pulse in Orlando had two things in common: they were Puerto Rican or identified themselves as such, and they were killed at a business that catered to the LGBT community in Orlando, Florida, by a man who had legally acquired his gun. These facts may not clarify the event nor shed light on its cause—they just make the sadness specific to stories I know, to narratives I’ve lived with. This is how my work of mourning begins.

Puerto Ricans have been moving to Orlando at least since the 1980s to escape the alarming criminality of an economically depressed island, where an exhausted political compact with the United States has produced mass unemployment and social insecurity. Talk to any Puerto Rican living in central Florida and she or he will recount a similar tale of options foreclosed, mass layoffs, and diminished expectations. And the story will most certainly include robberies at gunpoint, bullet holes in windows and cars, someone killed. “In the dead in Orlando, Puerto Ricans hear a roll call of their kin” was the title of a June 14 New York Times article written by Lizette Alvarez and Nick Madigan, which noted as a “bitter twist” the fact that a “spectacularly high crime rate” partially accounts for this migration.

At some point in the past, all of those Puerto Ricans killed had pondered the balance between reality and a life unlived, and had opted for the most difficult part of that equation, which is displacement. That we mourn the fact that they were killed because of their sexuality does not exclude the fact that we also mourn them because they had no choice but to restart their lives as lives defined by diaspora, exile, and bureaucracy: one-way plane tickets , a new home, re-localization and moving fees, mail forwarding, new license plates, voting rights lost and gained, taxation. And of course they took with them the traces of all those other migrations Puerto Ricans have collectively endured.

Peoples (and nations) are crafted out of the complexities of nostalgia and regret, homelands occupied, or lost, or re-gained at the end of some journey. But Orlando has not given us an image we can place alongside the great migrations of the past, perhaps because the middle-class flight of an educated workforce lacks the drama of poverty and survival inscribed in those heroic tales of hot rum in a small room with red lampshades, while snow flurries dance outside on uptown winter nights. Orlando doesn’t convey a dream of upward mobility, but an attempt to preserve a certain way of life, an alternative future out of the island and its endless struggle to re-define a political relationship at an impasse. Behind each and every one of Orlando’s well kept lawns there is the horn blasting dysfunctionality of pot-holed streets in the native land, incessant traffic jams, dirty beaches, roach-infested central plazas, and corrupt municipalities. Every Puerto Rican business in Orlando represents a successful middle-class escape from the whole mess of a U.S. colony in the midst of a massive default, and, because of those same colonial laws, without the legal benefit of bankruptcy such as was given to a city like Det Detroit.

Background SomosOrlando rainbowWhat does that all have to do with the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, one that targeted those who were partying and dancing at a disco in Orlando during “Latin night”? In the days following the massacre, the tangled, confusing plotlines that tie central Florida to a broader context were exposed. While Obama once again had to respond to a senseless act of violence abetted by the easy availability of guns, Hillary Clinton showed us how presidential she could be, and Marco Rubio announced that he was seeking a Senate seat. JetBlue offered to fly relatives to and from central Florida, and a local campaign called #SomosOrlando was set up to receive donations. Donald Trump, in the meantime, once again revealed how acrobatic the human brain can be, that it can talk and say nothing at the same time, just blame Muslims for not policing their fellow Muslim neighbors. In Puerto Rico, Governor Alejandro García Padilla extended the period of official mourning on the island, with all flags at half-mast, and the left-wing socialist pro-independence weekly newspaper had not taken note of the event two weeks after it happened. San Juan prepared itself for what turned out to be its biggest LGBT March on June 26.

Hurricane season in the tropics doesn’t care for complicated sets, or issues too complex to rhyme. At each and every invitation to grieve, someone collapsed. Students were given posthumous degrees. Desolate towns where every third person had already packed their bags and left, welcomed the bodies of men and women with the dignified acceptance such complicated crises invoke. Some of the victims, it was said, had not “come out” to their families, or didn’t identify as lesbian or gay. The toxic encounter of money, identity and sexuality ensured that only two Latino men were interviewed by The New York Times, in a massacre where 90% of the victims were Latinxs for a piece which in turn tried to balance race and gender. It was an attempt to give voice to a collective grief by recalling the gay bar as a refuge of the past, precisely the wrong thing to do at this point in time.

The whole messy, complex, unhealthy and toxic atmosphere of a bar, a disco, a speakeasy, or whatever, was never a quasi-religious “safe space.” It wasn’t safe back in the days when John Travolta ran off with the girl in “Saturday Night Fever” and it wasn’t safe back in the days of the Anvil or the Saint. And had it not been for the careful monitoring that every bartender at The Eagle bar in Boston had for this 17 year old Latino coming out of the backroom, who knows what sorts of negotiations would have had to take place when I opted for the Fenway instead of the Combat Zone.

So let’s remain for a while in this mausoleum, this sticky space of the gay bar that the Times seems to want to foreclose. Latin nights seem redundant in a city like Orlando on a Saturday night. Ten or twenty years ago Latin nights meant trying to bring in people on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday—enticing those seeking a midweek escape from the nine-to-five. They would pull in those young enough to stay up all night and up the next morning, perhaps with a hangover, and head to work after a hot shower with the borrowed shirt. That’s the world as it was back then. At this point in time when the finger on the trackpad can just click on a profile onscreen, zooming in on the full frontal, it’s difficult to draw them in even on a weekend. Waiting for a stranger naked in bed, ass up and lubed, sounds safe in comparison, if not more expedient.

Perhaps it is. But as we watch our affective lives fall under the regulatory zeal of the State, the police, the courts and private business; and our eccentric, fabulous and flamboyant social spaces give way to the demands of normativity, perhaps it is time to bring back the conversation to issues that were never resolved by marriage “equality.” Issues that include acceptance and recognition for our forms of kinship with our own set of rules and responsibilities, the right to be free, to have sex as often and as much as we want to, the right to dance in gay bars and straight bars, and the right to include a significant other to receive benefits, medical and otherwise, without having to produce the legal, normatized validation of a marriage certificate.

These days, Puerto Rico has no path other than civil resistance to a hostile Republican-controlled U.S. Congress imposing a fiscal control board—unbelievably known by the acronym PROMESA–that will not craft a sustainable economic base but on the contrary, defend the interests of junk bond investors. In Orlando, self-preservation once again will entail mastering the grammar of avoidance while busing tables, standing at the cash register, getting a perm, or going to the doctor. Last call will be hasty and swift with part of the crowd sobering up while the other tries scouts the room in one last ditch attempt at sex.

It would be a fine thing at this point to offer a message of hope. To believe that things will go back to normal, that our bars will not close down because of gentrification or fear, or more efficient ways of hooking up. But as long as lesbian or gay stands for the exclusionary site of a mode of isolation and not the inclusive site where different classes, ethnicities, pasts presents and futures openly put on display all of their perverse possibilities and their different ways of understanding sex and gender and kinship, we will just be left with some maimed possibility of ourselves, some phantom subject unhinged, with our tacit acceptance and permission.
José Quiroga is our newest Bully Blogger.  He is Professor of Comparative Literature, Emory University. He works on contemporary Latinx and Latin American cultures, queer and gender studies, Cuba and the Caribbean. Quiroga’s books include include Mapa Callejero (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2010), Law of Desire: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2009), Cuban Palimpsests (U Minnesota Press, 2005) and Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (NYU Press, 2001). In collaboration with Licia Fiol-Matta he directs the series New Directions in Latino American Cultures for Palgrave, and is completing an edited collection titled The Havana Reader, and The Book of Flight. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012, and is always aiming to be a better escape artist.

The #Orlando Syllabus

24 Jun

Eng-Beng Lim

Orlando victims-collage-first-slide

Week 1 From Gender to Gun Performativity

Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Think Gender is Performance: You have Judith Butler to thank for that!


Week 2 Surviving Killabilities

Gender” (Halberstam) and other relevant keyword entries “Race,” “Sexuality,” “Militarism,” “Brown,” “Queer,” “Empire,” “Religion.”

Jose Munoz, “The Future in the Present: Sexual Avante-Gardes and the Performance of Utopia”

After Orlando, Middle East Research and Information Project

LGBT People of Color refuse to be erased after Orlando

American Ugliness: Queer and Trans People of Color Sat “Not in Our Names”

Chelsea Manning, “We must not let the Orlando nightclub terror further strangle our civil liberties”

Start Making Sense Radio Program, “Life and Death in Gay Orlando”

“He’s Not Done Killing Her’: Why So Many Trans Women Were Murdered in 2015.

Queer Suicide: A Teach-in

Malik Gaines, We Are Orlando

Transgender man forced into clothes and jail for women settles with Toronto police

Understanding HB2: North Carolina’s newest law solidifies state’s role in defining discrimination.

Former Minuteman Militia Leader Found Guilty of Molesting 5-Year Old Girl


Week 3 Laughing at Masculinist Rage, Corruption and Mass Shooting

Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

Chela Sandoval, “New Sciences: Cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed

#SayHerName: why Kimberle Crenshaw is fighting for forgotten women

Wendy Brown: How Neoliberalism Threatens Democracy: YouTube video

Puar and Rai, “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots”

Charlotte Hooper, Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations, and Gender Politics

Jacques Derrida on “phallogocentrism”

“I’m a gay man. Don’t use an attack on my community as an excuse for Islamophonia”

US House Oks Koch Bros Bill on ‘Dark Money’ Election Donations

Overcompensation Nation: It’s Time to admit that toxic masculinity drives gun violence


Week 4 Getting Toxic and Terrifying

Considering Hate, Whitlock and Bronski 1-71

Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A Talk

Toxic Masculinity in the U.S Gun Phallocracy

The Hypermasculine Violence of Omar Mateen and Brock Turner

Terror Begins at Home

Toxic Masculinity and Murder

Student Op-Ed: Toxic Masculinity

Understanding Toxic Masculinity: Why Defending Men Isn’t Enough (a conservative take)

The Under-Discussed Role of Toxic Masculinity

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam”


Considering Hate, 71-147

What the actual f*ck is going on with the Oakland Police Department?

Gun control’s racist reality: The liberal argument against giving police more power

UCLA Shooting suspect identified: Thoughts on Race, Violence, and Graduate Studies

Two Dead in UCLA

Berkeley gunman kills student taken hostage

25 years later: Henry’s hostage crisis remembered

Drag Queen: Anti-Gay Terrorist Omar Mateen was My Friend

Sullivan, “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The volatile life of the Orlando shooter.”

Police: Man who killed singer Christina Grimmie was ‘infatuated’ with her

James Downs: Stop saying Omar Mateen was gay

“Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila tackles homophobia, Islamophobia on U.S tour

The perception of Asian dads and masculinity

“While Press Fawned Over Cops Guarding LGBTQ Bars, NYPD Charged Orlando March with Horses”

Racist at vigil sends online message

Queer, Muslim, & Unwelcome at the “New Stonewall”


Week 5 Empire, Trump

Andrew Hewitt, Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism, and the Modernist Imaginary

Lisa Lowe, “The International within the National: American Studies and Asian American Critique”

Klaus Theweleit, “Male Bodies and the ‘white terror’” 143-269, Male Fantasies Vol 2

Trump says, ‘Ask the Gays,’ Gays make him regret it

Aaron Belkin, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire

Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity”

Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American authoritarianism

I can’t stop watching this bizarre, terrifying and beautiful Trump ad

The braggart with the ducktail who would be president

Meet the shock troops of Trump’s America

As Britain Mourns MP Jo Cox, Her Killer Is Linked to Neo-Nazi National Alliance and Pro-Apartheid Club

Activity among white supremacists continues to surge

States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016

A journalist went to a Donald Trump rally yesterday and came back shocked. Here are his tweets

How not to study Donald Trump

If more guns make America safe, why did Trump ban all guns from the GOP convention?

American Horror Story

A Note from Mike Davis about the Second Amendment


Week 6 Orlando

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims

Paricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought

June Jordan Papers

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here

Disney and Orlando: Creating the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Shanghai $5.5 Billion Disney Officially Opens

Gunman Pledged Allegiance to ISIS (titled changed from “Orlando nightclub shooting: 50 killed in ‘domestic terror incident’ at gay club; gunman identified”)

Orlando massacre was “revenge”, not terrorism, says man who claims he was gunman’s lover

The massacre at a Mexican Gay Bar that no one talked about

Orlando Victim says Shooter tried to spare black people: he said black people had suffered enough

Hoax: Canadian Prime Minister and opposition leader share kiss to denounce Orlando massacre

The worst mass shooting? A look back at massacres in U.S. history

How G4S incubated the homophobic hatred or Orlando’s IS Terrorist

Blood Ties: Queer Blood, Donations, and Citizenship


Week 7 Gun Phallocracy: Colonial and Capitalist Deadlocks

Taussig, “Culture of Terror, Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the explanation of Torture.”

Chong, “Look, An Asian!” The Politics of Racial Interpellation in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Shootings

1000 mass shootings in 1260 days: this is what America’s gun crisis looks like

The NRA’s Complicity in Terrorism

The gay rights movement could take on NRA, and actually win

The Next Time Someone Calls an AR-15 an assault rifle, show them this

The Orlando massacre was one of 43 shootings yesterday

Why the Orlando Shooting Is Unlikely to Lead to Major New Gun Laws

Stop the gun violence: Ban assault weapons

I was able to buy an AR-15 in five minutes

After Sending ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ to Orlando GOP House Chair Blocks LGBT Protections Bill

Strict military gun control should be our model

We need a radical movement for gun control

NRA Tells Parents to Keep Guns in Kids’ Rooms For Safety

The NRA’s Response To The Orlando Shooting Needs to Break the Pattern

Since Sandy Hook, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week

Connecticut’s Senators, Who Know Something About Gun Violence, Blames Congress for Orlando Slaughter.

Breaking: Senate Blocks Gun Control Measures and Accomplishes Nothing After Orlando Shooting

NRA-Owned Senate Just Told American People to go F*uck Themselves on Guns

Brock Turner and Me

Republicans Are Erasing LGBTQ People From Their Own Tragedy

The Democrats are Boldly Fighting For a Bad, Stupid Bill

The Use of Error-Prone and Unfair Watchlists Is Not the Way to Regulate Guns in America


Week 8 Performance & Patriarchal Pathologies

Bechdel, Fun Home

Tennessee Wiliams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Munoz, “The White to Be Angry”: Vaginal Crème Davis’s Terrorist Drag

California pastor celebrates massacre at Orlando gay club

No Way to Prevent this”: says only nation where this regularly happens

Halberstam, “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene” and Female Masculinity

Sylvia Plath reads “Daddy

Diana DiMassa, The Complete Hothead Paisan

Split Britches, Belle Reprieve (feminist lesbian adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire)

No reason is a reason: Zabar’s customer accidentally shoots self while ordering bagel


Week 9 Queer nightlife: safety, joy, erasure and complacence

Ramon Rivera-Servera, “Quotidian Utopias: Latina/o Queer Choreographies”

Christina Handhardt, “Broken Windows and Blue’s: a queer history of gentrification and policing”

I was Born On the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse

I knew 17 who died in Orlando

More than a Safe Space: The Meaning of the Queer Latin Dance Night

Gay Space Cannot Be Straight Women’s Safe Space Until It’s Safe for those who are gay

One kiss and 50 bodies: The Orlando shooting is a reminder that gay people are still hated

Only when I am dancing can I feel this free

Richard Kim, Please Don’t Stop the Music

In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club


Week 10

Please add to Week 10 of the syllabus with your suggestions of a rubric, book chapters and articles in the comment section below. In solidarity #orlandosyllabus 

Ball Busters and the Recurring Trauma of Intergenerational Queer/Feminist Life

20 Feb

lesbianangerBy Kyla Wazana Tompkins

So I’ve been paying attention to the most recent intergenerational ideological feminist-queer wars (OMG Germaine Greer! nobody should protect your hate speech!) with some exasperation, no little tiredness, and a sense of deja-vu all over again. I remember during the last two rounds of ideological wars—the race wars and the sex wars—that I was on the angry/wounded/not-yet institutionalized side of the issue, and I then sounded a lot like the generation coming up now, a generation who are doing a lot of the necessary and exhausting push-work around trans, disability, trans of color and gentrification issues. Now I’m that cliché—the tenured Women’s Studies professor—I’m on what sometimes seems like the other side of things. It’s better than still being poor, but it kind of sucks to lose the high moral ground, that’s for sure.

I count myself among the people who have a lot of learning to do around trans politics. Three internet explosions have seemed to unfold in the last year between trans folks and (largely white, often lesbian, sometimes large-R Radical) feminist structures: the Paris is Burning social media explosion last summer; the internal battles and the letters addressing the Midwives Alliance of North America in relation to their new trans-inclusive policies; and then closer to home for me, the blogs and facebook battles about the October 2015 Killjoy Kastle Lesbian Feminist Haunted House in Los Angeles and in Toronto a few years ago. A lot of the time, I’m trying to just shut up and read and listen and learn from the new work and the activists in the field. I have a reading list I’m working through. I wonder at the energy it takes to mount a work of art, or organize a political statement, and I wonder at the level of rage and vitriol that our era’s comments-section politics seem to provoke.

My first understandings of queer and feminist politics came through exposure to early radical/liberal feminisms in the 1970s. You can see some of that moment in a film my mother, Lydia Wazana, made with our then-roommate Kay Armatage (Armatage went on to herself become a Women’s Studies Professor).(1) The film, about lesbian writer, journalist, and dance critic Jill Johnston, depicts Jill Johnston’s trip to give a lecture at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1975 (at the time still a small child, I’m not in it, a fact I still can’t forgive). There’s a lot to say about the limits of Jill Johnston’s feminism: the biological essentialism that underwrites her idea of womanhood as a stable category; her tracing out of gender identity through a kind of operatic Oedipal model; her temperamental diva behavior; and the fact that once the film was finished she publicly disavowed it and refused to allow it to be shown in the US. Much of this history is taken up in performance scholar Sara Warner’s article about the film.(2)

One thing you can’t say about Jill Johnston is that she wasn’t what was then called a “ball-buster”: a take-no-prisoners, man-hating dyke (her own term and also the term, hilariously, that she uses to describe herself and Germaine Greer – on whom more below – on the occasion of a shared trip to a strip club in London). There’s even a key scene in the film when she gets really mad at a man in the audience and gives him an intense ball-busting dyke response to what simply seems to be his presence. She says: “Like, I feel a hostile male element in here and it’s bothering me…I don’t mind guys being here but I feel a hostile male element and, um, that’s making me, that’s making me agitated.”


When the young man attempts to engage her she explodes at him: “You better get the fuck out of here or I’m going to kick you right in the balls and get you out of here so fast man…. I don’t like your generalizations, man….So sit down, shut up, or get out. I feel a hostile male vibe in here, and I don’t like it….You don’t feel it and I feel it. You feel something different than I feel!”(3)


I want to linger here , for a second, with the shape and form of Jill Johnston’s anger. It rolls out, as she allows it to, across the lecture room where men and women are sitting on the floor listening to her speak and engaging her in conversation. Her body language is aggressive and her voice is harsh: she points at the young man, threatens him in one of his most intimate and vulnerable (but also simultaneously erogenous and then for so many anti-violence radical feminists, dangerous) body parts. So precisely aimed, pointing her finger at him, her anger is set off by the young man’s putative hostility, which she characterizes as a kind of diffuse “vibe” and as a “hostile element.” Her anger is powerful, taking its authority from a gendered affective form that coincides with the politics she has been called to the University of Toronto to lecture on, but also from her well-documented willingness to be outrageous.

Feeling is the fuel that drives our political engagements, as Lauren Berlant and so many others have shown. But emotions are, as all know, felt and apprehended only through their historically-possible legibilities. Here I want to deploy what I think is one of the most profound insights that Berlant’s Cruel Optimism affords us: that thinking with affect allows us, as readers and critics, to listen to political formations – to the event – before we can name what they are.(4) An emergent formation, in Raymond Williams’ words; capacity in Deleuze’s terms; potentia for Spinoza. Something is happening.

What was going on, we can now say in retrospect, in the fall of 1975 in a room in Toronto with a bunch of men, women, feminists, lesbians, and lesbian-feminists getting together to talk about what they would probably call Sex,what we now call Gender, was a conversation about what must have then felt like a shaky theoretical formation: lesbian feminism, or perhaps just feminism, or maybe both: the difference is still being worked out in their discussions. As the film shows us, it’s a conversation that was then stuck in the mire of pressing and unanswered questions like:

What does it mean to be a woman?
How can we be different kinds of women?
What does lesbianism have to do with being a woman? With feminism?
What do men have and what do men get (own or apprehend) that we don’t?

Johnston’s answers to those questions align with much of the big-R Radical Feminist thinking of that moment: an anthropological ahistoricism that locates femaleness in relation to a mythical collective matriarchal tribal formation, in which self realization – something yet to be gained by women – is achieved through identification with what men have: individuality. Women, Johnston attests, have to get that individuality by rejecting their tribal – read, actual – mothers. And of course, as she said in her debate with Norman Mailer, a few years before coming to Toronto: the revolution would only happen when all women were lesbians.

From the perspective of feminist and queer theory in 2015, forty years later, Johnston’s ideas might sound pedantic and dated. And, as contemporary trans politics, trans activist history, and woman of color feminism tells us, the binaristic answers that emerged in that moment – there are only men and only women and out of that only patriarchy – were limited, hurtful, and exercised an exclusionary violence that has left and continues to leave deep scars in the consequences of feminism’s own limited and violent disciplinary formations. And if you have seen the video of Sylvia Rivera being pushed off the stage by Jean O’Leary (linking here to activist, historian and author Reina Gossett‘s Vimeo page) or if you read Germaine Greer’s outrageously violent and offensive attacks on trans people, you are only beginning to get the span of radical feminist abusiveness to trans communities. (Although if a recent Advocate article is true – if – we are also only beginning to get at the suppressed stories of alliances between these putative enemies.)

Jill Johnston’s ball-busting outrageousness can’t really be treated as a gesture isolated from a politics that had terrible consequences. But I do want to make a plea for a return to thinking about this period of nascent second-wave politics with something other than pure dismissal or defensiveness, or even nostalgia. And picking up Berlant’s argument, I want to suggest that one way to do shift the conversation might be to just sit and listen to the affective form of these two politics-in-emergence.

For instance: contradictory and illogical (“there’s a vibe”), vague (angry at “generalizations”), Johnston’s performance makes sense as a form of incipient political feeling, one without a sufficient logic to ground it. It is bound to the deep solipsism of liberal individual feeling (“I feel it and you don’t feel it”) while it also tries and somewhat fails to act as a communal interpellation, against which or with which the listeners in the audience are necessarily trapped into responding, although obviously with some ambivalence: one woman in the audience calls out, exasperated “Oh come on!!” It is unclear who is the audience member is talking to: maybe the whole room, maybe Johnston alone. Both of these speakers reach out to each other, or someone, and don’t quite connect.

I’m reminded here of Agamben’s phrase in Means Without End when he says: “In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record that loss.”(5) I find Johnston’s rage – and indeed many of the images in that film, of women dancing together, hanging out, talking – to be deeply beautiful, to be awful, and also to be something admirable. I admire her anger as an artifact of a time when lesbian presence – ugly, monstrous, furious, righteous – had a new currency or traction in the world by the simple fact that it had never been made visible in that way before. I understand Johnston’s outrageous theatricality as a gesture that is deluded in understanding itself to have not already been recuperated by power, to have been enabled by her whiteness, her celebrity, and the very basic exclusionary violence of the terms within which feminism understood itself at the time (just recall Jean O’Leary saying with contempt: “that man” Sylvia Rivera). But I also understand it to have been flawed, unfinished and tentative.

Is it possible to hold all of those phenomena at the same time? Which is to say, is it possible to relate to lesbian and feminist history without deploying the basic Oedipal (Electra?) drama against the past that Johnston herself advocates? Do we always have to murder our mothers? These are questions that came to me recently when I was volunteering as a “Killjoy” professor at Allison Mitchell and Deidre Logue’s Killjoy Kastle Lesbian Haunted House event in Los Angeles. (6)


For days a debate had raged on the Facebook event page about the “Ball-Busting room, a room in the installation that some trans women and trans people have long found, and still do find, transmysogynist and violent. Accusations flew; flame wars started and sputtered out; people were “called out” – such wistful performativity in that phrase! – or just flat-out called names.

The Killjoy Kastle walks participants through a series of rooms meant to represent both the past and the present state of lesbian feminism, in its academic and cultural formations: a room full of hanging tampon/boxing bags labeled “Racism” and “Colonialism” and so forth that you are meant, as an intersectional feminist, to battle through; doorways that look like the Vagina Dentata; a Labia/Library full of Gender Studies classic texts in which actors hold a “riot ghoul” dance party; a Daddy Pen (prison holding cell for imprisoned trans people and sex workers); a crypt for dead lesbian organizations. Each of these demonstrate artist Allyson Mitchell and her partner and collaborator Deidre Logue’s signature maximalist aesthetic: a combination of DIY-craftiness, Dadaist object-orientation and high-allegorical feminist performance.(7)


In the Ball-Busting Room, the room that has attracted quite a bit of controversy, two actors smash plaster trucknutz ™ into smithereens while the “Demented Women’s Studies Professor” who is guiding visitors through the Kastle intones:

“Here we find the ball bustas hard at work—they can hardly keep up with the demand for their ritualistic ball smashing. These sweet hearts got tired of the old adage “ball busting dyke” and decided to just go for it full time. The balls, naturally, are symbolic of one of multiple interwoven oppressions emerging from the rule of white patriarchy—looks like they really are just a symbol though, judging from that pile of rubble.”


In a string of vituperative arguments, commenters on Facebook testified that the ball-busting room “triggered” them, that it felt hateful and violent towards trans women, that the threatened violence towards male genitalia was and is a kind of violence towards trans women’s embodiment. There’s no point in arguing with someone else’s experience of a particular art installation. That experience is just as true as is the intentions and experiences of the artists and organizers of the event. But what seemed unutterable in these conversations is this: that many of the critiques of the Killjoy Kastle are deeply forgetful of the work that so many of those big-R radical and lesbian cultural feminists did.

I say this as someone who yelled at and protested white radical feminists, including my own Women’s Studies professors, as someone who sat at Camp Trans and marched with the first trans march at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (and then never went back for a bunch of reasons that had to do with the whiteness and dumb gender essentialism of the place): we really owe those women a lot. And at the same time, it would have been so much better if that generation had moved out of the way faster, if they had listened harder, if they had dealt with their racism, their homophobia, their deep failures of imagination around sex, around gender, around class. Both of those things are true and somehow, in relation to the accusations of transmisogyny that floated around the Killjoy Kastle, not to mention the gleeful celebrating of the final closing of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, it seems impossible to say those two things at once.

Another way of asking this question is: are the critiques of the imperfect politics that emerged from the radical feminists’ essentialist definitions of woman themselves fueled by a certain kind of misogyny? Is the consequence of that misogyny yet another erasure of lesbianism from the horizon of queer politics? And also: is there another way to go about this?

Perhaps the answer lies in the idea of triggering itself. If trauma is the suturing of the past to the present, and a trigger is the affective, that is physiological and psychic, re-experience of that trauma, isn’t a triggering incident – like the Killjoy Kastle – exactly the opportunity to confront the history that is brought forward? Of course trigger is not an uncomplicated word and its use is meant to index psychic pain. Ironically enough, we owe the very popularization of “triggering” to the work that radical feminists did in shaping various anti-violence movements, as well as in developing feminist therapy protocols for sexual violence survivors. We could further argue that the very term “trigger” – as traumatic memory locked in the body as well as psyche – sits very comfortably next to the essentialist understandings of body and identity that we now seek to exceed. How then are we to think, as queers, as feminists, as trans peoples, with this political moment? Is there a productive way to work with the trigger formation in this historical moment without conceding to all of its problematic underpinnings?

Another irony then: if the person who is being triggered is actually the person who cannot separate the past from the present, they are also the only person who can do the work of resolving that trauma. And this is where I return to this recurrent intergenerational drama that we, as feminists and queers, are engaged in: The activists that are busting up queer and feminist politics these days have something to say—obviously they know that and don’t need me to say it—but they, and thus we, are also in the middle of a political movement in formation. Older, institutionalized, empowered, whatever your position —you (I) need to step aside and listen and witness. You (I) need to not foreclose those politics because they are furious and hurt and (sometimes) seem inchoate. Fury is the point: inchoate fury is the affective crossroads at which the articulation of political injury and opposition finds itself before it has a chance to be recuperated into the legibility that is power.

I’m trying to make more of that statement than the pedantic gesture it seems, on first writing, to be. What I mean, more clearly, is that the larger concatenation of cross-generational arguments happening in separate queer and feminist spaces in this moment, such as trigger warnings, call-out culture, trans gender/TERF/radical-R lesbian ideological battles signals a larger sense of a politics-in-formation that is remapping queer/trans/feminist/twenty-first century body politics along newly-charged neural, physiological and affective lines. Many others have said this before: the question of shifting somatic formations within our current microbiopolitical moment is all over the pages of feminist and queer theory.

Thus perhaps what feels, at least to those of us teaching in the academy, like a precious moment of heightened individuation within a monetized education system (sometimes driven by an untenured academic and student-affairs precariat whose very economic survival depends on the production of crisis as well as symptom and accommodation management) might also be productively understood as an emergent and important collective political formation. And that rather than turning our noses up at this moment, at the language of triggers and call-outs, now might be the time to think more deeply with the shape – with the gift really – of queer and feminist intergenerational anger as it returns to us again, in accusations of historical and ongoing trauma.

I realize I’m collapsing a number of movements into each other here – disability politics, trans politics, academic institutional politics, activist rhetorics – in such a way as to occlude each of their particular trajectories. As indeed, I am collapsing many forms of early radical feminism. But I’m more basically making an argument here for a form of political thinking  that might work along two different historical trajectories: more generously towards the past and more deeply in the now.

Thus without dating myself too radically, I also want to say something to the coming generation about the past: I want to tell you what I miss about radical lesbian feminism, the white and the non-white versions. I want you to know that despite having fought cultural feminism—having hated its racism, its femme-phobia, its profound allergy to women of color, our ways of being in the world—having hated radical feminism’s failure to theorize and enjoy aesthetics, having chafed against its doctrinaire limitations, that nonetheless I miss the utopian, counter-identificatory spirit of cultural lesbian feminism very much and I recognize that the energy of that movement gave birth to me and many women like me. Whatever lesbian and cultural feminism missed, it had a kind of energy that believed that revolution was possible. Separatism, with all of its limitations, inspired people to go out and build stuff, bookstores and “womyn’s land” and bars and women’s centres and rape crisis centres and shelters and, you know, a lot that is now gone. It failed, or it didn’t survive, or it persists in fortunate and unfortunate ways, in ways that should be grievable. One of those fortunate ways might be in the similarities between lesbian-feminist anger then and queer-feminist anger now.

To forget that imperfect work and those imperfect politics is a form of misogyny that needs to be considered alongside transmisogyny as a real and ongoing formation. As work by Elizabeth Freeman and Juana Maria Rodriguez shows us the lesbian is always the drag on the future, the lesbian always escapes representation, the lesbian, especially the femme, is always the woman who is left behind.(8) Do we have to keep doing that too? Do we have to keep unciting lesbians and lesbian feminism from the daily work and theorizing of queer life? Similarly, do we have to continue foreclosing the politics that are yet to come? What if Jean O’Leary had welcomed Sylvia Rivera onto the stage and handed her the mike? What if the National Organization of Women hadn’t excluded lesbian politics from their agenda? What if the Human Rights Campaign actually took up racism and poverty as key problems for queer survival? They didn’t and so far they haven’t. But they still could.

In the ball-busting room of the Killjoy Kastle, I can hear in my head the ball-busting dykes of my childhood and my teens and twenties, the old-school women who got the shit kicked out of them by cops, who were raped and abused and fired, and who drank and loved and fought like fuck to have the right to really love other women in the ways that they wanted to. The ones who showed up to listen to Jill Johnston, to puzzle their ways towards collective political theory. For some trans peoples “ball busting” is a negation of their embodiment and gender complexity, and it directly attacks their right to live in female bodies that continue to have penises and testicles, for instance. Now that I’ve had my eyes opened by that conversation, that’s what ball-busting will be for me too. But also: remembering “ball busting” is also a way to remember how much those feminists and dykes suffered and created and how much I exist because of them. Those structures of feeling need to exist next to each other because they are historically linked; the failed utopias of the one molding the inchoateness of the next.


When we dream of a totalizing politics, and when we dream of spaces that might manifest those totalized politics as whole and healing formations, we will always be disappointed. But somewhere inside the utopian imaginings of wounded political formations and the righteous and inchoate fury that emerges from their encounter with the dystopia we actually live in—a dystopia often formed by the utopian thinkers that came before—is a politic we really need to hear. As painful as that encounter might be I want to be sure to remember that it is also important and necessary to the possibility of feminist and queer futures.

(1) Kay Armatage and Lydia Wazana, directors. Jill Johnston….1975. Canadian Film Distributors Film Centre, 1977. Film available for purchase here:

(2) Warner, Sara. “A Gay Old Time: Jill Johnston October 1975” in Affect/Performance/Canada: New Essays in Canadian Theatre, ed. Erin Hurley (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2014).

(3) Here’s my mom on the context of the conflict: “Jill…gave her lecture at U of T which was also filmed. The guy that she yelled at was there to be obnoxious, his friend is the guy leaning on the wall smirking. They came in off the street and of course Jill didn’t need much to take them on (if you remember the Norman Mailer affair).” Email exchange, December 10, 2015.

(4) Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

(5) Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). 53. Agamben wants to loosen the notion of the gesture as a “the crystal of historical memory.” He writes: “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” In this way, the gesture becomes less of a performative ideal and more of “a movement that has its end in itself.”

(6)”Killjoy” is a term coined by Sarah Ahmed. See Ahmed’s blog for an explanation of the term.

(7) All Killjoy Kastle photographs credited to Deidre Logue.

(8) Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Juana Maria Rodriguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures and Other Latina Longings (New York: New York University Press, 2014).


14 Jan as_front_300k

bowie1It is not a question of whether you are or were a fan of David Bowie, it is a question of which Bowie was your Bowie. My Bowie, at various times, was the lightning streaked face of Aladdin Sane, the dulcet voiced soul man of Young Americans and the rock god of the Orwellian extravaganza, Diamond Dogs. I also kept Station to Station and Low on my turntable for weeks at a time in the 1970’s during Bowie’s “Berlin” period and listened to David Live obsessively, especially the mash up of “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” from Diamond Dogs. For me, as for so many, David Bowie represented a glittering, odd, unearthly reminder that life is about change, risk, madness and mayhem, and that while our domestic structures work hard to keep the madness at bay, we must be ready at all times to “turn and face the strange.”


Social History. Housing. Manchester, England. Circa 1970’s. Slum clearance in Salford showing a terraced area being demolished.

To understand Bowie, you partly have to understand what England was like in the 1970’s and what it meant to suddenly, in the middle of this a grey, ruinous landscape of charred buildings, post-war debris, and financial collapse, find out that there is a “starman “waiting in the skies.” bowie-ronson-spaceThis was the message that British youth watching Top of the Pops in 1972 received loud and clear from a beautifully eccentric and sexy performance of “Starman” by Bowie and Mick Ronson. Dressed in shiny pant suits and wearing high boots and shaggy hair-do’s, Bowie and Ronson really did look like they had fallen to earth from some distant planet where people had fun, believed in something and knew they could change worlds. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust told us to be receptive to the messages from Mars and other planets; he counseled youth to listen to the secret memos from the starman, to pay attention to the coded communications from other worlds; he told us that the starman would only speak to us if we sparkled (“if we sparkle, he may land tonight”), and he taught us that all that sparkles is indeed gold. And no sooner did he create a persona with which to tell new stories about sex, rock and riot than he killed the man and started again.


My first Bowie album was Aladdin Sane. I studied the cover art for some clues as to who this ambiguously gendered person might be and I thrilled to the persona of the mad lad singing of mortality, protest, drag queens and race riots in Detroit. I knew no queer people at that time and knew of few escapes from the suffocating normativity of British school life in the 1970’s. But I felt that Bowie represented something special, something just out reach, something or someone that I did not know yet but set off to encounter. With his otherworldly voice that ranged from low growls to ethereal falsettos, and with his calls to rebellion – both social and gendered – Bowie captured the emergent political imagination of a generation. He was queer before queer, punk before punk, cool long after Presley. Bowie disobeyed all laws of genre and he merged English glam rock with US soul music, rhythm and blues with jazz and funk with electronica without seeming opportunistic, appropriative or dilettantish.


Bowie’s sexuality was always up for grabs. It was not a question of whether he was gay (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) or straight (“Be My Wife”), many of his public relationships have, after all, been with women; but Bowie always laid claim to a kind of excess, a set of identities that exceeded norms and expectations and that were some combination of male femininity (Ziggy), masculine exotic (Aladdin Sane), Martian sexiness, ethereal beauty, originality and innovation. The word most often used about Bowie, and one I have made recourse to here, is “otherworldly.” His reputation as profoundly alien was enhanced by movies like Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 space oddity:Man-Who-Fell-to-Earth-800x450 The Man Who Fell to Earth. This movie, like no other (apart from maybe his “walk off” cameo in Zoolander!) confirmed Bowie’s status as unearthly. He needed no make up to be convincing as a man from another world – in the film he is called a “visitor,” a “freak,” an “alien” and he manages to convey a sense of bodily oddness that is unique in film.

Is there life on Mars? If you believe in David Bowie, the answer is yes. While earth for Bowie is a place where time is on perpetual repeat (“Always Crashing in the Same Car”), in the exotic and exciting moonage daydreams that Bowie conjures, apocalypse appears alongside utopia, futures are exciting and curtailed (“we can be heroes…just for one day”), and the body is a place to play out colorful fantasies of love and rebellion. As we say goodbye to a truly queer icon, a performer who invited us to “press your space face close to mine, love,” we also bid farewell to someone who has reinvented fame, spectacle, eccentricity and stardom.

But, Bowie left us a final album to decode, Blackstar, where he intones:

“I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangster)

But I can tell you how (I’m not a flam star)

We were born upside-down (I’m a star star)

Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)

(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”

Not a white star, not a gangster, not a wandering star, a black star – Bowie’s final message, part physics/part undercommons, draws upon the metaphors of space that saturate his entire output. A black star in physics represents, Wikipedia tells us “a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity,” it is a zone where event and infinity collide, where matter disintegrates into a vacuum. It is a space of death and dying. But black star could also be a way of rethinking racialized embodiment itself such that the thin white duke recognizes himself in the black aesthetics that swirl through his music, the soul inflections that he channels and inhabits and the machinery of fame that works through a process of Black music/white stars, transferring fame to white bodies from music created through and around the experience of blackness. What others appropriate, Bowie inhabits. What others steal, Bowie acknowledges. What others hold at a distance, Bowie embraces.


“I’m a blackstar,” Bowie sings, “I’m a blackstar.” So, while we attribute some of Bowie’s incandescent oddness to gender and sexual ambiguity, race is also a huge part of what rendered Bowie a star – not a white star, not a pornstar, not a wandering star, but a black star. As Bowie now passes into immortality, as he assumes legendary proportions, as he comes to represent the expansiveness of wild reinvention, musical experimentation, bodily flexibility, political imagination and queer uncertainty, we should look up to the sky and sparkle in the hopes of receiving a message from pop culture’s most beloved astronaut, a starman waiting in the sky.

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.