This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017.
As Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143). In the midst of the contemporary nuclear crisis, the never ending debate about marriage equality seems a fitting topic to apply the theoretical questions I’d like to explore today, about whether we can and should – and indeed how we should – hope for a better world.
So the story goes: “it gets better”. This is a common refrain of LGBTIQ youth services in Australia. “It gets better” refers to the promise that when you leave school, you won’t have to deal with bullies any longer – you’ll be free to live your life as a happy LGBTIQ person. Now, for many of us, this isn’t totally wrong. Leaving the social intensity of the schoolyard and becoming independent from family units, can mean that we are able to find new communities of acceptance.
But how cruel might this hopeful promise be, when bigotry can be canvassed as state-sanctioned “legitimate debate”, as we are seeing now? When homophobic and transphobic ideas are not originating from the schoolyard itself – as we know, people aged 15-24 are the most avid supporters of marriage equality – but are being shown on television during the nightly news? Perhaps the promise to our children of “it gets better” is a cruel one.
As Lauren Berlant writes, “When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (2007, 33). For the “yes” campaign, marriage equality has become the object of desire that contains within it a cluster of promises: a hope about what will get better and for whom.
But cruel is the optimism of the segments of the “yes” campaign that refuse to confront the homophobia and transphobia emerging in the debate, and instead seek to win hearts and minds on the basis of respectability, normality, and the idea that “love” is indeed “love”. As Berlant argues, it is a cruel optimism that operates where we live with the toxic conditions of the present labouring under the view that the future will “somehow” deliver something better.
And indeed it is cruelly optimistic to imagine what that future will entail if we do not question the social constitution of futurity in the first instance. As Lee Edelman (1998) argues, it is the child that acts as the pervasive cultural “emblem” of the future, the ultimate signifier of the hope of tomorrow. Edelman explains that while the left operates under a liberalism that sees the elasticity of this signifier extend – children can still signify the future despite queer family arrangements – conservatives cling to a more intense vision of social rupture, that must preserve such signifiers at all costs. The child is not only a symbol of a future horizon, but also a concretely heterosexual future, where heterosexuality is to reproduction is to the child is to the future operate in a circular and spectacular logic.
This is precisely what we have seen playing out for over a decade, albeit more sharply in recent times, in the marriage equality debate. While the right have repeated the refrain, “think of the children”, the left too have taken up this mantle, constantly leaning on statistics about the welfare of queer youth or children from queer families in order to make a point of the utter sameness of the child under queer circumstances. In this envisioning, the queer child doesn’t queer the future, rather, the queerness of the child is contained in order to suggest that there is very little threat – only a slight extension – to the more conservative vision.
As the recent GetUp ad for marriage equality suggests, in the words of the mother in the heterosexual nuclear family unit, “kids learn their values at home, from their parents, that’s why we’ll vote yes in the upcoming marriage equality vote. And if she asks, we’ll tell her it’s about fairness and kindness”. In this ad there is the removal of the threat of queering of the child, who is represented as safe from having to learn about sexuality or gender diversity because she learns her values from “the family” rather than through programs like Safe Schools. We learn in this ad that marriage equality is no challenge to the social logic of heterosexual normativity: this is the vision of transformation under marriage equality – total preservation of the existing social order.
But Edelman suggests a different approach to this logic is possible. As Edelman writes: “fuck the social order and the figural children paraded before us as its terroristic emblem; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Miz; fuck the poor innocent kid on the ‘Net; fuck Laws both with capital ‘L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (1998, 29). Edelman utterly refuses the “sweetness” of hope and investment in a future, and instead endorses a queer negativity soaks in the bitterness of the present.
We might wonder about the astringency of Edelman’s anti-social thesis, in light of the fact that attachment to “same-sex marriage” is currently being enacted by many as a mode of survival. Many have thrown themselves into fighting for a yes campaign precisely in order to assist a striving toward a “getting better”. We might also question the limits of Edelman’s radical presentism and anti-futurity, and if a different kind of future envisioning might be possible without a cruel investment in inevitable progress.
As some have pointed out, Edelman reduces ‘a’ version of the future to ‘the’ version of the future – more radical imaginings of opening up spaces of possibility for queer lives are rendered as as problematic as hegemonic dominant visions of how the future “ought” to be conserved (White 2013, 33). Could there then be a glimmer of a different set of possibilities, a transformed social order, and another logic, to be found? Rather than a cruel and unrupturing hope, can a queer hope be possible?
As José Esteban Muñoz offers, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1). Here Muñoz suggests that we might adopt a concrete utopian imagining where, “the hopes of the collective” are connected to real, lived struggle in the historical present. In other words, we might have “educated hope” (3). In contrast to Edelman, Muñoz insists on the importance of hope as a critical tool, where “hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia…profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broken-down present” (12).
However as Teresa de Lauretis (2011) also contends, we must read Edelman’s point about negativity not as a call to negativity as the political act, but rather the reflection of a condition of society, the death drive at the heart of it all, where there is always the attempt to overcome and resolve this with positivity and hope. Edelman’s imagining is heterotopic as he reflects this death drive back at us, but argues against its resolution.
Similarly Anne Cvetkovich’s (2007) work extends this heterotopic view of society, to get to the “depression” at the heart of things, that is, not the negativity and negation of life, but more specifically the feelings that are part and parcel of occupying this world. As feminists have long argued, “the personal is political”, and we might also extend this to say that we feel politics at the level of the body. Cvetkovich argues that affective states like depression can be political – because while they can be antisocial (in quite a literal way – through withdrawal), there is also the possibility that a new sociality may form through making-public these affective states.
But in making the negativity at the heart of things public rather than private, we can also become targeted as the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem. As Sara Ahmed illustrates, the figure of the feminist kill joy who offers critique and anger can be seen as the source of unhappiness: “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (2010, 582). In other words, unveiling already circulating – but hidden – negativity is risky business.
While we focus solely on concepts like fairness and kindness, positivity, good stories, the “good homosexual”, or the “unqueer queer child”, the bad feelings at the heart of the marriage equality debate remain occluded and politically impotent. To fail to recognise and name the homophobia and transphobia that are proliferating under conservative discussions in the marriage equality debate is to inadvertently reiterate a narrative of a heteronormative future where “it gets better”. To engage in a queer hopefulness then, is not to shy away from negativity, but rather, to embrace the possible world that it reveals to us.
It is only in confronting those elements of the present that we would rather deny, from which a truly utopian vision might emerge. In this case, my educated hope is that we will have a marriage equality debate that confronts homophobia and transphobia, that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and that makes space for the LGBTIQ community well beyond the question of marriage.