by easy e
Last year, Sherry Wolf published Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation. While the publication has many worthwhile ideas to offer as well as for critique, I would like to focus on the first chapter here- the roots of lgbt oppression. Sherry Wolf poses the idea that sexuality as a defining aspect of one’s identity, something we take as given in our society, came about through the development and rise of capitalism as the ruling political economy of our society. This is not to say, and certainly Wolf does not argue, that people did not engage in same-sex behaviour before the rise of capitalism. Rather she poses that the way in which we specifically identify as queer or straight or gay or lesbian etc. has come about specifically because of capitalism. Therefore, the oppression that queer folk face today in our society and the particular ways in which we are oppressed has its roots in capitalism as well.
One of the arguments Wolf makes is that this oppression is rooted in the idea of the nuclear family which is both patriarchal and integral to capitalism. The nuclear family is the basis of the reproduction of labour that capitalism requires in order to continue. Both literally the family reproduces the next generation of labour but also daily the family nourishes and reproduces the ability of workers to get back up in the morning and go to work again. Queer families do not fit into this mom-dad-2.5 kids- white picket fence American family ideal. That makes them threatening to capitalists that literally rely not only on the idea of the nuclear family but also the reality of it to make their profits.
However, although under capitalism queer folks face oppression; it was under capitalism that the space was created for queer identity (as an identity) to emerge. Industrialisation created centres for people to work in- this took them away from their families at many points and allowed for queer subcultures to materialise. The extent to which this occurred had not happened before. On this basis Wolf argues queer oppression and queer identity in the way we understand it today is unique to capitalism.
Some questions I would like to pose are:
A. If Wolf argues that queer identity is rooted in capitalism, then what are the implications for places in the 3rd world where capitalism is not as it is here and capitalist social relations have not penetrated society in the same way? Can and do queer folks in those places seek liberation? What does it then mean to have queer liberation? What does solidarity mean?
B. How do we think of family? What does it mean to be a queer family?
a. Many times we have said that there are examples of queer families all around us – families that do not fit into the nuclear family mold i.e. immigrant families, single parent families etc. do these families see themselves as queer families? if they do not, how does this affect how we see these types of families? if they do or we do, how is that incorporated into what it means to be queer?
As a side note: Wolf disagrees with the usage of the term “queer” and uses lgbt in her writing. However I prefer the term queer because i believe it allows for more variety and is broader and therefore more encompassing of people who for many different reasons choose to identify as queer.
8 thoughts on “ongoing discussion on gender and sexuality”
To respond to question A, I would argue that the type of queer identity that is rooted in capitalism is also rooted in the Western notion of individualism and dichotomy, and thus has a limited approach to what identity is in non-Western cultures. I agree with the arguments that because of industrialization and urbanization which came with the rise of capitalism, queer folks have the ability to go out and express our sexuality, build non-biological community, and claim this identity that is separate from the heteronormative and reproductive-driven household. But I want to stress that this type of identity formation creates a very particular type of queerness under capitalism. We see folks from non-western cultures take it on now but I’d argue that it’s because of the spread of capitalism and western imperialism that creates a hegemonic queer identity that many of us, non-Westerners and Third World folks, would not identify with before. We learn from indigenous cultures that there have been two-spirit folks (now this term is often taken on by indigenous folks who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, etc.) long before the colonial America. And it’s precisely because of imperialism and capitalism that many indigenous folks were force out of homeland and taken on the LGBTQ identity to look for queer communities in the city, but had to face homophobia back home because queerness is seen as a “White disease.” That said, I think as Third World queers we can’t find liberation through only overthrowing capitalism but also imperialism.
To answer to question B on queer family–while I agree that many immigrant and single-parent families who do not fit into the white middle-class American nuclear family share similar experiences and struggle under capitalism, I would not impose the term “queer” on them. I think queer oppression is unique in a way that it is deeply rooted in the structure of family and as queers we often face extreme physical and emotional violence not only in the street but also at home, by our very own family members. While many immigrants, working-class folks, and people of color may experience violence outside, their families could still create a stable, emotional bond that heals their traumas from different state intuitions, factories, or on the streets. I do think that as queers, we need to find our allies with immigrants, people of color, and working-class folks, those ones who do not fit into the nuclear model, and fight for issues that broaden the opportunities for living outside the traditional heteronormative and patriarchal households, such as health care, abortion rights, and employment with a long term vision that individuals’ benefits and rights should not be determined by any relational status. I still don’t know who are queer families and who are not–i don’t want to go into the discussion of “are a white middle-class two-lesbian household with an adopted kid from china more queerer than an immigrant working-class heterosexual family”–i think under capitalism our sexuality and relationships are all screwed over and we are all looking for the alternative way to create something intimate and meaningful. The point is not to identify who is and who is not, but who is willing to fight alongside with queers when our existence and love and relationships are threatened and exploited by capitalism.
there’s a lot to chew on in Wolf’s “Sexuality and Socialism” so thanks for picking it out.
I think you did an excellent job summing up Wolf’s arguments, so I won’t go into detail on that too much.
I guess I’ll just raise one thing in her article that relates to Wen’s comments above. Toward the end of the article, Wolf briefly touches on the question of whether homosexuality is constructed by society or something folks are born with that’s biologically determined. What do folks think of this? Is this more or less accurate? Is there a way that these arguments can be reconciled or not really?
The way I see this relating to Wen’s points is that Wen notes that “queer oppression is unique in a way that it is deeply rooted in the structure of family and as queers we often face extreme physical and emotional violence not only in the street but also at home, by our very own family members.”
This is in contrast to the way in which people of color may experience oppression in the broader society while able to create stable, often patriarchal family structures at home.
On this I agree, as far as it goes.
At the same time, I think it is useful to expand what it means to be queer in a way that is more and more inclusive of a range of families. This isn’t to dilute the uniqueness of the oppression that queer folks face as queer folks. Rather, it is meant to get ordinary folks to see themselves as queer based on the way our society works today.
What I mean by this is that the nuclear family, which Wolf points out is so central to the development of capitalism because of the work of social reproduction it performs, has been torn asunder by social pressures in the last 30 or more years (probably more rather than less). This means that the space between the nuclear family and the queer world outside it has been increasingly erased. Social reproduction these days happens in a million confusing and beautiful ways. What it means to be “family” is always changing and growing. It can include single-parent homes, with childcare provided by neighbors or relatives. It can include traditional families with two parents but where both now work, and kids have to work as well in order to reproduce the home from day to day. It can include folks who’ve barely spoken to each other but who share a set of values and principles, and a commitment to a common political project.
If capitalism created the space for a queer identity to develop by cultivating the nuclear family as socially necessary, then the breakdown of that nuclear family is actually an exciting development, as it expands what it means to be queer to more and more of us who don’t live in traditional nuclear families.
Not to mention that it’s debatable that there ever was a truly stable nuclear family. In as far as it did exist, it was largely a class thing, with middle class folks able to create these kinds of stable families, and the patriarchal norms that went along with them. Working class folks may have attempted to achieve this ideal, but very often, fell far short of it.
So my main point is that I actually like to apply a more plastic definition of what it means to be queer that can include many people based on how capitalism changes what it means to be a family. This also seems to me a helpful way to begin talking to folks about what it means to be queer and how the fight for queer liberation is the fight for everyone’s liberation.
I think the question of whether homosexuality is constructed by society or biologically determined is irrelevant since HOMOSEXUALITY does exist and it’s many people’s every day experience and struggle. The right wing and the conservative often use this argument to blame queers that either there’s some deformity in our biology or it’s some dirty perverted lifestyle we’ve chosen because we are weak. And I think to be stuck on this argument is not productive–we do not go around and ask if Blacks or Jews were born this way or if they were socially constructed be who they are–I think the real question is: Why when it’s about queer folks, about trans folks, about folks with disabilities, we suddenly become so consumed by this biologically determined vs. socially constructed debate?
While I agree with many points you’ve raised about non-traditional families’ struggle under capitalism, I do want to bend the stick a bit and say that FAMILY FORM is not the only thing relevant to capitalism and sexuality, and while queerness is about family, it is also about SEX and DESIRE. We are queers not only because we choose or are forced to form non-traditional families but also because we know that our sexuality is seen as deviant by society. As queers, our object of desire is constantly pathologized by the society because our inability to reproduce laborers and because we reject the kind of sexuality that is structured by the patriarchal gender-binary. Many of us find liberation and freedom through being able to desire each other and love ourselves and form communities under all these oppressive forces. I agree that if more and more folks can form non-traditional communities and identify as queer families that can be politically productive–but what is queer desire then? Are we erasing the kind of power and freedom that many queer folks find through identifying ourselves with the non-traditional sexual desires? I think if queerness is only seen as a family form than it takes away the material and social oppression of queer folks–which of comes through the way we have sex and how we express our genders.
I do think that the term “queer” is plastic and has many layers of meanings that can be challenged, questioned, and redefined. I’m just not ready to expend what it means to me and my community so widely because I feel that the very oppression of our desire and sexuality hasn’t even been taken on seriously by the majority of the left yet. Maybe speaking of the queer family under capitalism is a way to make more folks to acknowledge the struggle, but we shouldn’t hide how we desire and how we have sex. While we say that queerness is not only about fucking, it is still about fucking, too.
Damn. i was recently having a very similar conversation on this exact question, and i just want to say that i agree with most of what Wen has laid out. In short, i don’t think queer should always be so broadly used as to define anyone or any family that doesn’t fit into the confines of capitalist reproduction. i do think “queer” should carry the meaning/weight of sexual orientation/preference and/or gender expression. i’m fine with using “queer families” in a broad sense, but i think it should be understood as related yet different from sex and desire (as Wen put it).
Anyway, i’m not really adding anything to this discussion, just expressing my agreement with the points Wen laid out.
This is a crucial debate. I also agree with Wen on this. What I like about your perspective Wen is you are avoiding on the one hand class reductionism and on the other hand identity politics.
If we push the argument that all families who defy the terms of capitalist reproduction are queer to the extreme than it becomes class reductionist. Queer identity then becomes universalized to the point where any form of class struggle at the point of reproduction gets termed “queer.” Non- “standard” families like immigrant families who are struggling against attacks on their ability to control how they reproduce the working class become queer. The danger here is aspects of queer liberation that do NOT relate to the struggle over capitalist reproduction then get downplayed, as Wen warns against.
On the other hand, if you limit queer identity to some specific set of sexual experiences then you fall into identity politics and start policing who is authentic and who isn’t; this breaks down solidarity.
Wen , I think your perspective avoids both of these pitfalls and points a way forward.
To build off of that, I’d argue that we need to separate arguments for political solidarity from arguments about identity/ experience.
In other words, we can appeal to immigrant families, single parent families, etc. and can point out who the capitalist system oppresses them and can draw parallels with how the capitalist system oppresses queer families and can call for solidarity among these different struggles. But we can do that without telling immigrant families, single parent families, etc. that they are now all of the sudden “queer.”
My sense is that if we say they are queer but just don’t know it then we’ll just piss off queer folks and heterosexual immigrant families and single parent families alike.
I think Mikey was trying to engage question B. from the readings per Wolff’s piece (which I haven’t read) towards how to define the a “non-traditional” family in the U.S. which really is the majority in our society. I think as activists and folks of many walks of life (in U&S and some other left groups) their is the sense and ethos we are trying to pervade of queerness in that our politics, our path in life is different and is fighting capitalism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchy. I think Mikey is trying to convey an ethos U&S is striving towards and been conveyed by some folks. But is this bending the stick too far and appropriating queerness for folks who appear male, straight, and white?
I think while Mikey’s argument does not mention queer identity as related to sex and desire, this is not something he or others in the group (as far as I know) eschew from this discussion. This is crucial of course in queer identity and life, and a large part of the psychosis of our oppressors and the way they’ve structured society to marginalize and beat down queer folks, negating their humanity. The same for people of color in our society too. Now can the debate of queerness in sex and desire be applied to sex between straight folks that isn’t “traditional” or is viewed is “risque”. Of course this can be found all over the web and bedrooms throughout the world. Is this queer? That’s a tricky question. I think though we need to look at the power dynamics in our societies, like the U.S. where risque sex and desire between straight folks is not as pathologized by our misrulers as if the same sex and desire is engaged by homosexual folks. Now of course straight and gay are not fixed categories…far from it. Identity is fluid, as this discussion post is getting at and answers are never easy.
I think bending the stick a little is good to be inclusive as possible in terms of queer identity and ethos, but many of the object realities and pressures in relations to powers of oppression queer folks as opposed to queer liberation/solidarity activists may face need to be recognized. I feel we all do this pretty well. While we all have different desires, needs, backgrounds that make us appear higher or lower of the ruler’s shit list, a coming together of us all in a beloved community for all of our liberations while recognizing the unique struggles many of us face is key. How we frame this, the philosophies and traditions we draw from, the unique contributions and conclusions we hopefully come to (as I think we’re striving towards per Left perspectives on queer, women, POC liberations) will flush this out even more.
An ongoing discussion this will be to say the least as our own life and identities are fluid.
i was talking with Mikey and we were discussing whether the “race traitor” theory had any parallels within the realm of queer liberation.
broadly, the race traitor theory argues that whiteness is a tool to divide white workers from workers of color. white workers receive higher pay and more regular employment, and in exchange they side with management against the interests of workers of color who face lower wages and higher unemployment. with the working class divided, we are unable to mount a successful offensive against the bosses.
if world revolution is to happen, this division must be broken down and over come. this is a key part of why the struggle against white supremacy is so important. people of color must build strong, fighting organizations for this struggle, and in the process the white working class will see how a strong PoC movement is also good for them.
white workers need to abandon and break with white identity. this is a material, political and even a civilizational break with whiteness.
so, is there a parallel concept within the realm of queer liberation?
it seems that Mikey is arguing that there are parallels between the day-to-day struggles of working class to survive that don’t conform to the patriarchal, hetero-family form on the one hand, and the demands of the gay rights movement on the other. i think this is worded and theorized sloppy, but i hope y’all know what i’m getting at here.
but does this parallel mean that those working class families who identify as straight are now queer? i would agree with Wen & Mamos when they say no. there is a danger of liquidating the subject of these struggles… what Mamos calls class reductionism. if it’s some sterile, abstract form of class struggle then the demands could easily bend towards higher wages, healthcare or some other form of economism.
queer liberation accomplishes a couple things here: 1) it challenges the patriarchal family, and the role of the family altogether under capitalism, and 2) it offers the possibility to build connections between these divided sectors of the working class — queer and straight — so that the struggle can push past economism.
this is why challenging the patriarchal, hetero family structure has revolutionary implications beyond economism.
but back to the question: is there a parallel concept of race treachery in queer liberation?
in my head their might be, but it has to go beyond the simply struggling along the same material lines of queer liberation. there is a queer civilizational sense that needs to be embodied and generalized.
more could be said, but to throw something else into the mix, what does everyone think about about Mattilda Bernstein’s idea that ‘nobody passes’? how does that fit into the debate over who is queer and who is not?