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I want to begin by conveying my deep gratitude, not only to reviewers Natalie Oswin, Geraldine Pratt, and Farhang Rouhani, but also to forum editor Lia Frederiksen who did extraordinary work in organizing the in-person author-meets-critics session that lives on in this book review forum. I have long read, admired, and taught the scholarship of all three reviewers, so it has been thrilling to receive this rich engagement from them. In the response that follows, I take up the reviewers’ invitation to carry on a conversation beyond the book, and indeed, I hope this forum and this book lead to many more conversations.
Like many “minoritized” scholars – most of whom, to be sure, are far more marginalized that I would ever purport to be – throughout my time working on this book and hoofing it on the academic job market, I have been routinely advised by various “benevolent” parties that my work is “niche”. This characterization is, in a sense, indisputable: the book focuses on the politics of race, gender, and nation within Canada’s largest predominantly LGBTQ Protestant congregation, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. It attends to collectivities and individual figures – Afro-Caribbean and west African refugees, queer faith leaders of color, a white gay pastor on the national stage – who are rendered “particular” by large-scale socio-spatial relations and processes like white supremacy, nationalism, heteronormativity, Christian hegemony, and neoliberalism. But in my more flippant moments (of which there are more than a few), I wonder if those who pigeonhole such work as “niche” in fact want, or indeed, even need the contested space of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, and the lessons that the book derives from the struggles that play out there to be more “niche,” less “salient” than they might, in fact, be.
Indeed, A House of Prayer for All People inhabits, but does not seek to resolve, this tension between the particular and the universal. So it is both striking and gratifying to me that all three reviewers in some way reflect on the question of particularity and universalism. Or, as Miranda Joseph (2002) would reframe the problem, particularity and abstraction. Rouhani, for instance, quite appositely laments the neglect, identitarian categorization, and dismissal of any migration scholarship with a queer referent in much of the broader geographies of migration literature. Despite decades of interventions from transnational feminist and queer migration scholars, he notes, mainstream migration scholarship doesn’t take sexuality or its complexity seriously enough, reducing them to an LGBTQ niche. At the same time, Oswin’s important concerns about a figural queerness that gets too far adrift from its sexual referent are also worth heeding. Efforts (including mine) to more capaciously define what we mean by “sexuality” or by “queer,” she worries, might make ultimately make it easier for those very “mainstream” audiences who dismiss/tokenize queer work to ignore the particulars of heteronormativity, in all its violent imbrications with other, inextricable relations of difference and power. And Pratt quite rightly wonders about whether what I call “improper queer citizenship” – a politics that refuses its identitarian terms of reference as the horizon for solidarity – might have uneven geographies, and whether the move way from identity might have distinct implications for differently constituted queer subjects or for different forms of politics.
Taken together, Rouhani’s and Oswin’s points remind me of some of the excellent critiques that geographers, particularly but not only feminists (see e.g. Mountz 2011), have made of Giorgio Agamben’s (1998) work on bare life, or homo sacer. These scholars have agreed that while Agamben helps us think about the extent of state power over life, his accounts and their uptake tend to lack historical and geographical specificity, ironically rendering somewhat generic the individual and collective subjects and bodies whose experiences of legal liminality are always induced by specific historical and spatial processes and relations – colonialism, capitalism, heteronormativity, white supremacy, war, diaspora – and who are never simply “refugees.” As a corrective, geographers have insisted on historicizing and fleshing out the particulars of refugee subjectivity and other forms of life at the threshold of legal sanction.
I am on board with this rigorous contextualizing project, and I hope my book in some small way contributes to it. But in response to Oswin’s concerns, I would also insist that psychoanalysis and more figural understandings of power remain an important resource here, rather than just a vector for more abstraction along the lines of Agamben. For instance, one question suggested but not developed in my book is: what would it mean, to think about the figure of the refugee as both a (post)colonial “internal object” (Eng 2016) – a preoccupation of the white settler colonial psyche – and one that designates a materially existing person with an interior life of their own, and a history and a geography in the realm of the “real”? What might the interval between this fantasmatic figure and its material grounds tell us about how xenophobia and resistance to it work, including in queer communities? I want to underscore here that attention to figuration and engagement with psychoanalysis – with erotics and sexuality on terms that have everything to do with race and queerness but are not necessarily identitarian in any strict sense – are not exclusively white or merely theoretical preoccupations. There is a long history of psychoanalytically informed scholarship on race and colonialism here that reckons with specific histories and intersections of power, a genealogy that runs quite explicitly through my project (Fanon 2008, Eng 2010, Georgis 2013), as well as a body of brilliant work that extends far beyond its reference list (Spillers 1996, Tinsley 2008, Musser 2014, Seshadri-Crooks 2000, Muñoz 1999; see also Nast 2000, McClintock 1995).
So conceived, a project of understanding how power works – not only exposing its discursive machinations and material determinations, but attending, in empirically specific ways, to its positive (and abnegated) erotic content – ultimately brings us to the question of political transformation. For Jacques Lacan (2003), ego identity at the scale of the individual comprises “the armor of an alienating identity,” one that suppresses the unconscious subject of bodily drives (4). Under what conditions might relinquishing such alienating armor, so often and easily coopted by state and market actors, prove emancipatory? Where might the rubber of a psychoanalytically-informed refusal of identity hit the road of politics? My book argues that one context-specific way to push identitarian, normatively white LGBTQ formations toward a more coalitional, intersectional sensibility is to refuse to allow identity to become an ethico-political horizon, to foreground and privilege the material, bodily vulnerability of asylum-seekers and racialized people targeted by police violence, rather than allowing the “truth” of sexual identity to become a biopolitical shibboleth.
To be sure, as both Oswin and Pratt suggest, such a subjectless, anti-identitarian move is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. As Tiffany Lethabo King (2015) has noted often gets lost in the translation of intersectionality from Black feminist theory of power to critical legal concept to social scientific axiom, different forms of difference and power, while imbricated and intersecting, are differently constituted from one another (see Brown 1997, Saldanha 2007, Jakobsen 2003). If “black” and “queer” and “working class” are even all “identities” that intersect, then surely that is not all that they are, and surely they are not all identities in the same way. Indeed, as is well known, in both Canada and the United States, working-class constituencies have seen the (always unevenly enjoyed) benefits of Keynesianism aggressively eroded over the past four decades, and state concessions to antiracist and decolonial demands have likewise been progressively undermined. These broad contours, though far from uncontested by working class, racialized and Indigenous social movements, indelibly shape the uneven geographies of who has most benefitted from feminist and LGBTQ demands and their institutionalizations, and whose putative “backwardness” is made to serve as a foil for such “progress” (Eng 2010).
It is precisely here where I follow decades of antiracist, feminist and queer scholarship in calling for critical hesitation about simply affirming “women” or “LGBTQ people” as always, already subordinated terms. Again, this is not a universal strategy. Given the persistence of anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, and the capitalist mode of production, as Pratt suggests, a turn away from Blackness, indigeneity, or class struggle would not make the same kind of sense as a refusal of identity in normatively white feminist or LGBTQ circles. But it is precisely because different differences are differently constituted from one another that negation can make sense for subjects whose identities become a “progressive” alibi for the persistence of anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, and capitalism. Moreover, while I do not want to speak beyond the case of the church, which is a normatively white space, it is worth noting that queer scholars of color have made similar points about fault lines and intersections of difference and power within racialized queer and/or feminist polities (Walcott 2005, Nash 2008, Ferguson 2003).
In this regard, I appreciate Oswin’s call for a chapter in the book on the affective draws to the congregation for its white majority, in essence asking me to describe what’s toxic about “proper” queer citizenship before advocating its “improper” antidote. Doing so might have better established the stakes of the critiques of the church like the ones articulated by the church worship leaders of color, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the broader politics of sexuality in religious spaces. However, I was resistant to doing so for two reasons. First, my impulse in writing the book was to attend to what were in my view obvious fault lines at the church – race, gender, immigration status, political sensibility, to name a few – in order to shed light on practices that complicated and contested the dominant, overwhelmingly celebratory narratives circulating about MCCT within the congregation, in local media, and in much (though not all) scholarship on the MCC movement. Rouhani’s question about burnout is an especially haunting one to me in this regard, especially given the experiences of many of the worship leaders I interviewed, particularly white women and people of color. That I have no satisfactory answer for it is precisely why I highlighted the churchgoers that I did in the book.
Second, the past two decades of queer theorizing have been profoundly enriched and sharpened by ongoing critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, settler colonialism and white supremacy. Given the proliferation of distinct but closely-related neologisms already in circulation for queer complicities – homonormativity, homonationalism, queer liberalism, settler homonationalism, queer patriarchy, to name just a few – I didn’t feel my archive required a “new” neologism, like “proper” queer citizenship, to describe an obviously similar and related form of complicity (Duggan 2003, Puar 2007, Eng 2010, Morgensen 2010, Nast 2002). It’s not that these extant critiques are not salient, as the book makes all too clear. Nor am I saying, to riff off of Tina Turner (1985), “We Don’t Need Another Neologism,” as it were. Sometimes a critical rediscription of the problem is valuable and clarifying contribution in itself. But my book is fundamentally motivated by a related impulse, one that stays with those critiques politically, but perhaps hovers to the side of them affectively and epistemologically, to ask, in the words of Lauren Berlant (2013), “Is that all there is?”
For indeed, what more is there to a queer politics than the exposure of complicity – or, for that matter, the negation or refusal of complicit deployments of politicized identity? Both Pratt and Rouhani, in different registers, invoke the state, and the place of an improper queer citizenship in coalition politics that might constitute the state differently. Pratt makes this move via Ernesto Laclau, whose persistent interest (see also Mouffe and Laclau 1985) in the kinds of “equivalence” or reciprocity that might make coalition among differently marginalized possible is one that, for all its fraught difficulty, I share. Rouhani asks related questions via historical sociology, urging against the reification of the state, asking when people themselves might constitute the state differently. Doing so would require being for something, positing not only demands, but a normative vision for the social. Following Mouffe (2018), I wonder whether it would be too much to ask: Why not a queer Left populism? What would a queer-feminist, multiracial, decolonial, working-class populism look like? Frida Kahlo did it! Pratt notes that my book concludes with a political and historical question:
“What are the affective conditions under which differently marginalized people might engage in meaningful solidarity and reciprocal intimacy with one another?” (227).
Whether my own partial, provisional and contextually specific answers satisfy readers or not obviously matters to me personally. But, to risk a normative, universal claim, what should ultimately interest us all is that there be a proliferation of answers to that question. The world needs them.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Kevin Attell. Redwood City, CA: Stanford, University Press.
Berlant, Lauren. 2013. “On Citizenship and Optimism.” Society and Space. 22 March. https://societyandspace.org/2013/03/22/on-citizenship-and-optimism/.
Brown, Wendy. 1997. “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies.” differences: A Feminist Journal of Cultural Studies 9.3: 79-101.
Duggan, Lisa. 2003. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon.
Eng, David L. 2016. “Colonial Object Relations.” Social Text 34.1: 1-19.
Eng, David L. 2010. The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy. Durham: Duke University Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 2008. . Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove.
Ferguson, Roderick A. 2003. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Georgis, Dina. 2013. The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East. New York: State University of New York Press.
Jakobsen, Janet R. 2003. “‘Queers are Like Jews, Aren’t They?’: Analogy and Alliance Politics.” In Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, edited by Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, 64-89. New York: Columbia University Press.
Joseph, Miranda. 2002. Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
King, Tiffany Lethabo. 2015. “Post-Identitarian and Post-Intersectional Anxiety in the Neoliberal Corporate University.” Feminist Formations 27.3: 114-138.
Lacan, Jacques. 2003. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I.” In Écrits: A Selection, translated by Bruce Fink. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gener, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.
Morgensen, Scott Lauria. 2010. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities. GLQ: A journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16.1-2: 105-131.
Mouffe, Chantal. 2018. For a Left Populism. London: Verso.
Mouffe, Chantal and Ernesto Laclau. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.
Mountz, Alison. 2011. “Where Asylum-seekers Wait: Feminist Counter-topographies of Sites between States.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 18.3: 381-399.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Musser, Amber Jamila. 2014. Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism. New York: New York University Press.
Nash, Jennifer C. 2008. “Re-thinking Intersectionality.” Feminist Review 89: 1-15.
Nast, Heidi J. 2002. “Mapping the ‘Unconscious’: Racism and the Oedipal Family.” Annals of the Association of the American Geographers 90.2: 215-255.
Nast, Heidi J. 2000. “Queer Patriarchies, Queer Racisms, International.” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 34.5: 874-909.
Oswin, Natalie. 2018. “‘Society and Space,’ Here and Now.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36.4: 613-616.
Puar, Jasbir K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press.
Saldanha, Arun. 2007. Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana. 2000. Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. London: Routledge.
Spillers, Hortense J. 1996. “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race.” Critical Inquiry 22: 710-734.
Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. 2008. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies: 14.2-3; 191-215.
Turner, Tina. 1985. “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).” Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Capitol Records.
Walcott, Rinaldo. 2005. “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora.” In Black Queer Studies, edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, 90-105. Durham: Duke University Press.
 see Oswin 2018 for a related critique of this very scholarly habit