Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In which I begin to unlocke my thinking about queer sexualities

Most of the standard arguments about the legitimacy of queer relationships center on the idea that they're harmless -- that queer relationships are between the two people involved, and everyone else should just butt out of their private business. I worry about this type of argument, and I think it's time that we reexamine it.

In the first place, I think the premise is false. Queer relationships do have an effect on heterosexuals. The presence of openly queer people (and I assume ) transforms our discourse on sexual relationships, and it seems like queer people in particular should be sensitive to the ways that discourses can have very real effects on people's lives. My relationship with a woman is undoubtedly shaped by the queer people in the society around us, and I think we should stop pretending otherwise.

More importantly, though, this style of argument is part of a discourse, stemming, I think, originally from Locke, that there are essentially two types of activities. On the one hand, there are private activities (which for capitalist apologists includes what you do with your property, and for liberals tends to include things like speech, religion and sexuality), which, because they don't affect anyone else, should not be regulated by the state. On the other hand, you have public activities (which for socialists include property relations, and for capitalist apologists mostly only includes the sorts of things that get classified as crimes -- violent acts and acts that affect someone else's property).

Historically, radicals' objections to this kind of framework have mostly been about switching things from one list to another -- sexuality, speech and (sometimes) religion to the "private" list, employment, gun ownership and (at other times) religion to the "public" list, etc. This can be seen as progress because it entails a recognition that employment relations are not always harmless and are often coercive, that no one actually followed the Lockean Proviso, and that diversity of opinions shouldn't be criminalized.

The problem, though, is that the original structure is left intact. This structure is troubling partly because it relies on the false notion that there are actions that have no effect on others. But it's also based on the ethical principle which says you can do whatever you want as long as you're not actively harming anyone else. This allows us to disavow our collective responsibility for others' suffering -- as long as we're not directly causing the harm, it's considered legitimate to allow the harm to continue.

I think it's important that we disavow this type of principle, and focus on actively creating good and alleviating suffering. In the face of the evils that can be created passively through thoughtless self-absorption, I think it's important that we feel a real sense of responsibility for one another. This entails abandoning the individualism which says that some of our actions are private -- all of our actions (and all of our inaction) should be thought of in terms of their potential ramifications on others, and we should be rid of the idea that any piece of us is truly individual, at least in the sense of separate or independent from others.

So, with that in mind, I think it's worthwhile to begin talking about things that have previously been seen as private -- and therefore morally neutral -- from a new perspective, to combat the pervasiveness of that asshole John Locke. I call it "unlockeing." For now, I'd like to address some of the ways I think the existence of queer sexualities creates a positive good, and enriches my life.
  • Queer relationships help to show us what sexual relationships that don't center on men's subjugation of women look like.
  • Queer relationships give women options that don't involve relationships with men, which may give women who do choose relationships with men increased bargaining power.
  • Queer sexualities deepen our understanding of sexual choice, and make us all feel freer to explore our own sexual interests.
  • Queer sex has been instrumental in developing our understandings about sexual pleasure -- especially for women.
  • Queer theory has been an important part of our understanding of the way our categories shape our thinking, and the way discourse shapes our lives.
  • Queer people have rethought gender in ways that allow all of us to more consciously shape our gender presentation.
  • Queer people, perhaps partly because of the lack of acceptance of their relationships, have helped us rethink monogamy and partnering.
  • Gay bars. 'Nuff said.
Beyond the arguments about the distinction between private and public action, as someone who's deeply grateful for the role that queer people and queerness have played in my personal development, it offends me to see queerness reduced to mere neutrality.

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