In response to “Queerness as Whiteness: Beyond Identity Politics.“
NOTE: Admittedly this is more a collection of reflections as opposed to a refined political articulation of praxis; however, perhaps that is what is most necessary.
Fascism in/of the Closet
If one is to grapple with the question of whiteness in relation with queer identity, it catalyzes with three inter-connected realities of its antithesis, the closet.
- James Baldwin’s identification of anti-Black racism as homoerotic, a synoptic notion held with Frantz Fanon, in his short story “Going to Meet the Man”;
- The invocation of homophobia as part of the wider McCarthyite witch hunt in the 1940s and 1950s, demonstrable of a larger heterosexist strand running through the anti-Communist reaction;
- The role of closeted queer people in reactionary political formations over the past century.
Baldwin described the ideology of whiteness using this framework:
Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.The Fire Next Time 1963
He further articulates a psycho-sexual dimension in his short story, told from the perspective of a violent, fascistic white southern sheriff confronted with the insurgent Civil Rights movement, personified by a young man he incarcerates in a municipal jail cell.
Now the boy looked as though he were dead. Jesse wanted to go over to him and pick him up and pistol whip him until the boy’s head burst open like a melon. He began to tremble with what he believed was rage, sweat, both cold and hot, raced down his body, the singing filled him as though it were a weird, uncontrollable, monstrous howling rumbling up from the depths of his own belly, he felt an icy fear rise in him and raise him up, and he shouted, he howled, “You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while—your women! Here’s what I got for all the black bitches in the world—!” Then he was, abruptly, almost too weak to stand; to his bewilderment, his horror, beneath his own fingers, he felt himself violently stiffen—with no warning at all; he dropped his hands and he stared at the boy and he left the cell. [Emphasis added]“Going to Meet the Man” 1965
Later in this same story, Baldwin elaborates upon the protagonist’s juvenile homoeroticism and how it manifests while witnessing a lynching.
He turned his head a little and saw the field of faces. He watched his mother’s face. Her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange. He began to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watched the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then. One of his father’s friends reached up and in his hands he held a knife: and Jesse wished that he had been that man. It was a long, bright knife and the sun seemed to catch it, to play with it, to caress it—it was brighter than the fire. And a wave of laughter swept the crowd. Jesse felt his father’s hands on his ankles slip and tighten. The man with the knife walked toward the crowd, smiling slightly; as though this were a signal, silence fell; he heard his mother cough. Then the man with the knife walked up to the hanging body. He turned and smiled again. Now there was a silence all over the field. The hanging head looked up. It seemed fully conscious now, as though the fire had burned out terror and pain. The man with the knife took the nigger’s privates in his hand, one hand, still smiling, as though he were weighing them. In the cradle of the one white hand, the nigger’s privates seemed as remote as meat being weighed in the scales; but seemed heavier, too, much heavier, and Jesse felt his scrotum tighten; and huge, huge, much bigger than his father’s, flaccid, hairless, the largest thing he had ever seen till then, and the blackest. The white hand stretched them, cradled them, caressed them. Then the dying man’s eyes looked straight into Jesse’s eyes—it could not have been as long as a second, but it seemed longer than a year. Then Jesse screamed, and the crowd screamed as the knife flashed, first up, then down, cutting the dreadful thing away, and the blood came roaring down. Then the crowd rushed forward, tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing. Jesse’s head, of its own weight, fell downward toward his father’s head. Someone stepped forward and drenched the body with kerosene. Where the man had been, a great sheet of flame appeared. Jesse’s father lowered him to the ground. [Emphasis added]Ibid.
The homoerotic nature of this terrible moment is profound. Baldwin does not elaborate upon an affirmative identity for this person, an ambiguity constituting a major strand in queer politics for over 150 years. But it is obviated here that repressed homosexual inclinations bear a “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” This is similar to the argument of Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, that part of the animus of racism is fueled by a repressed homosexual desiring for the Black male body.
The link tween heterosexism and white supremacy is a demonstrable material reality. For over a century now, the forces of reaction have linked the Bolshevik Revolution with Black liberation and sexual emancipation (namely provision of abortion care, no-fault divorce, and revocation of sodomy laws) in a diabolical triad. Indeed, the primary mode of opposition to Black liberation is a sexual formulation, mainly articulated, but not exclusively by, anti-miscegenation rhetoric and legislation. Sexuality underwrites the project of white supremacy and hetero-/cis-sexism are constituent elements of it.
If queerness is a manifestation of whiteness, both liberals and conservatives demonstrated a very strange embrace of that which would have fortified their efforts, maintaining the hegemony of racial capitalism. Even President Obama was hesitant until almost the absolute last moment endorsing same-sex marriage only when it became clear that his re-election was secured by the utter disaster of Mitt Romney’s campaign in spring 2012.
As a corollary to these two points, one should consider the long record of demonstrable harm done by closeted white gay men and women.
The catalyst of the McCarthyite period manifested as the strange episode known as the Hiss-Chambers case. Alger Hiss was a New Deal liberal who had created powerful enemies for his work with the Nye Committee, a Senate investigation of munitions manufacturers, the so-called “Merchants of Death.” He went on to antagonize industrial farming interests as a member of the Agriculture Adjustment Administration, which intervened heavily in that sector of the economy during the interwar years. By the end of World War II he had been a major functionary at the Yalta summit, which resulted in the postwar division of Europe between Roosevelt and Stalin, and then the founding conference of the United Nations. These latter two episodes became longtime sources of conspiracy theories by conservative Republicans, who claimed Roosevelt’s decision to grant the Soviet Union so much geopolitical power in the postwar reconstruction and the decolonization process was caused by espionage foisted on a dying president too infirm to comprehend how deeply he betrayed European liberty.
Not merely Hiss, wrote Alistair Cooke in 1950, but a generation was on trial. Chambers himself called the case an epitomizing one. “It epitomized a basic conflict. And Alger Hiss and I were archetypes. That is of course what gave the peculiar intensity to the struggle.” …For many others, if Hiss was guilty, then the New Deal was corrupt, the State Department had been subverted, Yalta was a sellout, the U.N. was a Communist plot, the possibilities of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union were shattered, incipient Cold War repression became defensible… John Strachey, writing in 1962, put the case in its most cosmic context when he identified Chambers as part of the literature of reaction, “not only against Communism but against five hundred years of rationalism and empiricism; against, in short, the enlightenment.”“Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Case Not Proved Against Alger Hiss” by Victor S. Navasky, The Nation, April 8, 1978
This smokescreen of a spy novel covered for an agenda with deeply racist implications. Noam Chomsky writes:
Eastern Europe was the original “Third World,” diverging from the West along a fault line running through Germany even before the Columbian era, the West beginning to develop, the East becoming its service area. By the early 20th century, much of the region was a quasi-colonial dependency of the West. The Bolshevik takeover in 1917 was immediately recognized to be “ultranationalist,” hence unacceptable. Furthermore, it was a “virus,” with substantial appeal in the Third World.Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture, 1993
The Western invasion of the Soviet Union was therefore justified in defense against “the Revolution’s challenge…to the very survival of the capitalist order,” the leading diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis comments today, reiterating the basic position of US diplomacy of the 1920s: “The fundamental obstacle” to recognition of the USSR, the chief of the Eastern European Division of the State Department held, “is the world revolutionary aims and practices of the rulers of that country.” These “practices,” of course, did not involve literal aggression; rather, interfering with Western designs, which is tantamount to aggression. The Kremlin conspiracy to take over the world was therefore established, a record replayed in later years as other ultranationalists and viruses were assigned to the category of “Soviet expansion.”
Whittaker Chambers, by the late 1940s an editor with Time Magazine, the bastion of publisher Henry Luce’s imperial “American Century” ideology, was a former Communist Party USA member allegedly turned into Soviet spy. (The illogic of Russian intelligence agencies employing those who publicized their love of the socialist motherland, an abysmal failure of basic spycraft, is a contradiction escaping many.) He was also a known bisexual who traveled up and down the East Coast having numerous same-sex liaisons while being married with children. Chambers claimed to have been a DC metro area CPUSA party organizer who engaged in a study circle, the so-called Ware Group, with several New Deal liberals in the 1930s that fomented espionage within the Roosevelt administration.
Chambers accused Hiss in an August 1948 Congressional hearing of espionage. The format of the accusation, the style of delivery, and the content of the narrative set the stage for the McCarthy trials within the next few years. It also served as the mass media premiere of one junior Congressman Richard Nixon, who used the platform of the Hiss case to quickly ascend to running for vice president with Dwight Eisenhower and later for president in 1960 and 1968. It was the Luce bloc within American liberal elite opinion that badly misdiagnosed the strength of Chiang Kai Shek’s military forces in the Chinese civil war, leaving America blindsided when Mao proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. As a result, the witch hunt trials borne of the Hiss-Chambers affair led to a mass purging of competent Asia experts from the State Department who were accused of being “soft” on Communism for arguing that Mao was a more formidable force. This would blow back on the American military over the next two decades in Vietnam.
Was Chambers driven to his bizarre actions owing to blackmail for his homosexuality? Did his conversion to Quakerism entail a sort of panicked revulsion that was channeled into a vengeful attack upon a political formation known during the Depression and war years as an alcove where Communists and queers shared spaces, particularly around New Deal art programs that featured major Left-leaning artists? His memoir Witness includes a bizarre sequence claiming that the Party tried to pressure his wife into having an abortion, to which they refused to accede, catalyzing their break with the CP. Sexuality and liberation from heterosexist patriarchal structures here form the preliminary core of the anti-Communist project. It furthermore underscores the neoconservative tendency’s assault on the welfare state and justification to destroy the social safety net provision for the working class.
Roy Cohn, chief counsel of Joseph McCarthy, was a particularly vicious individual who used the Communist witch hunt to pursue LGBTQQIA+ civil servants. He later went on to prosecute the Rosenbergs for espionage that we now know was never committed.
The Reagan administration included a multitude of gay white men who oversaw the roll-out of the neoconservative agenda, including National Conservative Political Action Committee Chair Terry Dolan and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Richard Krause, while New York Mayor Ed Koch exacerbated the HIV/AIDS epidemic owing to hesitance about affiliation with a public health crisis impacting predominantly gay men. As the epidemic has morphed from a predominantly male homosexual healthcare matter to one wherein the vast majority of new exposures to the virus are heterosexual BIPOC women, these closeted political actors have opposed funding for scientific research and perpetuated the near-genocidal “abstinence only” sexual education project, thereby multiplying the risk of virus exposure.
The increase of BIPOC women’s exposure merits further analysis. The available medical data says that exposure to the virus comes by way of heterosexual intimate partner contact with the formerly incarcerated, who contracted the virus during their prison term by way of unprotected sex or other bodily fluid exposure. Whether this was because of consensual or non-consenting sexual congress is beyond the scope of this discussion; regardless, the imposition of heterosexism and the closet upon post-carceral populations has a measured and deadly set of consequences, a symptom of the mass Black incarceration phenomenon often forgotten by mainstream discourse.
Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter played a certain role in his own political career until fairly recently while working to end the LGBTQQIA+ boycott of Coors Beer, brewed by the infamously reactionary family.
Lest wrong conclusions be deduced, my claim is not that queerness somehow inoculates against the “wages of whiteness” and their allure.
But conversely, the closet arguably incubates these sentiments. The closet is a psychological construct that entails tremendous human costs upon our society, manifest clearly by Baldwin’s analysis and the public record. I further argue that the impulse towards integration, reformism, and a certain brand of sexually liberal social democracy that finds as Fellow Travelers Democratic Party neoliberals is a manifestation of whiteness. Yet that is merely the right and centrist element of a certain polity whose cohesion is worth further examination.
In a future post I will examine a long record of Black/Pink radical solidarity within these contexts.