Speech to the European Feminist Summit in London, 15 March 2008.
By challenging traditional heterosexual masculinity, the queer emancipation movement can contribute to the liberation of all of humanity.
Queer liberation is not a mere minority issue, nor purely a question of personal lifestyle, civil rights or sexual freedom. It is, or can be, socially transformative, with the potential to aid all emancipation struggles everywhere.
Queers deviate from traditional masculinity. We reject the orthodox model of what it is to be a man. By so doing, we are sexual subversives who unravel the straight machismo that underpins all relations of oppression and exploitation.
Traditional hetero masculinity oppresses women and gay people, with sexist jibes, domestic violence, rape, homophobic taunts and queer-bashing assaults. It is also a source of the toughness and aggression that makes possible the social violence of racist attacks, police brutality, war and torture.
Not all straight men embrace this macho mindset. Some rebel and dissent. Conversely, a few women and gay men also adopt their oppressor’s machismo. But on a global scale it is predominantly heterosexual males who express violent masculinity and perpetrate such crimes.
Macho ways of thinking and acting are not, of course, biologically ordained and immutable. They are primarily the socially-determined product of a specific set of culturally-constructed institutions and ideologies.
In societies the world-over, these institutions and ideologies continue to result in male children being reared and socialised quite differently from female ones. They tend to be conditioned to see rivalry, toughness, domination and even violence as acceptable and normal attributes for young boys and real men.
During boyhood these harsh masculine values often become internalised and machismo ends up being seen as a routine, legitimate and even desirable mode of male behaviour.
In contrast, emotion, sensitivity, gentleness, persuasion and conciliation tend to be looked upon with relative disfavour amongst men. They are frequently depicted within our culture as signs of weakness, typically associated with women and with gay men. We queers risk disparagement for failing to conform to a rugged masculine ideal.
In this cultural context, from a very early age many (not all) male children learn to be competitive, strong, aggressive and unyielding. The idea that problems can be ultimately resolved – and often validly resolved – by threats and violence becomes deeply etched into their inner psyche.
Echoing the women’s liberation movement, the lesbian and gay liberation movement that emerged four decades ago, following the Stonewall Riots in New York in June 1969, identified straight machismo as a source of queer oppression and set out to challenge it.
In contrast to earlier, more liberal-oriented movements for homosexual law reform and equality, the 1970s Gay Liberation Fronts in New York and London did not seek to ape heterosexual values or secure the acceptance of queers within the existing sexual conventions.
Indeed, they repudiated the prevailing sexual morality and institutions – rejecting not only heterosexism but also orthodox heterosexual masculinity. Straight maleness was seen as the oppressor of queers, as well as women; with its predisposition to male rivalry, toughness and aggression symbolised most potently by the rapist and the queer-basher.
The “radical drag” and”gender-bender” politics of Gay Liberation Front politics glorified male gentleness. It was a conscious, if sometimes exaggerated, attempt to renounce the oppressiveness of masculinity and subvert the way traditional masculinity functions to buttress the subordination of women and gay men.
Four decades on, we also need to question male/female gender roles and straight patriarchy, and the consequent macho cult of competitiveness, domination and violence – including its gay and female imitators.
Let’s reaffirm the worthwhileness of male sensitivity and affection between men and, in the case of lesbians, the intrinsic value of an eroticism and love independent of heterosexual men.
The social implications of this new queer thinking are enormous. The bottom line is this:
The construction of a cult of machismo and a mass of aggressive male egos is a precondition for sexual, gender, class, species, ethnic and imperial oppression.
All forms of oppression depend on two factors for their continued maintenance.
First, on specific economic, political and ideological structures.
Second, on a significant proportion of the population being socialised into the acceptance of harsh masculine values which involve the legitimisation of aggression and the suppression of gentleness and emotion.
The embracing of these culturally-conditioned macho values is what makes millions of people – mostly straight men, but some women and gay men too – able to participate in repressive regimes.
This interaction between social structures, ideology and individual psychology was a thesis which the communist psychologist, Wilhelm Reich, was attempting to articulate six decades ago in his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
In the case of German fascism, what Nazism did was merely awake and excite the latent brutality that is intrinsic to the forms of heterosexual masculinity that are usually characteristic of patriarchal class societies. It then systematically manipulated and organised this machismo into a fascist regime of terror and torture which culminated in the holocaust.
Since it is the internalisation of the masculine cult of toughness and domination which makes people psychologically suited and willing to be part of oppressive relations of exploitation and subjection, repressive states invariably glorify masculine “warrior” ideals, and persecute those men – mainly queers – who fail to conform to them.
The embrace of masculine aggression by sizable chunks of the male population is a prerequisite for injustice and tyranny. Love and tenderness between men therefore ceases to be a purely private matter or simply a question of personal lifestyle. Instead, it objectively becomes an act of sexual and cultural subversion that undermines the psychological foundations of oppression.
Hence the Nazi vilification of gay men as “sexual subversives” and “sexual saboteurs” who, in the words of Heinrich Himmler, had to be “exterminated root and branch.”
The ending of tyranny, injustice and exploitation therefore requires us to change both the social structures and the individual personality to create people who, liberated from orthodox masculinity, no longer psychologically crave the power to dominate and exploit others and who are therefore unwilling to be the agents of oppressive regimes – whether as soldiers, police, gaolers and censors or as routine civil servants and state administrators who act as the passive agents of repression by keeping the day-to-day machinery of unjust government ticking over.
By challenging the cult of heterosexual masculinity, queer liberation is about much more than the limited agenda of equal rights. It offers a unique, revolutionary contribution to the emancipation of the whole of humanity from all forms of subjugation.