Cohen, Cathy J., Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?

Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ 3 (1997): 437-465.

Quick sum:
Cohen looks at the failed features of queer political activism, as evolved from queer theory, and discusses how intersectionality is the key to not merely ushering in inclusive political activism, but forming collectives based on transformational agendas. In other words, for queer to really do the work, it must transform not just heteronormative oppression, but systemic domination that overlaps sexuality, race, gender, economic class, etc.

“We must reject a queer politics which seems to ignore, in its analysis of the usefulness of traditionally named categories, the roles of identity and community
as paths to survival, using shared experiences of oppression and resistance to build indigenous resources, shape consciousness, and act collectively.
Instead, I would suggest that it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of our identities which provide the most promising avenue for the destabilization and radical politicalization of these same categories” (459-60).

Key terms:

  • queer/political action
  • queer theory
  • intersectional
  • decentered identity
  • transformational politics
  • oppression

Key peeps:

  • Berlant
  • Butler
  • Kimberle Crenshaw
  • Teresa de Lauretis
  • Audre Lorde
  • Shane Phelan
  • Queer Nation
  • Sedgwick
  • Barbara Smith
  • Warner

Key ?s:

  • When and how are stable collective identities necessary for social action and social change? (439)
  • Queer activists must confront a question that haunts most political organizing: How do we put into politics a broad and inclusive left analysis that can actually engage and mobilize individuals with intersecting identities? (449)

Key quote$:
Despite the possibility invested in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, I argue that a truly radical or transformative politics has not resulted from queer activism. In many instances, instead of destabilizing the assumed categories and binaries of sexual identity, queer politics has served to reinforce simple dichotomies between heterosexual and everything ‘’queer.” An understanding of the ways in which power informs and constitutes privileged and marginalized subjects on both sides of this dichotomy has been left unexamined. (438)

Thus, if there is any truly radical potential to he found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin. (438)

For many of us, the
label “queer” symbolizes an acknowledgment that through our existence and everyday survival we embody sustained and multisited resistance to systems (based on dominant constructions of race and gender) that seek to normalize our sexuality, exploit our labor, and constrain our visibility. At the intersection of oppression and resistance lies the radical potential of queerness to challenge and bring together all those deemed marginal and all those committed
to liberatory politics. The problem, however, with such a conceptualization and expectation of queer identity and politics is that in its present form queer politics has not emerged as an encompassing challenge to systems of domination and oppression, especially those normalizing processes embedded in heteronormativity. (440)

The inability of queer politics to effectively challenge heteronormativity rests, in part, on the fact that despite a surrounding discourse which highlights the destabilization and even deconstruction of sexual categories, queer politics has often been built around a simple dichotomy between those deemed queer and those deemed heterosexual. (440)

By transformational, again, I mean a politics that does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships, but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws which make these institutions and relationships oppressive. (444-45)

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