What would a queer world look like? It’s a simple question, one that a student posed two years ago during a class discussion of Martin Duberman’s polemic Has the Gay Movement Failed? “What would you change,” she asked, “if you could wave a queer magic wand?” But simple questions can dissemble. The other students were stumped. When I tried to answer, I found myself at a loss for words—even though what first drew me into queer studies was the discipline’s ability to proffer solutions to our world’s hidden ills.
As though it were yesterday, I still recall the visceral thrill of reading Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, which I gulped down in a single afternoon sitting in the campus coffee shop. I remember researching queer literature as a college senior, discovering ancestors I never knew existed. These texts, which were part of my own coming out and coming to terms with my sexuality, held out a way of looking at the world beyond the humdrum of daily life. Much of that thrill was in critique, in tearing down the totems of established thought. When I was 22, I wasn’t worried about what might replace them. But by the time the student asked me that question—whether because I’m older or because of all that has transpired over the last six years—I was.
These questions are not merely my own, of course. They point to a deeper conflict within the academic fields that constitute queer studies: the tension between the critical impulse of queerness and its desire to enact positive political change. The source of this question, I’ve come to believe, is the inability of queer theory to conceive positively of the state—that is, to explain what the state is (or ought to be) and why it should exist. This problem stretches back to queer theory’s origins, and we can only begin to understand it by asking what, precisely, queerness is.
Once a slur, queer today is a convenient shorthand to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and other sexually and gender-nonconforming people. It also carries political valences; those who identify as queer typically align with radical or progressive movements. Then there’s academic queerness—a range of humanistic fields from queer theory to gender studies to the history of sexuality. To these writers and scholars, among whom I count myself, queer denotes a set of methodological approaches to the study of sex, gender and sexuality shaped by the work of deconstructionist philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century, including Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and, most significantly, Foucault.
Foucault was above all else a theorist of power, by which he meant not the hierarchical domination exercised by states, but rather the normative expectations that shape our everyday lives. This new form of power emerged in the modern period through everyday interactions and social institutions, from prisons to schools to clinics. This conception of power was revolutionary, for it turned the common sense of what was “normal” on its head, insisting that what we assume to be typical is, in fact, nothing more than a social construct.
In this way, Foucault and his heirs decentered the state, pleading for studies of government that would “cut off the head of the king,” as he so memorably put it. Later scholarship on sexuality and gender took up the call, focusing on the emergence of “normality” through modern medicine, universal schooling, the empirical sciences and other institutions of social regulation. It was here that true power lay. The idea of a “power, construed as a subject, that acts,” Judith Butler asserted in 1993, is nothing more than a myth. Rather, it was the “reiterated acting” of everyday life that “is power.” The state and high politics were merely expressions of these deeper power relations.
These ideas were profoundly generative at the time, not only to scholars like Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner but also to queer liberation groups in the Eighties and Nineties. A generation of queer historians, many of them activists, began to unearth how the persecution of queer people had shifted over time, revealing that it was not historically inevitable. By exposing how normality was nothing more than a fiction wormed into our very sense of self—and by transforming this realization into activist imperative—queer studies became a field that was, in the words of David Halperin, “at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.”
Hence, queerness and the state are doubly alienated. Not only does queer theory have little interest in the state—it also has no use for it. After all, the state is in itself that which is normal, legitimate and dominant.
In turning against the state, these thinkers were riding the cresting wave of history. From the New Deal to the Five-Year Plan, faith in the state’s awesome power had only grown in the middle of the twentieth century. But by the 1970s—in the wake of the Vietnam War and successive revelations of Stalinist horrors—the endemic inefficiencies, petty corruptions and coziness of government with corporations and labor unions alike began to alienate a new generation of leftists. Institutionally, these trends propelled a shift toward left neoliberalism, embodied in figures like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Growing queer movements in this period were no different. From the Gay Liberation Front, which grew out of the Stonewall riots of 1969, to STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), American queer movements turned to everyday modes of resistance and world-building. They pursued novel strategies and programs, from “zaps” and sit-ins to providing housing and hospice care. In so doing, these groups often rejected the legitimacy and the efficacy of the state. Imbued with a Foucauldian spirit, queerness, along with much of the contemporary left, thus eventually turned away from the political and toward social and cultural realms, where activists believed true power and liberation might be found.
By the 1990s, though—as queer theory began to emerge from a heady concatenation of poststructuralist philosophy, the history of sexuality and literary studies—rumblings of discontent could be heard. In 1994, Lisa Duggan, a prominent scholar who later coined the term “homonormativity,” warned against the political quietism of queer critique. In a short essay on “queering the state,” she skewered faux radicals who “presented as the progressive cutting edge of politics as well as theory,” but who in truth were guilty of “avoiding (if not outright despising) lesbian/gay/queer activism,” and argued that politics could make use of the strategic insights queer theory had to offer. It’s a frustration I think many of us share, wedged between queer theory’s utopian aspirations and the mucky reality of day-to-day politics.
Duggan was right. For if the decades-long experiment with neoliberalism has taught us anything, it is that we do need the state. Hollowed out by both liberal and conservative parties, many contemporary states have become unable to redistribute wealth, care for citizens, address climate change or forge genuine social equality. If nothing else, the massive, though flawed, state efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years (and the government’s current bungled attempts to stanch the spread of monkeypox, which is primarily affecting queer men) have demonstrated the need for powerful states that can dictate public-health measures and convince citizens to behave in responsible ways.
Viewed from the perspective of queer people, the need for a muscular, progressive state seems no less great. We want health services that offer gender-affirming care, do we not? We want a state that will provide universal childcare to ensure a less gendered division of labor. Surely, we hope for a state that will protect minorities from social discrimination and violence. It may not be sexy or edgy to admit, but, especially at a time when the radical right is turning to state power in service of its patriarchal social vision, we queers do need the state.
The question, then, is if it’s possible to work out a theory of the state that weds the critically anti-normative impulses of queer theory to the empirical need for the state, coercive though it may be. But could any queer thinker today figure out what such a polity would look like? A fault line separates radicals who reject political compromise from pragmatists who begrudgingly embrace it. Neither has been able to give a positive account of state power, one that would legitimate its exercise in service of a 21st-century progressivism. To put it in more personal terms: I, a scholar with an abiding commitment to queer theory, have found myself unable to leverage its insights to explain why I also favor a powerful, progressive state.
But the challenge is also an opportunity. If there is any hope that progress will be more than an empty slogan for the sclerotic parties of the left, then it must be in a politics that takes seriously the kinds of violent marginalization and insidious operations of power that are the special preoccupations of queer studies, while at the same time offering a positive vision of state action.
None of this is to say that queerness is opposed to politics. Far from it. Most queer intellectuals see their work as deeply political, and queer texts have had a profound impact on activist movements that took up anti-normativity as a battle cry. Especially in the United States, where the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, intensified by the Reagan administration’s willful neglect of victims, not only led to renewed queer activism but also shaped the emergence of queer theory, the fields of queer studies developed a particularly oppositional politics. As new queer activists mobilized against AIDS, queer theorists contemporaneously analyzed the strategies and effects of their efforts. These groups were critical of pragmatic gay and lesbian efforts to work with the state, and for good reason: the president refused to so much as utter the word “AIDS” for four long years. ACT UP, which was founded in New York City in 1987, pioneered new direct-action strategies, such as die-ins and ashes actions, that drew attention to government inaction.
The radical utopianism that undergirded these efforts was founded on a profound distrust of the state, understanding it as an expression of deeper normative relations that constituted culture and society itself. They drew on the Foucauldian canon, in particular the philosopher’s dismissal of the state as “superstructural.” Not for nothing did David Halperin hear from ACT UP members that their “single most important intellectual source of political inspiration” was The History of Sexuality.
This legacy lives on in queer theory through its dual critique of the state and embrace of a politics that prizes direct action and community organizing. In their 1995 essay “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner noted that “queer theory has flourished in the disciplines where expert service to the state has been least familiar.” Where queer theorists have addressed the state, it is usually to dismiss it as a locus of violence exercised against queer communities. The critic José Esteban Muñoz, for instance, described heteronormativity in his influential book Cruising Utopia as “the spectacle of the state refurbishing its ranks through overt and subsidized acts of reproduction.” In their recent monograph Atmospheres of Violence, Eric Stanley denounces “the state’s violent expansion,” arguing that “the state, even as an experiment in democracy, is unable to offer us relief.”
This perspective echoes the conceptualization of the state found in German thinker Walter Benjamin’s critique of violence. Like Benjamin—among queer theory’s favorite philosophers—queer theorists critique what he termed “law-preserving violence,” the pervasive “threatening violence” that maintains the status quo. Benjamin too contended that violence sat at “the origin of law,” that no matter how a state dresses it up, right is always the product of might. When a new form of violence overwhelms the law-preserving power of the status quo, it can birth a new state, an exercise that Benjamin terms “law-creating violence.” The dialectic of violence, which he suggests undergirds modern societies, is then mythologized as a way of overcoming the paradox that all law—all state power—is fundamentally created and upheld by violence.
Queer theory has sought to expose this dialectic, pointing out the incipient insidiousness of modern systems of governance and demythologizing the violence that props up state power. Born of the critical impulse embodied within queerness, this line of thought has proven to be a potent way for the marginalized to diagnose the ills of the societies they inhabit. Yet vital as these analyses may be, few confront the question that invariably troubles a close reader of queer theory. What happens after you expose state violence?
Some might prefer to simply do away with the state. And queer theorists are not alone in this position. The works of anarchist scholars like James C. Scott and the late anthropologist David Graeber have enjoyed much attention in recent years. But it remains difficult to see how dire problems will ever be addressed, let alone solved, without large-scale collective action, which it is hard to imagine occurring without the coercive power of the state. The direct action and community building that queer theory so often proposes has historically been successful up to a point, but past that point has often required (or even demanded) state interventions. Radical queer thought thus offers valuable explications of all that is amiss with the mode of collective action we call the state but remains at best agnostic and at worst openly hostile to it.
Much of this tradition stems from the American academy and the experiences of queer people in the United States, shaped by the AIDS epidemic and marriage-equality debates. As I have grown as a queer scholar, though, I’ve approached these texts slantwise, largely because my training is in German history—a more intellectually conservative field, to be sure, but also one rooted in a very different national experience. As a result, I think, I am somewhat more sympathetic to a second strand of thought that dates back to the earliest queer political movements of nineteenth-century Europe. This tradition is best described as pragmatic and has, in recent years, received renewed attention from historians of sexuality.
How historians view the first homosexual rights movement, which evolved in Germany between the late nineteenth century and the Nazi takeover in 1933, provides a good example of the pragmatic tendency. Magnus Hirschfeld, the Weimar-era doctor and a leader of this movement, was once revered for his enterprising work in sexology and for his pioneering activism. But in recent years he has come under increasingly critical scrutiny for his willingness to accept incremental reform, his fraught relationship with colonialism, and his sometimes-racist views.
These critiques, however, have not led to a wholesale repudiation of the man or the movement for gay rights that he represented. Rather, as German studies scholar Javier Samper Vendrell has argued, a careful balancing act between radical aspirations and pragmatic necessities shaped homosexual rights activism in the Weimar Republic. Even while critiquing the man and the politics he represents, historians continue to appreciate the clarity with which he fought for queer rights. Such approaches do not attempt to read back into the queer past right or wrong, utopian promise or sluggish moderation. It’s a similar balancing act that we have had to attempt in recent years with our own flawed progressives, from Abraham Lincoln to FDR.
To reject pragmatism would be to reject countless queer activist efforts from across the twentieth century. Many of the gay and lesbian liberation movements that got their start in the 1960s and 1970s had prominent pragmatic subcurrents that pressed for new legislation, secured funding for queer priorities and endorsed policy changes that would substantively improve the lives of queer people. At the same time, even the most radical branches of these movements were shot through with some of the same ambivalences as their more moderate counterparts. To recover and understand these histories, scholars who take a more pragmatic approach to sexuality and the state have become adept at picking up on the inherent ambiguity of the queer past and present.
When AIDS tore through queer communities in the United States, for instance, ACT UP did not mobilize to halt the disease’s spread only in a literal, photographable way. As Sarah Schulman argues in Let the Record Show, a history of ACT UP New York, confronting the epidemic required an “Inside/Outside strategy” of both direct-action protests and policy insiders who could persuade the government to confront the crisis. Such approaches necessitate viewing the state not as a monolithic whole—as radical approaches often do—but rather as a muddled assemblage of competing and conflicting parts that can be pressured, threatened and cajoled into acting in the interests of the marginalized.
This pragmatic approach inflects much of the new historical scholarship on queerness. Intimate States: Gender, Sexuality, and Governance in Modern US History, a recent collection of essays edited by historians Margot Canaday, Nancy Cott and Robert Self, examines the varied ways that elements of the American state, from municipal governments to federal courts, have historically regulated sex, gender and sexuality. In so doing, the volume “captures the reality of state actions as emanating not from a stable entity—‘the state’—but from a shifting pattern of governing powers.”
In his exemplary contribution to the volume, Paisley Currah, a trans legal scholar at CUNY, focuses on contemporary regulations to highlight the inherent instability of the concept of the state. His essay highlights how in New York City “a woman could be housed in a women’s homeless shelter, sent to a men’s prison upstate, and have an F on her driver’s license.” The different agencies arriving at these divergent sex classifications are all part of “the state,” but each applies its own slightly different logics and procedures.
Questioning the homogeneity of “the state” allows us to make out its capriciousness as well as how state actors can achieve something that looks like progress. In this sense, it weds the critical impulses of queer theory to more empirically grounded assessments. The editors of Intimate States argue, for instance, that the volume reveals how “protecting children as a route to securing the health of the social body led states to develop novel forms of knowledge as well as new ameliorative programs.” At the same time, following more critical approaches, they emphasize that “state protection and access to public provision nonetheless came with surveillance and the potential for coercion,” noting, for example, how New Deal programs encouraged the establishment of white, heterosexual families—progressive redistribution chained to racist patriarchy. Because the volume’s authors break the state apart into its constituent components—local and regional agencies, legislators, courts—they make out the good, the bad and the mediocre in the relationship between queerness and the state.
To the extent that a politics or a theory of the state can be deduced from Intimate States, it is precisely the messy, pragmatic approach that has historically been the counterpart of more radical strands of queer thought. Where some see a monolithic whole, pragmatists see an agglomeration of competing interest groups and actors. Where some only see violence enacted against queer people, pragmatists make out both violence and opportunity. And where radical theorists believe in the sudden possibility of utopian promise, pragmatists argue, as Currah asserted in 2019, in conversation with queer legal scholar Aeyal Gross, “we can’t just click our heels three times and bring a better state into existence.”
In that 2019 conversation, Gross and Currah began to sketch out what a queer theory of the state might look like. Currah suggested there is a place for activist efforts aimed at liberal recognition, but insisted, “I draw the line at arguments for inclusion that will have immediate negative effects on others,” suggesting an incipient theory of least harm. Gross, whose scholarship focuses on queerness and international law, also echoed Currah’s pragmatic approach, although slightly more skeptically. “Yes, the state has power and we often need it,” Gross mused, “but we should also think beyond the state. This means turning to the state for recognition pragmatically, but without accepting that its policies constitute our relationships, or our lives.” Such a utilitarian approach to the state may be able to justify this or that policy, but it nevertheless leaves us trapped between the empirical need for the state and queer theory’s inability to articulate why.
While a pragmatic view of the state rebuts its radical rejection, it nonetheless fails to offer a positive vision of when, why and how the various agencies, competencies and sovereignties that together make the state can be useful to queers or can function in ways that align with the critical impulses of queer theory. It must resign itself to holding two contradictory views at once: on the one hand, accepting the deconstructionist impulse of queer theory and, on the other hand, setting it aside to accept and work with the state. In his afterword to Intimate States, historian Brent Cebul lands on precisely this formulation: that we need to rebuild the state from the ravages of neoliberalism, even if it is not entirely clear why or how we need it. He holds out hope that we are living through “the beginnings of a truly emancipatory set of intimate rights in which the state plays a positive rather than discharging role.”
To the extent that progressive politicians have begun to embrace the state again in recent years, the impetus has come largely from the activist left, spurred by groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party. Their reach as well as their limits are highlighted by Bernie Sanders’s two failed presidential campaigns, the ascent of federal representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the increasing willingness of the mainstream Democratic Party to entertain significant expansions of the welfare state.
But because these impulses have come out of the Marxian left—that is, from those who see class struggle as the driving force of politics—they have largely emerged in response to economic issues. And even then, only in fits and starts. The Biden administration’s woefully equivocal response to current economic insecurities reveals its commitment to redistribution runs only an inch deep.
Moreover, when it comes to issues of identity, rights and the future of our planet, it’s clear that progressives struggle to articulate a coherent framework for thinking about the role of the state. Progressive politicians’ response to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade has, in the best cases, largely focused on supporting community abortion funds and ensuring that women in states that now ban abortion will be able to access the care they need. This is, of course, vital. But it can only be a Band-Aid on the problem until there is a state that is able and willing to guarantee women’s equal rights and access to care. Few politicians have yet endorsed any of the many creative solutions President Biden might adopt to counteract the Supreme Court’s decision, from ignoring the Dobbs ruling or expanding the Supreme Court to operating abortion clinics on federal lands or even calling a general strike.
Similarly, the partly has been nearly silent on the wave of transphobic and homophobic legislation now sweeping across the country—the latest evidence that social conservatives have never shrunk from using the state to advance their agenda. Party leaders have preferred to tell their frustrated base that the best solution to any given national problem is to “vote,” perhaps forgetting that the 2020 election delivered to the Democratic Party unified control of the federal government, that they in fact have the power to act. That forgetfulness is not, I think, strategic or even necessarily intentional; it is rather the culmination of decades of neoliberal politicking and anti-statist theorizing, which have colluded to make Democrats unable to conceive positively of state power. As Walter Benjamin suggested of European parliamentarians a century ago, “they have not remained conscious of the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence.” If we are to counter the rising threat of the populist right, this is something that will have to change.
We might begin charting a new path by returning to Benjamin’s critique of violence, which resonates so deeply with queer critiques of the state. To directly compare the two, however, makes plain that something is missing in queer theory’s approach. Queer theory’s rejection of the state rests on the tacit assumption that violence can be transcended, that with the right form of critique and with the right forms of direct action, we can break free of history’s moorings.
Yet Benjamin recognized this as pure fantasy: there is no externality to violence. When queer advocates call for a retreat from the state and a return to forms of community organizing as a way to escape the state’s violence, they are engaged in wishful thinking. And if they imagine there is any way to solve the crises we face without power, they are deluding themselves. “Every conceivable solution to human problems,” Benjamin wrote, “remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle.”
Violence, by which Benjamin means any relationship of force, is always connected to structures of legality—that is, to the state. And it varies in whether it sustains the existing order of things, destroys that order or creates a new order. It’s for this reason that a workers’ strike, Benjamin writes, is a form of violence—in imagining a new order of things, it poses a challenge to the state. So too must the community organizing and direct action advocated by queer activists, if it’s to pose a true challenge to the status quo, be understood as a form of “violence.”
At the same time, the state, once it has been forced to accept that new order, prefers to legalize and thereby legitimize such exercises of violence in order that they become law-sustaining rather than a challenge to its own legality. By co-opting such challenges to its power, the state negates their revolutionary potential. Much that poses as revolutionary resistance in our own time has, in fact, already been accounted for in the status quo’s ledger of law-preserving violence. In this way, the state generates its own myths and obscures its exercise of power.
Benjamin’s solution to this problem is what he terms “divine violence.” This is a “law-destroying” violence that strikes without warning and is in essence fleeting, a kind of revolutionary power that annihilates entirely without replacing it. It is, I think, similar to what philosopher Susan Buck-Morss has termed “moments of clarity”—flashes of moral inspiration that have the ability to overwhelm mendacity and self-interest and thereby change the course of history. This is precisely what progressives must be able to accept: on the one hand, that there is no way to escape either violence or the state and, on the other hand, the need to harness divine violence that has the possibility to transcend the current order of things. Thinking about the state in such a way would break free of lifeless pragmatism that makes little room for inspiration, while also forcing radicals to acknowledge that power must be the end goal of protest and critique.
Now, I do not claim to be able to spell out precisely what this theory of the state could be. But it is possible, I think, to offer a few directions for our thought.
First, the state is, or ought to be, us, the people who live in the territory in which the state exerts its sovereignty. This is, of course, an oversimplification of centuries of political thought, and one that risks ignoring the exclusionary ways in which that “us” has often been defined. At the same time, so much progressive thought, and especially queer thought, loses sight of the fact that the state is made up of and represents people. It ought not be controversial for us to accept that the state should be as faithful a representative as possible of our interests, even those interests we do not always know.
This also means a queer state would be fundamentally democratic. Queer theory is often ambivalent on the question of democracy, largely because of queers’ ambivalent experiences of American government. But any queer theory of the state would have to accept a democratic outlook in order to escape the insidious traps of violence that queerness rejects. Yet there is nothing to guide what version of democracy might best serve the needs of 21st-century progressivism. Democracy need not look like the current U.S. republic, which is at best only tenuously democratic.
Moreover, any queer state would certainly not spring from liberal individualism. That is, it would not take the sovereign independence of the individual as its starting point, but would instead acknowledge that “us,” the communitarian foundation of the state and of society. Here, I think queer theory has no problem with accepting more communitarian forms of government, with acknowledging that we do have obligations to each other in this life.
Such a theory of the state would further entail that we can’t simply will away those who wish us ill. And so it must be a state that, while founded on aggressively democratic principles, must also welcome the possibility for robust criticism that both prevents mythologies of the state from arising and leaves open the possibility of sudden, emancipatory change. It must be a state that leaves open the never-ending possibility of its own demise. In sum, a queer theory of the state would necessitate that queer theory, and progressive politics more broadly, leave behind its anti-majoritarian impulses and its fear of state power while retaining its potent faculties of critique.
At the same time, it must be critique with purpose, not the kind of points-scoring criticism that today can seem woefully common on the left. Put another way, it must be critique that can distinguish between strategy and theory—that can, as Lisa Duggan pointed out decades ago, mobilize its critical insights for the purposes of winning elections and advancing policy.
Thus, it must offer a way of being in and of the state that is not wholly consumed by critique. Queer scholar Evren Savcı has recently suggested that “critique, and often jaded critique bordering on cynicism” is in part responsible for the disenchantment of politics that has given the right free rein of political imagination. Any queer theory of the state must not only be willing to self-reflexively critique, but must also be able to tap into what Savcı terms “the re-enchanting promise of the commons.” Whatever we term it—whether Benjamin’s divine violence, Buck-Morss’s moments of clarity or Savcı’s enchanted commons—it is clear that a queer theory of the state would have to self-critically embrace the joyful notion that we not only owe each other something but also that it is within our power to deliver it.
Image credit: Benjamin Henry Latrobe, “Plan of the principal story of the U.S. capitol,” 1806 (edited).