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Theory Damaged

No gay centrist left behind

Something is wrong with queer theorists. They’ve become amnesiacs and paranoiacs. They’ve developed “apparent hostility to some of [their] own objects of study,” as the authors of a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education complain. Indeed, gay men, once at the vanguard of progressive change, are now regularly denounced by queer theory’s practitioners as “agents and dupes” of the dreaded status quo. “The academic field dedicated to overcoming our vast inheritance of homophobia,”  Tae-ho Kim and Blake Smith continue, now “ironically perpetuates it.”

How did this happen? The field was divided, they contend, between those who wanted equal rights for gay men and lesbians and those who abstracted outsider status into the basis for a radical new social movement. It was a debate, that is, between assimilation and revolution. Even though assimilationists won the political argument in the early 2000s, the revolutionaries carried the academy. And because they saw marginalized identity as the source of progressive politics, these thinkers came to criticize the way that some LGBTQ people—especially white, middle-class, cisgender gay men and lesbians—gladly drove off with their wedding registry hauls, forsaking the radical potential of queerness. “We get marriage and the military,” queer theory Lisa Duggan archly wrote at the turn of the millennium, “then we go home and cook dinner, forever.”

As a result, the field developed in new directions, becoming ever more interested in race and gender at the expense of the specific experiences of gay men and lesbians. To Kim and Smith, these changes represent a complete abdication, underscoring that somewhere in between the AIDS crisis and the Obergefell decision, queer theory lost sight of its true purpose: fighting for the rights of gay and lesbian people. Like “first-century Jews faced with a universalizing, antagonistic new faith,” they write without even a soupcon of irony, gay men now find themselves abandoned and ostracized by queer theory. 

This argument has a familiar ring to it. It calls to mind James Kirchick, a center-right essayist, who penned an article several years ago deriding LGBTQ activist organizations’ drift away from what he perceived as their core issues. Or the journalist Glenn Greenwald, a walking case of horseshoe theory, who complained to journalist Katie Herzog in 2021 about trans and nonbinary people being able to “catapult up the ladder of oppression” over gay men and lesbian. Or Andrew Sullivan, who in 2018 protested the LGBTQ movement’s “radicalization” and its subsequent reorientation toward “race and gender,” which he argued had alienated mainstream voters. Backsliding support for gay rights, Sullivan suggested, is, at least partially, the fault of a movement gone haywire.

These writers share a similar set of grievances about gay men’s perceived loss of status, especially of the social and political consequence lent by victimhood. But in their determination to make gay men out as targets of contemporary queer activists and thinkers, as victims of the contemporary left, they also serve as exemplars of a kind of centrist handwringing that has become ubiquitous. And while it’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and scroll on, their lamentations give cover to radical right-wing agendas by making leftist activists and intellectuals out as deranged and dangerous. 

Call them moderates, call them classical liberals, call them reactionary centrists, call them whatever you want; their formula is the same. Essays and books in this genre are replete with cherry-picked horror stories about how the “left,” broadly conceived, has lost its ever-loving mind. It might be, as the Chronicle essay recounts, that prominent queer activist Sarah Schulman said that AIDS “allow[ed] for someone like myself to be able to have a kind of visibility or platform for my voice that historically the sexism of gay men would have not allowed for . . . there has been some material equity that’s been able to be achieved because of the mass death.” It might be the story of a Georgia school principal who was allegedly segregating classrooms out of a misguided desire to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, with which Yascha Mounk begins his recent book The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. It might be that the transgender center of a St. Louis hospital is pressuring children into taking puberty blockers and hormones. Or that statues of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, have been “torn” down by out-of-control progressives.

Debunking all these contentions can feel like playing whack-a-mole.

These appalling tales are selected to shock. And they are, the respective writers assure us, representative of how the group or ideology or movement under discussion has been hijacked. “A new, illiberal orthodoxy” has replaced the old left, as Bari Weiss wrote in 2021, and it wields “cancellation the way ancient societies used witch burnings.” Although it may be motivated by admirable goals, the left has become a grave threat to women and children, to the Bill of Rights and freedom, to our democratic way of life itself.

These appeals are generally presented in moderate language to assure the reader of the author’s reasonableness. They suggest intellectual heft and empirical rigor. Their authors often go out of their way to mention their progressive bona fides. They are on your side, dear reader, but they want you to be utterly angry and absolutely terrified about whatever it is they’re recounting. It’s absurd that queer theorists hate gay men! It’s shocking that progressives are enacting a new Jim Crow! It’s beyond the pale that our doctors are mutilating children! It’s insane that even Lincoln has been canceled!

Taken together, these works have had a noxious effect on public discourse. The New York Times reporting on trans health care—which has been so prejudiced and shoddy that over one thousand contributors penned an open letter denouncing the paper’s handling of the issue—has been cited as the evidentiary basis for new state legislation restricting access to gender-affirming care across the country. Reactionary centrist writers beat the drum about cancel culture until it became the central plank of Ron DeSantis’s doomed presidential bid. While decrying leftist censorship, these writers often ignore the very real censorship imposed by right-wing state governments.

Debunking all these contentions can feel like playing whack-a-mole. Leave aside for a moment the fact that the evidence on offer is usually half-baked, decontextualized, or simply fabricated. That isn’t really the point. In the case of the Chronicle essay, for instance, its authors had to go all the way back to 1997 for that Sarah Schulman quote in which she suggested that the mass death of gay men from AIDS offered an opportunity to female activists who had felt sidelined by misogynistic gay men. And, naturally, they removed important context. Schulman herself acknowledged that these thoughts were “upsetting” realities—but necessary to grapple with for “complex” thinkers.

Similarly, the Georgia principal decried by Mounk was quickly reprimanded and the allegations investigated by the federal government—hardly an example of how “wokeism” has taken over our institutions. The whistleblower’s claims about that St. Louis hospital were unsubstantiated and disputed by patients’ families. And the statue of Lincoln in Boston was removed because it included a former enslaved person cowering at the president’s feet. 

The evidence presented is almost never representative of what the authors claim it is. If there were a spate of people being persecuted by DEI bureaucrats, we would be able to quantify it. Access to gender-affirming care is tightly regulated and trans people overwhelmingly express satisfaction with that care—neither of which you would believe reading the fearmongering in the Times. The mainstream LGBTQ movement has not acceded to the far left, but very much continues to fight for social and political equality with the same center-left, corporate playbook it has for decades.

Many of these writers—and certainly most of their readers—are not bad people. When asked what their goals are, they would reply, earnestly, that they strive for a liberal order, for democracy and equal opportunity. Most of them probably even would identify as some form of social democrat. This is what distinguishes them, at base, from the far right. But, like many good liberals, they have decided, perhaps unconsciously, that when push comes to shove, they would rather live in a world run by fascists than a world run by the “woke” left. They would rather see abortion decimated, democracy curtailed, and journalism censored, than allow trans youth access to health care, equal rights for people of color, or academic freedom.

The real problem, when it comes to gay centrists at least, is a deep-seated anxiety of being left behind. Hence the frustration with other groups appearing to claim a more exalted victim status. It’s why the comedian and author David Sedaris harangued listeners in 2022 about the problems with the term queer. Like a petulant child—he was particularly incensed after hearing an anecdote about a woman who had identified as queer because she is tall—he announced he was now choosing to identify as “straight” because at least that term doesn’t change.

It is difficult to speak of just one queer theory, the discipline is so internally fragmented—intentionally so.

Like many grievances, this one also ignores reality—how life has, for many gay men and lesbians, gotten substantially better in the last twenty years while other groups still suffer the kinds of violence and ostracism that they suffered in the twentieth century. At the same time, as certain queer people have enjoyed access to an expanding circle of rights, the LGBTQ movement has been co-opted toward a number of pernicious ends, from pinkwashing the military-industrial complex to sanitizing Islamophobia. And in many countries that have granted these rights, gay men and lesbian have indeed started to conform politically, voting in higher numbers for centrist and right-wing parties after decades of associating with the political left. In France, one study even found that gay men were more likely than straight people to vote for the far-right National Front.

When it comes to the gay grouches in the center, then, the point is political. It’s not that gay men have been targeted or victimized or cast out into the cold by queer theorists or LGBTQ activists. It’s that some writers and some activists have started pointing out the tendency among well-to-do gay men and lesbians to pull the ladder up after them. The people writing these screeds presumably don’t like being told that they ought to now exert themselves on behalf of others.

What seems to irritate Kim and Smith specifically about the state of queer theory, then, is that gay men are no longer the field’s primary focus, that they have been replaced by “a coalition of the oppressed” into which they are expected to “merge.” And the discipline has evolved to think much more about queer people of color, trans and nonbinary people, queer women, and people with disabilities. In so doing, it has become far richer empirically as well as theoretically, encompassing the study of new forms of sexual and gender difference across time and space. In contrast, there is something laughably provincial in the charge that because “few academics are interested in American gay literature”—an entirely unsubstantiated claim—queer theory has turned its back on gay men.

In fact, the assertion is patently absurd. Turn to any journal in the field, look at the catalog of books published by university presses, and you will find numerous works discussing the specific social, political, cultural, and historical experiences of gay men. In asserting that queer academics refuse to explore “the continuities and diversities between [gay life’s] varying forms,” Kim and Smith ignore or mischaracterize broad swathes of current scholarship. Take, for example, Schulman’s monumental Let the Record Show, a history of ACT UP New York published in 2021 that they denigrate for “lament[ing] how the history of the radical movement ACT UP was ‘shoved into the gay male trajectory,’ supposedly wrested from its rightful place with the other members of the queer coalition.” While Schulman hardly ignores the massively important role played by male activists—or the toll that the disease took on gay men—Kim and Smith seem to be frustrated that she restores queer women and trans people to the history.

Moreover, they draw a distinction between what they characterize as the “often confused and implicit disagreements” of early queer theory and the “doxa among queer academics” that they claim arose in the 1990s. Yet in so doing, they ignore the lively debates that continue to shape the field. A growing number of scholars advance a Marxist variant of queer theory, for instance, that seeks to understand the material realities of LGBTQ people. The late Christopher Chitty’s recent Sexual Hegemony takes a great many queer theorists to task for prioritizing the study of bourgeois gay literature over the lived experiences of working class gay men. Other queer theorists have criticized their colleagues for relying on what Duggan once termed a “stunted archive” and ignoring empirical evidence about queer life.

In fact, it is difficult to speak of just one queer theory, the discipline is so internally fragmented—intentionally so. For a field that defines itself, in the words of Judith Butler, as “that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes” could never be anything else.