“Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens” by Cathy Cohen
In this essay Cohen is warning against the appropriation of the civil rights model in terms of queer politics because of the exclusivity of that model. Basically, it leaves too many people out, and reinforces binaries that feed the power machine of the status quo. She writes, “instead of destabilizing the assumed categories and binaries of sexual identity, queer politics has served to reinforce simple dichotomies between heterosexual and everything ‘queer’” (Cohen 438). Cohen argues that by abandoning this model and creating a more inclusive, comprehensive, authentically queer one: “if there is any truly radical potential to be 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). She is attempting to locate that transformative space.
In this way, she brings into play examples that fit outside the model of the civil rights model, those that exist on the margins of the margins: punks, bulldaggers and welfare queens. Cohen’s made issue is with people who use only one facet of their identity around which to construct their political stance: “my concern is centered on those individuals who consistently activate only one characteristic of their identity, or a single perspective of consciousness, to organize their politics, rejecting any recognition of the multiple and intersecting systems of power that largely dictate our life chances” (440). When this happens, it reinforces assimilation not transformation: “Proceeding from the starting point of a system-based left analysis, strategies built upon the possibility of incorporation and assimilation are exposed as simply expanding and making accessible the status quo for more privileged members of marginal groups…”(Cohen 443).
This is where her heterosexual examples that lie outside of the heteronormative come into play. She explains, “if we pay attention to both historical and current examples of heterosexual relationships which have been prohibited, stigmatized, and generally repressed we may begin to identify those spaces of shared or similar oppression and resistance that provide a basis for radical coalition work” (Cohen 453). For Cohen, queer politics must create an inclusivity to all identities outside the heteronormative in order to transform politics. Doing so will break the hold of assimilation and create a space of transformation and effective resistance that no longer continues to feed the “heteronormative” machine which is “the basis for domination and control” (Cohen 481).
Questions: What do you make of her concept of “straight queers”? Is that an oxymoron or does her extended definition hold up? Is queer anything outside the heteronormative, then? What is queer about your own identities? What happens politically when we extend the definition and could it hold its own against the machine of the status quo?
Your analysis and questions highlight the difference between heterosexuality and heteronormativity very usefully, as Cohen’s essay itself does. What difference do you think it makes that her examples are so strongly grounded in specifically African American culture and politics?