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Bisexuality in the Present Tense

“…a particular temporal framing of sexuality has cast bisexuality in the past or future but never in the present tense” – Steven Angelides, A History of Bisexuality

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TwentyBiTeen
2019 has been dubbed – by the collective consciousness of the Internet – “TwentyBiTeen“. It follows from “TwentyGayTeen” last year (and we’re all looking forward to what 2020 will yield).

I’ve struggled to write about bisexuality, a hint perhaps at the deep ways that biphobia lodges within oneself. Now in a long term gay relationship, I’ve found that my previous loud and proud bisexual identification (which I frequently deployed to demand inclusion in queer spaces), has faded, and my silence leaves me feeling like a traitor to my bisexual kin. Like Willow from Buffy, I’ve felt little need to bring up my past as relevant to my current to my identity, and I tend to use the terms “queer”, “gay”, or even “dyke”, to fudge the question. My sense is that there are a lot of bisexuals in “gay” relationships, we just don’t talk about it. But now, this year of TwentyBiTeen, with multiple bisexual texts appearing to haunt me on a daily basis(!), it’s time to confront the question. 

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Bisexual characters on TV are on the rise

As a recent GLAAD report suggests, bisexual representation in popular culture is on the rise – at least on television – but figures are still disproportionately low given findings that suggest at least half of the LGBTQ population (in the USA) identifies as bisexual.

This marginal but increasing representation raises the crucial question of how bisexual identity is being conveyed. This is particularly important to consider given the insidious and harmful tropes that underpin biphobia, including: 1) that bisexuals have “straight privilege”; 2) that it is merely a temporary fluctuation between the fixed poles of gay or straight; 3) that bisexuals are confused, greedy, and/or risky when it comes to love and sex. Are contemporary representations resisting these tropes, or repeating them?

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Angelides’ History of Bisexuality was published in 2001

Bisexuality in the Past/Future
As Steven Angelides describes in A History of Bisexuality, even in its most utopian iterations bisexuality has been understood as a starting point or end point of human sexuality, rather than something that is possible as a stable position in the present.

He describes how Sigmund Freud imagines sexuality as multi-directional and dispersed across the body (“polymorphous perversity”), that then develops into “healthy” heterosexual desire. In this way Freud offers a rather radical understanding of sexuality as innately bisexual, but fixes bisexuality distinctly in the past. On the flip side, Angelides describes how Gay Liberation in the 1970s held bisexuality up as an ideal form of liberated human sexuality, though one that would not be possible without the revolution/destruction of compulsory heterosexuality. In this way, bisexuality was located as always in the future.

Gay Pride Celebrated At Annual Los Angeles Parade

The bi flag was designed in 1998(!) by Michael Page

Angelides suggests that seeing bisexuality as impossible in the present is used to maintain the binary distinctions upon which both Freud’s theories and Gay Liberation were based – male/female, man/woman, gay/straight. To accept bisexuality in the present would be to trouble this organisation. Bisexuality is a threat. As Marjorie Garber writes, “The more borders to patrol, the more border crossings”.

f8bb9a2eeea982d1e2b83aa939622837Bisexuals (and especially bisexual men) have often been seen to “contaminate” straight life. This was most explicitly seen in the midst of the AIDS crisis, during which bisexuals were represented as adulterous hyper-sexual types who risked spreading the disease to the “normal” population. Similarly, gay communities have rejected bisexuals as “risky”, as seen in the 1990s following a rise in homophobic street attacks when the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras effectively limited the ability of non-LGT individuals becoming members. In many ways this kind of thinking was a hangover of 1970s lesbian feminism, which presumed sex with men was akin to “sleeping with the enemy”. This history illustrates how the terms of sexual violence and compulsory heterosexuality create fault-lines in our community.

In this era of TwentyBiTeen, with bi rep on the rise, we might wonder how and if bisexuality is being rendered possible in the “present tense”. To explore these questions I offer an examination of three key bisexual texts I’ve come across lately that philosophise bisexuality and complicate the tropes that underpin biphobia: Desiree Akhavan’s drama TV series The Bisexual, Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations with Friends, and Channel 10 Australia’s reality show Bachelor in Paradise.

Different Worlds in The Bisexual (Desiree Akhavan)
This six part television series debuted in October 2018, and follows the sexual and romantic pursuits of Leila (Desiree Akhavan) after her break up with long-term girlfriend Sadie (Maxine Peake). In pursuing sex and relationships with men, Leila finds herself not only having to confront her own biases about bisexuality (“it makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance”), but finds herself on the outer from her previously comfortable queer world. As Akhavan who co-created and directed the series, described to The New York Times:

“I heard myself described as ‘the bisexual’ at every other introduction: ‘the bisexual filmmaker,’ ‘the bisexual Iranian-American,’ ‘the bisexual Lena Dunham’…For some reason, hearing that word made my stomach flip, in a non-fun way. And I wanted to explore that”. 

This show grapples with and complicates the trope of bisexual “straight privilege”, that is, the idea that bisexuals can simply “choose” to partner straight and therefore not experience homophobia. The Bisexual negates this assumption, showing the pressure and pain of occupying bisexual identity in a world organised into distinctly gay and straight worlds. While Leila’s desire is multi-directional, the reality of adapting to heterosexual gender expectations is jarring. In this way The Bisexual explores an idea otherwise papered over by claims that “love is love”, but that is abundantly apparent to bisexuals, as Leila states: “you’re gay or you’re straight and one comes with an entirely different lifestyle”.

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Leila finds herself at odds with gay and straight cultures

The experience of gay coupling versus straight coupling as a bisexual person can seem qualitatively different not because of something intrinsic to gender, but because of these different worlds. For one, if you are in a “gay” relationship, a fear of homophobia can inform and structure daily life (holding hands in public, booking a holiday, family Christmas).

But more than that, the system of gender relations permeates everyday life in a way that partner dynamics in “straight” relationships as a bisexual person can also box you into narrow roles that you have to actively resist. This also plays out in “gay” relationships, but when the world’s not asking you “when are you getting married?”, “when are you having babies?”, etc, you’re operating in a different arena of expectations (for better or worse). As a bisexual person this experience of different, somewhat incommensurable, worlds is very discombobulating. It is also painful to realise these different social worlds exist, precisely because one cannot simply dictate one’s desires.

Parallel Loves in Conversations with Friends (Sally Rooney)

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Conversations with Friends was published in 2017

I never read the back of books, so I was surprised when the main character in everyone’s favourite Sally Rooney novel turned out to identify as bisexual. The story follows Frances, and her romances and encounters with her best friend and ex-lover Bobbi, and with a married couple Nick and Melissa.

“Don’t say ‘just bisexual’ she said. Frances is bisexual, you know. 
I didn’t know that, Melissa said. 
I chose to drag on my cigarette for a long time before saying anything. I knew that everyone was waiting for me to speak. 
Well, I said. Yeah, I’m kind of an omnivore. 
Melissa laughed at that. Nick looked at me and gave an amused smile, which I looked away from quickly and pretended to take an interest in my glass. 
Me too, Melissa said”.

Unlike The Bisexual, in Conversations with Friends there is no major schism between gay and straight worlds, even as we see different intimate and sexual dynamics play out along gendered lines. The trope that this work upends is the idea that bisexuality is a temporary fluctuation between gay and straight. Instead, for Frances bisexuality means having simultaneous desires and parallel loves that are also braided together, working to resist common understandings of romantic love as monoamorous.

To be clear, the work does not make Frances’ sexual identity the major plot drama – nothing hangs on her having to “choose” an orientation. Neither can we really claim that all of Frances’ actions are functional, and she is deeply flawed. But the representation here is an experiment with characters on a stage where the rules of heteronormativity have limited bearing, or at least, where the characters are trying their hardest to come up with “alternative models of loving”. These are characters simply negotiating the stickiness of love and desire, where gay and straight are not opposing poles, but rather, there are no poles. They barely factor into the equation.

Dangerous Desires in Bachelor in Paradise (Channel 10)

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Alex Nation and Brooke Blurton share a kiss on their date

For those unacquainted, Bachelor in Paradise is that particular circle of reality TV hell that involves ex-contestants from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette trapped on a Fijian island. All still “looking for love”, they are given copious amounts of alcohol and made to pair up via “rose ceremonies” where men and women take turns to choose partners. This season featured Brooke Blurton and Alex Nation, two women who openly identify as being attracted to both men and women. This show engages with the trope of bisexuals as greedy/confused/risky, (shamefully) not by rejecting these tropes, but rather by laying them out for all to see.

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When Brooke and Alex first appear in the series, they repeat every negative idea of bisexuality in the book: “I’m just greedy!” “I just can’t make up my mind!” “I’m confused!” and on. Similarly other contestants repeat stereotypes, describing the women as “very sexual beings”, and men hinting they would “like to be a fly on the wall” for them getting together. Interestingly, at first their bisexuality is accepted without drama (at least that’s the edit). The hyper-sexualisation of bisexual women, and widespread assumption that bisexual women will always end up with men, means that women’s bisexuality in the context of other straight people is not always perceived as a “threat”. 

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The men’s faces when Alex chooses Brooke for a date

However later in the show we see exactly how “threatening” bisexuality can be to the laws of heterosexuality, when Alex chooses Brooke to go on a date. Both women already have men who they are interested in on the island, which for Brooke includes a man also called Alex. The men start “freaking out” as it means that the women might give each other their “roses” and send un-partnered men home. In (what I read as) a poetic sign of bisexuality’s ability to smash gender hegemony, the men start saying things like “It’s over for us boys”, “Paradise is under threat”, and “Paradise is over”. Here we learn that all along “Paradise” was merely a synonym for the boozey swamp of heteropatriarchy.

A few episodes later, when Alex tells Brooke she’s more keen to “explore her feelings” for another (man) contestant, Brooke is heartbroken. In spite of all the biphobic guff we’ve had to endure as viewers, what’s beautiful about this event is that Brooke calls off her simmering relationship with the other (man) Alex and decides to leave the island, which acts as a kind of metaphor for the viewer – bisexuality is impossible in Paradise, so no Alex can be loved.

Bisexuality is a present

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I think this image speaks for itself

All of this is to say, the representation of bisexuality today is uneven, but where bisexual voices are at the creative centre (as in The Bisexual) tropes can be reworked and resisted in complicated ways. Unlike The Bisexual or Conversations with Friends, Bachelor in Paradise is neither high production television nor well regarded literary fiction. Perhaps then, as a mass entertainment example, it is the most important sign that despite headway bisexuality is often represented with deferral to old tropes.

What all of these texts do reveal however, is that, for those lucky enough to find themselves in the bisexual position, bisexuality can be a gift. It means often occupying a liminal space that gives you a distinct view of gender and sexual expectations.

I’ll end on this note from Jonathan Alexander who explores his bisexuality in his essay with Karen Yescavagae “Bisexuality, Queerness and Identity Politics”. After describing growing up in a highly religious homophobic family/community he reflects:

“Still, despite this abuse, I had a crush on a boy, a young Latino named Domingo. I plotted and planned how to become friends with him, and though we never ‘did’ anything, I suspected that my interest in him (and his khaki-clad bottom, his hot pink undershirt, his luxuriant Navy pea coat) was bringing me perilously close to the forbidden realm of faggotry. My internal confusion, my soul-searching cognitive dissonance was intense: could something I want so much really be so evil? Imagine my confusion when I left the all-boy environment of high school to attend university and finding myself interested in some of the young women in my classes. (I might be safe after all!) I developed a crush on a classmate, Laura, and I eventually married another fellow student, Tara, some years later. Still, my interest in men continued, and I felt buffeted back and forth – a buffeting that ended my marriage.

I eventually ‘came out’ as bisexual, thinking that’s the term that best describes my ‘condition’. I developed a primary relationship with another man (with whom I still live), but my interest in women – as intimate friends and even subjects of desire – continues. Many of my gay friends scoff at this, wondering how I could ‘stand’ vaginal sex. But I like it. And I’ve come to see this plurality of desires as something that enriches me, that speaks to the complexity of connections I want to create with people. And I like it”. 

Jordan Peterson’s Insidious Alt-Right Rhetoric

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Jordan Peterson: Just wants to be your father figure and restore some chaos to this overly feminine world

There’s a lot not to like about Jordan Peterson. His critiques of gender quotas. His rise to infamy because of his stand against gender neutral pronouns. His suggestion that men are biologically programmed to assault women and that this can only be reigned in through marriage.

The problem is, he is a master of persuasion.

Even though Peterson has admitted “I choose my words very, very carefully”, there has not been enough attention on why this means he can get away with saying some pretty shocking things without widespread condemnation. Studying Peterson’s linguistic tactics reveals exactly how he seems to come across as reasonable, even when he is suggesting something heinous (e.g. that the gender pay gap is biologically determined). Peterson simply uses the oldest trick in the persuasion book: Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos. Identifying these aspects of Peterson’s jargon is useful for revealing him for what he is: an “alt” right-wing crusader trying to convince the world his ideas are rational.

First, ethos. In Aristotle’s terms ethos refers to establishing one’s credibility, that is, expertise, authority, and character. That is why you will always see Peterson start off with a reference to his credentials. This opening of one of his blog posts (a rebuke to a mother’s letter about how she is glad to see Jordan Peterson fail because he is unduly influencing her teenage sons) illustrates how he does this:

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Gosh with SO many important things to do you’d think Peterson would hardly have time to complain about women

In subtle ways, Peterson establishes his authority as a lecturer, author, and spokesperson you should trust. When this is questioned he makes sure his followers know about it:

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Drawing on ethos (but also perhaps just indicates a fragile ego)

Secondly, pathos. Pathos is all about appealing to emotional sensibilities of the audience. We see it in the blog post above when he draws the reader in with reference to “thoughtful and heartfelt and positive” feedback that he gets. This sits in contrast to the end of that same blog post, where he draws on “despair”, “sadness”, “cynicism”, and “malaise” to eventually implicitly suggest that women who worry about their teenage sons becoming men’s rights activists threaten “our entire culture”.

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wow wait how did we get here

His inducement of pathos was most starkly on show during Peterson’s last visit to Australia when he notoriously “reduced himself to tears” talking about the state of the world:

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TRUE. WISDOM. TEARS.

The whole performance elicits the feeling that Peterson is just a regular guy who really cares, y’know (but also don’t forget, he is a Professor so he definitely knows better than you).

This finally brings us to logos, the crux of Peterson’s art of persuasion, and something that he has written a lot about. In general terms logos means using reason and logic. Historically, logos refers to the idea of a “principle of order“. Peterson’s particular logic involves appealing to pseudo-biological-science and vaguely Christian tenets about love, truth, and so on. Peterson’s dialogue both constructs and appeals to this “common sense” logic that underpins Western thinking. This is exemplified by his whole schtick, of defending “free speech” (not hate speech, “logic”) and his new book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” (i.e. rules and logic, not chaos). Here are these so-called rules:

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How could anyone who likes to pet cats in the street be accused of misogyny my goodness

None of these rules seem as heinous as say, suggesting that incels killing women is a reasonable response to women denying men sex. He presents a front of reasonable rationality, to obscure his radical conservative agenda.

Peterson has even been sneaky enough to cover his persuasion technique tracks by suggesting that the real problem is women/feminists/nagging mothers/hysterical hags (they’re all the same thing right?) just don’t believe in logic or dialogue:

They believe that logic is part of the process by which the patriarchal institutions of the West continue to dominate and to justify their dominance. They don’t believe in dialogue. The root word of dialogue is Logos. Again they don’t believe that people of good will can come to consensus through the exchange of ideas. 

Peterson laments – if only we could all come to the table and break bread together we’d see that his logic is the true logic of the universe!

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Imagine, it must be exhausting making money off being patronising to women

All of this – pointing out Peterson’s use of ethos, pathos, and logos – is just a fancy way of saying what Harrison Fluss has more eloquently said in Jacobin: “he’s full of shit”. But, this is also a dangerous, and frankly exhausting, rhetoric that those of us on the (amorphous) left are constantly having to battle with. This is the kind of rhetoric that means when right wing protestors killed a young woman in Charlottesville, the response is that there is violence “on both sides”.

Peterson represents nothing more than the “alt” right-wing agenda promoting traditional gender roles, men’s dominance over women, white supremacy, and the rejection of gender diversity that is unfolding across the world. Deconstructing Peterson’s persuasion tactics we can see what is really going on: smooth-talking and bad politics.

A Theory of Femininity

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Released with Routledge January 2018

In January of 2018 my first book (based on my PhD research) Queering Femininity: Sexuality, Feminism, and the Politics of Presentation was published with Routledge. I also made the book into a zine for people to engage with given the prohibitive price tag. Queering Femininity engages with both an archive of Western feminist texts and interviews with self-identified queer femmes from the LGBTIQ community in Australia, in order to think through the queer potential of femininity. By ‘queer potential’ I mean, can we ever think about femininity as something that disrupts or ‘makes strange’? Or must we see femininity as always already problematic if we are to engage with it critically?

 

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My zine based on the book

As I found in my analysis of feminist texts, there is (unsurprisingly) a long history of feminist critiques of femininity, where feminine styles of the body are understood as evidence of patriarchal oppression. Here, what is identified as femininity is often collapsed into surface and “masquerade”, even when talking about behaviors or roles. This issue of feminine styles causes issues for those who identify as queer femme, who often find themselves in a space of being unrecognisable as queer in both straight and LGBTIQ contexts (they are assumed to be heterosexual). Yet, I also found that the queer femme response to the inability of the world to see the queer potential of femininity was frequently to over-invest in feminine surface styles (for example, through exaggeration or attempting to signify queer ‘mistakes’ in their presentation). It seemed to me that in many cases this contributed to anxiety about being “queer enough” – an outcome that seemed antithetical to the concerns raised by queer femmes in the first place.

The argument that I attempt to make in response to this conundrum can be summed up in this lengthy paragraph from the conclusion:

To identify precisely who will always fail and who won’t, and in which ways, coheres the normative versus non-normative in ways that misdirect our energies. The aim of all of this must be to see that everyone is failing to meet normative expectations all the time. Everyone’s gender has queer potential precisely because of this ever-present failure. How-ever, we generally only imagine failure as going in one direction: not enough. That is, failure as a failure to meet expectations. However we can also understand failure in terms of “too much”. This is the realm of the “hyper”, the “fake”, the “excessive”. We often refer to “hyperfemininity” but don’t clearly articulate what this means. But we can understand this as meaning the “too much” – too much makeup, too much hair, the heels that are too high, the dress that is too short, the breasts that are too big, the desire that is too rampant, and so on. Interestingly femme often positions itself in this space of the “too much”, the overdone, failing femininity. However, we ought not to rely on the “too much” (or the “not enough”) as our site of resistance because a new norm inevitably fills this space – the norms of not being “too much” or “not enough” (expressed as “not queer enough”). In this way, I take the idea of queer failure to be incredibly useful, but I disagree with Halberstam that “all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner” (2011, 120). Under such a rubric, those femmes who would dance around so-called normativity, who manage to “pass” as heterosexual, and who fail to fail enough are sidelined as irrelevant, or assimilationist. Such a view misses the necessity of adaptability to normative fantasies, and the need to pass, or the desire to. While we might imagine a world where our desires could go in different and changing experimental directions, it cannot be overlooked that imagined normative spaces offer cruel but necessary shelters. With this recognition we need not celebrate norms or anti-norms as emancipatory, but rather see that the necessity of such spaces only emerges under conditions where survival is key (2018, 144).

One of the key points I was trying to make in Queering Femininity is that in response to oppressive constructs we too often invest in our individual bodies and identities as the site of the political. This works to dismiss the complex attachments and relations with our bodies and identities that cannot so neatly be enrolled in political projects without serious psychic consequences. Yet, we must still acknowledge that there are normative “ideals” of femininity that are celebrated and encouraged in society, and conversely there are non-normative ways of being (“non-ideals”) that are punished and regulated in violent ways.

Since publishing the book I’ve been thinking a lot more about these claims and how we can effectively think through the relationship between norms, structure, and the activism we commit ourselves to in order to challenge these ideals in productive ways.

Final femininity image

tumblr_static_1069I like to think in visual terms, and the diagram above (click on it to enlarge) is an attempt to sum up how we might connect structure, activism, and norms in a useful way. I’ve included a hammer here as a kind of nuanced update to that “If I had a hammer” image.

This above diagram relates to an Australian context, as a way to localise this discussion and acknowledge that alternative versions of this are needed for different contexts (even if structures are the same, their expression in local contexts may have wildly different effects in terms of “ideals”). This diagram reflects that “ideals” require an oppositional “non-ideal” in order to be intelligible (i.e. make sense). Yet rather than simply presenting the ideals versus non-ideals (which might suggest to the reader that we ought to invest our politics in embodying the non-ideals), this diagram attempts to unpack the activism, ideologies and structure that keep this system of ideals versus non-ideals propped up.

Picture3At the very base are the “structural foundations”, which accounts for the economic, colonial, and gendered power structures that are the foundation of the dominant organisation of social relations in this context. Flowing from this foundation, but also feeding back into it, are the dominant ideologies that invest in and maintain these social relations. For example, neoliberalism is an ideology that supports capitalism. Similarly White supremacy is an ideology that supports imperialism. Flowing from this, there are various forms of activism that respond to these ideologies in ways that either bolster these ideologies or reject them. The activism that bolsters these ideologies also works toward cementing what is understood as the “ideals”.

Picture2It is clear for example, that heteroactivism supports the feminine ideals of heterosexuality, cisgender identity, reproductive bodies, etc.

However, some activism that rejects the underlying dominant ideologies also inadvertently invests in “non-ideals” as a response. For example, lesbian separatist projects advocate for the “non-ideal” of homosexuality, as a political response to heterosexist ideologies. What this does is cement the boundary between the ideal and the non-ideal, by investing in the non-ideal.

This leads us to the heart of the debate around assimilation versus transgression: how ought we to respond politically to “ideals” without simply creating a new set of normative non-ideals in opposition?

This is where the hammer comes in. This represents activism that invests in neither the ideals nor the non-ideals as the political solution. For example, we can imagine forms of queer feminism that challenge ideologies of sexism, heterosexism, cissexism and so forth without advocating queer exceptionalism. The activisms listed on the hammer aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, so much as drawn out to show how they might go to the heart of challenging the (capitalist, colonial, gendered) structures at the base of ideals of femininity without rejecting or investing in femininity as a style of the body.

Picture1Perhaps this is what might mark out a new wave of (feminist and other) activism around femininity: challenging gender ideals without investing in non-ideals as the political response. From such a perspective, there is no femininity that is “empowered”. Power is exerted and ideals are enforced, but the reaction to this is to focus on the structural foundations and their ideological props rather than the individual effects alone (which might for some involve complicated attachments).

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below. Does this work at all? Is it useful? Is there anything in the wrong place, or missing altogether? What might this look like in your context? And a reminder: this is only one theory, and, a work in constant progress.

McQueen: Imagining Another World Through Fashion

This is a version of a speech I gave at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), in response to the documentary film McQueen (directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui). This speech doesn’t include any spoilers per se, but does include a reflection on some of the themes raised in the film and on McQueen as a designer more broadly. 

As feminist theorist Susan Brownmiller is often quoted, “To care about feminine fashion, and do it well, is to be obsessively involved in inconsequential details on a serious basis”. Many feminists like Brownmiller have rightly condemned the dictates of the fashion industry for enrolling women in a world of consumption, gendered styles, and bodily obsession.

6ac85b292d118c70545302b58cd9a398Yet, Lee Alexander McQueen’s vision of the possibilities of fashion to affect us on a profound emotional level juxtaposes such critiques. Tracking the autobiographical aspects of McQueen’s design, this documentary offers us a sense of artistry that cuts through ordinary understandings of fashion in terms of trends, mass production, and surface.

McQueen’s early work was seen by many as explicitly misogynistic, as he explored themes of sexual violence, rape, and genocide through fashion. Yet, as we see in the documentary, McQueen explores his own fragility through the collections – the vulnerability and strength of femininity, the power of masquerade, and the armor of clothing. As he once suggested, “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress”.

However, this empowered vision of femininity that McQueen offers does not simply recover the fashion industry from critique. As we see in the narrative of McQueen’s life, the edgy and artistic possibilities of fashion are limited by broader economic machinations.

18ab929f9a04166a9c781975c29ed237McQueen described his shows as “what’s buried in people’s psyches”. One of the things that I love most about this documentary is the use of home footage from McQueen himself, which offers us an intensely intimate glimpse of the designer. We not only get a sense of McQueen’s mind – and his obsession with death, life, and beauty – most importantly I think, we get to see the tyranny of maintaining creativity despite the stifling economics of fashion.

As feminist fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson suggests, “Capitalism maims, kills, appropriates, lays waste. It also creates great wealth and beauty, together with a yearning for lives and opportunities that remain just beyond our reach. It manufactures dreams and images as well as things, and fashion is as much a part of the dream world of capitalism as of its economy”.

McQueen struggled to fit in to the “posh” world of fashion, and to find the funds to finance his collections. The documentary also reveals the extreme pressure to produce, and how boundless creativity is funneled into measurable output.

69e5c1b4163d2ea100fca0ed2e9ea1b1McQueen once said, “My sister is an amazing artist. My brother is an amazing artist. Amazing. Much better than I am. The difference is, they thought they had no chance but to do a manual job. That really upsets me”. To survive as a designer early in his career, McQueen had to live on almost nothing, and hide his fashion work from the dole office so that he could continue receiving benefits.

We might imagine a world where everyone is supported to push the boundaries of their creative potential. More broadly than this, we might think about what fashion could look like if freed from the structures of mass production needed to finance couture collections that only the most elite in society can adorn themselves in.

But, importantly, McQueen is not a story of being a victim to fashion. While this film depicts how McQueen endured immense pressure to produce fashion for profit, we also see his interminable resistance to the distortions of the fashion world. Amid his intricate tailoring, he offered garments that were the antithesis of “ready to wear” that could only exist as they were embodied in the production of the collection shows – such as a dress of fresh flowers literally decaying on the runway. His fashion stages became theatres for musing on and digesting the cruelty of the world, with rain and snow bearing down on models, padded walls, and piles of fashion “junk” collected on stage in dramatic heaps.

1119202To quote Elizabeth Wilson again, “Out of the cracks in the pavements of cities grow the weeds that begin to rot the fabric”. In other words, while we might hold reasonable ambivalence about the nature of fashion in terms of the expectations and norms that it reproduces, fashion can also provide an experimental and resistant space for a creative reimagining of identity that “rot[s] the fabric” of these same rules.

Certainly this documentary paints a picture of McQueen as an unstoppable creative force emerging through the cracks in the otherwise cloistered world of fashion.

McQueen’s fashion cuts to the quick of our worst fears, but hints at imagining another world, another way of seeing, the romance of what lays beneath the skin. McQueen ultimately offers us an invitation to resist, to look directly at the world in all its ugliness so that we might light up the beauty at the heart of it all.

Why Trans-Exclusionary Feminism is Anti-Feminist

Isn’t it so disappointing when you realise just how problematic your favourite [celebrity/feminist/commentator/Lena Dunham] is? The most recent of these wake-up calls came when I read UK columnist Hadley Freeman’s appalling article in The Guardian, which focuses on changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004) currently being debated in the UK. Freeman’s concern centres around “self-identification”, that is, the (apparently) radical idea that individuals can determine their own gender identity.

635974934671095018-1669878180_11.17.11news-trull-trans-activists-editFor a bit of background, the GRA allows persons to obtain a “Gender Recognition Certificate” needed in order to obtain a new birth certificate, but currently requires persons to have “lived in the acquired gender throughout the period of two years”. The current Act requires persons to “prove” their case to a Gender Recognition Panel at the end of the two year period. Changes to this process are currently being considered given that it is over-medicalised, bureaucratic and demeaning, and does not currently allow for recognition of non-binary people.

Gender-Recognition-ActIn her article, Freeman praises recent protests against the GRA changes, organised by Mumsnet (a mummy-blog-turned-radical-feminist group). As she outlines, Mumsnet activists have been flippantly identifying as men in order to access men’s-only swimming sessions, to “prove” how “ridiculous” self-identification is. The fear, according to Freeman, is that changes to the GRA will mean “predatory men could now come into female-only spaces unchallenged”. Freeman also laments trans critiques of reproductive-organ-centred feminism, but then takes a u-turn and suggests that the real problem is all of the “liberal men” she’s been fighting with lately who have been trying to defend trans women (Jeremy Corbyn to thank there in part, I imagine).

il_570xN.1149917172_8vmkI was shocked that The Guardian would run this on Transgender Day of Visibility (or at all, and without any responses in the week following), but also at the huge amount of praise that Freeman seemed to receive online for “speaking out”. Though I am a cis woman and don’t speak here as a trans person, I feel obligated to challenge Freeman. The trans-exclusionary ideas bolstered by Freeman’s article should be extremely concerning to any feminists who would like to see a world where gender is liberated from violent rules and strict social expectations. Here’s why:

1. The pathologisation of gender isn’t good for anyone
Pathologisation means determining what is “normal”, and “treating” people to better align with the “normal”. Imagine. Being subjected to a bunch of medical practitioners and psychologists considered more of an “expert” on your identity than you are. Imagine having to “prove” that you have “lived in the acquired gender” for two years (never mind how weird the terminology of “acquired” is, as if gender identity is an effect of an injury or serious accident). This whole process risks reinforcing ideas about what “acting and looking like” a man or woman involves, that is, the gender role and presentation expectations that feminists have historically fought against.

transfeminism-500x421Luckily, changes to the GRA would reduce the clinical barriers needed to have gender identity recognised, which would mean less stress and burden for trans people and would reduce some of the pathologising elements of the process. If gender was truly liberated, we wouldn’t need to diagnose what expressions of gender are “normal”, we would celebrate a diversity of expressions, embodiments and feelings.

2. Feminism should reject the idea that gender is solely about biology
At this point there might be some people reading this who are thinking “BUT THERE ARE LADY PARTS AND MAN PARTS AND THAT IS SCIENTIFIC FACT”. I’m not going to give you an introductory gender studies lecture here (though it might help to read some Fausto-Sterling). I will say that the point of feminism shouldn’t be to work out exactly how “gender” works on a biological “sex” level, but rather, to fight for gender emancipation beyond the narrow dictates of biology. In basic terms that means we should be fighting for people’s ability to live a happy and healthy life no matter what chromosomes and dangly fleshy bits they had at birth or not. Seems obvious eh.

tumblr_n4chv8Kp7V1suxeeyo1_500-300x300As Simone de Beauvoir famously stated, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Her main point was that the barriers women face are not naturally determined by “sex”, but rather, are the result of a sexist society where women are enculturated into the punishing rules of “womanhood”. Meanwhile, the Freemans of the world would prefer much stricter barriers about who counts as a “woman”, and thus sit in direct contradiction to de Beauvoir. When Freeman says, “there are significant physical differences between male-born bodies and female-born ones, and the latter have long been at a disadvantage” she strangely re-naturalises sexism as founded in biology. Ironically such an approach merely strengthens the rules of “womanhood”, rather than understanding that the issue definitely isn’t as simple as birth-biology (we are left wondering, for example, what about trans men in all of this?!).

3. Being trans-inclusionary doesn’t mean we have to stop talking about bodies
Taking on board the idea that “one is not born…a woman” doesn’t mean we should ignore the material body altogether, as if bodies aren’t at all relevant to identity or feelings or our experience of the world. Just because the rules of gender are “social” doesn’t mean that these rules are not deeply felt and embodied, or perhaps feel at odds with one’s bodily experience.

6eaa122977ccb679383bedef266050c3Freeman claims that there is a massive issue with trans feminists who critique the centring of reproductive systems. She states, “I’m trying to think of anything more patriarchal than telling women to stop fussing about vaginas at a Women’s March”. What Freeman misses is that the issue isn’t talking about bodies and the material experience of gender altogether, the problem is creating a reductive version of feminism where vagina = woman and where this is made into the central focus of collective action. This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about issues like abortion, pregnancy, or periods either (all issues which affect a range of gendered peoples), it just means that we shouldn’t make biology the basis for our collective resistance.

4. Lots of people experience violence because of gender and that could be the basis for solidarity 
Making things harder for trans people won’t make cis women safe from gender based violence. Trans and gender non conforming people are subjected to staggering levels of violence on a daily basis, particularly in places like the UK where trans-exclusionary debates are rife, and where commentators like Freeman can get a platform with little rebuttal. It is a strange thing to claim that reducing the burdens on trans people via the GRA somehow endangers cis women, particularly when you don’t generally need whip out a birth certificate to access things like swimming pools or change rooms.

42B7CC9A00000578-4733888-image-a-4_1501115365120The claim that somehow “predatory men” will be emboldened to “come into female-only spaces unchallenged” is a transphobic furphy that’s been trotted out by right wing commentators for a long time now, and that has been extensively debunked. Instead of this smokescreen argument that merely acts to reinforce transphobic ideas, understanding the violence that trans and gender non conforming people also experience could be the basis for a shared movement against gender-related violence. The fact that gay men are also often the target of hate crime on the basis of homophobic ideas that gay men aren’t “manly” enough or are “too feminine” could also be something to keep in mind in terms of collective action here.

The fact that Freeman turns to “liberal men” as her problematic interlocutors in the trans feminism debate is absurd (hello, there are cis women who disagree with you too!) and it shows just how much she: a) doesn’t see solidarity beyond anti-trans cis feminists as an option; and b) sees “men” as the problem, rather than the (sexist, racist, homophobic) system. The ability to have a solid political response to issues around gender and transphobia isn’t determined by biology. That doesn’t mean cis men should be dominating panels on trans inclusion, but it does mean we shouldn’t see these men as the problem. The real problem is transphobia, let’s not get confused here.

tumblr_ow1ckfDbLX1ryh1zlo1_500If all of this seems pretty basic, it’s because it is. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter what  the relationship between biology (“sex”) and identity (“gender”) is, what really matters is treating human beings with dignity and celebrating the possibilities of gender. Because loosening the rules of gender, understanding gender and sexism beyond biology, talking about body issues but not reducing people to bodies, and thinking about how to have solidarity around the lived experiences of gender, should be fundamental to feminism. The alternative – the world that Freeman seeks to enforce – is not only a trans-exclusionary, it works against what decades of feminists have been fighting for.

Further Reading:
Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw
The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Stephen Whittle and Susan Stryker
This amazing Transgender Studies Syllabus from Amy Billingsley
The Keywords special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly
This report on LGBT Hate Crime and Discrimination in Britain 2017
This great video from ABC Comedy, So You Think You Can Trans

Edit: An earlier version of this article stated that the Gender Recognition Certificate would be used in place of a birth certificate, but is in fact used to issue a new birth certificate. For more information see: https://www.gov.uk/apply-gender-recognition-certificate/what-happens-next

Gaslighting in the Marriage Equality “Debate”

1503573387549Like many in the Australian LGBTIQ community, I am exhausted by the marriage equality “debate” that we are being subjected to.  The nature of this atomised survey is that we’re supposed to stay positive and upbeat, to try and convince everyone that we’re “normal” and have no other agenda than “love”. But being glass-half-full optimistic in this situation takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. That’s why it was so deeply infuriating to see our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull—the person whose cowardice means we even have to endure this survey—on TV suggesting that the ‘yes’ campaign needs to lighten up about homophobia.
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Turnbull appeared on The Project last night, commenting on the “controversy” over whether Macklemore should sing his chart-topping song Same Love at the NRL Grand Final. The religious right leading the ‘no’ campaign have suggested that Macklemore’s “same-sex anthem” has no place in sport. Turnbull defended against censoring the song, in the name of “free speech” and “artistic expression”. But when host Waleed Aly pressed him on the issue, suggesting that it was unavoidably political and an “incendiary intervention” in the current climate of homophobia, Turnbull dismissed him saying “oh no don’t…everyone’s focused on the football”. When Aly continued, Turnbull sighed, “we were just having fun Waleed, why do you have to be such a downer?!” Turnbull dismissed the recent spate of homophobic attacks and abuse being levelled at the LGBTIQ community amid the survey as a “tiny percentage”.

malcolmIt’s important to take a step back here and recognise Turnbull’s comments for what they are: gaslighting. Indeed, the comments coming from the ‘no’ campaign and even many liberal ‘yes’ voters also involve gaslighting. This is not simply a case of homophobes vs. supporters, because there are many “supporters” that are contributing to a discourse that punishes LGBTIQ people and puts the blame back on them for being upset. It’s important to recognise and name this behaviour for what it is, because when you are upset by all the small comments being made it’s hard to understand why it affects you so badly unless you connect it up to the bigger picture.

Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive tactic that undermines the confidence of the person being targeted, where they are made to feel like what they are experiencing isn’t “real”. Here’s the “11 signs of gaslighting” as demonstrated by Turnbull (and similar others) in the marriage equality debate:

  1. They tell blatant lies
    Last night Turnbull defended the survey as “democratic”, referred to it as a “plebiscite”, and suggested any nastiness was just the same as what you would see in a federal election. Not only is this survey disenfranchising many, a complete shambles, not statistically rigorous, and not an actual plebiscite, this is a survey on the legitimacy of recognising same-sex couples as equal, qualitatively different from a federal election in every way.
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof
    Turnbull is now a great defender of the postal survey as democratic, even though he is on the record as previously stating (in the debate around an Australian Republic) such a method “flies in the face of Australian values”.
  3. The use what is near and dear to you as ammunition 
    Because he has to defend the survey, Turnbull has been highlighting things we ought to value (including: democracy, respect, fairness) and using these values against the LGBTIQ community’s critiques of the survey. He has suggested that we “cannot ask for respect from the No case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the No case”. In other words, you have to respect people disrespecting you, otherwise it is *you* that is disrespectful.
  4. They wear you down over time 
    The fact that this survey has been stretched over a timeframe of more than two months says it all—who among us has the energy to stay fighting the whole time. Turnbull is now encouraging us to stop caring about the issue, even as it goes on and on: have “fun”/stop talking about this/don’t be such a “downer”.   
  5. Their actions do not match their words
    Despite not allowing a free vote in Parliament (presumably because it would have threatened his leadership in the Coalition), and subjecting us to the postal survey, Turnbull has come out supporting ‘yes’. Now I guess we’re supposed to be appreciative of his “support”. In a classic gaslighting move his words (tacit support) and actions (creating this mess) do not match up.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you
    One minute Turnbull is suggesting the survey is hard on LGBTIQ people, “This is a time to put your arms around them, to give them your love and support”, and in the same breath he states, “The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage are not homophobic and do not denigrate gay people”. It is clear that the main prerogative of the ‘no’ campaign is precisely to denigrate gay people. Turnbull’s positive “support” means nothing, except for adding to the confusion about how we should feel grateful for this “democratic” opportunity to have our say.
  7. They know confusion weakens people
    Despite nominally supporting the ‘yes’ campaign, Turnbull has defended campaign tactics from ‘no’ in the name of “free speech”. Rather than suggesting that the most important thing is showing support for the LGBTIQ community (which is what I would expect from a ‘yes’ campaigner), he claims that “mutual respect” is the number one priority. It’s confusing to have someone on “your side” defending the opposite side and simultaneously chastising you for getting upset by the debate. Further adding to confusion, Turnbull has said that the will of the people reflected in this survey is only binding if it’s a no, but not if it’s a yes. Wait, which side are you on again Turnbull?
  8. They project
    Turnbull keeps telling the LGBTIQ community to be “proud” and confident, yet, we know that it is Turnbull’s cowardice that has created this drama. It seems like the person who really needs to hear the mantra “believe in yourself” is Turnbull, not us.
  9. They try to align people against you
    Instead of suggesting that we should protect against discrimination of the LGBTIQ community in this survey, Turnbull has commented that “The only way to stop people from saying things that you find hurtful is to shut down free speech”. In other words, *protecting* those who would discriminate in the first place is the number one priority because “free speech”.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy
    While stating again and again that only a “handful” of Australians are homophobic, Turnbull was one of the first to condemn the attack of Tony Abbott by a random anarchist and use it against the ‘yes’ side: “They are not helping their case by engaging in violent conduct. They are not showing respect for others”. In other words, Turnbull suggests we ignore the homophobic attacks happening, but is the first to use a random attack (even though the accused man has stated this had nothing to do with the marriage issue) on a Liberal as a reason to condemn the ‘yes’ side. In sum: the LGBTIQ community is crazy for feeling vilified, but Tony Abbott and co are legitimate in their fears.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar 
    This is what we saw on The Project last night: Turnbull suggesting that being concerned about homophobia in this debate is a media beat up. Apparently the only person we should trust on this is Turnbull, who tells us to forget our troubles and have fun. Gosh what a lot of fun it is.

Rainbow-Malcolm-TurnbullWhat all of this reveals is that whatever the outcome of the survey, Turnbull is firmly not on the side of the LGBTIQ community.

Instead of accepting the abusive logic of the marriage equality survey where we are told to be politely grateful for every ‘yes’, we should remember the liberatory politics of LGBTIQ activism past: we don’t just want equality, we want freedom; we want more than words, we want action; we don’t beg, we demand. And most of all: we are not the problem.

Hope and Glimpsing the Future in the Marriage Equality Debate

This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017. 

UntitledAs 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.

UntitledSo 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.

UntitledBut 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.

UntitledAs 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.

UntitledBut 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.

UntitledAnd 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.

UntitledThis 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.

UntitledAs 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.

UntitledWe 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?

UntitledAs 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.

UntitledSimilarly 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.

UntitledBut 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.

UntitledWhile 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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 5.56.32 PMIt 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.