Just found out that I’m getting to present a paper on my research on asexual activism at the ZtG (The Centre for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies) at the Humboldt in June. I’m in Berlin conducting late stage field work. Very exited to be doing this and to be talking to academics from my area from other parts of Europe.
The world is made up of Powers-that-be/Great Oppressive White Cis-Fathers, trying to stay in charge, and the rest of us.
We will lead you…
Social movement theorists are hugely interested in ‘frames’ (see FRAMES); dominant narratives by which society (in a broad sense) imposes coherence onto the kinds of events that social and/or revolutionary movements engage in. These narratives, like all stories, impose beginnings, middles and ends; heroes and villains, victories and defeats, et cetera.
One of the problem for queer social movement theorists is that they may make sexual and gender social movement history clearer for the queer audience, but they rarely make it more factual.
One of the most persistent frames, since the French Revolution at least in Western culture, has been the narrative that change comes from the swelling masses. In particular that it is the most vulnerable, the most oppressed, that lead the call to freedom.
Eugène Delacroix’s image of Liberty Leading the People (1830) has become the dominant image, the most powerful frame, by which we view the French Revolution. Liberty, France itself, is imagined as a strong muscular peasant woman leading both the intellectuals and the oppressed poor with bare breasts and bare feet; a gun in one hand and the tricolor in the other.
Even in my own research I could see people draw, however unconsciously, on this frame:
Which is ironic considering that Delacroix was not actually painting an image of the revolution of 1789, but the far more sedate, bourgeois revolution of 1830. Even then Delacroix’s painting was a highly romanticised account of the 1830 revolution, which involved little violent contention and much behind-the-scenes politics.
Although a picture of the actual revolution such as The Death of Marat (1793) may be a masterpiece, may the first truly modernist painting as some have suggested; Jean-Paul Marat was also a key figure in the Revolution of 1789 and the Terror that followed it.
Over the centuries the picture has had an enduring influence on artists, philosophers and radicals. But it hasn’t become the pre-eminent frame by which we view the French Revolution because it doesn’t tell us what we want to know about revolutionary and social movements.
Delacroix’s painting does that. It acknowledges death, but it whitewashes (see WHITEWASHING) the painful truth that revolutionary birth makes most players act very badly at least some of the time.
Queerwashing is very like the Delacroix painting. It presents a queer-romanticized version of LGBT history where dates, people and events can be fast and loose. It usually frames LGBT history around certain presumptions which can be quite contradictory; challenging those contradictions is to be often met with accusations of heterosexism, misogyny, transphobia, et cetera. It has to be said that there can often be some truth in the accusations, but the presumption is invariably more complex than that…
Queerwashing presumes that people analogous to Queers of Colour (see QUEERS OF COLOUR) were always and everywhere in LGBT history; that it goes without saying that people analogous to Queer Trans* (see QUEER TRANS*) were always and everywhere in LGBT history. That these people were not only oppressed and silenced by heteronormative society (SEE HETERONORMATIVE) but by homonormative elements as well (SEE HOMONORMATIVE) usually represented by middle-class gay cis-men (SEE CIS).
At the same time, confusingly, there is an insistence that it was actually these most vulnerable elements of proto-LGBTIQA+ society that were actually and always the agents of change, but they were whitewashed from LGBT history by the middle-class cis-men and cis-women (see GAYWASHING).
As regards cis-women, Queerwashing’s relationship to Feminism (SEE FEMINISM) is strained, but compliant. This is despite mainstream Feminism’s long history of accommodating homophobia, transphobia and ethnocentrism (SEE ETHNOCENTRISM), et cetera. Queerwashing prefers to remain on the surer footing of critiquing middle-class gay cis-men.
The contradictions in the above four sentences become more apparent when you consider that a post-modern post-structuralist theory of sexual and gendered identity is being applied to LGBT history to do precisely the opposite of what Foucault would have wanted it to do, in my opinion. Labels are being applied, people are being put into boxes that they wouldn’t have claimed for themselves; the actual historical experiences of oppressions and privileges (which are complex) are being turned into framed queer binaries.
Queerwashing doesn’t critique binaries, it imposes them. Sexual and gendered groups are seen as essentially victims with oppressions, or, perpetrators with privileges.
An exemplar of this is how often you will hear in queer activist circles how the Stonewall Riots “were actually a trans* riot, they started it and then they got pushed out by gay men and white women.” This is an actual quote from somebody who was doing an MA in Queer Studies. It’s also remarkably similar to the opinion given in a recent article in The Guardian by Owen Jones.
The Stonewall Riots are complex like any significant contentious event. In some ways the riots themselves are less important than what came after them, but what they are not are trans* riots (John D’Emilio who is probably the foremost LGBT+ historian in America is good to read on this) nor were they started by trans-variant people if they started at the Stonewall Inn.
There is a good reason for this. The Stonewall Inn wasn’t a particularly trans-variant friendly space, certainly not genderqueer in the modern sense. We know this because Sylvia Rivera, the great queer and trans* activist, was one of the few drag queens (correct term at time) to get in to the bar on that night and has talked about it in interviews. The Stonewall Inn’s clientèle was mostly made up of lower middle-class, white gay men. If the riot started at the bar, then that’s who probably started it.
Once the riot spilled over into the street the first projectiles were thrown by “‘flame queens’, hustlers, and gay ‘street kids’ – the most outcast people in the gay community”. These are all American terms for gay/bisexual identities of the 1960’s.
This is in no way to deny the centrality of trans-variant people in the riots themselves nor to ignore the appalling exclusion and silencing of trans-variant activists like Sylvia Rivera from emerging Gay and Feminist political/community spaces in the 1970s.
But four points emerge:
Firstly, queerwashing silences the narrative of oppression that gay men experienced, particularly white middle-class gay men (and that history is ongoing). Furthermore it often excludes the considerable contribution those white middle-class gay men have made to furthering the sexual and gendered rights of all LGBTIQA+ people.
Secondly, although queerwashing will often condemn individual feminists for their prejudices – particularly transphobia (SEE TERFS) – queerwashing tends to act as an apology for Feminism in general. Queerwashing is ideological and essentializing; it always prefers to blame men (however constructed) rather then women (again, however constructed).
Thirdly, queerwashing is flawed social movement theory. Events such as the Stonewall Riots weren’t tipping points where the most oppressed rose up and freed everyone else from their chains (of the kind that the Delacroix picture seems to suggest). Often those most actively involved in revolutionary and social movements are elites; people who have social, educational or economic capital, but have been triggered for one reason or another into activism. Moments like the Stonewall Riots shouldn’t be polarised into oppressed victims and privileged elites (SEE INTERSECTIONALITY). Actually, they’re illustrative progressions in an organic, changing, often unpleasant-to-each-other history of sexual minority lives in the 20th century.
Finally, queerwashing is bad Queer Theory. Foucault set out to critique the tendency to impose binaries in Western cultures; not to imagine, catalogue and collate a whole new set of binary catalogues and impose those coercively on the past and, by extension, the present.
Foucault spoke of “We ‘Other Victorians.'” In other words, how we seek repression in the past so that we might feel more liberated in the present; avoiding how controlled our world has become in other ways. We might also speak of ‘We Other Stonewall Rioters’. How we seek oppressions in the past, or colonise what victimisations there are there, so that we might feel more justified in our oppressions and victimisations in the present; avoiding our privileges and how they may victimise others now (the dead Liberty tramples on in the Delacroix picture).
Chalked lime, which is where whitewash comes from (and also the burning substance that Oscar Wilde writes so movingly of in The Ballad of Reading Goal) is a temperamental thing. Whitewash a thing in too little lime and the rot and decay starts showing very quickly. Whitewash a thing in too much lime and the lime eats into the thing it’s meant to preserve. In other words the lime and whitewash are metaphors for transparency, or lack thereof.
The post-modern period has only complicated this by splitting whitewashing into an increasing spectrum of stained-glass socio-political washed hues (blue washing, green washing, et cetera). It is often difficult to tell whether the concept of ‘washing’ itself in queer terms is anything other then a loaded gun (see LOADED GUN). With regards to Queer Theory certain hues/tones/perspectives are of more interest (see GAYWASHING, see PINKWASHING, see QUEERWASHING, see STRAIGHTWASHING)…
Across a range of writings the saint and sinner Foucault (see FOUCAULT, see FOUNDER) considered the primarily binary nature, as he saw it, of Western thinking. How everything is conceived so that value judgements can be made that are mostly positive or negative (good/evil, pure/impure, clean/unclean).
One of Foucault’s great achievements was to map how quite basic concepts like these could develop during the early-Modern period into increasingly complex and powerful narratives (see DISCOURSES) that held the power of life and death (see BIOPOLITICS).
However, in this vein Foucault wasn’t unique nor was he the first. Foucault was following in a tradition from Nietzsche and Nietzsche was following in a tradition from Kant (even if he profoundly disagreed with him). You could add any number of other European philosophers to this list who have considered the morally dualistic nature of Western thought.
Foucault’s great insight was to critique this tradition, of moral dualism, to consider sexuality and its relationship to the emerging psychological fields. In particular, Foucault is rejecting the Freudian Left (Freud, Reich, Marcuse)(see FREUDIAN LEFT) who remained tied to a morally binary and despondent thinking. To paraphrase, this went something like this:
Man, invariably man as woman is already lost and there being but two genders, can’t help but be impure/weak/lost under the weight of mass civilisation/totalitarianism/capitalism. Only the select few/elite/strong will survive without being corrupted. The best the rest can hope for is watchful care/counsel/mentorship…
Foucault points out that these binaries, these narratives, these discourses, aren’t entirely new. They’re bricolages (see BRICOLAGE) from earlier narratives. For example, monks in mediaeval monasteries were subject to a whole series of regulatory practices (when and how they got up, when and how they said prayers, when and how they ate, when and how they admitted their sins, et cetera) that constantly kept them in a state of self-reflection on their pure/impure behaviours.
According to Foucault, during the early-Modern period, these kinds of binary regulatory practices had mostly impacted upon the sexual behaviours and gendered identities of very small cadres of society: religious orders; the aristocracy; members of the jurisprudence (as their pragmatic effect was to regulate the transmission of property and capital). However, as the early-Modern period progressed, these kinds of binary regulatory narratives and practices proliferated (because these kinds of discourses of power are mimetic and that’s what they tend to do). They moved on to colonise other subjects and other locations: the prison and the prisoner (see PANOPTICON); the mentally ill and the asylum (see BEDLAM), et cetera.
Foucault’s other great insight was to suggest that, as important as these binary regulatory practices were in relation to the direct subject they imposed on (the prisoner, the mad, the sexual deviant, et cetera), an even more important affect was the impact they had on their audience. They (the law-abiding, the sane, the sexually normal, et cetera) could judge their behaviours from observing those occluded, othered and visibly marked by these binary regulatory practices. These behaviours then became imprinted and self-regulated.
By the late 19th to early 20th centuries this had become so saturated into Western culture that it became moot to talk about sexuality being repressed in the conventional sense. Sex is repressed, socially controlled, by being constantly talked about – especially with the proliferation of the psychiatric regimes and psychological disciplines which enables these practices to reach virtually everyone. Everyone can now internalise self-regulatory ideals concerning sexuality and gender; everyone is an audience judging their own and everyone else’s sexual and gendered lives.
There are a couple of issues with Foucault’s approach to Western moral dualism and sexuality. The first being that he essentially, and endlessly to my opinion, deconstructs it without offering much in return. Foucault is not hugely interested to consider why Western culture has set such value considering the moral nature of Good and Evil particularly where sexuality is concerned. He is more concerned to point out the flaws in the argument, to nit-pick, then muddy his own hands in ethical judgements. As a result his analysis is often devastating, but perilously close to sophistry.
The second issue is that Foucault’s analysis of Western moral dualism and sexuality, for a historiographer, is always summative. There is no formative or contextual analysis of how those binary discourses can be compared. A good example is Foucault’s most famous statement “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” It’s witty, but Foucault is in some ways only pointing out the obvious – that sexual labels from different historical eras mean different things. In fact, Foucault often seems to be arbitrarily picking different historical discourses that suit his arguments (a flaw which follows much Queer Theory since).
The summative nature of Foucauldian analysis also means that there is precious little in it to account for the progressive improvement in the lives of many sexual minority people in Western cultures. This is a fundamental flaw at the heart of Foucault’s work and Queer Theory which cannot be accounted by appeals to homonormativity and homonationalism (see HOMONORMATIVITY, see HOMONATIONALISM). It also has to be said that there has been far too little critique in Queer Theory as to why Foucault’s analysis of Western moral dualism and sexuality is so linked to a nostalgic elitism.
The final issue is that the colonising impact of Queer itself has become a powerful binary discourse in global sexual and gender identities and politics. At least three times in the last month I’ve read academics talking about “queer” and “non-queer” research in the global-South on sexuality. But Queer Theory itself was a historically specific response to certain kinds of Western binary identities and the psychological disciplines in particular that grew up around them. It would be an irony indeed if Foucault’s work to interrogate Western moral dualism and sexuality had eventually transitioned into a global model of moral dualism and sexuality and gender.
Asexual identities have the ability to radically challenge Queer Theory’s often taken for granted assumptions about sexual orientation in the same way that Trans* (see TRANS*) identities radically challenged Feminism’s (See FEMINISM) often taken for granted assumptions about gender.
For a long time feminists have challenged the socially constructed nature of gender. This is a good thing because, invariably, gender was/is being constructed in our society to privilege white, biologically male men (see CIS, see WHITE PRIVILEGE). However, for many feminists, the challenge to the socially constructed nature of gender only went as far as how it oppressed them. They weren’t prepared to critique the privileges they enjoyed under the same constructions of gender (see ETHNOCENTRICISM; see INTERSECTIONALITY); a form of strategic essentialism (see STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM).
They often failed to distinguish between gender as biological sex, gender as gender role and gender as gendered behaviour (see PORTMANTEAU); issues which would be of increasing significance to Trans* theorists and activists. When faced with the challenges and contradictions of Trans* Theory and identities, to previously taken for granted assumptions about gender, some feminists have responded with gender panic (see PANICS) that has expressed itself in transphobia (see TERFS, see TRANSPHOBIA). It should be stated that this is largely generational and most contemporary feminism acknowledges the need to have a more nuanced understanding of gender.
Likewise queer theorists have often focused on critiquing sexual orientation as a social script we learn. Again, broadly speaking, this is a good thing because the social scripts we learn often imply that heterosexual lives and codes of behavior are superior to sexual minority lives and codes of behavior (see HETERONORMATIVITY). Even when these scripts become more tolerant they may still suggest that sexual minority lives are better when they mimic heterosexual lives (see HOMONORMATIVITY).
But Queer Theory itself also writes a strategic social script which maintains particular privileges and intersections. In both its progressive-liberal and authoritarian-judgemental modes it maintains the pre-eminence of individual choice. Your ability to, indeed your ethical responsibility to, take charge of and control your sexual script is implied. What is subtly being suggested is your responsibility to be queer.
The fact that this type of scripting tends to privilege certain socio-cultural classes, as well as particular sexual and gendered identities, is overlooked. Equally as important, this type of scripting ignores the fact that sexual orientation is portmanteau (see BIOPSYCHSOCIAL) made up of parts which are biological, parts which are physiological and parts which are socially scripted. Another way to put this is that sexual identity is made up of sexual orientation, sexual role and sexual behaviours.
This is significant for asexuals because most asexuals define their identity through their biological asexual orientation. The standard definition being that an asexual is someone who experiences no or little sexual attraction to others. Therefore scripts barely come into it; it’s very much a case of ‘born this way’. Though the extent to which socialisation will then impact on someone after birth is always important. Equally as important, asexuals reject the pre-eminence given to the scripted sexualised self by queer theorists.
They would claim that other modes of human relationship orientation (the romantic, the platonic, the aesthetic, the sensual, et cetera) are equally as important if not more so. I also see little to suggest that they view these as uniquely social scripts, but as physiological/psychological interactions. It also remains the case that a significant minority of asexuals, in selecting other types of relationship orientation, will choose orientations that would be viewed as heterosexual in preference.
Therefore Queer and Asexual may be on a similar collision trajectory that some parts of Feminism and Trans* were on, for similar but slightly different reasons. Queer may have to realise that it has to to develop a more nuanced notion of the scripted sexualised self. It may have to accept that sometimes it cannot always privilege that sexualised self.
It may also have to accept that being inclusive of Asexual is also to be inclusive of heteroromantic asexuals, for example, who make up such a large number of the increasing visible asexual community. Whether that happens easily, or, we see a similar sexual panic happening with queer theorists and asexuals as occurred with feminists and trans* individuals leading to A-phobia? Only time will tell…
Queer activism is one of the two or three most confused concepts in queer culture.
On a basic level a queer activist should be someone who is campaigning for the fair and equal treatment of queer people in society (the rebel with a brick against the the big straight person). They should also be promoting the increased visibility and awareness of queer people in society; usually by exemplifying queer lifestyles and modelling queer identities (queer people are everyday people). This seems perfectly laudable. It’s also seems clear that there are many people who identify as queer or queer-variant who still feel oppressed or silenced in society, despite claims for increasing tolerance.
The first confusing difficulty stems from the fact that Queer isn’t the same as Lesbian, Homosexual, Asexual, et cetera… Or for that matter Female, Trans*, Male… It’s neither a sexual orientation spectrum nor a gendered orientation spectrum identity, but a socio-political-cultural attitude embraced by certain sexual and gendered minority people to their identities.
In that sense, it’s remarkably similar to Gay which is probably why it has such a historical antipathy to it (younger sibling to older). It’s particularly embraced by people who have considerable economic, social and/or educational capital (so the simple rebel against the big man or big woman narrative is a bit problematic). You will often therefore hear such queer activists talking on behalf of queer communities (queers of colour, Irish queers, crip queers, et cetera) where it’s really unclear that they can actually speak for those communities (because it’s moot whether anybody, certainly not everybody, in those communities would define as queer).
The second confusing difficulty stems from the fact that queer activism is rarely about exemplifying queer lifestyles and modelling queer identities in themselves. Queer activism grew up as a politicized alternative to mainstream gay culture, critiquing what it saw as its lack of challenge to dominant, orthodox heterosexual norms and behaviors (heteronormativity and homonormativity). In particular, queer activism sought to incorporate insights from feminism, post-colonialism and post-structuralism to reject the sexual and gender orthodoxies of its time.
However, over the last 25 years, Queer activism has established its own orthodoxy often acting as ‘purity police’ for sexual and gendered codes of behavior and conduct (see CHARMED CIRCLE). Therefore queer activism in this mode is increasingly about judging others for their specific identities and behavior (so identity is never quotidian and everyday). The irony being that queer activism is now more concerned to attack LGBT identities they feel are unworthy (see WEBER) than heterosexual oppression, often quite viciously – in some situations it becomes difficult to judge whether the queer attack or the heterosexual oppression are more invidious.
Concurrent to this has been the development of a repertoire of contentious tools to judge other sexual and gender minority individuals (see CALLING OUT, CHECKING YOUR PRIVILEGE, THE POLITICS OF SNIDE, et cetera).
An ally should be someone who has your back. Who understands your history and walks beside you in good times and bad. The relationships between many gay men and lesbians during the early years of HIV/AIDS are good examples of allies in action.
Though it’s not always the case nowadays a queer ally is usually a middle-class (invaribly white) well-educated individual taking it upon themselves to speak for what they see as the silenced, oppressed and vulnerable sections of the queer communities. The irony that the people they are usually speaking for may not identify as queer nor that they are further silencing them by talking for them is usually lost on them. The further irony that, once again, white middle-class people are taking charge and passing judgement is also lost.
A queer ally should be something that you are named – not a label you give yourself.
If you seek to be a queer ally it should be a set of practices that you aim to follow – not a set of rules you primarily judge others by.