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As a feminist geographer with interests in global mobilities and transnational solidarities, I am perhaps not the obvious reader of A House of Prayer for All People, an ethnography of Canada's foremost 'queer church', the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT). And yet I found the book captivating, learned much from it, and wondered as I read whether the book is of such general interest that we might assign it for our introductory graduate seminar in human geography.
David Seitz's assessment of MCCT's Refugee Program gives a good indication of the book's appeal to a broad audience of readers. It makes concrete his broader argument for the political potential -- in some contexts -- of a subjectless queer theory and practice. This is a theory and practice in which the category of queer is unhinged from sexual identity. He argues that refugees can be conceived of as queer regardless of their sexual identity. This is an explicitly geographical argument. The asylum seeker emerges as a queer figure because of shared "estranged relationships to processes of normalization" (184), their entrapment in various waiting rooms (metaphorical, temporal and actual), and through other everyday geographies of marginalization. This expansive notion of queerness opens opportunities for affective affinity and solidarity across different experiences of structured vulnerability and marginalization. It opens opportunities for what Seitz calls improper queer citizenship. This is citizenship, he writes, that takes "neither LGBTQ identity nor the nation-state as exclusive or even primary referents, even when it ambivalently traffics in the idioms of both" (4).
For refugees seeking asylum based on claims of sexual persecution in their home countries, the loosening of queerness from sexual identity and an embrace of improper queer citizenship have significant implications for practical politics, in the church and beyond. This strategy disrupts the persistent critique of refugee claimants that is made by some members of the church. Their criticism is that heterosexual asylum seekers are using the support of the church to substantiate fraudulent claims to refugee status based on sexual persecution. It simultaneously disrupts the church's complicity with the Canadian state. The Canadian government now takes a letter of support from MCCT as important documentation and validation of a claimant's GLBTQ status. This becomes critical to refugees' claims for asylum. In a move that Seitz characterizes as "quietly subversive", the church has refused to do the job of policing LGBTQ identity for the Canadian state. Rather than authenticating claims to LGBTQ identity, the church locates its support for refugees in their multiple forms of vulnerability, of which sexual persecution might be one. In other words, the church performs a kind of subjectless queer theory. As the pastor, Reverend Brent Hawkes, puts it in response to some of his congregants' concerns that refugees are using the church's support to make fraudulent asylum claims: "[A]nd so what?" An expansive reading of queerness and improper queer citizenship lends support to this expression of 'So what,' and to the 'quietly subversive' work of the church.
The book poses important questions about political strategy, including the contingency of strategy. It is a meditation on the possibilities for contemporary LGBTQ politics in Canada to proliferate affective affinities and coalitions across different experiences of systematic marginalisation and vulnerability. It also invites pondering whether, how and when expanding queerness to encompass other forms of marginality is the right theoretical and political move. When is it more efficacious -- theoretically and practically -- to think of affective affinities and solidarities across other categories of difference? Seitz is careful to insist on the context-specificity of the politics of a subjectless queer critique. Delinking queerness and sexuality is a subversive move in the church's refugee program because it destabilises the policing of refugees by the state. The book raises (and does not attempt to resolve) the question of when a subjectless queer critique is less politically efficacious. It appears that this debate is ongoing within the MCCT itself. Seitz mentions rival characterizations of MCCT as a queer and as a social justice church, and that heterosexual-identified church members dominate the social justice committee. The book provokes further consideration of whether and how the categories of 'social justice' and 'queer' work differently as rubrics for building affinities and solidarities across diverse communities, and draws us back to earlier debates about radical democracy and the processes through which particular struggles become the "surface of inscription" for articulating a range of struggles (Laclau 1996 45). Seitz is positing subjectless queer theory and practice as a means towards an "equivalential space" that can mobilize and articulate solidarities within an expansive political field.
Seitz is also clear about the limits of MCCT. He locates the church within normative white queer politics, as a place where 'atmospheric racism' is endemic, and where non-sexist, anti-racist and de-colonial politics are being struggled for as much as achieved. His attunement to the ways that whiteness and white supremacy creep into the thought and practice of many of us makes this book extremely useful to anyone committed to confronting white supremacy, regardless of their interest in religion, citizenship or queer theory. He notes for instance that a refusal to engage religion could itself be a sign of normative whiteness, insofar as many marginalised groups have complex affective relationships with religion. A refusal to engage religion also belies the ways that Christianity already infuses western norms that are presumed to be secular, for instance notions of liberal tolerance. Other critiques of whiteness emerge and re-emerge throughout the text: in relation to a history of gay activism in Toronto, for instance, and MCCT's contemporary commitments to global outreach.
I was left wondering – as is Seitz – about the limits of subjectless queer theory and practice in relation to race politics. Seitz's analysis of Rev. Hawkes is good to think with in relation to this question. In an extended analysis of Rev. Hawkes, Seitz first criticizes the eulogy that Rev. Hawkes gave at the state funeral of former New Democrat leader, Jack Layton, reading it as a celebration of homonationalism and liberal inclusion through gay marriage. But Seitz then circles back to interpret the eulogy as simultaneously expressing privilege and using that privilege to do something more subversive. It did something more subversive by installing queer kinship at the "foundation of intimate citizenship" in Canada (127). Seitz also notes, however, that Hawkes has routinely failed to exercise his privilege as a celebrity pastor to challenge racism and settler colonialism in Canada. He resolves his frustrations with Hawkes by ruminating on what comes from this frustration, namely the obligation to do the work of collective organising rather than relying on celebrities such as Hawkes, including "the messy, integrative affective work that accompanies and enables collective movement" (130). But I was also left wondering whether non-heteronormative intimate and family relations are more easily accommodated within improper queer citizenship and existing capitalist political economic relations than are anti-racist and anti- and de-colonial politics. Maybe there is more at play here than the limitations of celebrity figures such as Hawkes.
Despite his critical ambivalence about the MCCT, Seitz maintains a hopeful orientation to what the church makes possible, a stance that he theorises through a compelling use of psychoanalytic theory, in particular, Melanie Klein's distinction between paranoid and depressive psychic orientations and critical reading. As opposed to a paranoid position in which the possibility of suffering forecloses attachment, a depressive position admits the complexity of the world (as a contradictory amalgam of good and bad objects) to allow attachment to 'good enough' objects. Seitz aims to work in a depressive reparative mode in this book: MCCT, Christianity, citizenship are for him good-enough objects: sources of pain, disappointment, frustration, and 'bad surprises' along with affective affinity, love and good surprises (such as MCCT's refusal to police asylum claimants' sexual identities). He challenges queer (and other) scholars to reconsider the self-evident status of religion and citizenship as bad objects for attachment and to engage the possibilities each offers for creating the affective conditions through with differently marginalised peoples might engage in reciprocal intimacy and meaningful solidarity.
This a good book for bad times. It models a generous and nuanced mode of critique and thus will be excellent for teaching undergraduate and graduate students. It is critical without being debilitating, putting queer, psychoanalytic, antiracist and postcolonial theory to the service of practical politics and emancipatory aspirations. That these politics are messy is precisely Seitz's point.