national sexualities, homosexual citizens

This was originally written for a zine about queered pop culture called Popping Rank, edited by Max Weinberg.

by Craig Willse

Bored and frustrated, as usual, at a painfully long staff meeting last month, I suffered through a video collage of media reports about the recently passed Knight Initiative, which states that only marriage between a man and a woman is legally recognized in the state of California. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, where I work in the youth services department, had campaigned against this initiative, as it effectively heads gays off at the pass and makes gay marriage illegal. The proposition was voted in, so if in some future gaytopia you get same-sex hitched to your boyfriend-forever in Hawaii and then move to LA, your marriage will be void and you will get none of the one-thousand-plus privileges accorded state-sanctioned (a.k.a. married) couples, like income tax breaks and access to your spouse’s precious dental plan. I couldn’t care less about gay marriage, except for how as an organizing issue it siphons attention, energy and funding away from urgent battles for social and economic justice (which gay marriage, like straight marriage, will never facilitate), distracting us from issues like universal health care and welfare reform and police brutality. I don’t think more people should get their sticky fingers on the financial benefits of marriage, I think the restrictions of those benefits to married people should be eliminated. As I watched the media clips of the press conference, I was disheartened but not shocked to find the determined executive director of the Center delivering her battle cry from in front of a huge american flag. In this liberal tableau of gay rights struggle, the american flag serves to make common and normal “our” national pride, our alignment with american institutions and values, such that our exclusion from the american rites of marriage is obviously unjust: we stand by the flag, won’t the flag stand by us?

I wonder about this pitch for greater state regulation of gay sex lives, this struggle for assimilation coded as access to full human rights. I wonder about the place of sexuality within nationality, the place of patriotism in official gay politics. I’m sickened not just by this plea for a piece of the american pie, which given the mainstream state of gay politics really does not surprise, but more so by the deployment of a political symbol--the flag--that for so many endangered and disenfranchised people could never read as a sign of unity, cohesion, and national (gay) pride, but only as the violent marker of imperialisms past and ever-present, the genocide of native populations, the racism of immigration policies, the police war on the poor and youth of color. I have to ask, whose flag? Whose gay rights? Whose liberation and whose marginalization within these gay agendas?

I want conversations that challenge the liberal market-place logic that collapses democracy and capitalism. I want to question mythologies of american citizenship that define that status as necessarily one of freedom and liberty. I want to understand how links between homosexuality and nationality are naturalized, such that these days gay liberation is only understood as full participation in all the subordinating practices and institutions of white-supremacist, anti-poor US culture, rather than the dismantling of these structures by sexual and gender outlaws. If to achieve gay liberation is to submit to a national identity that privileges white people and punishes people of color, which gay bodies are really “freed” in American gay organizing?

There is a long history in the US of associating homosexuality with anti-governmentality and anarchy. The McCarthy era mobilization of xenophobic anti-communist sentiment not only linked homosexuality with communism (commie-pinko-fag) but also marked out homosexuals working within the US government as dangers to national security, because they were seen as highly vulnerable to blackmail through threats (in modern terms) of being outed. And during the gays-in-the-military spectacle of the early 90s, the right-wing opposition to gay service people referenced this historical construction, assigning essential attributes of disorder and chaos to homosexuals, characteristics that render us by very definition unfit to serve.

Traditionally, gay liberation responses have not been to interrogate the borders of governmentality--is there a point at which the state ends and the citizen begins?--but simply to wage a counter-discursive insistence that gays are good citizens, that we are as fully capable of state subjection and regulation as heterosexuals. Gay mags and the mainstream press love to trumpet the utter heteronormativity of homos, from the gay high-school football star who is just one of the guys to the white world of lesbian domesticity championed in HBO’s “If these walls could talk 2” (in which Sharon Stone and Ellen Degeneres fight over whether they should have an “ethnic” baby). I feel almost alone in my warm and fuzzy attachment to an image of myself as some kind of out-of-control agent of destruction who can bring down whole nation-states and military operations armed only with my essentially anarchic sexuality. Can you imagine how much shit I could fuck up in a day? One history of gay politics would trace these negotiations with nationality, trace the compromise of citizenship and the danger (deferred) of oppositional sexual status.

And what about transnationality, what about the violence and exclusion that extends beyond these national borders? In her really brilliant zine Slander, Mimi Nguyen writes about trying to convey to the undergrad women’s studies classes she teaches that “maybe, just maybe, ‘queer’ or ‘lesbian’ as a term or category doesn’t travel well in other spaces without the same material history as the United States.” Mimi provokes me to interrogate the position and possible movement of gay american nationality in the globalized marketplace. What happens when gay organizations in the United States try to export american formations of identity without regard to the shifting pressures of language, economy, race and history? What happens not only when “gay” travels, but also when gays travel? Critical theorist Ian Barnard talks about the marketing of South Africa as a gay travel destination, a whole new kind of sexed-up safari adventure for western consumers with a taste for the exotic. Barnard demonstrates how porn and travel guides produced for white/western gays reposition a white african identity in the center of homosexuality, erasing the histories of colonialism and apartheid and naturalizing a white gay ethnicity that lines up neatly with american and european constructions of race and sexuality. So I wonder about the damage done when the entrenched patriotic heart of gay identity goes unquestioned, and gayness-as-americanness is imposed across nations and cultures.

Thinking about america makes me think, also, of americana, of the pastoral imagery that comprises “our” cultural sense of belonging. Bored perhaps with black sexuality and exotic eastern religions, pop machine Madonna has turned her attention recently to the more mundane, local environment with her cover and accompanying video of the nationalizing anthem “American Pie.” Like the executive director of the Center, in the video Madonna prances and preens in front of a huge american flag. (Unlike the executive director, Madonna wears a white-trash signifying costume of tank top and cut-off jeans.) I’ve heard the argument that the video, which also features Rupert Everett and other homos, represents a new gay twist on american identity. I wonder whether patriotism can indeed be twisted so easily, given the historical structures of citizenship and sexuality and the always over-determined relationships between the two, and I question the notion that gayness can suddenly enter the realm of american nationality on its own terms, as if sexuality and nationalism are not always already bound up together. But, again, neither this pop cultural production of gay patriotism, or the embrace of it surprises me. Over the past generation, gay activist aesthetics have also undergone a “kitschification”--here I’m thinking of Keith Haring t-shirts and how to make an AIDS quilt--that refuses critical examination of “folk” signification and casts a dangerously nostalgic history of cultural simplicity and innocence. Likewise, the poster-boying of “Matthew Shephard” displaces the murdered bodies of queer and trans people of color from the center of our politics, instating instead a gay yearning for the heartland, for an image of homegrown, educated, white america around which we are asked to organize our collective selves. What is the cost of romancing the past? What violence is done, what histories dis(re)membered, what “non-citizens” disappeared? These images, and the Madonna video, and the story of the jock-homo-hero, and the Center’s press conference all work alongside one another, normalizing the equations of whiteness=americanness=gayness and closing the borders of gay nationality such that all sorts of non-white, non-”American” people are excluded from the relative gains of gay rights discourse and practice.

Considering mainstream gay activism, the push for gay marriage and the push for military inclusion do not have such simple aims as securing the rights to marry or join the military. The organizing around these issues is an end in and of itself, as such organizing sets processes of assimilation in motion. These are moments of naming what gay people can be and will fight for, of establishing what national gay identity will look like. The executive director of the Center cited the alliances formed in the battle against the Knight Initiative as some of the major accomplishments of that campaign. These were alliances with state agencies, elected officials, and large religious organizations. Though the marriage issue was lost, the work around it nonetheless brought the official face of gay politics into tighter cohesion with other mainstream institutions of power. Though the Center claims also to have made alliances with labor activists and people of color community groups, on whose terms? While those groups came out for gay marriage, the Center did absolutely no work on another initiative that passed on the March ballot, proposition 21, which lowered the age that youth can be tried as adults to 14 and increased sentencing for and surveillance of suspected gang members. This proposition will impact disastrously on poor communities and communities of color already over-exposed to the criminal “justice” system and ravaged by state-sanctioned police brutality. What coalitions and commitments are denied here? Whose bodies are seen as expendable in the work gay organizations prioritize?

The myth of seamless nationhood serves only those gays who can access the privileges of citizenship, and only strengthens the structures of domination that maintain poverty and white supremacy. Figured across political discourse and popular culture, gay nationality/american homosexuality erases real differences of class and race, and confines gay activism to the narrow scope of liberal democracy. I want activism that starts from gendered and sexed positions that challenge static constructions of space, identity, and nationalism. I want to fuck american pride and refuse allegiance to nation-making projects of exclusion, violence and imperialism. Only such work can dislodge conversations about freedom from romantic, patriotic constructions of american history and identity. Again, whose nation? Whose gay liberation?