30 Jan. 2014: Race. Sexuality. And The Same Old Gendered Order of Things?

I’m just beginning to read Chandan Reddy’s Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the U.S State (2011). The book critiques the way neoliberal societies (here: the U.S.) construct narratives of freedom around rights and anti-hate legislation that perpetuates state violence. Reddy ‘argues for modes of critique from the perspective of queers of colour, modes consciously and formatively tied in to critical ethnic studies. We might say,’ he writes, ‘that race is the political unconscious of sexuality, in its current mode as an amendment to twentieth-century orders of legitimate violence’ (p.17).

I have not yet read my way through the full extent of Reddy’s thought-provoking study, but I am particularly interested in exploring how his U.S.-focused insights translate into German and English contexts. For thinking about ‘race [as] the political unconscious of sexuality’ undoubtedly opens up important new perspectives on the relationship between colonialism and the political rights campaigns of early homosexual activists such as Magnus Hirschfeld, and it also raises fresh questions about the relationship between race and sexuality during the Nazi regime, and its legacies.

As always, I am also interested in locating questions of gender in these debates. Given Reddy’s focus on dismantling deeply entrenched power structures, I was taken aback to find that he uses the abbreviation ‘GLBTQ’ when discussing sexual subcultures and politics. In my experience of sexual debates in the U.K. the abbreviation is usually rendered ‘LGBTQ’. I too use ‘LGBTQ’, putting ‘lesbian’ first as a deliberate feminist challenge to the male primacy within patriarchal language.

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So why is ‘GLBTQ’ still in use? A quick internet search brought me to GLBTQ.com, an ‘encyclopaedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture’. In 2003, someone questioned the abbreviation on the site’s discussion forum, receiving the following response:

‘The G, L, B, T, and Q in our name are meant to convey a sense of unity while recognising the distinctive characteristics of the many groups that comprise our community. The order in which the letters appear is arbitrary, and is not intended to convey any historical or other priority for any particular group.’

This reply seems to me misguided. For the order of these letters is not ‘arbitrary’, but the product of a cultural unconscious that renders women second to men. Language and the unconscious have their own contingencies, of course. Could the use of GLBTQ versus LGBTQ be culturally specific, with the former more frequently used in the U.S.?

Feminist debates about language may not be particularly fashionable at the moment, but the question of where women – and gender – are located in political, socio-cultural and theoretical discourse remains absolutely central to any critique of power.

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5 thoughts on “30 Jan. 2014: Race. Sexuality. And The Same Old Gendered Order of Things?

    1. Dr Heike Bauer Post author

      Gay certainly is used for (and by) both gay men and lesbians. But despite applying ostensibly to both women and men, ‘gay’ is nevertheless often used to mean men only. For example, there are studies of ‘gay history’ or ‘gay literature’ that don’t discuss lesbians at all. So why not call them studies of ‘gay male history’ or ‘gay male literature’?

      As you can probably tell, this assumption that it is OK to use ‘gay’ when talking about men only bothers me. I once gave a paper on the topic, pondering why ‘female’ words in turn are not used to describe men. The paper title was ‘Why Are There No Lesbian Men?’

      Reply
  1. Ivan Walton

    It seems strange to me that Gay is used at all – LBTQ would be quite sufficient. I’m guessing this is a result of the relative invisibility of Lesbianism in the past.

    Reply
    1. Dr Heike Bauer Post author

      Gay came in use in the current sense in the earlier C20th, around the same time as the -historically much older term – lesbian gained more widespread use. Bisexuality also came in use around then, while transgender and queer are more recent additions.

      One thing to note is the absence of ‘heterosexual’ in much public debate, which shows how little norms are discussed and questioned.

      Reply

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