Queerness and the Next System: Opening Up the Discussion
For centuries, the erasure of LGBTQ people from public policy has been the norm. Trapped within the confines of our closets by regimes of sexual and gender conformity enforced by brutal violence, sterilization, and incarceration, LGBTQ people have long been denied formal political agency, legal recognition, and the ability to live as our full, authentic selves.
It can be tempting to forget that, even in 2016, a presupposition of heterosexuality remains an integral component of this country’s cultural firmament. Under these conditions, queer people — myself included — face the arduous task of every day speaking our queerness into existence, even in movement spaces.
This article is but one attempt to perform that speech-act — to name in a systems design space my own queerness, and in so doing, draw attention to the fact that radical endeavors like The Next System Project cannot afford to sideline conversations around gender, sex, and sexuality at the expense of dialogues on economic justice. This piece contends that when we as queer people are written out of conversation and disregarded in systems design models, those efforts become not only complicit in our historical erasure but often far weaker for not including our analyses.
In this article, I will use queerness and queer theory to open up space within The Next System Project for conversations around the connections between identity, desire, self-expression, and the structural conditions necessary for a “next system.” I will identify several categories of LGBTQ system design thinking which require greater discussion — from a comprehensive LGBTQ policy agenda to reflections on queer family-making and ethics of care. Throughout it all, I will contend that collective liberation requires more than the creation of a set of ideal economic conditions, but the establishment of strong norms of social solidarity which allow us to hold the diversity of each other’s identities and lived experiences — whether we be LGBTQ, people of color, ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants, indigenous peoples, differently-abled people, or non-US citizens.
Foundational Civil Rights
Before identifying several themes for future research on the intersection of queerness and The Next System, it’s important to ground ourselves in an awareness of the LGBTQ policy interventions urgently needed by the community and which must be incorporated into any cohesive blueprint for just, equitable systems design.
The first step towards envisioning a world where LGBTQ people can live as their full, authentic selves is to pass legislation which states clearly that the dignity of LGBTQ people — that our worth as human beings — is beyond reproach. To send a clear message to the country, this legislation should afford queer people equal access to employment, housing, and public accommodations. (For an example of what this might look like, see the text of The Equality Act, introduced in the summer of 2015 by Democratic members of Congress.) We should be insulated from attempts by religious extremists to dispossess us of our financial stability, social capital, and political voice. Yet, regardless of whether this first step is achieved through an act of Congress or through impact litigation, one thing must be clear: queer liberation will require far more than the passage of The Equality Act.
Indeed, a comprehensive LGBTQ justice agenda will require that we delve far deeper than LGBTQ-specific legislation to address the structural inequities affecting constituencies of queer people within some of the most powerful institutions of US civic life. To give a glimpse of what this sort of policymaking might look like, a short list of policy issues impacting specific segments of the queer community would include: LGBTQ youth policy, the treatment of LGBTQ people by the carceral state, and the provision of healthcare to LGBTQ patients.
Perhaps the most vulnerable within the LGBTQ community and the most in need of relief in a next system are young LGBTQ people. As a constituency, LGBTQ youth are “significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system.” While representing 5 to 7 percent of the overall population, the 300,000 LGBTQ youth detained in juvenile facilities represent between 13 and 15 percent of total juvenile inmates. The Center for American Progress has been conducting ongoing research on this criminalization of LGBTQ youth. Pushed out of their homes by unsupportive families and into the “gray” economy, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately likely to engage in survival sex than their straight peers. Additionally, LGBTQ youth’s courageous insistence on living their truth in the face of obstinate school administrators often leads to them being labeled “incorrigible” and subjected to harsh disciplinary measures. Taken together, these factors push LGBTQ youth into the school-to-prison pipeline, preventing them from forging the familial and educational foundations for successful lives.
Sadly, LGBTQ youth are not the only members of the queer community disproportionately criminalized by the state and subjected to the violence of the carceral system. The conditions experienced by adult LGBTQ prisoners are grotesque by any measure. According to a 2014 study of 1,118 prisoners by the queer prison abolition group Black and Pink, 85 percent of respondents reported spending time in solitary confinement — a form of incarceration defined as torture by international human rights bodies. To add insult to injury, approximately half of those who spent time in solitary confinement did so for two years or more. In a slightly older — but perhaps even more striking — report, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have confirmed what prisoners have long known to be true: 67 percent of gay and trans men have been sexually assaulted by another inmate while behind bars, making them 15 times more likely to experience sexual violence than the general prison population.
Perhaps the most pressing medical need of LGBTQ people — including many who are incarcerated — is low-cost, freely available HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment drugs. Despite decades of progress, LGBTQ people — particularly “men who have sex with men” (MSM) — remain disproportionately affected by the spread of the epidemic. The spread of HIV/AIDS is even more prevalent among LGBTQ people of color — particularly Black MSM. If current trends hold, 6 out of 10 Black MSM will be HIV-positive by their fortieth birthdays. That Black MSM are over 70 percent more likely to contract HIV than the general population isn’t an indictment of that community; instead, it’s a stark reminder of societal divestment from at-risk populations in the forms of slashed budgets for reproductive and sexual health education. A serious LGBTQ justice agenda will need to contend with this staggering inequity and take seriously the charge of re-imagining the ethics of care we bring to human relationships — including sexual relationships.
A Policy System Attuned to Identity
While the agenda above is no doubt a strong jumping-off point for those committed to queer liberation in a next system, it is far from a comprehensive agenda for the future of queer systems design thinkers. Even as advocates endeavor to secure the priority civil rights I’ve identified, they will be forced to contend with even thornier questions — three of which I offer up here.
Before advancing too far beyond the policy area, it’s worth first noting that attempted LGBTQ legal and policy reforms in the past have sometimes run afoul of a deeper, more insidious hurdle for engaging LGBTQ folks: the urge to categorize, label, and diagnose.
So long as a next system design includes the role for a state apparatus, LGBTQ advocates and their supporters will need to consider the ways service-administering bureaucracies interface with gender and sexual minorities. Under the institutional arrangements undergirding most contemporary welfare states, governments — by necessity — create administrative networks to determine access to benefit programs around housing, food assistance, medical care, and retirement. In doing so, administrative bureaucracies routinely impose categories of “deservingness” to differentiate between those who are deemed fit to access particular services and those who are prohibited from accessing them. While these processes strive to be value neutral, they remain predicated on a series of judgments about what type of people exist, how they express their identities, and the ways those identities conspire to render them more or less deserving of the state’s concern.
At the center of these sorts of programs is a failure on the part of administrative apparatuses to understand and account for non-normative gender and sexual expressions. As trans legal theorist Dean Spade writes in Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law, a disturbingly large number of LGBTQ people face “a series of interlocking problems related to being basically unfathomable to the administrative systems that govern the distribution of life chances: housing, education, health care, identity documentation and records, employment, and public facilities” among them. The various administrative spaces inventoried by Spade have an important commonality: their continued functioning depends on the production of “stateness” created by and enforced through documentation, demographics, and quantification.
For some it may come as a surprise that identity — even in our more politically correct age — is not something one can shed easily and repurpose to fit one’s needs. As any LGBTQ person knows well, de jure equality mandating respect for queer lives does not always translate into legitimate respect for queer bodies in the public square. Challenges to validating one’s identity can become even more arduous for trans people whose gender presentation fails to live up to straight society’s expectations. For these people, functioning in society is dependent upon one’s ability to pass — that is, one’s ability to “perform” gender in a way that appeases rather than offends the sensibilities of a medical practitioner, clerk, government official, or bureaucrat that controls one’s access to a particular good or service.
For trans people seeking government benefits, this process of appeasement now includes extensive municipal, state, and federal paperwork that requires one to secure a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria (the term endorsed by the American Psychological Association and indexed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to describe a trans person’s sense of possessing a gender identity that fails to match up to the sex their were assigned at birth), and in many cases undergoing state-required gender-affirming surgeries (procedures required by many states to confirm one’s ‘transition’ to the ‘other’ sex: for trans people living under these regimes of sexual control, these requirements amount to state-sanctioned coercion regarding their bodily, reproductive, and sexual autonomy). They must also possess enough class and social status to access medical and legal establishments to find allies in the process of filing required paperwork, be able to afford to do so, and then find a willing clerk to process document changes.
This bureaucratic process of becoming “fathomable” to the administrative system often takes months if not years. Moreover, its successful completion is contingent upon the ways a handful of individuals — from nurses to doctors, from benefits clerks to lawyers — read the text that is the body of a queer or trans person. This effort to compartmentalize queer bodies into a predetermined set of gender and sexual boxes is the analog of physical and verbal violence deployed against queer and trans people to compel them to police their own behaviors, appearance, and mannerisms.
Pressure to articulate one’s identity in terms that make sense to the state is a historical artifact of the modern age. The origins of this process of “making oneself known” to the state dates back to the late 1800s and the birth of demographics as a field of social science research. With the human population beginning to skyrocket in the nineteenth century, economists began to create models to predict the ways population growth might sustain or outpace agricultural growth and the impact those shifts might have for productivity. (See, for instance, the now-disproved studies of Robert Malthus on overpopulation.) As these concerns around the economic viability of increasingly balkanized nation-states were folded into studies of military readiness, estimates of military-aged males, and the first population censuses, the modern study of demographics was born. Over time, social scientists came to use studies of “the population” to justify policies of sexual repression, eugenics, and racial oppression so as to protect the health of the social body (i.e. “the nation”).
The increasingly scientific nature of these efforts was not purely objective, however. As Spade writes, “Foucault helps us understand how producing stateness through population-level programs (including taxation, military conscription, social welfare, education, immigration) always entails the mobilization of ideas about what kind of life must be promoted and what kind of life is a threat and must be left out, rooted out, or extinguished.” Queer and trans people have long found themselves on the losing end of that formulation and have therefore grown weary of attempts by institutions — particularly institutions invested with power by the state. Hence, under the current U.S. state apparatus, it is within these administrative bureaucracies that queer people — particular trans people as well as queer and trans people of color — can expect to encounter the most difficulties in obtaining their rights.
For those seeking to design systems that acknowledge queer and trans peoples’ unique way of world-making, the question must become not just how do we build mechanisms of service-provision that reach LGBTQ people living at the margins, but how do we do so in ways that allow for the self-definition of those in question. Theorists may present inclusivity in their work but still contend with the fact that, as Spade has it, “Trans people are told by the law, state agencies, private discriminators, and our families that we are impossible people who cannot exist, cannot be seen, cannot be classified, and cannot fit anywhere.” My concern here around categorization isn’t so much an argument against a redistributive welfare state arrangement so much as a caution to those without a substantive critique of social democracy. My hope is that, by bringing this critique to bear on theories to be formulated under the banner of the creation of “next system” designs, proposals might come to center queer and trans voices in new and innovative ways. For now, it remains true that any political or economic system that derives its sense of economic justice from the administration of particular benefits must then contend with this difficulty: how can a state take concrete steps to ensure those at the margins receive adequate care without coercing them into a particular way of being?
Queer Families, Kinship, and Desire
While Obergefell v. Hodges drastically changed the lives of millions of queer people by legalizing same-sex monogamy, our era of same-sex marriage cannot be interpreted as the apex of queer family-making. Indeed, to collapse non-straight family-making under the umbrella of “same-sex marriage” is to ignore a constellation of familial structures which are still outright prohibited or blissfully ignored by society — among which we find examples of polyamorous or “open” marriage as well as co-parenting arrangements through which more than two individuals function and are recognized as “parents” of a child.
Of additional concern to those imagining the day-to-day functionings of an alternative system must be the ways in which individuals come to a sense of social solidarity with one another beyond or in addition to marriage. Societies have long looked to “the family” as the mechanism through which children become members of a body politic. When we think about models of queer kinship, we’re also thinking about the ways in which we problematize and deconstruct the social mores that dictate how a child conceptualizes themselves, what autonomy is accorded that child, and how that child is permitted to interact with other children and adults. If we accept the idea that an alternative political and economic system draws its strength from the flourishing of its citizens, then we must endeavor to name the right of all citizens — from children through the elderly — to a sense of radical self-determination. Individuals ought to determine not only their career path in life or their policy preferences, but also the name by which they are publicly recognized, the pronouns by which they are called, the gender (if any) with which they feel most identified, and the sexual partners with whom they find pleasure, make homes, or co-habitate.
While it may seem as though conversations about the best ways to institutionalize these arrangements would follow the establishment of new systems as a sort of “second tier” of culture-making, it bears repeating that the ways society constructs, values, and promotes structures of “family” (however broadly construed) have significant impacts on society’s characterization and treatment of children, organization of familial units in physical spaces (i.e. the detached single-family home), attitude towards reproductive technologies, and creation of mechanisms to facilitate or prohibit the transfer of intergenerational wealth. Developing a working model of what alternative familial structures may look and feel like it is far from an exercise in emotional processing out loud; instead, any cohesive design of an alternative political or economic system which fails to address concerns of kinship also fails to account for the formative socialization that undoubtedly occurs when children are raised and sustained within a community.
At a purely conceptual level, one of the most interesting themes for future discussion around queerness and The Next System must be the possibility queerness introduces into systems design spaces. By mining the history of trans and queer resistance to heterosexism and cisnormativity, systems thinkers can find example after example of queer folks using a variety of theoretical and applied tactics to challenge dominant narratives of form, representation, and politics while forging resilient communities. Given the audacity of the goal of creating a next system and the hard work to ensue, it’s important that systems thinkers consider not only the desired outcomes of their work but the process of community care which will determine who we are when we finally get to our realistic utopia.
Queerness understood as a framework to approach both activism and intellectual work is a relatively new invention dating to the early 1990s. At about this time, a generation of scholars steeped in the language of poststructuralism found themselves struggling to theorize a way out of the bind created by the explosion of global neoliberal capitalism, an unparalleled boom in information technology, and a re-emergence of cross-cutting social movement activity. Drawing on the legacy of feminist thought, the Frankfurt School of critical theory, as well as activist-inspired formulations of LGBTQ identity, these scholars coined “queer” as a sort of social-political orientation towards the world, expressed through subversion of the accepted. Not only did “queer” carry with it the potential to describe a range of gender and sexual minorities without exhaustively naming them, the term also served another purpose: the reclamation of a slur often hurled at the LGBTQ community. “Queer” quickly became an adjective used to describe a set of individuals, organizations, and communities as well as a verb used to describe the act of subverting, contesting, and thinking back against powerful, normative centers of power. As such, “queer” came to describe those who sought a liberationist agenda as compared to the assimilationist political desires of certain mainstream, monied, and disproportionately white “LGBT” organizations. By calling yourself “queer,” moreover, one signaled not only a sense of militant nonconformity but also a refusal to be constrained by existing social and political realities.
Aside from its strictly political interpretations, however, “queer” retains a clear artistic, or rather, stylistic dimension as well. For many queer people, their membership in gender and sexual minority communities constitutes the lens through which they’ve developed more encompassing political, economic, and social critiques. Their efforts to define themselves in ways that seem authentic — regardless of whether those ways elude straight society — is a testament to their creativity and commitment to imagining new ways of existing in the world. Queer people often believe that expressions of gender and sexuality are fluid, ever-changing, and that they ought to be free to self-determine the ways they exist in the world, regardless of society’s expectations. Their refusal to allow their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to become the sole means through which they engage in activism has found purchase in the multiracial, socio-economically diverse queer community.
As CJ Cohen argues, “queer theory stands in direct contrast to the normalizing tendencies of hegemonic sexuality rooted in ideas of static, stable sexual identities and behavior.” It’s by resisting efforts to “be known” through categorization, classification, or assimilation that queer movements came to serve a vital purpose for the Left and all movements seeking collective liberation: the holders of spaces of possibility which envisioned worlds free of cis-heteropatriarchy, hierarchy, and — in many cases — capitalism. (What queerness should not be understood to do is to create space for solely individual rather than collective expression of autonomy, human flourishing, and political possibility. In “Sacrificing Queers and Other ‘Proletarian’ Artifacts,” Robin Podolsky discusses how conventional Leftists have thrown up their hands at queerness as “self-indulgent distractions from struggle” plagued by “bourgeois decadence,” instead of marginalized communities with a unique approach to social change.)
The revolutionary personal and collective potential of queerness for connected movements for transformational change has yet to be sufficiently explored. Yet, its relevance continues to be underscored. As queer theorist Michael Warner writes, the experience of coming to terms with a queer identity requires an individual to re-invent one’s relationships to a series of institutions that structure human lives, thereby making claims on the power structures that govern one’s life:
Every person who comes to a queer self-understanding knows in one way or another that her stigmatization is connected with gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body. Being queer means fighting about these issues all the time, locally and piecemeal but always with consequences. It means being able, more or less articulately, to challenge the common understanding of what gender difference means, or what the state is for, or what “health” entails, or what would define fairness, or what a good relation to the planet’s environment would be. Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer.
Warner’s description of queer self-awareness bears quoting in its entirety not because of its exhaustive list of the ways queers must resist co-optation and dominance but in its more subtle conclusion that queer people, acknowledging their contested identity, do the daily work of making these spaces whole, of crafting their own paths through and around institutions that exist to exclude them, and in so doing create ways of living in the world that open up the possibilities for others. The fact that heterosexism can be found or implied so universally across our shared patrimony shows that the experience of living a queer life in a queer body necessitates a daily reimagination of the world not just at the abstract, structural level but in terms of immediate, individual experiences. It’s that negotiation of power dynamics both internal to a queer person and external to the world which I believe makes a queer framework instructive for and essential to the visionary, dynamic work of imagining the “next system.”