A queer take on Safe Schools and identity politics

In recent weeks, the debate over the Safe Schools Coalition anti-bullying program has intensified, taking what is in many ways a bizarre turn. The brief suspension of program architect Roz Ward from her position at La Trobe University has reopened the debate about whether Safe Schools is ‘cultural Marxism’ by stealth, the program once again coming under fire from conservatives across the country. Even trans advocate and member of the ADF Catherine McGregor has weighed in.

One of the more interesting elements of this, however, has been the debate it has created about the role gender and sexual politics can and should play within Marxism. Here enters Guy Rundle. In the pages of Crikey, Rundle penned a treatise on the program and what he considers the failures of ‘queer theory’. Rundle believes Safe Schools (via queer theory) presents the view that ‘gender and sexuality are infinitely fluid’. He argues, however, that such a view denies the material realities of sexuality and gender, not to mention his view that ‘almost no-one really believes it – and they certainly do not let it shape their lives’.

Queer theory, he says, aims to push adolescents towards particular identities they wouldn’t arrive at by themselves. He states:

Most adolescents are on their way to plain old vanilla heterosexuality, with a few detours along the way. The queer identity approach would seek to solidify those detours and experimentations and explorations into queer identities.

This, he argues, is a clear diversion from the materialist principles of Marxist theory – a cultural turn that is not only a distraction, but a dangerous one at that.

But Rundle fundamentally misunderstands the nature of queer theory, in part confusing it with identity politics. That confusion leads him to disallow any relationship between queer theory and Marxism, and the real power such connections could create.

Rundle’s argument is part of a growing trend of left-wing commentators engaging with the inherent conservatism of ‘liberal’ approaches to identity – notably, LGBTI politics and feminism. This is a critique broadly shared by both of this article’s authors. But Rundle takes this further, disavowing an association between Marxism and ‘the queer, intersectional politics that Ward professes’. We’ll get back to that point in particular, but first we need to pull back a bit and look at the current state of LGBTI politics to see how – and perhaps why – Rundle has confused two very different ways of thinking about sexuality and gender.

Identity politics usually refers to a philosophy and practise of building political movements around identities based on race, gender, sexuality, sex, age – the list goes on. There is an implied essentialism to identity politics: you become defined by what you are, rather than what you do. Intersectionality, the idea that a person can ‘be’ many things at once (gay, trans, living with a disability, etc.), is sometimes used to rebut accusations of essentialism, but we would argue intersectionality is in fact identity politics par excellence. Far from freeing us of the shackles of identity, intersectionality simply gives us a more complex matrix to slot ourselves into. We still are; we are simply many things instead of one.

The past decade has seen a return to identity politics as the dominant way of thinking about sexuality and gender in public discourse. And we have been here before – in fact, when queer theory emerged in the early 1990s (though its roots go back further), it was explicitly in opposition to the essentialism of identity politics, which had come to dominate minority political movements.

While often confused with identity politics (as Rundle has done), queer theory functions in almost the opposite way. Instead of defining ourselves around essential ‘identities’, queer theory takes a post-structuralist approach, deconstructing those identities in and of themselves. Importantly, queer theory works to expose the construction of heterosexuality as a norm, or what some call ‘straight ideology’. This is the ideology in which we all live – one that defines not only our sexual lives, but our gender representations, and most importantly, the way we see ourselves as economic actors both in the workplace and the family.

The differences between these two theories  could not be more stark. Identity politics aims to differentiate identities and provide ‘equality’ between the experiences of them all. Queer theory aims to deconstruct the very idea of identity, and ‘straight ideology’ in particular.

So how have we ended up back at identity politics? And why are we all talking about ‘queer’ when these things used to mean something different, even opposite? The second question is a little easier to answer: as is inevitable, language changes over time, and the word ‘queer’ has decoupled from ‘queer theory’ to become an identity category of its own. It’s commonly used as a catch-all term for LGBTI identities, as a way of identifying with the politics associated with queer theory, or even just as a way of identifying outside mainstream LGBTI politics and identities.

The question of how we’ve ended up back here is trickier to answer, and requires some speculation. It is likely a hangover from the dominance of neoliberal thought in the 80s and 90s. These economic ideologies have promoted the idea of the ‘subject as consumer’, which fits hand-in-glove with the idea of an essential identity. Being reshaped as ‘identities’ allowed us to be viewed as markets: both consumers and a potential pool of labour.

This has been coupled with a return to a form of respectability politics following the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Campaigns for same-sex marriage in particular have required a level of assimilation into capitalist society. To access these institutions we had to find ways to fit within straight ideology. The best way to do this was through reinforcing clear identifiers (gay, lesbian, trans, etc.) that allowed us to maintain a small level of difference, but one that was not enough to block our entry into these institutions.

The result is this unusual situation in which we have identity politics dressed up as queer theory.

But back to Rundle. His assertion of ‘a view of sexuality and gender as “fluid”, in a way that most of us do not believe it really is’ seems to miss the whole point of queer theory. It isn’t saying we can simply choose whatever we want to ‘be’; it is saying that we actively constitute our sexuality and gender through how we are in the world, and that is also shaped by our context. It is not saying the material world has nothing to do with sexuality and gender. It’s not that gender and sexuality aren’t real – their cultural and social construction is so complete that we experience them as material. Male bodies, for example, do not contain some ‘essential’ maleness. Queer theory would argue the reverse, that the constructions of maleness in the world, at a given historical place and time, determines our view of particular bodies as ‘male’.

But many of Rundle’s broad criticisms of identity politics, and of the current state of political movements to advance the position of marginalised groups, are valid. These criticisms have been made before, in pieces like Eleanor Robertson’s excellent essay in Meanjin, and pretty much every time Helen Razer writes about queer issues or feminism.

So, we’re left with the claim that queer theory is not compatible with Marxism. In fact, we believe queer theory can play an integral role in the politics of Marxism. In his article Rundle states:

The question of actual ‘socialism’ – of mass control of the means of production – has become secondary. Among what has become known as ‘the cultural left’, the question is barely discussed. Existing work relations – the eight- to 10-hour day, the endless squeeze on wage power, conditions, the debt loading – are assumed to be a given, an eternal.

This we agree with, but it is not the fault of attempts to connect queer theory with Marxist politics. Our capitalist economies require divisions in gender and sexuality in order to survive. The early system was developed on a basis of the devaluation of women’s labour and a focus on reproduction. This allowed for ongoing population growth, ensuring a growing working class to power the capitalist society. Those whose experience of sexuality did not support this system, were forced into institutions and medical facilities due to the threat they posed to this agenda. The spread of non-normative sexualities was seen as a threat to a growing population, and therefore needed to be crushed before it spread. The oppression of women and queers played, and continues to play, an integral role in capitalist economics.

Importantly for this discussion, this process also required cultural mechanisms – the development of social and ideological norms – in order to work. This is the ‘straight ideology’ that queer theorists talk about. The ruling classes have worked tirelessly to shape our understandings and norms of gender and sexuality to fit the needs of the system – defining women as ‘chaste’, ‘pure’ and ‘motherly’, and shaping the queer as ‘deviant’ and ‘dangerous’, for example. The very creation of these identifiable markers has been for the benefit of capitalism.

The struggle for queer and gender liberation is therefore inherently linked with the struggle against capitalism. Queer theory, alongside Marxist feminism, has fundamentally helped us understand this.

But many of Rundle’s criticisms of the Safe Schools program, if we imagine they pertain to identity politics, are valid. Safe Schools is not perfect. It is not a radical social engineering program, and very few are claiming it is. Which is fine. It’s an anti-bullying program, and a good one. It’s a shame part of it is rooted in identity politics, that’s true, but as has often been pointed out, to critique the philosophical underpinnings of the program is to follow a red herring – those underpinnings are not the program itself. For what Safe Schools is, it is good.

While Rundle makes some good points, in particular, his critiques of identity politics as it relates to Safe Schools, those points are lost in the confusion between identity politics with queer theory. In many ways this is understandable – this confusion is played out on a much larger scale in the ways we use the language of queer theory to talk about identity politics, even though the two are diametrically opposed. While it’s not perfect, queer theory can offer a lot to Marxist economics. That is something we need to embrace.

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Benjamin Riley

Benjamin Riley is a Sydney-based writer and researcher interested in queer politics, HIV and the legacies of the AIDS crisis. He also works in public health policy, with a focus on HIV and sexual health. You can follow him on Twitter at @bencriley.

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Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer, climate and Greens campaigner and masters student from Brisbane. He has an interest in all things politics, but with a particular focus on the direction of left-wing movements. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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  1. ‘Our capitalist economies require divisions in gender and sexuality in order to survive.’Is this really true in the era of Gillard, an ascendant Hilary Clinton,the pink dollar and the outpouring of official condemnation of the Orlando massacre?

    While the above is possibly open to debate, this statement certainly isn’t, ‘Male bodies, for example, do not contain some ‘essential’ maleness.’

    Its quite obvious to the even the casual observer whether a body is male or not. Queer Theory would appear to be mistaken here.

    I agree with the authors that Rundle is to be congratulated on his attempt to steer the conversation back to the actual question of socialism.

  2. Firstly, I wish to commend the authors on an intelligent and insightful article about a conspicuously controversial issue.

    I wish also to make two points. The first concerns the authors’ remark about the “growing trend of left-wing commentators engaging with the inherent conservatism of ‘liberal’ approaches to identity – notably, LGBTI politics and feminism.” In fact, during the 1990s and early 2000s, queer theory was critiqued as a politically limited – if not outright dubious – strategy by a number of Marxists (Rosemary Hennessy, Max H. Kirsch, Donald Morton) and radical feminists (see the work of Sheila Jeffreys).

    Secondly, I agree that Marxism and queer theory can work together quite nicely. This is an important point that needs reiterating, and I am grateful that the authors have done so. But bear in mind, too, that neocon critics who accuse the Safe School Coalition of providing ‘Marxist sexualisation programs’ are not interested in the nuances of Marxist theory. For these critics, terms like ‘Marxism’ and ‘the Left’ refer to some amorphous,(il)liberal force that is smashing those aspects of social life (compulsory heterosexuality, the nuclear family, white supremacy, etc) that conservatives hold so dear.

    1. This is a good piece. And I say that not only because it is, to my knowledge, the only occasion on which my byline has been mentioned in Overland without proximity to the phrases “what Razer fails to grasp” or “she is just so mean and bad for the left” or “she thinks she’s so smart but she’s not”. But because the distinction between queer theory and intersectionality is one that is rarely made.
      I believe, and I have told Guy this, that Safe Schools is as empty of queer theory as it is of Marxism, whatever its authors declare. It’s chock full of intersectionality, of course. Which, as I think the authors of this piece might agree, is just liberalism in a fair trade frock sewn from microloans. I think we can say that Foucault is the sine qua non of queer theory and I think we can say that he would have a hissy fit if he saw that institutions were legitimising and codifying sexual identity categories. This—I say this for interested readers unfamiliar with queer theory, and not to be the wanker this publication has often described me as— as Foucault saw it, was the effing problem in the first place. Whether promoted or decried, the sexual identity category as a product of institutions is not a freeing thing. I would be interested to learn how the authors of Safe Schools ethically merged that valuable insight from queer theory into their program. Safe Schools says: These are the agreed-upon sexual categories. We are going to include you within these. For queer, it doesn’t matter how many letters are added to the LBGITQ alphabet, even if there is an F for Fluid, this is the institutionalisation of sexual practice. If the Histories of Sexuality teach us anything, it is that the codification of sexuality will always produce an excess. Later critiques of Foucault notwithstanding (I am thinking about the very good PS Societies of Control, here. And Deleuze remains a good dead friend to many queer theorists) this is old-timey discipline.
      I do not happen to agree with what I understand to be Grumble’s view of gender as naturally transcendent. As I have told him over a series of boring emails which he would probably do well not to read, there is an understanding that outruns the Butler view of “biological sex as gender’s alibi” (he is completely right, though, to point out, as others have, that Foucauldian understandings of the self like this one are if not in themselves neoliberal then very yielding to that agenda) and that of sociobiology. For anyone interested—and again, I am not doing this to be as a wanker, here, thanks Overland—these ideas of the inevitably gendered subject can be found in the writing of psychoanalytic feminists (Kristeva, Irigaray, Grosz.) I do not think difference feminism/ queer theory is entirely incompatible with Marxism (Spivak); or, at least, I do not think it serves neoliberalism as handily as Butler.
      Anyhow. Yes. No wonder he hasn’t responded to my emails.
      Whatever the case, though, a “genuinely” Marxist view (Safe Schools is not, in any way, Marxist. It’s not really queer. It’s purely liberal.) is something that Grumble gives us. Well, gives us to those of us who don’t want to live inside the modelling of the right, anyhow.
      I think in the Crikey piece and elsewhere Guy has begun to describe how this emphasis, more general than Safe Schools, on the self-made individual—or the single point on the “oppression matrix” of intersectionality, which is a peculiar idea that seeks at once to celebrate the essential individual and describe how she was so cruelly made—necessarily offers all conversation to the right. I see in the responses to Guy’s piece a lot of “we can walk and chew gum at the same time!” or “we can CELEBRATE swimmers coming out and still fight for homelessness” or whatever. People tell me this all the time: you CAN fight for income or wealth equality just as you can fight for the primacy of the individual. I genuinely believe it’s difficult (perhaps not impossible) to do both at once.
      I am grateful that you didn’t call Guy, whose writing I always value even when I think it’s wrong, a grumpy old man who hates the kids. You two don’t overlook either the usefulness of queer theory OR the proposition that identity politics/intersectionality and neoliberal economics are two sides of the same coin. The idea that promotes deregulation of state economies is the idea that promotes the deregulation of the self. To state the obvious, this is most starkly illustrated in the person of someone like Tim Cook. He is all for “human rights”, which he happens to express as same sex marriage rights, but not much one for paying taxes. Oh, and really not much one for the “human rights” of many workers in his supply chain. (Of course, Apple is now cooing about making its supply chain ethical. And, sure. They can afford to now after they have exploited the shit out of countless brown bodies. Make your company big and powerful enough and you too can save the world! Without going to all the bother of being democratically elected.)
      To be really plain (i.e. try to outrun having another piece written about how shit I am on Overland) none of this means, in any way, that I begrudge or deny the experience of a transman or transwoman. I am no more transphobic because of my distaste for Safe Schools than I am racist because I think intersectionality is a post-material mess.
      Nor is it to say (I am sure this is obvious to the authors of this piece, but one must be cautious) we should all be the same. Difference is inevitable. And to say, as Guy did, that there are two gender categories is not to say that everyone must fit into them neatly. I believe another has chosen their gender no more than I have chosen mine. While I agree with Guy that the dominant categories of man and woman are, without some monumental technological intervention, inevitable (I don’t believe they are naturally ascribed, but inevitable all the same) I don’t agree with the (mis)interpretation by others outside this page that he thinks transpeople are just making it up, or that they are somehow offensive to his Marxist Agenda. So, thanks to the authors for making that clear.
      I didn’t read Guy’s piece at all as saying that there are certain people who are outliers and therefore the utilitarian thing is to ignore them. I think what he is urging is to look at the assertion/official creation of certain identity categories as evidence of liberation.
      I mean. Apart from the stuff about the self-made, neoliberal friendly individual, there’s a really basic problem here with all this “celebrate this identity category” stuff. (And I won’t even go into how troubling I find this in feminist circles, where white liberal cis/straight women are falling over themselves to “include” persons from more outré identity categories. I find it questionable how sex workers or transwomen or women of colour are putatively “permitted” space, but actually function in the dominant imagination as proof of how liberal their masters really are. It’s very To Kill a Mockingbird.)
      Anyhoo. We may all be able to agree in this place that the human subject does not create itself. We might agree that selves are only made by others—obviously and violently when we are little and again throughout our lives when we seek to be known by others, including those others who might dominate us. I.e. first we become a person because of others. We continue to be a more elaborated person because of others. So. If we are asserting ourselves/the right to an identity category, what are we achieving? Even set the issue of Marx aside here. To others we are saying, if we have one of those identities or are asserting one of those identities, both (a) you made me and (b) you must acknowledge me.
      So, how is this Safe Schools-ish stuff different from anything that came before? Can this do anything more than re-establish the social expression of difference? If an identity category/person seeks to be recognised as valuable in a culture which has never valued them, what happens? Is the “celebration” any better than the subjugation it seeks to replace?
      What does “recognise me!” achieve?
      (Well. Some stuff. i.e., the left itself has long been full of turds who need to be told over and again to not make the women do the mail-outs. Or think of homosexual persons and women as part of the same undifferentiated historical category. Which happens all the time at conferences. Or be reminded that race, like gender, functions as more than a class.)
      I will say, though, that I am not on-board with Guy’s assertion that a predominant normative (straight vanilla, as he says) heterosexuality is proof of its inevitability. I say this for practical reasons as well as queer theory ones. I mean. How can we ever know what brings most people to climax? Do some of them need a votive shoved up their arse? Probably.
      And this is where some queer theory again becomes valuable, for mine (and I am probably conflating queer theory here with what may be called by others difference or psychoanalytic feminism) because it accepts that the categories of man, woman or some composite of both are inevitable. But it does not apply the same view to sexuality.
      Seriously. Vanilla, Grumble! People do all sorts of things with all sorts of other persons and objects. Efforts to enumerate these, such as Kinsey’s, are always flawed. I am not going to tell anyone what has made me or might make me come most efficiently or powerfully, and nor are you.
      Anyhoo. I liked this. I liked it because very few people are saying “I think Safe Schools seems a bit dim and liberal”. I liked it because the authors clearly demonstrate that you can be other than a homophobe and have discomfort with LGBT’s present moderate politics of tolerance and “love conquers all”. But I like it because they remind us of queer theory. And how it has different genealogy from intersectionality, which still reads to me like a document from the World Bank.
      In closing. I would like to say that teachers talking about love, sex and relationships is just gross.

      1. thank’ee Razer

        I haven’t received those emails of which you speak – i think you may have sent them to an old email address in yr address book. So, resend.

        As regards Safe Schools, identity politics, queer theory and queering as a more widespread social practice, i think the programme has multiple and contradictory parts. I wasn’t intending to say that queer theoretical approaches are identity-conferring; i was arguing that the building better relationships doc was identity-conferring – and pretty ‘governmentalist’ in thr Foucaultian sense – while there was a commitment to total fluidity elsewhere.
        In both cases, what I’m arguing is that both have, at their root, a commitment to the arbitrariness of the sign, and cultural meanings and frameworks – an argument,which seems to me to be internally incoherent.
        I’ll talk about ideas of biological sex/gender in reply below, but i dont see the multi-levelled approach (physicalist-materialist) as contradictory to the psychoanalytic body, which proposes a being of the body prior to its representation within linguistic/cultural systems. I do however believe that the ‘continental’ side of psychoanalysis adopts the Freudian division between drive and instinct as an absolute – whereas the British school (Klein, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Bowlby) re-import animal behaviour studies and biology to present a human subject with a more biologistic and hard-wired dimension.
        As regards behaviour and attachment, that is a statement of statistical and general matters, not of any individual person. Yes, we’re both rejecting the idea that gender and desire currents and positions could have any ensemble at all. I’m going further and arguing that it’s possible fairly uncomplicated heterosexuality is (or was) sexually selected for in human reproduction – and that what’s being labelled fluidity and genderqueer etc is, for the most part, various currents of bisexuality and cross-gender identification and play, which, in most cases, resolves to simple heterosexuality whatever the dominant ideology. That doesn’t mean that any given individual is likely to be that way, or that there can’t be whole subcultures that run contrary to it. But if it is the case, then much of the Safe Schools approach would run counter to the real character of adolescent sex and gender modalities.

  3. Thanks for the interesting article, Simon and Ben. I just want to focus on two things I disagree with.

    You write: “Safe Schools is not perfect. It is not a radical social engineering program, and very few are claiming it is. Which is fine. It’s an anti-bullying program, and a good one.”

    Firstly, I think it is a social engineering program in practice, just one that leads in quite conservative directions. Secondly, I think it is an attempt to have an anti-bullying program without actually looking at the evidence on what works against bullying and what doesn’t.

    On the social engineering aspect, I think it presents a muddled view of the relationship between biological sex, socially constructed gender and individual gender identity that then also suggests that the latter can effectively overcome the former two. Thus it ends up seeking to educate kids that the presence of subjective gender identities should lead to suppression of discussion of the contradictions between sex, gender and identity. Instead, classmates are to become “allies” who refrain from questioning the nature of these contradictions (among a list of other ally activities, like not talking behind their backs!). Therefore, the program intends to encourage social behaviours that defer to subjective identities, even if those identities are often clearly mapped over from socially imposed gender roles, which are often quite traditional. This is not simply a “people should be able to do what they feel is right for them” injunction, but a “you must accept the primacy of their subjectivity over material reality”.

    On the bullying aspect, the program is based on what seems to be solid logic but in fact is completely unproven. The general gist is that schools where there is high acceptance of LGBTIQ+ kids and high levels of support are associated with less bullying and lower negative mental health outcomes. But there is no data to date to indicate that a school shifting from being low acceptance/low support to high acceptance/high support will produce a decline in bullying and improvement in mental health outcomes. That is, the cross-sectional school v school comparisons don’t account for the possibility that levels of acceptance and support might be proxies for some other factor.

    Further, the general evidence for school bullying is that only quite authoritarian measures with negative consequences for bullying work, and that general education and attitude change is not useful (and in fact may be counterproductive in some cases). Bullying is a tricky thing, and the Safe Schools people presume without evidence that anti-LGBTIQ+ bullies are primarily driven by negative attitudes on gender and sexuality rather than the fact of discrimination making those kids ready targets for bullies. Obviously the evaluation of the program may show that it works, but so far we don’t know and people shouldn’t go around saying it is already “evidence-based” unless they also explain the evidence is indirect and presumptive.

    1. Hiya Tad,

      Thanks as always for your useful comments. I don’t really have much to say in this bit except that that was really useful to me. I may have to read some more about the program in full before I can comment completely.

  4. i’ll make a couple of brief points in reply, ahead of a longer reply. There were different parts to my essay in Crikey, addressing different things, and the authors here have reversed the order to a degree (not a criticism).

    1) one argument I made was that Safe Schools – and in particular the Building Better Relationships document – was supplying reasonably scripted identities (somewhat contrary to notions elsewhere in the programme, of fluidity). That suggested to me notions of state-authorised identities – a very ‘governmentalist’ process, that was contrary to the notion of fluidity that the programme’s designers were linking to empathy and acceptance. To a degree the programme had contradictions of identity vs queer that the authors are pointing to. (I’ll return to this point at the end)

    one nub of the authors’ critique of my piece is this:

    “It isn’t saying we can simply choose whatever we want to ‘be’; it is saying that we actively constitute our sexuality and gender through how we are in the world, and that is also shaped by our context. It is not saying the material world has nothing to do with sexuality and gender. It’s not that gender and sexuality aren’t real – their cultural and social construction is so complete that we experience them as material. Male bodies, for example, do not contain some ‘essential’ maleness. Queer theory would argue the reverse, that the constructions of maleness in the world, at a given historical place and time, determines our view of particular bodies as ‘male’.”

    This misses my point – i was never accusing queer theory of being voluntaristic; i was saying that its ‘materialism’, was not a materialism at all – it remains a linguistic Idealism disguised as a materialism by the post-structuralist turn.

    The authors haven’t cottoned on to how physicalist/biologistic my materialism is. I’m arguing that some categories – of which the male/female sex difference is one – are given natural categories which structure our experience. The fact that a very small number o children are born intersex, and these days, assigned surgically m or f, is a minor point. All 1200 cultures in The Ethnographic Atlas make the male/female distinction, and subordinate any ‘third’ gender or performative role to a supplementary role.

    So i don’t think history or culture tell us what a male body is; that’s what i’m arguing is the given element. The traits that different cultures have decided belong to masculinity or femininity do of course vary historically. But even then there are natural limits, dictated by specific biology (though not in the case of any individual person). You won’t find a culture that designates men as primary nurturers and women as primary aggressors for example.

    That relates then to the question of normativity – and it’s with the notion of ‘normativity’ that identity politics and queer politics have a common base, in the notion of cultural arbitrariness.

    I don’t believe that the dominance of heterosexuality in social life is due to the imposition of normativity – i think it’s biologically selected for by natural and sexual selection. On top of that there will be a whole range – across different cultures – of the acceptability of bisexuality, the presence or absence of exclusive homosexuality, and the specific cultural forms that masculinity and femininity, and queering crossovers, take.

    (In that respect, i’d suggest the BBR approach in Safe Schools takes what, from the perspective im taking here, are simply teenage bisexual blurrings around a predominantly straight core – and with an eventual transition to simple straightness – and proposes queer identities that functioned as state-supplied identities.)

    the notion that the capitalist market needs stable forms of gender, that it compels towards family for its own purposes of production, is a piece of rusting old vulgar marxism queered up a bit. the market doesnt give a damn what form people are in, as long as a culture is commodified. capitalism doesnt have any interest in oppressing queer identities whatsoever, since such identities construct themselves thru commodified image cultures. This culture/economy connection for a queer marxism serves the purpose, in my opinion, of connecting such struggles (which are really cultural liberal struggles) to a vast epochal liberation movement like marxism. nothing within either movement necessarily connects each to the other.

    I appreciate the authors’ constructive tone, and I hope Ive shared. But I don’t think they’ve understood how wide our theoretical disagreement is.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever had comments this constructive or interesting on something I’ve written! It’s great 🙂

    Jay: Both great points! I’m familiar with some of the critiques you mentioned, though I think Simon and I are referring more to critiques of identity-based liberalism rather than materialist critiques of queer theory (such as in Guy’s original article). And absolutely agree with your second point.

    Guy: Thanks for engaging, and for writing the original article! Certainly gave us a lot to think about. And I’ll admit to being terrified at the prospect of a back and forth with someone of your intellectual reputation, so I’m grateful that we can be constructive! I think Simon’s going to comment more directly on your third point, but I’ll take a stab at the first two.

    We seem to be basically in agreement on the first point—the contradictions you point out arise, I think, from the current cultural confusion around queer theory/identity politics we describe in our article.

    On your second point, I think we *do* understand the width of our theoretical disagreement on queer theory, which is (hopefully) articulated in the article. Maybe “disagreement” would have been a better word for us to use than “misunderstanding”, re: your views on queer theory.

    I understand your position on biology, I guess I just disagree. It’s not I think there’s no relationship between biology and gender, it’s just that that relationship is so embedded in a cultural context I find it impossible (and not very useful) to argue for a deterministic view of said relationship. It is not possible to know what gender and sexuality would look like absent cultural context, and what relationship they would have to biological sex. That’s not to be taken as evidence for “cultural arbitrariness”, but it is certainly a complication. The same goes for the “biologically selected” nature of heterosexuality—different cultural standards of sexual attractiveness would seem to demonstrate the context-dependent nature of sexuality in general, and the capacity for the desires of an individual to change over time would seem to indicate the possibility of sexual fluidity. So I think telling young people heterosexuality (which I would consider a “state-supplied identity”, though again, as with any sexuality, not one without a relationship to biology) isn’t, even for most, a biological inevitability is simply an acknowledgement of the context-dependent nature of sexuality. On some level I’d agree that offering “alternative” identities to slot into is a problem (and one rooted in identity politics, not queer theory) given the cultural dominance of heterosexuality (which again, I’m not saying has no relationship whatsoever to biology) maybe it’s necessary to use such a blunt instrument.

    The ethnographic/typological approach is interesting, but limited—the apparent cross-cultural universality of a given relationship between biology and gender does indicate a relationship between those things (which I don’t think we’ve ever denied, nor would most queer theorists) but I don’t think it says anything essential about what that relationship looks like.

    Like I said, I think we do understand where you’re coming from, we probably just disagree.

    1. Hi Guy/Ben,

      Thanks for the great comments. It’s really been good to read. I would say that I largely endorse Ben’s comments above but would like to add something on your third comment Guy.

      You said in your comment that:

      “the notion that the capitalist market needs stable forms of gender, that it compels towards family for its own purposes of production, is a piece of rusting old vulgar marxism queered up a bit. the market doesnt give a damn what form people are in, as long as a culture is commodified. capitalism doesnt have any interest in oppressing queer identities whatsoever, since such identities construct themselves thru commodified image cultures.”

      I think this is probably the area where I disagree with you most. Maybe I’ve got a bit of vulgar Marxism within me (which I don’t think I have a problem with) but I think there is a direct correlation between capitalism and the needs for stable forms of gender relationships.

      To me this comes down to the question of reproduction, and the inherent needs for capitalism for reproduction. Here I think my materialism is a bit more biological than we were able to explore in this article. I would argue that capitalism requires an ongoing drive for reproduction and that biological females were/remain the only members of society who were able to provide that service. As capitalists were and remain unwilling to pay for services such as maternity leave or childcare women were and are forced to remain in the home to look after the next swathe of workers. Maybe this is something we would all likely agree on.

      But I would argue that this has a direct relationship with how we view gender and our gender relationships. With the industrial revolution women were able to break many of the old familial ties they had and to gain some form of economic independence (through entering factories). Given this it was, and increasingly remains hard, for the ruling classes to convince women to focus their energies on reproduction. It is after the industrial revolution, and in particular during the Victorian era, therefore that we see a range of cultural interventions in order to shape the way we view gender. To be a good woman began to be seen more and more as to be devoted to your husband, and willing to spend your hours devoted to his needs. Women were once again seen as chastise, with this quality being reinforced in order to ensure women dedicated themselves to particular men. There’s a lot more examples of this, but what I am arguing is that there were particular cultural interventions around the nature of gender to reinforce the needs of capitalist accumulation.

      I would argue this expands to queerness as well. For centuries capitalists tried to crush queer identities, primarily due to threats queers could place to the inherent needs of the system — the focus on reproduction and the ability to pass on capital to future generations. It is only when queers (i.e. gays and lesbians) have started to conform more generally to the ideals of the capitalist family that we have slowly begun to be accepted.

      So I guess I disagree with the idea that “the market doesnt give a damn what form people are in” as there are particular forms which present real threats to the markets. It is only when minorities have been able to shift their identities to fit the needs of the market that we’ve seen a full acceptance into the capitalist system.

    2. hi ben

      as regards the biology/culture question, the question is whether the relationship can be described as cultural embededness, or whether it should be described as the biological determination of the range and limits of sex/body possibility, within which culture works
      In that sense biology can be reliably said to determine certain things – that all gender identities are various combinations of the two naturally occurring sexes, for example – that are then present to us as (multiple, innumerable) cultural meanings. That’s one way in which it’s not embedded.

      A second way is by examining universal (or virtually so) behaviours that can admit of no other explanation but biological determination. Two specifics forms of violence – mass (non-political/military) killing of strangers with weapons of force, and predatory serial murder – would appear to be totally male-perpetrated (even the occasional solo woman serial killer turfed up usually turns out to be something else). That would suggest that some behaviours are barred to one or other of the sexes, due to the particularities of biological makeup. To suggest that such exclusivity is a product of cultural construction – when all other roles and behaviours, from the mid-60s onwards, that were barred to women have been, to varying degrees, adopted by them – requires an explanation so elaborate and particular, that it simply refutes itself as a materialist theory of human life. The biological determinist explanation has to be the far simpler, stronger explanatory approach.
      From that stark example, one might say that an approaching putting more weight – as a general and statistical approach – on the biological limits to social-cultural role variance would be of use.
      For example, if we concluded that there are overall limits to women’s propensity to violence, and overall limits to men’s capacity to orient to infants and toddlers (to take just two examples) we might develop a substantially different radical and liberatory sex/gender politics, to the principles we have now – which are based on an assumption of total gender flexibility which remains unproven, and contradicted by the evidence of past decades.

      In that sense one would say that it is possible that biological sex difference that is relatively more hard-wired than we supposed has the capacity to ‘over-ride’ cultural practices that are established as matters of conscious cultural intent. That would matter greatly for the design of social policy

  6. simon

    As a matter of historical fact, i don’t see how one can say that the enforcement of the stable family was due to fear that people would abandon heterosexuality as a mass practice. Enforcing stable reproduction, care of children, for future workers, and soldiers, sure. But is there any sense that people were going to abandon child-having, per se?
    Currently, there seems no evidence at all for your argument. Capitalism grows by expanding the circuit of commodification – drawing non-waged housewives into wage labour from the mid-1960s on has been one of the greatest instances of that in the system’s history. Far from wanting to avoid childcare, it welcomes it as a vast new market. Nor does birth rate bear any positive relation to traditional family structure. Quite the contrary. Italy and Spain have birthrates round 1.1-1.3 (2.1/female is the full replacement rate). Sweden with 40% single mothers, and universal childcare has a rate of 1.7. Decriminalisation and demarginalisation of homosexuality appears to have occurred at the same time as capitalism became a total world system. Lethal homophobia appears to come from the traditional parts of incompletely capitalised societies, which retain a feudal/religious element – and is aimed at capitalism’s cosmopolitanising effects (the irrelevance of the character of buyer and seller in exchange value). Childless adults, straight and non-, appear to have high-spending habits that a demand-starved economy now relies upon. So i can’t see how there’s any evidence for the proposition at all. It appears to require an external element – capitalism – to explain the dominance of a particular form – heterosexuality – which autonomously reproduces itself under any and all conditions.

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