Book Review: Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anticapitalism
Keen readers might have noticed that gender and sexuality get less than their fair share of coverage here at the Manifesto. Since this blog originated as a teaching tool for my Christian college dorm floor, you can understand my hesitance to proclaim my support for free love and gender abolition. But even in the confines of a Christian school, about as far as the ostrich can stick its head below the sand, you could feel the ground shake as LGBT movements won their legal victories. I got gradually more confident about expressing myself and my rather outré lefty opinions on such topics, though I kept and continue to keep much of that close to my chest. Moreover, it was hard to be too celebratory about the recognition of same-sex marriage in the United States when it arrived in a world as violent and regressive as the one we inhabit. It seemed to me, as it does to many who might ostensibly benefit from the extension of legal protection for LGBT people and their relationships, that the achievement of legal same-sex marriage is not the Holy Grail. In fact, it mainly benefits the upwardly mobile white LGBT middle class, the bastions of what Peter Drucker calls “homonormativity.”
Warped, the 2015 book published by Drucker, is a long and ambitious attempt to provide a historical materialist framework for sexual and gender politics. Drawing on the methodology of structural Marxist history––which I know a thing or two about––he provides a handy chart that roughly defines this framework:
There’s much to commend about his strategy and its implementation in Warped. I’ve long felt that, though writers like Judith Butler contributed valuable insights, they were lacking any reference to the relationship of gender to its historical context and the wider social totality that our constructions of gender spring from. Mapping the precise relationships between regimes of accumulation, various political and cultural formations, and the different manifestations of sexual and gender norms/deviance is an unfinished project that needed a jumpstart. And Drucker certainly lays down a solid foundation for that task, integrating the various historical contributions of psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, Marxists like Marcuse and Kollontai, and others while avoiding as much as possible a narrow concentration on Europe and North America. Sexual subcultures and practices from the Global South also have their requisite place in his narrative, though unfortunately much less fleshed out than accounts of Northern, metropolitan sexual and gender formations.
The real triumph of the book is in weaving a historical narrative of the evolution of these same-sex formations and linking it to all the other elements present in that little chart. Homonationalism, or the use of the supposed sexual tolerance of Western countries as a bludgeon against dependent nations or to justify wars of intervention, is connected not only to capital accumulation and the state but also to the racism that often lodges itself at the heart of LGBT life. But Drucker is able to draw on history to show that, prior to the twentieth century, European countries often noted the diverse sexual traditions of indigenous, Asian, or Arab cultures (to name just a few examples) as reasons why they were “barbaric” and needed Western tutelage. In only a hundred years, the equation has been flipped.
Further, the book refuses to fall into a static picture of “identity” recognizing that traditional forms of sexuality were not simply obliterated by European colonization or the rise of Western urban LGBT culture and its dissemination through the media. As the author notes:
“At other locations of the imperialist system in the same period, some same-sex patterns survived––like South African ‘mine marriages,’ Afro-Surinamese ‘mate’ relationships and relations between men and youths in much of the Arab region––that supposed a vision of sex as a realm of activity rather than identity, one in which sexual fulfilment counted for more than the gender of one’s partner.”¹
He alludes to the seismic shift that occurred in the late 19th century as capitalism restructure everyday life around waged labour and, in particular, engendered a new “scientific” attempt to rationalize everyday life. One stream of this trend was the codification of sexology and the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories (both of which were at times defined as disorders). As the household stopped being a centre of production and became a centre of consumption, gender became more and more embedded in consumer preferences, dress, and lifestyles. Or, in other words, it took on a more “performative” dimension (as in Butler), though it was not necessarily more flexible or more forgiving of those who violated the rules of the performance. Modern gay and lesbian identities evolved out of this context, and set the stage for the development of not only the radical gay, lesbian, and trans liberation movements of the 60s and 70s but also the stultified and assimilationist world of gay normality.
Overall, the book exhibits a great level of nuance in the political arguments the book makes. It points out that the confessional practice of “coming out” to one’s family and friends or coworkers is not felt as universally liberating, especially for individuals who don’t have the resources needed to live without their families or kinship networks. Most impressively, I found that his account of how to balance reform and revolution, building on current movements towards a more radical future, while vague, quiet encouraging:
“The scope for queer identities could be particularly great in locations where the reification of desire into heterosexuality and homosexuality is still incomplete or resisted, and where element of more free-floating patterns have survived the twentieth century.”²
I find this impressive because it effectively decenters the Western LGBT movement, as valuable as it might be, and finds the greatest potential for revolutionary change in peripheral territories where capitalism’s strict separation of sexuality into commodified identities is not as entrenched. And it recognizes that this is what is happening in many cases, with the extension of rights to trans people by Maoists in Nepal and an opening in that direction in Cuba. Though he doesn’t mention it, another good example of this, and of queer politics practiced by the Communist left, is in the Philippines where the party there recognizes same-sex partnerships. It’s an extension of the great Leninist insight that the areas where revolutionary potential are greatest are in the “weakest links” of the system, and in this case the dominant same-sex formation, homonormativity, is indeed weakest in the peripheries where underdevelopment and exploitation have precluded the kind of urbanized ghettos characteristic of homonormative life in the metropolitan countries. If anything, I wish this insight were further expanded upon, as the suggestions for practical links between the left and the queer movement seem mostly limited to the West. This is understandable considering the author’s social context, but I expect that meshing queer and anti-imperialist politics, essential everywhere, is a venture best suited to countries like The Philippines, India, and even China.
Further, distinguishes between the birth of a homonormatively and the death of haternormatively, noting that the two are symbiotic social facts. Homonormativity––the preserve of the gay right and liberal left, the advocates for inclusion in the imperialist military and racist police forces, those who govern the networks of wealthy advocacy groups and corporations that dominate Pride parades––simply blends into the existing categories of heteronormativity, encouraging nuclear families and domestic lives no different from those of hetero couples. Warped names the movement resisting this assimilationist impulse queer, and spends the latter half of the book discussing how the queer movement and the broader left can forge alliances around labour and healthcare matters to revolutionize our sexual and family lives.
Warped is a sharp rebuke to any notion that Marxism has nothing to say about LGBT struggles or their history. I’ve been thirsting for a book like this for some time, looking at the real dynamism of history within a strong, totalizing historical framework that nevertheless engages with the more “fragmentary” knowledge we have had so far. Without the ability to grasp and organize around totalities, to forge the difficult historical and political links between queer, anti-imperialist, and proletarian struggles––queer and left movements will be left floundering in isolation from one another, all too eager to blast impurities in the other without recognizing that a common system, multifarious in appearance, confronts all human life today. I’ll certainly be returning to Warped many times in the future, and hope that it sparks a new constructive conversation about Marxism in queer communities, and vice versa.
We’ll end with one of my favourite passages in the book. Bon voyage, everyone.
Full LGBT equality requires liberation from poverty and dependency. LGBT people also need jobs that can save trans and young people from dependence on the sex trade. AIDS cannot be overcome, in those countries where male-male sex is a major factor in the epidemic, without challenging the structural adjustment programmes that decimate healthcare. LGBT people cannot escape from or remould their families without the protection of a strong social safety net. Tackling any of these issues requires sustained mobilisation to deepen the social and economic content of democracy.³
- Peter Drucker, Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anticapitalism (London: Brill, 2015), 56-57.
- Ibid, 316.
- Ibid, 380.