When I was 19, I headed up my University’s ‘Queer Collective’. It was a regional campus and not exactly a bustling example of student activism. Nevertheless, I did my best: hosting debates on gay marriage and trans rights, making banners and slogans to put up in the ‘Queer Room’ (which nobody used) and hosting social events (which everyone attended, mostly to hook up).
There is a certain ‘Into to Queer Politics’ that everyone gets as an undergrad whether you major in ‘gender and sexuality’ related studies or not. This largely consists of watered down platitudes derived from Foucault, Butler, Sedgwick and other trendy academics. These in-turn, get turned into self-defensive slogans: “Have you told your parents your straight yet?” “Gay by birth, fabulous by choice” “When did you choose to be straight?” “Not gay as in happy, queer as in fuck you!” etc.
The narrative painted at universities is that of an oppressive heteronormative culture that can be resisted through pithy slogans and transgressive performance. In other words: you’re a rebel just by being yourself. This encouragement to ‘genderfuck’ and ‘push boundaries’ is epitomised in a call to arms by queer theorist Jack Halberstam:
To embrace a truly political negativity, one that promises, this time, to fail, to make a mess, to fuck shit up, to be loud, unruly, impolite, to breed resentment, to bash back, to speak up and out, to disrupt, assassinate, shock, and annihilate.
Now that I’m staring down the barrel of 30, this sentiment seems very juvenile and naïve, if also a little cringe-worthy when I remember myself parroting such phrases. Nevertheless, this kind of assertive posturing in your late teens probably acts as a nice counter to the years of awkward shame leftover from adolescence.
In adulthood, you realise the importance of power over posture, evidence over sentiment and – most importantly – the genuine kindness of heterosexuals. Worries about ‘heteronormativity’ shift to the back burner as you acknowledge the horrific injustices of the world. Suddenly an occasional social slight, religious rant or awkward conversation with Nan pales in comparison.
Yet, when it comes to modern gay activism it seems that some of us are stuck in a kind of arrested development: still grasping to the personal assertive slogans of youth and pushing a ‘resistance narrative’ of everyday queer life. These misery pundits – self-declared activists and writers mostly – overestimate the ‘controversy’ of their sexuality and underestimate the social acceptance in the community.
Online media is overflowing with ‘personal narratives’ of the terrible plight of urban, university educated, homosexuals. A demographic that, by most objective standards, is historically the best it has ever been socially and economically. The political grievances of urban gays range from the somewhat topical (gay marriage) to the trivial (pop culture representation) to linguistic pedantry (see the outrage of a petition for LGBT ‘tolerance’ in the Safe Schools program).
Unlike trans Australians, who continue to suffer repeated acts of violence and social exclusion, gay and lesbian activists have made tremendous progress in social acceptance and respect. Why this is not acknowledged and accepted amongst modern queers continues to baffles me, and paints a rather pessimistic picture for gay youth.
I’m a huge advocate for sexual and gender liberation: the rejection of narrowed social norms in favour of a new culture consistent with individual choice and personal pleasure. This has hardened by political commitments toward supporting personal expression, sex workers, drug users along with the sexually and gender diverse.
Nevertheless, a ‘queer politics’ that fails to acknowledge progress and accept success is one counter to instilling resilience and strength to LGBT young people. Only by moving beyond naïve slogans of our youth can queers put forward a positive vision for the future.
Jarryd Bartle is a political consultant and researcher on drug law reform, criminal justice policy and the adult industry.
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