In response to “Queerness as Whiteness: Beyond Identity Politics.“
Black/Pink Solidarity Through the Decades
The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes… It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair. Under Socialism all this will, of course, be altered. There will be no people living in fetid dens and fetid rags, and bringing up unhealthy, hunger-pinched children in the midst of impossible and absolutely repulsive surroundings. The security of society will not depend, as it does now, on the state of the weather. If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night’s unclean lodging. Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society, and if a frost comes no one will practically be anything the worse.Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891
“The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name”, and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.Wilde Courtroom Testimony, 1895
Oscar Wilde did not single-handedly create the struggle for LGBTQQIAA+ rights but he did help catalyze its modern iteration. There is a direct correlation between his anti-imperialism as an Irish nationalist (cf. ‘Ave Imperatrix,’ 1881), his anti-capitalism as a socialist, and his anti-Victorianism as an openly gay man who was persecuted unto death at Reading Gaol, linked explicitly and articulated with his writings alongside his very openly queer public profile. His sodomy trials were a cause célèbre in its day and became a major political debate in Leftist circles. Eduard Bernstein, representative of the most conservative element within the German Socialist movement, advocated on behalf of Wilde precisely because he saw the dismantling of Victorian sexual mores as part of the radical movement, much as Engels had in 1884 with his study The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
Over the course of the next century, constantly in the face of state-sponsored and vigilante homo/trans-phobia, a radical movement emerged from a framework that had solid anti-capitalist roots. In 19th century Germany, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, allied with the German Socialist August Bebel, sought to repeal anti-sodomy laws while founding a psychological hospital to research and affirmatively treat LGBTQQ folks, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. Lenin and the Bolsheviks repealed tsarist sodomy laws after the Russian revolution of 1917. The Harlem Renaissance was simultaneously known as a period of great LGBT social advances within underground bohemian and speakeasy subculture, with a cross-pollination that led to the borough being known as a kind of Gay Mecca where same-sex marriages were celebrated.
During the heyday of the Communist Party USA, a tremendous number of LGBT artists, radicalized by the Great Depression, found a haven in the synthesis that existed between the Party and the various New Deal artistic programs, especially those involved in the theatrical and dance worlds. Harry Hay, who joined the party in 1934 and organized migratory agricultural workers (a significant sector of the Black workforce at that time), founded the first gay men’s organization in America, the Mattachine Society, based on the Marxist-Leninist schematic of national liberation in the aftermath of the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign. His biographer writes:
Since 1941, Harry had taught Stalin’s four principles of a minority; these were a common language, a common territory, a common economy, and a common psychology and culture. “I felt we had two of the four, the language and culture, so clearly we were a social minority.” This concept of homosexuals as a minority would be the contribution of which Hay was proudest… He suggested a comparison of the political manipulation and murder of homosexuals in Nazi Germany to recent firings of gays by the State Department [during the McCarthyite Red Scare]… “The post-war reaction, the shutting down of open communication, was already of concern to many of us progressives. I knew the government was going to look for a new enemy, a new scapegoat. It was predictable. But Blacks were beginning to organize and the horror of the holocaust was too recent to put the Jews in this position. The natural scapegoat would be us, the Queers. They were the one group of disenfranchised people who did not even know they were a group because they had never formed as a group. They – we – had to get started. It was high time.”
I bring to the forefront the Wilde trials and what followed precisely because this historical context is so distinctly absent from the essay which catalyzed my writing. What particularly alarmed me is that this catalytic essay makes the concrete statement that queerness and those who survive the brutality of homo/trans-phobia are incapable of revolutionary solidarity with others facing similar (but not exactly the same type of) oppression by hegemonic racial capitalism. I believe that the record shows that the contrary is the case.
The proposal that all queer politics and activism began with Michel Foucault is an ahistorical fallacy. The ontology suggested by Yuan’s essay, that queer identity is borne solely of Queer Theory (an academic discipline of dubious merit even within the banal Ivory Tower, as demonstrated by the Foucault-Boswell debate) disregards over a century of struggle and skips massive radical political discourse that was begun well before Queer Theory became the hip chic trend in academia during the Reagan-Bush regime. Norman Finkelstein, during his tribulations with DePaul University in the 2000s, authored a fine polemical take-down of many of the foundational thinkers of Queer Theory:
When I was coming of age politically, Althusser and his acolytes like Poulantzas [and Foucault] were all the rage. Who can forget that prose that induced the same aesthetic effect as it was chewed over in the mind as tin foil does when chewed over in a mouth filled with cavities? This fashion passed expeditiously enough when Poulantzas jumped off a towering edifice (showing enough consideration for humanity by, reportedly, carrying his books with him as he plunged to eternity), quickly to be followed by Althusser strangling his wife to death, all in the fateful academic year 1979. (On a personal note, having been a student in Paris at the time, I still vividly recall these untimely deaths, attended by the almost simultaneous passings of Sartre and Roland Barthes, the latter run down by a car.) This lunatic craze however was almost immediately superseded by the Foucault cult, when every half-baked, ill-educated dimwit imagined him or herself a philosopher after having dabbed in (excerpts from, if even that much) Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Paris master-thinker himself. Shortly thereafter began the Derrida fad with a fresh wagon-load of cliché and jargon unloaded at navel-contemplating conferences, pawned off as radical and cutting edge whereas it possessed all the intellectual and political content of marsh mellow topped with Redi-Whip; and – will the Lord ever forgive them for this sin – unloaded on unsuspecting students. I have on occasion, mostly for light amusement after a hard day’s work, picked up some of these texts, and wonder how poor, unsuspecting, innocent, naive young people have borne such utter rubbish. To inflict it on them is – and here I write as a committed, if atheistic, educator – truly a sin beyond redemption.
The politics of the queer community predate the formulation of Queer Theory by up to 120 years, depending upon one’s calculation. Certain strands of it were articulated as far back as the era of Walt Whitman, who himself admitted to Horace Traubel a certain affinity, if not doctrinaire subscription to, 19th century socialism and was subject of anti-gay reaction upon publication of his scandalous collection Leaves of Grass.
Is there alienation between the contemporary movements for Black and queer rights? Undeniably.
But two matters need to be emphasized.
First, the utility of homophobia by opponents of the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, two weeks prior to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dixiecrat Sen. Strom Thurmond obtained and read into the record the entirety of March organizer Bayard Rustin’s arrest record, which included a 1953 vice crime arrest for homosexuality. Harry Hay likewise distanced himself from the Communist Party USA because of the nature of sodomy laws and their prosecution in American courts against wider radical political campaigns. In other words, to point out the fact the contemporary LGBTQQIA+ movement was created autonomous of the Black liberation struggle is an ahistorical tautology, not a diagnostic of embedded white supremacist orientation per se.
Second is the base-superstructure relationship between the Black and queer movements. It would seem the historiography of Michelle Yuan’s work begins with 1970, if not later, and was premised upon a set of conservative cis-gendered gay male authors and academics who by no means represent the broad spectrum of the struggle. Throughout this struggle there has been a distinct base-superstructure relationship between the Black radical tradition and its liberation struggle with the queer liberation struggle. Testimonials from those in the movement in the 1960s and 1970s say that they took guidance and inspiration from the Civil Rights era, something Hay’s aforementioned quote references. Indeed, one of the great uproars of the past decade within queer politics arose from the motion picture Stonewall (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2015) and its whitewashing away from the story Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major, two important BIPOC leaders of the rebellion.
Yuan’s essay includes a statement that orbits a certain political ideal but that diagnoses things in precisely the opposite meaning.
The most universal characteristic of queerness is perhaps that it cannot be succinctly or concretely defined. Moreover, it is scarcely questioned or critiqued by young people, liberals, progressives and radicals alike.
That ambiguity was intentional by design by radicals. “Queerness” was designated as a space that refused to integrate into hetero/cis-normative patriarchal racial capitalism. While the rest of the community got married with mortgages in red-lined neighborhoods, had families, served out and proud in the various military branches of Global Northern imperialism, and became gay members of the neoliberal order, to be queer meant to rebel, to reject the desire to integrate. It is in the same line of praxis as the ambiguity contained within the word “communism” and indicates a struggling toward a post-capitalist vision of sexual and gender relations of which we can and must dream in order to emancipate ourselves from the pain and legacy of the homo/trans-phobia whose scars we carry.
“I am very sad about the gay population. I don’t call it a community, because I don’t think we are a community. Community is too limiting a word. There are too many of us to call us a community, there are too many different kinds of us. I’m very sad about the gay population.” –Larry Kramer
What is called by Yuan the “queer movement” is instead three different inter-linked and corresponding markets in the capitalist system that have nothing to do with human experience and everything to do with profits.
The first is a niche of bar, restaurant, and other specialty hospitality industry sectors.
The second is a non-profit industrial sector project of predominantly white liberals with deep ties to finance capital and the Democratic Party, the most predominant being the racist Human Rights Campaign.
The third is a section of the Liberal Arts academic sector that has built a cottage industry of self-righteous and brain-negating theses by scholars who have been polluted for decades by French postmodernists/post-structuralists, a hangover from the Cold War.
To conflate a market and its customers with a movement is to fall into the same intellectual and ideological trap that designates Democratic Party campaigns “movements.” In the neoliberal era, mainstream electoral politics has been reduced to a crass impersonation of a popular music record sales chart, with presidential candidates that have more in common with Elvis Presley as we move through each political cycle. It is the politics of intentional social demobilization, political neutralization, and intellectual retrogression. If we designate what Yuan calls a “movement” genuine politics, we might as well call Bernie Sanders the leader of a genuine revolution and Barack Obama the abolitionist of the color line.
What so deeply disturbed me about the essay that catalyzed this response was how disturbingly familiar this sort of rhetoric is to me.
I was queer. And when other people told me they were queer, I felt a tender pride for all of us. Together, I believed we were courageously transgressing constrained ideas of who and what a person could be. I was convinced we were the next wave of young radicals advancing the frontier of human development… I cropped my hair short, dated polyamorously, danced and indulged at magnetic, burlesque queer parties. Life voraciously pulsed to the beat of my queer fervor; in my new identity I felt young and liberated.Michelle Yuan
As someone who was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family and struggled tremendously with its reactionary hierarchy’s adjudication of sexual morality, I am quite familiar with the minor cottage industry of “ex-gay” narratives that mirror this passage exactly, down to the jot and tittle. Consider one such example:
I was born in 1938 and lived as a homosexual from the age of fifteen until I was twenty-eight. According to Dr. Van Emde Boaz, a well-known Dutch sexologist, I was a core-homosexual. I grew up in a Christian family and from my early childhood I longed for peace with God. This peace left me when I started to live as a homosexual. I frequented homosexual bars and dance-halls, and chose homosexuals as my friends. I also had a homosexual relationship with a man that lasted three years. I could have continued this lifestyle for many more years, but I gradually discovered that even this 3-year relationship did not make me happier. I started to realize that for me the gay lifestyle implied disharmony and sterility. The last year of this particular friendship was one of inner conflicts. I felt that the lifestyle was out of line with my religious convictions and I often had arguments with my friend. I started to think that I wanted to get out of this and eventually I broke off the relationship. In retrospect I can say it was God who showed me that this lifestyle was not according to His will. For years I had not had that insight. Yet, at a certain moment I decided that I wanted to be more obedient to Him than to people who tried to convince me that there was nothing wrong with having a sexual relationship with a male friend in love and faithfulness.“Once A Homosexual” by Johan van de Sluis, Exodus Global Alliance
I had friends and loved ones tell me that “You’re not gay” as if it were equivalent to changing my mind about being a sports fan or liking certain trashy television serials. This is a dimension of the larger right wing Evangelical Protestant takeover of the Republican Party during the past 45 years. Its most vicious manifestations include so-called “conversion therapy” programs that allow children to be electrocuted and otherwise physically abused.
Regardless, the question of queer love is important and deserves exploration. Writer and organizer Larry Kramer has been tackling this for decades. In 1978, via his novel Faggots, he alienated many of his contemporaries by repudiating the excessive libertine mores within the community, saying that queerness was much more than just an orgasm and that the excessive drugging, sexing, and dehumanization of each other would lead to self-destruction. Within less than ten years, he was proven right and many of his detractors were dead. As co-founder of first the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and then ACT-UP, he helped create two radical projects that aspired to not only provide medical supports but promote universal healthcare service.
Similarly, the playwright Tony Kushner explored these themes in his duology Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, a project deeply indebted to the writings of Brecht. In this particular scene, the African American drag queen Belize, who serves as the voice of moral sanity in the play, articulates their critique of white gay liberalism and its brain-numbing racism, whose ontology goes hand-in-hand with a superficial, hedonistic approach to sexuality:
Both Kushner and Baldwin deal in their work with the distinct relationship between the closet, whiteness, and how concealed homosexuality breeds fascism and white supremacy.
For Kushner, it is manifest in his two gay Reaganites, Joe Pitt and his elder mentor, a fictionalized Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s right hand man and the prosecutor of Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (the latter’s phantom makes an appearance in the play). Pitt, a closeted and married Mormon who grapples with coming out during the arc of the drama, is a living dialectical triad, seeking to balance his humanity and its homosexual passions against a particularly brutal settler-colonial religion that has a long history of alignment with the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party. Consider this television interview with the playwright:
Tony Kushner: And the other person with AIDS is Roy Cohn, who is certainly the play’s villain and certainly was in real life a great villain. And who is a person who is a closeted homosexual and a person who was–The Charlie Rose Show, 5/10/1993
Charlie Rose: To his death.
TK: To his death, who was sort of outed, in a sense, by AIDS, and a person who worked assiduously all his life for homophobes and in homophobic causes. So he’s a very complicated figure and I was interested in writing him, because I thought that he presented an interesting challenge. At the time that he died of AIDS, I was moved in a way that I never expected to be moved by Roy Cohn. I felt a certain sense of sorrow and grief for him, even though he’s a person that I had heartily detested most of my life. And I was kind of upset at the way he was discussed in the press at the time that he died, because I thought there was a great deal of homophobia and homophobic gloating over the fact that he had died of AIDS. In a certain sense, his dying of this disease made him a part of the gay and lesbian community, even if we don’t really want him to be a part of our community. And I think dealing with those contradictions and with the complexities that his life and his death raised was what makes him so much fun to write…
CR: …Tell me a little bit about why an angel? What does the metaphor for angel mean, and what is your own take on spirituality in America?
TK: Yeah. I’m very ambivalent and undecided and confused about it. I’m a genuine agnostic; I don’t know, but I think that as we approach the millennium, it becomes clearer and clearer that there are features of human experience that the left has traditionally not touched upon, including a sense of the miraculous and a sense of the magical. And I think that as the left develops in the face of whatever kind of world we’re looking at now, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the spiritual has to be factored in. The spiritual has to be examined in a new way, and we don’t know how to do that yet, but we’re working —
CR: Part of your statement is the political Left in America hasn’t addressed spirituality.
TK: Well, I think that traditionally Marxism is a scientific doctrine, and I think that there’s much value in Marxism that still needs to be explored. I think that one of the things that we have to explore is the way in which magic and the spirit work in the world as well, and I think that we have to be scientific about that if we can be. But I think we have to investigate. [Emphasis added]
This leads to the discussion of the alternative to closeted anonymous sex and libertine mores unto the point of literal and spiritual death. Is queerness a vehicle that can manifest revolutionary love? Is it possible for queerness to function as a revolutionary subjectivity, meaning that the experience of cis-/hetero-sexism’s oppression grants one the ability to find solidarity with others struggling against racial capitalism?
In a future post I will address this important topic.