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Chapter 4: Visit to a Queer Planet: Queer Studies

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I’m at a Queer Studies conference at Humboldt University in Berlin, listening to a talk by Susan Stryker, a middle-aged American woman with a strapping male body and a deep male voice. After telling us she is here to offer some “provisional thoughts on a new line in my work,” Stryker warns that her “argument is not entirely worked out even to my own satisfaction.” She proceeds to serve up what seems like a grab bag of observations, from a brief history of the post–World War II American economy to reflections on the 1970s advent of punk rock as a form of “resistance to market-driven culture.”

Eventually something resembling an argument comes into focus: now, as in the 1970s, an economic crisis is spawning a musical reaction. Back then it was punk; now, according to Stryker, it’s “alternative country.” She brings in the Tea Party movement, which she regards as a fascist, racist “upsurge of right-wing populism among non-elite white residents of the United States.” Yet she’s so hostile to the “neo-liberal” U.S. establishment that she sees the Tea Party as a promising development. She asks: Why do members of “the leftist intelligentsia” (of which she counts herself a member) who oppose the U.S. government respond with such reflexive negativity when right-wing nonacademics say they oppose it, too? The Tea Party movement, she insists, makes it clear that both the intellectual left and the populist right share a hostility to the “neoliberal middle,” and raises hopes for an anticapitalist coalition between the two.

Listening to Stryker savage democratic capitalism (she takes it for granted, of course, that everyone in attendance shares her contempt for it) and talk blithely about forming an alliance with people she considers to be fascists, I look out the high windows at Unter den Linden. Here we are in what was once East Berlin, only a few minutes’ walk from where the Berlin Wall once stood. This place was tyrannized by two succeeding sets of rebels against liberal democratic capitalism. There is a point crying out to be made, and it is made, if delicately, by Adrian de Silva, a graduate student at Humboldt, who has been appointed to provide a “commentary” on Stryker’s paper. Though he praises parts of her presentation, he notes that “as a German” he is made uncomfortable by her sympathy for “right-wing populist racism.” Her tone-deaf reply: she is desperate for “a politics of resistance” against capitalism, and she sees promise in the current success of the “right-wing fascism” of the anti-establishment Tea Party. In short, this woman who has done so handsomely under the American system (she commutes weekly between San Francisco and Indiana University, and freely pursues a way of life that would have landed her in a prison cell or gas chamber in the Third Reich or East Germany) has no clue how utterly out of touch she is with the solemn reality of this place—a place where fascism and communism are not abstract theoretical notions but have, in living memory, been brutal realities, and where the advent of democratic capitalism was a blessed deliverance.

Next up is Roderick Ferguson, a young black man who teaches race and critical theory and chairs the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Much like Stryker, Ferguson (who describes himself as a Marxist “who is trying to get Foucault and Marx to talk to one another”) goes on at length about the 1960s and ’70s without it even occurring to him to think about what it was like here—in what was then East Berlin—during those decades. Ferguson sneers at the separation of discourse about homosexuality from “critiques of race, imperialism, and patriarchy,” about the fact that “queerness” has become “a subject of rights,” and about committed gay relationships and their acceptance by establishment institutions—all of which defy the imperatives of “queer.” An audience member gives Ferguson’s paper a thumbs-up, arguing that “we have to see the richness of not belonging again.”

At such moments, one’s mirth at the inanity of Queer Studies gives way to distress and, yes, anger at its moral irresponsibility—its fashionable pretense that having equal rights and being treated with respect and dignity are somehow a matter of being “co-opted” by the establishment, of embracing the evils of “normativity,” of sacrificing one’s magnificent otherness. For these professors, who know that when their workday is over they will be able to walk the streets and go shopping at various stores and make their way home with a high degree of certainty that they will not be targeted for violence for their differentness, all of this rhetoric about “otherness” is nothing but a dishonest pose, which cruelly ignores the fact that for many gay people around the world today, the “normativity” these professors actually enjoy—even as they mock it—is something gay people in other societies can only dream of.

What is especially ironic about these professors’ rhetoric of “otherness” and “queerness” is that they are, in fact, by any real-world measure, extremely conservative, lockstep, institutional, careerist creatures. Their sense of identification with their universities, their departments, and their fields of “study,” not to mention the obvious way they size one another up by their titles, academic affiliations, and publications, is stifling. So are their endless pious references to Marx, Foucault, and Derrida, which bring to mind the obligatory nods to the Great Leader at some Communist Party congress.

Then there’s their curious inarticulateness. One speaker after another, reading his or her own prose aloud, gets tangled up in its mottled, murky thickets. Indeed, some of them, despite their impressive résumés, seem borderline illiterate. José Esteban Muñoz, author of Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, is a leading figure in Queer Studies, got his Ph.D. at Duke, and is a professor at New York University, but he is one of the worst public speakers I have ever heard, taking excruciatingly long pauses, stumbling repeatedly over his text, concluding one sentence after another by asking “Right?” and mispronouncing simple words: he turns library into “liberry,” says “denouncement” instead of “denunciation,” stresses the third syllable of nonsynchronous, puts the stress in the adjective adept on the first syllable, and stresses the syllable “late” in inarticulateness, pronouncing it like the word late.

As the conference drags on, the endless rhetoric about “patriarchy” and the “intersection” of sexuality “with other formations such as race and gender” sounds more and more like Muzak. This academically approved rhetoric pretends to be unorthodox, deviant, threatening, and antinormative—but is, in point of fact, mind-numbingly conformist. There’s plenty of talk about colonialism, most of it by American scholars whose domination of this English-language conference in a German-speaking country could itself well be viewed as a colonial enterprise. At one point between sessions, it occurs to me that here are all these gay men and women talking about matters supposedly touching on sex, and there’s nothing remotely sexy about any of it—it’s dry, boring, without a hint of a whiff of a frisson. How can anybody with the slightest libido say the words “sexuality as an artifact of institutionality” with a straight face?

As it happens, the setting of this conference is historically fitting—though I wonder how many of the participants realize it. For if Americans invented Queer Studies, it was Germans who invented its estimable predecessor, Gay Studies, of which Queer Studies—as we shall see—is an unfortunate betrayal.

Indeed, any proper account of the serious scholarly attempt to reckon with the reality of sexual orientation begins with the life stories of Germans like Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, who, after losing his position as a government lawyer in 1857 when his homosexuality became known, went on to perform extensive research into human sexuality, to write several books (which were banned and burned across Germany), and to use his findings to argue for the decriminalization of homosexuality. To be sure, Ulrichs did not call himself a homosexual (a word that was not coined until 1869, by the Hungarian writer and human rights activist Karl-Maria Kertbeny), but an “Urning”—a word that Ulrichs adapted from Plato’s Symposium, and that many of his gay British contemporaries took up, translating it as “Uranian.” Though many readers found the focus of his work scandalous, he was respected enough in certain academic circles to earn an honorary degree from the University of Naples. Perhaps the first gay person in history to “come out” publicly, Ulrichs died in exile in Italy in 1895.

His work strongly influenced Magnus Hirschfeld, a physician who two years after Ulrichs’s death cofounded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which engaged in sexual research and continued Ulrichs’s campaign for the abolition of the German law against homosexuality (an effort that won the open support of Einstein, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and other luminaries). Hirschfeld also established the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin, which in addition to studying human sexuality offered sex and marriage counseling, housed a sizable library, and promoted contraception, sex education, and the equal rights of women, gays, and transsexuals (a term that Hirschfeld coined). Hirschfeld was also the founder of the World League for Sexual Reform, which held conferences in several European capitals in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Though Hirschfeld’s effort to liberalize public attitudes about human sexuality gained ground under the Weimar Republic, it ended abruptly when Hitler came to power. The Nazis closed the institute, seized its property, threw its director into a concentration camp (Hirschfeld was on a U.S. lecture tour at the time), and burned almost the entire contents of its library and archives. (It is believed that the Nazis saved the institute’s mailing lists and later made use of them to round up gays.) Hirschfeld spent the rest of his life in self-exile in France, dying there in 1935; after the war West German courts upheld the Nazis’ actions against the institute.

The research performed by Ulrichs and Hirschfeld was serious, scholarly, and responsible: they were traditional-minded, even conservative men of science who believed in objective research methods. They weren’t propagandists but seekers of truth who felt that the truth would set them—and other gay men and women—free. Although both had theories that would later be discredited (Hirschfeld, for example, saw gay men as naturally effeminate), their work came to be recognized by serious scholars of sexuality as groundbreaking. Among those scholars is Wayne R. Dynes, a longtime professor of art history at Hunter College and a founder of Gay Studies in America, who points out that much of the work of his prewar German predecessors “was conditioned by evidence from ancient Greece and Rome, as one might expect from scholars with a thorough gymnasium training.”

Gay Studies in America started out as a serious academic discipline in the tradition of Ulrichs and Hirschfeld. Its genesis is part of the early history of the American gay rights movement, which began in the 1950s with orderly, low-profile picket lines protesting antigay laws and policies (Frank Kameny, one of the movement’s founders, was a World War II veteran who had been fired from his position as a U.S. Army astronomer for being gay) and entered a more aggressive and visible phase with the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which are generally seen as inaugurating the “modern” gay rights movement. Dynes told me in July 2010 that it was in 1971 or thereabouts that his then best friend, a librarian named Jack Stafford, persuaded him to join a group of gay librarians working under the American Library Association’s auspices, whereupon the two men “undertook, rather naively as it turned out, to produce a bibliography of gay and lesbian topics that would eschew, by and large, the old negative psychiatric junk.” (At the time, it will be recalled, homosexuality was still officially considered a mental disorder.)

Some time later, Dynes “learned that a much bigger project . . . was under way at ONE, Inc. in Los Angeles.” (ONE, Inc., had published One, America’s first gay magazine, from 1953 to 1967.) “Its deficiencies soon became apparent, and I set out to work with W. Dorr Legg, head of ONE, to produce something better.” In the end Dynes produced Homosexuality: A Research Guide, which remains the most substantial bibliography of information on the subject. “My mentor in these studies was the late polymath Warren Johansson, who impressed on me the need to read and ponder the enormous contribution of gay scholarship produced in Germany prior to 1933.” In the fall of 1973, Dynes helped organize the first annual conference of the now-defunct Gay Academic Union (GAU) at John Jay College in Manhattan. “The quality of the presentations varied, with some scholarly, others just pep talks. But in talking to some of the better people I could see a convergence towards the idea of Gay Studies. We saw, of course, that there would be problems getting the proposals through the appropriate college committees. But we were on our way—or so we thought.” So began “Gay Studies as an academic discipline” in America.

“In order to avoid reinventing the wheel,” Dynes recalls, “Warren and I thought that one should begin the new chapter of gay studies . . . on the foundations of the German one”—which, he notes with admiration, had been “guided by the motto Per scientiam ad justitiam [Through science to justice]. That is to say, cumulatively the assemblage of objective knowledge would persuade society to eliminate laws and discriminatory policies regarding homosexuality. This was a continuation of the Enlightenment project of Sapere aude [an expression, meaning ‘dare to know’ or ‘dare to discern,’ that stems from Horace and that Immanuel Kant selected as the motto for the Enlightenment]. Warren and I resigned ourselves to the fact that most people were going to ignore the German contribution, but we drew heavily upon it in our own work. We assembled a small group of ten or so people meeting at regular intervals in my Morningside Drive apartment. Out of this collaboration came the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”—a comprehensive and extremely well-received volume that included informative entries on everything and everyone from Alcibiades, Suetonius, and Theocritus to Jean Cocteau, Yukio Mishima, and Noël Coward.

Dynes emphasizes that he and his colleagues weren’t out to create an “epistemic rupture”—that is, they had no intention of overturning prevailing Enlightenment notions about reason, evidence, logic, and the nature of knowledge. “We thought that Gay Studies would become a department in most universities, not unlike the departments of, say, Spanish and chemistry.” Alas, other gay academics, who were more politically oriented and aligned with the New Left, didn’t share what they saw as the “assimilationist” views of Dynes and his colleagues, and, in Dynes’s words, “sought to break with the existing edifice of knowledge.” “Some of these dissidents,” Dynes says, “left academia, while others stayed behind to snipe from within.” And snipe they did. There were other problems, too: “During the seventies there was a great hullaballoo about the need to give full representation to lesbians and lesbianism. In vain we pointed out that historically there was much less data about gay women than gay men. We were tarred with the label of misogynist. In 1981 AIDS was first detected, and many diverted their research to that subject, perhaps understandably.”

Then, in the late 1980s, Lesbian and Gay Studies began to be transformed by a “social-constructionist” view of sexual orientation—a transformation that Dynes describes as nothing less than a “tsunami” and that was furthered by three books published in 1990: John J. Winkler’s The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece; Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, edited by David Halperin, John Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin; and—most influential of all—Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. Social-constructionist positions on sexuality vary in their purity: some social constructionists simply argue that the nature and expression of human sexuality are highly dependent on social and cultural factors; others go so far as to insist that sexual orientation does not exist as such, and that what an individual perceives as his immutable sexual identity is in fact entirely the product of his society and culture.

This new way of thinking about sexual orientation derived strongly from the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–84), who wrote in The History of Sexuality: “We have had sexuality since the eighteenth century, and sex since the nineteenth. What we had before that was no doubt flesh.” In the same intellectual spirit, the fact that the word homosexuality was not coined until 1869 has led many social constructionists to claim that homosexuals as such didn’t even exist before 1869. (This view explains, for example, the otherwise ridiculous-sounding subtitle of Jonathan Ned Katz’s 2003 book, Love Stories: Sex Between Men before Homosexuality.) As Dynes notes, social constructionism has generally limited its adherents’ field of study to “Western Europe and North America in the last 150 years or so.” Typical of social-constructionist views are the assertions made in “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” John D’Emilio’s essay in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, that “gay men and lesbians have not always existed” and that “[t]here are more of us than one hundred years ago” (his emphasis) because “ideological conditions” have made it “easier for people to make [the] choice” to be gay. In his insistence on the concept of “choice” and his acknowledgment that his claim “confirms the worst fears and most rabid rhetoric of our political opponents,” D’Emilio contradicts the felt experience of the overwhelming majority of gay men.

The social constructionists invented a term to describe those who did not share their views: they were essentialists and were typically described as denying that people in different cultures and eras have had different understandings of the nature of sexual identity. But no one denies that understandings of sexual identity have changed over time; a fairer description of the “essentialist” view is that sexual orientation is a fact of nature and that homosexually oriented individuals have existed in roughly equal proportions in all societies across the generations—even though those individuals’ way of thinking about their sexuality has surely varied in accordance with social and cultural factors. In the foreword to Lesbian and Gay Studies: An Introductory, Interdisciplinary Approach (2000), Mary McIntosh echoes the prevailing attitude of many social constructionists toward “essentialists” when she writes that “we in lesbian and gay studies are remote from the ordinary gay world and from the gay movement because we are aware of the lesbian and gay identities as the product of a particular period or culture, whereas the average lesbian or gay has a folk-essentialist view and, indeed, likes to think that ‘we’ have always been there, throughout historical and cultural oppression.” Note how the social-constructionist view is here simply taken for granted as the truth—a truth recognized as such by the properly educated members of the gay academic left—while the essentialist view is dismissed with imperial condescension as the product of sheer ignorance.

Social constructionism took over Lesbian and Gay Studies so quickly that by 1992 the philosopher Richard D. Mohr, who writes about homosexuality from a traditional academic perspective, was bemoaning the fact that “the social construction of homosexuality . . . has achieved hagiographical status within lesbian and gay studies” and lamenting Gay Studies scholars’ “generic worship of Saint Foucault.” Mohr’s lack of reverence for Foucault so outraged Halperin that he wrote a book, Saint Foucault (2004), in which he accused Mohr of seeking to tame him. But Halperin wasn’t about to be tamed:

Far from being intimidated into towing [sic] a more normative line by the prospect or threat of getting herded together with Foucault into the stigmatized company of “militant,” “radical,” or “extreme” gay male intellectuals and activists, I have been driven by an instinct of survival to want to expose the political operations that have brought about such a phobic construction of Foucault in the first place. [Note: Mohr, whose criticism of Foucault Halperin is apparently characterizing here as homophobic, is openly gay.] And in the course of pursuing that project, my admiration for Foucault and my identification with his discursive and political positioning have increased exponentially.

So let me make it official. I may not have worshiped Foucault at the time I wrote One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, but I do worship him now. As far as I’m concerned, the guy was a fucking saint.

Halperin goes on to praise the Frenchman for having “grasped his total political situation as a gay intellectual and scholar better than anyone else has ever done. . . . Michel Foucault, c’est moi,” he says, explaining that he shares with Foucault “the problem of how, as a gay man, an academic, and a public intellectual, I can acquire and maintain the authority to speak, to be heard, and to be taken seriously without denying or bracketing my gayness.” Halperin engages in this kind of self-dramatization throughout Saint Foucault, depicting himself as a victim or potential victim of “silencing,” when in fact he has never been silenced, and has, on the contrary, been abundantly celebrated and rewarded (for example, with a 2008–2009 Guggenheim fellowship). He depicts himself as a beleaguered truth-teller—“What Foucault and I have in common . . . is our vexed and inescapable relation to the sexual politics of truth”—when in fact he is a voice of Lesbian and Gay Studies orthodoxy and an enforcer thereof. He has actually written books called How to Do the History of Homosexuality and How to Be Gay—titles that make it clear that in Halperin’s eyes there are most assuredly right and wrong ways to do the former and be the latter.

Halperin endorses what he calls Foucault’s “dark vision of modernity, of the liberal state, and of progressive, Enlightenment-era values (such as freedom, truth, and rationality).” Deep down it’s all about power, which according to Foucault is “everywhere.” Halperin explains:

When he says that “power is everywhere,” Foucault is not talking about power in the sense of coercive and irresistible force (which in his lexicon goes by the name not of “power” but of “determination”); rather, he is referring to what might be called liberal power—that is, to the kind of power typically at work in the modern liberal state, which takes as its objects “free subjects” and defines itself wholly in relation to them and to their freedom. . . . The kind of power Foucault is interested in, . . . far from enslaving its objects, constructs them as subjective agents and preserves them in their autonomy, so as to invest them all the more completely. Liberal power does not simply prohibit; it does not directly terrorize. It normalizes, “responsibilizes,” and disciplines. The state no longer needs to frighten or coerce its subjects into proper behavior: it can safely leave them to make their own choices . . . because . . . they freely and spontaneously police both their own conduct and the conduct of others. . . .

In other words, the most formidable and disturbing kind of power at work in the world today is not the brutal totalitarianism of a country like North Korea, but the kind of power wielded by the government of a country like the United States—because in the latter, people think that they are free, even though they behave according to rules and norms that they have unconsciously internalized. Because the “modes of domination” in the modern liberal state do not present themselves as such, they are, as Halperin puts it, “all the more difficult to challenge or oppose”; freedom in the West, then, is nothing but a lie because its exercise is “conditional upon personal submission to new and insidious forms of authority, to ever more deeply internalized mechanisms of constraint”—otherwise known (as we have seen) as hegemony.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Foucault’s Orwellian philosophy—in which freedom is totalitarianism and totalitarianism is freedom—that he was a Communist Party member in the 1950s and a Maoist in the 1960s and ’70s. His “dark vision” of the free world enables Halperin—who is, of course, fortunate to be living in a time and place in which gay people enjoy more rights and respect than ever in history—to depict himself as a heroic victim of well-nigh unparalleled subjugation. He speaks of what “gay men in the United States . . . are up against in our struggles to survive this genocidal era”—an era marked not, to be sure, by “explicit oppression” but rather by “pervasive and multiform strategies of homophobia that shape public and private discourses.” Lesbians and gay men, says Halperin, need not “bewail the passing of . . . liberal, humanist notions, [or] be threatened by their demolition” because gays have been the targets of “a new kind of terror” carried out in the name of liberalism, humanism, and individual identity, “a terror all the more terrible in that its nature as terror is effectively concealed beneath the disguise of the supposedly nonarbitrary authority of freedom, truth, and rationality.” Describing Foucault’s objective as being “not liberation but resistance,” Halperin makes it clear that he shares this aim, insisting that “[t]he most radical reversal of homophobic discourses consists not in asserting . . . that ‘gay is good’ [a slogan coined by Franklin Kameny] but in assuming and empowering a marginal positionality.”

To this end, Halperin prefers the term queer to gay because while “gay identity . . . is . . . rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality” but rather—and here Halperin is articulating an orthodoxy that we will explore more fully in the succeeding pages—“acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence,” and is therefore “available to anyone who is or feels marginalized because of his or her sexual practices.” Halperin makes it clear that this includes child molesters. “[O]ne can’t become homosexual, strictly speaking: either one is or one isn’t. But one can marginalize oneself; one can transform oneself; one can become queer.” And for Halperin, queerness is the goal: “Foucault insisted that homosexuality did not name an already existing form of desire but was rather ‘something to be desired.’ Our task is therefore ‘to become homosexual, not to persist in acknowledging that we are.’ Or, to put it more precisely, what Foucault meant is that our task is to become queer. . . . Self-invention is not a luxury or a pastime for lesbians and gay men: it is a necessity.” Apparently, lesbians and gay men who have no desire “to become queer” have failed at a task that is obligatory for them, whether or not they are aware of it. Halperin, like Foucault, in short, is yet another busybody who has an agenda for other people’s lives.

As it happens, the facts of Foucault’s own personal life have a direct relevance to his philosophy. Foucault called for “the intense pleasures procured by means of drugs, sadomasochistic eroticism, and anonymous sex”—and he practiced what he preached, which helps explain why he ended up dying of AIDS at age fifty-seven. Some of his disciples find the more excessive aspects of Foucault’s private life a source of embarrassment; but not Halperin, who considers Foucault’s private life to be triumphantly consistent with his philosophy. For in Foucault’s view, sex was not just sex: it was a political act, and gay bathhouses were sites of “resistance.” Forget the fact that gays who frequent bathhouses in, say, Amsterdam or Berlin aren’t “resisting” anything; they’re just having fun, and nobody tries to stop them. (Foucault the Maoist, by the way, was apparently unbothered by the fact that under Chairman Mao such places would have been destroyed and their patrons exterminated.)

Now, Foucault’s fetishes were certainly his own business, but he plainly meant to suggest that they made him more correctly queer, gay, transgressive, and oppositional than others. We are expected to understand, then, that what may seem like self-indulgence on his part was, in fact, heroism. For Foucault, it was not sufficient to do what he enjoyed doing and leave it at that; no, he needed (for whatever psychological reason) to represent it as a philosophical and moral response to institutional power. Halperin describes Foucault as gaining “insights into the transformative potential of sex . . . from his experiences in the bathhouses and S/M clubs of New York and San Francisco. . . .” Insights! Some might find it odd for a man so preoccupied with and unsympathetic to the exercise of power to be as powerfully drawn as Foucault was to violent acts of sadomasochism. But Foucault had an answer to this: the search for “new” sexual pleasure in a world in which power is all leads naturally to the power-obsessed phenomenon of sadomasochism. However much it may seem otherwise, “‘domination’ in S/M,” writes Halperin, is for Foucault “not a form of a personal or political subjugation.” To sum up, then, the sexual domination in S&M is not domination, while what seems to be the nondomination that characterizes free societies is domination.

As Halperin puts it, S&M involves “the strategic use of power differentials to produce effects of pleasure instead of effects of domination,” and thus “some of Foucault’s clearest indications of what might count as queer praxis occur in the context of his discussions of S/M.” Indeed, the more you look at it, the more Foucault’s entire philosophical project looks like a road map to S&M—a justification for Foucault’s own sexual practices, and more than that: an implicit argument that his own sexual practices are the proper sexual practices for homosexuals. “More powerfully than any other thinker I know,” writes Halperin, “Foucault politicizes both truth and the body” because he “reconceptualize[s] sexuality as a strategic device” and “thereby converts sex into the basis for a radical critique of, and political struggle against, innumerable aspects of modern disciplinary culture.” In short, Foucault was—and Halperin is—out to sign up recruits for a revolution against human freedom, individual identity, Cartesian reason, and Enlightenment values.

Imagine believing that it’s your obligation as a “queer” to view your every sexual encounter as an act of political resistance! Foucault goes on endlessly about oppression, but he doesn’t come off as someone who has been oppressed (nor does Halperin)—he comes off as an overgrown brat who wants to have his cake and eat it, too, and who has worked up elaborate, sophisticated-sounding reasons for why he should not only be allowed to do anything he feels like but be idolized for it. Even as he celebrated himself for his exploits, he flatly refused to acknowledge the damage these activities can, and did, cause both medically and psychologically. Social constructionism, after all, became a force in Lesbian and Gay Studies at a time when some gays in certain cities were forming what Halperin describes as “a subculture that . . . has been pioneering new forms of life.” To refuse, as Halperin does, to draw any conclusions about Foucault’s philosophy from the consequences of the “new forms of life” that he advocated is, by any objective standard, morally irresponsible. (Then again, to a pure social constructionist even the AIDS that killed Foucault was nothing but a social construct.)

Yet in Halperin’s view, any criticism of Foucault’s totalitarianism is beyond the pale. More than once, Halperin refers to Foucault’s critics as “gay-baiting detractors.” How dare anyone not worship at Foucault’s altar? Halperin devotes a good deal of Saint Foucault to a savaging of James Miller’s book The Passion of Michel Foucault—which, although it is in fact a hagiography, is nonetheless insufficiently worshipful for Halperin, who complains that Miller “reverses [Foucault’s] entire political program.” Yes, he does—by uncovering the ugly personal impulses that informed Foucault’s philosophy. Similarly, Halperin accuses “Foucault’s gay detractors” of being “just as crude as any professional, right-wing homophobe: Bruce Bawer, for example, is not ashamed to write, ‘The greatest single influence on Gay Studies today is the late French theorist Michel Foucault, an enthusiast of sadomasochism who analyzed sexual relations almost entirely in terms of power’ (not a bad place to begin such an analysis, now that you mention it!).” In other words, I was entirely correct to describe Foucault in this way—my offense was not in misrepresenting him but in disagreeing with him. By the end of Saint Foucault, it is clear that Halperin shares Foucault’s brutal preoccupation with power: Foucault saw himself as being at war with tyrants and terrorists, and felt justified in being as brutal as he thought they were; and the same is true of Halperin. “[W]henever those of us who feel ourselves to be in Foucault’s embattled position, or who share his political vision, hear those who aren’t, or who don’t, invoke the notion of ‘truth,’” writes Halperin in the last sentence of his book, “we reach for our revolvers.” This is, of course, a line from Goering.

For a representative picture of Gay Studies under social constructionism, we can turn to The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993). Edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and Halperin, it contains forty-two articles, two-thirds of which are by women (even though the actual proportion of gay men to lesbians in the general population is approximately the other way around). The editors describe their discipline as follows: “Lesbian/gay studies is not limited to the study of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Nor does it refer simply to studies undertaken by, or in the name of, lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Not all research into the lives of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men necessarily qualifies as lesbian/gay studies.” To “help to clarify this point,” the editors introduce an “analogy with women’s studies”:

[W]omen’s history seeks to establish the centrality of gender as a fundamental category of historical analysis and understanding. . . . Thus, women’s studies is not limited to the study of women’s life and contributions: it includes any research that treats gender (whether female or male) as a central category of analysis and that operates within the broad horizons of that diverse political and intellectual movement known as feminism.

Lesbian/gay studies does for sex and sexuality approximately what women’s studies does for gender.

In other words, just as Women’s Studies is not about women but about gender (which explains why many Women’s Studies departments or programs have added words like “Gender” and “Sexuality” to their names), Lesbian and Gay Studies is not about lesbians and gays but about sex. The editors note that there is a “degree of overlap” between the two fields. They also point out that like Women’s Studies, Lesbian and Gay Studies has “an oppositional design” and “straddles scholarship and politics.” At many institutions, in fact, Gay Studies is treated, in some way or another, as a subdivision of Women’s Studies. Stanford’s Feminist Studies Department, for example, offers an undergraduate minor in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies. At many universities, such as the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, departments of, or programs in, Gender and Women’s Studies offer courses or minors in Queer or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies. Some institutions offer Lesbian Studies under the aegis of Women’ Studies (at South Puget Sound Community College, for example, you can earn a graduate certificate in Lesbian Studies from the Women’s Studies Program). But none of these departments or programs offers degrees in Gay Male Studies. (Barry D. Adam, after examining a representative sampling of books in the field, notes that while half of them “address lesbian studies, and half gay and lesbian or queer studies . . . none offers an exclusively gay male focus.”)

Indeed, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader reads in large part like a Women’s Studies primer. For example, the contribution by Marilyn Frye, then a professor at Michigan State, addresses such subjects as the “parasitism of males on females” and the supposed preoccupation of many literary works by men with “the theme of men getting high off beating, raping, or killing women.” Among Frye’s assertions are that “[m]any awakening women [that is, women whose consciousness has been raised by people like Frye] become celibate or lesbian,” that “[m]ale parasitism means that males must have access to women; it is the Patriarchal Imperative,” and that “[t]he woman-only meeting is a fundamental challenge to the structure of power,” for “[t]he slave who decides to exclude the master from her hut is declaring herself not a slave.” Rather than seek to understand sexual categories, the late University of Arizona professor Monique Wittig declares in her essay, “One Is Not Born a Woman,” the need to “destroy . . . the categories of sex” and maintains that a woman can escape servitude only “by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual. We are escapees from our class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free.”

A gay man reading The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader discovers soon enough that he is expected to acknowledge (and admit his complicity in) the oppression of women by men through the centuries; to recognize that women’s revolution against patriarchal domination is central to the contemporary study of sexuality and sexual orientation; and to accept the appropriateness of discussing all sexuality, including his own, within a radical feminist framework. He is expected, in short, to embrace the view that gay male sexuality can be properly studied only in light of the alleged plight of women, and to understand, therefore, why Gay Studies is often a subsidiary of Women’s Studies. Even to suggest that it might be worthwhile to examine gay male identity, history, and experience as a topic unto itself, without constant reference to the alleged evils of patriarchy and the oppression of women, is to identify oneself as sexist.

Indeed, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader is testimony to the fact that the gay male, or at least the gay white male, is welcomed into the precincts of Lesbian and Gay Studies only, as it were, on a tentative, probational basis—for as a white man he is by nature simply too implicated in the patriarchy for the comfort of his more multiply-oppressed fellow homosexuals. A lesbian, after all, cannot disguise her gender, and a black man cannot hide his color, but a gay white man can keep his sexual orientation a secret and thereby function smoothly as a member of the oppressor class. In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, the essays that do deal with gay men are disproportionately concerned with such subgroups as gay African males, gay African American males, gay Mexican males, and gay Indian males (not to mention pre-Columbian Native American berdaches and medieval Chinese transsexuals), suggesting that it’s far more legitimate in the eyes of Lesbian and Gay Studies professionals to belong to any one of these categories than to be a gay white male. The anthology, to be sure, includes several essays on AIDS, which suggest that gay white men who are visibly infected with HIV are at least somewhat redeemed in the eyes of the Lesbian and Gay Studies community, plus not one but two articles about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the criticism of whose often quasi-pornographic work by conservatives made him a left-wing hero and thus, for the gatekeepers of Lesbian and Gay Studies, that rare thing—a gay white male worthy of admiration.

Indeed, the hostility that rises up from the pages of The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader—and there’s quite a lot of it—is directed far less toward heterosexuals than toward men of whatever orientation. Take the book’s most famous contributor, the poet Adrienne Rich, who in her essay wonders why gay men and straight women exist, since women should obviously be the primary objects of affection for both men and women. Isn’t female heterosexuality, she asks, an aberration? Employing a popular radical feminist trope, Rich all but equates heterosexual sex with rape, speaks of the “terrorism of women by men,” and approvingly cites a description of “adult male sexual behavior” as “a condition of arrested sexual development.” And she insists: “To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to erase female reality once again.” Women who think they are heterosexual, she writes, are suffering from “false consciousness.” She praises as “revolutionary” the “refusal of some women to produce children,” hails “[w]oman identification” as “a source of energy” and “a potential springhead of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality,” and acclaims “[l]esbian experience” as “an electric and empowering charge between women.”

This kind of rhetoric was ubiquitous in gay newspapers and magazines in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I wasn’t the only gay man who found such fanatical man-hatred less than congenial. In 1993, the year The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader came out, I published a book, too. In part, it was a response to the disinformation spread by public figures like Pat Buchanan, who in his now-notorious “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican convention essentially declared war on gay people; in part, it was a reply to the radical nonsense of people like Adrienne Rich and groups like Queer Nation (founded in 1990 and known for the slogan “I hate straights”) and the Lesbian Avengers (established in 1992). What was striking was that the two sides presented the world with almost identical views of gay people: we were depicted as philosophically lockstep subversives who despised America, religion, and capitalism; whose lives revolved around sex far more than straight people’s did; and whose proper place was not in mainstream society but at its margins. On one issue after another, both camps were in total agreement—for example, both fiercely opposed gay marriage and the right of gays to serve openly in the military. For gay-left activists, marriage and the military, along with corporations and organized religion, were the enemy; a gay person who wanted to have anything to do with any of these things was, in their view, a pathetic creature begging for admission into straight institutions, rather than a soldier in the heroic struggle to establish specifically gay and lesbian institutions. Instead of wishing to be welcomed into mainstream American society, lectured the gay left, gays should be seeking to transform it radically from top to bottom.

A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society (1993) was my attempt to effect a change. I wanted to illuminate for straight readers a subject that made them uneasy; to persuade gay readers who’d unthinkingly embraced the gay left’s narrow line to open their minds; and, especially, to help young gay people to understand that they needn’t accept anybody else’s prescriptions for their lives. There was no single “right” way to be gay. The public debate about homosexuality had been controlled by people at the ideological poles; I wanted to move the discussion to the center, the mainstream—where most individuals, gay and straight, actually lived.

A Place at the Table was followed, in 1996, by Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal, which systematically decimated the arguments of both the antigay right and queer left, and by the anthology Beyond Queer, in which several writers, most of them gay, took on gay-left orthodoxies. These books were part of a sea change for gay Americans, and the response from ordinary gay readers was enthusiastic. But both the antigay right and the gay left attacked us mercilessly. The former, of course, viewed us as apologists for something they found abominable; the latter saw us as traitors to the Queer Nation. “We don’t want a place at the table,” lesbian activist Donna Minkowitz railed at me on the Charlie Rose Show. “We want to turn the table over!” In a 1994 article, “Who Stole the Gay Movement?,” Stephen H. Miller provided a snapshot of that moment in gay history: “The lesbian and gay left,” he wrote, “has declared war against the growing numbers of moderates, libertarians, and out-and-proud conservatives (along with other ideological deviants) within the gay movement.” What the gay left was actually irked by, suggested Miller, was “the gay community’s failure to embrace what [Tony] Kushner and others conceive of as a grand alliance of the radical left.” Miller quoted Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, who had complained that “gay conservatives” ignored “the vital bond between queers and feminists,” and Urvashi Vaid, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who in Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (1995) condemned that “mainstreaming” as the work of “a racist, sexist gay and lesbian Right” and called for “a full-scale frontal assault” on its members. “This,” observed Miller quite rightly, “is pure Stalinism—silencing anyone who opposes the hard left’s dominance of the gay movement by labeling us racist and sexist.”

The “gay conservative” movement made a difference. It helped innumerable gay Americans to realize that they weren’t alone—that there were other gays who, like them, didn’t identify with the ideas and images promulgated by the gay left. Thanks in part to that movement, millions of gays came out during the 1990s—and the more gays came out, the clearer it became that the “gay conservatives” were right: the great majority of gay people weren’t the political extremists or sexual subversives that both the antigay right and gay left said we were; in most ways, we were ordinary people, who could be found not only in Greenwich Village, the Castro, and West Hollywood, but also in Queens, Oakland, and Burbank—not to mention in cities, towns, and rural areas across America. We worked at every imaginable kind of job and ranged across the social, political, and cultural spectrum. In short, aside from our sexual orientation, we were very much like our heterosexual siblings. The rise of the Internet during this period also played an immensely important role: suddenly, young gay people whose counterparts a decade or two earlier had felt utterly isolated could go online and discover kindred spirits.

The result of these changes has been a society that, for gay people, is light-years away from the one in which I wrote A Place at the Table. For more and more gay youth today, the closet is a historical curiosity; thanks to the presence in their lives of openly gay adults (and the increasing number of openly gay celebrities and TV characters), they’re able to recognize their own homosexuality at amazingly young ages and, rather than being plunged into the intense confusion, anxiety, and sense of isolation that plagued earlier generations of young gay people, can matter-of-factly come out to their families and friends and be met with matter-of-fact acceptance. They don’t see themselves as different in any significant way from their straight friends; they don’t view themselves as members of a subculture or feel that their homosexuality obliges them to become political radicals or sexual libertines or to live in gay ghettos. To show young gay people today a gay newspaper or magazine from 1990 or earlier is to introduce them to a world that is completely alien to them. The issues over which gays argued back then seem, to them, quaint and baffling; they take for granted that gays should be allowed to marry and serve openly in the armed forces.

In the 1990s, the conflict between us so-called gay conservatives and the gay left was widely framed as a debate between “assimilationists” (I have always preferred “integrationists”) and “liberationists.” Today it’s clear that the “assimilationists” won the battle among ordinary gay Americans. Our arguments, once mocked by the gay left, are now taken for granted as common sense by the overwhelming majority of gay people.

Yet you’d never know this if you spent some time in a typical Gay Studies classroom today.

I’ve outlined the conquest of Lesbian and Gay Studies by social constructionism. But this was only the beginning of the discipline’s slide into irresponsibility, irrelevance, and incoherence. It provided the foundation for something even worse—namely, Queer Theory, founded by two women who studied philosophy at Yale at a time when it was the American headquarters of French poststructuralist theory: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009), who became a professor at Duke and, later, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York; and Judith Butler (born in 1956), who has taught at Johns Hopkins and Berkeley.

The term “Queer Theory” itself was coined in 1990 by Teresa de Lauretis, an Italian-born author of several books on feminist theory and lesbian sexuality, at a conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she still teaches. Indeed, for Queer Theory today, it’s almost as if time stopped somewhere around 1990. For as far as most of its proponents are concerned, the arguments presented by Sullivan, me, and others in the 1990s might never have been made; and if they are acknowledged, they’re treated as wildly reactionary. Similarly, Queer Theory’s practitioners recognize the advances made by gays in American society over the last couple of decades—how could they do otherwise?—but the fact that these changes represented a triumph of so-called assimilationist ideas over their own views is dropped down the memory hole.

What is Queer Theory? In A Genealogy of Queer Theory (2000), William B. Turner affirms its debt to Foucault as well as to feminism: “the concerns of queer theorists for sexuality, gender, and the relationships between the two, as well as their political and intellectual ramifications, grow distinctly out of feminist political and scholarly activity as much as, if not more than, out of gay political and scholarly activity.” If earlier practitioners of Lesbian and Gay Studies had made it clear that their work didn’t necessarily have anything to do with homosexuality, and if social constructionists had further weakened this connection, Queer Theory entailed, among other things, an even greater distancing of what had been called Gay Studies from its putative subject. Being “queer,” in the eyes of Queer Theory, isn’t about sexual orientation at all, really, but about the same kind of marginality, radicalism, and differentness preached by Kushner, Vaid, Queer Nation, and company in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Could it be that everyone is queer?” asks Turner quite seriously.

“Queerness indicates merely the failure to fit precisely within a category. . . . Sedgwick has suggested that the only definitive indicator of queerness is the inclination of an individual so to designate her- or himself.” In the tradition of Foucault, moreover, Queer Theory is also about power. Queer theorists reject what they regard as the use of simplistic identity labels (aside from the label queer, of course) because such labels result in people having more or less power based on the label that is attached to them, with the power always going to those who are committed to an “unqueer reading of identity.”

Indeed, Queer Theory is preoccupied with what its practitioners purport to regard as the endlessly problematic concept of identity and with what Turner calls the “working through of the specifics of variously overlapping, disjunctive, cooperative, clashing identity categories.” As a result of this “working through,” he says, “[t]he logic of identity looks increasingly peculiar—increasingly queer—under the lens of queer theory.” Turner approvingly quotes David Halperin’s explanation that “‘queer’ does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object” but rather “acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Sedgwick herself was a perfect example of the term’s flexibility: although she identified herself as “queer,” she was a heterosexual woman who spent forty years in a monogamous marriage to a man. Note, however, that while Turner accepts that a straight woman can legitimately be labeled “queer,” he would refuse to use the word to describe, say, a man who is married to a woman but who secretly has sex with men. Nor would he call such as man gay. For in the eyes of Queer Theory, identity—sexual or otherwise—is not about an individual’s intrinsic nature (such as a sexual orientation that the individual may act upon or not, may either acknowledge to himself or be in denial about, and may admit to others or dissemble about). No, what matters—all that matters—is that the individual in question embrace the label. It’s all about the act of declaration, of self-labeling—an action that exists entirely apart from any essential quality, desire, or identity, let alone activity.

Like Halperin, Turner targets Richard D. Mohr, in this case for defending the view that an individual’s sexual orientation is what it is, and that whether he owns up to it or not doesn’t change the facts. By taking this position, complains Turner, Mohr is missing “the performative aspect of sexual identity.” A person’s sexual identity, you see, does not exist in and of itself, apart from what that person says about it to other people; you are what you call yourself. You may be a man who has no attraction to other men at all and has never had sexual conduct with another male, but if you choose to call yourself “queer,” that’s what you are; by the same token, you may be a man who is exclusively attracted to men and has had sex with thousands of them, but if you present yourself to others as heterosexual that’s what you are. This emphasis on “performance” derives from Sedgwick, who argues, in Turner’s paraphrase, that “[i]n order to prove oneself ‘truly’ queer, one need only have the impulse so to designate oneself.”

For its practitioners, Queer Theory is nothing less than the Grand Unified Theory of human nature, and any other intellectual discipline, any other form of knowledge, is necessarily subordinated to it. Take, for example, Turner’s statement that “[a]ttempts to find biological bases for either gender difference or sexual orientation reflect the desire to shift political discussions into the realm of science.” In short, never mind sexual orientation; even gender difference, in the eyes of Queer Theory, is not properly a biological but a political question upon which it is the prerogative not of biologists but of Queer Theorists to pronounce. For a reader who, like Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, actually cares about the psychological well-being, social acceptance, and legal rights of gay men and women, Queer Theory can feel like a mischievous, exploitative activity—a vacuous, pretentious, and ultimately pointless rhetorical game that detached, self-absorbed academics—some of whom aren’t even gay—play on the backs of gay people.

Queer Theory, manifestly, exists in a bizarre academic time-warp. Even as homosexuality has grown increasingly accepted in mainstream America, and as the institutions of the closet and the gay ghetto have steadily evaporated, Queer Theorists continue to cling to the old separatist agenda—continue to try to reinforce the idea that gays are strange, marginal, anti-establishment, contrarian, and rebellious—and continue to try to pretend that when they echo the tired twenty-year-old platitudes of Kushner, Goldstein, and Vaid they are saying something new.

It is one of the curiosities of Queer Studies that the person who is almost universally considered its founding mother made a point of the ordinariness of her private life. In her 1999 book A Dialogue on Love the stout, grandmotherly Sedgwick described herself as engaging in “vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower, with one person of the so-called opposite sex, to whom I’ve been legally married for almost a quarter of a century.” Yet this is the woman who, as Maria Russo put it in an obituary for Salon, made “literary studies . . . sexy.” Wrote Russo: “Through the lens of high theory, scholars began injecting libido into once dry and staid academic realms.” This seems to me the very opposite of what Sedgwick really accomplished: there is nothing “sexy” whatsoever about the ugly, murky language of Queer Theory, and to speak of the glories of literary criticism—from Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, De Quincey, and Hazlitt through Arnold, Macaulay, Pater, and Ruskin to Eliot, Jarrell, Trilling, and Orwell (to name only a few of the great critics who have written in English)—as “dry and staid” is to not know what you are talking about. When Russo calls Sedgwick’s work “sexy” she is thinking about such notorious efforts as the 1989 MLA lecture “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” the very title of which, at the time, caused a stir in academic circles and became a touchstone for this odd new species of critical activity. Sedgwick claims, in her lecture, that she has discovered an undercurrent of repressed sexuality in Sense and Sensibility—a claim that she supports by laboriously reading sexual meanings into innocuous statements and gestures throughout Austen’s novel. This, in a nutshell, is the approach Sedgwick takes throughout her oeuvre; this is what it means to “queer” literary works. If one expects substance, meaning, and insight from literary criticism, the spectacle of Sedgwick’s “queering” of the masterpieces of the ages cannot seem anything but a distortion of the literary works themselves—just as her rhetoric can seem a reckless game being played with gay people’s lives by a heterosexual woman who finds in those lives a convenient screen onto which to project her fantasies.

Epistemology of the Closet (1990) is regarded by all and sundry not only as Sedgwick’s most important book but as a (if not the) founding text of Queer Studies. In Sedgwick’s own words, the book’s central argument is “that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.” But Sedgwick “proves” this point by focusing on a handful of literary works (among them Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Melville’s Billy Budd, Proust’s À La Recherche du temps perdu, and Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle”) whose homosexual content has never been a state secret, and—as in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”—by forcing sexual interpretations upon these works at every turn.

Sedgwick also engages in the now-popular academic pastime of comparing different kinds of oppression and insisting on the complexity and ambiguity of the plight of individuals who are the supposed victims of multiple kinds of oppression (such as gay black women): “it was the long, painful realization, not that all oppressions are congruent, but that they are differently structured and so must intersect in complex embodiments that was the first great heuristic breakthrough of socialist-feminist thought and of the thought of women of color.” Sedgwick calls this a “realization,” but it sounds like a commonplace—assuming that one buys the proposition that everybody in America other than straight white men is “oppressed.” She goes on: “This realization has as its corollary that the comparison of different axes of oppression is a crucial task, not for any purpose of ranking oppressions, but to the contrary because each oppression is likely to be in a unique indicative relation to certain distinctive nodes of cultural organization.” In other words, every kind of oppression works in a somewhat different way. And the oppression of gays? “The special centrality of homophobic oppression in the twentieth century . . . has resulted from its inextricability from the question of knowledge and the processes of knowing in modern Western culture at large.” She speaks of “the now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male”—apparently meaning, as Mark Masterson (now of the Victoria University of Wellington) has explained, that our culture is unable to answer the following questions: “Is sexuality an orientation or is it a choice?; are homosexuals born or are they made?; essentialism or social construction?; nature/nurture? These are all part of the effect of this crisis in modern sexual definition. Sedgwick believes, and I agree with her, that it is impossible to adjudicate between these.”

Yet although Masterson goes on to speak of this “mass of contradictions that adhere to homosexuality,” the pairings in his list are all really different ways of putting the same thing—and there is no reason whatsoever to claim that it is “impossible” to ultimately decide between them. On the contrary, most gay people will testify, and an increasing majority of heterosexuals have come to understand, that sexuality is a matter of orientation and not of choice, period. To pretend that there is some “crisis of definition” surrounding this question is to create an appearance of confusion and melodrama where there is none. Plainly, Sedgwick’s purpose here is not to ascertain or clarify objective facts but to be “performative.” As Masterson himself admits, she is not out to resolve questions but to make the purportedly unresolved questions themselves her subject.

Unlike most of her female colleagues in Queer Theory, Sedgwick is often described as having identified with gay men. But she was consistently sarcastic and dismissive of heterosexual men. She referred with imperial condescension, for instance, to any sign of “heterosexual male self-pity,” sneering contemptuously about the “vast national wash of masculine self-pity” that she claimed to witness regularly in the New York Times “About Men” column, in “dying-father-and-his-son stories in The New Yorker,” and in “any other form of genre writing aimed at men.” She mocked the “sacred tears of the heterosexual man,” that “rare and precious liquor whose properties, we are led to believe, are rivaled only by the lacrimae Christi. . . .” Is there any other group that could get away with mocking like this in today’s academy? Sedgwick, note well, was not just criticizing sentimentality; she was essentially suggesting that straight men’s feelings are in some way illegitimate. “What charm, compared to this chrism of the gratuitous,” she writes, “can reside in the all too predictable tears of women, of gay men, of people with something to cry about?” The point here is that straight men, by definition, have nothing to cry about, ever—since, after all, they hold all the cards in contemporary society. What’s bizarre is that the author of these words spent forty years of her life married (happily, by all accounts, including her own) to a straight man. The only way to reconcile such rhetoric with her actual life and feelings is to recognize that Sedgwick truly is engaged in an act of performance here—playing a role, putting one over on us.

For the most part, however, the “performance” in Epistemology of the Closet, as throughout her work, consists of an often impenetrable display of jargon—an exhibition whose primary purpose is not to communicate ideas but to create an impression. Meandering and repetitious, Epistemology of the Closet fails again and again to build toward any clear point; Sedgwick wanders through the texts under consideration—summarizing plots, describing characters, pouncing on this or that word or expression and going on at length about its supposed hidden meanings—yet nothing remotely resembling a coherent argument ever comes into focus. One feels somewhat as if one is watching the rushes of a movie—scenes that have been shot over and over but have yet to be edited together in a way that make narrative sense. And then there is the prose:

In dealing with the multiple valences of sexuality, critics’ choices should not be limited to crudities of disruption or silence of orthodox enforcement.

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” written at the threshold of the new century, the possibility of an embodied male-homosexual thematics has, I would like to argue, a precisely liminal presence.

[I]t is mostly in the reifying grammar of periphrasis and preterition [in “The Beast in the Jungle”] . . . that a homosexual meaning becomes, to the degree that it does become, legible.

[T]he structuring metaphor . . . here seems to be peculiarly alimentative.

Sedgwick’s most distinctive stylistic attribute is the tendency to insert words like liminal and preterition and alimentative into sentences, much in the manner of a malicious child shoving a stick into the spokes of a moving bicycle. The intent in both cases is the same: to show off—and to throw off.

Naturally her disciples take a different view. Masterson says that it is precisely because Epistemology of the Closet is “one of the key texts of queer theory” that it is “a challenging book to read. It is primarily for an academic audience. Others perhaps could follow its arguments, but without a connection to an academic setting, the persons who read it may find that they will have to keep the interesting insights they have acquired to themselves. This book is not for the layperson.” Masterson’s candor here is refreshing. For in these few sentences he points to a hard fact that is central to Queer Theory: none of it is meant for the educated common reader, whether gay or straight; unlike Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, its practitioners do not seek to bring understanding and insight to the multitudes (or to anybody) or to have any impact whatsoever upon public thinking about homosexuality and gay rights. On the contrary, Queer Theory is—and is intended to be—the exclusive property of ivory-tower initiates.

If anything, to be sure, Sedgwick’s prose style is less opaque than that of her fellow Queer Theory founder Judith Butler. From 1995 to 1998 the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature sponsored a Bad Writing Contest, and in 1998 Butler won first prize for the following sentence from her article “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” which had appeared the year before in the journal Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

As Denis Dutton, who established the Bad Writing Contest, explained in a 1999 issue of the Wall Street Journal, “To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.” Dutton emphasized that saying such a thing about Judith Butler’s prose did not make one a philistine: “As a lifelong student of Kant,” he pointed out, “I know that philosophy is not always well-written. But when Kant or Aristotle or Wittgenstein are most obscure, it’s because they are honestly grappling with the most complex and difficult problems the human mind can encounter.” By contrast, prose like Butler’s amounts to “a kind of intellectual kitsch” produced by self-styled “theorists” who “mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work” and whose “jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight.” (Or, to quote Nietzsche, “Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity.”) Sarah Salih, writing in Critical Quarterly, defended Butler, in good Queer Studies fashion, by invoking the concept of performativity: “Butler is attempting to do something with her prose; in other words, the language she deploys is performative rather than constative”—the latter being a philosophical term that means “relating to a statement, question, or command that can be considered true or false.” (Salih was on firm ground, given that Butler is in the habit of making statements—such as the claim in her 1990 book Gender Trouble that even the idea that there are two biological sexes is a social construction—that cannot be taken seriously as “constative.”) But Butler herself, presumably having decided that using the performativity defense would only expose her to further public ridicule (performativity, after all, being a concept that one could hardly expect noninitiates outside the academy to understand or appreciate), fell back, in a New York Times op-ed and a letter to the London Review of Books, on the safer argument that difficult ideas require difficult language.

In the summer of 2010, Butler again drew a degree of attention outside the academy. While in Berlin for Gay Pride events, she praised Hamas and Hezbollah, which she described admiringly as organizations of the left, and turned down an award from a German gay organization, which she accused of “Islamophobia” because it had criticized the Muslim-on-gay violence that is widespread in Germany. In this instance, it seemed clear that Butler was not being “performative” but was, rather, making “constative” remarks that were meant to be seen as applying to the real world. Her readiness to side with the tormentors of gay people because those tormentors belonged to a group that is generally considered sacrosanct on the orthodox left underlines the fact that Queer Studies is not about advancing the rights and security of gay people, but is rather a movement of the left whose leaders are prepared to support allegedly leftist groups and causes even if they represent a clear and present danger to gays.

In any event, one question about performativity has never been satisfactorily answered by any Queer Theory practitioner I know of: what is the point of the “performance”? And here’s a second question: why must the “performance” be so dull?

In 2001, Arthur Kramer, the rich heterosexual brother of Larry Kramer, cofounder of the AIDS activist group ACT UP and author of the play The Normal Heart, gave Yale a million dollars to establish the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies (LKI). “I wanted gay history to be taught,” the playwright explained in a 2009 speech at that university. “I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were.” But it didn’t work out that way. What LKI actually turned out to be was a potpourri of courses with titles like “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Music,” “Gender Transgression,” “Beauty, Fashion, and Self-Styling,” “Gendering Musical Performance,” “Gender Images: A Psychological Perspective,” “Queer Ethnographies,” and “Music and Queer Identities.” Kramer was stunned and outraged. “When I set LKI up I didn’t know that gay studies included all kinds of other things and these other things ruled the roost: gender studies, queer studies, queer theory.” Had he known, he said, he’d have

insist[ed] that my brother’s money be funneled via the history department rather than leave it up to Yale, which plunked LKI just where it should not have been, in the women’s and gender studies department. The various queer and gender theories I came to quickly realize as relatively useless for a people looking to learn about our real history drowned us out completely. Month after month, over these five years, as I was sent constant email announcements of lectures and courses and activities that reflected as much about real history as a comic book, I slowly began to go nuts.

He protested vehemently and won the support of the celebrated gay historians George Chauncey and Martin Duberman, both of whom, according to Kramer, said, in effect, “Yale is doing it wrong. You do not teach gay history via gender studies, via queer theory. You are making the same mistake every other gay program makes.” But the complaints were to no avail. To the outrage of the man whom it was named for, LKI remained a “queer” institution. Kramer made his feelings about this word clear in his Yale speech: “I am not queer! And neither are you! When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world.” Surely Ulrichs and Hirschfeld would have agreed.

To be sure, not all practitioners of Lesbian and Gay Studies are hard-core adherents of Queer Theory. Some lesbians, for example, resist the disappearance of “lesbian” under the rubric of “queer” and feel more at home with Women’s Studies than with Queer Studies. There are also lesbians as well as gay men who practice a less theory-intensive version of Gay Studies (usually at less prestigious institutions). This doesn’t mean, however, that their approaches to the subject are necessarily more responsible than those of the Queer Theorists. Indeed, if the Queer Theorists’ offense can be summed up by saying that their heads are stuck in thick clouds of rhetoric that float far above the quotidian preoccupations of the real world, some Gay Studies teachers err in the opposite direction, teaching classes that are devoted to banal, often subliterate personal confession in the form of coming-out stories, diary-writing, and the like. The course descriptions make them sound like self-help groups, and indeed they tend to encourage students to consider every aspect of their daily lives fascinating and meaningful simply because they are gay.

An example of this strain of Lesbian and Gay Studies can be found at the website of the oldest Gay Studies department in the United States, which was founded in 1989 at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF). The site looks and reads less like an academic department’s website than like the home page of, say, a ladies’ bowling team. When you click on “faculty,” you’re presented with a mishmash of casual snapshots of the professors; click further—for example, on the picture of Ardel Thomas—and you’ll get her astrological data: “I am an Aries—a fire sign. I am born in the year of the Dragon—another fiery symbol. That means I have tons of energy and am very excited about life.” She tells us that she received a Ph.D. from Stanford, after which she went on to direct the Community Service Writing Program at that institution. Then:

In 2004, I decided to leave Stanford University because I wanted to teach in the community college setting. I got a tenure track job in Lexington, Kentucky. I had also lived in San Francisco (not Palo Alto) for 12 years! YIKES! CULTURE SHOCK!

Then, in January 2005, I found an ad for LGBT Studies at CCSF. City College of San Francisco?????? LGBT Studies???????? My dream job if only I could land it! Soooo. . . . . . . . . .

Here I am now in my second year—my first year as chair. I am having such a FABULOUS time teaching LGBT Studies and English 1A at CCSF!!!!!

One wonders if Professor Thomas tells her students that it is a good idea to use all caps and multiple question marks and exclamation points in expository prose.

When I looked at CCSF’s website in 2010, instructor Mo Brownsey, who was identified as a stand-up comic, solo performer, director and writer of films and videos, and columnist for Match.‌com (a dating website), was teaching a course in “Queer Creative Process” in which “[f]inal projects are a personal work of art, highlighting your unique process.” Herb Green, who has master’s degrees in American Studies from Brown and in Ethnic Studies from Berkeley, was teaching “Gay Culture and Society,” which “examines significant styles from leather to lipstick and from drag to disco and assesses the evolution of sensibility and identity in various Queer cultures and communities.” Now, “gay culture and society” is certainly a subject worthy of academic study, but when I read about Green’s focus on “leather to lipstick” and “drag to disco” I couldn’t help thinking about Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, who could discourse eruditely about the epiphenomena of homosexuality in Periclean Athens, and about Dynes’s Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, which contains a wealth of knowledge whose surface is barely scratched by curricula like Green’s.

Then again, Green’s course sounded like heavy lifting compared with the rest of the department’s course offerings, the emphasis of which was largely therapeutic. Ed Kaufman’s faculty page explained that his “joy in teaching the course Gay Male Relationships comes from the opportunity to help gay and bisexual men develop and sustain meaningful intimate relationships.” Trinity Ordona was teaching “Issues in Lesbian Relationships,” for which the required books were Lesbian Couples: A Guide to Creating Healthy Relationships and If the Buddha Dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path. The 2010 schedule also included such courses as “Healing through Journal Writing,” “Commitment to Self: Singlehood, Solitude & Being Myself in Relationship(s),” and “Healing a Broken Heart: Recovery & Reconciliation.” This is a long way from social constructionism and Queer Theory—but it’s also a long way from anything that might remotely be considered serious higher education.

There are, to be sure, Queer Studies professors who manage to combine the “performative” jargon of Queer Theory with a relatively engaged (if predictably radical) approach to actual human life. Meet Ian Barnard, a gay white South African who teaches at California State University, Northridge, and whose stock-in-trade is bringing race and sexuality together. In the first line of his book, Queer Race: Cultural Interventions in the Racial Politics of Queer Theory (2004), he writes that the term “queer race”

juxtaposes two nonanalogous demarcations of identity, sexuality and race (assuming for the moment that “queer” refers to sexuality and that the word “race” is self-explanatory) in order to inaugurate a third term that conjured up a cacophony of new epistemological questions, identificatory possibilities, and theoretical problematics I want to variously pursue, articulate, and contest precisely as each problematic is suggested, enabled, abjured, and reinvented by the others.

Barnard says that he does “not see sexuality and race as disparate constituents of subjectivity or axes of power” but rather as two “systems of meaning and understanding that formatively and inherently define each other.” While other Queer Theorists might describe, say, a Chicana lesbian as “triply oppressed” because she is a woman, a Chicana, and gay, Barnard argues that breaking down such a person’s identity into three individual categories “erases” her compound identity as a Chicana lesbian, the properties of which, in his view, are no closer to being the sum of its constituent elements’ properties than, say, sulfuric acid combines the properties of hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen. For this reason, Barnard celebrates Gloria Anzaldúa’s “disrupt[ion]” of “canonical genre designations” as offering a “vision for the future of queer theory,” saying that “a political queerness is an especially urgent imperative now, given the increasing visibility of right-wing gays in the United States in recent years.” (As examples of these “right-wing gays,” he names me, Stephen H. Miller, and Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, authors of the 1989 book After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s.)

Barnard clearly considers the “visibility” of gays who reject Queer Theory and radical-left politics a menace. Part of what makes Miller, me, and others so threatening, as he sees it, is that we’re gay white men who choose not to flail ourselves for being white and male; and one reason why he’s so high on Anzaldúa is that her way of using the word queer “allows for . . . a conceptualization of identity that is different from definitions of lesbianness and gayness revolving around sexual orientation only, and thus normalizing middle-class white (often male) experience.” He praises Anzaldúa for insisting that “[a]ll parties involved in coalitions need to recognize the necessity that women-of-color and lesbians define the terms of engagement.” This “principle,” Barnard argues, must be followed by queer activists and theorists: “feminism and antiracism, queers of color and white female queers and their experiences, and colored female queer theory must set the agendas and delineate the parameters of these agendas if queer is not to become a synonym for gay white men.” And this is a gay white man talking! If he really believes what he’s saying, how can he justify writing Queer Race, in which he certainly seems to be setting agendas and delineating parameters?

Barnard discusses at length, and admits to being fascinated by, both O. J. Simpson and the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. This fascination is disturbing, and Barnard’s way of writing about these two men has the effect of trivializing the murders they committed. For Barnard there appears to be no such thing as objective morality, just group categories and group justice; he refers repeatedly to the “erasure” of this or that kind of compound identity—black women, gay black men—and it can sound as if such perceived “erasures” are, for him, realer and more offensive than an actual “erasure” in the form of cold-blooded murder. Although he is careful not to explicitly label Dahmer a hero, Barnard’s discussion of Dahmer’s serial killings frames them in large part as strikes against conventionality, homophobia, and racial and sexual pigeonholing—as, in short, “queer” actions. Because Dahmer was an apparently racist white man who denied he was homosexual, but had sex with (and killed and ate) men of color, most of whom also identified as heterosexual, Barnard feels that “[t]he Dahmer case helps us to redefine queer in several ways.” For “only to discern queer in terms of a conventional understanding of progressive politics is to impoverish the potential of queer theory to diagnose the function of codifications of desire precisely where such discourses are successively formative: the moments when the meanings of queer generated by the interstices of gay desire and racial identification are most elusive and disturbing. This is something like the invention or discovery of queer race. The queer in queer race is thus doubly queer both insofar as it queers queer and destabilizes the (dis)‌connection between queer and race.”

In short, Dahmer, in a grotesque way, becomes for Barnard a poster boy for queerness. To be sure, a few pages after telling us that “queer race” “queers queer,” Barnard says that it “unqueers queerness . . . by eroding sexuality as a unique ground of knowledge.” (Presumably we are expected to accept this bald contradiction on the understanding that Barnard is being performative, not constative.) Barnard devotes an entire chapter to Dahmer, and later returns to him, this time dropping the jargon and diving into confession:

What is so special about Dahmer? Or is this about me being white and gay? Or is it about something else for me? My desire for Jeffrey Dahmer? My desire for Jeffrey Dahmer’s desire? I feel sorry for him. I was born in the same year that he was. He played the clarinet; so do I. I am attracted to him, his voice, his glasses at his sentencing.

Dahmer isn’t the only mass murderer whom Barnard turns into an erotic object; elsewhere in Queer Race he claims that “some gay men were infatuated by the white, boyish, crew-cut [Timothy] McVeigh’s television images, an infatuation that had subversive potential in the context of the mainstream media’s racist and imperialist first assumption that the bombing had been the work of Middle-Eastern terrorists.” (So having a crush on a terrorist who took the lives of 168 people, including nineteen small children, somehow strikes a blow against racism and imperialism?) Barnard also spends several pages on the O. J. Simpson trial, maintaining that because Simpson was a black man who was accused of murdering a white woman, “black women disappear from the O. J. Simpson trial as completely as it renders any possibility of queer black men unthinkable”—a statement that can hardly be improved on as a representative example of Queer Studies hyperbole.

On a sunny day in September 2010, I stroll up Unter den Linden in Berlin to the main building of Humboldt University, where I will soon be hearing Susan Stryker’s opinions about democratic capitalism. A plaque facing the street informs passersby that it was here that Max Planck came up with quantum theory. Alas, I’m here for a conference about another theory whose name begins with a q. Organized by the university’s Queer Research Group and by the Department of English and American Studies, the conference is titled “Queer Again? Power, Politics, and Ethics.”

As I’m signing in at the registration desk, the young woman on duty prepares me for “an embarrassing question.” It turns out to be “Do you have a Ph.D.?” Not that I would be turned away if I didn’t; they just want to know which attendees have Ph.D.s and which don’t. Queer Studies pretends to be about fearlessly overturning all established categories, but here, as everywhere else in academe, establishment credentials actually matter a great deal.

The opening event is held in a lecture hall that is packed almost to capacity. The great majority of my fellow attendees are lesbians in their twenties or thirties, and a surprising number of them are cute and skinny, with short haircuts, T-shirts, and a body language that make them look like teenage boys. We’re welcomed by “Dr. Prof. Eveline Kilian” (Germans love to double up on the academic titles), a middle-aged woman who explains the “embarrassing question”: it turns out that the conference receives funding from the German Research Fund, which requires that the organizers provide a list of participants with Ph.D.s and another list of those without (the Germans love drawing up lists of names). Kilian asks that we “forget about the ideological implications of this”—never mind that the whole premise of Queer Studies is that it never overlooks the ideological implications of anything.

The conference, we are informed, is intended as a sort of response to the 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive by Lee Edelman, a professor at Tufts University. Edelman’s book is arguably the most influential work in the field at present, and underlies what is described as “the antisocial turn in Queer Theory.” Edelman depicts human society as being permeated by a mentality that he labels “reproductive futurism”—a preoccupation with the future and with the “Child” (a word he capitalizes consistently) that serves as “the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value.”

Since gay couples cannot naturally reproduce, gays are widely viewed as the enemies of the future. The traditional “liberal” gay response to this “ascription of negativity to the queer,” Edelman says, is to dismiss it outright; but since Queer Theory views queerness by definition as oppositional, it is more appropriate, maintains Edelman, for queers “to consider accepting and even embracing” the “ascription of negativity” to themselves, and to explicitly reject any stake in or concern for futurity.” Gays should, he suggests, “listen to, and even perhaps be instructed by, the readings of queer sexualities produced by the forces of reaction.” So when Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association rails that acceptance of gays “will result in society’s destruction,” gay people, instead of denouncing such rhetoric in good liberal fashion, should “pause for a moment to acknowledge that Mr. Wildmon might be right—or, more important, that he ought to be right . . .”

In other words, queers should be the threat, the menace, that Wildmon describes; we should turn our backs on “[t]he structuring optimism of politics,” whether of left or right, because all politics is about hope for the future and is thus linked to a “life drive.” Briefly put, we should embrace “queer negativity”—we should embrace “the death drive,” which “names what the queer, in the order of the social, is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability.” Edelman acknowledges that this approach would not bring gay people goodness, happiness, or self-knowledge; on the contrary, it would promise “absolutely nothing,” and would certainly yield nothing in the way of a “positive social value”; its sole value would lie in “its challenge to value as defined by the social, and thus in its radical challenge to the very value of the social itself.”

Edelman’s argument is widely viewed in today’s Queer Theory circles as brilliant, pathbreaking, and explosive. But in fact it is not even original; it is simply a more explicitly nihilistic version of the case against gay “assimilation” that was promulgated by far-left activists back in the 1980s and ’90s. But of course even to call it an argument is to give it credit it does not deserve: it is nothing but another Queer Studies “performance,” a cynical piece of claptrap that has no imaginable application to real gay persons’ lives. No Future is stunning in its moral irresponsibility and sheer fraudulence: this is, after all, a career-making book by a patently ambitious member of the professoriate who pretends to have given up any concern for the future and who pretends to be counseling his fellow Queer Theorists to join him. And indeed many of them, recognizing which way the Queer Studies winds are blowing at present, have—in the interest of their own futures—climbed onto the No Future bandwagon. It’s all a despicable charade, and what makes it despicable is the naked lack of concern on the part of some of the world’s most fortunate gay people for the futures of the most vulnerable of gays—among them the innumerable young people who are living with, or who have been thrown out of the house by, homophobic parents, and who may well not see much of a future before them; and the gay people, young and old, living in places where homosexuality is still punished harshly, in some cases with death.

This is what Queer Studies has come to: a breathtaking combination of purported nihilism and sheer academic careerism. With No Future, Queer Studies would seem to have arrived at its natural destination—a perfect moral and intellectual void.


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