June 26, 2010
What in Germany has become ‘The Butler Scandal’ – Butler’s refusal of the Zivilcourage Award from Pride Berlin (egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-must-distance-myself/, youtube.com/watch?v=BV9dd6r361k&feature=player_embedded), which spread like wildfire through daily newspapers, facebook, queer blogs and e-lists, and even German TV (youtube.com/watch?v=QHztUv95osU&feature=player_embedded) – has shaken up and reconstituted the local and transnational terrain of anti-racist queer politics and critique in exciting but also challenging ways. The topic of gay racism, maybe for the first time, has found a sizeable public. In the past, the terms “racism” and “anti-Muslim racism” have made only rare entries into a mediascape which normally prefers to talk of prejudice against Ausländer – ‘foreigners.’ For a week, people of colour in Berlin – both queer and straight – have had the rare privilege of being ecstatic.
Nevertheless, the public and counter-public production of this event entails certain problems and dangers which need to be critically addressed and carefully managed. We have already discussed the whitewashing of Butler’s refusal by the mainstream media, which has largely erased not only gay racism, but also the basic fact of queer/trans of colour existence (nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/judith-butler-refuses-berlin-pride.html). On a smaller yet more immediate scale, this was repeated by some of our alternative white friends who, having missed the whole problem with Pride, let alone with the nomination of a public intellectual who has opposed the incorporation of gay rights into racism, border control and militarism, began to wonder out loud whether the prize money should now rightfully be theirs. (The ‘awarded’ groups, meanwhile, were almost bemused when Pride belatedly announced they should come to pick up Butler’s leftovers.) The event has certainly ushered in a feel-good moment which may have de-politicizing effects. On the upside, some queer left spaces have begun to address racist complicities (transgenialercsd.wordpress.com/presse/), raising hopes that the homonationalist (dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=14425) establishment will be isolated in its obsession with ‘homophobic Muslims’, and its queering of racist and neoliberal agendas of safety, security, crime (including hate crime), gentrification, disentitlement, and border control.
As the event enfolds, and is produced as both newsworthy and worthy of scholarly attention, discussions have tended to focus on Butler as a person rather than the issues at hand, or at stake. This again threatens to sideline queer and trans people of colour in Germany, whose struggle may seem a little too far away for some to attend to in its own right. Besides the fight over the celebrity pie, there is now also the very real danger of backlash, as the offended ‘majority,’ to return to the Pride stage moderators’ remarkable assertion (nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/judith-butler-refuses-berlin-pride.html), is rushing to find the culprits: For why on earth would a famous white person do such a thing – thus alienating hosts, fans and readers? To whom did Butler talk in advance of her refusal? If the dialogue over Butler’s response was just as transnational as the homonationalism and homocolonialism she responded to, the conspiracy theorists are already working hard to scapegoat and isolate individual queers of colour and queer migrant organizations. As Angela Davis put it in her commentary on the situation (youtube.com/watch?v=T0BzKCRgnj8), the terrain of struggle has changed, yet the division of labour, risk, and gains is lagging far behind.
How, then, may we channel the possibilities created by this moment into more helpful directions? How can we sustain the current interest, commitment and visibility without reproducing dominant frames of politics and knowledge production that prolong or even intensify the status quo?
Labour, Risks and Gains
As queer and trans people of colour and allies, we are painfully aware of dominant hierarchies of political and intellectual labour, pervasive both in the academic, media and non-profit industrial complexes (lipmagazine.org/articles/featdelmoral_nonprofit.htm, muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/journal_of_feminist_studies_in_religion/v023/23.2smith.html) and in less institutionalized and professionalized spaces. These are parasitic upon the bodies, experiences, and labour of those who are kept in the place of the deviant, developmental or exotic object of study, and who all too often are structurally excluded from formal education and employment. The claiming of a queer or trans of colour position is a complicated one, both demonized and desired, and often immediately dismissed for lack or excess of intelligence or authenticity. While these injustices need to be named and redressed, especially by those who currently benefit from them, we believe that the politicization and democratization of knowledge production must go far beyond this. How can we begin to understand knowledge and skills as something that must end in radical struggle and transformation, rather than on a CV? How do we redistribute not only the credit, but also the risks of labour? Take the question at hand: how has Butler’s refusal already been turned into an event from which some will gain while others may lose? Can it serve as a catalyst for white people and those with privileges (e.g. around racism or job precarity) to start confronting racist Pride oligarchies or addressing the violence in the spaces – from Pride stage to activist group to university to nation – which are more likely to invite them, and less likely to kick them out? On one of our blog pages (nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/activist-writings-for-organic.html), we put it this way:
Radical movements and individual acts of bravery or brilliance in speaking out against injustice do not come from nowhere but are the result of collective labour and local and transnational histories of organizing. SUSPECT was initially formed in order to monitor the arrival of the racist hate crimes debates in Germany. Recognizing the importance of emancipatory peer education outside the academic industrial complex, we started off as a reading group in the rooms of a local queer of colour NGO in Berlin. In this bibliography, we would like to share some of the resources which we managed to get hold of here. We felt we needed to learn from our siblings and allies in places where the punitive turn of LGBT organizing had already happened. The work of Incite!, the women/trans of colour anti-violence organization in the US, was a particular inspiration to us. We focused on German-speaking texts and texts dealing with the consequences of relying on a criminal ‘justice’ system which disproportionately incarcerates poor people, people of colour, people with mental health problems, and gender non-conforming people – but we know there is lots more out there. Please help us annotate this bibliography and list of resources, and send us further links and references including short descriptions!
Different Futures: Where Now?
If Butler’s refusal was neither the work of an isolated individual, nor an event that can be either credited or blamed on individual queers of colour, neither was Pride Berlin 2010 an isolated event. The success in Berlin had forerunners in the struggle of queer and trans people of colour and their allies in Toronto against the displacement of Blockorama, the Black stage (nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/letter-of-support-from-blockorama.html), and the banning of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which culminated in the collective return of Pride awards by all twenty-three nominees (youtube.com/watch?v=bIDeTsMZFYg) and QuAIA’s re-admission, at least for now, into the march (queersagainstapartheid.org/). The globalizing significance of Pride parades in not only corporatizing LGBT politics worldwide, but also drawing the line between those countries that are modern and those that need to either catch up or be punished, invaded, targeted through visa and other anti-immigration campaigns, or deprived of aid, echoed in our ears when the Pride stage moderator lectured at us that Pride will ‘just continue in its programme… No matter what… Worldwide and here in Berlin.’ Outside Pride, and overlapping with it, we have witnessed a worrying racialization of gender and sexuality, and a willingness to accept membership privileges in national communities which now like to represent themselves as friendly towards women, gays, and less frequently, trans people. If Butler’s refusal has become a scandal, much work remains to be done to expose how these new sexual contracts are brokered on the backs of those who are forced to carry the residues of homophobia, and are not incidentally marked as disposable through their race, class and inability to pass as a productive citizens and consumers. Neither are punitive approaches to sexual/criminal justice unique to Berlin. On the contrary, hate crimes legislation is rapidly exported as part of a ‘holy trinity’ (bilerico.com/2009/10/why_i_wont_come_out_on_national_coming_out_day) of hate crimes legislation, marriage, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, through an increasingly globalized LGBT politics whose travels across the Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East and Africa often follow in the older footsteps of global feminisms. How do we turn this moment of celebrity scandal, and celebration, which has hit at the heart of the gay establishment, into one that outs and scandalizes homonormativity, homonationalism and gendered and sexual neo-colonialisms everywhere? How do we do this, again, in a way that spreads the risks, redistributes the gains, and tears the doors wide open?
For queer and trans people of colour in Berlin, the massive support we have received (including messages of solidarity from qtpoc activists, intellectuals, groups and allies in Canada, Turkey, France, UK, Russia, the US and South Africa, and countless unsolicited and often anonymous acts of labour, such as translations of our statement into Russian, French, Turkish, Spanish and Italian) promises immense opportunities for local and transnational community building. Alliances between queer and straight migrants, too, have been strengthened: one example is the opportunity of doing a special issue on racist and homophobic violence with a big migrant newsletter, whose editors reached out to us to in order to offer practical allied support. We ask for your help in sustaining the radical possibilities of the moment, and channelling it into practical solidarity and movement building. Visit our blog, endorse, leave messages of support (nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/judith-butler-refuses-berlin-pride.html), include us in your networks, let us know about your struggles. Put us in touch with other anti-racist feminist, queer, trans, prison abolitionist groups that do related work, or have experience fighting criminalization and violence without taking recourse to state racism and neo-colonialism. Add our blog to your website, and spread the news. We love to hear from our allies everywhere, and we know that it gives others hope, too, to see us connect with and grow into a transnational movement for justice, of a kind that deserves this name.