On Queer Privilege
In these intersectional times, it will not, I hope, be too controversial of a claim to suggest that, in different contexts and at different moments, hierarchies of power shift, and with them the relationship of different groups and individuals to what we have come to call “privilege.” Among the most common expressions of privilege as it is widely understood is a certain priority of speech: the right to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be seen and heard as speaking from a position of conceptual and experiential authority. That priority of speech is often accompanied by the tacit assumption of an equivalent moral priority.
I would like to speak about something I can only call “queer privilege.”
Queer privilege is not everywhere. Even after decades of activism and “theory,” there is still a bigoted wide world out there, full of enforced normativity, compulsory heterosexuality, and relentless, violent policing. That goes without saying. Plenty are the spaces where queers are still shunned, vilified, or punished. But there are also spaces where the opposite is true. Activist spaces, social justice spaces, critical theory spaces; universities and meetings and small presses. Oh, and Tumblr. In these spaces, where a generalized ideology of anti-normativity holds sway, queerness is a badge of honor, a marker of specialness, and a source of critical and moral authority: in short, a form of privilege. It is the privilege that allows social justice discourse to use the phrase “cis white patriarchy” a shorthand for everything that is wrong with the world; it is the privilege that allows academics like Lee Edelman and Tim Dean to claim not only a value but an ethical imperative for non-reproductive sexual acts; it is the privilege that leads people who have never had sex with someone of the same gender to write impassioned essays about their choice to identify as queer because of their discomfort at being identified with the oppressive forces behind the label “straight.” Queer privilege is what allows a tenured NYU professor, tongue supposedly in cheek, to talk about starting a “barstool-roots movement for left wing urban homosexuals,” as if it’s heterosexuality that keeps most people from drinking in the West Village while they theorize and not the fact that they have to work 3 jobs and don’t have tenure at one of the most powerful universities in the world.
Queer privilege, born out of the minoritarian theoretical discourses that galvanized the humanities between, oh, 1975 or so and the early 90s, rooted in an immensely popular (mis)reading of Foucault, is grounded in the idea of a link between the normativity of an act and its ethical valence. The argument, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, is that because historically the regulatory maintenance of normative social formations has involved the repression and oppression of sexual minorities and non-hetero-reproductive sexual practices, the expression and performance of minoritarian sexual identities and non-reproductive sexual acts has, in itself and a priori, a resistive or subversive value. Queer privilege is the tacit assumption that, confronted with a moral or ethical question, the minoritarian, perverse, and non-normative, in short, the queer, will align on the side of the right and the good against the normative, heterosexual, or mainstream alternative. Queer privilege is the tacit assumption that, regardless of the context or the specific individuals involved, normative isbad and queer is good.
We needn’t get sidetracked in the immense irony of the selective reading behind this assumption: suffice to say that the theorists, Foucault especially, in whose work these insights are rooted are by and large as hostile to the idea of morality and goodness as they are to the idea of normativity and disciplinary biopower. But it’s worth pausing to reflect on the tone that queer privilege indulges itself in, to consider the implications of a smug condescension that presumes to judge people’s sexuality based on the way they relate to other people’s genitals and to evaluate the revolutionary potential of an act based on its statistical prevalence. Is this what we want from queer theorizing? Is this what we need queer theory for – to pass judgment on the moral and revolutionary value of other people’s sex lives based on sweeping assumptions about entire groups and their presumed ethical commitments? Or is that not rather precisely the kind of epistemological blind spot queer analysis was born to shed light on and undo?
Insisting on conceiving queer-identified subjects as the shock troops of the coming liberation, every other identification is relegated to, at best, the status of a clumsy foot soldier. The best non-queers can hope to attain is the dubious status of allyship, a wobbly designation as easily lost as gained. But is that really the way community is built? By departing from exclusionary practices and hierarchies of value that make it impossible for some members of the community to ever attain to full citizenship? Or is that not the very structural prejudice represented by the idea of normativity?
The thing we have to remember, always, is that a concept as a whole contains both itself and the possibility of its negation; both sides of a binary opposition, A and not-A, together form a single concept. Thus the concept of “normativity” accounts, as a concept, both for a norm and for the idea of deviations from it. This means, as I have often written, that it is impossible to detach or ethically distinguish the normative from the non-normative; the two are always bound up, the one in the shadow of the other, and there is no conception of non-normativity that does not always already bear upon itself the stamp of the normal. More importantly, it means that there is no outside to the binary opposition normative/non-normative. This claim isn’t anything new; it’s the basic premise of all deconstruction. But in our context, it’s a crucial reminder of the fact that subversions, resistances, and revolutions are not born outside but within, not beyond the limits of the normative but precisely at the porous line where the normative and the non-normative slip in and out of each other. If queerness is not a stable identity but is in some way the different and the unknown, then the emergence of the queer, the becoming-visible of difference, is as likely to happen at a nominally “heteronormative” site as it is to happen at a nominally “queer” one. (I use “site” broadly as any imaginable social nexus rather than as a physical space in the traditional sense). And by the same measure, oppressions and suppressions can form in queer spaces just as easily as in straight ones.
It is necessary to state a simple fact explicitly and unequivocally: the greatest revolution in the history of human sexuality occurred not at the margins but directly at the heart of compulsory heteronormativity. It was not AIDS; it was not gay liberation; it was not the discovery of fisting in the second half of the 20th century. The greatest revolution in the history of human sexuality, the most unprecedented event in the entire narrative of human sexual relations, was the invention of the contraceptive pill. That is to say, more explicitly, that the most revolutionary, subversive, and devastating attack on patriarchal compulsory heterosexuality in the entire history of human sexuality came not from the margins, not from the minor, not from the queer or the perverse, but from the medical-pharmaceutical complex and from the consequences, or lack thereof, of a potentially reproductive intercourse between a penis and a vagina.
We simply do not know where the next revolution will come from. Wecannot know. It is the nature of alterity to surprise. That’s kind of the whole point. And quantitatively speaking, there are a lot more of them than there are of us.
Is queer privilege something we need to be worried about? Is it something we should actively resist? Well, it’s all relative, right? In different contexts and at different times, hierarchies of power shift, and with them the relationship of different groups and individuals to what we have come to call “privilege.” Queer privilege is an entirely insignificant thing to be worried about in light of, say, racism, poverty, governmental corruption and police brutality. So to the extent that what nominally fuels the engine of queer theorizing is on some level a social or moral investment, queer privilege is honestly not worth worrying about right now. But to the extent that queer theory is, at least in part, born of theoretical projects invested in rigorous conceptual analysis, it is certainly an elephant that we might not want in the room. A pygmy elephant, maybe, but still.
Queer privilege makes genuine intersectionality impossible for queer theory. It betrays the seminal promise of queerness as a critical concept to be a door to the unknown, the unexpected, the uncanny by eliding any fixed definition – and any fixed value. Because ultimately, that is the question at hand – the question of value, and the assignment of value, which Nietzsche called the last question of philosophy. Contemporary critical discourses, from classic Frankfurt school theory to the most incoherent Duke University Press monographs, owe everything to Nietzsche’s ideas, but they have forgotten both his aims and his questions. The more unconsciously we attribute fixed value to anything, much less to a politically charged and ideologically fraught identity, the more we sink into the placid herd mentality that to Nietzsche was always the true enemy of thought.
I have tried, so far, to mark wherever possible the unclear boundary between queerness as a conceptual framework and queerness as a minoritarian political agenda. But that boundary has always traced an idea rather than an absolute reality, since the conceptual and the socio-economic are inseparably interwoven. Implicit in the public discourse over the relative value of various acts and identities are questions about the distribution of resources, the implications of political allegiance, and the attribute of authority – in short, of privilege. But it is precisely here that we must tread with utmost care, because after two decades during which the term “LGBT” was believed, at least, to describe an actual “community” in some sense, we have arrived at a cultural juncture in which all lines of filiation and alliance are becoming increasingly fragmented and fragile. It is hardly clear where the investments and interests of the heteronormative and the queer intersect with or contradict the investments and interests of the gay, the trans*, the subaltern, the person of color. The intersectional turn in contemporary discourse mandates the necessary insistence on the contingency of power relations no less than Nietzsche and Foucault do; so how have such a large group of thinkers so keenly conscious of both these strains of contemporary thought forgotten so thoroughly a fundamental imperative they both share?
The consistent instability of binary oppositions like “normative/non-normative,” the failure of their closure and the metaphysical implication of a third term that explicates that failure, is a grounding claim of deconstruction and in turn a fundamental assumption in much contemporary critical discourse. In a bygone age when some oppositions did seem perennially stable, like the oppressive relation between heterosexuality and homosexuality, or the incurable, fatal distinction between the HIV-positive and the HIV-negative, or between the Soviet East and the American West, it was useful for theory to expose the cracks in the ideological implications of those oppositions. That’s what deconstruction and queer theory helped do; that need, I would argue, accounts to a significant extent for their widespread adoption in the late 80s and early 90s. But today, in an age where a fundamental and anxious instability of relations and oppositions is rapidly installing itself as the quotidian standard, theory must address an urgent double imperative. On the one hand, it must clarify, clear ground for comprehension and remove from discourse the anxiety induced by a lack of definitional clarity; but at the same time it must keep open a space for the emergence of difference by resisting the fixity of definitions and the hegemonic consequences of impenetrable stability. Queer privilege as I describe it inhibits both of these aims. In assuming a priori to know the relative value of the identity positions it claims to be investigating and negotiating, queer privilege keeps us from an adequate critical assessment. And in assuming the value of certain acts and subject positions over others, queer privilege establishes false divisions where it could be discovering commonalities; it generates anxiety where it should be relieving it; and it substitutes a performative, self-congratulatory individuality for an ethic of genuine difference.
Queer privilege, like most forms of privilege, is preoccupied primarily with the relentless task of reproducing its own values and logic. But the project of queer critique as it was conceived in the late 80s and early 90s, the queer critique envisioned by Sedgwick and others, is inseparable from a fundamental orientation towards difference, towards the not-yet evaluated and the not-yet known, towards relations that reveal their meaning and value only in their unfolding and not in their predictable familiarity. If queerness is ever again to be a source of wonder and empowerment, if queerness is ever again to serve as a tool for genuine and meaningful ideology critique, it must return to this forgotten imperative, away from smug self-congratulation and endlessly rehashed performances of important radicality and toward the variable and unpredictable, towards a world of sexual difference in which the immense complexity of real relations and interactions relentlessly surprises us with its capacity for unexpected revolutions.
Fuck Theory is a pseudonym and an alibi that trolls the academic field of critical theory from its margins (that is, from the increasingly gentrified wilderness of social media). They have been taught on college syllabi, published by Adult Magazine, presented at last year’s Theorizing the Web conference, and one time they pissed off some social justice warriors on Tumblr. For someone that doesn’t really exist, they sure have a lot of opinions.