Queer Moralism

I first learned about queer theory in my second semester of an MA program. I took a class titled Queer Theory and Performance. The week before class started, my lung spontaneously collapsed, forcing me to miss the first day. Despite my initial absence, I dove into the material. It’s not easy learning the complexities of queer theory, let alone the intricacies of poststructuralism. But I was immediately attracted to queer performance theory and utterly invested in course readings and discussions. I quickly became “that guy,” the neophyte who asked too many questions, the one at whom everyone rolled their eyes and avoided at break.

At midterm, we submitted our final project proposals. Many of the arguments in my paper challenged some of the foundational tenets of queer epistemology. I wanted to consider how an overarching label like “queer” might erase other salient and intersectional aspects of identity, like gender and race. This argument is now a common critique of queer theory. At the time, though, I was too ineloquent and inexperienced to frame and articulate my criticism. The instructor, Jill Dolan, failed me on the assignment and suggested that I talk to her during office hours.

I will never forget sitting on the cold linoleum outside of her office door and waiting for her to finish a phone conversation. She finally waved at me, indicating I could enter the room. I dumped my nervous body into an uncomfortable chair and greeted her.

“Ragan,” she said with little hint of emotion, “I think you should drop the class. Your contributions are a distraction, and I think you’re an essentialist.”

I had never been asked to drop a class before, let alone a course to which I was so devoted. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I withdrew from the queer theory seminar the following day. Despite dropping, I read the entire course reader and fell in love with queer theory.

Over a decade later, I am now a tenured professor and look back at the ordeal with a bit more perspective. I have taught college students for over a decade, learned to mentor overly eager and sometimes inarticulate graduate students (which is not to say that all or even most are “inarticulate”), and published several essays in which queer theory takes center stage. This experience doesn’t make me less upset with the aforementioned instructor, it makes me more upset and confused. Ten years later and I still feel the sting of the teacher’s judgment, queer moralism, and lack of care.

My love affair with queer theory grew throughout doctoral study. Queer perspectives seemed totally consistent with my anti-establishment, gender ambiguous, and pro-sex sentimentalities. Like a good little queer, I questioned heteronormativity, celebrated difference, and challenged taken-for-granted logics that sustain sex/gender systems. I also became friends with a number of queer-identified people. We all parroted the same or at least very similar lines about marriage, gender, race, and sexuality.

I became disenchanted with queer theory in my last year of doctoral study. More and more, I saw queer friends policing other people’s normative desire. Two queer feminists, for instance, told a woman in our cohort that she wasn’t a “real” feminist because she was married to a man and her husband was in the military. Even the slightest divergence from queer theory’s script resulted in condemnation and sometimes alienation.  Queer moralizing—especially the sort I witnessed in graduate school—made me skeptical of queer theory.

I’ve been reading Lynne Huffer’s book Mad for Foucault, wherein Huffer more eloquently and in part addresses the paradoxical blow of queer moralism, an inverted list of behavioral expectations that shape queer identity politics, even as queer theorists claim to disavow and deconstruct identity. Huffer writes:

“I will not open a moral interrogation into those behavior rules—including the odd proposition that there will be no behavioral rules—that would generalize for everyone—or at least for all queers—whether or not we should be monogamous, multipartnered, celibate, single, soldered to another in a holy place, a sex club, cyberspace, or a brothel, for life or ten minutes, with one or with many, or none of the above.  If I’ve learned anything from Foucault, it’s that ‘anything goes’ forms of sexual freedom often put forward as queer eschatology are simply the inverted reflections of Enlightenment autonomy. So I’m not arguing, as some have in response to old-fashioned normalizing moralisms—be they of the family values, feminist, or gay sex panic variety—that barebacking or orgies or public sex or erotic vomiting or sex-positive feminisms or late-night schedules in and of themselves will subvert those moralisms: ‘every assassination of painting is still a painting.’”

Queer moralism is a form of what my friend Dusty Goltz might describe as “critical tragedy,” or a “deployment of critical theory to enact a coherent and totalizing judgment of personal voice that forefronts one absence or axis of critique. Critical tragedy is the misuse of critical theories to wholly dismiss an account as wrong, privileged, or unreflexive, thus appropriating/erasing one story to forefront another—that of the critic.”

I, for instance, don’t buy the queer assault on marriage. It’s not that I don’t understand or appreciate queer critiques of the institution, although it would certainly be convenient for some queer critics to moralize their own position by suggesting I just don’t “get it.” I have given careful consideration to arguments for and against marriage equality. Religious conservatives, queer radicals, and social progressives, among others, have constructed compelling claims about the issue and I have taken their words to heart.

I am pro-marriage equality. I want to get married. I identify as queer and gay. I believe that everyone should have the right to marry, just as everyone should have the right to be single. I don’t believe people should be financially penalized or rewarded for either choice. I do not believe that marriage equality is exclusively or even primarily a gay white man’s issue. I believe that marriage equality is both a symbolic measure of acceptance and at the center of a human rights grid. None of the abovementioned positions are mutually exclusive but moralizing—whether conservative or queer—makes each claim appear to be oppositional.

On a more concrete level, I teach and study human communication. I am an ethnographer. I study communication behaviors of discrete communities. Gays, lesbians, bisexual men and women, transgendered people, and queers have distinct communication practices. I believe that these behaviors are IN PART socially constructed. When I identify as “queer,” I engage in a critical tragedy, forsaking one culturally sedimented identity (i.e., gay) for a newer one (i.e., queer), trading one assimilation for another. I acknowledge the particularities of my penis and hormones and question the ways in which symbolization affords me certain privileges, just as it takes others away. But here’s where I REALLY think I’ll ruffle some feathers: I prefer the anti-marriage equality moralizing of the religious Right to the anti-marriage equality moralizing of many queers, because at least conservatives acknowledge that they are, in fact, moralizing.