by Jamie Arjona
Last Friday, following the Supreme Court ruling on “same-sex marriage”, I opened my browser and started scrolling through a glitter-bombed version of my usual newsfeeds. Social media, news broadcasts, and even the White House all looked like they were reeling in the aftermath of a Pride parade. Aside from a few disgruntled posts, rainbows had overtaken the internet. Yet, I found myself feeling conflicted. I was at once elated and disheartened. As a queer person, the excitement was effervescent. Putting aside my critical stance on marriage for a few moments, I relived my own experiences of oppression – being harassed on the street, hearing homophobic jokes, receiving disgusted looks – and felt vindicated. I applauded allies for making their support public and cheered for friends who denounced homophobic responses on social media.
My cynicism reemerged when I realized that my vision of a radical queer politics faded into the background of assimilation. A whitewashed image of gay marriage had all the markings of homonormativity. Celebratory photos of white queers embracing each other on sidewalks overshadowed somber broadcasts from the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pickney, murdered in a terrorist attack on his Charleston church. A suite of corporations, including Twitter, Coca-Cola, and MasterCard, draped rainbow filters over brand logos to celebrate the landmark court ruling. Was this the type of change trans protesters at Compton’s cafeteria had imagined in 1966? Was this the future anticipated in the 1969 Stonewall riots?
Like many queer researchers, I’m critical of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) political organizations for their role in marginalizing minority community members. The fight for marriage equality has been a success because of its alignment with capitalism, globalization, and white middle class interests. Assimilating into the fabric of marriage strengthens the institutions queerness once stood against. Somehow discourses on marriage equality have eclipsed everyday forms of violence targeting queer groups. As Dean Spade (2011: 50) notes, the rhetoric of equality “turn[s] social movements toward goals of inclusion and incorporation and away from demands for redistribution and structural transformation”. Marriage equality has compromised a queer dismantling of the State. My criticism, however, isn’t meant to diminish what marriage means for many other queers – queers who spent lifetimes banned from hospital rooms, adoption centers, and probate courts. Instead, I want to channel the unruly energy of queerness, which agitates a docile queer integration.
This post attempts to share my ambivalence and take a moment to reflect on archaeology’s shortcomings in the realm of queer research. While I remain critical of these issues, my experiences in archaeology clarify how out of touch with queer studies the discipline remains. It’s difficult to articulate a critical queer perspective without a basic queer vocabulary. Archaeology needs to be queered, but to cultivate this disciplinary perversion we need to begin by veering outside the comforts of our Endnote libraries.
Perhaps beginning with a brief genealogy will help get the ball rolling. Although originally derived from Gay and Lesbian Studies, queer studies in the social sciences outgrew the confining boundaries of sex and sexuality . Recent queer scholarship embraces the boundless and ever-shifting essence of nonnormativity that renders queerness messy, unstable, and fluid (Boellstorff, 2007; Nash and Browne, 2012). According to Ahmed (2006) queer things and bodies “disturb the order of things” underlying Anglo American configurations of normalcy. Queer, in effect, disrupts heteropatriarchal structures that define what constitutes “normal”. Disorienting taken-for-granted values includes, but is not limited to understanding the social architecture regulating sex, desire, and intimacy. Contemporary scholarship in queer theory embraces a range of perverse intimacies existing outside social norms. The messiness of queerness makes it averse to definition. It operates against the familiar. As a vehicle for perversion, queer intimacies include things like disjointed temporalities, non-normative configurations of space, unsettling feelings, and uncomfortable proximities to pathologized bodies. Critical queer politics is about allowing ourselves to be seduced and transformed by these intimacies. Queerness messes up social arrangements rather than cleaning up to fit into an ever-expanding State apparatus.
As a queer researcher, I recognize the conflict between archaeology’s willingness to entertain queer perspectives and its reluctance to actually being queered. I’m deeply indebted to voices like Barbara Voss who pioneered a set of “queer archaeologies” (Blackmore, 2011; Dowson, 2000; Schmidt and Voss, 2000; Voss, 2012). Queer and feminist scholars stimulated my own interest in archaeology. Unfortunately, in spite of these foundational works, archaeology refuses perversion.
From my experiences in academic settings, I get the sense that archaeologists writ large relegate queer archaeological studies to a niche disciplinary interest. At academic conferences, queer presenters speak to sympathetically queer audiences. We end up talking to ourselves. This isolation likely stems from a lack of understanding about queer analytics. Part of the problem comes from a perception that queer is synonymous with sexuality. Modern conceptions of sexual identities obscure the mutability of queerness. I’m often puzzled by the absence of queer theory in academic circles.
Aversion to queer frameworks is demonstrated in case studies where its connections seem glaringly obvious. We acknowledge brothels, feminine hygiene products, dildos, and sensual artifacts without admitting their relationship to queer experiences. Archaeological finds like these go viral because sex sells. But it sells a history of “erotica” or “taboo” practices rather than queering modern conventions.
When I shift gears from academic spheres to field settings or department happy hours, hetero-patriarchal attitudes are harder to escape. As an archaeologist, I’ve been let down by peers, colleagues, and friends who claim to be liberal allies. I’ve seen men assume an effeminate gait for a few laughs. I once heard a colleague question the “manliness” of trans men. In the field, subtle forms of homophobia surface in microaggressions. Field housing assignments and a dearth of gender neutral bathrooms at conferences unwittingly ostracize trans and gender queer archaeologists. Over time, all the little things start to add up. And we’re all guilty of perpetuating these mundane traumas – myself included – because we’ve been indoctrinated into a hetero-patriarchal social landscape. A landscape where feminists and queers are killjoys. A landscape where a swishy affect still betrays the codes of masculinity. Refusing to laugh at the joke or being too confrontational comes with the threat of being a social pariah. The difference between speaking up and “knowing your place” can mean the difference between landing an optimal job and being pushed to the sidelines by a revolving consortium of white men.
Oddly enough archaeology seems oblivious to its very queerness. When I take a step back to reflect on archaeological practice, I see fetishism. I see a perverse intimacy with things. I recognize the queerness of our own anachronistic tendencies to get stuck in the past. Archaeology’s trans-temporal roots makes it an ideal conduit for transmitting queer histories. Past intimacies can disrupt the boundaries between people and things taken for granted in modern social assemblages. But to do so, we need to start confronting our own privilege. We need to probe our imaginaries for scenes that mess up the order of things.
The same holds true for queer communities as we gain access to privilege. We need to remain attentive to the fact that queer people of color straddle precarious worlds. In 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported the consistently alarming rates of hate violence and homicides perpetrated against LGBTQ people in 13 U.S. states and Puerto Rico over the previous year. The report, which documented 2,001 incidents of hate violence, found that queer people of color were 1.5 times more likely to experience physical violence than white victims (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2014). Furthermore, the report indicated that almost 90% of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color.These statistics indicate the tragic violence disproportionately affecting minority queer communities in the United States today. As many critical queer scholars point out, the majority of LGBT political groups in the United States addressing these issues include a predominance of white advocates that frequently fail to recognize how race and racism amplify marginality (Ferguson, 2004; Lorde, 1993; Nash, 2014). So, as we celebrate national and endemic victories, we need to stay focused on how far we still need to go. We need to reflect on our own experiences of oppression and confront our privileges. Maybe then we’ll get back to a radical queer politics that cringed at the thought of assimilation and found hope in bonds formed in the margins.
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