PRINT November 1991



Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous “play” of history, culture and power.
—Stuart Hall, 1990

THE '90s HAVE ALREADY SEEN a remarkable upsurge in gay political and cultural activism all around the world, from New York to London, from Sydney to Vancouver. Powerful activist organizations such as Queer Nation in the U.S. and OutRage in Britain have emerged in response to a shared sense of cumulative anger concerning escalating levels of antigay discrimination, prejudice, and actual violence. Furthermore, the entire diaspora of lesbians and gay men is in turmoil over the vexed question of “outing,” and over the validity or otherwise of the emergent category “queer,” which is increasingly being used by men and women alike as a term of primary identity.

Many gays have questioned the use of the word “queer,” a central term of personal abuse in both Britain and the U.S. for much of this century. It has been argued that the word cannot simply be reappropriated since it only serves to fuel existing prejudice, and may even lead to an increase in discrimination and violence. Such criticism frequently comes from older lesbians and gay men, and it forcibly reminds me of the resistance of many self-styled “homosexuals” to the adoption of the term “gay” in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Far from being trivial, such questions of change and contestation at the level of intimate personal identities are fundamental to our understanding of the workings of power within the wider framework of Modernity.

Two sets of issues need to be briefly established. The first concerns the gulf separating those lesbians and gay men who “came out” in the ’60s and ’70s from those who have “come out” in the ’80s and ’90s. The second concerns the power relations that are produced and sustained by the dominant system of sexual classifications, which are fleshed out and lived in different sexual identities.

It is evidently difficult for many older lesbians and gay men to realize just how difficult the ’80s and ’90s have been for many people growing up with a sense of sexual “difference.” The subject of homosexuality has never attracted so much public attention, but most of this has amounted to little more than a barrage of terrifyingly hostile prejudice and misinformation. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which public AIDS commentary has associated the term “gay” with AIDS. Yet young lesbians and gay men have received almost no health education that accepts and respects their homosexuality, and the results are plain to see. One report at the recent Seventh International AIDS Conference in Florence suggested that 49 percent of young black gays and bisexuals under 25 in the Bay Area are already seropositive. At the same time, a substantial proportion of these same young people have grown up in a climate where overt racism and sexism are no longer culturally legitimate but homophobia remains endemic and goes largely unremarked. Furthermore, many of today’s young “outers” feel much more in common with one another than they do with older lesbians and gay men, who were traditionally divided along the lines of gender and by numerous political disputes.1

The great convenience of the term “queer” today lies most immediately in its gender and race neutrality. This is only to say that in the U.S. the word “gay” has increasingly come to mean “white,” and “thirty-something,” and “male,” and “materialistic.” “Queer,” on the other hand, asserts an identity that celebrates differences within a wider picture of sexual and social diversity. The downside of “queer” is its tendency to romanticize such differences; the upside is its ability to articulate the complex, shifting alignments of class, gender, race, and sexuality in the lives of individuals who frequently face multiple oppressions. “Queer” is clearly an identity that has emerged in response to an emergency, and we should not criticize it for failing to resolve all the problems surrounding the politics of sexual identities. On the contrary, the very passion with which “queer” identity is being asserted should oblige us to think seriously about the larger crisis of sexual epistemology, and about the categories of modern sexual identity, which seem increasingly unable to give adequate expression to contemporary sexual beliefs and behaviors.

All discussion of the changing modern categories of sexuality must proceed from a consideration of desire, understood as an irreducible element in human nature. However, as Michel Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks, and many others have argued, desire is lived and sensuously experienced in ever-changing social and historical circumstances.2 Far from being scientific, descriptive categories, the classifications of desire within Western epistemology have profound political, ethical, and psychic implications. In this manner, the question of the gender (or genders) to which one is sexually attracted becomes the ground for fundamental power relations of privilege and underprivilege.

It is extremely convenient to those invested in these power relations of sexuality that people should voluntarily accept its categories as if they derived from some timeless essence of personal being. In this manner such power relations remain invisible and unchallenged. But the epistemology of sexuality should actually be recognized as a strategy, one that currently positions all human beings in a basically dualistic system bearing little relation to the actual lived complexity of sexual desire in the lives of individuals, of communities organized around shared sexual desires, or of entire societies. It is one indication of the underdeveloped nature of contemporary sexual politics that we are still obliged to talk of “homosexual object-choice” as that which unites people who call themselves “homosexual,” or “gay,” or “lesbian,” or “dykes,” or “queers.” Such terms, clearly, are not doing the same kind of ideological or psychic work.

To describe oneself as “a homosexual,” for example, is immediately to inhabit a pseudoscientific theory of sexuality that more properly belongs to the age of the steam engine than to the late 20th century. The most that “homosexuals” can (politely) ask for is “tolerance,” since the “homosexual” has already accepted marginalization in his or her core identity. Homosexual identity should thus be understood as a strategic position that privileges heterosexuality. Theorized as a “wrong” object-choice, “the homosexual” is permitted to occupy a strictly policed private zone, encouraging the fantasy that public space is intrinsically and exclusively heterosexual.

It was precisely against the modern epistemology of sexuality that “gay” identity, understood as a political response, was originally posed. Yet in the mass media and amongst many gay men, the term “gay” is generally used as if it were a synonym for “homosexual.” This reflects on the one hand the institutional and discursive resistance to the term “gay” that has characterized most mass-media commentary since the ’60s, as well as the inability within gay politics to grasp the full significance of epistemological struggles on the terrain of sexual terminology. Moreover, there has been a marked tension between gay political strategies such as “coming out,” or the notion of “gay pride”—strategies that regard “gay” very much as a collective, and confrontational, identity as well as an individual one—and the part of gay culture that on the contrary has tended to be puritanical, and often timid about actual sex, out of a desire to promote “positive images” that would supposedly counter “negative stereotypes.” The implication here is that there is indeed some available “truth” about all gay people, a “truth” that has an unpleasant tendency to censor out the question of our diversity as a constituency, assuming a single culture that can genuinely represent all lesbians and gay men. Furthermore, lesbian and gay culture has also tended to be limited by its anxiety about the so-called “objectification” of the body, as if sexual desire and fantasy could even exist without some degree of psychic objectification. Put simply, we do not love or desire people in their totality, whatever that might be.

Thus by the early 1980s the term “gay” had become widely associated with just the type of plea for “toleration” or “equality” that had characterized “homosexual” political culture, and that provoked the liberation movement into being in the first place. This is nowhere more obvious than in the continued use of phrases such as “the homosexual community” by gay men and by an intensely homophobic mass media. In this respect it should be recognized that the fundamental strategic problem facing contemporary gay politics is not the word “queer” but the word “homosexual,” together with its acceptance as a term of personal identity. Having lost sight of its initial contestation of the classificatory systems of sexuality, the gay liberation movement has increasingly seemed to regard lesbian and gay issues as if they were only relevant to lesbians and gay men, again imagined as a discrete minority. In reality today the main conflict is not simply between older “gay” assimilationists, who merely want admission to the American Dream, or “equal rights” with heterosexuals, and “queers” asserting their “queerness.” Rather, it is between those who think of the politics of sexuality as a matter of securing minority rights and those who are contesting the overall validity and authenticity of the epistemology of sexuality itself.

This is nowhere more obvious than in relation to the notorious question of “outing,” which has now emerged as a serious issue in the United Kingdom. As in America, the issue of outing—the involuntary expulsion of gay public figures from the closet—has been a pretext for any amount of outrage in England’s national daily press, which never seriously imagines “out” lesbians or gay men amongst its readers. Instead, the press expresses a distanced sympathy with the unfortunate “homosexuals,” whose privacy, it is argued, must be protected at all costs. What is so ideologically brilliant about the outing strategy is the way it has revealed the depths of antigay prejudice among journalists who themselves work for publications that have long profited from the public exposure of closeted “homosexuals.” Yet these same newspapers evidently require the category of “the homosexual,” since it plays such a key role in stabilizing heterosexual identities.

Nonetheless, American readers may be somewhat startled by the tone of vitriolic hatred that has informed mainstream British press coverage around outing. Thus, under the headline “This Fascist Gay Army Doomed to Failure,” we were recently treated to a report from New York, by Daily Mail hack George Gordon, about Queer Nation and its supposed “witch-hunt of desperation—a vicious hypocritical and smearing propaganda stunt,” and so on.3 From the outset it has been clear just who is being hypocritical in such reporting, given that the Daily Mail is given to predictable bouts of extreme homophobia. Hence Mr. Gordon’s conclusion that “the whole outing exercise was, in fact, the last desperate throw of angry gay activists who had failed to convince the world that AIDS was as much a threat to the community at large as it was to homosexuals. Figures were manufactured, scare propaganda was widespread, but the reality was that, by and large, AIDS remains a lethal illness of choice and the majority of victims are homosexuals, and junkies who exchange needles.”4 Another very well-known journalist wrote of outers as “the dreariest, most vindictive people in the world with which they can’t cope. They have no self-respect, esteem or confidence to proudly live out their sexuality without crudely flaunting it. They’re not in the same class as the good old boring heterosexual Joneses who just get on with it, and shut up about it, between their private sheets which the rest of us have no desire to hang out and examine.”5 And there was much else besides.

Meanwhile, the announcement of a major outing campaign in Britain turned out to be a brilliantly effective tactic designed in the first place to draw attention to the hypocrisy of the British mass media. The campaigning group FROCS (Faggots Rooting Out Closet Homosexuality) announced at a press conference last July that the entire outing story, complete with leaks to key journalists and so on, had been designed to expose the “double standards, hypocrisy, and homophobia in the media.”6 One tabloid journalist remarked bitterly: “We’ve been shafted by the buggers.”7

Yet outing does raise real problems, not least because it loses sight of the vital aspect of choice, which has always been at the heart of progressive sexual politics. Moreover, it runs the risk of falling back into a very conservative notion of what it means to be out in the first place. Indeed, it tends to depict questions of sexuality very much from within the norms and values of the dominant epistemology. For example, the outers assume that there is indeed a single “truth” of homosexuality, and that everyone is equally aware of this “truth” of their nature. But what of a man who has never actually had sex with another man, even if he might like to? Or what of a woman in her 40s who is just beginning her first sexual relationship with another woman? What need to be targeted are the objective forces of homophobia that so frequently cause pain and suffering, often for whole lifetimes.

It is clear that not all gay men and lesbians will come to accept the term “queer” in relation to themselves, even if they fully understand why other people find it useful. This is entirely to the good, since it serves to acknowledge that there are no natural or inevitable connections uniting everyone whose identity is formed on the basis of homosexual object-choice. On the contrary, there are complex, shifting unities and divisions within and between different sexual constituencies. It is vitally important, however, that the new “queer” identity should not be understood as totally distinct from the gay and lesbian culture from which it has emerged. There are real continuities of struggle and contestation in the history of “queer” politics, a politics that we might picture including such disparate figures as Oscar Wilde, Divine, Garbo, and Morrissey. Moreover, the Florence conference also presented alarming figures implying that safer sex may even by undermined for some people by the belief that they are in some kind of “queer” vanguard.

Right now there is an urgent need to launch major intellectual initiatives around most of the key terms put into mass circulation during the epidemic: “the gay lifestyle,” “sexual addiction,” “self-oppression,” and so on. We need a new sexual epistemology that can replace these banal concepts, and the insulting picture of sexual identity, and sexual politics, that they imply. Out of the old order of ’60s identity politics there is evidently emerging, fitfully and unpredictably, a new sense of sexuality as a terrain of diversity, whose ethical principle is above all choice. Our enemy is not the closet “homosexual” but the category that imprisons her, and us all.

Simon Watney is a writer and critic based in London. His most recent book is The Art of Duncan Grant, London: John Murray Ltd., 1990.



1. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism And The Subversion Of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990.
2. See, for example, Jeffrey Weeks, Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity, London: Rivers Orarn Press, 1991.
3. George Gordon, “This Fascist Gay Army Doomed to Failure,” The Daily Mail, London, 30 July 1990.
4. Ibid.
5. Jean Rook, “Shameful Revelations by a Bunch of Nasty Bullies,” The Daily Express, London, 31 July 1991, p. 9.
6. Shane Broomhall, quoted in Alex Renton, “Press Misses Out as Homosexuals Remain in the Closet,” The Independent, London, 1 August 1991, p. 1.
7. Unnamed journalist, quoted in ibid.