For those who grew up as lesbians in the years immediately following Franquismo, it's difficult to get used to the success of the artifact 'queer' and its transformation into 'cultural chic'. Let us remember, though, that behind every word there is a history, just as behind every history there is a struggle to fix or unmoor the words. To all who declare their sexual identity, Mia will sing in your ear: parole, parole parole...
There was a time in which the word 'queer' existed solely as an insult. In the English language, since its appearance in the eighteenth century, 'queer' served to name those whose condition of uselessness wrongdoing, falseness, or eccentricity might jeapordize the smooth functioning of the social machinery. 'Queers' were liars, thieves, drunks; the black sheep and the rotten apple, but also anyone who, due to their peculiarity or their strangeness, wouldn't be immediately recognized as man or woman. The word 'queer' doesn't seem to define a quality of the object to which it refers so much as to demonstrate the inability of the subject who speaks to locate a category in the field of representation that fits with the complexity of that which they are trying to define. Therefore, since the beginning, 'queer' is more the mark of a failure in linguistic representation than a simple adjective. Not this, nor that, neither fish nor fowl...queer. Which in some way amounts to saying: that which I call 'queer' poses a problem for my system of representation, leads to a disturbance, a strange vibration in my field of visibility that should be branded with the slur.
It was necessary to distrust the 'queer' as one distrusts a body that, by its mere presence, blurs the boundaries between the categories previously divided by rationality and dignity. In the Victorian society that defended the value of heterosexuality as the axis of the bourgeois family and foundation of the the reproduction of the nation and of the species, 'queer' would serve to name also those bodies that broke away from the heterosexual institution and its norms. The threat came, in this case, from those bodies that, through their forms of relation and production of pleasure, placed in question the differences between masculinity and femininity, but also between the organic and inorganic, the animal and the human. 'Queers' were homosexuals, the fag and the lesbian, the transvestite, the fetishist, the sadomasochist, the zoophile. The insult 'queer' didn't have a specific content; it sought to join all the signs of wretchedness. But the word served, in reality, to set a limit to the democratic horizon: those who called another 'queer' situated themselves comfortably on an imaginary sofa of the public sphere in tranquil communicative exchange with their heterosexul equals, while expelling the 'queer' from the confines of the human. Displaced outside the social space by the insult, the 'queer' was condemned to secrecy and shame.
But the political history of a slur is also the changing history of its uses, of its users, and of the contexts of its utterance. If we pay attention to this linguistic transit, we can say that it has shot the dominant language in the foot: in less than two centuries, the word 'queer' has changed radically in use, users, and context. We had to wait until the mid-80s of the last century for, impelled by the AIDS crisis, an assemblage of microgroups to decide to re-appropriate the insult 'queer' to make of it a place for political action and resistence to normalization. Activists from groups like Act Up (fighting against AIDS), Radical Furies, and Lesbian Avengers decided to wring the neck of the insult 'queer' and transform it into a regime of social critique and cultural intervention. What had changed was the subject of enunciation: now it was not the young hetero male who called the other 'fag'; now the sissy, the dyke, and the trans called themselves 'queer', announcing an intentional rupture with the norm. This intuition was present since the gay riots of the 70s. Guy Hocquenghem, for example, had already revealed the historical and constructed character of homosexuality: 'The capitalist society constructs the homosexual just as it produces the proleteriat, giving rise each moment to its own limit. Homosexuality is a construction of the the normal world". Yet he was not trying to ask for tolerence and keep a low profile in order to gain entry into the heterosexual institutions of marriage and family, but to affirm the political (but not to say policeable) character of concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality, placing in question their validity to define the social field. In this second round, the word 'queer' has ceased to be an insult to become a sign of resistance to normalization, has ceased to be an instrument of social repression to become a revolutionary index.
The 'queer' movement is post homo-sexual and post-gay. Now it does not define itself with respect to the medical notion of homosexuality, nor settle for a reduction of gay identity to a lifestyle accessible within the society of neoliberal consumption. It is, therefore, about a post-identitarian movement: 'queer' is no longer an identity in the multicultural folklore, but a position of critique attentive to the processes of exclusion and marginalization that generate every identitarian fiction. The 'queer' movement is not a movement of homosexuals nor gays, but of gender and sexuality dissidents that resist the norms imposed by the dominant heterosexual society, attentive also to the processes of normalization and exclusion internal to gay culture: marginalization of dykes, of transexual and transgender bodies, of immigrants, of workers and sex workers.
Because to wring the neck of the insult is even more necessary than to have been the object of it. The blah blah of a conservative fag is no more 'queer' than the blah blah of a conservative hetero. Sorry. To be a fag is not enough to be 'queer': it's necessary to subject your own identity to critique. When we talk about 'queer' theory in reference to texts by Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, Eve K. Sedwick, or Michael Warner we speak of a critical project, heir to the feminist and anticolonial tradition that holds as its objective the analysis and deconstruction of the historical and cultural processes that have brought us to the invention of the white heterosexual body as the dominant fiction in the West and to the exclusion of difference from the scope of political representation.
Perhaps the key to the success of 'queer' in the face of the difficulty of publishing or producing interpretations or representations that come from fag, dyke, transexual, anticolonial, postporno, and sex worker cultures lies, unfortunately, in its lack of connection in the Spanish language with the contexts of political oppression of those to whom 'queer' refers to in English. If we keep in mind that the political efficacy of the term 'queer' stems precisely from being the reappropriation of a slur, and its dissident use against the dominant language, we will have to accept that this displacement does not function when the word 'queer', deprived of historical memory in Spanish, Catalán, or Valencián, is introduced in these languages. We escape, then, to a brutal movement of decontextualization, but also deprive ourselves of the political force of the gesture. That explains, perhaps, why many of the new initiates that wish to identify themselves as 'queer' - as they wish to be in the circle of friends of Manu Chao or acquire the latest e-book - will not be so eager to be identified as 'transexuals', 'sadomasochists', 'crips' or 'dykes'. It will be necessary in each case to redefine the contexts of use, change the users, and above all mobilize political language that we have constructed as vile...otherwise, 'queer' theory will be simply parole, parole, parole....
Article by Paul B. Preciado for Parole de Queer-2009
Translated by Sam Smith
Paul B. Preciado is a queer philsopher and activist. He pursued his studies in a number of universities in the United States. Currently he teaches gender theory in several universities in the Spanish State and abroad, participating in the Program for Independent Studies at MACBA. He is the author of the books: Countersexual Manifesto, Testo Junkie, and Pornotopia, and of numerous articles published in Multitudes, Eseté, and Artecontexto.