The ABC of Queer: Q for Queerwashing

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.

Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People

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:

Asexual Liberty leading the  Reading Pride March
Asexual Liberty leading the Reading Pride March, 2014

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).







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