29 March 2013
This piece was submitted to Queer (in) Crisis by Lucy Freedman.
The phenomenon of assimilation of the ‘sexually deviant’ is, though relatively new, not in itself a result of crisis management. Nothing pacifies those ‘radical elements’ of whom we are constantly warned better than de-radicalising them, deeming them acceptable, legitimate, so they no longer exist in a state of struggle or dangerous opposition. The neoliberal agenda has, in this vein, handled the ‘gay question’ with remarkable finesse; to be non-heterosexual is no longer to necessarily exist on the fringes of society—people who, even twenty years ago, could choose to either hide behind a façade of heteronormative paradigms or live a life of permanent subversion have been offered a third option. This option, when considered within the neoliberal rhetoric of consumer choice and autonomy through entrepreneurship, appears particularly attractive. In return for contribution to capital, those who were previously pariahs are offered legitimacy and the chance for an economic stake in consumer society.
This struggle is then shifted to one that takes place between the state, colluding with those who have chosen to be assimilated, and those who have not. In this case, what we are talking about is a struggle between queer and homonormative communities. I am interested in exploring how, in a time of ‘crisis’, this rift widens and toxifies, and how this impacts current queer identity.
Kemptown and Polk Street as examples of pre-‘crisis’ assimilation and pacification of queer space
You couldn’t ask for a better example of gay capitalism and its role in the production of a ‘homonormative’ identity than Kemptown, Brighton’s ‘gay village’. Kemptown seems to separate itself into three distinct, painfully gendered genres—‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and transvestite/drag. Each exists in relative isolation, and all are about selling not only drinks but also an entire constructed culture. In a crude analysis of Kemptown’s nightlife, gay spaces are about sex and promiscuity, feeding into the stereotype that all men are interested in indiscriminate sex, and lots of it; lesbian spaces are framed in the rhetoric of ‘safe space’, feminine, quiet, with deals on fruit cider and other ‘girls’ drinks’; and transvestite spaces focus on humour and the loud externalization of gender play, seemingly ignoring questions about the unnecessary existence of a gender binary which, one would hope, lie at the crux of queer identity.
San Fransico’s legendary Polk Street in some ways proves an interesting comparison to Kemptown. While homosexuality was still illegal, and then legal but highly taboo, Polk Street was a queer space home to “hookers, hustlers, drug addicts, homeless people, trannies, needle exchange services, working-class queers and other social deviants.” Slowly, though, as the morality of the market usurped Christian morality, the space, formerly condemned as a badland and ignored by the authorities, was gentrified; ‘the trendy transformation of lower Polk (…) pushed along the urban removal of an already marginalized group of people’, removing its queerness.
As in Kemptown, to be gay while generating money became completely acceptable; Polk Street had its notoriety to maintain, and the gay tourism market became a new, hugely profitable industry to capitalize on. A rift was driven through the heart of the ‘gay community’—gay capitalists were given a new standing in society, while delinquents and those whose ‘sexualities’ did not fit the narrow parameters of what was deemed acceptable (or, rather, what the market deemed sell-able), those who I suppose we would call queer, were excluded from the space and the community which for decades had accommodated them. These areas now signify the tension between radical and conservative non-‘straightness’.
An anecdote to highlight this tension: recently the flat above an abandoned shop in Kemptown was squatted. This squat was surrounded by gay capitalist industry: bars, sex shops, even a travel agent specializing in ‘gay tourism’. The squatters received regular abuse from punters and workers at a number of local bars. When the squatters questioned this hostility, they were told that their presence was detrimental to surrounding businesses. The owners of a nearby club stated that for generations they had been involuntarily associated, as people who openly identify as gay, with radicals and delinquents. They had recently been given what they termed ‘legitimacy’—i.e., a chance to be included in the market—and they believed the squatters’ presence in a space heavily associated with this new ‘legitimacy’ jeopardised this newfound status. Mary, a spokesperson from Gay Shame, claims that gentrification crushed the ‘cross-class, cross-gender and cross-sexuality (…) interaction between street cultures’ on Polk Street. Similarly, in Kemptown, already gentrified, solidarity among those who face systemic oppression is void in place of a want of recognition from those very same systematic oppressors.
Crisis as catalyst
As the era of ‘crisis’ takes hold, frenzy sets in—unemployment and austerity force us into instability in many forms. There is also, at a time of crisis, a shift towards cultural conservatism; the nuclear family, deemed less ‘needy’ of welfare is held up as the perfect model (gay marriage and adoption here become a ‘progressive’ mirroring of conservative norms). We are all told to pull together, not to complain about concerns that might once have been pressing, to find what we have in common with one another rather than focus on difference and dissidence. To be truly queer, then, is to exist outside a state of collective acceptance of the attacks to our survival that crisis and austerity have brought us.
But our current economic ‘crisis’, situated within the neoliberal, throws up new dichotomies that were perhaps not as relevant in previous crises. In a ‘liberal democracy’ we face the strange problem that almost anything (as long as it does not threaten to destabilize capital) can be adapted to become marketable. While cultural conservatism may be on the rise, the ‘alternative market’, made up of assimilated, pacified ex-subcultures, is still to be catered for.
The recent trend for ‘gender-bending’ supermodels is an interesting example of queerness introduced into the market. While transient gender identity becomes endorsed within fashionable and influential circles, statements of queerness, of nonconformity, are being assimilated into a culture of deep oppression, a culture which by its very nature objectifies, exploits and controls. The morphing of behaviours considered queer into mainstream culture runs the risk of depoliticising them. The very term queer is used more and more widely: it runs the risk of becoming the code word for a new, edgy-yet-buyable mode of being non-‘straight’. As with Kemptown’s clear-cut pockets of sexuality called ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘drag’, queer, as it emerges as a new genre of non-‘straightness’, would be imbued with a new set of oppressive signifiers. It is imperative to fight the growing assimilation of conventionally gay identity into a sellable, controllable commodity, mirroring and deifying the nuclear family or heterosexual couple form.
Where does this place us?
Reactions to the economic crisis can have a propensity for defensiveness and even regression. Cuts to public services have prompted our political movements to focus on and fight for not our real ideals but the welfare, education, healthcare and pensions which fall within the realm of the system we previously resisted—things that were previously guaranteed to us.
In the same way, faced by crisis, queer communities may turn dangerously inward. To be queer, to me, necessitates an existence in constant flux, while ‘crisis politics’ often exist in stagnation. Crisis exacerbates attacks on the marginalised through the normalisation of wider society, and a drive to sell everything. Inevitably, this leads to defensiveness, but we need to be careful about what, and how, we defend. In ceasing to challenge ourselves, ceasing to exist in flux or be queer, we realise that all we really defend are the empty, marketable clichés we are thought to embody.
Austerity and vicious attacks on all those who refuse to conform bring with them the power to push us toward the norm, as existing outside it becomes more difficult. However, they also present us with the opportunity to re-radicalise, to join in solidarity with others who are marginalised by an ever-normalising society. As we are forced to confront poverty, we are told to ‘keep calm and carry on’, to maintain business as usual, even when this business becomes infinitely less fruitful and cajoles us to sell ourselves. To be queer in a time of ‘crisis’ is to remain on the margins, to refuse calm assimilation into a mass who collectively accept their fate, to refuse that we exist in a crisis defined by any but ourselves.
 Leslie Fulbright, “SAN FRANCISCO / Polk Gulch cleanup angers some / Gentrification pushing out ‘hookers, hustlers’”, San Francisco Chronicle, 12 October 2005.