Sexuality Policy Watch

Echoing Butler’s refusal

By Rosalind Petchesky and Sonia Corrêa*

Judith Butler’s refusal to receive the Berlin Christopher Street Day (Gay Pride) Civil Courage Prize echoed ideas we have discussed in Sexuality, Health and Human Rights (2008). In the book we deliberately opted to avoid the term ‘fundamentalism’ – which is extensively used by sexual rights activists  – to describe all manifestations of religious dogmatism, extremism, or other ideological operations through which contemporary religions are being remade. One reason behind this choice is that the term ‘fundamentalism’ is historically and contextually specific to Protestant sects that emerged in the USA in the early twentieth century and thus inapplicable to phenomena as varied as long-standing revivalist currents within Islam or the Hindu regressive ideology (Hindutva). But we we also agree with Ayesha Imam that:

“… the stereotype of a single, unified, divinely revealed ‘Islamic law’ is
false, whether in terms of historical and empirical accuracy or as
jurisprudential principle. However this principle has been useful to
Muslim conservatives and the religious right as well as to Islamophobes
in the West. ” (Imam 2005, p. 76)

Sexuality, Health and Human Rights as well as other documents and the website of SPW have taken a consistent position that critiques not only religious extremism of all types but also the uses of “anti-fundamentalism” to target Muslims, to support (even implicitly) Western exceptionalism, and to align with the war on terror. We thus heartily join with the queer anti-racist group SUSPECT in praising Butler’s arguments’ for refusing the award and provide a link to their statement below. As Butler demonstrates so eloquently, we have to question always the racisms and other exclusions we may be promoting in the name of gender justice and sexual liberation. In their statement, SUSPECT credit the important work of Jasbir Puar as one main source informing some of Butler’s thinking in making this politically courageous move. We therefore thought it would be productive to share with those who visit the SPW website some relevant excerpts from Puar’s book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke University Press, 2007):

On “autocritique”

“It is easy, albeit painful, to point to the conservative elements of any political formation; it is less easy, and perhaps much more painful, to point to ourselves as accomplices of certain normativizing violences.” (p. 24)

On queer Islamophobia in Europe

“Shortly after the (2005 London) bombings, OutRage! claimed that it had received death threats from various Muslim organizations. Among other groups, OutRage! is codifying, for Europeans but also implicitly for Americans, that Muslims are an especial threat to homosexuals, that Muslim fundamentalists have deliberately and specifically targeted homosexuals, and that the parameters of this opposition correlate with those of the war on terror: civilization versus barbarianism. As with [Pim] Fortuyn [right-wing gay politician in the Netherlands] and OutRage!, we are witnessing, from vastly different corners, the rise of homonormative Islamophobia in the global North, whereby homonormative and queer gay men can enact forms of national, racial, or other belongings by contributing to a collective vilification of Muslims.” (pp. 20-21)

On race, sexuality, and the “ascendancy of whiteness”

“. . . the ascendancy of whiteness [a formulation Puar draws from the queer literary theorist Rey Chow] [is not] strictly bound to heterosexuality, though it is bound to homonormativity. That is to say, we can indeed mark a specific historical shift: the project of whiteness is assisted and benefited by homosexual populations that participate in the same identitarian and economic hegemonies as those hetero subjects complicit with this ascendancy. The homonormative aids the project of heteronormativity through the fractioning away of queer alliances in favor of adherence to the reproduction of class, gender, and racial norms. The ascendancy of heteronormativity, therefore, is not tethered to heterosexuals; neither is it discretely delimited to white people, though it is bound to whiteness. This is where the good ethnic comes in. While the good (straight) ethnic has been a recipient of ‘measures of benevolence,’ that is, folded into life, for several decades now, the (white) homonormative is a more recent entrant of this benevolence (civil rights and market) that produces affective be/longing that never fully rewards its captives yet nonetheless fosters longing and yearning as affects of nationalism. . . . Taken together, these figures play and are played off each other to cohere a pernicious binary that has emerged in the post-civil rights era in legislative, activist, and scholarly realms: the homosexual other is white, the racial other is straight.” (pp. 31-32)

On gay marriage

“Gay marriage, ‘less about gay rights and more about codifying an ideal of European values,’ has become a steep but necessary insurance premium in Europe, whereby an otherwise ambivalent if not hostile populace can guarantee that extra bit of security that is bought by yet another market in the distance between barbarism and civilization, one that justifies further targeting of a perversely sexualized and racialized Muslim population (pedophilic, sexually lascivious and excessive, yet perversely repressed) who refuse to properly assimilate, in contrast to the upright homosexuals engaged in sanctioned kinship norms. Gay marriage reform thus indexes the racial and civilizational disjunctures between Europeans and Muslims, while effacing the circuits of political economy (class, immigration) that underpin such oppositions. While the conflict is increasingly articulated as one between queers and Muslims, what is actually at stake is the policing of rigid boundaries of gender difference and the kinship forms most amenable to their maintenance.” (p. 20)

On homonationalism (post 9/11)

“Paralleling an uneasy yet urgent folding in of homosexuality into the ‘us’ of the ‘us-versus-them’ nationalist rhetoric, LGBTIQ constituencies took up the patriotic call in various modalities. Gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan came out in favor of bombing Afghanistan and advocated ‘gender-patriotism’: butching up and femme-ing down to perform the virility of the American nation, a political posture implying that emasculation is unseemly and unpatriotic. The American flag appeared everywhere in gay spaces, in gay bars and gay gyms, and gay pride parades became loaded with national performatives and symbolism: the pledge of allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, and floats dedicated to national unity. . . . Many gays and queers identified with the national populous as ‘victims of terrorism’ by naming gay and queer bashing a form of terrorism; some claimed it was imperative to support the war on terror in order to ‘liberate’ homosexuals in the Middle East.” (p. 43)

“. . . the nation is not only heteronormative, but also homonormative. Reading nonnormative gay, homosexual, and queer bodies through the nation, not against it, is to acknowledge that (some) nations are productive of nonnormative sexualities, not merely repressive of them. There are at least three deployments of homonationalism that bolster the nation. First, it reiterates heterosexuality as the norm; for example, the bid for gay marriage accords an ‘equal but different’ status (equal to the heterosexual norm of marriage for gay and queer monogamous relationships). Second, it fosters nationalist homosexual positionalities indebted to liberalism (through normative kinship forms as well as through consumption spheres that set up state/market dichotomies), which then police (through panopticon and profile) non-nationalist nonnormative sexualities. Third, it enables a transnational discourse of U.S. sexual exceptionalism vis-à-vis perversely racialized bodies of pathologized nationalities (both inside and outside U.S. borders), as the violence in Abu Ghraib . . . horrifically lays bare.” (pp. 50-51)


*Rosalind Petchesky and Sonia Corrêa are member of the SPW’s Steering Committee

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