Queer theory and politics originated in the s and continue to be influential today. Many books are written from this perspective, and they inform university courses—Leeds University, for example, offers an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory.
More importantly, many of the most radical LGBT people identify as queer and adopt this approach to political organising: This article traces the development of queer theory and politics, and assesses their claim to provide a radical alternative to what they see as the LGBT mainstream. There may be readers, including those who have not encountered such ideas before, who are dismayed to find in the pages of a socialist publication a word which they had previously taken to be a gross homophobic insult.
Forty years of LGBT struggle It is important to situate queer theory and politics in the context of the LGBT movement, and the developing political ideas of that movement in the context of history more generally. The s and s: At the same time in America thousands of black people were members of the revolutionary Black Panthers. A mass movement against the Vietnam War involved millions.
In late June police raided the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York. In the words of a contemporary newspaper account: Knots of young gays—effeminate, according to most reports—gathered on corners, angry and restless.
Someone heaved a sack of wet garbage through the window of a patrol car. GLF formed part of the overall radical movement, though its politics included a wide variety of contradictory ideas. This rapidly spreading movement opened up a space into which less radical forces also moved. By the largest British gay organisation was the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, which centred its efforts on law reform and developing social facilities—there were far fewer gay bars and clubs then than there are now—and which stressed its non-political stance, explaining: Partly this reflected existing divisions in society; partly it resulted from the bad track record around sexism and homophobia in organisations—in particular, the left in the US—which were in theory committed to working with everybody.
Both were determined to attack workers and roll back the gains of the movement of the s and s. Thatcher took revenge for by defeating the miners after a heroic year-long strike. To this backlash was added the impact of Aids.
The first cases were diagnosed in and numbers increased rapidly: By July over 6, people had died in the US, many of them gay men in areas with large gay populations, such as New York and San Francisco. As the epidemic spread it contributed to the growth of homophobia and panic: In general the collapse of revolutionary hopes had led many on the left to join the Labour Party, the left wing of which grew enormously and won control of many local councils in the early s.
Finally, gay men as well as lesbians turned towards autonomy and away from involvement in a general radical movement. They looked to intellectual alternatives to Marxist revolution, such as the ideas of Michel Foucault. The mids to the early s: Over 36, Americans had by then been diagnosed with the disease, and over 20, were dead. Almost every gay man in cities like New York knew someone who had died, and some had been to the funerals of dozens of friends.
Aids activist Larry Kramer was not alone in coming to believe that American society regarded gay men as expendable, and that the epidemic would continue until every gay man was dead. Faced with inaction from government, careerist bickering between scientists and drug companies eyeing potential profits from the sale of test kits, Kramer was not given to understatement: Aids is our Holocaust.
Tens of thousands of our precious men are dead. Soon it will be hundreds of thousands. Aids is our Holocaust and Reagan is our Hitler. New York City is our Auschwitz. The political and intellectual rejection of Marxism that had followed the decline of the radical movements in the s was greatly reinforced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire.
The position associated with this journal—that by the Soviet Union had not been socialist for decades—could do little to compete with the chorus of delighted capitalists announcing the death of the left. But, if Marxism declined in influence, so did the autonomy politics of the s. Lesbian feminists opposed use of the London Lesbian and Gay Centre, for example, by sado-masochist lesbians and by bisexuals. Staff, including lesbians and gay men, in general proved themselves able to manage large budgets, engage in policy debates and liaise effectively with health workers.
In this way, a cadre of LGBT managers came into existence. In addition, if the early s had seen many people accept homophobic ideas, many others had rejected the Tories and homophobia.
A political space therefore existed for an organisation which campaigned for lesbian and gay rights, not on the basis of politics which were Marxist or militant, but which reflected the professionalisation of layers of LGBT activists.
This was the context for a group of high-profile campaigners against Section 28 to come together in to form Stonewall. In October they stormed the FDA building the Food and Drug Administration licensed drugs for the treatment of Aids , an action that involved sit-ins, smoke bombs and burning effigies of Ronald Reagan.
All protesters had been trained in giving sound bites, all journalists had been given a press kit—personalised for the prominent columnists—a coffee and a doughnut. Signorile concludes that media coverage is what matters: I do not mean to sound elitist, but with education comes responsibility, and if ever we needed responsible, well-educated, presentable leaders it is now. We appear to be entirely frivolous and, until recently, utterly hedonistic, and this hedonism has resulted in Aids, which we are now expecting the straight world to take care of immediately.
Is it any wonder that there is little sympathy for gay people and their plight? Kramer had bewailed gay male promiscuity since the s—for others, the risks of Aids were a new incentive towards respectable monogamy. Overall, the political centre of gravity in the US—a country which had a sizeable left 40 years ago—is now well to the right. This is reflected in national politics on LGBT issues: This is not to say that the US is a uniformly or even generally homophobic country.
A Washington Post poll in December , for example, found that 77 percent of people agreed that openly gay and lesbian people should be allowed to serve in the military—a large increase from 44 percent in , and including 70 percent of white evangelists who agree to ending the military ban.
Again this has shifted in a pro-gay direction over time: One is the emergence of openly gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan supports war in the Middle East, opposes the welfare state and rejects the idea that the rich should pay higher taxes. His book Virtually Normal, published in , proposed a vision of lesbian, gay and bisexual people integrated into capitalism as it currently exists, in which they would be able to say: We are your military and have fought your wars and protected your homes.
We are your businessmen and women, who built and sustained this economy for homosexual and heterosexual alike… We are your civic leaders, your priests and rabbis, your writers and inventors, your sports idols and entrepreneurs. We need nothing from you, but we have much to give back to you. Protect us from nothing; but treat us as you would any heterosexual.
The right wing centre of gravity of US politics has had one further effect: In the HRC in practice supported proposed legislation that would have guaranteed equality at work while excluding trans people from protection. LGBT studies courses are now offered in hundreds of American universities, and being lesbian or gay is no bar to achieving the star status of academics such as Judith Butler. Yet such ideas have had little impact on popular discussions of sexuality, which are polarised between a Christian right that sees homosexuality as a wilful and sinful choice, and LGBT campaigners keen to stress the congenital nature of same-sex desire.
Britain since the s Since the fall of Thatcher in no significant British politician has consistently promoted homophobia. The Major government reduced the gay male age of consent to 18; the Blair-Brown governments of brought in a series of measures which have almost given LGBT people formal legal equality with straight citizens—the two most notable exceptions are that same-sex couples cannot marry, while different-sex couples cannot form a civil partnership, and that gay men face restrictions in donating blood.
LGBT people have experienced a remarkably rapid change from a legally persecuted minority to a legally protected one in the space of 40 years. All sexual acts between men were a crime until in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.
LGBT people could be legally sacked or abused at work, or refused the use of services. Transgender people using a different name and gender from the one they were assigned at birth could not get documents such as their passport changed and so faced constant difficulties and potential harassment.
Formal legal equality is thus a huge advance, though of course it has not ended oppression, any more than the formal legal equality of women and black people has ended sexism and racism. However, legal equality has also made it possible for out LGBT people to adopt reactionary political positions impossible 40 years ago.
Some such people have taken up places at the heart of the establishment, for example, and have expressed the complacent views that such positions typically involve. Evan Davis now presents the Today programme on Radio 4. Legal equality tends to encourage a divergence of views among LGBT people along class lines.
The prominent columnist Johann Hari of the Independent has argued in the gay style magazine Attitude, for example, that precisely zero percent of British Muslims find lesbian and gay people acceptable.
Peter Tatchell has also made supposedly homophobic Muslims a focus of his campaigning. At the same time, no political alternative has replaced identity politics as the basis for organising. The desire for unity has thus produced a more inclusive form of identity politics, conceived as a coalition of different identities, and described using cumbersome acronyms such as LGBT, LGBTQIA and so on.
What political ideas form the basis of this unity? There is widespread scepticism in the movement about political ideologies and parties. Systems of political ideas including Marxism, reformist socialism and EU-style liberalism have all lost credibility in different ways, while Maoism and anti-colonial nationalism are long dead as political forces, and the economic crisis presents neoliberalism with problems of its own.
If there are many political strands to the movement, and vigorous debate between them, there is also quite widespread acceptance of an autonomist style of organisation: Postmodernist ideas call into question fundamental assumptions about how we can understand and change the world, and frequently question whether it is possible to understand or change society as a whole.
These are major issues for queer theory. So, having set out their political context, we can now examine the ideas of queer theory and politics in more detail, starting with the work of Michel Foucault. Michel Foucault The Will to Knowledge by the French historian, activist and public intellectual Michel Foucault, first published in English in , can be regarded as the founding text of queer studies and politics. This short book includes a number of ideas that together constitute a major challenge to the common-sense understanding of sex in our society.
First, Foucault rejects the idea that sex is simply the expression of human biology. Rather, ideas about sex, and the way that sex is actually lived, change over time and from one society to another.
Foucault describes the distinction in a passage that has become famous: As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood… Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality.
It was everywhere present in him… it was a secret that always gave itself away… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. It was not that people were forbidden to speak of sex, but rather that the development of such figures as the hysterical woman, the masturbating child and the homosexual obliged them to constantly refer to it.