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hile reading David Seitz’s A House of Prayer for All People, particularly his account of the sometimes contradictory, messy, and complex nature of improper citizenship in a queer Toronto church, I kept thinking back to my own research a few years ago on the politics of queer anarchist spaces in Richmond, Virginia, and particularly one question that a reviewer had on an early draft of an article: What do we get when we admit the complexities, the contradictions, and messiness of queer politics and spaces?
I did my best to address the question by way of a discussion of the idea of queertopias as an ongoing and incomplete, but vital and transformative, process, but it is a question that is haunted me ever since, and to be honest, it is a question that I have foisted on others in many an article peer review, to see if we could get to a more complete and satisfying answer. But now that I have read Seitz’s work, specifically through his framing of the complexities of queer politics through an improper conceptualization of citizenship that is not constrained by state and queer identities and runs across local, national, and transnational spaces, I feel like I finally have a satisfying answer to that reviewer’s question. What we get is the possibility of state-related but not determined affective spaces of political action and belonging. Given these concerns, I would like to focus my comments here on three areas in particular where David’s book can inspire us in thinking about queer political research and activism: above all through this queer notion of citizenship, but also deeply in his discussions of the queer space-making processes of refugee asylum seeking and spirituality/religion.
In this work, improper queer citizenship is “citizenship 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) This is an approach that sees citizenship as occurring in multiple sites and scales, recognizes the political and social roles of those who are not otherwise recognized as sanctioned state citizens, and opens up possibilities for coalitional activism. Seitz connects this understanding to a lineage in queer theory that engages in subjectless queer critique and is occupied with spheres such as citizenship and religion that at first appear improper for a queer frame. While not entirely the same, this approach to citizenship reminded me of work in historical sociology in the 1980s that is centered on the ways in which state processes are formed in everyday life. Such a frame seeks to avoid a reification of the state as an object or container, instead approaching the state as an everyday process that depends on people’s practices to be given material reality. And it is through these everyday processes that states are formed and transformed over time. So thinking about these two frames together, the first question this book raised for me is, what really is the nation-state, if not something that is made up of the aggregate actions and roles of the people who engage with it, whether they are recognized as sanctioned members of it or not? While I strongly support the approach that David takes here in capaciously opening up the possibilities of citizenship, I am wondering if we need to think of improper citizenship as conceptually separate from the state, or if we can think about it as a constitute force of the state. To see improper citizenship as a constituent state force suggests its simultaneous complicity in, resistance to, and possibilities for transformation of state processes, much in the way that Seitz argues in this book.
In addition to the notion of queer improper citizenship more broadly, Seitz’s examination of the role of refugee and asylum seeking as a central force of such citizenship contributes deeply to our understandings of the queer political geographies of migration and diaspora. His empirical engagement with the everyday geographies of asylum seekers adds significantly to work that counters racialized queerness as backward and/or illegible. It also contributes powerfully to work on the parallels between queerness and migration/diaspora through the idea of the asylum seeker as a queer figure, central to these practices of improper citizenship. Ultimately, David shows the importance of moving beyond questions of authenticity or legibility in asylum seekers to understanding “the affective and material vulnerabilities that the Canadian waiting room imposes on their ordinary lives” (223). The possibilities for citizenship, coalition building, and solidarity rests on an appreciation and understanding of this vulnerability. The challenge that this poses for migration scholars is: how we create and support the understandings that will queerly allow for people to build affinity and solidarity across different vulnerabilities. Seitz’s work in this section speaks mostly to the work of queer theorists of migration, but it is worth considering how it can contribute to the work of queer and migration research in geography, mostly notably in the notion of the waiting room as practice of everyday life for asylum seekers. It is disappointing and unfortunate that the mainstream of geographic migration research has largely ignored the work done by sexuality and space geographers, and I also found myself wondering if the conceptualization of the asylum seeker as a queer figure or the significance of affectivity could be a bridge or opening along those lines.
Lastly, I would like to address Seitz’s recuperation of religion as a “bad object” of queer research, much like citizenship itself, by way of his case study of the queer Toronto church. To take an intimate space of a church seriously as a site of social change requires an understanding of its limitations, in this case particularly with regards to racism and ethnocentrism; humility and playfulness in what we consider to be appropriate subjects within a queer radical frame; and openness to the surprising radical possibilities of unexpected places. I particularly enjoyed reading Seitz’s description of this life-affirming, though problematic, space as “a hybrid between an episode of the Muppet Show, a New Democratic Party of Canada rally, and Sister Act,” with playful musical forms vital to sustaining people’s attachment to the church (21). The main question this raised for me, as a person who grew up in a godless household with some minor cultural affiliations with Islam, is how can such spiritual spaces motivate and inspire queer citizenship and help avoid the problems of activist fatigue and burnout. Are there lessons that those of us engaged in other sites can learn from the assemblage of intimate religious spaces engaged here?
The possibility of a house of prayer for all people, as a space of spiritualism and political action, points to the simultaneous importance of having a utopic vision and the fact that such a vision lies in possibility, an incomplete process that is continually changing and needing our attention. This is analogous to what queer anarchists discuss by way of the notion of “queertopia,” an ever-changing, processual utopic frame for thinking through the living conditions for realizing autonomy, affinity, pleasure, and liberation. Coming at a time of the rise of fascists movements and governments around the world, the possibilities of queer citizenship as described by Seitz here are particularly vital, compelling, and necessary, and I strongly recommend this engagingly and compellingly written book for all geographers interested in the intersections of sexualities, religion, migration, and politics.