Sexuality and Sociability
Photo: Elizabeth Lane
When my editor asked me if I wanted to go to a queer studies symposium at U.C. Berkeley entitled “Queer Bonds” last week, I jumped at the chance not only because I studied queer theory as a student, but also because the central ideas in queer theory—exploring sexuality and gender identity in individuals and society as a whole—are fundamental to what we do at Curve. I was also excited to go because the organizers managed to bring together a star-studded line-up of academic heavy hitters including Distinguished Professor Emerita of the History of Consciousness at U.C. Santa Cruz Teresa de Lauretis, who is credited with coining the term “queer theory;” Stanford University professor of English Terry Castle, who has a score of titles to her name and is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and the New Republic; and one of the founders of gender studies and author of the seminal book Gender Trouble, the Maxine Elliot professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, Judith Butler. This would be a good opportunity, I thought, to reflect on the relevance of queer theory to lesbian life today.
But now, after three days of re-emersion in academia, after all the papers have been read and the counterpoints presented, I’m at a loss about how to frame a story. This is partly because queer theory—and critical theory in general—is notorious for being self-consciously complex and obscure in the extreme. It’s also because even though theory finds its starting point in lived experience—our everyday lives—and so is obviously informed by the everyday, it’s harder to go the other way and understand how the everyday is informed by theory. Maybe I’m missing the point, or maybe I’m not clever enough to see how it works, but the difficulty of making theory into something useful has always irked me and is the main problem I’m facing now.
Obviously, this is a problem that had been on the minds of the organizers of the symposium, too. In his opening remarks, U.C. Berkeley graduate student and co-chair of the symposium Damon Young admitted that the questions being considered are the same questions queer theorists have been asking themselves since queer studies was established as a discipline. How to understand the intersections between sexuality and sociability? Is there a queer community? Is it necessarily a marginal community that creates bonds on the edges of "normal" sociality? Does it depend on queerness being a subversion of the norm, a rejection of "normal" sociality—and by "normal," we mean heterosexual, white, able-bodied, middle class society and all the cultural assumptions that go along with that. Are there other options for queer sociability? This seems to imply that queer theorists themselves are wondering how exactly they’re relevant, and in fact, part of the objective set out by the organizers was to find ways to think differently about queer sociability, ways that fit the changing conditions of our world today.
But queer theory is relevant, and the symposium was timely, for at least two reasons. The first is that after years of being relegated to the radical lefties that no one listens to anyway, politics and political activism has suddenly become fashionable again, thanks to our new president and his hard fought battle for the White House. I could be argued that feminism in particular seems like an outmoded, if not obsolete, political movement to the majority of Americans—many of the tenets of second-wave feminism are clichéd and third-wave feminism never quite took off as a movement (despite the best efforts of Bust, Ms., Bitch and Curve, to name a few). Feminist politics lost their effectiveness before the feminist movement achieved all of its goals (the fact the women get paid, on average, one third less than men for doing the same job attests to this disappointment). So, now that political conviction has become popular again, I’m hoping some of its cultural cachet might rub off on queer theory, which is, of course, rooted in politics, allowing it to venture outside of academia and into the real world, where it might do some good.
Another reason the symposium matters is that its topic—queer social bonds—is the same topic that is being debated by legislators and in courtrooms around the country. The fight for gay marriage is ripe fodder for queer theory. In fact, it’s probably the first major cultural debate that queer theory has any hope of winning. When same-sex marriage becomes legal across America, it will be the beginning of the end for the most fundamental hetero-normative institution in the western world. LGBT activists are fighting for a redefinition of the word “marriage” which, even though it might take some time, will eventually redefine the entire concept of the family, opening it up and making it healthier for everyone involved. The legalization and subsequent validation of same-sex marriage will change queer—and straight—relationships forever because it will change the context in which we’re living our lives, thinking about ourselves and theorizing about our possibilities.
As Butler put it in her closing remarks, “Something is at stake here, and will remain at stake.” The ability of lesbians to characterize their social bonds, and the ability of queer theorists to begin answering their reoccurring questions, has never been more important than it is now because queer relationships and queer communities are going to start to change. As we roll up our sleeves and prise the rigid definitions of love, success and happiness away from the heterosexual presumptions they’ve been tied to for the entirety of Western history, we’re going to need confidence in our bonds like we’ve never needed before. A sense of shared purpose is good, but a sense of community is better.