Can sexuality define our politics or can politics define our sexuality? Can heterosexuals identify as queer or homosexuals as straight? Are sexual attitudes biologically based or socially constructed? Did last issue’s “Queer Anarchy” focus destroy barriers or build them?
Fifth Estate contributors Jack Straw, Liz Highleyman & Sissy Sabotage discuss and debate the controversy.
Ugly Head of P.C. Politics
Dear Fifth Estate:
My first reaction upon seeing the pull-quote from Liz Highleyman’s article, “A Bisexual Feminist Perspective” [FE #342, Summer, 1993], was, “So bisexuality is more anarchist than strict homosexuality or heterosexuality? Fuck you, Liz.” I read the piece and found that perspective often contradicted by its contents, but I’m still very disturbed by the article and the accompanying article on queer anarchy.
Feels way too much like the ugly head of p.c. politics has penetrated the pages of the Fifth Estate. Back in the mid-’70s, I was subjected to quite a bit of criticism by some of my comrades in an anarchist/post-sit milieu in Berkeley for my “persistent” heterosexuality. One man went as far as to say he could not completely trust men who did not attempt to be bisexual, as they were too attached to patriarchy. Within two years of saying that, he joined the ranks of the Perfect Master Guru Maharaji. Some of the more “radical” elements within the group held that virtually any time a man looks at a woman (except to avoid collision while walking?), it constitutes aggression. So today, it’s a major reason why I have a hard time talking to women who I find attractive without feeling strange. Lately, I am once again seeing gay and bisexuality asserted as “better” orientations by the likes of Sandra Bernhard and various “post-modern” and “anarchist” types. People like myself are often referred to as “hetero” or even “het,” and heterosexuality is viewed as inherently coercive.
Liz, I’m glad to say, makes an effort to distance herself from such an attitude, seeing “all sexualities (as) equally valid as long as they are…non-oppressive of others.” She admits being more at home with heterosexual anarchists than conservative homo- and bisexuals. And she likes to see us all work together, rejecting the notion that heterosexuals have no right to discuss sexuality. So why was such an unrepresentative pull-quote chosen for her piece? Does it reflect someone else’s perspective? Is it an attempt to be provocative? Does it reflect a contradiction? At the end, she still comes off as patronizing, promising us poor, deprived heterosexuals “more options,” as if half of humanity doesn’t represent far more options than one could possibly experience in a lifetime. Thank you, but I do not feel limited by my orientation, though we could all use freedom from commodity relations and guilt, as well as more free time.
My problem with the piece, however, goes beyond the choice of the pull-quote or the, at times, patronizing tone. Liz sees anarchism as a “philosophy that opposes order/structure.” Thus she sees any breakdown into two distinctly defined groups as “lead(ing) inexorably to hierarchy and all the problems of authoritarianism that come with it.” Excuse me, but that’s not how I see anarchist philosophy (vs. the ideology of anarchism), whose essence is opposition to social hierarchy, and not necessarily to order or structure.
Does the biological split between males and females (which describes over 99% of humans) necessarily lead to hierarchy? Or left handedness/right handedness? Or human/non-human, animals/plants,…? Must anarchists oppose the food chain, or the notion that the planets revolve around the sun in regular orbits? I am not joking; there are those who find any hint of order or structure anywhere an anathema to their beliefs, and somehow a justification for social hierarchy.
Liz also seems to think the theory that sexuality is primarily physical, i.e., inherited, necessarily means a lower status for non-heterosexuals. I maintain that an explanation of the relatively constant proportions of non-heterosexuals in all societies and cultures throughout history, whether they fully accepted non-heterosexuals (most indigenous societies), “tolerated” them (as one tolerates bad weather?) or repressed them, can only be explained primarily (though not exclusively) via inherited characteristics, rather than individual choices. This explanation need not mean inequality or differentiation at all. Must liberation only come via majority status, as Liz seems to suggest?
While I disagree with Liz on quite a bit, I can see working with her. But I can’t say the same about the authors of “Queer Anarchy.” To begin with, their piece is filled with a barely-disguised hate for anyone who’s not like them, be they heterosexuals (e.g., men in general are blamed for causing wars in a literary work favorably quoted, as if most of us have anything to do with policy-making) or gays who do not seek to be radically differentiated, and are therefore “assimilationists.” But worse is the notion the authors convey of their desire for a specifically queer libertarian community. We’ve lived through the absurdity of “socialism in one nation.” Do we now get “anarchy within one sexual orientation?” Can you build a human community entirely on sexuality? This is simply more separatism, exactly what the powers-that-be love to see. It is inherently reactionary. This is why the most advanced elements of the bourgeois media promote separatism of all forms as (post)modern “radical” practice.
Avoid Falling Into Roles
Liz Highleyman responds: I can understand Jack Straw’s chagrin at the assertion that “bisexuality…is more ‘anarchist’ than strict homosexuality or heterosexuality.” Since I thought my comments would be incorporated into a broader article on queer anarchy, I didn’t take the care I should have to make sure my intended meaning was clear standing on its own.
I did not mean to imply (nor do I believe) that a person’s attraction to both men and women makes them more “politically correct” than someone who is attracted to one or the other. I think there can be radical and liberatory relationships between all combinations of genders. I do not at all believe that men and women cannot have good, egalitarian relationships with each other, but I do believe that those in opposite sex relationships (including myself) must take more care to avoid falling into patriarchal and heterosexist roles. I’d certainly like to think that dichotomy does not necessarily lead to hierarchy, but what I’ve seen does not make me optimistic. Such dichotomization also just doesn’t reflect reality as I see it: many people fall all along the homosexual/heterosexual and masculine/feminine spectrums, not just at the two ends. I do think bisexuality/pansexuality is “anarchistic” in the sense that it calls into question society’s accepted rules and categories related to sex and gender. Unlike Jack, I believe most of these are societally imposed, not biological givens.
I’m not sure why Jack is offended by the terms “hetero” or “het.” I use them specifically because they unambiguously refer to specific sexual/romantic attractions, whereas “straight” often implies conformity to mainstream values (I can remember when being “straight” meant you didn’t use drugs). I use “queer” and “straight” to refer to attitudes rather than strictly sexual identity or behavior. I definitely believe that there are queer heterosexuals and straight homosexuals and bisexuals.
I’m personally happy I’m bisexual/pansexual because I don’t like to discriminate on the basis of gender (though I do discriminate on the basis of other characteristics), but I don’t think anyone who is not bisexual is discriminating in a negative way—people’s desires cannot be molded to fit a political ideal (though I believe they can be influenced). I would hope that people of all orientations do what feels right for them, not what is expected either by mainstream society or by various alternative subcultures. I’m glad Jack doesn’t feel limited by his orientation, but I have certainly encountered many people who do (for example, hetero boys and men who are afraid to express friendly affection with male friends for fear of being labeled a faggot). If he’s so happy, why is he so defensive?
I haven’t seen evidence that convinces me that there are equal proportions of non-heterosexuals in all societies. Certainly there have been societies in which bisexual behavior was more or less universally accepted (either sexual relations with females and males simultaneously or at different ages). It’s very unlikely that members of these societies had a different genetic makeup than ours, so I can only believe that the prevalence of different types of sexual behavior are primarily socially determined. I don’t doubt there’s a certain percentage of people who are solely attracted to men or women, but I believe that in a society that did not impose a specific form of sexuality, the identities and behavior of the population as a whole would reflect a much greater degree of diversity.
I don’t believe, as Jack asserts, that liberation can only come from majority status, but neither do I believe it will come from the “we can’t help it—we’re born that way, so please don’t hate us” strategy. Liberation can only come when all consensual sexual relationships are regarded as acceptable options (even though all options may not be possible for all individuals). There’s a huge difference between having one’s options circumscribed by inherent personal preferences and having them circumscribed by laws and societal constraints, and that was really the point of my article.
Fear and Up-tight Anti-sex Moralism
Sissy Sabotage responds: When Maxeen and I wrote about the homophobia we had experienced in the anarchist milieu, some of our heterosexual comrades here at the Fifth Estate thought we were overstating an isolated problem rather than critiquing a pervasive, prejudicial attitude. Unfortunately, many of the comments we have received in response to “Queer Anarchy” confirm not only homophobia in the anarchist community, but concurrent ignorance, defensiveness, fear and uptight anti-sex, neo-religious moralism.
Our provocative, special issue on “Dope, Queer Sex and Anarchy” [FE #342, Summer, 1993] created quite a stir. While it has resulted in numerous verbal criticisms from long time FE readers, very few people have actually taken the time to articulate their objections in writing. Just for the record, I initiated the queer focus and chose the provocative headlines, graphics and pull-quotes which caused much of the controversy.
Interestingly enough, the most coherent denunciation of our “(de)manifesto” comes from a regular FE contributor who played a significant role in bringing the special issue into existence by writing a piece entitled “Has Booze Brought the Blues: Psychedelics and Human Consciousness” [FE #342, Summer, 1993]
In fact, Jack, some of your arguments regarding psychedelics bear an eerie similarity to our queer ravings. Had you done more research about the sexual practices in the cultures where you studied hallucinogen use, you may have discovered sexual diversity that suggested more than just “tolerance” of “non-heterosexuals.” The mushroom-eating shaman of your article may have practiced the “accursed” and “nefarious…sin of sodomy,” in public, with “consenting” young men wearing skirts, as the Spanish explorer Oviedo observed of aboriginal peoples of central and south america.
As we mentioned before, The Spirit and The Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture by Walter L. Williams (Beacon Press/ Boston, 1985) provides abundant and detailed information about “queer indians” with an extensive bibliography. Indigenous cultures provide a vital model of “queer anarchy” in practice, where, though far from being in a majority, a variety of queer identities were honored for their difference, and integrated into the larger tribal context. Cross-dressing, bisexuality, intergenerational sex, and non-monogamy were all present in many tribal situations, but the crippling divisions between public and private, spirit and flesh, moral and immoral, work and leisure, etc., simply did not exist, making many labels for sexual variety simply unnecessary. “Berdache” and “winkte” are two tribal names for particularly effeminate men who were viewed as neither women or men, and homosexual activity was not limited to these primal queens. “Masculine” and married men also had erotic encounters with other men. Though The Spirit and The Flesh focuses primarily on male homosexuality, one chapter discusses lesbianism which also existed among married women as well as among “Amazonian” dykes.
Writes Williams about tribal queerdom: “Stigmatizing people because of their sexual behavior, or restricting people’s choices generally, is not seen as a valid function of society. Personal freedom is too highly regarded for such an approach to exist.”
While I perceive “queer anarchy” as a fluid conception which critiques conservative sex-phobic attitudes in general, we did offer some practical notions of possible queer-identified communities which led you to pin the “separatist” tag on our article. It is in those concluding lines to your letter that you are most offensive to me, but throughout the entire rave you are misinformed and homophobic.
For example, show me the “most advanced elements of the bourgeois media” which “promote separatism” as “radical practice.” (The RCP supports this argument, but we tend to expect more from anarchist comrades than from your average leftist racket.) The current context of affinity groups and small intentional communities that actually participate in queer anarchy are not programmatically “separatist” because they choose not to work with any heterosexuals on a given project, or because they choose to live on “womyn’s land” or “fairy land.”
The dominant culture is forever separatist—on that point you are partially correct—but the separatism the rulers promote still tends toward the variety practiced by caucasian, land-owning males. “Separatism” among oppressed peoples in euroamerica has a vast history both as a transitional phase and as an end in itself. As anti-authoritarians with light skin and penises, we can fight the powers that be as well as racism, sexism and homophobia within ourselves if we want to get beyond “separatism,” rather than resorting to the traditional “blame the victim” crap.
The new myths of multiculturalism or the old myths of the melting pot tend to dilute difference. The only viable models of non-hierarchical community I’ve ever seen depend on smallness, intimacy and non-mediated interpersonal relationships. The notion of a “national,” “continental” or “global” anarchist “movement- or society seems both impossible and undesirable to me. On these terms, I think some degree of “separatism” is inevitable and far more desirable than slavery or isolation. If you need more supporting arguments, Bolo’Bolo by P.M. and The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey (both from Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia) are two well-written flourishes of visionary speculation that I find compatible with our dream of “queer anarchy.”
As a bisexual and a recent father, in a primary relationship with a woman, I find it difficult to be “reactionary” toward my own “persistent heterosexuality.” Sometimes I even desire, or “look at,” men and women in “politically incorrect” ways. If my “voyeurism” constitutes “aggression” in the eyes of some p.c. thought police, that’s their moral hangup. I’ll continue to love my libido, thank you very much. Jack, perhaps you should try loving yours a little more. You might lose some of your defensive rage in the process.
It seems you’ve encountered some “reactionary” feminists and queers in your time, and you’re using our articles as an excuse to vent some resentment you’ve kept with you for almost 20 years! The fact that a bisexual you once knew joined a cult or that someone else thinks heterosexuality is coercive, seem like pretty flimsy grounds on which to discredit Liz, Maxeen and me. I would probably encourage my male peers to “try bisexuality” for personal pleasure, not as means to attack patriarchy. Letting a man explore the crevices of my flesh has changed my politics as well as opening me up to new forms of ecstasy.
What’s wrong with being “radically differentiated” in this capitalist society? Most heterosexuals I hang with wish to be “radically differentiated” from “straight” culture, commodity culture and patriarchal culture. As for your notion of “anarchy within one sexual orientation,” if you’d read our article without your heterosexist blinders on, you’d know that “queer” in our eyes can hardly be limited to “one sexual orientation.” Getting over your homophobia might allow you to understand that more than a choice of sexual partners, “queer anarchy” constitutes a way of viewing the world beyond the paradigm of heterosexual, authoritarian or straight belief systems, not creating a world without heterosexual practice. If you reject the notion that heterosexual belief systems exist or are necessarily authoritarian, I suggest spending some time in a sex education class taught in a public school.
Jack, perhaps your only fear is being excluded from all the fun we will be having in our queer utopia. Your psychedelic world-view as expressed last issue, seems to be based on an abundance of pleasure as well. Being queer is about letting “boundaries dissolve.”
Any expression of love and desire which defies coercion and authority is radical to me. It is not so much who we love or even how we love that concerns me, but that we love freely and without restraint.
Like the “revolution of everyday life,” a revolutionary politics of sexuality is the first task of those who wish to change the way we live as much as the social/political structures which attempt to govern life.