Stonewall at 50: Has LGBTQIA+ culture been normalized?
Ahead of their participation in Art Basel’s Conversations program, AA Bronson, Stuart Comer, Sharmistha Ray, and Carlos Motta debate the issue with Ed Winkleman
One of the panels this week during the Conversations program at Art Basel in Miami Beach is titled “Stonewall at 50: What Now?” Moderated by Stuart Comer, chief curator of the Department of Media and Performance at The Museum of Modern Art, the panel will explore, among other issues, whether LGBTQIA+ culture has been “normalized,” and if so what that means for the community. The following conversation took place earlier this fall and included Comer and three of the artists appearing on the panel: AA Bronson, Carlos Motta and Sharmistha Ray. What appears below is only an excerpt from a longer, wider conversation, but it encapsulates well the intelligence and rich insights of the conversation’s panelists on this subject.
Edward Winkleman: So the first question for everyone is do you agree that, in a general sense, the LGBTQIA+ culture has been ‘normalized’ or ‘sanitized’?
AA Bronson: Are we talking only about the U.S.? That’s kind of what it sounds like here.
EW: I think whether or not we are is a great question.
Carlos Motta: We can’t speak of an LGBTQIA+ community and culture without making a distinction between the queer culture of the sexual and gender liberation movements that originated in Europe and the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s and the status of sexual and gender politics in the present. The LGBTQIA+ acronym is a very specific political construct that developed through carefully conceived strategies against normative legal standards and ongoing processes of discrimination against sexual and gender minorities. An important distinction to make is that LGBTQIA+ politics are a political project, and not only a happy rainbow of different cultural identities. In that sense, I think a moderate and systematic process toward the normalization of queer culture has taken place—with a legal aim in mind—which differs very much from the origins of the sexual and gender liberation movements, which used riots and resistance as forms of resistance, using critical opposition to claim space.
Sharmistha Ray: I think I would agree with a lot of what Carlos just said. I lived in India for 10 years. It was only after I left, last year, that homosexuality was decriminalized, and that’s very different from homosexuality being legalized. The criminality factor has been taken away, but that’s not the same as delivering social justice. At the same time, in America, there has been a normalization of queer identity particularly after same-sex marriage was legalized. I think that helped alleviate many of the taboos. Taboos, while giving us an edge and an element of danger, prevented us from experiencing safe and happy lives. It’s a double-edged sword. It goes back to what Carlos was talking about in terms of political versus social space. I think there has to be a distinction there. While queerness has separated out from LGBTQIA+ identities in the social space, there is still a very strong small antiestablishment culture, especially in queer academia. LGBTQIA+ still speaks to me in terms of a political identity, while queerness has really kind of established itself strongly and firmly as a social value. Historically and traditionally, queerness has also stood against patriarchy and heteronormativity to embrace alternative lifestyles. I would say a bit of that agency has been diluted by same-sex marriage.
Stuart Comer: I would just point out that it was the British who outlawed homosexuality in India.
SR: Yes, it was, it was a British penal code. That was eradicated in the 1960s in Britain, and then we only just got rid of it last year. It was very much a Victorian-era law. There’s a lot I can say, in terms of Indian culture, but I won’t get into it. But maybe the panel will be a place to talk about colonialism, as well. You know, it’s kind of repressed sexual identity.
SC: India is the largest democracy in the world. If we’re talking about to what degree visibility equals freedom or normalization, it’s important to address democracies and societies beyond the United States. So, it would be great to hear more from you about this at some point. I guess some of the questions I have revolve around a space in which now, on the one hand, emails I receive daily include the sender’s preferred pronouns in the email signature. To what extent that suggests an element of queer culture impacting mainstream work life… well, there’s that. The gay neighborhoods which had accumulated in every major city in the West effectively became commercial districts, helping to facilitate a commercial queer culture that has now proliferated online. It’s impacted apps, whether they’re cruising apps, or a number of online platforms where one can act out one’s queerness, but usually through patterns that have been organized around consumer behavior. That’s a form of normalization I think we should all be concerned about. At the same time, I think there are still radical forms of assembly, beyond just the clubs. I think several of us in this conversation have a connection to places like Fire Island, which are still testing grounds for how one might carve out a queer community that is not necessarily bound by rules that have been established through more formal legal or commercial procedures. I still feel like there are options. There is not one form or forum for being LGBTQIA+. Even if a fraction of the community has been normalized, I don’t think that that speaks for everyone.
CM: I’d like to back up for a moment and reconsider the idea of normalization. What I understand as ‘normalization’ is an idea that was, as far as I’m informed, introduced in the 1990s, by Gay Shame in San Francisco, an activist group that has continuously opposed all forms of co-optation of a queer ethos and culture through direct action and public shaming, very much in the spirit of the early sexual and gender liberation movements. And one of the things that has happened is that the term normalization has been emptied out of its original meaning. I agree with Stuart that there are very specific constituencies all around the world that continue to resist normalization, fighting back against the forms of oppression enacted by the big institutions of society, such as militarism and marriage, but the present-day LGBTQIA+ movements seem to be more concerned with constructing ‘respectable’ political subjects in a conventional and normative sense than in fighting to find a place for our differences.
SR: Can we make a distinction perhaps also between ‘normalization’ and ‘normativity’? When we’re talking about ‘normalization,’ are we talking about a social normal? When we talk about ‘normativity,’ which has its roots in queer academia, we are talking about the history of the movement which has historically pitched its tent against heteronormativity, which presided within larger oppressive structures of patriarchy. And patriarchy is connected to all these other institutions, like the military, so really we are talking about a system and the need for systemic change. In this case, it makes more sense to talk about ‘normativity.’ I do think it’s important to differentiate between the two terms because they mean different things.
SR: This is a larger question, but I wonder if even queerness and its capacity to perform resistance, particularly in this age that we’re living in, of rising authoritarianism and propaganda that I relate to late-stage capitalism, has any agency left? We still have to talk about restructuring systems that have been designed to strip minorities of their agency. Can we talk about strategies that still have the potential for resistance? Can we talk about new systems?
[Full disclosure: AA dropped off the call in frustration with the direction the conversation was heading, but later clarified his opinions in the following written statement the other participants didn’t have an opportunity to respond to in the conference call.]
AAB: There is an old boy network in the Southern USA that has nothing to do with Pride or gay liberation or assimilation. It is never talked about, but it is taken as ‘normal’ by absolutely everyone, and it has nothing to do with late capitalism. It is similar to the culture of elderly spinsters co-habiting in the Northeast in the late 19th century (a ‘Boston marriage’). I have been working with indigenous people in Canada for the last couple of years, and their queerness seems absolutely ‘normal’ at first, but the more you dive into it, the more alien it becomes… especially since same-sex or queer identities have never been anything except normal in indigenous culture. I think the world is rich with stories like these, usually slightly hidden below the surface. And I don’t think we can talk about queer culture until we drop the know-it-all mask of an increasingly judgmental culture and admit fully that we have no idea of the myriad forms that queerness can take. As soon as you try to describe it, it has shape-shifted into something else. That’s what makes it so wonderful. Another example, the Muslim truck drivers who park outside the Muslim cemetery across the road from the Hasenheide in Berlin (one of many large parks), and after visiting the graves of their parents, pop into the bushes on the other side of the road for a quick blowjob from one of the white hipster boys who lie in wait for them, before going home to their wives. I think that queerness can only be explored through stories. Abstraction kills it dead.
Stonewall at 50— What Now? moderated by Stuart Comer, Chief Curator of the Department of Media and Performance at The Museum of Modern Art, takes place on December 5 at 5 pm at the Auditorium, Miami Beach Convention Center, Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach, Florida. Conversations are free and open to the public.
This article was originally published in Art Basel Miami Beach Magazine, available in select locations in the US and onsite during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Top image: AA Bronson, Anna and Mark, February 3, 2001, 2001 – 2002. Lacquer on vinyl. Courtesy of the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo: © AA Bronson
To go to this article online at ArtBasel.com click here.