In January 2012, Duke University Press killed off its influential Series Q imprint of academic queer theory texts. After nearly two decades, the publisher no longer saw the need to promote queer theory as a distinct strand of literature. Queer theory, it seems, has now officially entered the mainstream of academia and academic publishing. From the very beginning, Queer theory in academia emerged and developed in parallel with the new breed of queer activism. Queer theory was rooted in a broader radical project. In the last twenty years, the relationship between queer theory and radical street-based activism has become more tenuous and more strained. Queer activism has, of course, changed dramatically over this period too. In this article, I question what has become of queer’s radical project, exposing its contradictions, and asking what can become of that project (now that queer theory has become more centrally incorporated into the academic mainstream and queer activism is looking tired and worn out)?
The first wave of queer activism in the early 1990s offered the promise of thorough resistance to regimes of the normal as an alternative to earlier identity-based politics of representation. On both sides of the Atlantic, this political development grew out of the involvement of lesbian and gay activists in AIDS activism and civil disobedience organised through ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). In the USA, at least, this occurred partly because ACT UP had been so successful in building a coalition of those affected by HIV/AIDS that it partially lost its earlier focus on fighting the homophobia that underpinned the neglect of many people with AIDS. The militancy of the ACT UP groups in many major US cities (but particularly New York and San Francisco) was founded on the ‘class dislocation’ that many upper middle class gay men experienced as a result of AIDS: not only were their friendship networks being decimated by the disease, their (sexual) citizenship was undermined and their ability to consume as ‘normal’ was disrupted by the cost of health-care. As a result, although their tactics of non-violent direct action appeared radical, the politics that underpinned them were more complex and contradictory. There was always a danger that in employing transgressive tactics to expose the ubiquity of heterosexual privilege, these groups actually served to draw attention to and, ultimately, reinforce the homo/hetero binary (rather than undermining it, as the queer project aspired to do).
In contrast, the most radical queer politics of the last decade or so has attempted to creatively experiment on the basis of affinity and autonomy to find means of fostering non-hierarchical queer community of ‘for queers of all sexualities and genders’. The diffuse activist networks that constructed these experiments were avowedly anti-assimilationist and sex positive. In the words of the North American collective, they were ‘against equality2—the right to serve in neo-colonial military adventures, climb the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and marry were not rights that overly concerned them. Similarly they asked pertinent and awkward questions about who benefitted most (through the reconfiguration of privilege) from the proliferation of hate crime legislation. Instead, they celebrated and defended the diversity of people struggling to live outside the confines of heteronormativity, whilst also critiquing those within lesbian and gay communities who were attempting to muscle in on the institutions that sustained that privilege. This newer queer activism has been as opposed to homonormativity as its predecessors were to heteronormativity. It opposes and contests the complacent politics of mainstream gay politicians who actively work to win gay people’s compliance to a depoliticised culture based on domesticity and privatised consumption. Whilst the critique of homonormativity has been vitally important, I fear that too often this has meant that queer radicals expend more energy protesting gay liberals than they do challenging persistent heteronormativity and, in the process, cede that political terrain to the liberal proponents of ‘equality,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘post-homophobic policing’ delivered by the neoliberal state.
Queer has always celebrated gender and sexual fluidity and worked tirelessly to blur binaries (to ‘queer’ them). Queer revels in its otherness, difference and distance from mainstream society (gay or straight), even as it recognises that this distance is always incomplete. In attempting to rearticulate queer politics over the last decade some queer activists, especially those influenced by aspects of anarchist thought, have sought to develop a radical politics of gender and sexuality that moved beyond transgression, and towards the incorporation of certain ethical goals (for example, co-operative, non-hierarchical, sex-positive relationships) into its practice. I fear that in many respects, this political project has failed and that queer has been reduced to a subcultural form of hipster chic that gains cultural capital from its knowing playfulness with the boundaries of more dominant sexual and gender identities. In doing so, certain racial and class privileges are reproduced. In the process, both early queer activism’s commitment to coalitional praxis, and later queer activism’s commitment to prefigurative experiments with post-capitalist social relations have been lost.
Homonormativity—the social, economic and legal incorporation of certain expressions of homosexuality—has been described as the sexual politics of neoliberalism. Domesticated same sex couples have been privileged on the basis of their spending power and their willingness to privatise within the home the costs of social reproduction and welfare. Queer activists and theorists have been vocal in their opposition to homonormativity over the last decade. But, neoliberalism is more than just a set of economic policies promoting the free market and the rolling back of state welfare provision. It is also a form of governmentality that validates certain marketized social relations through rhetorics of personal responsibility, individual autonomy and free choice. The clamour of angry voices critiquing homonormativity fail to recognise that queer too is a product of neoliberal times and celebrates subjectivities that are often just as consistent with neoliberal imperatives as the most homonormative of gay consumers. Queer politics and theory, as it has developed over the last two decades, and despite its pretensions, is entirely consistent with modes of governmentality based on personal responsibility, individual choice. For all its critique of normative discourses, queer’s antipathy to the representational appeals of identity politics has actually further prioritised the individual over the collective.
Although many queer radicals from the last decade have experimented with more collective forms of affinity-based organising and social autonomy, they continue to exist in a contradictory relationship to neoliberalism’s promotion of individual free choice. After all, the very allure of autonomy stems from the desire for freedom. The anarchist and autonomist traditions that have inspired some strands of queer radicalism over the last decade seek collective forms of self-organisation, mutual aid and solidarity as both a means and an end towards forms of social autonomy. In doing so, they continually negotiate the potentially conflicting demands of personal freedom and collective responsibility—not always successfully. Too frequently these radical queer experiments become recuperated as subcultural capital and individual fashion statement or lifestyle choice. That is not surprising, but nor should those experiments be rejected out of hand as a result. At their best they have taken several steps in the right direction and provided their participants with insights into how life (and sexual difference, in particular) might be lived differently. The orientation of these experiments was not necessarily at fault, but the mode of travelling needs refining and refuelling.
In order to think through the possibilities for expanding (collective) queer autonomy, it is useful to examine in more detail the social relations of capitalism that perpetually undermine it. The social tendencies that have produced homonormativity as the sexual politics of neoliberalism are the same ones that derail the queer potential to live life differently. In the metropolitan centres of the Global North, gay life is saturated by the commodity. Through it, people consume products and experiences that confirm their identity as ‘gay’. This investment in consumption means that people no longer relate to each other as active participants in the creation of society, but as the owners (or not) of things that are divorced from the processes by which they came into being. The social relations of production, of ‘doing’, are converted into ‘being’ (in this case, being gay). As John Holloway3 has argued, capitalism is precisely that: the separating of people from their own doing. It is relatively easy to critique hegemonic gay identities, culture and politics on this basis—sexuality has become reduced to the acquisition of commodities that have been separated from the conditions of their production, and the experiences of those that produced them. What is a less common (and less popular) argument is that ‘queer’ subcultures, whilst self-consciously playing to different rules, can still become a transgressive experience to be consumed in pursuit of an identity founded on specific (neoliberal) techniques of the self4.
Radical (anarcha-)queer activism has moved away from the demands-based politics of the homonormative mainstream that is oriented towards the state. In contrast to this experience of life on the receiving end of an anti-social ‘power-over’, those radical queers with an affinity for social autonomy have been making modest, low-key attempts to re-engage their ‘power-to-do’ (which is always part of a social process of doing with others). In doing so, they have reformulated ‘queer’ in their praxis as a relational process, rather than either an identity category or a mode of critique. A queer subjectivity, in this context, is produced through the very process of working collectively to create a less alienated and more empowered space in which to explore a multiplicity of sexual and gendered potentialities. In other words, these newest radical queer social movements, are not attempting to gain influence and power-over within the system of states and corporations, but are focused instead on strategies of exodus and what Richard Day has called “the possibilities offered by the displacement and replacement of this system”5.
Radical queer gatherings and ‘do-it-yourself’ social spaces reveal cracks in capitalist social relations. If too many radical queer experiments with social autonomy have failed and been recuperated it is, in part, because the balance between individual autonomy and collective freedom has been undone. But, it is also because those experiments have been short-lived or episodic retreats from the work of labour. For social autonomy to spread, it needs to be embedded in social relations through daily practice. In its purest expression, collective autonomy is a refusal to engage in mainstream circuits of capitalism; but, its promise lives in moments and spaces where forms of unalienated work—doing—takes hold. Autonomy’s refusals are collective acts of creation. Autonomy creates the tools and strategies for changing the world through its creative experimentation in the co-authoring of new social relations and ways of being.
A quarter of a century after the birth of ‘queer’, the radical potential of both queer theory and queer activism seems spent. Queer theory has become incorporated into the academic mainstream (albeit not without a degree of hostility and suspicion). Divorced from radical street-based politics, too much queer theory has become caught in the spiralling pursuit of ever more marginal subjects. Queer activism in many places has dissolved itself into hipster subcultures and now spends most of its efforts critiquing the homonormative agenda of mainstream lesbian and gay politics, rather than challenging heteronormative social relations. Homonormativity may be an expression of the sexual politics of neoliberalism, but queer’s central contradiction is that it was born out of (disrupted) privilege and is just as much an expression of neoliberal forms of governmentality as the mainstream it critiques. Queer, despite its protestations to the contrary, resides in a countercultural avantgarde that is either unwilling to reflect on its own privilege or paralysed by liberal guilt and self-doubt when it does so. Queer activism and theory is now too far removed from the everyday joys and troubles of the majority of sexual/gender minority people to be of much use to them.
The experiments with queer autonomy of the last dozen years offered a promising alternative, a way out of neoliberal social relations, but they too are in retreat just when they are needed most. That spirit of creative experimentation and collective co-authorship of alternative ways of living could still be of utility; but, it now needs to break out of its subcultural ghetto. It needs to find ways of engaging with the concerns of sexual minorities who find themselves struggling in the face of austerity, enraged by the prejudice that persists in ‘tolerant’ societies, and bored by the options sold to them by the homonormative mainstream. ‘Queer’ has probably outlived its usefulness, but the lessons of its rise and fall will be crucial to forging a new radical sexual politics for precarious times.
- 2. Against Equality is an online archive, publishing, and arts collective focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. www.aga
- 3. John Holloway, “Twelve Thesis on Changing the World without Taking Power,” in: The Commoner, n. 4, 2002. www.commoner.org.uk/
- 4. Margot Weiss makes this point exceptionally well, in relation to BDSM subcultures in the Bay Area of California, in her book Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
- 5. Richard J.F. Day, “From Hegemony to Affinity. The political logic of the newest social movements” in: Cultural Studies 18, n. 5, pp. 716–748 (p. 719).