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.

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Impossible futures and the torture of refugee women 

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Protestors outside the High Court in 2016

It is fair to say that Australia’s refugee policy is cruel and punitive. We have a migration act created specifically to contravene our international human rights obligations. Men, women and children seeking asylum are locked up in offshore islands – a neo-colonial imposition on these neighbouring countries – under the thin excuse that this will stop refugees arriving by boat to Australia and thus will “save lives at sea”. Never mind that the Navy boats out at sea monitoring refugee arrivals have been complicit in ignoring distress signals, towing boats back to other countries, and paying for people to take refugees elsewhere (rather than simply rescuing these boats!). Like we are seeing with the rise of Trumpism in the USA, refugees are made into a scapegoat by the Australian government. Making refugees a “problem”, with xenophobic ideas about Islam trumpeted particularly loudly, distracts from the harsh austerity measures being imposed across the West. This isn’t a humanitarian issue so much as a class issue, when we consider who anti-refugee arguments are aimed at and why.

A militarised response, not rescues

From this perspective we can begin to understand the government’s cruelty. From here we can start to understand how we need to undo the rhetoric we are pummelled with.

What is hard to understand however, is how and why the government manages to get away with openly torturing women and children, who are so often seen as the most vulnerable in society. However problematic that idea might be in itself, there is no denying that these groups are generally seen as more/most in need of care.

Protestors for baby Asha

Indeed in refugee activism, at protests for example, we often see a focus on children. Signs like “Do we really have to protest torturing children?!” are prevalent. And when it comes to specific issues like Abyan (the woman seeking an abortion last year after being raped on Nauru) and baby Asha (who the government is still trying to deport) we do see a greater mass outburst of protest.

The group Mad Fucking Witches says it like it is

But despite the limited public backlash on these specific cases of refugee women and children, the government continues to publicly demand their deportation and incarceration. Why? Why not just let the women and children out, and leave the men locked up as a way to continue to “deterrence” project? How can they keep getting away with it, and why is it seemingly SO important to them that they torture babies, for example? On the surface this appears quite incomprehensible. Doesn’t everyone want to protect women and babies? Doesn’t this trump the class argument?

An Australian Immigration poster saying clearly: “no future!”

Indeed the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently publicly champions women, stating: “I call on everyone to work together to lead the cultural change ensuring women are respected, secure & safe from violence”. How on earth can he get away with such hypocrisy?!

In her article “From horrorism to compassion” feminist theorist Griselda Pollock argues that:

“Killing women with children or women who might bear children is, of course, the horrific core of genocide. War kills the men and uses the rape of women against other men. Genocide locates a future in the feminine. Hence genocide must destroy all women and children; they carry a future” (p.178).

Protestors at Lady Cilento

Now, obviously the torture imposed here is operating within a slightly different framework (though we may note that the detention centres are often referred to as “camps”, which they quite literally are in some cases). But I am suggesting is that in the case of refugees women and children symbolically represent the future. If these people were allowed to remain/come to Australia this would mean an Australia opened up to the Other. They would represent a porous and shifting Australia where “anyone” could be a part. They represent a future that isn’t white. They represent the outside coming in, the border collapsing, the fence coming down. To those who have little, and are at risk of having more taken away by austerity, they represent a future of “taking” – of having to share what is already not much, with an even greater number. In other words: they represent a threat.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has made a specific example of refugee women and children

That’s why the government – to maintain its own policy – must not only continue to torture women and children, but to make a specific example of them. Those futures must be both perceptible (a threatening horizon) and utterly rejected (“you have no future here”) for the government to continue its cruel measures. Of course there is push and pull around this. When you’re making a “necessary” example of women and babies you have to pay some lip service to their welfare as well so you don’t look too bad.

Women are often made symbolic of culture as a whole

In contrast we should not expect that the government will make an example of gay asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island, because symbolically they represent “no future”. As queer theorist Lee Edelman suggests, homosexuality is seen to signify a dead-end insofar as it (symbolically) means an inability to reproduce. In these terms we can see why the government doesn’t bother making an example of gay refugees: they don’t present the same future vision and thus cannot be used as representative of a general threat to Australia in the same way as refugee women and children. Yet to let them come and resettle in Australia would be to acknowledge the fact that not only are these refugees genuine (i.e. fleeing real persecution) but would be to affirm homosexuality more generally, which presents a different kind of threat to the dominant ideology (and the government has much easier targets for this, such as safe schools). Thus they must remain rejected, but cannot be used in the same way to spread fear of refugees specifically.

This image is interesting because it interrupts the traditional future narrative and as such says “everyone is welcome here”

It is important to realise that refugee activists cannot win against the government’s rhetoric by focusing only on women and children because it is not about the women and children themselves, but what they represent. Indeed those championing women and children often forget to tackle the underlying symbolic issue of what “future” is at stake. They often erroneously reduce the argument to a purely “rational” humanitarian one, when the government’s logic: a) isn’t actually irrational; and b) is clearly about class not purely humanitarian concerns. This creates the illusion that the ordinary people arguing against refugees are monsters, yet (in contradiction) that we can simply win by yelling our humanitarian arguments louder and louder. I have heard in many an activist meeting for example that “the biggest supporters of refugees are those who have PhDs [laughs]”. This is a horribly elitist perspective that needs to be challenged at every opportunity because it will never help us win.

No, the arguments that must be made to undo the cruelty must address the future the government wants so many to fear. When we advocate for refugee women we must argue for a future for all refugees. We need to keep behind all of our arguments the idea of a future that is open, porous, more than white, borderless. But most importantly we need to argue that the only people who “take” from us are the same ones torturing refugees. We need to argue that austerity is imposed from above, not by those who come across the seas. We must argue for boundless plains to share, and we must remember who it really is that threatens our collective future.