01 August 2012


'Respectable Queerness' by Yuvraj Joshi in (2012) 43(3) Columbia Human Rights Law Review proposes a new theoretical framework — “respectable queerness”.

Joshi argues that the framework will assist understanding of public recognition of gay people and relationships, on the basis that public recognition of those people and gay relationships is "contingent upon their acquiring a respectable social identity that is actually constituted by public performances of respectability and by privately queer practices".

In discussing queer theory, the respectability framework and marriage Joshi comments that -
Respectability is a moral discourse: it characterizes a person in moral terms and accords moral authority to some but not others. Beverly Skeggs writes, “[r]espectability embodies moral authority: those who are respectable have it, those who are not do not. But only some groups were considered to be capable of being moral, others were seen to be in need of control.” Skeggs’ claim, made in relation to the development of Englishness, echoes similar workings in other social categories such as sexuality. Foucault argues that modern control of sexuality takes place via the production of knowledge through discourse. This control is exercised not only through others’ knowledge of individuals, but also through individuals’ knowledge of themselves. By internalizing prevailing social norms of sexuality and monitoring their adherence to those norms, individuals are controlled both as objects of disciplines and as self-scrutinizing subjects. These insights should motivate us to consider whether respectability, as a moral discourse, exercises control and places limits on sexuality.
Nothing is more respectable than—and grants moral authority more than—marriage. The norm of marriage prescribes lifelong commitment and sexual monogamy aimed at producing a nuclear family. Moreover, it constructs sexuality as a necessarily secretive and private aspect of identity. The state acts as moral custodian to ensure that relationships that mimic this heteronormative paradigm are privileged, while others receive less respect. The newfound recognition of lesbian and gay relationshipsis not independent of, but contingent upon, filling this heterosexual mold (excepting the inevitable flaw of being homosexual). Thus, homosexual relations remain improper in the state’s eyes unless they are conducted within “the right kind of privacy” provided by marriage.
The queer critique of marriage questions the norm of marriage and encourages deviance from the norm. Espousing what Michael Warner calls an “ethical vision of queer politics,” it resists the notion that “the state should be allowed to grant legitimacy to some kinds of consensual sex but not others or to confer respectability on some people’s sexuality but not others.” Accordingly, it is skeptical of “any institution, like marriage, that is designed both to reward those inside it and discipline those outside it.” For these reasons, queer liberationists reject the ascendency of marriage based on respectability. Paula Ettelbrick contends, “[m]arriage runs contrary to two of the primary goals of the lesbian and gay movement: the affirmation of gay identity and culture; and the validation of many forms of relationships.” The right to marry is, she argues, essentially the right to be the same as heterosexuals, whereas the essence of liberation is not having to conform to a heterosexual mold: “As a lesbian, I am fundamentally different from non-lesbian women. That’s the point. Marriage, as it exists today, is antithetical to my liberation as a lesbian and as a woman because it mainstreams my life and voice.” 
At the other end of the queer political spectrum, gay conservatives do not only accept the norm of marriage, they also consider certain gay couples and relationships to be worthy of it. According to them, marriage is an institution without which lesbians and gays cannot achieve their full rights as citizens. Rather than correcting this injustice by promoting legal alternatives to marriage that are open to all, they seek inclusion within marriage as it currently exists, believing that this will result in justice for all. Functioning within a legal framework that does not recognize equality claims unless they are made with reference to the normative standard of heterosexuality, gay conservatives present a twofold argument for marriage: (1) equality before the law, and (2) gay sameness to heterosexuality.
The claim of gay sameness to heterosexuality posits that gay couples and relationships are exactly like their heterosexual counterparts and therefore deserve the same recognition. The claim, however, is as much an aspiration as it is an assertion. William Eskridge expects that gradual recognition of same-sex relationships will normalize homosexuality and promote the social status of gay people. While not framed in these terms, the invocation of normalization as a means to gain greater acceptance reads like an argument for respectability. Eskridge concedes that normalization would place limits on sexuality, and even that the immediate consequence of marriage would not be social acceptance of gay people. Nevertheless, he insists on marriage’s potential to benefit all gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals by conferring upon them the rights and duties of marriage and a place within society. Even more optimistically, Andrew Sullivan believes that marriage itself will precipitate a near perfect normalization of lesbians and gays that will end most discrimination against them.
The contrast, then, is stark. If Ettelbrick espouses difference and deviance, Eskridge favors sameness and normalcy. If Warner celebrates the diversity of queer sex and intimacies, Sullivan envisages a different sort of celebration. He states that following legalization of same-sex marriage “and a couple of other things ... I think we should have a party and close down the gay rights movement for good.” As a matter of politics, queer liberationists reject assimilation because of its normalizing costs, and gay conservatives embrace it despite those costs. Stated another way, queer liberationists consciously demand respect over respectability, and gay conservatives strive for respectability without noticing the difference.
Same-sex marriage has deepened this political rift, but it is not its source. To grasp the politics of marriage, it is important to understand its basis and genesis in the politics of AIDS. The AIDS epidemic generated both progressive and conservative responses. While progressives challenged anti-sexual, homophobic narratives of the epidemic that blamed gay and bisexual men’s sexual recklessness for its spread, conservatives endorsed those narratives and adopted the epidemic as a catalyst for “civilizing” those men. This same civilizing ethos underpins how conservatives argue for marriage equality. Eskridge argues that AIDS was a wake-up call to gay and bisexual men that they are “in need of civilizing, [and] same-sex marriage could be a particularly useful commitment device for [them].” He writes:
Whatever gravity gay life may have lacked in the disco seventies it acquired in the health crises of the eighties. What it lost in youth and innocence it gained in dignity. Gay cruising and experimentation, ... permanent obstacle to gay marriage, gave way to a more lesbian-like interest in commitment. Since 1981 and probably earlier, gays were civilizing themselves. Part of our self-civilization has been an insistence on the right to marry.
Sullivan recounts, “[w]ith AIDS, responsibility became a central, imposing feature of gay life ... Relationships that had no social support were found to be as strong as any heterosexual marriage.” AIDS “saved” gay men, suggest these authors. It sobered them into abandoning sexual excess and juvenile rebellion in favor of responsible adulthood, and consequently, so the argument goes, they became accepted into the very society from which they had understandably been excluded. Marriage is expected to continue the civilizing work done by AIDS, thereby making gay people more normal and more accepted in society.
Suppose we accept for a moment that marriage might “civilize” gay men. A question that remains unanswered is whether lesbians might have a different perspective on marriage than gay men; in other words, whether gender might not be a more important factor in the marriage debate than has been acknowledged thus far. Eskridge and Sullivan have little to say about lesbians; as Suzanna Walters aptly asks, “and what of lesbians?” Walters observes that their arguments for gay marriage are rooted in the “vaguely Victorian” notion of marriage as the force that “tames and civilizes the wild beast that is Man.” This is precisely what Eskridge and Sullivan appear to have in mind when Eskridge likens gay men to “Ulysses, who directed that he be bound to the ship’s mast as it passed the Sirens, sea creatures whose seductive voices enticed men to their deaths,” and when Sullivan seeks marriage as an “anchor ... in the chaos of sex and relationships to which we are all prone.” Once marriage is taken to be a civilizing project, and once a “lesbian-like interest in commitment” is taken for granted, marriage is thought no longer to concern lesbians, because “gay men need the discipline of marriage more than lesbians do.” 
Queer liberationists reject this approach, countering that it is perilous to seek to escape discrimination by eliminating or downplaying the very difference that gives rise to it. As Ettelbrick explains:
Justice for gay men and lesbians will be achieved only when we are accepted and supported in this society despite our differences from the dominant culture and the choices we make regarding our relationships ... The moment we argue ... that we should be treated as equals because we are really just like married couples and hold the same values to be true, we undermine the very purpose of our movement and begin the dangerous process of silencing our different voices.
Warner emphasizes that, contrary to the alleged demise of radical queer sexuality, lesbians and gays continue to maintain personal and intimate relations that often bear little resemblance to marriage. He observes that many lesbians “were at [the time before marriage] fighting the feminist sex wars and are even now developing a lesbian culture of experimentation.” Moreover, plenty of gay men coping with AIDS stigma have “developed their own sense of what ‘civilizing themselves’ means” and “nonmarital sex and nonmarital intimacies have been crucial parts of their alternatives.” Warner cautions that “[i]f the campaign for marriage requires wholesale repudiation of queer culture’s best insights on intimate relations, sex, and the politics of stigma, then it is doing more harm than marriage could ever be worth.” 
The need for civilizing resonates with gay men who are preoccupied with distancing themselves from the “promiscuity” of gay life. Having sought the promised safety of monogamous heterosexuality “during” AIDS, they seek “post-AIDS” to secure the imagined utopia of heterosexual marriage. Patrick Moore explains that the U.S. gay male “community” is produced by shame regarding its now seemingly self-destructive sexual past. “Shame is,” in his words, “what keeps us in line and what prevents us from discovering not so much who we are, but what we might become.” It motivates gay people to disregard the revolutionary nature of their pasts and instead to engage in a system of dissociated assimilation. But such assimilation is antithetical to self-respect. As Warner points out: “[T]he need for official validation, not to mention the conformity that official validation rewards, is the opposite of self-esteem. Respectability seems an antidote to shame when it really is its byproduct.
Not everyone, however, is invested in respectability for the same reasons. Although there is no direct evidence to rely on, it seems unlikely that lesbians see long term, monogamous relationships as respectable in the same sense as gay men struggling with AIDS stigma. Skeggs writes, for example, “[f]or working-class women invested in respectability, it is very hard for them to take on a sexed identity (either lesbian or hetero) because it is precisely being sexed which they have been trying to avoid in their claims for respectability.” Underlying their pursuit of respectability are “refusals to be rendered powerless in sexualized encounters (be they educational, social or intimate), when historically positioned as sexualized beings, circumscribed by limited position in discourse and being aware of continual evaluations and distinctions produced through speaking or displaying sexuality.” Lesbians and gays may produce performances of respectability as defensive strategies against being sexualized. Respectability may be a means of stopping their sexuality from becoming a barrier to their success and happiness or a safe space away from the pain and suffering of homophobia. For some, their motivation in seeking marriage and monogamy (or at least the appearance of monogamy) may be shaped by their desire for children and by society’s desire to see gay parents as respectable and therefore not dangerous to their own or other children. For others, becoming respectable and downplaying their sexuality may seem the only viable escape from oppressive social and personal situations. 
The queer debate has tended to neglect the various and complex forces at work in producing the desire for recognition. The oppositional nature of the debate, moreover, has limitations. Several commentators in the debate fail to concede that between lesbians and gays who long for marriage at the one end and feminist and queer dissenters at the other, there stands a large constituency of queers that might not buy into the same kind of vision of marital bliss. While speaking as a “community” can establish authority by giving the impression of group consensus, Davina Cooper cautions against framing equality claims on the basis of group identity, since this “suggests that lesbians and gay men have shared interests and needs, and that as a class equality means access to the benefits possessed bygroups more privileged than they.” This approach undercuts the divergence and heterogeneity within lesbian and gay constituencies, disguising that “[t]he ‘lesbian and gay community’ is not a singular entity with a singular ambition for relationship recognition.” Carol Smart questions a political oppositional approach because “there may be other voices and other concerns which are less vocal, which are not part of an already established political or academic community, and which may present a slightly different or more nuanced view.” 
That lesbian and gay perspectives on marriage are neither as polarized nor as clearly defined as the queer debate suggests is shown by research data. For example, one recent U.K. study found that while eighty percent of the lesbian and gay respondents welcomed the 2004 Civil Partnership Act, only fifty percent wanted marriage to include same-sex couples. Although legal recognition was extremely important to several respondents in the study, some of them did not want the state to intervene in their relationships. In a different U.K. study, some participants supported civil partnership or marriage for pragmatic reasons but resisted state recognition “becoming the pinnacle and norm for same-sex relationships.” These results are consonant with a U.S. study. While participants in that study supported recognition as a matter of legal equality, this was only an “external veneer” for deeper tensions in the perceived effects of marriage on same-sex relationships. These sentiments suggest that, contrary to conservative expectations and liberationist fears, not every lesbian and gay couple is running to the altar, and marriage might not look the same for every couple. This may be seen as casting doubt on the overall transformative potential of marriage and some of the sweeping changes envisioned at either end of the queer political spectrum.