The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

What's That Smell?: Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives
by Judith Halberstam

Queer Temporality

This essay is drawn from a book-length study of the explosion of queer urban subcultures in the last decade. My larger purpose is to examine how many queer communities experience and spend time in ways that are very different from their heterosexual counterparts. Queer uses of time and space develop in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction, and queer subcultures develop as alternatives to kinship-based notions of community. In my work on subcultures, I explore the stretched out adolescences of queer culture makers and I posit an "epistemology of youth" that disrupts conventional accounts of subculture, youth culture, adulthood, race, class, and maturity.[1] Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of the conventional forward-moving narratives of birth, marriage, reproduction, and death. It is usual in the study of gender and sexuality to use the term "queer" to refer simply to "sexual minorities." And while "queer" certainly takes on this meaning in my study, it can also be defined here as an outcome of temporality, life scheduling, and eccentric economic practices. When we detach queerness from sexual identity in this way, we come closer to understanding Michel Foucault's comment in an interview that "homosexuality threatens people as a way of life" rather than as a way of having sex.[2]

Much of the contemporary theory seeking to disconnect queerness from an essential definition of homosexuality has focused upon queer space and queer sexual practices, but such theories depend, implicitly, upon a rarely articulated notion of queer time.[3] They also concentrate almost exclusively upon the activities of white gay men. This study will include material on and by white gay men but it will focus on lesbian and transgender subcultures (punk, drag, performance, spoken word) and will pay special attention to racialized constructions of youth, leisure, waste, and maturity. The focus on queer subcultures, and dyke subcultures in particular, allows us to make some potentially new claims about agency, style, liminality, community, and history. A broad-based study of queer subcultures, as I have suggested, can provide material evidence for lives lived "otherwise," outside of the conventional life narratives of family and reproduction, but it can also point to those modes of resistance which survive the encounter between marginal subjects and dominant culture.

An essay by Judith Butler in a volume dedicated to the work of Stuart Hall tackles the question of what kinds of agency can be read into forms of activity that tend to be associated with style. She asks: ". . . how do we read the agency of the subject when its demand for cultural and psychic and political survival makes itself known as style?" (36). And, building on the work by Hall and others in the classic volume on subcultures Resistance Through Rituals, Butler puts the concept of "ritual" into motion as a practice that can either reinforce or disrupt cultural norms. Liminal subjects, she implies, those who are excluded from "the norms that govern the recognizability of the human," are sacrificed to maintain coherence within the category of the human, and, for them, style is both the sign of their exclusion and the mode by which they survive nonetheless. The power of Judith Butler's work, here and elsewhere, lies in her ability to show how much has been excluded, rejected, abjected in the formation of human community and what toll those exclusions take upon particular subjects.

Punk has always been the stylized and ritualized language of the rejected; as Poly Styrene of Xray Spex sings: "I am a reject and I don't care!" Queer punk has surfaced in recent years as a potent critique of hetero- and homonormativity and dyke punk in particular, by bands like Tribe 8 and The Haggard, inspires a reconsideration of the topic of subcultures in relation to queer cultural production and in opposition to notions of gay community. Subcultures provide a vital critique of the seemingly organic nature of "community," and they make visible the forms of un-belonging and disconnection that are necessary to the creation of community. At a time when "gay and lesbian community" is used as a rallying cry for fairly conservative social projects aimed at assimilating gays and lesbians into the mainstream of the life of the nation and family, queer subcultures preserve the critique of heteronormativity that was always implicit in queer life. Community, generally speaking, is the term used to describe seemingly natural forms of congregation. As Sarah Thornton comments in her introduction to The Subcultures Reader: "Community tends to suggest a more permanent population, often aligned to a neighborhood, of which family is the key constituent part. Kinship would seem to be one of the main building blocks of community."[4] Subcultures, however, suggest transient, extra-familial and oppositional modes of affiliation. The idea of community, writes Jean Luc Nancy, emerges out of the Christian ritual of communion and expresses a sense of something that we once had that has now been lost, a connection that was once was organic and life giving that now is moribund and redundant. Nancy calls this the "lost community" and expresses suspicion about this "belated invention." Nancy writes: "What this community has "lost" - the immanence and the intimacy of a communion - is lost only in the sense that such a "loss" is constitutive of "community" itself."[5] The reminder that quests for community are always nostalgic attempts to return to some fantasized moment of union and unity reveals the conservative stakes in community for all kinds of political projects and makes the reconsideration of subcultures all the more urgent.

The Ballad of a Ladyman

Sleater-Kinney's anthem, "Ballad of a Ladyman," describes the allure of subcultural life for the ladyman, the freak who wants to "rock with the tough girls." They sing: "I could be demure like / girls who are soft for / boys who are fearful of / getting an earful / But I gotta rock!" The band layers Corin Tucker's shrill but tuneful vocals over the discordant and forceful guitar playing of Carrie Brownstein and the hard rhythm of Weiss's percussion. This is a beat that takes no prisoners and makes no concessions to the "boys who are fearful of getting an earful. . . ." And while Sleater-Kinney are most often folded into histories of the "riot grrrl" phenomenon and girl punk, they must also be placed within a new wave of dyke subcultures. When taken separately, riot dyke bands, drag kings, and queer slam poets all seem to represent a queer edge in a larger cultural phenomenon. When considered together, they add up to a fierce and lively queer subculture which needs to be reckoned with on its own terms. This essay tracks the significant differences between the ladymen who rock and roll and drag up and slam their way towards new queer futures and the punk rockers of an earlier generation of subcultural activity. My tour of dyke subcultures takes in riot dyke punk by bands like Sleater-Kinney, The Butchies, Le Tigre, Tribe 8, The Haggard and Bitch and Animal; drag kings like Dred, and drag king boy band parody group Backdoor Boys; slam poets like Alix Olson and Stacey Ann Chin. Queer subcultures are related to old school subcultures like punk but they also carve out new territory for a consideration of the overlap of gender, generation, class, race, community, and sexuality in relation to minority cultural production.

I have long been interested in and part of various subcultural groups. As a young person I remember well the experience of finding punk rock in the middle of a typically horrible Grammar School experience in England in the 1970's. I plunged into punk rock music, clothing and rebellion precisely because it gave me a language with which to reject not only the high cultural texts in the class rooms but also the homophobia and sexism outside it. I tried singing in a punk band called Penny Black and the Stamps for a brief two-week period thinking that my utter lack of musical ability would serve me well finally. But, alas, even punk divas scream in key and my rebel yells were not mellifluous enough to launch my punk singing career. Instead of singing, I collected records, went to shows, dyed my hair and fashioned outfits from safety pins and bondage pants. And so I learned at an early age that even if you cannot be in the band, participation at multiple levels is what subculture offers. I found myself reminiscing over my punk past when I began researching drag king cultures for a collaborative project with photographer Del LaGrace Volcano. Through my new subcultural involvement I began to see some specific features of queer subculture as opposed to a larger historical subcultures like punk rock.

After finishing my drag king book in 1999, I received calls every few months from TV stations wanting me to put them in touch with drag kings for talk shows and news shows. Most of these shows would invite the kings on to parade around with some drag queens in front of a studio audience. At the end of the show, the audience would vote on whether each king or queen was really a man or really a woman. A few of the kings managed to circumvent the either/or format and offer up a more complex gendered self; and so, Black drag king Dred took off her moustache to reveal a "woman's" face but then took off her wig to reveal a bald pate. The audience was confused and horrified by the spectacle of indeterminacy. Josh Gamson in Freaks Talk Back has written about the potential for talk shows to allow the "crazies" and "queers" to talk back but most of the time when drag kings appeared in mass public venues, the host did all the talking.[6] Drag kings also made an appearance in HBO's Sex and the City and on MTV's Real Life. On every occasion that drag kings appeared on "straight" TV, they were deployed as an entertaining backdrop against which heterosexual desire was showcased and celebrated. As someone who has tirelessly promoted drag kings, as individual performers and as a subculture, I found the whole process of watching the mass culture's flirtation with drag kings depressing and disheartening; but it did clarify for me what my stakes might be in promoting drag kings: after watching drag kings try to go prime time, I remain committed to archiving and celebrating and analyzing queer subcultures before they are dismissed by mass culture or before they simply disappear from lack of exposure or what we might call "subcultural fatigue," namely the phenomenon of burn out among subcultural producers.

As the talk show phenomenon vividly illustrates, mainstream culture within postmodernism should be defined as the process by which subcultures are both recognized and absorbed, mostly for the profit of large media conglomerates. In other words, when TV stations show an interest in a dyke subculture like drag kings, this is cause for both celebration and concern: on the one hand, the mainstream recognition and acknowledgment of a subculture has the potential to alter the contours of dominant culture (think here of the small inroads into popular notions of sex, gender and race made by the regular presence of Black drag queen Ru Paul on cable TV); but, on the other hand, most of the interest directed by mainstream media at subcultures is voyeuristic and predatory. The subculture might appear on TV eventually as an illustration of the strange and perverse or else it will be summarily robbed of its salient features and the subcultural form: drag, for example, will be lifted without the subcultural producers, drag queens or kings. In an essay that tracks the results of precisely this process, Marco Becquer and Jose Gatti examine the contradictory effects of the sudden visibility of Harlem drag balls and their drag practices. In their analysis of the cooptation of gay vogueing by Madonna's hit single "Vogue" and by Jenni Livingston's acclaimed independent film Paris is Burning, Becquer and Gatti show how the counter-hegemonic knowledge articulated in vogueing meets with "the violence of the universal." Becquer and Gatti write of Madonna's video and Livingston's film: "Both partake in the production of newness, a process which purports to keep us up-to-date as it continually adds on novelties to a relational system that absorbs them; both contain vogueing beneath the pluralist umbrella of hipness."[7] And so, while the queens in Paris is Burning expressed a desire for precisely the kind of fame and fortune that did eventually accrue to vogueing, the fame went to director Jennie Livingston and the fortune went to Madonna. The subculture itself, the gay Black and Puerto Rican children of the Houses of Channel, Extravaganza and LaBeija, disappeared back into the world of sex work, HIV and queer glamour and within five years of the release of Paris is Burning, five of the queens in the film were dead.[8]

The mainstream absorption of vogueing highlights the uneven exchange between dominant culture scavengers and subcultural artists: subcultural artists often seek out mainstream attention for their performances and productions in the hopes of gaining financial assistance for future endeavors. Subcultural activity is, of course, rarely profitable, always costly for the producers and it can be very short lived without the necessary cash infusions (in the words of Sleater-Kinney: "This music gig doesn't pay that good, but the fans are alright. . . ."). Some subcultural producers turn the subculture itself into a source of revenue and as Angela McRobbie comments: "Subcultures are often ways of creating job opportunities as more traditional careers disappear. . . ."[9] So while the subcultural producers hope for cash and a little exposure, the dominant culture scavengers are usually looking for a story and hoping for that brush with the "new" and the "hip" described so well by Becquer and Gatti. In my experiences working with drag kings however, we found that while big media reached their "hipness quota" quickly with the addition of a few well placed drag kings, in return, they almost never paid for drag king services and when they did pay, it was always a pittance. Obviously the pay back for the subcultural participants cannot come in the form of material benefits; what seems more useful then, in this exchange between mainstream attention and subcultural product, would be to use the encounter to force some kind of recognition upon audiences that what is appealing about mainstream culture may very well come from subcultures that they do not even know exist or that they have repudiated.

As George Lipsitz's work has shown in relation to ethnic minority cultures, cultural producers often function as organic intellectuals, in a Gramscian sense; as such, minority artists can produce what Lipsitz terms "a historical bloc" or a coalition of oppositional groups united around counter-hegemonic ideas.[10]While in Gramsci's formulation, the organic intellectual undermines the role of the traditional intellectual who serves to legitimize and authorize elite political interests, in subcultures where academics might labor side by side with artists, the "historical bloc" can easily describe an alliance between the minority academic and the minority subcultural producer. Where such alliances exist academics can play a big role in the construction of queer archives, and queer memory, and, furthermore, queer academics can and some should participate in the ongoing project of recoding queer culture and interpreting it and circulating a sense of its multiplicity and sophistication. The more intellectual records we have of queer culture, the more we contribute to the project of claiming for the subculture the radical cultural work that either gets absorbed into or claimed by mainstream media.

Subcultures: The Queer Dance Mix

Subcultures have been an important object of study for sociology and cultural studies since the 1920's. In about the 1980's, however, work on subcultures seemed to fall out of favor as scholars began to doubt the utility of the term and the descriptive potential of the binary opposition between subculture and dominant culture. While early work on subcultures from the Chicago school assumed a relationship between subcultures and deviance or delinquency, later work from the Birmingham University Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies characterized subcultures as class-specific "youth formations."[11] One of the most influential texts on subcultures, Subcultures: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige, read subcultures in terms of the way they challenged hegemony through style rather than simply through overt ideological articulations; and he characterized the recuperation of subcultural disorder in terms of either an economic conversion of the signs and symbols of the subculture into mass culture commodities or an ideological conversion of the subcultural participant into either complete otherness or complete spectacle. Hebdige's work has been both widely celebrated and widely critiqued in the two decades since its original publication and obviously it cannot be applied in any simple way to contemporary subcultural scenes. And yet, it remains an important text for thinking about how to move beyond the contextualization of subcultures in terms of relations between youth and parent cultures and for its formulations of style and historicity.

Almost all of the early work on subcultures, including Hebdige's, has presumed the dominance of males in subcultural activity and has studied youth groups as the most lively producers of new cultural styles. The subcultures which I want to examine here are neither male nor necessarily young and they are less likely to be co-opted or absorbed back into dominant culture because they were never offered membership in dominant groups in the first place. Queer lesbian subcultures have rarely been discussed in the existing literature and they offer today a new area of study for queer scholarship as well as exciting opportunities for collaborations between queer cultural producers and queer academics. One of the reasons that theorists tend to look to subcultures for political mobilization has to do with the conflation of subculture and youth culture. Dick Hebdige, in an essay on "Youth, Surveillance and Display," for example, understands youth subcultures to register a dissatisfaction and alienation from the parent culture which is both "a declaration of independence . . . and a confirmation of the fact of powerlessness."[12] Even though this reading provides us with a better understanding of how political protest might be registered in a youth subculture, it remains trapped in the oedipal frame work which pits the subculture against parent culture.

Queer subcultures, unlike the male dominated youth cultures that Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall and other members of the Birmingham school have written about, are not located in any easy relation to so-called parent cultures: Much of the Birmingham school work on subcultures indeed (and this is partly why it fell out of favor in the early 1990's) presumed an oedipalized structure within which rebel youths reject the world of their parents and create a netherworld within which to reshape and reform the legacies of an older generation. Economic, political and social conflicts may be resolved in subcultural arenas, according to these arguments, without really effecting any grand changes at the level of superstructure. Of course such a theory of subcultures has long since been replaced by more nuanced understandings of the relations between class, youth and mass media and indeed in an essay on youth cultures, "Different, Youthful, Subjectivities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Youth," Angela McRobbie comments: "There is certainly no longer a case to be made for the traditional argument that youth culture is produced somehow in conditions of working-class purity, and that such expressions are authentic and in the first instance at least uncontaminated by an avaricious commercial culture."[13]But, while McRobbie goes on to rethink the relations between white youth and youth of color and the meaning of femininity in postmodern youth cultures, she still presumes a heterosexual framework. Queer subcultures illustrate vividly the limits of subcultural theories which omit consideration of sexuality and sexual styles: queer subcultures, obviously, cannot only be placed in relation to a "parent culture" and they tend to form in relation to place as much as in relation to a genre of cultural expression and, ultimately, they oppose not only the hegemony of dominant culture but also the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian culture. As Michael du Plessis and Kathleen Chapman report in an article about "Queercore," for example: ". . . queercore and homocore not only signaled their allegiances to post-punk subculture, but also positioned themselves as . . . distinct from lesbian and gay."[14] Furthermore, queer subcultures are not simply spin offs from some distinct youth culture like punk: as we will see in relation to riot dyke, queer music subcultures may be as likely to draw upon women's music from the 1970's and early 1980's as from British punk circa 1977.

We need to alter our understandings of subcultures in several important ways in order to address the specificities of queer subcultures and queer subcultural sites. First, we need to rethink the relation between theorist and subcultural participant recognizing that for many queers, the boundary between theorist and cultural producer might be slight or at least permeable. Second, most subcultural theories are created to describe and account for male heterosexual adolescent activity and they are adjusted only when female heterosexual adolescent activity comes into focus. New queer subcultural theory will have to account for non-heterosexual, non-exclusively male, non-white and non-adolescent subcultural production in all its specificity. Third, we need to theorize the concept of the archive and consider new models of queer memory and queer history capable of recording and tracing subterranean scenes, fly by night clubs and fleeting trends; we need, in José Muñoz's words, "an archive of the ephemeral."[15] Finally, queer subcultures offer us an opportunity to redefine the binary of adolescence and adulthood which structures so many inquiries into subcultures. Precisely because many queers refuse and resist the heteronormative imperative of home and family, they also prolong the periods of their life devoted to subcultural participation. This challenge to the notion of the subculture as a youth formation could on the one hand expand the definition of subculture beyond its most banal significations of youth in crisis and on the other hand challenge our notion of adulthood as reproductive maturity.

(EDITORS' NOTE: In the longer version of this essay, Judith Halberstam goes on to consider each one of these features of queer subcultural production in relation to specific lesbian subcultures.)


1. Thanks to Glen Mimura for the formulation of "an epistemology of youth." [Return to text]

2. Michel Foucault, "Friendship as a Way of Life" in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, edited by Sylvere Lotringer, translated by Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston (NY: Semiotext[e], 1996): 310. [Return to text]

3. For work on queer space see Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, Yolanda Retter eds. Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance, (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1997); David Bell and Gill Valentine eds. Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 1995); Boone, Joseph et al., eds. Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). [Return to text]

4. Sarah Thornton: "General Introduction" to The Subcultures Reader, eds. Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (New York and London: Routledge, 1997): 2. [Return to text]

5. Jean Luc Nancy, "The Inoperative Community" in The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor, translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney, foreword by Christopher Fynsk (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): 12. [Return to text]

6. See Josh Gamson, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Non-Conformity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999). [Return to text]

7. Marcos Becquer and Jose Gatti, "Elements of Vogue" (1991) in The Subcultures Reader, eds. Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (NY and London: Routledge, 1997): 452. [Return to text]

8. For an article on the fate of the queens and children featured in Paris is Burning, see Jesse Green, "Paris Has Burned" in The New York Times, "Styles of the Times" Section 9, Column 5, page 1 (Sunday, April 18, 1993). Green documents the death of Angie Extravaganza and Kim Pendarvis among others. Drag queens are interviewed for the article, and Green reports on the anger that many in the ball world feel about Jennie Livingston's film. Green reminds us that: "the film's critical and financial success should not therefore be taken for the success of its subjects." While Jennie Livingston became a filmmaker as a consequence of the circulation of Paris Is Burning, the film's subjects continued to live in poverty. [Return to text]

9. Angela McRobbie, "Shut Up And Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity" in Postmoderism and Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994): 162. [Return to text]

10. George Lipsitz, "Cruising Around the Historical Bloc: Postmodernism and Popular Music in East LA" [1990] in The Subcultures Reader: 357. [Return to text]

11. See Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain [1975], eds. Stuart Hall & Tony Jefferson (London: Routledge, Repr. 2000). [Return to text]

12. Dick Hebdige, "Posing . . . Threats, Striking . . . Poses: Youth, Surveillance, and Display" in The Subcultures Reader: 404. [Return to text]

13. Angela McRobbie, "Different, Youthful, Subjectivities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Youth" in Postmoderism and Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994): 179. [Return to text]

14. Michael du Plessis and Kathleen Chapman, "Queercore: The Distinct Identities of Subculture" in a special issue of College Literature v.24, n1 Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis (Feb 1997): 45. [Return to text]

15. José Esteban Muñoz, "Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts" in Queer Acts: Women and Performance, A Journal of Feminist Theory, eds. José E. Muñoz and Amanda Barrett, Vol 8:2 #16 (1996): 5-18. [Return to text]

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