The queer asexual activist

This is based on empirical data from my PhD on asexual activism.

While there was much more commonality, homogeneity, of response amongst those participants who framed asexual activism in terms of race, this was far less evident in terms of those participants who framed their activist identities even at least partially in terms of queerness. This is not to imply that queer and queerness wasn’t significant and meaningful, as the quotes below show. Participants responses were thoughtful; it was evident that most had reflected on their sense of queer and queerness and their relationships to their asexuality and their activism. But who was queer, who could be queer, whether it was simply enough to be asexual in some form to be queer? The responses were diverse. In attempting to give some sense of how and why these responses were so framed, one must be careful not to over-define queer, because it is a flexible, heterogeneous signifier. I would suggest that at least some of its success is its elasticity; its ability to be stretched and pulled in various personal and socio-political directions while retaining coherence. It retains this coherence because there are certain broad boundaries I think. As my research participants’ quotes illustrate, queer is being engaged with across three broad interrelated discourses. These are not always antagonistic towards each other, but they can be. Queer is framed as a commitment to an oppositional, activist identity and lifestyle to heteronormativity and homonormativity. Queer can also be an identification of oneself as a sexual and gendered minority outside of mainstream norms. Finally, queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gendered minority identities; often used to be free of the historical baggage carried by prior umbrella terms. 

This sense of queer as an oppositional, activist identity and lifestyle was particularly strong for some participants. For them, although it was linked to their sense of asexuality, it was could be quite distinct.

It’s not just that I feel an affinity toward queer, I am queer. I’m not sure that my asexuality is what makes me queer. I think there are lots of other things about me that make me queer, but queer is at least, somewhat self-consciously, politically existing heteronormativity kind of way. That’s certainly the way that I live my life, that’s who I am, that’s how people treat me as well. I mean, typically, I’m read as a dyke. I mean, that’s incorrect, but it’s still… Non-binary people are not… It’s fairly difficult to pass as non-binary, especially with certain body shapes. But yeah, the kinds of relationships that I do engage in and who I am, and what I’m inclined to do and not do, and what’s important to me, that is something that’s completely outside of the heteronormative, heterosexual matrix thing, and it’s even kind of fringed beads within many queer circles. I’m not part of the homonormative world, either. 

There was an expectation here of queer carrying a commitment to a radical sexual and gendered politics which would preclude many asexual from identifying as queer. S, who is a very committed radical activist, talked about their experience of identifying as heteroromantic when they first came out as asexual, but still feeling queer compared to many heteroromantic asexuals who would identify as straight:

I used to identify as heteroromantic when I first came out as ace. And even then I still felt queer, I know that there’s some people who are heteroromantic who would see themselves or they’ll call themselves like straight aces. I certainly didn’t identify that way. But certainly, to each their own, but I still felt queer. While I think other people that I’ve talked to have maybe not so much

Others spoke about their feelings when their right to claim queerness was denied them by other LGBT+ community members:

And then from the LGBT community, you kind of get… Because people are like, “Oh it’s just the same as being straight, or whatever,” and it’s like, “Mmm. No”. Even if… ‘Cause if you’re a heteroromantic asexual, they can kind of argue that, “Oh no,” just ’cause you’re basically straight, and it’s like, “Well, no, no. I’m still queer.” So, I wouldn’t say it’s the same level as the other oppression, but it is definitely a thing that asexual people experience. 

For many of the queer asexual activists, their queer and asexual identities intersected with each other, but it was often a case of ambiguous coexistence. That was certainly not the case for all. Others felt that there had been productive engagement between asexual activism and queer activism. J, who is a person of colour and a queer demi-sexual, felt that mainstream asexual activism had been more successful in engaging with queer then with issues of race. He also noted the many conversations online as to whether simply being asexual makes one queer. This is a reiteration of the comments by David Jay that I noted in Chapter Four. In essence, that anyone who has struggled with a sexual norm can identify as queer:

I think the asexual community’s been very good, in my opinion, of recognizing being able to be asexual and queer. And I think there’s a lot of debate whether being asexual is a queer identity. And so that’s also been another interesting conversation that I’ve been noticing in a lot of communities. 

Pragmatically and symbolically this frames all asexual spaces as queer spaces, which was problematic for some of the queer asexual activists. This ran both ways; not simply about asexuals viewing themselves as queer, but how non-asexual queers view asexuality:

If I’m with a bunch of asexual people, meet ups are often really strange and awkward, depending on the group, because they’re my people but in many ways, they’re really not my people, so that’s less likely… It’s a similar thing with groups of non-asexual queer folk, but in different ways, but often, groups of asexual people are much more alienating than groups of non-asexual queer folk.

Participants once again made mention of the exhaustion that comes from having to constantly explain the specifics of asexual identities in each space. Queer could operate as a form of code-switching, a shorthand, an umbrella term that didn’t carry the historical baggage of earlier umbrella terms. In this sense, queer is not just being used as a more radical synonym for LGBT+. It can be a holding term for a point when the person using the identifier is more comfortable expanding upon their sexual and gendered identities:

I’ve got a few friends who are men exclusively attracted to men, but they call themselves “queer” because they want to kind of disassociate themselves with the gay community and some of the negative areas in there, like the misogyny and that kind of thing, so they disconnect themselves from it by saying “queer”. I think that identifying as queer kind of, is a way of showing that you are…You want to be identified as separate from heterosexual, heteronormativity, but at the same time, you kind of are aware of the problematic elements of the community and you kind of need to have your own identity there, and when not everyone is educated about asexuality, specifically, it can get a bit exhausting, having to explain it all the time. 

Queer asexual activists were therefore framing queer in diverse, heterogeneous ways. What queer meant was contextual and shifted. There was a sense that claiming queer established a critique; both of the heteronormative and the homonormative mainstreams. Whether asexuality and asexual activism in itself was queer was a matter of debate:

Because there are certainly lots and lots of asexuals who are queer. And asexuality can be a queer thing but I don’t think it necessarily is, and… And it depends on what kind of queer space and what queer’s meaning in that moment.

There was a belief amongst participants that queerness, queer communities and queer activism took recognition of emerging sexual and gendered identities in a way that had not yet happened in the mainstream:

So I’d definitely say the… And I think maybe another part of it, maybe for the mainstream queer community, for all its flaws, societies in general have been talking more and more about, for better or for worse, about sexualities outside of heterosexuality. 

There was also an underlying belief the queer activism, and by extension queer asexual activism, concerned themselves with issues that neither the heteronormative nor the homonormative mainstreams were focused upon:

It’s kind of interesting. I’ve had it happen to me before where I’ll be talking, it’s usually to a straight person where I’ll tell them that I’m interested in queer activism and queer thought and queer feminism and all this stuff, and then the first thing that comes to their mouth is, “Well, marriage equality, right?” And I’m sitting there like, “I couldn’t care less.” 

The asexual activist of colour

This is based on my empirical research conducted for my PHD on asexual activism.

Code-switching is a socio-linguistic term. Code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or dialects, in the same conversation. People who speak more than one language, multilinguals, often code-switch. Code-switching is about understanding the rules; the syntax, phonology and grammar of each language or dialect used. Code-switching is now increasingly used to talk about switching between identities for strategic or cultural reasons. One of my participants, who is from a mixed-race background, speaking about their activist identity in relation to their other identities, spoke explicitly about code-switching:

Oh yeah. Basically, what I would say is that: Everyone is different. People struggle with trying to find out who they are, and most people grow up either wearing one identity or rejecting a series of them, accepting whatever is thrown at them, and then, eventually, come to a conclusion, which might be… Like one of the books I read said “I’m not half, I’m double.” You know, I’m not half this and half that. I’m just double everything, because half seems to make people seem less. Or there’s some people who just like, they code-shift, basically. Their whole identity code-shifts, not just their language. They just, you know, they’re more Asian when they’re with their white friends, and they’re more white when they’re with their Asian friends, until they really start to embrace themselves and they’re more Asian with their Asian friends and more white with their white friends, or whatever. There’s some interesting stories in there about like people being out in public with a parent they didn’t look like, stuff like that. It’s good stuff.

‘Passing’ as straight, posing as heterosexual and/or cis-gendered in the mainstream, is quite different from code-switching. With passing, one claims an identity one does not necessarily desire to embrace.  There may be good strategic reasons for doing this; to avoid persecution for example. Code-switching is moving between differing claimed identities with differing groups and/or in differing spatialities. Again, there may be strategic reasons for many people for code-switching:

…is really challenging to say “I am both black and queer”, or something like that. I think being able to do that, in a way, is something that is very, very, very new and very challenging in a way that a lot of people aren’t expecting. And so, for me that helps me, ’cause I like being able to challenge people’s traditional ideas just in general, regardless of what those ideas are. But it can be exhausting. And it can be very tiring. And I do think there are certain spaces where strategically you have to let go… 

As well as an asexual activist of colour, is a committed campus activist. Like others, he came to asexual activism from a background in progressive activism and politics:

I think for me, a lot of it was I was involved with a lot of racial politics, as well as just politics in general, like liberal activism in a lot of ways. 

I’ve been politically involved in one way or another since high school, starting with joining an Amnesty International chapter…

J also had personal reasons for his activism, which frame the strategies that he deploys:

Whereas I feel very differently, where I feel that black men in particular have been hyper-sexualized, so asexuality is sort of a liberation in a lot of ways. So it’s those types of things I’m hoping I can make a contribution in looking at that. Because I do identify as demi-sexual, I try to speak about the spectrum a lot and educate a lot of people, a lot of non-asexuals, about the spectrum in a way that they can understand what asexuality is more, and understand that it’s not this set point

Code-switching can therefore be part of the tactical repertoire of the activist, to speak to different constituencies. One can be an asexual activist in one space, a queer activist in another, a black activist in a third. One can be all three when the circumstance is propitious. Code-switching is an artful strategy, but it is nevertheless truthful. In this context, it is about the enablement of asexual activists of colour to occupy spaces where they feel comfortable to begin to articulate their intersecting identities:

I was away from my family, so I was free to explore asexuality, my identity and kinda then meet other people because I had never met anybody else like me before. I met up with somebody who was also interested in co-organizing the meet-ups. We talked about a lot of interesting things at the meet-ups, I think, that really helped me to kind of sort myself out and understand how other people are feeling within the same community. There’s definitely the discussion of race and feminism and orientation and all of that stuff. It’s definitely all intersecting. 

Participants were concerned to engage with spaces that enabled them not only to find their identities as asexual activists, but as asexual activists of colour:

I’m not really on AVEN forums as much. I’m on Tumblr a lot more. And, I don’t necessarily know if it is getting any better than it has in the rest of the queer community. I’ve been really lucky that most of the asexuals I know in person are minorities or are of color. And so that’s kind of been really helpful for me, being able to navigate it:

A lot of the solace that I’ve found was not from AVEN, but Tumblr. I use it everyday and I would say that they’re one of the more open minded sites that I can go onto and discuss my identity and talk to other people and just kind of spread visibility and discussions about the meet-ups that I’m going to 

So, I was just gonna say that a lot of Tumblr, I think, grew out of the LiveJournal hiatus, ’cause on LiveJournal, there were communities, very active communities, where people spoke very directly and confrontationally about race

There was an appreciation of the path-breaking work that AVEN had done in the field of asexual activism. One of the participants had worked directly on one of AVEN’s most significant public campaigns and spoke positively about their experiences working with other AVEN members. It should also be noted that one of the other participants spoke very negatively about their experiences of seeking to engage with organising a POC (Persons of Colour) only space at the Asexuality Conference organised during World Pride 2014:

So, I… The sort of… I think it’s a perceived… It’s a perception of cohesion that necessitates that certain so-called fringe elements, like people of color stay quiet.

There was a perception amongst research participants that AVEN was representative of a middle-class white asexual activism. Bound up to this, and the use of the Internet, were two quite distinct framings of safety. Other participants, who not only used AVEN but other online forums, would talk about safe Net use in terms of observing common rules of behaviour. I will speak about these in a following section. The participants that I am discussing here, were as minded to focus on having spaces to discuss confrontational issues safely. It is not that these two framings of safety are or should be diagrammatically opposed, but they can appear so in this context. For example, three of the four participants I am discussing here mentioned Tumblr as such a safe space for discussing confrontational issues; whereas other participants talked about Tumblr as a distinctly unsafe space where there were no clear rules of behaviour. The qualities that made Tumblr attractive to some activists made it equally unattractive to others. Importantly, most the research participants that I am discussing here did not view asexual online spaces as neutral or colour-blind in matters of race. Despite the potential of the Internet, all of the four participants here were incredibly tech savvy, there was a sense of dissatisfaction with the Internet, with the structures created:

Hopefully, the ideal right now would just be to have a lot of regulars coming to the meet-ups, on a smaller level. And then eventually it growing into a larger community. Like I said, I’m not satisfied with the way AVEN created their community. I feel like there’s a lot better ways that people can create a community that’s more accepting and more open minded and just, a safe space, 

I should state that my sense was that participants here were less concerned with being accusatory towards white asexual activists, then in critically reflecting on the intersectional complexities of combining activist roles concerning asexual identities with other activist roles. Particularly activist roles in relation to race. There was an acknowledgement that priorities can be different and can lead to problematic relationships:

I think there’s a long way to go with the broader community online. I think there’s a lot more blogs for asexuals of color popping up, and I think that’s awesome. But I think, in terms of actually recognizing the intersectionalities within the community, I don’t think we’ve done a good job of that. And part of that, I do believe, might be just because figuring out asexuality and explaining that to the outside world is already confusing enough. And I think a lot of white asexuals may not even recognize some of the other issues at play with other identities coming, being involved

This sense of intersectionality and interconnectedness was evident amongst the participants that I spoke to. It was not merely about opening up asexual spaces by asexual activists of colour to asexuals of colour. It was about reimagining these spaces, how they were constituted and framed, so that they were always and had always not only being white spaces and discourses:

Also, I’ve been… In terms of race… Like you said, I’ve been writing to try to make those connections of what is the historical implications of asexuality with race and other sorts of identities.

Shakespeare in his native Hindi: Shakespeare and Brexit


As an Irish schoolteacher in England I adored teaching Shakespeare.

Not the standard Shakespeare. That one is painful for teachers and students alike. The Shakespeare who is supposed to represent the ‘best of British’, which really means the best of English. Whose language and themes are meant to reflect a better England. It’s not that history isn’t there, but its reshaped and refashioned to be acceptable to the worldview of a particular middle-class English mindset.

So we pump kids full of facts about language, characters, themes and dates in Shakespeare’s plays. But we never allow them to get close to Shakespeare and the plays, because what we are doing is teaching them about a certain English view of our own world.

I’m sure this Shakespeare is the Shakespeare that the Leave campaign would like to see more of. I’m sure this Shakespeare would vote Leave himself.

I prefer the man who rose from relatively humble beginnings to become a key player in what was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its time. Who wrote sonnets to his lovers; male, female, black and white.

Who never speaks of:

this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

without a great sense of irony. His most jingoistic, nationalist lines are invariably in the mouths of men who are about to do awful things. His “happy breed of men” are manipulators, often with awful consequences for themselves. The lines might be beautiful, but they’re telling us something. They were certainly telling an Elizabethan audience something, who would have known how to read the context.

It’s why I hate RSC productions of Shakespeare. I’ve seen good ones, but by and large the emphasis is on beautiful lines said by the best actors.

It was why, when I was teaching, I tried to emphasise that Shakespeare was part of a living tradition. That there were other idioms, other languages, in which the plays worked. These weren’t just radical adaptations; they spoke back to the original contexts of the plays by avoiding the pitfalls that the “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” school of  ‘beautiful lines and universal themes’ interpretation failed to acknowledge.

Romeo and Juliet (a play in which two young people defy their parents, their society and their God to get married, to die in a place of worship) can be read in the context of Sharia Law and its similarities to early (and ongoing) European judico-religious narratives. This intersects with an analysis of how people with nascent LGBT+ identities (Mercutio) negotiate their place in such societies.

Hamlet is rarely treated in schools as a history play, but actually it is. It’s about the consequence of war for the “sparrows” (mostly women and children) when elites, when Royals, war; particularly when they treat war like a game of chess. Instead of viewing Ophelia as a drowned Pre-Raphaelite virgin – imagine her as a drowned Syrian child on a beach in Greece. You see the power and context of Shakespeare’s words.

But my favourite Shakespearean lesson was teaching Shakespeare in his native Hindi. This was teaching Othello using the recent Bollywood adaptation Omkara (2006).

All the main plot points are there. There are lines which are directly translated from the original. But Othello (Omkara) is now a gang lord enforcer for a corrupt politician. Iago (Langda) and Cassio (Kesu) are his closest lieutenants.

There is a lot of dancing, which really emphasises the sexual undertones of the play.

But, importantly, the adaptation draws on recent Indian history and politics. My students were able to look this up and use it in essays. It emphasised that Othello’s (Omkara) actions, his downfall in murdering Desdemona, weren’t just a consequence of his “green-ey’d monster” (the tragedy of a great man laid low by a character flaw).

In fact, this “green-ey’d monster” is part of a hyper-masculine violent culture in which he is complicit. The world of crime lords and corrupt politicians. It is this complicity that makes him so easily manipulated by Iago (Langda).

Omkara speaks back to the original text of Othello, to its hyper-masculine and violent world of soldiers and royalty, to remind us that toxic masculinity is not a new concern. It also emphasises that culture is not a one-way street. The constant engagement, enrichment and enlargement that those of us from immigrant cultures bring to what are considered traditionally English or British texts.

Shakespeare in his native Hindi offers us a very different Shakespeare from the one that the Little Englanders would prefer. A Shakespeare who questioned a closed, masculine view of England and of the world. A Shakespeare who cannot be said to be on the side of outsiders, he is rarely on anyone’s side, but who is himself a marginal outsider. I think this Shakespeare would be pleased by the way other cultures, particularly immigrant, have adapted and enriched his legacy. I think he would vote to Remain.


The ABC of Queer: H is for Homosocial: The love letter of Sir Alex and Eric…


You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric you know I am here if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend. 

It is a singular irony, though not a contradiction, if you understand these things. That the greatest British football manager of his generation – who could barely mention homosexuality, homophobia and football in the same breath – should have written one of the most beautiful and tender modern love letters from one man to another to one of the footballers he managed:

When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met at Mottram your time at Manchester United was over.

I’m including quite a few quotations here because I don’t want people to think that I’m indulging in my own queer post-modern irony and deliberately misinterpreting the letter in this fashion.

It’s impossible not to read the text as a love letter; a point Ian Herbert, the chief sports writer at the Independent, made when he said it “reveals the debt of passion he felt for Manchester United star Eric Cantona” and “There is a vivid sense of him casting wistful glances, hoping to see the Cantona car.”

It’s also clear that Ian Herbert, from his language, is trying to suggest that Alex Ferguson had perhaps ‘feelings’ for Eric Cantona?

To be fair, the letter is written in such a way that it’s difficult not to imagine Alex and Eric sitting in a tea room in Mottram village waiting for a bus or train, just like Celia Imrie and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, chatting about football training rather than declaring their true feelings.

One thing, I would like you to remember is to remain active and fit. I always remember when I finished at 32 and I started management, I was more concerned about organising training and he coaching of players that I forgot about my own fitness and then when I realised about six years later what was happening, I started to train again to recapture my fitness and it was murder, so you do need to keep your fitness.

As I noted in a previous quotation, Alex even mentions the ubiquitous cup of tea!

I keep hoping that I will discover a young Cantona! It is a dream!

That’s part of the problem. The models or paradigms by which Queer invariably judges the homosocial (male same-sex bonds) have become polarized between two extremes. The homosocial is either repressed, latent homosexuality or it’s a homoerotic trade in women between men (coercive and/or physically violent).

That’s not to deny that these examples exist, all too often, but whether they are actually representative or illustrative of the homosocial in Western sexual and gendered culture is moot.  Whether they are actually examples at all is a basic flaw in how Queer defines the homosocial…

It’s a basic flaw with Eve Kosofsky Sedqwick’s seminal queer text Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (see KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK). Sedgwick’s project, which was foundational to Gay & Lesbian, Queer and Queer-Feminist Studies on the homosocial, was to analyse the pre-eminence of male same-sex bonds in 19th-century literature, and, how those bonds were structured prohibitively to male-female bonds. But always and everywhere Sedgwick finds what she sets out to find: a trade in women and fear of homosexuality.

To do this, Sedgwick defines “male homosocial desire (the constant connotative linkage of ‘homosocial’ and ‘desire’ itself is problematic)” as all male bonds. She then defines all male bonds as having the potential to be erotic. She then deconstructs all eroticised male bonds as involving a trade in a women and the fear of homosexuality. In others words, while there is no such thing as a cold reading, for a woman talking about male-male desire she particularly loads the deck.

Sedgwick’s readings of often commonplace literary texts are both dazzling and challenging; of all the seminal figures writing in English in Queer Studies she is easily the most beautiful to read. In particular, her reading of the hierarchical asymmetries between the heteroerotic and homoerotic dyadic relationships in Shakespeare’s sonnets is the best interpretation of the poems and one of the masterworks of Queer Theory itself.

However, while the homosocial can be about obscured homoeroticism (see HOMOEROTICISM) or latent homosexuality (see HOMOSEXUAL ORIENTATION), it’s usually not. It’s far more likely to be about the homoromantic, the homoaesthetic or the homoplatonic (see HOMOROMANTIC, HOMOAESTHETIC, HOMOPLATONIC).

Queer also has issues with the gynosocial (see GYNOSOCIAL) particularly around gender, trans*gender and non-gender (see GENDER, TRANS*GENDER, NON-GENDER), but it is as nothing to the contradictions Queer (and Queer-Feminist) experiences with the homosocial.

When you read Alex Ferguson’s letter to Eric Cantona, it’s actually a really wonderful homosocial example of homoromantic and homoplatonic male bonding.

It’s clear that Alex Ferguson loves Eric Cantona; it’s clear that his love of the beautiful game extended to loving the beautiful players that graced it. It’s clear that that love is part of what made him one of the most successful football managers the world has ever seen.

I don’t think that love is homoerotic or homosexual in its make-up. I actually believe those kind of readings (which have become all too ‘normative’ for Queer and Queer-Feminism) not only inaccurately describe much that is homosocial; they actually do a disservice to homosexual desire itself.

What was nascent in Sedwick’s early text has migrated into mainstream culture from Queer Studies; as you can see from Ian Herbert’s ‘ironical’ comments.

Herbert’s comments are meant to be light-hearted, but there is a more serious aspect to them.

Queer’s boxing in of the homosocial actually perpetuates the fear of homosexuality, and bisexuality, rather than ameliorating them for most men. From Male Homosocial Desire… on, the argument has been that all male same-sex bonds, unless the blokes are queer (and even then they are pretty much suspect if the blokes are white [see WHITE PRIVILEGE]) are mostly about guys wanting to fuck each other, hiding their feelings, and attacking women instead as vicarious substitutes.

It’s a subtle policing model which is misandric, homophobic and biphobic. Queer privileges its own circle (see GAYLE RUBIN, CHARMED CIRCLE); ‘straight’ men, which may include homosexual/bisexual men as well, are actually left with very little wriggle room.  I would imagine that increasingly includes the cis/trans*male boundary as well.

And I can certainly think of queer spaces where it has been argued from the homosocial that masculinity has only three states: queer, repressed or sexually violent.

I choose to reject that. I choose to believe that the homosocial can be truly queer.  I certainly believe it is in Alex Ferguson’s letter to Eric Cantona. Or at least there is the potential there for it to be read in such a way, joyfully. That we can label repression and sexual violence what they are. At the same time, take the fear out of the homo*; acknowledge male same-sex bonds across the spectrum for what they can and could also be…



ABC of Queer: B for Burnout: the label that keeps on not giving!

While I was at the Non-monogamies Conference in Lisbon recently a young woman in the Q & A section after a session asked about burnout amongst activists. She said that she was a poly-activist aged 26 who was already experiencing burnout after only three years as an activist. Nobody really answered her question. In fact, people quickly moved on to other questions.

To a large extent, this is my experience of the subject of burnout amongst academics, academic-activists and activists in sexual and gender social movements (I suspect it’s similar in most social movements). We kinda acknowledge that it happens, we think it’s awful for the individual, but the movement is the important thing so we move on.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in social movement spaces where stock phrases have been used about people experiencing burnout. “She was too emotional… ””He didn’t understand what the movement was about…” “She took too much on… It was her fault.” In other words the emphasis is to exonerate the movement from any responsibility; the great tragedy is that there is an implication that burnout implies some fault that must lie either with the individual or the movement, so blame must be directed towards an already vulnerable individual.

At the same time I’ve been in other social movement spaces where activists have been incredibly supportive of friends and colleagues who were experiencing burnout. Indeed I would go further and say the best practice I have seen has been from activists who have chosen to confront the kind of narratives I’ve written about in the previous paragraph. I’d also go further. I would say that activist and academic-activist good practice on burnout I’ve seen acknowledges that burnout is part of the activist life/lifestyle cycle, not an aberration of it to be silenced. The real issue is the ease with which people are enabled to transition from an activist state to a more or less everyday state.

In fact, many of us who are activists or academic-activists may experience burnout 3/4/5 times across our lives. Actually the lifespan of a single activist role may only be 3/4 years. There is nothing wrong with that. As there is also nothing wrong with remaining committed to a cause for the entirety of your life.

But we have a tendency to fetishize that kind of commitment in social movements which makes people who aren’t able to match up to that kind of ‘hard-core’ identity feel less authentically activist. In reality, the history of sexual and gender social movements has been that the short-term activists have been as significant as the long-term.

As well, we need to consider what burnout is. It’s certainly not just people deciding to disengage from a social movement. It’s a complex cluster of practices and frames. When I started to write this I thought about the times of my life when I’ve felt burnout. I tried to consider the kinds of different meanings involved. For me, burnout can involve:

  1. Moments when your body physically breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of physical illnesses, especially illnesses that you should usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  2. Moments when your mental resilience breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of cognitive illnesses, especially illnesses that you would usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  3. The complexity of activist relationships which are often fuelled by the mission, but at the same time operate according to interpersonal dynamics. These can often involve issues of gender, race, social and economic mobility, et cetera.
  4. Simply the experience of living in this heightened state and space of activism which is different from being in everyday space. That there is something wrong with you if you can’t continue to live in this heightened space….

We need to learn to understand burnout, especially to understand it as natural and part of the cycle of activism.  Otherwise the great danger is that ‘burnout’ as a demonised and fetishized label becomes something that we carry with us as a traumatising narrative. I know someone who was an activist for 18 months, but she has been burnt out for 18 years.

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).







The ABC of Queer: W for Whitewash

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)…

The ABC of Queer: B for Binary

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.

The ABC of Queer: A for Asexual

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…

The ABC of Queer: A for Activist

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).