What Is Queer Nationalism?
— Peter Drucker
THIS IS REALLY about two years late to be giving a talk on queer nationalism. The first Queer Nation group, Queer Nation New York, was founded in April 1990. In some places, like New York and San Francisco, Queer Nation may even have peaked before the end of 1991, with hundreds of core activists in both places. Some of us socialists were distracted from the new phenomenon that year, particularly by the Gulf crisis which began in August 1990.
But better late than never, especially with something important While some Queer Nation groups have already split, shrunk drastically or even folded since the trend began, in some big cities like Chicago Queer Nation has been on the rise. In other places the rise of queer nationalism may still be ahead. In any event the ideas of queer nationalism continue to strongly influence people in the lesbian/gay community, even where Queer Nation groups have declined.
The problem, though, is that the ideas of queer nationalism are hard to pin down. In fact the only thing that we can say for sure unites all queer nationalists is — the word "queer" There is no simple definition of "queerness," no single positive statement about "queeris ness" to which all queers would agree.
Any queer could contradict anything I say about queer nationalism, and some probably will. Even at the risk of being contradicted, I want to say two important things about queer nationalism, and try to back them up:
• Queer nationalism is, following on the 1987 March on Washington and the rise of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), part of the "second wave" of lesbian/gay liberation, the largest and most militant wave of lesbian/gay activism since the 1970s. As such, it should be hailed and supported.
• Queer nationalism has emerged in an overall context of societal reaction, in which lesbian/gay militancy has been largely isolated from and unsupported by its logical allies. In consequence queer nationalism includes some disturbingly ambiguous aspects, which should be challenged.
First the good news. A good place to start is the excellent Queer Nationalism issue of the lesbian/gay magazine Out/look.(1) As Allan Berube and Jeff Escoffier say in their introduction to the issue, "Queer is meant to be confrontational—opposed to gay assimilationists and straight oppressors while inclusive of people who have been marginalized by anyone in power."
That line is a good capsule summary of the good news about queer nationalism. Let me enlarge on it a bit, under four subheads. As Berube and Escoffier say, queer is militant; anti-assimilationist; inclusive; and challenges the straight world head on.
Militant. Queers will get "in your face," in public, anywhere. We assert what gay activist Scott Tucker once called "our right to the world." The full range of issues and adversaries that queer nationalists take on comes across in the list of focus groups that Queer Nation/San Francisco had at its height: the streets, the media, the military, government institutions, universities, suburban malls, communities of color, other countries. The only place I can think of not included in this list is the workplace—a Queer Nation labor focus group was formed only late in 1992, in alliance with Teamster Joint Council 7, to support workers at a gay bar called the Endup. I'll come back to this issue.
The queer nationalist response to straight resistance and attacks is "Queers bash back." Lesbian/gay street patrols to defend against gaybashing (an idea that predates Queer Nation) put into practice this call to militant self-defense.
Anti-assimilationist and inclusive. To every part of the world they can, queers bring the fullness of who we are, in all our outrageousness and fabulousness. Queers are not discreet or moderate. Nor do we let any authorities of the "gay community" or "lesbian community" impose a particular definition of our identity, much less norms for our behavior Queers therefore emphatically include the most marginal among us: sadomasochists, intergenerational lovers, even people who have sex with people of the other gender.
Queer nationalism rejects the gay ghetto, which is seen as a mimicry of straight consumerism. This shows generational and class aspects to who identifies as "queer" as opposed to who identifies as "gay." Most queers are too young or too poor or both for the gay ghetto. Queer nationalism's inclusive, freewheeling attitude has (for some of its spokespeople, anyway) a theoretical underpinning. Like most lesbian/gay historians, queer nationalists tend to reject the "essentialist" assumption that people are born lesbian, gay or straight, and embrace the asocial constructionist" position that argues for an enormously varied sexual potential in people.
Unlike historians who have tended to stress the "social construction" of homosexual and heterosexual identities in the 18th and 19th centuries, from above, by the institutions of government, religion and medicine, queer nationalism tends to embrace a kind of social constructionism from below. We queers are creating and recreating our own identifies. So there is no "right" or "wrong," "correct" or "incorrect" identity; only what we choose to create.
The challenge to the straight world. In these terms, the "straight" world is the enemy of choice and creativity. Straights' enmity to queers' freedom is expressed by a multitude of forms of oppression, above all by subtle or open coercion and violence, but also by limited, patronizing and hypocritical forms of "tolerance." The response from queer nationalism was crystallized in a broadsheet distributed at the 1990 lesbian/gay pride rally in New York, with the banner headline "I HATE STRAIGHTS."
I would argue that the antagonism is legitimate. But I would also say that the purely emotional antagonism toward straights explored by some queer nationalists could be better grounded through a rediscovery of an older, more fundamental, more thought-through challenge to the legitimacy of straightness as such. I would maintain—not speaking for Queer Nation, nor for anyone else in Solidarity, not speaking for anyone but myself—that there is no legitimate reason for any human being to say, "I am straight"
Let me explain. I'm not saying that homosexual sex is good and heterosexual sex is bad. I'm glad to have in Solidarity's "lesbian/gay/bisexual/questioning" caucus people who are involved in heterosexual relationships.
I think it is legitimate for people to say, "I'm usually not attracted to people of my own gender," or "I've never had sex with someone of my own gender," or I'm not looking for a lesbian/gay relationship.
But the statement "I am straight" means both less and more than these other, specific statements; It means less because, if you ask, you find that many people who call themselves "straight" have experienced same-sex attraction or sex; and it means more because it conveys to fellow straights that “I’m not one of them” and to queers that “I am permanently and absolutely off limits.”
In short, "straightness" is a denial of queer possibility. In a liberated society, even someone who happened to be living an exclusively heterosexual life would have no need or desire to say "I am straight"—the category would not exist. Without having this kind of worked-out theoretical position, queer nationalism helps to promote it through its instinctive anti-straight attitude. This instinctive anti-straightness is one of queer nationalism's major contributions.
But there are also some problems with queer nationalism. I would summarize them as ignorance at lesbian/gay history and theory; exclusiveness in practice; "nationalism" in the negative sense; and an attitude that is sometimes anti-"identity" to the point of being anti-gay.
Ignorance of history is the most minor of these problems,! guess. The truth is that virtually every issue, every practical stand, every positive philosophical or theoretical point made by queer nationalism was originally made by an earlier generation of the lesbian/gay movement But it's not young queers' fault that they don't know this, that in fact they talk as if they were the first people in history to have any radical ideas.
What the emergence of queer nationalism as a distinctive, insurgent current shows, however, is the failure of lesbian/gay liberation to transmit its own history, to make its values prevail in actually existing lesbian/gay communities, or to sustain a vibrant left wing in the lesbian/gay movemen.
Exclusiveness in practice. Much more serious is the fact that for all the talk about inclusiveness, Queer Nation groups have been overwhelmingly white and male. By comparison with ACT-UP; Queer Nation has represented the post-1987 second wave that is most explicitly but gay, least oriented toward building broad social alliances.
This is less a question of rhetoric or program than of style. Miguel Gutierrez pointed out in Out/lock, "There are people who cannot afford to be nonassimilationist they are fighting just to live and eat," i.e. working-class people and people of color, whom endless meetings and confrontations exclude in practice.
People of color have in fact been made to feel literally unsafe in Queer Nation meetings. Issues of racism and sexism have been key to Queer Nation splits in several cities. Wherever clear anti-racist and anti-sexist perspectives do not prevail, queer nationalism's potential will continue to be wasted.
The problem unfortunately goes far deeper than insensitivity. The very definition of "queerness" tends to exclude lesbians, people of color, working people and people with disabilities. "Queer" oppression is seen as based on a consciously chosen and crafted identity. This "chosen" aspect of lesbian/gay oppression, the penalties put on explicit lesbian/gay self-expression, does exist and is important—this distinguishes lesbian/gay oppression from oppression based on race, gender or disability, which are generally not chosen but visible, material and unavoidable—but it is only one aspect of lesbian/gay oppression.
The fact that women living apart from men have lower living standards is not chosen; the fact that most closeted homosexuals can lose their jobs or homes is not chosen; the fact that almost all of us grow up in straight families is not chosen. Queer nationalism has tended to de-emphasize these other aspects of lesbian/ gay oppression.
The clearest expression of the idealist side of queer nationalism has come from the academic growth industry of "queer theory" Although most Queer Nation activists know little about queer theory and understand less, queer theory has taken inspiration from queer nationalism and theorized some of the latter's less positive attitudes.
Queer theorists have tried to make queerness inclusive by stressing that "difference" is integral to queerness, while "gayness," they imply, is inherently uniform, white, male and middle class. But this attempt to valorize "difference" in fact minimizes it, making "queerness' the central issue of oppression and liberation, while lump-mg together gender, race, disability and class as particular elements that can be combined into a unique, creatively constructed identity.
But most women or African Americans, as Marxists understand, are not oppressed primarily because of their cultural or identity-based "difference," but because they earn less money, can't get jobs, can't go where they want, can't live decently: for material reasons. The focus on "queerness" tends to push aside all the material bases of people's oppression. Interestingly, during the rise of queer nationalism lesbian/gay labor activism has also continued its slow, steady rise; but the two seem to exist in parallel universes, almost without touching. Queer Nation/San Francisco's support for the Endup bar workers is an interesting exception: however anti-ghetto queer rhetoric is, specifically queer labor organizing is easiest to do in the gay ghetto.
"Nationalism." As Marxists would say, queer nationalism is not a "nationalism of the oppressor," but a "nationalism of the oppressed," which is progressive—and which nonetheless can also have its down side. The truth is that even the most militant nationalism, at the same time that it is strongly anti-assimilationist, is also in a sense integrationist It demands for the oppressed their full and equal share in the existing power setup.
Queer nationalism, radical as it is, is sometimes strikingly moderate, as for example when the New York queer magazine QW endorsed Clinton for president. As Berube and Escoffier noticed, queer nationalists sometimes put great emphasis on the importance of being "recognized by mainstream society." In the same issue of Out/lock, Maria Maggenti noted behind queer nationalists' anger "an underlying desire, an unspoken yearning it seems, to be accepted instead of liberated."
Skepticism about any possibility of transforming the larger society takes another form in queer national nationalism's outer fringe, "Queercore." Queer nationalism cannot be judged by Queercore, since Queercore people don't come to Queer Nation meetings and are not activists. But Queercore is not insignificant. Its second convention showed that it has thousands of followers.
Danielle "Hell" Willis voiced the attitude of these Queercore people: They "don't pretend for a moment that they can alter the culture—gay or straight. They don't want to. All they really want is to be ... left alone."(2)
From "anti-identity" to anti-gay. In Queercore—but unfortunately not only there—queer nationalism's integrationist, anti-ghetto stance becomes explicitly anti-gay. The most horrible anti-gay statements come from Johnny Noxzema of BIMBOX in Toronto. I'll just give a sampling;
"BIMBOX is at war against lesbians and gays. A war in which modern queer boys and queer girls are united against the prehistoric thinking and demented self-serving politics of the above-mentioned scum ... This is a civil war against the ultimate evil." And: "ALL victims of gay bashing DESERVE what they get."
Finally, in an ultimate twist, Queercore includes self-defined straights. This is not just classic blame-the victim thinking, but gay self-hatred. It reminds me of nothing so much as 1950s “homophile” who were looking for a "cure" for their homosexuality.
What does this peculiar fringe phenomenon, Queercore, have to do with queer nationalism? Not much, but unfortunately, something.
Look at Judith Butler, the virtual guru of "queer theory." Queerness should be "Resistance to classification and to identity as such," she says. "I 'come out' only to produce a new and different closet." Many queer nationalists who have never heard of Judith Butler share her hostility to "identity politics," a phrase which often covers over a confusion between essentialism and identity as such.
The problem is that to dissolve identity ideoloically is to sidestep the key task of attacking the material basis of identity and oppression. "Lesbianism," "gayness," "queerness," like class, race, gender and disability, are both things that are imposed on us against our will and crucial tools for the creation of a counterhegemonic power, one that can ultimately destroy the oppressive system root and branch.
Queer nationalism objectively renews this revolutionary potential—but subjectively shrinks back from it So Queer nationalism must be both supported and challenged.
- Out/look no. 11 (winter 1991). Thanks to Tom Patterson for drawing my attention to the issue.
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- Quotations from Queercore and from Judith Butler are taken from a special June 1992 issue of the Voice Literary Supplement, Queer and Present Danger.
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March/April 1993, ATC 43