PRINT November 1990


Queer Nation

OVER COCKTAILS, at gallery openings, during street protests, and in darkened auditoriums, we have become accustomed to invoking what cultural critic Kobena Mercer has tellingly dubbed “the mantra” (say it with me now): “class-race-gender-sexuality. Class-race-gender-sexuality.” Mercer’s evocation of the nearly evangelical fervor with which so many of us name difference recognizes that our naming is at once perfunctory and guilt-ridden. But he also serves us a provocation, a call to disentangle overlapping systems of oppression. Careful social and cultural analysis, as literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes, attempts to reveal “how a variety of forms of oppression intertwine systemically with each other, and especially how the person who is disabled through one set of oppressions may by the same positioning be enabled through others.”

The persistent refiguration and absorption of the “legacy of the ’60s” in recent years has raised stubborn questions about nationalism, separatism, identity, and has challenged any easy mantra-chanting. Even pop culture has ambivalently embraced these questions, Madonna’s empowered Venus in Chains proposing an ironic counterpart to Spike Lee’s black, green, and red nationalism. But both of these hip narcissists remain flirtingly complicit with repressive representational tactics, notably in Lee’s mo’ better reinvention of Stokely Carmichael’s alleged “the only position for women [in the movement] is prone.” Yet ironically, these cultural icons do actively reflect and refract aspects of radical feminism and black nationalism back into the culture as part and parcel of the contemporary political landscape. This equivocal interfacing of style with politics is, after all, part of that ’60s “legacy.”

The case of queer nationalism demands its own analysis. As uncomfortable as I am with “identity politics” and the flattened and simplified world they can create, the combined effect of the AIDS crisis and legislators like Jesse Helms has made it irrefutably clear to me that difference based in sexuality is, well, different. The fact that lesbians and gay men do not necessarily possess externally recognizable signs makes our relationship to the closet complex and critical. We did not have the affirmation of a national civil rights movement struggling for our rights; queers are faced with the Hardwick decision, making the bedroom open target for the state. And rather than battling history’s reservoir of distorted and objectifying representations as feminists have done, queers have operated in a vacuum of signs. For many years our ability to create, control, or even find our own representations was limited to erotica and pornography. (Pornography, therefore, for lesbians and gay men, is not always objectifying, but, rather, can serve to acknowledge identity.) This visibility was and continues to be unequal across gender, maintaining a comparatively greater marginalization of lesbians than of gay men. On the relatively rare occasions when an image of either a lesbian or a gay man appeared in a novel, a movie, or elsewhere in the culture, it was almost always pathologized, or served as a template of physiological deviance for the medical community.

During the Gay Pride march in New York this summer, thousands of copies of a collectively produced broadsheet were distributed to both marchers and gawkers. Headlined “QUEERS READ THIS” on the front and “I HATE STRAIGHTS” on the back, the four-page newspaper is drenched in a ’60s pose, from the incendiary language (“How can I tell you? How can I convince you, brother, sister, that your life is in danger”) to the pink and black graphics of rioting mobs and a clenched power fist. The strategic resuscitation of nationalism to a queer end had been made collective and public shortly before through the formation of Queer Nation, a group of lesbians and gay men outraged by the 95 percent increase in queer-bashing this year. (The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reported 403 cases in the first eight months of 1990. And incidents such as the brutal murder of James Zappalorti in Staten Island received only a brief media mention compared to the relentless spotlight that focused on the Bensonhurst case.) “QUEERS READ THIS” dropped a compelling rhetorical bomb, prompting much press and heated debates across many communities.

I am enraged, along with the authors of the broadsheet, that heterosexuals “think stories about themselves are ‘universal’ but stories about us are only about homosexuality.” But it would be fruitless to forget that people of color, the working class, and women, many of them straight, were charted by phrenology or made virtually invisible within constructed history. It would be similarly misguided to rant about homophobia and censorship in the arts without simultaneously acknowledging the systematic and institutionalized lack of access that is built around one’s class and color within arts funding. I cannot simply agree that abuses in the politics of power are guided by the “I HATE STRAIGHTS” rubric: “Men do it to women, whites do it to blacks, and everyone does it to queers.” Call me a theory slave if you must, but I’ve read too much Foucault to believe in such a one-directional and transhistorical formulation of the circulation of power, one that proposes a stable hierarchy rather than shifting battlefields of difference.

Other parts of the broadsheet are more persuasive. Recent activism—AIDS activism in particular—has prompted invaluable collective cultural production, insisting upon theory’s inseparability from practice but also upon humor as well as visual and conceptual clarity. This activism, a mass resurgence over the past four years, has been compelled by, among other things, the ever increasing surveillance and control over our collective and individual bodies. The point is obviously not missed on the broadsheet’s authors when they state, “All non-procreative behavior is considered a threat, from homosexuality to birth control to abortion as an option.” In fact, as filmmaker Stuart Marshall has stated, the “crime against nature” historically was not limited to homosexual sex but included “heterosexual buggery, oral sex, bestiality, and in some circumstances the use of contraception.” Once again, activists are faced with the challenge that proved so divisive in earlier struggles around nationalism and identity: how to reconcile overlapping and sometimes contradictory identities and politics; how to create a strategically unified “left.”

I also agree with “QUEERS READ THIS” when it says “every time we fuck we win,” and want personally to berate bigoted white liberals like Pete Hamill, who stated in his horrifying August piece for Esquire, “I am tired of listening to people who identify themselves exclusively by what they do with their cocks.” (What exactly do lesbians do with their cocks, Pete?) When Queer Nation activists go into a straight bar en masse, order drinks, and publicly kiss, they are doing something as unpretentious and ordinary as Rosa Parks taking a bus ride. To confuse culturally presumed privileges and rights with alleged urges of the libido speaks a depressing volume or two about our cultural erotophobia and the continuing self-satisfied preeminence of heterosexual permission. “What else can you expect from a faggot? I’m angry,” states the broadsheet, and so am I, pissed and mourning and militant because my daily life is under siege and a good percentage of my friends and lovers are dead.

“QUEERS READ THIS” makes a potent case for the necessity of queer identity politics during the AIDS crisis, the institutionalized and not-so-passive war that is being waged internationally. Unfortunately, in embracing this politic, the texts swing loose and sloppy: ignoring the fact that “gay” and “lesbian” (as we know them) are historical categories, the paper states, “We’ve given so much to [the] world: democracy, all the arts, the concepts of love, philosophy and the soul . . .” and “desire and lust. . . . We invented them.” The language—ranging from biblical exhortation (“see what is queer and what is straight and let that straight chaff fall away!”) to silly extremities (“next year, we march naked”)—dilutes the project’s strength and integrity. In the spirit of Cornel West’s cautionary rereading of black nationalism, I hope we queers don’t become “seduced by the histrionic enticements of mass media,” or, worse yet, confuse “superficial nation-talk with authentic cultural distinctiveness, middle-class guilt with working-class aspirations and identity crisis with revolutionary situations.” We are living in a potentially revolutionary situation, and a war is being waged, like it or not. Yet the ’90s are not the ’60s, and queer nationalism is not reinvented African-American nationalism, which proposed radical revision of education, employment, housing, healthcare, and childcare, issues that require more than fiery rhetoric to implement.

Along with many other fed-up queers, I want to transform the world in which we live. I am uncertain whether hating straights will act as much more than catharsis, offering more heat than light and missing a truly radical explosion of the correct left’s mantra-chanting. Shortly before his death, Malcolm X was forced to revise his notions of nationalism when, in Ghana, he met a white Algerian who had struggled to free his country from colonial exploitation. Recognizing the minefield of complexity that surrounds oppression, Malcolm X expanded his notions of “by any means necessary.”

Tom Kalin is a film and video maker who lives in New York. He is a member of the AIDS-activist collective Gran Fury.