Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?

Cathy J. Cohen; Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?. GLQ 1 May 1997; 3 (4): 437–465.

Queer Politics

Cohen opens with a discussion of racism in gay and lesbian communities, following an example of three Black board members who resigned from the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) board in NYC due to racist experiences. Cohen discusses the homonormativity of much of gay and lesbian agendas, seeking to assimilate into dominant structures. In place of gay and lesbian politics, queer politics sought a more radical push against dominant institutions. Yet Cohen believes truly radical politics have not arisen from queer movements, instead reinforcing simple binaries and dichotomies. This essay is dedicated towards reimagining queer politics.

Queer Theory History

Cohen points out that queer, as an academic and theoretical term, became most used in the early 1990s, denoting both a new political movement and also a new cultural academic discourse (pg. 438). Some of the academic founders of queer theory were Judith Butler, Eve Sedgewick, Michael Warner, Diana Fuss, and Teresa de Lauretis---a notably white group of academics, as might be noted in Anzaldúa's critiques of queer identities. These scholars focused on the discursive constructions of gender and sexuality, and how both dominant and marginalized groups reified "heterogendered" cultures (pg. 438). Queer theory positions sexual identities as "constructed and constrained by multiple practices of categorization and regulation that systematically marginalize and oppress those subjects ... as deviant and 'other'" (pg. 438-439). In the early 1990s, queer theory also moved beyond theorizing and into real-world activism, culimating from a frustration of "the scientific 'de-gaying' and assimilationist tendencies of AIDS activism ... and increasing legal and physical attacks against lesbian and gay community members" (pg. 439). Queer politics (as represented by Queer Nation) was a movement of a younger generation leaning into the instability and fluidity of sexual subjects and confronting normativity by exaggerating non-normative characteristics (pg. 439). Queer politics seeks to disrupt the notion of stablizing communical identities, pushing back against the ideology that unified identities are necessary for political movement (see Alcoff). Both queer theory and queer politics are oppositional to the category-focused politics of gay and lesbian movements.

Failures of Queer Politics

Queer political movements have largely failed to change its central nemesis, heteronormativity, and the power it has on society. Cohen believes this failure can be attributed to a simplistic dichotomy between queer and non-queer, positioning those deemed non-queer as inherently dominant and those as queer as inherently marginalized (pg. 440). While attempting to destabilize categories, queer politics has priotized sexual difference as its singular political frame. Cohen expresses concern in centering only a singular identity, sexuality, in attempting to reorganize power, therefore producing its on homogenization of power. Cohen argues that recognizing the limits of queer political action can lead to a reimagining of queer as a truly transformative and inclusive movement, highlighting in particular the works of Black feminist authors (of all sexual identities): Kimberlé Crenshaw, Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Cheryl Clarke, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective (pg. 441). She argues for a deeper engagement with identity perspectives "beyond a mere recognition of the intersection of oppressions" (pg. 442), highlighting an explicit commitment to leftist politics that focuses on the systematic oppressions absent from liberal and civil rights frameworks. She quotes Urvashi Vaid: "civil rights do not change the social order in dramatic ways; they change only the privileges of the groups asserting those rights."

She does note, however, the homophobia of many leftist theorists, including white middle-class feminists and Black leftists (pg. 443). Leftist political movements had been largely absent from responses to the AIDS epidemic, causing queer political activists to question the benefit of leftism. Yet, Cohen believes a leftist framework aids in highlighting the marginalization of multiple overlapping identities rather than focusing on singular identity issues. Cohen critiques political events like mall invasions, in which queers enter suburban shopping malls to promote queer visibility, for its lack of engagement with class and race issues, pointing out that leftist political organizing struggles to engage those of multiply intersecting identities (pg. 449).

Differing from Anzaldúa, Cohen finds difficulty identify with the term queer, due to its "unspoken assumptions which inhibit the radical political potential of this category" (pg. 451), yet this discomfort seems still heavily rooted in the inherent whiteness of queer theory and activism. She points out how Black gay and lesbian activists, like Barbara Smith, critique queer politics as operating in a "historical and ideological vacuum" (pg. 451). Cohen calls for coalition work across sexual identity categories for a more transformative queer movement.

Heteronormativity Marginalizing Heterosexuals

Cohen challenges the monolithic assumption that all heterosexuals benefit from heteronormativity. She highlights the historical examples in which the marriage between enslaved Black men and women was outlawed, and the marriage between Black and white heterosexuals was similarly outlawed, in a synthesis of heteronormativity and white supremacy (pg. 454). Cohen argues that while the heterosexual behavior, specifically, of Black people is not under attack, what is pathologized and othered about Black heterosexual relationships and families is still heternormative in its constructions (pg. 457). Heterosexual expression and freedom of choice has been used to control both Black men and women and all women (in terms of bodily autonomy) through heteronormative white supremacist and misogynistic systems. She proposes a political movement that acknowledges differing levels of privilege and marginalization both across and within groups.