On Queer theory: Part 1

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at qut.edu.au
Thu Apr 25 00:56:53 MDT 1996


In an attempt to get the debate on homosexuality and Marxism moving I
thought i would begin the long promised series of posts on queer theory.  I
have to say frankly that such is the level of homophobia on this list that I
do not think it is a task worth undertaking but there may be who knows some
sympathisers among the lurkers and besides, Doug, Louis, Rakesh, Jorn, Jeff,
Lisa, Robert, Rahul  and others have been decent and supportive in the best
tradition of Marxist progressivism. Besides it also might just be possible
that I am not the only gay on this list. Certainly looks like it though.
What follows is excerpted and amended from a 1993 paper I gave in Melbourne.

1. In June 1993 there was an extremely fiery meeting in Sydney where a row
broke out between the "queers" and the "gays".  the issue seems to have been
whether bisexuals or transexuals should have been allowed into the movement.
the queers were tossed out and the gays won the day.  I was at the time
particularly interested to theorise what the dispute was about.  My long
term goal was then as always to try and construct both a theoretical and a
practical interface between Marxism and gay politics.  It is just such an
interface which I believe was in operation in russia before the advent of
Stalin's rule.

2. identity politics.

During the reign of  the Australian Labor party (1983-96) there were
definite advances for  gays and lesbians. Foremost of these was surely Prime
Minister Keating's ability to allow gays into the military, and the sheer
size and vibrancy and cultural elan of the annual Gay and Lesbian mardi gras
in Sydney.

I am inclined to think though that it was these very gains that through a
dialectical process conservaised the gay movement.  First though how and why
were these advances made.

I believe that what was and still is happening in not only the collapse or
retreat of gay oppression but the transformation of the "gay" from the
Feared or Despised Other to the Exotic Other.  This last category is
essentially commodified and it then can be exchanged via  a myriad of
transactions associated with events like the Mardi Gras.

Isaac Julien's story of how he persuaded the distributors of his film "Young
Soul Rebels to go with a poster of the  black and white man kissing in bed
and how this move increased audinece sales, is I believe a paradigmatic case
(Rich, 1992: 31)

For gays the transition from Feared - Despised to Exotic Other does
represent a leapforward but it is a circumscribed one.  As long as we can
put on an act, as long as we are unusual then we have the only kind of value
that capitalism knows -market value and the only kind of acceptance that it
has to offer, that of being a marketable commodity.

Gays and lesbians are of course conscious of this.  For instance Christine
Vanchon, the producer of "Swoon" and "Poison" is very aware that the
interest in Queer cinema is motivated by money.   As she puts it "suddenly
there's a spotlight that says these flims can be commercially viable".
(rich: 1992:32)  Ruby Rich wonders too how "long the moment of fascination
will last" and adds the sobering thought that "(queers are) celebrated in
the festivals, despised in the strees" (ibid) ( he could have added the
Marxism List as well!)

What we are dealing with here is yet another instance where the radical
potential of capitalism is truly at work.  Conservative ideology and the
non-fashionable madmen with their pedantic boring cires would obliterate
spectacles like the mardi Gras.  But capitalism rejects this ideological
stance as it senses there is a profit to be made. As Marx put it "capital
eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as nature was formerly said to
abhor a vacuum, with adequate profit capital is very bold. (Marx, 1974: 712)

Like Vachon the organisers of Mardi gras understand the economic imperatives
involved.  thus in 1992 they commissioned a study which showed that Mardi
Gras injects millions into the Australian economy and that it is more
successful than other festivals in Australia. (Harris b 1993)

But there is another dimension to the Mardi Gras project and that is tied in
with the emanciaptory potential of identity  politics.  Mardi Gras
constructs a gay & lesbian community based on an identity which above all is
built on the fact of existence or survival.  hust as in Australia's
Bicentenary of 1988, aboriginal Australians marched under the slogan "we
have survived" just so do gays and lesbians annnounce their existence with
the slogan.

"we're here. we're queer. Get used  to it."

This I beliueve provides us with the key to understanding why in the reports
of the 1993 Washington demonstration the number of  those involved in the
demo became a key issue.  At the most immediate level this has been related
to the debate over Kinsey's estimates on the number of gays and to the very
question of whether gays exist or not. (Simon, 1993)

But  there are I feel deeper questions of identity at work here.  Thus Simon
tells of of his friend breaking down and crying on the elevator at the sight
of so many gay people going to the demonstration. (Simon, 1993:  10)  Here
we're getting to a level beyond the commodity.  the gay who cries on the
elevator does so because as a member of an oppressed and despised minority
he has for once had his humanity confirmed.  Moreover he has done this in
the only way possible.  He has found himself in the  eyes of the beholder.
He has gone from being atomised and isolate to human.  The vital stage in
this process is entering into a dialogue and thus beocming part of a
community.  Dialectically it is this which give him his individuality.

My analysis here draws upon the radically anti-individualistic ethics of
Mikhail Bakhtin and Marin Buber in the importannce of disalogue inthe
construction of the human. (Clark & Holquist, 1975, Buber, 1970)

We should also note here that in the case of gays and lesbians this
dialogical exchange has to be between gays and lesbians.  Only other gays
and lesbians can give us our humanity.  Here we have the real meaning of the
term self-emancipation.

Above all else this is the process that is political and emancipatory about
Mardi Gras.  the  festival holds out the possibility of gays  and lesbians
being in dialogue with other gays and lesbains, the possibility of being
part of a community, or in Buber's terms giving and receiving the Thou.

It is worth recalling in this context Sartre's brilliatn meditation on the
reciprocity of naming in his pre-Stonewall work on Jean Genet. Here Sartre
says that to be labelled "thief" was a devastating experience for the young
genet beause the thief ins named but does not have the right to name anyone
else. A butcher for instance can name someone else a "doctor" and receive in
turn the epithet "butcher". In a foot note Sartre then says that like the
thief the homosexual is not able to engage in the reciprocity of naming.
(Sartre, 1963)

Decades of struggle have made Sartre's remarks in some ways dated, but they
stand as a reminder to us of the importance of maintaining the right to
self-definition and how that process, if it is to be emancipatory, can never
be simply an individualised  exercise.  What is necessary here is for gays
to control the relation of gays to gays and then to control the relationship
of gays to straights.

Sartre's comments can also give us another way to understand thew
indignation tin the straight establishment over the "outing scandal" in
Britain.  Here gays actually had the temerity to suggest that they would
usurp the right of the straight world to name someone gay.  The hypocritical
indignation of  the British tabloids was breathtaking.  They are of  course
the greatest "outers" of gays and lesbians.  But their anger knew no bounds
when it appeared that their role was to be usurped by gays. (Nicholls, 1991)

What is involved here is of course the question of the closet and who
controls it.  this is  illustrated perfectly by Clinton's decision that gays
could remain inthe military if the remain closeted and that the striaght
establishment would not use its power to name them if they behaved.

In the debates around identity politics a fear is often expressed that such
politics may tend to "obscure ...real human diversity". (Weeks, 1985: 187)
Weeks' reply is that it  is sometimes forgotted that gay people are already
given an identity by straight society and that Foucault's "happy limbo of a
non-identiy" is simply not an avalialable option to the despised.  It is
surely the worse kind of utopianism to deny that gays are positioned within
the social order as the Despised Other.

Many people interiorise the identiy given to them by straights.   On this
list Marxist contributors have attempted to push the equation of homosexual
= pedophile and suggested that homosexuality is equvialent in moral terms to
incest and that a state could be justifed in criminalising homosexuality.

The result of such attacks from the dominant straight world is generally is
destructive self loathing among gays.  The gay movement of the seventies
understood this very well, hence the slogan "Gay is good".

Of course  being a member of such a wonderful list as Marxism1 makes it all
so different.

I will stop for now.  To be continued...



BTW I will put in the full biblio in the concluding post.

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