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irst off, I’d like to thank Beyhan Farhadi, Rae Rosenberg, and Preeti Sharma, who each offer incisive analysis that advance the arguments I lay out in the book. I am also grateful to David Seitz for organizing this incredibly generous and generative forum, as well as the in-person author meets critics session on which it is based. Having the opportunity to engage the ideas central to the project of the book with such lively and able thinkers is a true and rare gift, and one that I cherish.
Before I engage directly with their thoughtful reviews, I’d like to reflect for a moment on the present historical moment, a strikingly different political context in which we find ourselves, especially in the US, and the impact that has on both the substance, and especially the affects, of my critique of queer and trans nonprofits. The bulk of the research for this book was conducted between 2008-20014, prior to the Obergefell marriage equality decision in the US, and during the Obama administration: a moment of homonationalist pinkwashing, when the tactical embrace of LGBT issues furthered neoliberal capitalism and US militarism. But many within the movement felt enormously pulled – affected and effected – by that embrace, however tactical it was. And that embrace, the desire for it and the critique of it, was, in my estimation, the defining feature of that political and historical moment. We are in a different moment now, in the US. Certainly, that moment of being wanted is over. But it is not simply a “roll-back” as some have called it. The aggressive policing of the public, the resurgence and normalization of a visceral disgust at gender non-conformity, and the heightened degree of violence experienced especially by Black, Indigenous, and Latinx trans women tell us something about this moment. I’m eager to use these generative engagements with the book to think about what it is that this tells us about queer and trans movements in this historical moment.
The first theme I’d like to draw out and use to think through the present moment is, affect, and what Preeti Sharma so evocatively calls the “affective ecosystem” that queer and trans nonprofits generate and operate within. Sharma describes the affective ecosystem as that which “binds the connections and dissonances amongst a range of invested constituencies -- the staff, the volunteer, the donor, and the board member.” She remarks here that these are communal affects, not just individual ones. We must take these communal affects seriously if we are to truly assess how we have gotten to this place.
Taking affect seriously, politically, reminds us that wanting the state to want us is a thin and dangerous way to structure a movement. The embrace of queer and trans people – of gay and lesbian people, really – during the Obama years was only ever tactical, however real and powerful the affects that were evoked were. That these so-called advancements evaporated so quickly – in the courts, in the legislatures, and in public opinion – tells us something about their strategic value. Incremental change isn’t valuable in and of itself, and it isn’t actually change in the absence of a broader movement. The degree to which the broader LGBTQ movement thinned down to a focus on tactical court cases, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, aside from basically a public relations campaign focused on sameness and patriotism, is at least partially to blame for the rise of Trump. Partially to blame in the sense that such an atrophied “movement” had abandoned the value—the strategic necessity—of a vibrant, coalitional, broad-based mass mobilization capable of building connections between the various communities targeted by Trump’s hateful rhetoric and draconian policies.
So then, the first lesson: the state is a fickle lover, and let’s not put all our eggs in that basket, shall we? This seems a painfully basic lesson, but one we clearly haven’t learned, as mainstream LGBTQ movement organizations keep doubling down on this strategy, whether it be bathroom bills or Title VII. Trump reminds us of the danger of an over-reliance on legislative and legal “wins” that evaporate just in the moment when they would be meaningful protections.
Rae Rosenberg points to a second danger of this strategy: the politics of redeemability and legibility for funding is the matrix through which trans mainstreaming is being negotiated. Rosenberg writes: “consider how the legibility and acceptance of certain trans figures through mainstream organizations may impact future trans organizing, … how certain trans figurations may become increasingly rejected within LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations, and how transness may increasingly become a tool that mainstream organizations simultaneously Other while also requiring its closeness to secure funding.” In other words, the second danger of this strategy is that it necessitates the mobilization of a trans-normative figure, trans in such a way that doesn’t fundamentally disrupt the gender binary, that ultimately further endangers actual trans people, especially trans women of color.
Instead of a focus on this sanitized figure bringing hollow PR wins, Rae Rosenberg reminds us via Martin Manalansan that queerness – and trans-ness, I would add – must be understood as a process of mess that we should embrace, cultivate, and nurture. In practical terms, that means investing in mutual aid as a framework. Our movement strategies must work on multiple registers, but they must start with survival for those queer and trans people in the most danger, and work from there. In practical terms, mutual aid helps poor queer and trans people survive the present, and in doing so, build relationships, community strength, organizing infrastructure, and analysis that can challenge the systems that produce that immediate injustice.
The second theme addressed by the reviewers, and with which I’d like to engage, is precarity. My approach to precarity was informed initially by Judith Butler, whose work in Precarious Lives seemed to be the most useful in the imaginative work of movement building. It is this Butlerian approach to precarity that animates the book. In her review, Beyhan Fahardi writes, “we must engage with precarity on both registers: as shared, such that we are all ‘vulnerable, contingent beings’ (p. 154) and as an ongoing structural problem that is unevenly distributed.” I remain convinced that this must be the basis for queer and trans movements in this moment.
As I was developing my thinking on how precarity could inform an approach to queer and trans movements, I came across a roundtable article between Jasbir Puar, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Isabel Lorey, Bojana Cvejić, and Ana Vujanović entitled “Precarity Talk.” In it, Isabel Lorey offers a useful tripart breakdown between precarity, precarization, and precariousness. Lorey defines precarity thusly: “I use the term ‘precarity’ (Prekarität) as a category of order that denotes social positionings of insecurity and hierarchization, which accompanies processes of Othering”(2012: 165). Precaritization, on the other hand, refers to the modes of embodiment and subjectification that normalize precarious working and living conditions, an idea that Lorey develops via Foucault. And then finally, for Lorey, “precariousness (Prekärsein) as a relational condition of social being that cannot be avoided” (2012: 165). So, via Lorey, I was –and am – moved to centralize an approach to precarity that can address all three registers simultaneously, as a central animating framework for queer and trans movements. We must develop movement infrastructures that can hold the shared precariousness of the bodies within it alongside the racialized differential precarity produced by state systems and capitalism, and resist the normalization of precaritization within our organizations in this extended time of austerity.
So then, to return us to a reflection on the present moment. We have learned that the “wins” achieved during the Obama administration were ephemeral and flimsy. We have learned that a strategy entirely based on inclusion and visibility brings very little safety for even the most privileged among us, and in fact exposes trans women of color to even greater surveillance, exposure, and lethal violence. Instead of repeating the mistakes of the mainstream LGBT movement, fighting for a form of inclusion that we know won’t protect us or even offer meaningful respite, we must shift our frameworks. We must begin the slow process of letting go of our desire for the state’s desire. We must stop investing, affectively and materially, in institutions that are designed to hurt us or use us. We must start with the survival of those in the most danger. We must (re)turn to mutual aid. As Butler writes, “we have to start from this shared condition of precarity (not as existential fact, but as a social condition of political life) in order to refute those normative operations, pervasively racist, that decide in advance who counts as human and who does not” (2004: 170).
Butler J(2004) Precarious Lives: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso Books.
Puar J, Berlant L, Butler J, et al. (2012) Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanović TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 163-177
Manalansan IV MF (2014) The ‘stuff’ of archives: Mess, migration, and queer lives. Radical History Review 120: 94-107.
Myrl Beam is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.