A queer eye for neoliberalism

As time passes and a queer sensibility gathers momentum along with the raising of a globalized queer consciousness, initially crafted in the academic context of the USA where Gender Studies and Queer Theory have gained scholarly recognition and even blossomed over the past thirty years, a host of terms have traveled from the Ivory Tower all the way to the screens of our laptops. What once was academic terminology found in journals, monographs, and edited volumes, now has become an indispensable part of our everyday social and political vocabulary, found scatted in the queer and mainstream press, pop culture artifacts, activist texts, and everyday bander. One of these terms that have gained a growing currency in lay discourse is the promising term ‘homonormativity’, usually evoked as shorthand for an internal critique voiced against certain types of LGBTIQA+ politics. Despite the fact that even the popularization of this word is living proof that we have entered for quite some time now into a self-reflective moment within queer politics and culture, the definition of this term remains somewhat vague or even over-spacious to the point of missing its poignancy and conceptual clarity.

Furthermore, such terms borrowed from academia are evoked uncontextualized and without a reference to their original meaning or definition. As they travel across social fields, their meaning gets more flexible and spacious, while, at the same time, their original definitions get lost somewhere along the long way of appropriation. To be honest, even I have been evoking this very same term at some points over the course of this blog capitalizing on its self-evident quality stemming from its mere etymology, the combination of the words homo (as in homosexual), and normativity. The time has come to take a closer look at homonormativity and revisit the history and the specific context that gave rise to the need of coining this neologism in the first place. To bring this issue home, I am going to use the worldwide popular TV show ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ as a case study that brings the aspect of fashion and consumerism into view. What could one of the most beloved American reality television series teach us about a high-brow term such as homonormativity? How do neoliberalism and queerness relate to one another? Let’s roll up our sleeves and get into it!

Homonormativity is a term coined by the American Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, Lisa Duggan, in 2003 in her seminal book The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. The book in its scope is written as an analysis of the politics of the 1990s, the decade that saw the establishment and dominance of neoliberal political and financial policies in the global North, but also the rise of queer politics and the dramatic change of the social landscape regarding LGBTIQA+ rights. It is this paradox that Duggan sets out to disentangle by historically examining how racial and gender inequities are woven into the very theoretical underpinnings of the free-market economics model of the state. Among her various political case studies, one finds the one titled Equality, Inc., where the author looks into the then emergent neoliberal ‘equality’ politics drawn from the lesbian and gay rights movement. But before we delve any deeper into the argument, we need to take a short detour onto this larger sociopolitical issue in the context of which homonormativity came to define something quite specific regarding LGBTIQA+ politics. And yes, you guessed right, we are in a dire need of a definition of neoliberalism, and lucky us, Duggan offers us one:

‘…neoliberalism per se is generally associated with the set of policy imperatives for international government and business operations called the ‘Washington Consensus’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Generated by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury, and also implemented through the World Trade Organization, neoliberal policies of fiscal austerity, privatization, market liberalization, and government stabilization are pro-corporate capitalist guarantors of private property relations. They were designed to recreate the globe in the interests of the unimpeded operation of capitalist ‘free’ markets, and to cut back public, noncommercial powers and resources that might impeded or drain potential profit making. Nominally pro-democratic, the neoliberal financial institutions have operated autocratically themselves, primarily through financial coercion.’ (Duggan xiii)

To give you a more grounded historical perspective, it was during the 80s that the USA witnessed the rise of neoliberalism in the policies of Ronald Reagan’s administration according to which the dogmas of lesser state and laissez-faire have dictated ever since the relationship between the state and the free market, and between the state and its citizens. In this grim political and financial context, it is competition that is announced as the most definitive characteristic of human relations, rather than solidarity. It was the private pleasure and interest the ultimate moral value. It was possessive individualism the dominant model of political and social subjectivity. And it was the responsible and careful individual the paradigmatic citizen. Also, at the level of political economy, neoliberal policies pushed for the deregulation of the free market and the privatization of a series of basic services previously provided by the welfare state, along with severe austerity measures. But Reagan’s tenure as the President of the United States from 1981 to 1989 was also marked by a forceful -Republican- neo-conservative turn that advocated for the traditional families values and a Christian way of life that must be protected from the Counterculture Movement of the 60s and the rise of the new social movements of the 70s, such as the anti-war, the feminist, the gay and the civil rights movement among others, that had questioned the American Dream and its racist and heterosexist values that sustained it. And, as you all very well remember, this was the context that gave rise to queer activism around the same time.

To be sure, along with the birth of queer politics, the very same truth regime of neoliberalism has fostered another brand of LGBTIQ+ politics that was meant to define the mainstream political strategies in the following decades. Duggan describes this homonormative politics in the following eloquent manner:

‘National lesbian and gay civil rights, lobbying and litigation organizations have nearly all moved away from constituency mobilization and community-based consultation during the past decade. Following the national political culture to the right, and pressed by the exigencies of fundraising for survival, gay civil rights groups have adopted neoliberal rhetoric and corporate decision-making models. No longer representative of a broad-based progressive movement, many of the dominant national lesbian and gay civil rights organizations have become the lobbying, legal, and public relations firms for an increasingly narrow gay, moneyed elite. Consequently, the push for gay marriage and military service has replaced the array of political, cultural, and economic issues that galvanized the national groups as they first emerged from a progressive social movement context several decades earlier.’ (Duggan, 45) It is exactly this new neoliberal sexual politics that Duggan described and analyze via the notion of the new homonormativity in order to draw the attention to the influence of neoliberalism on LGBTIQA+ politics in the USA in the 90s. One can feel -after two decades- the strong resonance of her words in today’s predicament when the hegemonic LGBTIQA+ politics continue to be ‘a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.’ (Duggan, 50)

Let’s dwell a bit on this last word of Duggan, ‘consumption’, as consumerism seems to be key to understanding the multilayered interrelations among neoliberalism, LGBTIQA+ politics and one’s sense of sexual and gendered selfhood. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and its interesting reception could be of use here. Queer Eye is a TV series that premiered on the cable television network Bravo in July 2003, and after three seasons it has been revived in 2018 and since then, it has gained a wide audience, it has risen to fame some of its hosts, and has had a wider cultural impact. Each episode features a team of gay professionals in the fields of fashion, personal grooming, interior design, entertaining and culture known as the ‘Fab Five’ performing a makeover usually for a heterosexual man. The series has received mixed reviews that are telling of the abovementioned polarization.

For some, the series offers a genuine representation of queerness, while it contributes to crafting a metrosexual -soft- masculinity that allows straight men to adopt queer aesthetics and sensibilities. For others, while the presence of queer characters constitutes a movement towards greater acceptance of queerness, the commodification of gay stereotypes on which the show capitalizes demonstrates the hegemonic nature of mass hetero-culture and the justification of exploitation through tolerance. The aspiration for a successful -another neoliberal key signifier- identity passes through consumerism and celebrity role models in a way that Queer Eye’s normalization of consumer masculinity, even though it rejects aspects of traditional masculinity, ultimately depends on vanity consumption and gay stereotyping. This consumer guide of how to be gay relies heavily on the aestheticization of queerness that reduces the latter to a mere stylistic performance and a life-style politics narrowly focused on the individual and its egoistical need for recognition and acceptance from the very heteronormative society that made them feel unrecognized to begin with.