Queers Respond

By Margot Fitzgerald
May 1991; pages 6, 19; Volume 2, No. 6

In the March 21 issue of Images, a weekly pull-out section of the University of Texas' student newspaper, Daniel Contreras and Derek Robert slammed the March on Austin for Gay and Lesbian Rights and gay and lesbian political activism in general, kicking off a shitstorm of angry reprisals that included calls for censorship, threats by the owner of Liberty Books to pull advertising in the Daily Texan, numerous letters to the editor, and anonymous phone calls. The following represents an attempt to both discuss the article and talk about the context out of which the article and its reception emerged.

The controversial Images piece was comprised of four separate items. One short section, "The Queer Manifesto: a testament to the vacuity of lesbian and gay politics" represents through parody what Contreras and Robert see as the worst tendencies arising from gay and lesbian identity politics. A second piece, "INS & OUTS," seemed designed specifically to goad nearly everyone - even the most open-minded readers probably lost their sense of humor when they found "safe sex" labeled out of fashion, along with "Silence=Death" and "pink triangles." In an interview, Daniel Contreras said of this piece "We just wanted to be bad; we were raised in a horrible, puritanical decade where you weren't supposed to be excessive or obsessive." Derek added that "safe sex" went under "old and boring" as the concept "has been discussed," not as an actual act. A short piece entitled "Idle March" attacked the March, and gay/lesbian politics in general, as "hopeless," "boring," "old," and as "breathtakingly opportunistic" for linking the struggle for gay and lesbian rights to other liberational struggles, especially struggles in the third world.

The fourth piece, the longest and most explicitly theoretical, and the one that compels an extended critique, declared that the elaboration of gay and lesbian sexual practices into an extended chain of identities ranging from "gay" and "lesbian" to "straight," "queer," and "homophobe" is produced within the gay and lesbian community (an entity that Contreras and Robert deny exists) for the benefit of gay/lesbian politicians and the owners of gay bars. They also claim that the identities produced by the "reification" (or literalization) of gay and lesbian sex acts into "identities" is anchored by "the closet," which they construe as the site of identity production. They hold the gay and lesbian rights movement accountable for maintaining these identities through an economic/symbolic analysis of an (exploitative and self-defeating) "circular process" produced by "the closet" and dependent on "gay/lesbian identity" for its perpetuation.

Gay/lesbians are not oppressed by any stretch of the imagination ... they may be despised ... but they've never been cheap wage labor, they've never been denied the vote; so why can't gay/lesbians work for a better society instead of just a society where gay/lesbians can marry each other and it's business as usual."

This piece was inspired, according to Robert, by Roland Barthe's Empire of Signs. It attempts, he explains, to "shake all the meaning out ... so the closet becomes just architectural space."

It clearly does represent a serious (if deliberately aggravating) attempt to theorize a means by which gay men and lesbians can (or could) simply disband their own identities and unilaterally bring to an end their own oppression. It also, however, replicates, in its positing of lesbian and gay identities as "the problem," much that felt all too familiar to many Austin-area activists from the outpourings of Mark Weaver and his allies who would adamantly agree that gay and lesbian identities should be disbanded immediately and forever. The article's combination of theoretical jargon and defensive youthfulness infuriated many readers, like being mugged by a giant pre-adolescent armed with an exhaustive vocabulary.

From a more academic perspective, Robert and Contreras seem to have left out one side of the discursive/symbolic loop that would fully describe the economy of "the closet." They neglect, that is, to mention that "faggot" came into the language in reference to the (only peripherally significant) bodies of sodomites used to fuel the fires upon which witches and heretics (the main attraction) were burned, or to take into consideration that lesbian and gay acts and queer identities have been outlawed not only legally, but within the symbolic order itself.

The discourse of homosexuality, or homosexual identity as a construct, does not exist in isolation from heterosexual norms, it is indispensable to the symbolic administration of such "norms". James Baldwin's assertion that the identities of "the nigger," and "the faggot" are the projections of the white male society's quest for an identity it can live with makes considerably more common and theoretical sense than the claim that gay men and lesbians have "queered" themselves in a bid for pity.

And the continual piling up of the bodies, dead of AIDS, not because they are queer bodies but because they are "queered" bodies, bodies represented as the bodies of the poor, the dark, the marginal, the foreign, the queer, and therefore not bodies worth the efforts of the government or the pharmaceuticals or of science or of the medical establishment or of the social services. Those bodies fade from our collective sight even as "queer activists" struggle to keep them in the public eye against the growing consensus of the white middle class: "no threat - they are not us." Above all, these "queered" bodies, the quick and the dead, and queer efforts in solidarity with them by people whose private sex acts may not square with public queer identities, do not fit neatly into Derek's and Daniel's antiseptic, emptied out categories.

In spite of the above problems, the work of Daniel Contreras and Derek Robert does represent a serious attempt to theorize the dynamics underlying gay/lesbian self-representation. The infamous "Images article" deserves a longer, more reasoned response than it has so far received because the conditions under which it was published and the ideas which it expresses call our attention to very real problems in the gay and lesbian rights movement in Austin. Both the article and the responses it received from the community might be usefully be read as a performance, set in motion by Contreras and Robert, but engaged with and added to by many others.

Derek and Daniel themselves report, "we were hoping it would be funny." Instead. the two received harassing phone calls and other negative signals from gay readers. "When I remarked that I'd always thought of anonymous phonecalls and harassment as tools of the homophobic right," Daniel retorted, "we consider harassment a tool of the homosexual movement - I feel much more comfortable around straight people." Both men feel that the article is also self-critical, since both "have stakes in various forms of identity politics."

The problem, according to Daniel, is that "it seems gay/lesbians are in love with victimization - AIDS has only fueled this mentality. It seems the only political work that can occur in the U.S. is one that comes from claiming victimhood. Gay/lesbians are not oppressed by any stretch of the imagination ... they may be despised ... but they've never been cheap wage labor, they've never been denied the vote; so why can't gay/lesbians work for a better society instead of just a society where gay/lesbians can marry each other and it's business as usual." Derek points out that there is no gay underclass to speak of, in spite of the job insecurity many gays and lesbians feel.

Later, both men are silent when I tell them how a group of women who wanted to respond to the article had begun to confront problems with equating gay/lesbian economic realities through constructions like "whitebourgeoislesbian." When I thought about it, I've never met a rich lesbian, and most lesbians I know are struggling along at poverty-level "women's" wages or sub-poverty student/activist wages.

Frequently in the discussion Contreras played race against gender, constituting race as the "real" site of difference. At one point, Daniel compares being a lesbian/gay rights activist who says you're also "into race" to being a radical feminist who claims to be into race ... You're into gender, honey, that's what 'radical feminist' means."

When a GLSA board member approached Derek to tell him how much be deplored the article, Derek asked, "You mean we should see racism being tolerated in the Gay and Lesbian Movement and tolerate that?" Derek asked, and the GLSA Board member asserted that the inviting racists into the movement is merely "inclusionist."

Daniel foregrounded one response to the article in particular. "You know, there was a letter to the editor about us calling us worse than Mark Weaver from the guy who founded Queer Nation. I like the scale of values implied in all this: Mark Weaver is pretty bad. Racists who are in the gay and lesbian movement are a little bad. Ku Klux Klan members in the gay and lesbian movement are really probably kind of bad. But us, 'people like us are the real problem.' I wonder," he mused. "if he really knows people 'like us'. Where would he know them from? Who would they be?"

The eruption of anger and calls for censorship that followed the article's publication reflect real structural problems facing gay/lesbians in the Austin community: if such an article had been published in New York, San Francisco, or Boston, it might have run in one of several gay and/or lesbian weeklies, and would have appeared in dialogue with a cross-section of other community responses to the March. Since Contreras' and Robert's responses to the March were the only published responses that most of Austin, gay, lesbian, straight, and everything in between, will ever see, these responses met with violent outrage. To paraphrase Wahneema Lubiano on Spike Lee, very few things are pernicious if they appear in a heterogeneous dialogue, while much may be deeply damaging if it is made to appear monolithically, as some sort of representative manifesto.

Further, the responses point to the already strained and distrustful relationship between the academy and the larger community. Austin seems just the right size to foster the most acute divisions between those who define themselves first as academic theorists and those who define themselves first as community activists; in larger cities, we can quietly wear two hats, while in small towns, the gay and lesbian rights community is too small to worry on about our differing degrees of theoretical literacy.

When two guys grounded in literary theory write an article slamming all gay and lesbian rights activism, AIDS activism and, apparently "the homosexual sex act" (which "reifies homophobia"), both academics and grassroots activists are confronted with their worst nightmare - that theory might someday claim complete ascendancy over practice. Already it makes otherwise normal people hold up entire meetings citing names at each other in order to decide whether or not a particular organizational tactic would actually reify homosexual identity as a static ontological or transcendental term.

We should also be prepared to examine our own defensive, even outraged, reactions, with a critical detachment. We need to ask not only "what is to be done" but "what has been done" and "why did it draw the reactions it did?"

Racism lives, and no movement is above confronting it. Identities, while constantly open to question, are neither "imaginary" or easily negotiable; often, they are painful. They determine, to paraphrase Dr. Lubiano again, "the differential prices which subjects occupying varying subject positions must pay to live. All of us pay something. But some of us pay more than others."

Fear, self-loathing, suicide, rage, all the intangible, inexorable results of what Mary Pratt has called "epistemic violence" -these are the invisible prices that mark out their costs from within; as in a case of demonic possession, they appear on the surfaces of our bodies, self-inflicted, under the skin, in all of our performances: theoretical, organizational, interpersonal. A political practice based on our most painful realities will always be a difficult one, but one on which everything depends.