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The term ‘politics of respectability‘ was originally coined and articulated by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to define the tendency of middle-class and elite Black women to earn their people a measure of esteem from White America by striving to win the Black lower class’s psychological allegiance to temperance, industriousness, thrift, refined manners, and Victorian sexual morals.
There are two forms of respectability affect at play here – One, those marginalised groups who are closer to the norm want to bridge the gap between their outcast status and the ‘inner’, ‘acceptable’ dominant society. Second, these privileged members who are on the edge of becoming a part of the hegemonic norm force those subjectivities in their communities, who are much farther away from the norm to organise themselves to conform to and perform ideals that the dominant society demands.
In the queer context, elite queers occupying higher levels of economic strata are the ones that advocate for the politics of respectability as it benefits them the most. These queers have, to quote queer theorist Jasbir Puar, “Orient[ed] themselves as subjects through their disassociation or disidentification from others disenfranchised in similar ways in favor of consolidation with axes of privilege.” Such elite queer activism positions itself as socio-politically conservative, and advocates for a way of life that can be summarised by the popular internet quip, ‘queers, we’re just like the straights’.
Through such a philosophy, these queers reify a particular respectable version of queerness. As academic Gavin Brown notes, this type of queer politics serves “particular forms of `assimilated’ homosexuality” that “have themselves become normative and incorporated within the logic of heteronormativity.”
Contemporary well-funded queer movements advocate for a reality that looks something like this: A modish upper-/middle- class homosexual and his married partner socialise with friends at an eclectic drag brunch in Mumbai. I invoke this image not to reproduce it, but to deconstruct it and make more visible the blindspots that the blissful normalness of such imagery obscures.
That the newly opened drag bar (the creation of a ‘queer space’) may have been built on gentrified land from where poor Dalit queers may have been forcefully displaced (existing spaces that housed queers), or that participating in the patriarchal institution of marriage projects a flawed ideality that may sound the death knell to the radical nature of the LGBTQIA+ movement, are hardly considerations in the eyes of this kind of advocacy for inclusion.
Some of the most pressing demands for fair housing, free healthcare, and economic security that are inimical to the survival of most queers who are not born into privilege, are hardly addressed in mainstream queer activism’s violence of inclusion. This form of conservative queer positioning alongside the sexual politics of neoliberalism is what queer theorist Lisa Duggan has termed ‘homonormativity’. She describes it as, “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilised gay constituency and a privatised, depoliticised gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”
“The danger of acceptance is invisibility for those who assimilate and marginalisation for those who do not conform to assimilationist discourses, such as transgender individuals and other gender nonconformers,” writes Brandon Andrew Robinson. Queer struggles with gender mainstreaming as the by-product of respectability politics is a problem that is not discussed often enough. As elite lesbian and gay activism hardly dents gender mainstreaming practices (such as women-only spaces), it has failed to create space for gender non-conforming queers and has increased the need for heteronormatively binary gendered representations, which harm non-binary people.
It has also failed to address the damaging effects of mandatory institutional approval seeking that any trans person who undergoes social transitioning has to go through. For example, trans women have to show or prove traditional femininity to psychiatrists via clothing and mannerisms in order to be referred for gender transitioning treatment. Trans people, therefore, are having to perform hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity in heterosexual presenting ways in order to prove their queerness.
This expectation to ‘pass’ as a cisgender person and present as a ‘normal’, ‘real’ woman is a weight borne by trans women outside of the confines of psychiatric hospitals as well. Respectability politics, then, has done nothing to break the vicious cause-and-effect of trans people being forced to reify binary gender norms that further hurt non-binary people.
The politics of respectability also makes what is queer immutable – enabling the state to ignore queer demands that it deems too radical or irrelevant. If homonormativity has been discursively used to so far refer to the folding in of queers into heteronormative neoliberal hegemony, then I posit that the reproduction of it happens most impactfully inside queer circles where mainstreamed queer elements (assimilated queers), who represent the state’s ‘good’ queers, construct an ‘ideal’ and in doing so, restrict the changeability of queerness. Needless to say, this makes the lives of those people who are not close to this norm that much more difficult.
Queer campaigns for inclusion in the neoliberal state’s loyal institution of marriage form part of LGBTQIA+ respectability politics that has only benefited the upper and middle class cis- gay men of the queer community. Through participation in this hegemonic institution, these assimilated homosexuals become “a ‘deserving’ category of gay and lesbian people who meet straight society’s norms” of wealth, monogamy, domesticity, consumption, and patriotic complacency.
By campaigning to be included in the heteropatriarchy of marriage instead of campaigning to provide for all the human security ‘benefits’ that married couples are (sometimes exclusively) afforded, homonormative queer activism’s approach to ‘clearing up inequality’ by gaining access to taxation rules, healthcare systems, inheritance rights, and other property is unsatisfactory as it proves helpful only for, as a lawyer and trans activist Dean Spade notes, “Those who have employer-provided health care benefits to share with spouses, property to pass on when they die, immigration status to share with a spouse and other such privileges, …[that] benefits wealthy queers” and draws attention away from key issues facing trans, gender-non-confirming, poor, disabled, Dalit and Adivasi queers.
This bears an unsettling similarity with right-wing ‘family value’ rhetorics that abandon feminist, anti-casteist, and anti-colonial efforts to politicise family violence and gendered labour structures and dismantle rigid norms about gender roles and sexuality.
Queer feminist scholar Karma Chavez argues, and I agree, that, “Given that gay rights are used in the service of imperialism, that violence against women, queers, and people of color continues to permeate all aspects of the military apparatus, progressive LGBT people should be the first to be ever vigilant and opposed to any expansion of the military-industrial complex.”
It is in such a system that conservative queer activists have been desperately campaigning to seek admission. Duggan’s critique of (assimilated) gay subjectivity’s involvement in a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative forms but upholds and sustains them, foregrounds, as Puar writes, a “collusion between homosexuality and [American] nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay and queer subjects themselves: homo-nationalism.” Though Puar writes predominantly from the context of the United States, a homonationalist lens can be employed to explain the branches of queer behaviour in many democratic European states such as the U.K., where gay police squads march in the London Pride Parade, as well as in countries in the South.
Israel, for example, calls for and harnesses the potential for gay state alliance by marking itself as a country that respects human rights, showing its tolerance and acceptance towards gay subjects, and using this ideological position to project moral superiority in the face of human rights violations levied against it. By displaying its ‘exceptionality status’ in the Middle East, Israel seeks to mask its highly contested settler-colonial project in Palestine – a tactic that Palestinian queer feminist activists have thrown light on. Echoes of similarity can be found in the case of India and Kashmir under the incumbent government.
Like the state, the neoliberal market too constructs tolerance to exact a heavy price. Global multinational corporations, notwithstanding the lack of evidence to evaluate their genuine commitment to sexual orientation and gender identity issues, are making a ‘business case’ for LGBTQIA+ ‘diversity and inclusion’.
This is evidenced by the proceedings three days after President Museveni assented to the Anti Homosexuality Act of 2014 when the World Bank announced that it was delaying a $90 million loan to Uganda that was to have funded maternal and infant care and family planning. Taking such a stance by declaring an ‘economic cost’ to queerphobia is indicative of a new form of “international governmentality that [seeks] to shape states’ views on gender and sexuality through the instrumentality of capital,” albeit for circumstances that are less than empowering for the marginalised.
Postcolonial scholar Rahul Rao terms this ‘homocapitalism,’ building on concepts like homonormativity and homonationalism to refer to the “folding into the capitalism of some queers and the disavowal of others, through a liberal politics of recognition that obviates the need for redistribution.” It is worth noting that inclusion into this system is possible only for those queers who have the potential to contribute to economic growth, all the while tacitly marking those who do not contribute to growth as expendable.
Such a selective inclusion widens rifts between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ queers and makes vanishingly thin the possibility of ‘assimilated’ and economically useful queer subjects taking a subversive political stance in alliance with other queer subalterns. In this way, the neoliberal state and the market, with the help of elite and economically valuable queers who help reproduce state power, are able to manage the economy, housing, and healthcare, and push already disadvantaged queers into deeper exploitation.
Both homocapitalism and homonationalism, therefore, incorporate within the nation, as Rao writes, “those forms of queerness that have been authorised through processes of race/ class/gender- sanitising while excluding others.”
It is one thing to fracture queer solidarity because of differences in perception of what it means to lead a livable life. But to claim that the end goal of respectability politics is to achieve equality for all queers is misleading at best, and willful misrepresentation of interests at worst. For in truth it is a fight for inclusion – an admittedly precarious inclusion – even if it seems to exclude and monsterise more people than it includes.
Queer liberation is about resistance, not inclusion. Many who partake in causes that form a part of respectability politics claim that integration into society will provide a legitimate forum for assimilated queers to challenge mainstream institutions to make them more inclusive. I am, however, cynical of this defense.
It is extremely difficult to conceive of circumstances that will lead to the state being willing to allow its law-abiding patriot-raising ‘good queers’ to achieve queer liberation by dismantling the prison-industrial complex, abolishing marriage, and making healthcare and housing free for all.
That said, I must also note the other side of this argument – it is equally not possible to be successful separatists under capitalism; some level of assimilation is necessary for the functioning of marginalised groups. It is therefore incumbent upon mainstream queer activists to face the sobering reality that their pursuit of respectability, which is evidenced in their campaigning for queer inclusion in heteropatriarchal institutions such as marriage and the military, is related to – and responsible for – forced displacement of Adivasi queers, starvation of poor queers and the death by medical neglect of trans queers.
We need to queer our political imaginations to pursue new approaches that do not fall into the rabbit hole of single-issue identity politics and are instead intersectionally considerate to ensure liberation for all. If it is not possible to presently break out of the systems that we find ourselves inextricably tied to, then we need to make critical questioning of the institutions that we wish to be included in a widely fashionable thing to do, because, as writer and trans activist Shon Faye notes, there is a heavy price to pay for being capitalism’s sassy best friend.
Radha “Sambhavi” Varadarajan studies MSc International Politics at SOAS, and researches and writes on human security politics, queer politics, and the politics of state structuring. You can find them on LinkedIn and Twitter
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India