Pro-Family Ideology and the Queer Community of Friends

by Sarah Schulman on September 20, 2013

This is the text of the author’s keynote address at the Fazendo Genero conference in Santa Catarina, Brazil, delivered today, September 20, 2013 at 6PM EST.

The author extends her thanks to Jasbir Puar, Christina Handhart, Tim McCaskell, for foundational influences and TL Cowan, Alexandra Juhas, Jasmine Rault, Michelle Pearson Clarke and Zab for textual suggestions.

Dear Friends,
Thank you so much for this incredible honor and opportunity to meet with you, to visit Brazil for the first time, and to share with you some of my experiences and insights on where we are now.

The given theme is “The Challenge of Feminism” and I have to ask myself “What isn’t the challenge of feminism?” Not only are we talking about how women live and feel, but we’re also – now- using the word to mean a value system, a way of doing things. So, when we look at the materiality of women’s lives across the globe, we see a continued exclusion from power. But also, when we look at human methodology, in general, we see an eclipse of justice from the governmental to the personal.

So, in the long period of preparation for this talk, I decided that I want to focus on the very dramatic transformations in the gay movement/the LGBT movement/the queer movement, in a very short period of time, and its relationship to feminism. How concepts and self-concepts have evolved that eclipse “feminism” – a system rooted in justice, equal opportunity, access and the value of both the individual and the community. Some of these ideas are already in circulation and some are new. Some are solid and some are tentative. I am grateful in advance for your attention and very much look forward to our discussion.

In short, I want to show that as the LGBT movement has moved away from feminism, it has moved towards nationalism and the state apparatus. And that organic to this is a manipulation of the politics of fear. Which is a trope familiar from the experience of other groups as they have morphed from pervasive oppression to selective dominance.

There was a time that is not long past, when queer people were at the bottom of every society. I am fifty-five years old, perhaps some of you here also remember when globally, all queer people lived in illegality. Certainly it was my generation that was trampled by the mass death experience of AIDS, a historic cataclysm caused by government indifference and neglect. And some of you are living in countries today where this epidemic continues unabated because of a lack of political will for all human beings to have equal access to standard of care treatments. These treatments were forced into existence by the AIDS activist movements of the 1980’s and 90’s, like ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – in which despised groups of people, with no rights, abandoned by their families and governments, and facing a terminal illness, joined together to force their societies to change, against their will- thereby saving each other’s lives. But even though this fiercely unprecedented cross class, cross gender and inter-racial movement succeeded in forcing the creation of effective treatments. They could not transform the global class system, and so today people continue to suffer from HIV, when that is completely unnecessary. Yet, I think we all understand that the initial governmental inaction in the west was rooted in the idea that the affected communities: the poor and the queer, did not merit the protection of their governments and did not deserve to live. We did not have citizenship.

While many queer people – everywhere- today continue to face profound danger- from their governments, their families, their entertainment/media/propaganda systems- we also have a new phenomena in which simultaneously increasing elements of the global queer community are gaining enough rights to bring them to equity with straight people of their same race and class positions, and providing them with the equal ability to punish.

And I think this is the right moment to examine the consequences of the inequitable shifts toward equity. For we will find that, just as with people with AIDS – the access remains constrained by class and race and gender, so that solutions long desired and fought for by diverse people, are creating profoundly inequitable conditions that worsen the lives of some of us, while transforming the values of those with access.

So lets start with why we did this, why there was a gay/LGBT/queer movement in the first place.

If we go back, back, back we can remember that this political formation was originally called The Gay Liberation Movement. The word liberation was explicitly chosen to situate us within the continuum of global liberation movements in blossom at the time (1960’s) against imperialism and colonialism. The goal of the Gay Liberation Movement was social transformation. We wanted a world in which sexuality, gender and emotional structures were open and individual and neither punished by the state nor enforced by the state.

In 1981, the recognition of the AIDS crisis changed this in many ways, detailed in my book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination-but too numerous to detail here. Most importantly, the sudden uncontrollable visibility of hundreds of thousands of people dying , often in the streets, made the active denial of homosexuality impossible to maintain. The mainstream media was forced to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, and were thereby confronted with the radical movements like ACT UP doing actions like disrupting mass with 7,000 people at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. This caused the media to need to produce a kind of homosexual who they could represent, that would not be out of the box of the status quo. So starting in the early 1990’s, the media began to construct its own fake public homosexuality –where they selected and promoted media spokespeople who were not from the grassroots- and instead opposed the politics of Gay Liberation.

In this way Gay Liberation, through the venue of mainstream media ,was replaced by Gay Rights. Gay Rights being a movement with the opposite objective of gay liberation- Gay Rights was a tolerance movement, rooted in legal containment, in which gay people sought “equal rights” for all the ways that our lives were recognizable and familiar to the heterosexual majority, and abandoned the arenas of difference. There was a profound psychological element of trauma in this transition as well. For the community that had already endured profound familial homophobia and state oppression was now literally devastated by the mass death and suffering of its members and equally, I think devastated by the wholesale abandonment of these suffering and dying people by their governments and families. So the transformation from liberation to rights was partially an expression of AIDS trauma, of fear for survival and the conscious and unconscious desire for protective assimilation. As I detail in my book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, in this period- corporations, who had been forced to notice queer people through the visibility of AIDS, now began to cynically niche market to them. What began as mainstream marketing campaigns for AIDS drugs, became structures then used by name products, as marketers learned that LGBT people were “the most brand loyal consumers in America.” Our families didn’t care if we lived or died, our governments didn’t care if we lived or died, but Absolut vodka wanted us, and we were so grateful.

In this way a significant change was made in which the gay movement no longer was about us transforming the society, it became about society transforming us.
As the legalistic gay rights agenda proceeded, and as different kinds of gay rights and different degrees of gay rights started to be enacted in specific countries, or cities or districts, a new process began, one in which some elements of the LGBT community were granted access to the state apparatus, to the police, and to the power of punishment and enforcement – against the other elements of the LGBT community who still can’t access those forces and instead must defend against them. And so we have seen ourselves move from a community in which everyone was in illegality, and in which we were at the bottom of every society- to one in which some of us –as openly queer people- now have the power of the dominant group in profoundly unjust societies. And interestingly, deeply embedded in these gross inequalities is the politics of “fear”, “Trauma” and “safety.”

As I see it, the three main arenas in which this access to the punishment of the state are granted to openly queer people are: HIV criminalization, queer pro-family politics, and queer citizenship.

First, let’s start with the question of Citizenship.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette September 25, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Dear Dr. Schulman,

I very much enjoyed your speech at Fazendo Gênero 10 in Florianópolis and was particularly happy to see you bring up the topic of homonationalism, which has pretty much been unknown in Brazil up until now (“Terrorist Assemblages” being unavailable in Portuguese). Like you, I am very much worried about the “familiarization” of the LGBT movement and the increasing alliances sections of it seem to be making with racist, colonialist and nativist tendencies, particularly in Western Europe and North America.

However, I am also concerned about the false dichotomy you seemed to create between the LGBT movement and feminism in your presentation.

In your speech, you describe a LGBT/Queer/Gay movement that is increasingly polarized between homonationalistic groups and those forms of homosexuality which cannot achieve the respectability of “family” and “nation”. Against this, you poise a rather homogenous and curiously blameless feminism. I say “curiously”, because as Jasbir Puar went to some pains to point out in his book, white, “first world” and middle class feminisms are acquiring characteristics that are quite similar to homonationalism.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the LGBT movement is not alone in moving towards “family values” as a way of gaining increased legitimacy for its more privileged members. Here in Brazil, official state feminism has very much gravitated towards the figure of “woman as mother” in many of its most recent initiatives – particularly “family scholarships” (stipends given to poor women to keep their children in school) and our new Maria da Penha law, which qualifies violence towards women as something happening within the context of the domestic spaces of stable family units. While both of these initiatives have had more-or-less positive effects, it’s should be of some concern that feminist initiatives focusing on non-motherly women (particularly attempts to legalize abortion) have become ever more demonized and beyond the pale in Brasília.

Secondly, as Puar, Kristin Bumiller, Roger Lancaster and many others have pointed out, there is an increasingly hegemonic tendency within feminism that is allying itself ever more closely with the neo-liberal carceral state. This brand of feminism has, in particular, been extremely active in militating for a more intensified criminalization of prostitution. It also has been notably silent regarding the increasing use of anti-human trafficking operations and policies to target immigrant women for surveillance and deportation. As Judith Butler has remarked, we are entering an age of increasingly regulatory regimes where the binary between hetero- and homosexuals (and, indeed, men and women) is being replaced by an emphasis on illegitimate and legitimate partnerships. Within this shift, ever-greater numbers of white, first-world feminists have moved towards giving the state enhanced powers to survey and discipline population categories whose forms of sexual exchange are deemed to be unacceptable. While the rhetoric behind this shift relies on a simplistic equation of prostitution with violence towards women, in practice, it often means increased criminalization of certain “suspect” populations – most notably non-white, immigrant, poor and working class populations.

In the United States alone, some 60,000 people a year are arrested on prostitution charges, with the notorious race and class imbalances we’ve come to expect from the U.S. criminal justice system. The current trend among carceral feminists is to push for increased arrests and incarceration, allied with the transformation of women caught up in this system from rights-bearing subjects into what Paul Amar calls “parahumans”: suspects under the control of privatized rescue agencies. Women caught in these nets risk losing their children, jobs, livelihood and places of residence. And, as we’ve seen in so many recent cases (that of Melissa Petro, a school teacher fired for admitting that she had once worked as a prostitute), these women are stigmatized, generally for life, and pushed to the margins of the economy, recreating the general conditions that led many of them to work in the sex industry in the first place.

The main locus of this carceral feminist drive can be found in the U.S. and Western Europe, which are busily exporting the criminalization of prostitution to countries like Brazil in a manner quite reminiscent of early forms of colonialism. As a Brazilian who is well aware of the fact that our country has a thoroughly militarized police force which is responsible for the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Brazilian citizens a year, I am aghast at the naiveté (or is it cynicism?) of a first-world feminism which preaches criminalization as a solution to the problems of prostitution in our country.

Has not the U.S.-fomented drug war been enough? Over the last thirty years, this failed attempt at prohibition has killed hundreds of thousands in Latin America and jailed millions (again mostly poor and non-white) without noticeably affecting the sale or consumption of illegal drugs. Given this, one would think that a feminism that is truly committed to justice and inequality, as you posit, would at the very least be hosting a robust discussion regarding the current drive to prohibit and criminalize the sale of sex. Instead, we are apparently meant to presume that every nation in the world will be able to have the same conditions of social and economic justice as Sweden (where, one notes, the criminalization of prostitution is still stigmatizing and killing women). What is worse, the relative handful of feminists who are criticizing this renewed carceral drive (which is really a form of slut-shaming at its most basic level) are being increasingly stigmatized themselves, often even openly insulted by other feminists as “pimps” and worse.

This is why it came as something of a surprise to hear you cast “feminist values” in such homogenizing, singular and universally positive terms. I was particularly distressed by the following generalization which you made towards the end of your speech:

“[F]eminists take the responsibility to dissipate fear, we do not feed it. We are invested in the uncomfortable but humanizing conversations that help people shift their positions and build lives of authenticity and depth. We do not gang up on people, we do not shut down humanizing processes, and we do not shun.”

I’m sorry, but while this is a stirring affirmation of what you (and I) personally believe about feminist values, it is not correct with regards to feminism, tout suite. It is not true of the increasing number of feminists who feel the need to shun, ostracize and exclude sex worker and prostitutes’ rights-oriented feminists from public forums. It is not true of the many feminists who accritically repeat inflated or openly fabricated numbers regarding human trafficking in order to push for tighter border controls and greater policing of immigrant communities. And it is CERTAINLY not true of the feminists who have done everything in their power to starve sex worker activist groups of desperately needed funds and legitimacy.

During the Fazendo Gênero 10 conference, I and my colleagues got an up-close and personal view of a brand of feminism that very much relies on fear-mongering and bullying, shunning, bombastic declarations and feeling threatened as part of its tactics of action. A group of self-proclaimed “radical feminists” attempted to appropriate our table on sex markets and feminisms in order to turn it into a prohibitionist forum, completely ignoring the content of the many excellent papers that were presented by the members of our table. When the organizers (two feminist women and myself) refused to allow them to do this and, instead, invited them to present their concerns and dialogue with us after the papers had been discussed, the group stormed out, insulting all and sundry as “legalists” and “queer macho pimps” (whatever that may mean). Over the next couple of days, the door to our room acquired a series of ever-more offensive home-made “posters”, denouncing the table and its organizers as criminals, patriarchs and pimps. We later discovered that this same group invaded at least one other table (on queer gender), taking the floor for over fifty minutes and refusing to allow other participants to talk.

It is very hard, after experiences like these, to read words which seem to contrast a supposedly fragmented, ever more conservative and homonationalist LGBT movement against a basically morally united feminism, described as universally committed to justice and equality.
I would suggest that one of the key challenges facing feminism today is the adaptation of an intersectionalist critique of the world which, by necessity, means understanding that feminism itself can no longer be seen as a morally united political field. While it is true that homonationalism is reframing and fragmenting the LGBT movement along lines of race, class and nation, it is no less true that carceral feminism is accomplishing much the same thing in feminism itself. It is becoming ever more apparent, to me at least, that we are now properly within the post-feminism era – not in the sense that feminism is no longer needed, but in the sense that we cannot pretend that there is a cohesive and central moral position to feminism. Today, to say that one is a feminist is simply no longer enough.

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Sarah Schulman October 17, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Hi Thaddeus. You and I are just thinking differently. Yes terms and words are appropriated and misappropriated. I am an artist not a theorist, and I use words to mean what I want them to mean. So when I say that the lgbt movement is on a gay rights treadmill that is globalized, and that this involves moving away from feminism towards nationalism: citizenship, pro-family ideology and the cult of the HIV negative– I mean by “feminism” :individual freedom, group responsibility, individual responsibility. I mean that all human beings, by virtue of being born, deserve access to resources, equal opportunity, mercy, acknowledgement, recognition and help. And also have responsibility to contribute, work, share and listen. I know that people suffer the consequences of their negative experiences and deserve recognition, kindness but also are responsible for self-recognition and accountability. I want nuanced recognition that people are real and complex, and filled with flaw and contradiction but have to accountable for the consequences of their actions in ways that are productive and beneficial. This may be the feminism of a novelist more than of a theorist, but hey, that’s who I am. I don’t want to be reactive, but I think that my history of action, community building and accountability is in sharp contrast to your charge that I don’t have what you call an “intersectional critique.” Over the last 34 years as a writer, doer and participant witness I have never summed up my multi-dimensional viewpoint in theoretical language. These terms come and go, but actions speak louder than words, as they say.
Finally, I am well aware that people have used the word “feminism” to crush other human beings. But why should I let them control me and own the term? I came of age in a feminism influenced by Marx, by Black Power, by anarchism, of Audre Lorde, abortion rights, sexual liberation, Adrienne Rich, I maintained it through the first fifteen years of the AIDS crisis, and live it now in relationship to Palestinian Solidarity, queer art-making, more community building, Trans support and developing young artists. To me that has all been consistent with feminism as I understand it, and importing a sick family model into a queer politic, using lgbt “rights” to punish non-citizens, and allowing the state to persecute people who are HIV+ is not my kind of feminism.

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Thaddeus Blanchette October 21, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t have an intersectionalist practice and I very much admire your published works.

But it still seems to me that you are criticizing LGBT homonationalism from a relatively safe position which presumes that your feminism is the – or at least a – “true” feminism.

An LGBT activist could very easily mirror your critique right back at you, claiming that LGBT rights are really about empowering humans of all kinds, supporting justice, access to resources, equal opportunity, mercy, acknowledgement, recognition and help. They could then say that a movement that uses “rights” to punish non-citizens and allow the state to persecute sex workers and the like isn’t their idea of what feminism or the LGBT movement should be.

The problem is that both of these “big tent” categories seem to be facing an increased splitting of politics based on privilege that’s largely rooted in class, race and immigration status, with a large group of people being left out in the cold by ever-more state-directed movements that claim to speak in their name while largely ignoring their demands.

Both feminism and the LGBT movements have this same problem.

So when you critique this problem in LGBT circles from a feminist viewpoint which is, in the final analysis, a feminism that is purged, a priori, of any disturbing authoritarian, imperialist, colonialist, or nativist tendencies by the simple artifice of “Well, that’s not my feminism”, its very troubling.

I mean, the best LGBT response to your critique is “So? That’s not my LGBT movement either. And…?”

I mean, if you can say “Well, all this horrible shit being done in the name of feminism isn’t really feminism,” then we can also say “Yeah, and all this horrible shit being done in the name of LGBT rights isn’t really the LGBT struggle.”

And where does that leave us, exactly? Anywhere useful?

Because like it or not, both feminism and LGBT are being taken away from us and one wonders what percentage there is in waving certain banners anymore and pretending that said banners aspire to some central, core, “pure” truth about the movements we used to love.

Here’s a recent article, co-authored by my colleague and friend Denise Ferreira da Silva which deals with some of this:

In particular, I was thinking of your speech at Fazendo Gênero X when I read “It’s all the more tir­ing when White fem­in­ists speak of second-​wave fem­in­ism as if it were the only ‘fem­in­ism’ and use the pro­noun ‘we’ when lament­ing the fail­ures of their struggles. Let us just say there is no such thing as a ‘fem­in­ism’ as the sub­ject of any sen­tence that des­ig­nates the sole pos­i­tion for the critic of pat­ri­archy. For such pos­i­tion has been frac­tured ever since Sojourner Truth said ‘Ain’t I a woman too?’”

Now I know you understand this quite well, so why, then, the recourse to this unproblematic “we” when talking about feminism and LGBT, especially when the “we” of feminism is situated as relatively liberatory when compared to the “we” of LGBT?

It seems to me, too, that there’s something sick and familiar in all of this: it’s not wanting to admit that a thing well-loved is becoming threatening and even dangerous. So we’ll just push the problematic aspects of the loved thing to one side and, worse, project them elsewhere onto something else.

A sick family model, indeed.

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Sarah Schulman October 22, 2013 at 6:56 am

I think you’ve made your point. I don’t find it helpful personally, but I understand your issue. We have different focuses and care about different things.

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Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette November 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Actually, I’m presuming that we both care about movements that “are really about empowering humans of all kinds, supporting justice, access to resources, equal opportunity, mercy, acknowledgement, recognition and help.”

I think that “feminism” has the same problems as the LGBT movement when judged by that yardstick today.

Large swaths of both movements are being increasing coopted by the carceral, racist and nativist state. If we’re to worry about that when we look at the LGBT struggle, shouldn’t we also worry about it when looking at feminism?

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Thaddeus Blanchette November 6, 2013 at 8:19 am

By the way, I should point out that one of the practical effects of this blind spot, in the context of the Fazendo Gênero conference where you gave your speech, is that trans-, queer- and sex worker activists were repeatedly harassed, threatened and censored by a small group of self-proclaimed “radical feminists”.

It’s not your fault (nor is it the fault of the FG organizers) that people are jerks, but it is telling that there was no security structure in place to help people and groups who were being harassed in this fashion. It seems to me that this was due to the fact that many of the people involved in putting FG together just couldn’t imagine feminists acting in violent, censorous, or threatening ways, because that’s just so not feminist.

Unfortunately, it is feminist, at least for some people.

We no longer have a consensus in the movement about anything, if we ever did. This needs to be recognized and dealt with in future events of this sort.

Unless, of course, like the LGBT tendencies you correctly criticize, feminism is going to turn its backs on those people and groups which don’t fit nicely into a sanitized, family-values focus.

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Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette September 25, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Appologies for the many grammatical errors below. “Tout court” instead of “tout suite” and “adoption” instead of “adaptation” as well as probably many others. I wrote after 30 hours of non-stop teaching and travelling, so I was a bit fried… :/

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Anna Kiss November 30, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Dear Reader!
I am Anna Kiss, a psychology student at Institute of Psychology, Eötvös Loránd University. In my research I would like to find out more about the identity development of people with non-heterosexual orientation. Therefore I am looking for enthusiastic lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or queer participants over 18 years old, borned in England to fill in my questionnaire.

The questionnaire is available at:
Thank you for helping my work!

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Sarah Schulman November 30, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Is this a joke?

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rozele December 10, 2013 at 9:20 pm

dear ms. kiss:

please read this essay by Anne Tagonist, and know that she speaks for many of us. i would say “most of us”, but the quantitative data aren’t there, and really who cares.



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rozele December 10, 2013 at 9:38 pm
rozele December 10, 2013 at 10:04 pm

i want to pick up one small piece of the exchange between sarah and thaddeus:

Yes terms and words are appropriated and misappropriated. I am an artist not a theorist, and I use words to mean what I want them to mean.

i take this to mean something pretty specific. not that words are free-floating and up for grabs, but that words are worth fighting over.

which i think means two things in this conversation:

that we shouldn’t cede the word “feminism” to the sex-worker-persecuting, trans-woman-hating, colonialist types – though if we’re honest we’ll also admit that they’ve got as much historical claim to the word as the rest of us.

and, perhaps more provocatively, that we should resist efforts by homonationalist, familialist, criminalization-supporting homosexuals to be included under the word “queer”.

as cathy cohen wrote years ago, for “queer” to mean anything useful, it cannot become a synonym for “gay” or “homosexual” or “LGBT”. it must actively invite in everyone resisting attacks that target them because of their sexuality or gender, whoever they fuck. her key example was the so-called ‘welfare queens’ attacked by the clinton administration. today we could talk about hiv+ folks, sex workers, ‘slutty’ teenaged girls, and many more.

the words we choose are powerful. let’s name the homosexual defenders of ‘clean and safe’ citizens and families what they are: straight. straight homosexuals, sure, but no part of any queer community, whether of friends, acquaintances, or even enemies. and let’s stop calling heterosexual folks who share our struggles (and whose struggles we share) outside of their names. they may or may not stay het, but they aren’t straight either way.

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Thaddeus Blanchette December 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I agree wholeheartedly, Rozele, that these words are worth struggling over.

But I also think that it’s difficult to presume, in a post-modern age, that there’s any centrsl position that’s “really” queer or feminist.

These days, when someone tells me that they’re feminist (or queer), I don’t presume that they mean anything in particular. Without more information, it’s hard to tell what they mean with those words. So reclaiming them won’t do us much good since, as you note, our opposition has just as good a historic claim to them.

Rather than reclaim the terms, I’d rather see people sharpen their definitions of what these terms mean to them.

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Cynde Delaina January 10, 2014 at 10:17 pm

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