The Power of Queerness
- Orienting (pun intended)
When I was a junior in undergrad, a graduating M.Arch friend told me point blank: “The M.Arch cohorts here are so straight.” My understanding of what this friend meant is still developing four years later; this statement referred to individual students, certainly, but as the recent Paprika! article “The Subversive Power of Queer-ish Identity” proved, it could easily be applied to a collective ideology that allows for nominally queer appeals to respectability politics. These appeals can be described as homonormative. Thus, rather than setting the record straight, as it were, I wish to offer a queer counterpoint.
As many people likely already know, in people of all genders, sexualities, and absences thereof, gender identity as an internally felt site of belonging and gender expression as an external manifestation coded by societal norms cannot help but interact. Identity is not equal to expression, but nor can the former be wholly distinguished/separated from the latter. A man—cis or trans, of any sexuality—might choose expressions that are coded as masculine, feminine, or most likely some combination of the two.
Taking this as a presupposition (which I wholeheartedly do), I fail to comprehend how “a lesbian woman flirting with a male gender presentation” or “a trans man choosing to adopt feminine mannerisms” “operate within the existing cis/heteronormative infrastructure.” What is cis/heteronormative about lesbian identity, transgender identity, or a gender presentation that defies expectations? The assumption implicit in the mention of “a trans man choosing to adopt feminine mannerisms”—that trans men’s identity must align with a masculine presentation because if a trans man enjoys a feminine presentation, why not identify with the assigned gender that supposedly aligns with feminine presentations—is one that relies heavily on cisnormativity, but the trans man in question does not.
- Queer as in transgender (but not transient)
Arguably, the above section already refutes many of the integral assumptions in “Queer-ish,” but it would be remiss to not also address the proffered manipulation of well-known and personally beloved queer theory.
Scholars have already observed the phenomenon where “individuals…can, may, or do operate within the existing cis/heteronormative infrastructure and societal architecture while embracing a loose and transient connection to the queer community or tenets of being queer,” or put another way, the phenomenon where people who hold potentially queer identities espouse “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”1 This politics is popularly known not as “queer-ish,” but as homonormativity.
Actively referencing Duggan’s formulation, José Esteban Muñoz himself rejects homonormativity in all forms of worldbuilding (necessarily including urbanism and architecture) when he writes, “Abstract utopias falter…because they are untethered from any historical consciousness. Concrete utopias are relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential. In our everyday life abstract utopias are akin to banal optimism. (Recent calls for gay or queer optimism seem too close to elite homosexual evasion of politics.)”2
- Queer as in radically transformative
“Queer-ish” argues that “through the pervasive proliferation of queer-ish identity in contemporary culture, slight ripples, slight creases in the social fabric aggregate into an incessant quivering slightly below the framework… queer-ish identity gradually transforms the space into a fluid realm while preserving the infrastructure.” Not only does this hypothesis rely on the metaphor of the “trickle-down” effect (notably, an effect that has been proven in economics to be utterly fictional and was first formulated to describe the economics of the Reagan presidency—a presidency also known amongst queer people for its enabling of genocide), but it also ignores actual, concrete examples in which the opposite has been true.
Geographer Darren J. Patrick has addressed precisely how homonormativity and physical, urban, architectural infrastructure interact. They first assert the relative prevalence of white, cisgender, gay men in urban spatial politics, using the example of the founders of the non-profit that financed the redevelopment of the High Line in New York City. They also detail the ways in which the High Line has contributed to violent gentrification in nearby neighborhoods, causing material harm to people of color/queer people who do not experience the privileges of being wealthy, white, cis, and male. In sum, “the redevelopment of the High Line consolidated an increasingly insidious and naturalized urban homonormativity, sidelining, silencing, or displacing the politics of race and racialization, class, and gender by way of normalizing white gayness as a crucial part of the survival of urban capitalism.”3
In short: accepting cis/heteronormative worlds and rejecting potentials for queer ones (knowingly or not) does not and cannot subvert literal or metaphorical structures of hegemonic power. “Queer-ish identity,” also known as homonormativity, can only serve to reify these structures to the detriment of queer and trans people of color such as myself.
- Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 2003, 50. ↩︎
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York: NYU Press, 2009, 3. ↩︎
- Darren J. Patrick, “Of Success and Succession: A Queer Urban Ecology of the High Line,” in Deconstructing the High Line: Postindustrial Urbanism and the Rise of the Elevated Park (eds. Christoph Lindner and Brian Rosa), New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017, 147. ↩︎