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Queer politics and activism should not reject the state, but try to make it queerer – ABC Religion & Ethics

Autor: ABC Religion Ethics

[You can hear Professor Huneke discuss his work on a “queer theory of the state” with David Rutledge on The Philosopher’s Zone on RN.]

Queer history is a history of brutality. There’s no other way to say it. It’s a history of violence. And from Catharina Margaretha Linck, who was committed to the flames in 1721 for the crime of sodomy, to the forty native Americans, whom the conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa fed to his dogs in 1513 because they were effeminate and wore women’s clothing, it is all too often violence that emanates from the state.

Scroll through the past and you will find queer victims — mountains of them. Hitler’s Germany convicted some 50,000 queer men in just twelve years, murdering thousands of them in the concentration camps. AIDS spread with abandon across the world in the 1980s, but particularly in the United States thanks to the malicious neglect of a president who could not even bring himself to name the disease for four long years.

It is no surprise, then, that queer intellectuals often reject the state out of hand, theorising forms of politics and activism beyond its remit. At best, they argue, the state has offered indifference; at worst, extermination. Why on earth, this line of thinking goes, would we want to help them? It is a rational view grounded in the historical experiences of LGBTQ+ people across centuries, but one that misses two crucial points.

Is the state inherently hostile to queerness?

First, this rejection of the state rests on an essentialising view of the relationship between state power and queerness. But there is nothing essential about either homophobia or transphobia. Animus is not immaculately conceived, springing from the human mind like Athena from the head of Zeus. No, like sexual identity, like race, like gender, is a construct, socially determined and temporally mutable. Put more simply: gender and sexuality are fields on which policy and politics are contested, and the relationship between states and queer people has historically been determined by the bounds of that contest.

In Qing-dynasty China, for instance, the imperial government promulgated regulations against male-male sexual activity primarily out of anxiety surrounding what historian Matthew Sommer terms “rootless rascals” — single, young men who travelled the countryside committing crimes. In contradistinction, Joseph Stalin recriminalised male homosexuality in 1934, historian Dan Healey suggests, based on fears that male homosexuality served as a conduit for fascism and foreign espionage, posing a threat to socialist rule.

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The mutability of these regulations also means that some states have even tolerated or celebrated certain forms of queerness. In ancient Rome, for instance, what we today call male homosexuality was an accepted part of how society functioned. Of course, that does not mean it was some sort of halcyon queer paradise. No, it was still a violently regulated society that revolved around who could penetrate whom and on what terms. Male citizens enjoyed the prerogative of penetrating those they chose, whether male or female, provided they did not penetrate another citizen and that they were themselves not penetrated.

Millennia later, when gay and lesbian activists came calling on the East German dictatorship, they were remarkably successful. The government promulgated a sweeping array of reforms in the 1980s, precisely because activists were able to convince the regime that queer people could fit into socialist society as good citizens.

These few anecdotes suggest not only that animus against queer people changes over time, but also that states are not as uniformly hostile to queerness as a more cursory view of the history might suggest.

What is “the state”, anyway?

Second, queer theory’s blanket rejection of the state misses what exactly the state is. How might you define the state? It’s not an easy question. Max Weber famously defined it as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. But, of course, we know as a practical — and an empirical — matter that such neat and tidy definitions never hold water. All too often, states auction off the legitimate use of force to the highest bidder. Does that make them any less of a state? If so, a state has never existed.

My point here is not to define the state in absolute terms — or to dunk on Weber — but rather to point out that those who reject it probably also cannot offer a satisfactory definition of what, exactly, they are rejecting.

Viewing the state in empirical — rather than absolute — terms offers a more satisfactory account of it, as well as of the perplexing reality we inhabit today. We live in an age when more LGBTQ+ people have access to greater state recognition and social acceptance than, perhaps, at any other point in recorded human history. At the same time, extraordinary violence continues to be inflicted on LGBTQ+ people because of their gender or sexual identities.

We need look no further than the United States, a country where trans women are wealthy reality TV show stars and where, in many states, trans people are able to access state-supported gender affirming care as well as state recognition of their gender. At the same time, in other states, trans people are also losing access to that same care, face unusually high levels of violence in their everyday lives, and increasingly must contend with state-based discrimination.

This situation is paradoxical if you insist upon seeing the state as a monolithic whole. But it becomes entirely comprehensible if you instead see the state, as legal theorist Paisley Currah asks us to, as “a virtually uncountable number of state institutions, processes, offices, and political jurisdictions”. Once we begin to comprehend the state less as a singular locus of violence directed at queer people and more as an ever-shifting array of ideologies, individuals, and institutions, we can also begin to make out how that state can be leveraged to advance a queer politics and to make, ultimately, the state itself queerer.

Is a queer state possible?

A queer state thus lives at the intersection of the realisation that animus against queer people is mutable and that the state, far from a clockwork mechanism of repression, is a messy representation of the society it governs. We queers do need the state, we need it to provide healthcare, to combat disease, to build public transportation, and to fight climate change.

We also want the state to recognise the relationship of care on which our communities are built, to redistribute both recognition and wealth, to protect the most vulnerable in our society from exploitation and violence. Only a politics that embraces the state in all its imperfection and with all its democratic mess will ever stand a chance of queering the state.

Samuel Clowes Huneke is Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University. He is the author of States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany and A Queer Theory of the State.

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