Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Left Queer

In my forthcoming book, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, I describe how the fight against violence and for safety has propelled a wide mix of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activist and community-based campaigns in the US over the past fifty years.[1] I contend that an analysis of these goals—and of the strategies used to achieve them—is not only important to understanding the transformation of LGBT politics since the 1960s, but is also a useful lens through which to examine the uneven development and policing of space under capitalism during this time. Since the 1970s, the Keynesian-influenced policies of social welfare and economic regulation have been systemically dismantled, replaced by policies intended to promote neoliberalism’s mythical ideal of an unfettered free market.[2]

On the urban scale, this shift has brought the paired dynamics of disinvestment alongside selective reinvestment, and dispossession with settlement, in which the residents and businesses of poor and working-class neighborhoods have been forced out in favor of new residents and businesses that might garner higher market values. As part of this process, politicians and real estate developers have routinely suggested that (white) gay populations might hold the key to the city, so to speak, as gay men’s residential patterns have been hailed as the remedy for urban problems.[3] In the 1970s, this took the form of celebrating gay men as the vanguard of the back-to-the-city movement; over twenty-five years later, gay populations were described as draw factors for a creative class that would revitalize restructured urban regions. In both cases, gay men were cast as the arbiters not only of quality but also of risk, their vulnerability or solution to violence presented as indicators of an urban area’s profitability. As a result, central to the history of LGBT activism, in which the themes of violence and safety have been so prominent, is the calculation of risk: the risk of violence associated with a gay vulnerability that calls for anticrime initiatives as well as the risk of lost profit linked to real estate speculation. One outcome has been to redefine normative gay identity as an identity threatened by those deemed “criminal” (in particular, the racialized poor), while finding solutions in risk negotiations, including self-regulation and open financial markets.

But this period should not only be characterized by the demise of social welfare policies and the ascendency of neoliberalism. During these years, LGBT and queer activists organized to fight the shifting forms of capitalism; contemporary challengers to neoliberalism can learn much from these earlier activist campaigns. In particular, anti-racist lesbian, gay, and trans activists from the turn of the 1980s were on the front lines of the fight against the economic and social programs that were first pushed ahead with the election of Ronald Reagan. Activists took on the proposed 1981 Family Protection Act, challenged police brutality, and organized on behalf of the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Organizations such as the Third World Gay Coalition and Lesbians Against Police Violence, both in the San Francisco Bay Area; and Dykes Against Racism Everywhere and the Coalition Against Racism, Anti-Semitism, Sexism, and Heterosexism, both in New York, among many others, developed innovative organizing models that transformed dominant understandings of the relationship between identity and economic structure. They also eschewed the data orientation of a mainstream national movement gathering momentum in favor of analyses that highlighted what was lost as other goals were won. In the context of debates about gay participation in gentrification, these groups rejected the main strategy of the mainstream antiviolence movement—the call for gay-responsive policing in so-called gay neighborhoods—while recognizing the protections and pleasures provided by place-based group identities. In sum, these activists understood the attack on public programs and the expansion of the criminal justice system alongside the growth of the lesbian and gay rights movement to be among the contradictions of capitalism.

Indeed, critiques of capitalism have played a complicated role in the history of LGBT and queer political organizing, as have critiques of normativity within an array of movements on the left. The liberal state has denied lesbians and gay men some of the implied promises of citizenship, and for many activists otherwise committed to a radical politics the goals of equality and inclusion have been hard to let go. In turn, leftists have not in general challenged normalization and thus have tended to support liberal gay agendas.[4] Moreover, the dismantling of those institutions central to liberal democracy have been joined by the rise of what Wendy Brown describes as a “neoliberal rationality,” which applies the logic of the market to “all aspects of social, cultural and political life.”[5] As a result, some radical LGBT and queer activists see political strategies dedicated to rights or state programs as complicit with neoliberal agendas while others argue that their protection should remain a priority of movement building. These differences have also taken form in a focus on individualized injury among some LGBT and queer activists otherwise committed to structural change; it has also fostered leftist political arguments that that culture, desire, and identity are irrelevant. Finally, it is important to note that the assumption of rational choice behind neoliberalism contradicts neither a liberal rights discourse nor a progressive psychology of the self.

Hence another key issue to consider in the context of liberalism’s transformations is the status of non-normativity more generally within a range of left-identified/radical movements. Given that the mainstream LGBT movement narrowed its terms of inclusion through the consolidation of an activist approach opposed, in particular, to the “deviancy” ascribed to racialized poverty in the city, it is important to ask how other modes of non-normativity often associated with poverty (but not restricted to it) have been variably ignored, rejected, or taken up by left/radical activists. In other words, in addition to tracing the history of queer politics on the left, we might also think about the history of those who have been left queer—as in, those individuals who remain outside of dominant norms—within a variety of social movements. Why and how are some individuals recuperated–or rejected–not only by the mainstream but also by radical social movements? Here we might consider the construction of the “lumpen proletariat” so famously demeaned by Karl Marx, or the “submerged tenth” by W.E.B. Du Bois: those who are considered to have no capacity for class-consciousness or formal political strategy, outside organization, stuck in place, and even representative of a counter-revolutionary position. Marx described in The Eighteenth Brumaire “vagabonds,” “swindlers,” “brothel keepers,” among others, as the “scum, offal, and refuse of all classes,” a non-class that stands outside production and jams the dialectic of history.[6]

These are familiar figures, not only because they have been maligned in leftist movements and liberal politics, but also because features of these abstract categorizations have been increasingly celebrated within queer studies: subjects described as outside, abject, unproductive, and with no future; with a backward orientation and against normative conventions; yet status conscious and (way too) aspirational. Queer studies is far from alone in casting the highly stigmatized as a kind of vanguard. Frantz Fanon invoked the lumpen proletariat to describe the risky opportunities promised by those left with the least under colonial rule; his ideas were taken up by the Black Panthers, among others, in part to elaborate an internal colonization thesis.[7] These identifications were also replicated by some gay liberation activists of that same era. And Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchist visions of the lumpen proletariat as a revolutionary class still find expression in present-day activist mobilizations, queer and otherwise.[8] But this suggests that as queer studies continues to turn away from identity as primary for understanding normativity so as to examine the regulatory categories of health, ability, rationality, and responsibility (key terms of neoliberalism), there is much still to learn about how a range of social movements—including antipoverty politics, prison abolitionism, and harm reduction, to name but a few—have engaged those whose choices refuse or fail at such imperatives, as well as how these debates have been featured within a long history of activism dedicated to challenging capitalism.

  1. Much of this essay is drawn from my forthcoming book, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham: Duke U P, 2013). [Return to text]
  2. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, (Boston: Beacon, 2004); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (New York: Oxford U P, 2005). [Return to text]
  3. The Mayor’s Office of New York City describes the gift of a “key to the city” as a gift which symbolized the provision of “free entry”—access which others were denied due to legal, physical, or economic restrictions. See the website of the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, “Key to the City of New York.” [Return to text]
  4. Svati P. Shah, “Sexuality and ‘The Left’: Thoughts on Intersections and Visceral Others,” The Scholar & Feminist Online 7.3 (2009). [Return to text]
  5. Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory and Event 7.1 (2003). [Return to text]
  6. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1995 [1899]); Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (New York: International Publishers, 1994 [1852]). [Return to text]
  7. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove, 2005 [1965]). [Return to text]
  8. Mikhail Bakunin, “Statism and Anarchy,” Bakunin on Anarchy, ed. Sam Dolgoff, (Montréal: Black Rose, 2002 [1873]) 323-50. [Return to text]