Beyond Windsor

Queer theory fought the marriage equality movement and lost. What comes next will require scholars to come out of their journals and into the streets.

When news happens, queer academics are like anyone else: we turn on a device and open up whatever social media or blogs we follow. Imagine a nation of professors staring into computer monitors and handheld devices, expressing themselves sharply in 140 characters and sharing links a mile a minute. We used to take to the streets; now we first take to the screens to find out if anyone is in the streets.

It was on Facebook and Twitter that the initial conversations about queer politics and civil rights occurred following the final week of Supreme Court decisions in June 2013. These decisions dug deeply into the heart of the progressive politics many academics hold dear, while delivering what has come to be known as “marriage equality” to gays and lesbians. Although both sides claimed victory in this case, affirmative action in college admissions was left to hang by an ever more frayed thread in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl raised the historic specter of deracinated Native American children adopted out of their communities at the hands of benevolent whites. In Shelby County v. Holder, a crucial aspect of the Voting Rights Act was voided: several states have responded by reactivating voter identification laws to, in the words of conservative activists, “prevent voter fraud.”

And that big exhale you heard on Wednesday, the final day of the term? That was a nation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people responding to United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry (formerly Perry v. Schwarzenegger). In a 5-4 decision, the court voided a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. Where they are legal, gay marriages will now be federally recognized. Gay and lesbian Californians are once again planning to marry, some for the second or third time (same-sex marriages have been legalized and voided several times in California since 2008). Even Antonin Scalia’s typically nasty dissent seems to recognize that state bans on gay marriage have become legally vulnerable. “No one should be fooled,” he said, “it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe.” That other shoe may involve states like North Carolina and Florida reversing bans that currently drive gay federal retirement dollars to more welcoming states.

If you were in academic networks on Facebook and Twitter in the hours after Windsor and Perry, however, joy was tempered with hostility toward an institution and a liberal LGBT goal that queer studies has defined itself against. “1 step forward for most conservative version of ‘gay rts,’ 2 steps back for racial equality (gutting affirmative action & voting rts act),” tweeted New York University American Studies professor Lisa Duggan. Marriage equality, she has argued throughout the decade-long struggle that culminated in Windsor, is consistent with neoliberal policies that convey formal equality without the civil protections and economic policies that might promote actual equality. What gay marriage promotes is not social justice, but “homonormativity.” A policy like gay marriage that promotes traditional family formation, “does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”

Other queer academics raised the question of whether gay and lesbian civil rights were stepping over the corpse of African-American civil rights on the way to the altar. Applauding the role that amicus briefs filed by historians had played in the years of litigation leading to Windsor, work that began in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas, the Committee on LGBT History asked its members to evaluate the decision in relation to eroded racial and economic justice in the United States. “For same-sex families in the South, for example,” the Committee cochairs wrote, “many of which are headed by African-American women, changes to the Voting Rights Act could have deeper ramifications than the overturning of DOMA.”

The view that gay marriage is a depoliticizing step to the right disguising itself as “equality” is widespread among queer academics, whose views of monogamy reflect a long tradition of sexual liberation promoted by radicals like Victoria Woodhull, Emma Goldman, and Harry Hay. It is also no accident that marriage — a legal status that conservatives view as a panacea for social problems — was being expanded as civil rights were being retracted. In status update after status update, queer scholar-activists dismissed Windsor and Perry as unworthy of celebration when the court had gutted voting rights. Meanwhile, Republican-led Congress was slashing social welfare protections for the poor and stalling immigration reform (even after Democrats had authorized an appalling and budget-busting 40,000-person surge on the border).

Queer scholars have a problem right now, however, that reveals the difficulties of developing theoretical interventions without a social movement: the gay and lesbian people in the streets, and the majority of straight Americans who support them, don’t understand why a liberal rights agenda is a bad thing. Gay rights seem like a logical extension of civil rights for other minority groups. And they are throwing their dollars and their time into organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Equality Now, that are fighting for those rights.

This split between the social movement and the critique is particularly difficult because queer theory asks important questions not just about the politics of family and sexuality, but about race and colonialism. Does activism on behalf of gay rights detract from pressing more urgent human rights issues? Under what conditions is it possible to address homophobia within social movements that do not privilege this issue?

Queer theory has recently taken on urgent international issues as well. What does it mean when a constituency — Muslims, Africans — are targeted as especially homophobic and in need of “civilizing” interventions? In Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Jasbir Puar has addressed the strategic granting of rights to sexual minorities occurring simultaneously with the increased oppression of the poor and the intensification of colonial oppression. Activists have targeted the marketing of Israel as a global destination for gays and lesbians as “pinkwashing,” in which gay inclusion presents Israel as a liberal democracy where ongoing state violence against Palestinians is justifiable because of what is portrayed as culturally embedded homophobia.

Absent a discussion aimed at and accessible to a larger public, it may seem counterintuitive to those outside the queer left that the granting of rights is part of the machinery of oppression. Queers for Economic Justice, a New York-based progressive nonprofit “committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation” imagines what that social movement might look like. As Executive Director Amber Hollibaugh, a longtime feminist and queer activist, pointed out in a 2012 interview, respecting the achievements of campaigns for inclusion “is not the same thing as it reflecting my values…. I come from a moment in time, a radical vision in time that never made marriage or the military my criteria of success. I didn’t want us to have wars; I didn’t want us to have armies and I did not want to register my relationship with the state. So, are those victories? They are. Were they discriminatory? Yes, they were. Were they my idea of what it was we were trying to build as a liberation movement for queer people? No, it wasn’t at all.”

What happened to this social movement, one that reflects, reinforces, and promotes not just the contemporary insights of queer theory, but also its rich radical past? Queers for Economic Justice is one place to look. The global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction coalition that has drawn the support of numerous queer and indigenous rights scholars in the United States in its campaign for Palestinian human rights is another. However, neither of these are powerful national organizations to the extent that HRC, Lambda Legal Defense, and the coalition that spearheaded and funded the marriage fight are. Nor are they organizations that can sustain and coordinate the difficult, day-to-day business of putting organizers in communities whose primary task is to create organic connections between theory and praxis and build political coalitions with the vast numbers of people who suffer most directly from the retraction of racial and economic rights.

As a practice, the queer academic left may need to reevaluate the question of whether any political theory can be politically meaningful outside a broad-based social movement context that values radical action. More importantly, to what extent have academics failed to put their queer shoulders to the wheel, in the words of Allan Ginsburg, to create that social movement? What is the role of the conference, the journal, the book — or even a blog and a circle of Facebook “friends” who share the same assumptions, language, and preoccupations — absent a praxis that tests and implements ideas, making real alliances with other radical activists?

This is the time for change. Queer studies’ most prominent foil over the past decade, homonormative domesticity, is acquiring a broad-based legitimacy that obscures the radical interventions queer theory stands for. Queer academics are not wrong about the retreat to home and family that a decision like Windsor represents. What they may need to reconsider, however, is the constituency that needs to be organized. Homonormative family formation in itself represents a cross-racial, cross-class social movement, not an absence of one, or a bait-and-switch that its participants fail to comprehend. And it is unclear that the donors, large and small, who have poured millions of dollars into the fight for marriage equality would have supported a more radically queer social agenda had it presented itself.

To put it bluntly, liberal LGBT organizations in the United States have a broadly appealing political program with objective goals that speaks clearly about the damage done to individuals by discrimination. Radicals do not. Instead, we have critique. So what do we need to do to translate the radical vision of queer theory to the nuts-and-bolts action that, barring the demise of the state in our lifetime, will be absolutely crucial to the radical social change and international interventions it envisions?

Just as we need not set activisms against each other, we need not set theory against praxis. Every political movement needs theory. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than during the 1960s and 1970s. Collectives of radical women collaborated in consciousness-raising groups (today we would call it crowdsourcing). Sharing their stories, comparing how they inhabited their bodies and their gender, and linking what they learned to programs for action, they worked for transformation on multiple levels, drawing on texts that linked sex and gender to revolution. Feminist theory classes today often begin with selections from Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State, a text that illuminates the links between sex, property, and the capitalist state. In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone connected radical feminism to this long history of radical political theory when she asked activists to overlook Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ “literal opinions about women” and embrace dialectical materialism. Feminism, she argued, required a method that pointed the way to a women’s revolution, and what better way to map that revolution than by critiquing and amending Marx and Engels’ foundational text for modern use?

A politics of liberation requires testing theories about the social condition against lived experience. As the Committee on LGBT History suggests, an economically oppressed lesbian household with children, headed by an African-American woman, might find that the Shelby decision affected her life more than Windsor did — or she might not. Answering this question might force queer theory to express itself in relation to lives that, at its most radical edge, it sometimes simply refuses. For example, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman proposes that queers disavow political progress, hope, and the better future that marriage, family, and childbearing implicitly imagine. Why not simply embrace death and marginality?

I am not the only observer to be simultaneously struck by the daring quality of this argument and its capitulation to a world devoid of effective social movements. But it also erases a recent history of community-activist movements that have coupled critiques of capitalism and the state with theoretical explorations of how to salvage radical activist agendas from the liberal status quo, linking academic interventions to community empowerment.

Take the welfare rights movement. In 1966, sociologists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven argued that the welfare rolls could hasten the demise of a capitalist state that used relief for the poor to regulate a reserve army of labor. On this basis, college professor and veteran civil rights organizer George Wiley founded the National Welfare Rights Organization later that year to coordinate mothers who, as historian Annelise Orleck has argued, organized and “fought their own war on poverty.” As part of this, organizers and mothers’ groups demanded attention to invasions of and control over their sexual privacy that state workers extracted in exchange for meager allotments.

There is also a long tradition of gender and sex radicalism coming out of community activism. In 1971, Huey Newton, in a careful analysis of homophobia and sexism within the Black Panther Party, linked them to “the long conditioning process which builds insecurity in the American male.” Newton advised the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters that women should be encouraged to speak about gender oppression. In addition, “The terms ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell.” Similarly, Angela Davis pointed out that liberal feminism’s idea that men do half the housework was hardly a revolutionary solution. Instead, as she proposed in Women, Race and Class, domestic labor should be radically redefined as a public service performed by “teams of trained and well-paid workers,” armed with advanced equipment, that “could swiftly accomplish the work.”

Drawing on traditions of radical action and theorizing, when ACT UP took the stage between 1986 and 1992, it too became a potent cauldron for theorizing sex and gender oppression in the context of class, race, incarceration, and xenophobia. The movement’s combination of street activism, intense meetings, planning and analysis, urgency, and many participants’ roots in prior social justice movements meant that theory not translating immediately into action signaled delay and death. “In many ways,” as Deborah B. Gould writes in Moving Politics, “ACT UP could be credited as well with the birth and explosion of queer theory in the academy,” because bodies crossed back and forth and “learning happened across these typically more segregated worlds.” As activists fought for access to drugs, they were forced to interrupt, transform, and theorize oppression. Thus, as Paula Treichler wrote in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, the act of struggle itself pushed activists to theorize capitalism and articulate the “possibility for a radical and democratic technoculture.”

These examples underline the point that social movements need theory, but theory needs a social movement, and queer theory in particular needs to address its movement future. Attaching itself to neocolonial and antiracist struggles is one crucial route, but that route is also fraught with contradictions that cannot be resolved if activist queers are unwilling to privilege homophobia as destructive to a truly radical vision or to imagine building a broad-based social movement that puts activists in communities that are now being claimed by a liberal gay and lesbian establishment. More importantly, queer academics that aspire to an activist posture need to confront the fact that the majority of their work is being done in a university context that is mostly unreceptive to, and disconnected from, the difficult work of community organizing that can move us beyond Windsor.