The following is an original piece by Emmy, one of the founders of the Queer Feminist Oasis, Swedish version here.
Within radical political groups, such as feminism and the queer movement, there are always various trends and power analyses that exist in parallel, overlap and sometimes collide. Internal battles over what constitutes “the right struggle” and how to conduct it have marked the political communities since their inception. However, in the current activist climate, I don’t believe that it is ideologies that mainly signify the differences in struggle methods, identity construction and social hierarchies, but rather the influences of social media in a post-modern, hyper-realistic media landscape, where every person, queer or not, can rebrand themselves into a political trademark and build a solid fan base through the right social marketing strategies, the right stories and the right aesthetics. This media language and its unique intersections between communication, social capital and political struggle have thus created new possibilities in queer interactions for queer millennials*; interactions that undoubtedly favour many individuals, create alliances and expand the political focus, but they also exclude many people who can’t manage to maintain an online-based image, who don’t want to, nor have the energy to, be visible under these premises.
There is currently an ongoing debate in Sweden on where to conduct the struggle in order for it to be useful and politically reasonable – on a structural or an individual level. I believe that most people can agree that the personal is political and vice versa (which is one of the ideas from the second wave feminism that has had the strongest influence on subsequent feminist movements; and which is, coincidentally, one of the ideas I like the most from that era). On the other hand, there are various ideas on exactly where the dividing point lies between these levels and how they interact. The three-tier oppression model is an idea that says that gender, race and class posit the deeper oppressions, whilst other types of social hierarchies and discrimination mechanisms, for example ageism, ableism, transphobia, whorephobia, and so on, are only “symptoms” of oppression. The conclusion of this explanatory model is that people, whose main struggle is centred around their own identity – often due to being trans, sex workers and/or disabled, which thus affect their living conditions daily – in fact should dedicate their time and energy on more important matters: crushing the patriarchy on a structural level. The logic behind this reasoning is thus based on the assumption that individual liberation can’t lead to the construction of new societal norms and attitudes, and that the majority of other trans people and sex workers would still have to face an uphill battle, since many lack white privileges or economic resources that are necessary in order to conduct the same individual-centred struggle.
It is important to realise that the three-tier oppression model isn’t wrong. It is just one way of many to analyse how power systems operate. Whether or not it is the right analysis, on a theoretical level, matters less in comparison to how this analysis is employed on a practical level. If the political praxis derived from a certain type of power analysis doesn’t make life more liveable for the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in our capitalist, militarised, colonial, white suppremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy – then what is even the point of such an analysis?
If the political praxis derived from a certain type of power analysis doesn’t make life more liveable for the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in our capitalist, military, colonial, white suppremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy – then what is even the point of such an analysis?
Naturally, the struggle isn’t over when we, as individuals, get access to the medical care we need, or when our pronouns are respected by people around us, but it could mean that we make it through the day. To automatically assume that other people have decent enough lives, that their urgent individual needs can posit a secondary status to the radical upheaval of society, is not only extremely ignorant and privileged, it also disregards the actual intersection of oppressive mechanisms that equips some individuals with better abilities of resistance, when it comes to dealing with homophobia, transphobia and other kinds of extreme violence.
Perhaps the most important difference between neoradical feminist and queer feminist interpretations of the patriarchy is that the queer analysis doesn’t see the patriarchy as a stable and isolated system; the patriarchy must be seen as a system that is not placed above, exists outside of, or existed before, other kinds of oppression. Instead, the patriarchy has developed alongside heteronormativity, racism, capitalism and other oppressive mechanisms, and both informs, and is reproduced, in this intersection. To try and trace “which oppression came first” is not only impossible because oppressive structures aren’t measured in terms that describe a chronological timeline, but also because historical records aren’t objective or universally reliable. Queer politics state that patriarchy, as a system, always enables itself through the generation of new kinds of oppression, whilst also capitalising on previous kinds.
The same people that propagate a three-tier oppression model appear to have been inspired by other neoradical feminist ideas, and as I’ve already mentioned they also claim that the queer and trans struggle has been hijacked by identitybased individualists, who are solely focusing on their own identities, their own rights and their own interests. According to them, the class struggle lays forgotten, as well as the will to overthrow the overarching societal systems; all that remains is a wish to, on a personal level, be treated with respect and dignity. In this manner, the queer struggle is accused of being reduced to visibility politics on social media, the subversive act of, on a personal level, play with gender expressions and conventions, the right to not be forcibly (mis)gendered, and the right to personally access medical health care and emotional and psychological support. For the neoradical feminists these tendencies are the epitome of individualism, or even (neo)liberalism, and many have spent a lot of energy criticising and ridiculing the individuals whom they believe to be guilty of conducting such an individualised struggle – often by claiming that they don’t understand enough theory, that they focus on the wrong things, or even that they constitute “an obstacle” to the struggle, since they draw attention to individual issues under current oppressive circumstances, rather than to the revolutionary upheaval of society.
Even if I don’t agree with most parts of the neoradical feminist analysis, or believe that the “overthrowing of patriarchy” is an adequately direct (or even, compared to aforementioned battle strategies, a fundamentally different) formulation of the problem in order to really change the material circumstances under which we live today (mainly because I don’t see any revolutionary potential in separatist rooms consisting mainly of white, middle-class lesbian communists, where sexuality and gender identity is strictly policed) – I do agree with the criticism against individualised struggle. Sometimes when I browse Instagram or Twitter I become painfully aware of the lack of intersectionality amongst almost all the white queers (I too have definitely been guilty of this), and the disinterest in broadening their activism and their struggle. A typical Instagram account, managed by a Swedish white queer, contains an infinite amount of selfies tagged with queer political buzz words and some personal narratives about the difficulties this person face, in relation to their queer identity or other marginalised identities they possess, but very little indicate a deeper engagement in issues not affecting them.
I have mixed feelings towards today’s generation of queer activists. We millennials are in many ways a strange generation; we have new needs and other interests than earlier generations of queer activists, and the way in which we conduct radical politics is radically different from our predecessors’ ways of organising.
We millennials are in many ways a strange generation; we have new needs and other interests than earlier generations of queer activists, and the way in which we conduct radical politics is radically different from our predecessors’ ways of organising.
We differ from the generation that experienced the AIDS crisis during the late 80s and early 90s; the generation that created, due to that time’s trauma and politicised mobilisation, sustainable alliances between gays and lesbians; the generation that consisted of radical faeries and trans activists who had access to a completely different language, than we have today, to talk about our identities and communities; the generation that combined gender and sexuality issues with discourses on social justice that were never filtered through global discussions online, the generation where the queer struggle was led by poor People of Colour from the working class and sex workers.
The modern queer struggle is inspired by the earlier, radical queer groups that emerged in the bigger cities of the US, which in turn were inspired by decades of progressive anti-establishment resistance and critique against the gay movement’s assimilation tendencies. To claim, like many neoradical feminists do, that the queer struggle is a (neo)liberal obstacle to the class struggle thus ignores the roots of the movement – the queer struggle has always been closely associated with class struggle, socio-economic justice and anti-racism. The early queer activists weren’t just inspired by ACT UP’s** politicised struggle against oppressive policies in mainstream society, but also by the intersectional resistance within ACT UP (I’m mainly thinking about the internal conflicts within the organisation and the numerous subgroups that were created because the larger movement, despite its anarchistic organisation, notoriously emphasised white voices and was organised around white people’s interests – as well as PONY, the sex worker section in ACT UP which brought new issues to the political agenda). Queer activism in the 90’s was, apart from a movement for people with queer identities, a community-based and counter-political response to oppressive housing politics, racist gentrification and narratives about marriage equality which benefitted rich, white, homosexual men at the expense of queers in the social periphery.
In other words, queer politics emerged as a radical critique of the gay movement’s identity politics, which gradually ignored trans issues, sex workers’ interests and People of Colour. The queer perspective was, from the start, critical towards the idea that identity is something fixed and immobile. The previous generation’s radical feminism, as well as many forms of liberal feminism, on the other hand has often advocated an understanding of identity as essential – as a uniting factor based on the fantasy about a certain shared experience. By connecting different forms of oppressive mechanisms, and never presenting them as isolated from each other, queer politics (inspired by intersectionality) expose the process behind the development of identities and political positions. Whether it is woman, trans, disabled, or something else, it is never developed in a vacuum – this process is constantly informed by other types of oppressive systems, and our positions in society are never static but always open for change and re-articulation.
Sometimes, the type of solidarity I’ve described above can seem tragically far away when Instagram has transformed queer politics into a struggle for queer people to be queer in peace – and leave it at that – which is in direct conflict with what queer originally meant in the movement’s early days. Queer shouldn’t primarily be about the right to be protected from discrimination in an oppressive society through legislative means; it is about the refusal to exist according terms dictated by the cis-hetero-patriarchy. It’s about shifting focus from elevating us as a minority to a sharp critique of them as a majority. It’s about moving the discussion about gender and sexuality away from the private sphere and making it something that concerns every single one of us.
I often feel that I want to tell other queer activists, from my generation, that even if you are queer, queer politics is not primarily about YOU. It’s about an overarching struggle to preserve queer cultures that belong to the most marginalised queer people; it’s about solidarity with migrants, sex workers and other groups who are discriminated against from a socio-economic perspective; it’s about breaking down white supremacy, critiquing the police state and imperialist warfare, it’s about fighting our ableist society, fighting all systems that oppress, exclude and marginalise people in today’s late-capitalist world order. However, I want to emphasise that I think that most of the critique against queer individualism is misinformed. I have read a lot about creating identity by queer millennials, and much of our generation’s activism is about a radical rejection of earlier generations’ mainstream-adapted assimilation politics and focus on individual rights through legislation; entirely in line with the historical struggle of the radical queer movement. Instead, we queer millennials create a political identity for ourselves which is centred on personal expression and an overturning of conventional gender roles. We have seen that the historical movement for gay rights left out the majority and instead focused on white, rich gay men’s (and lesbians’) interests and needs. We have witnessed how queer people in earlier generations, who never benefitted from the LGBT movement’s assimilation struggle, instead created their own family structures, their own relationship constellations and their own survival strategies, instead of waiting for legal recognition and acceptance. Queer identity formation today is thus about stop waiting; stop waiting for the State to say that our relationships are OK; stop waiting for society to accept us and recognise our humanity. We don’t need their acceptance or liking – quite the opposite. They are right to feel threatened by our existence, because we are doing exactly what they are scared of: we are threatening their oppressive, hegemonic world order.
We don’t need their acceptance or liking – quite the opposite. They are right to feel threatened by our existence, because we are doing exactly what they are scared of: we are threatening their oppressive, hegemonic world order.
That is why I am sceptical towards the individualised focus and the personality cults that often appear and are celebrated within some queer groups. We have so much more potential than that – we are a generation who have expanded the identity concept collectively and created a space for issues which the earlier generation’s gay movement swept under the carpet. We no longer talk about our shared identities as gay, or trans, or even queer – instead, we focus on how our queerness connects to issues related to race and ethnicity, mental health, class, socio-economic status, citizen status, etc. Precisely as a result of all these intersecting factors, each person’s queer identity differs significantly from others’. We are a generation which doesn’t see homophobia as existing in a vacuum, but as something which always relates to other identity markers such as race, class, gender, (dis)ability, health status, etc. And precisely because this awareness has become a marker for queer millennials, I have an unreasonable amount of hope in regards to the queer struggle of the future.
I would have liked to see less focus on the individual and a greater dedication to a broader set of issues, more solidarity with less privileged queers and more self-reflection when it comes to which struggles one chooses to align oneself with, and which struggles one chooses to ignore. However, it’s important to remember that many young queer people use a relatively new social space to broadcast their politics and their struggle, and I believe that it is too early to completely write off the potential for change as a result of internet activism. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have access to social media in the same way as young people have today, nor did I have the language necessary for articulating my queer identity. I’m incredibly impressed by how young queer people today choose to articulate their identities and thoughts, and I think that it’s thanks to the internet that this access to language, and the knowledge which underpins it, is allowed to flourish. Additionally, I don’t think that people’s total amount of activist activities are necessarily reflected in their online behaviour. We seem to have reached an unpleasant point in the post-postmodern society where we actually believe that other people’s internet activities are a truthful representation of their lives offline. Instead, I believe that the development of people’s personal politics is a process that must be allowed time in order to take form. For many people, an exploration of their own queer identity and an activist focus on their own private struggles actually create a gateway into a broader discourse on social justice and radical alliances rather than moving towards a homonormative, neoliberal, depoliticised set of identity politics.
For many people, an exploration of their own queer identity and an activist focus on their own private struggles actually create a gateway into a broader discourse on social justice and radical alliances rather than moving towards a homonormative, neoliberal, depoliticised set of identity politics.
My reasoning behind this prospect is based on, as I’ve mentioned previously in the text, the tendency for queer millennials to create material and symbolic spaces for the myriad of different issues which have quite recently claimed a natural position within queer politics.
I also suspect that a lot of the neoradical feminists’ critique is mistaken in the same way as is our normative society’s take on queer activism. The mainstream society has often misinterpreted queer activist struggle as being a masqueraded identity politics, since it’s difficult for normative society to grasp a group’s critique of societal systems if the group doesn’t articulate any kind of shared identity or belonging, on which the claimed disadvantage is based upon. This has resulted in many queer people using identity signifiers as a strategic way to draw attention to how different forms of oppression intersect to marginalise and oppress sexual dissidents. The queer movement is often represented as a coalition of people with different identities and positions (which often overlap): trans people, non-binary people, dykes, queer cis people, gender minorities, polysexuals, asexuals and bisexuals are all encompassed by a (voluntary) queer identity, and the struggle is underpinned by alliances between those – which, in fact, is another example on how identity is seen as something fluid and with unclear boundaries.
So even if I agree with the critique that the queer struggle, for some people, has become too focused on individual identity, I dislike the opinion that young queer people focus on the “wrong issues”. To eliminate the patriarchy, which, according to neoradical feminists, is the original oppression behind transphobia, would, through the use of this logic, result in a situation where trans people can live a life free from trans-antagonism. Firstly, it’s extremely Eurocentric to believe that trans is a subcategory of gender oppression and that it can be isolated from race and class – that ignores the myriad of non-normative gender identities in cultures outside of a Western framework and within indigenous communities all over the world, which reject the Western trans/cis binary and where gender-varied people’s identities are equally related to cultural-specific class systems and/or a resistance to colonialism and white hegemony, as they are to gender. Gender itself is a socially constructed category, which means that it is construed differently in different cultural contexts, which also means that “the patriarchy” is read differently depending on socio-cultural position. Instead of dividing these interpretations into a hierarchy, a queer feminist perspective tries to maintain a sensitivity and respect for all marginalised people’s analyses and proposed solutions to social problems, and endeavours to amplify marginalised and overlooked knowledge rather than attempting to establish totalitarian knowledge regimes that aim to silence those who don’t share a hegemonic analytical model. There is a motto that I usually go by if I feel uncertain about how useful a specific set of politics is: “Is it a political analysis which tells marginalised people to be silent?” – if the answer is yes to that question, I will always remain deeply suspicious towards such a perspective, even if it seems theoretically sound.
It is of course true that the patriarchy, racism and the class society must be eliminated if we all want to be able to live life to its full potential. The problem is that most of us – particularly those who are most marginalised – can’t afford to wait for a utopia. I don’t know a single queer person, including myself, who expect to live life to its fullest and to “reach their full potential”.
The problem is that most of us – particularly those who are most marginalised – can’t afford to wait for a utopia. I don’t know a single queer person, including myself, who expect to live life to its fullest and to “reach their full potential”.
The state, normative society, neoliberalism, imperialism, the police state and the global, transnational, capitalist economy make up an extremely violent and dishonest system of oppressions, which turns life into hell for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. Even if the great, global, communist revolution would happen soon, it wouldn’t automatically erase ableist, queerphobic and sexual hierarchies – I’m almost jealous of the utopic stance which inspires such an optimistic analysis.
Another struggle that has been accused for having neoliberal tendencies is the struggle for sex workers’ rights. This is a rhetoric attempt to depoliticise sex workers’ struggle through claiming that it only concerns individual people’s rights and interests instead of being a structural class issue. This view ignores the fact that sex workers and queer activists, in their struggle, have not only focused on sex work as an activity that generates an income, but also on all the different ways in which sex workers are racialised, sexualised and classed. The English Collective of Prostitutes (http://www.prostitutescollective.net/) has focused a lot on how sex work is gendered, and has run many campaigns in order to highlight the lack of social support given to single mothers. This is, by the way, a fact that is often forgotten – that many sex workers are mothers. Another example is X:talk (http://www.xtalkproject.net/) – a cooperative that is organised and led by sex workers and is aimed at sharing knowledge and language skills with migrant sex workers so they can work more safely – they run campaigns to increase the knowledge about issues related to migration, race, gender, sexuality and working class struggle, and they are also organised in several other feminist and anti-racist side projects.
Those who confuse queer politics with identity politics and the sex workers’ rights movement with neoliberalism often do so because they are unaware of the history of these movements, or are unwilling to see a potential in the rich set of intersectional issues which have been given a space by contemporary queer politics. Queer politics, and its amazing history of resistance, struggle and alliances, should definitely not be seen as a threat against the class struggle – but rather the opposite; a way to organise class struggle and working class issues in a manner that makes the resistance more powerful, more comprehensive and more inclusive of those who are often disadvantaged in the Western, traditional class struggle. To claim that marginalised queers constitute an obstacle for “the important struggle” of today (whether that is a struggle against the patriarchy, class oppression or racism), is not only to completely undermine these people’s struggle, it is also an attempt to totally write them out of their own history, as they actually have improved and strengthened the class struggle historically, are strengthening it today and will strengthen it in the future.
*Millennials; a word that signifies the generation that was brought up during the new millennia. It often alludes to people born between the beginning of the 80s to the beginning of the 00s. (http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/queer-millennials/50f0107a78c90a0554000004)
**ACT UP is a political movement that was very active during the Western AIDS crisis, aimed at improving the life conditions for people who live with HIV/AIDS through lobbying for law changes, medical research and other treatment policies, mainly through direct action and activism.