Queering Socialism: An Interview with Alan Sears

by Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria on November 13, 2013

We’re at an interesting (and terrible) moment where we’re witnessing attacks on most every gain working people have made for at least the last half century. The curious exception to that has been the advance of marriage and civil rights for gay and lesbian couples in many U.S. states and core imperialist countries. But while we can celebrate the dismantling of many of the legal barriers to equality, we need to be mindful of the cost assimilation has had on “gay” communities, the movement’s relationship to other progressive causes, and lastly how it measures up to radical ideas of gender and sexual freedom.

In order to start to think through these questions as socialists, we interviewed Alan Sears, a queer activist, author, and professor of sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto. Sears is the author of, among other works, “Queer in a Lean World” and “Queer Anti-Capitalism: What’s Left of Lesbian and Gay Liberation?” and co-author with James Cairns of The Democratic Imagination. The interview, conducted in June 2013, addresses the history of the gay liberation movement, the split between mainstream gay rights and radical queers, the construction of gender and sexual identity in capitalism, and the relationship socialists have had with gender politics.

Tessa Echeverria (TWE): I just wanted to start out by asking you if could define “gay” versus “queer” identity, and how those are seen as different things.

Alan Sears: When I first came out in the 1970′s the word “gay” was our word. It was the word that came out of the movement, as opposed to the word “homosexual” which was seen as a kind of medical category and a pathologizing one. Gay was a self-identity that was positive, self-proclaimed, and so on. At the time I first came out, at least some lesbians and lots of gay men pretended that the term was inclusive of women as well.

Fairly quickly the fake inclusiveness of “gay” became an issue, and so not long after I came out people began to use the term “lesbian and gay” much more broadly to try and make it clear that gay wasn’t inclusive and that it was primarily a male defined term; women tended to use the term lesbian. That was my first big move linguistically.

The second one was in the late 1980′s, which grew out of AIDS activism that was becoming more and more militant as AIDS continued. At first, the overtly militant response wasn’t there, but as AIDS continued and the denial and the silence continued, essentially the silence or collaboration with the government of many of the mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, there was a new move that started around ACT-UP and AIDS Action Now in Canada, and then took a specifically sexuality-organizing turn with Queer Nation. For me personally, it was around the time of Queer Nation that I first heard the term “queer.”

Queer was already defining itself against the idea that gay was becoming kind of normal—the mainstream gay organizations were becoming very, very mainstream. But it was also a way of recognizing that gays and lesbians were talking about only specific parts of the gender and sexuality non-conforming community. There were people, especially trans people for example, who played a key role at the Stonewall Riot and had been part of the movement from the beginning insofar as it was a movement. By the late ’80s, there were much more gender-normative aspects of “gay” and “lesbian.” Even the gender non-conformity that was there in official identity often began to recreate new forms of masculinity rather than challenging them: gay men to some extent taught straight men how to shop, and began to redefine new forms of masculinity, but that didn’t mean make it any less masculine. The term “queer” was both meant to be a protest against lesbian and gay because it was becoming so mainstream and to say that there are lots of people left out.

I feel some conflict around the term, not because I don’t understand where it comes from (and I still use it), but for me the conflict came when a few years ago I was at the a retreat for the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, two-spirited and queer members. I used the term “queer” quite a bit in my talk there, and it was an amazing gathering of everyday heroes who fought hard for the right to be themselves under shop floor conditions that were often not very amenable. But this woman came up to me afterwards and said, “It really pisses me off that you’re using this term ‘queer.’ I have fought really hard to educate my union sisters and brothers that this is not acceptable language. This is a term of abuse. And here you are justifying it in our own retreat.”

So even though it’s a term that works in certain circles, it’s one that I still have some unease with even though I understand why people have gone there. It doesn’t necessary translate outside the circles of those who already know what it all means.

TWE: I wanted to make sure we got a chance to talk about this because as a young person coming out, I came out as queer. It was right before going to university and a lot of people I knew adopted that language. But as you branch out and you try to organize and relate to communities that might not necessarily be at the university, or among young people, it is hard to have that conversation about queer versus gay as an identifier. I wouldn’t really consider myself “gay,” but I think it’s interesting how the movement has developed and inclusion or moderation of the gay movement spurred queer as an identity, and how far that’s reaching people who aren’t in the clique of queer activism and organizing.

Sears: It’s interesting hearing the generational thing, to hear you say you came out as queer, because even though I’ve been around it’s not something I think about since you get used to your own circles and people who came out when you did and all that kind of stuff.

The impulse towards inclusion is exactly the right one, but the question becomes how you do it at the level of language, which I think is something we’re always coping with on the left because you use a term like “people of color” for example, which is supposedly inclusive in certain ways but then other people will say that it can sometimes hide who really needs to be there. I certainly think that’s true about queer. It’s my sense that movement inside a university-oriented context has developed a kind of specialized jargon, as lots of academic disciplines do, that works around some very important concepts but has almost no effectiveness outside those circles.

TWE: I see that issue all the time where there’s a lot of new queer theory coming out, but how do you relate that back to real world experiences and everyday lives in the U.S.? How do your take that language and make it be inclusive not just to people who have those different identities that fall under queer but also for allies and those who want to work together without making it sound like if you don’t have our language you can’t be my ally. It’s a fine line to walk.

Sears: One of the things that will begin to change that, or solve the puzzle for us, will be when gender and sexual liberation becomes more of a movement again. When there’s not a movement, one is less concerned with persuading anybody of anything, so your political terms can become more of a test of whether you have the prerequisites or not than they are terms to move and excite people. It becomes much more of an issue when you’re actually trying to build a movement, and building alliances that really do matter.

I firmly believe that we in Canada have more formal rights than in the United States, and these are explicitly lesbian and gay rights: marriage, workplace benefits, and that kind of stuff. A lot of that has to do with the way the union movement in Canada from the early 1980′s on really took on lesbian and gay rights. That required a whole lot of alliance building and careful work, so that when the Canadian Union of Postal Workers went on strike in 1981, they fought for both full pay for maternity leave for women and non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace. That wasn’t because it was primarily a queer union. It was because people did the hard alliance work in what was a very radical union, to say, “If we’re radical, we need to defend the rights of women, the rights of gays and lesbians, and so on.”

Andrew Sernatinger (AS): That’s a good transition because I was going to ask about some of your work where you’ve written about how gender and sexual identities develop and change in capitalism, and how that has a lot to do with how capitalist work is organized. I was hoping you could run this through because it’s a very interesting idea and it’s a meeting place of Marxist ideas and queer theory. It strikes me as being really different because there’s a mantra that “gay has always existed throughout history,” and now we’re arriving at a new place where it can finally just come out. But you’re saying something a little more nuanced…

Sears: The idea of the eternal, unchanging “gay” is partly a product of attempting to use human rights legislation—and that part of it makes sense. I think you have to use every tool you can to fight discrimination while building movements to overturn the system. But in doing that the claim became, “it’s not a choice at all, we’re born this way.” Somehow that should mean we have intrinsic rights, as though if there was any choice at all we’d be outside the realm of intrinsic rights and thus outside of court challenges and so on. But it’s a really dubious political distinction: that it’s only what you’re born with that gives you rights as opposed to choices you make in your life.

It is also a really bad anthropology and a very undynamic view of human sexuality. What we would now call “heterosexuality,” which is only a term that arose in the 1800′s, has also changed over time. All kinds of arrangements existed over time, so the idea that at the heart of it was the essential heterosexual or essential homosexual that go unchanged, until finally we’ve earned the right to express our various sexualities in modern North America, seems to me to be pretty wrong-headed to begin with.

The best works on this, which I first found through John D’Emelio and Barry Adam, basically asked, “What began to change?” since the term “homosexual” was only coined in the 1860′s. Why didn’t they need a word before? There were certainly same-sex practices. Huge varieties of human societies have had same-sex practices that have taken all kinds of forms. But the “homosexual,” which is kind of the “full-timer,” the dedicated, unvarying same-sex practitioner, only arose as a word in the 1860′s, and that’s not bashfulness, but it tells us that that full-timers really didn’t exist very much up until then.

What made that possible? There were lots of same-sex practices, but the idea that one has a primary orientation towards your own gender or towards another one became possible largely with the rise of capitalism and the separation of work and home life. The relationships in which you keep yourself alive, sustain new life, take care of your emotional needs, wash yourself, rest yourself—those relationships are different in capitalist society for most of us than our working relationship, where we earn the money to make the rest of that possible. Most of us go out to work and then come home. Once that happened, the relationships at home can take a whole bunch of different forms. There is a certain kind of space created for exploration that would not have been possible before.

The basic capitalist structure created new kinds of possibilities. And a range of different people, including Foucault but also Marxists have looked at the rise of sexuality specifically in this context. Foucault looks much less at the capitalist character of it, but they look at that separation of work and home.

Now, from the point of view of governments and state-policy makers, this was a bad thing. In England in the 1840′s and 50′s, there were all these “Condition of the Working Class” reports, where state officials went into so-called slums and were very worried with what they thought of as amorality among working people. So then you began to get, from the point of view of capitalist states, a whole new direction, which was to ban homosexuality and regulate sexuality and gender behavior through schools and so on. In the 1880′s, you get male-homosexuality outlawed in Britain, and in Canada, which was following Britain. Not women’s same-sex practices, or lesbianism; it wasn’t outlawed basically because Parliament would not admit that women had enough of a sexuality to be sexual with each other. It wasn’t a positive measure, but a total denial of women’s sexual agency at all. The rise of capitalism created certain possibilities but also, from the point of view of the state, different kinds of constraints.

AS: Thinking about it through the twentieth century and linking it back to today, it seems like one of the major markers that starts to distinguish the gay rights movement, and then the mark between gay and queer, is the Post-War Accord and the change of the family structure. Maybe you could run that through for us?

Sears: What happens with the end of World War II and the development of new social systems is that you began to get the stabilization in new ways of particular family forms within layers of the working class — though the Post-War Accord didn’t include everyone.

That at first was incredibly gender-normative. There was a kind of gender panic after World War II, where large numbers of women had been involved in paid labor. After that there was a period of incredible repression. In Canada, that took the form of a purge of basically anyone who they identified as gay or lesbian from the civil service. The idea was that people who are homosexual are more likely to be black-mailed by the Russians, and thus in a Cold War era are a threat to national security. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the police force who did the major security work in Canada like the FBI does in the States, actually tried to invent a “fruit machine” that would identify gay civil servants so they could be fired.

The first impact of the post-war period was an attempt to force a heterosexual normative family form, and to use the increased income, assistance, and social security that working people had won to try and create a very specific model of the family within sections of the working class: disproportionately among white folks. Then, beginning with the women’s liberation movement, people began to refuse that—not that there wasn’t resistance along the way, but in the 1960′s women quite assertively mobilized around these things and began to demand a change in the way this post-war stabilization was affecting the family form. Feminism, the rise of the women’s movement, and the beginning of the Black Power movement, began to create models and new ways of thinking so that gays actually began to identify what they were facing as a political oppression, which a very small number of political gays had done before that. Most communities’ people just thought that this is the way it is. Then it became politicized by a movement that fought against the dominant normative form that developed after the war.

There’s some opening up in the family form, but at the same time not breaking the bounds of capitalism that began to have huge influences on what ultimately got achieved by that movement. It’s much more about coupledom than it is about liberation; about couples’ rights rather than sexual liberation in any sort of way. The whole movement became so defined by purchasing and lifestyle and so on that capitalism has had its influences on this end as well.

TWE: It’s interesting where you ended that because I did want to talk about the commercialization of gay and lesbian identity. During Pride Month, part of me is excited as a queer person to celebrate that, but then I go to events and I see corporation after corporation and the message of “Buy Gay Things” as a way to prove your gay identity. Could you go into how capitalism changed to commodify gay identity while it’s still silent on the rights? How can capitalism change to adapt while still exclude the vast majority of gay or queer people?

Sears: In terms of a new low for Pride in Toronto, this year the Executive Director for Pride Toronto, which is one of the three biggest in North America, opened the Toronto Stock Exchange with all kinds of Pride signs, ringing the bell. It really was a sign of where things have come.

I was at a couple of the early Pride Marches in Toronto, and it was scary. It’s hard to imagine now what it was like to feel that there’s a good chance that you’re going to get attacked, people throw things, you are being exposed to a lot of contempt and there’s very few of you. It felt pretty daunting at the time. Anything except for a mass march did at the time. So to see the change from these scary little gatherings to this festival with streets lined across the Toronto community is shocking. In a way there’s excitement with that: I do think that even though queer bashing continues, and we have to be clear that the violence hasn’t gone away and that people are still afraid, there are changes that are important that need to be celebrated.

But the question needs to be asked at some point, why is it that we made gains at a time when in fact most movements seeking change were pushed backward? Affirmative action, abortion rights, and migrants were hugely under attack and being brutalized; unions are being attacked and workers are giving up all kinds of gains; general labor law is going backwards. Why is it that we’ve made advances? Some of it is because people fought, that does make a difference that people were defiant, and angry, and mobilized. But what we gained, and it’s only in retrospect that you see it, is largely what was most compatible with capitalism.

Of all the things we were fighting for, there was the idea of generally opening up gender and sexuality in real ways, so that people would have realms of play, both in the engineering sense and in the creative unalienated activity sense. Instead what happened was that we won the rights that were most compatible: coupledom, where marriage is becoming officially monogamous, certain workplace benefits (which make a huge difference and should be fought for), but also this idea that we mark ourselves by the consumption of very specific commodities. You see that in terms of clothing and hairstyles, going to certain places. That cuts out people with low-income; they can’t be visibly queer. Often people of color are excluded because the character of that commercialization has whiteness built into it, often in fairly clear ways. It seems like we’ve won a lot, and then you realize that what we’ve won is the relatively easy stuff that fits with this system. In fact, it risks dividing ourselves much more and potentially limits what we can gain.

TWE: Chelsea Manning (at the time referred to as Bradley) was going to be one of the honorary grand marshals at the Pride Parade in San Francisco this year; then they decided to cut Manning from the line-up. I thought that was interesting to show how nervous people are about the Pride Parade’s receptions, and the unwillingness to engage with other controversial issues that connect with gay and queer issues, such as military resisters or antiwar movements—keeping those as separate things from “gay rights.”

Sears: Earlier you referred to alliance building. You can build radical alliances for change with other people who are facing deep exclusion and oppression, or you can try to build alliances with essentially elements of the mainstream ruling order, with Democratic or Republican politicians, to try and become an insider. That’s a different kind of alliance-building than the kind we were referring to before, but it’s unfortunately what the main body of the movement has gone for, insofar as the term movement can even apply. That means you don’t want to do anything that would offend corporate bosses, mayors, Democratic politicians, and so on. You end up pushing out anything that’s controversial.

To their credit, Toronto Pride hasn’t pushed out Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) despite the fact that the City Council has threatened to defund Pride if QAIA, opposed to Israeli pink-washing, marches on Pride day. They’ve marched each time, and Pride has stuck with their right to march and City Hall has backed off. Occasionally some guts are still shown, but overall it’s all about showing yourself off to those who you want to see you as allies, who are sadly the most powerful and that means massive compromise.

TWE: Here in the States, there’s been a lot of gearing up around marriage equality and getting laws passed state-by-state. I’ve been to a lot of meetings, like Occupy last year, where people were having a lot of discussions about marriage equality. The issue that always came up was healthcare, and I would go and talk about the need for healthcare for everyone (single-payer), so I really appreciate you pointing out that instead we’re winning rights to coupledom. The issue I saw coming out of the AIDS movement was the fight for healthcare and not just for marriage.

Sears: I agree completely. Personally, I believe we should always oppose legal discrimination; therefore I support marriage rights only because it ends the heterosexual monopoly. The other side of it is the cost of focusing explicitly on marriage rights. If it’s only about workplace benefits for a limited portion of the population, there are a lot of queers, or just couples, who don’t benefit from that because they’re working in situations where they don’t have benefits. That’s true of a lot of the workforce now.

Remember that we are not fighting for couple rights, but universal rights ultimately, rights that should apply to anybody. We’re a little bit closer to that in Canada than in the United States because of single-payer health care. Part of what’s remarkable in the differences between the two countries is that it was easier for unions in Canada to win same-sex workplace benefits for unmarried gay couple simply because the cost of healthcare in the U.S. means that employers hate adding to the family.

The basic thing is that it’s about healthcare, it’s not about couples, but it’s also about sexual freedom! That means different things to different people. That may mean couples, that may mean having sex with a lot of people; different people have different preferences and needs. If we are talking about sexual liberation, we’re talking about the idea that as long as everyone is consenting, people should have the right to do those things. In general, there’s shame that exists in this society about sexuality, where people can’t even talk to their partners about what they want to do or what they don’t want to do. Images of sexuality are everywhere, every billboard, every car ad, and yet in reality people are incredibly silenced about their sexualities, about what they want and need. There’s some locker-room bravado that some men have, but that’s not really sexuality, it’s bragging about conquest.

We’ve made some gains, but we haven’t really achieved some of the most basic things around sexual openness, non-stigma, and choices.

AS: One of the reasons we wanted to do this interview is that we wanted to push-back against some of the guiding wisdom in the socialist movement, which seems very hesitant about queer politics. Now people are against a lot of concepts that came through queer theory: the word queer, notions of privilege, and a lot of the more challenging concepts that are not as clearly delineated in Marxist theory. It seems like there is a kind of tension about sexuality with Marxists, but it’s something I hope will change. Maybe you could comment on that, and what your experience has been in this area.

Sears: I recently was reading a book by Sheila Rowbotham about “utopian socialists.” They were people in the 1800′s who considered themselves socialists and had great aspirations for what a better world would be like. It’s clear that many of them, especially women but also some men, were thinking about sexual politics as part of what we would now call the liberation struggle. Some of them were thinking explicitly around same-sex practices, but a lot of them were thinking about what real sexual freedom would mean.

That strain of utopian socialism gradually got pushed out through the twentieth century by Marxism within the socialist movement. Even though there were some places where Marxism and sexual liberation found new meeting places, overall there was a lot of interpretation of Marxism in terms of economic categories: class, the workplace. You’ll find a lot of Marxists to this day who talk obsessively about the power that workers have at the point of production, meaning in the workplace — it’s true that is an important source of power and I’m not trying to deny the power of a general strike. But if our politics only focus on the workplace, it’s a place where sexuality is largely excluded.

At the very best, the better end of Marxism has tended to adopt and work out the best ideas liberals have about sexual freedom. Through the twentieth century, certainly in my period as a socialist and queer activist, my view looking back on the record of a socialist-queer movement was that it was largely picking up the best knowledge of the liberal-left of the existing movement and putting out a liberal political practice. I think one of the things that we’ve learned from the queer movement is that that’s not good enough. There are all kinds of people who are left out of that. We need to be on the leading edge of those who are asking the tough questions about who’s left out and why, and what do we do about that? How does “gay” work with patterns of racialization—it’s not an accident that white folks tend to come out more, it actually has to do with the whole definition of who counts as gay or lesbian and how that works culturally, racially.

Marxism, or socialism in its broad sense, provides tools for thinking about all this. If the separation of work and home is part of the way “gay” begins to exist as a category, what does it tell us about this category? There are all kinds of questions we can look into, like, “Why is the workplace so gender-normative?” “Why do particular kinds of workplaces run around a very explicit kind of masculinity?” It’s not simply that “those guys are like that” — so what are the dynamics of the workplace that operate to create gendered behavior in certain ways and then police it?

If we’re talking about liberation, how do we begin to address that part of sexual freedom that is having a place to have sex? That means we should be deeply concerned about homelessness. We should also be concerned about young people who often have no space as they’re becoming sexually active and end up having their sexuality in the cracks. As long as we, as socialists, don’t think that our tools are exclusive, as long as we’re engaging with queer theories, with anti-racist theories, with feminist theories, there’s a lot we can do.

This gets to what real freedom looks like. Marx’s ideas about alienation and un-alienation, the idea that humans thrive by making our mark on the world, are tools that can be helpful in offering a vision of gender and sexual liberation that begins to ask questions about why the gender system persists, why sexuality occurs only in the cracks; what is it about work that is a rejection of hedonism, work as duty, the squeezing out of the joyful aspects of life. That means challenging the kind of socialism that’s often there in organizations: “All work and no play makes socialism a dull boy.” A lot of the focus on the workplace and the economy, as if capitalism exists simply as a set of economic relations and not also as a set of cultural and interpersonal relations, that kind of socialism is heading towards a dead-end. Part of the revitalization, building the next-New Left, will be restoring the excitement: what would revolution really bring about?

TWE: How do you see socialism and queer activism partnering up, and where can those be providing strengths for each other so that we can start to move forward?

Sears: The more that I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve come to believe that the best socialist thinking in all areas is hybrid thinking. It’s not purely “socialist,” but involves deep engagement with the theories, thoughts, and actions of those involved in struggles and how the world appears to them. “Queering” socialism offers opportunities, not only in the realm of gender and sexual liberation, but also in terms of approaches to work and all areas of life.

In queer theory right now, there’s a lot of talk about queers as transgressors: we act up against the dominant set of sexual relations, which is non-queer. But permanent transgression is kind of unsatisfying, and socialism can help us move from transgression to transformation. The goal is to change the whole set of relations to a new realm of freedom, and then we wouldn’t even know what queer would look like anymore.

Together, queers, socialists and anti-racists can begin to ask questions about how it is that the idea of “gay” is now being used globally as part of a western imperialist power strategy. How did that happen? What is it about “gay” that is exclusionary? How is it that all kinds of other same-sex practices in the world don’t count, or are seen as a lesser-form, a not-yet-out form of sexuality, and a particular kind of self-proclaimed gay and lesbianness that has tended to occur among certain layers of disproportionately white folks in Europe and North America. Socialism provides some of the tools, but not all of them.

What about this joyous, challenging, gutsy liberation movement, that when I first came into politics was just fun: dirty, nasty, celebratory, fun. How do we bring the ethos of that kind of movement into socialism? If we can do that, we’ll have a way more potent set of tools, because it won’t just be about the dull duty, and not about disapproving of everyone else and their crimes and political deviations, but talking about where we’re heading and the incredible celebration of human potential: what we could be, the way we could be living, the stuff you see in every human being that gets crushed out of them. When you get together the queer, the socialist, the anti-racist, then you start to point to what it all could begin to look like.

(Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria are socialists based in Madison, Wisconsin. This interview was recorded for their podcast, Black Sheep Radio.)

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