Cathy Cohen’s article “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” has quite a few points that need to be discussed in more detail, but the one that really impacted me was the focus that many of Cohen’s quotes seem to have: the problems in queer politics. Some people, for instance, are stuck in the very binary that they are trying to eradicate; the only difference is which side of the binary is the “proper” one to be on. For instance, comments like “Straight people are your enemy” (448) and “the dichotomy of straight versus everything else” (452) do nothing to bridge the gap that currently exists between some straight people and some queer people.
I specifically say “some” here because not all straight people are narrow-minded, and those people are some of the strongest supporters of queer activism and equal sexual privileges for all consenting adults. At the same time, however, not all queer people want to include everyone or be included in “mainstream” (for lack of a better word) society. Some view assimilation as a “trap” (445) that people are falling into.
This concept really confused me. While I view the word “assimilate” as having a negative context, later in the same quote, QUASH says, “real change occurs when we are inclusive, not exclusive” (445). Does not inclusiveness require some degree of assimilation (or adjustment—a synonym that I much prefer)? How can one person or group be both for including others of different races, classes, genders, and identities, and against the idea of understanding all of the differences that such a group would therefore have?
While reading this piece, I kept going back to the notion of oppression. She mentions it several times throughout, and that made me think of the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which is the only way that I could make sense of the behavior discussed in several of the quotes throughout Cohen’s article. Once a group stops being oppressed by another, Freire writes, the newly non-oppressed group begins oppressing another group in a similar way. Cohen points out that, in some cases, this is what many other minorities (and other, non-minority, groups as well) are doing to the queer population. The oppression is merely getting pushed down the line to another group of people.
I found this article fascinating to read, but I ended up with more questions afterwards than I had beforehand. I am still not entirely sure what Cohen’s point was, unless she was arguing for more inclusive behavior and less judgmental exclusion by all parties. Could the point be that simple? Is she just arguing against the marginalization of “the other” that occurs throughout society?
Cohen is arguing for what she calls a “transformational” politics, and is examining the 90s movement of queer for how well it might provide theory for such a politics. Certainly she is arguing against the marginalization of the other, but I am not convinced that is such a simple point! She begins from the premise that queer politics are anti-assimilationist and goes from there, which may be part of what was confusing you.
She is critiquing queer political movements on two grounds: on the one hand, because their systemic stance against heteronormativity falls into a simplistic demonization of heterosexuals that ignores the differences in privilege between differently classed and racialized straight and queer people; and on the other hand, because queer calls for abandonment of identity categories fails to recognize those who might find needed succour within those categories even as they are also critical of them.