Sitting at an academic conference years ago, I was struck by the marginalization of various voices under the guise of inclusion. There were queer panels and race panels and gender panels. In sampling those panels and various other panels, I started to see a trend in the audiences. In short, the audiences attracted to those panels identified as a member of that particular identity group or were allies. And I realized that panels that were not identity-marked tended to not have theories of gender/race/sexuality woven into them. When panels are marked through identity issues, people choose whether or not they should attend based on their identity politics, failing to recognize how critical analyses of race/gender/sexuality are broadly relevant. Thus, in marking panels through identity, this conference fundamentally marginalized the population it was theoretically including.
A few weeks ago, I helped organize a conference; I was one of the program committee members and coordinated three invited sessions. In the wind, I heard that a few folks were disappointed that there were no LGBT-specific panels. The assumption was that queer issues were forgotten. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only did all of the panels that I coordinated have queer-identified panelists on them but they all integrated queer theory into their arguments, whether explicitly or implicitly. I purposely left these issues unmarked in my description of the panels because my goal was to make sure that these issues were integrated seamlessly into a conversation without making identity politics the organizing theme of any of the panels.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m a huge fan of creating safe space to have serious conversations about identity politics, but I’m also determined to bring the lessons from queer theory (and race studies and feminism) into broader conversations. Sure – I’d love to call out these frameworks explicitly and have everyone who should hear the concepts come to the room. But, at the end of the day, I prioritize strategy. So I’ve gone out of my way to integrate these frameworks into my own work without ever calling them out explicitly, specifically so that those who are constitutionally incapable of listening to any argument that involves identity politics will accidentally listen to the underlying theories without realizing it, will incorporate the tenets of queer theory into their understanding of the world without realizing that this is where the roots of those frameworks come from.
At the root of queer theory is a very simple practice: questioning what is “normal” or normative, complicating any simple framework by asking critical questions about who is excluded and what is assumed. Anyone who has studied queer theory immediately gets how this framework is useful beyond analyses of sexuality, yet those who haven’t been trained as such see two scary words: queer and theory. Depending on the audience, either word can prompt a serious phobia. But that framework does more than answer questions about sexuality; it allows us to interrogate any supposedly stable system.
My favorite book in the world is Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. It’s a work of fiction – a novel – that lays out all of the core tenets of queer theory without ever telling the reader that that’s what’s going on. It’s a distinctly queer book, but it’s meant to help those who have theory phobia understand theory without realizing that they’re reading theory. Candy-coated vitamins if you will. One of the lessons I took from reading that book is that, if you want to get a message across, it’s important to recognize people’s anxieties and discomforts at face value and try to present information to them in a way that’s palatable and embraceable. Let them understand through a set of language that they can recognize instead of alienating them with language that terrifies them.
This form of “selling out” is bound to piss off anyone who believes that failing to mark queerness is a sign of weakness, a form of re-closeting, a way of undermining queer experiences, etc. I can totally hear and respect that. But I’m a pragmatist. And I’m more than willing to “sell out” if it means that I can get more people to understand why the core tenets of queer theory can help them understand structural inequality and systematic marginalization. I’m willing to let that go unmarked if doing so helps.
I integrate all sorts of queer theory into my arguments without signaling explicitly that that’s what I’m doing. And I often include queer theory references as “in-jokes” in ways that don’t make them visible to the untrained eye. I recognize that my path has strengths and weaknesses, but I’m also curious how others balance these issues. How do you integrate complex or potentially alienating frameworks into your work so that people can consume them? Or do you refuse to make things palatable? And if so, why? Are you horribly offended by the choices I’ve made?