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Queercore: the distinct identities of subculture.

(For Judy Sisneros, our own queer saint)

In late 1995, the post-grunge band Garbage had something of a hit with a song simply entitled "Queer." No one in the band identifies (at least publicly) as queer, and (perhaps even more oddly) questions about the song's possible connection to communities and histories that could appropriately be designated as "queer" simply never came up in the mass media (Cooper 1996). While the song caused various DJs and VJs a few seconds of discomfort in saying that word on the air, nothing stopped the song, its video, or the band from achieving airplay. (Nevertheless, the announcement on radio or MTV, "Here's 'Queer' by Garbage," still gave us, if no-one else, a mild thrill.)

Garbage's "Queer" seems like a perfect neologism. Emptied of exact significance and stable context, it is ready to be endlessly cited, iterated, performed - the same "queer" catechresis which "queer theorists" have spent so much energy describing. With its blankly aggressive lyrics, the song extends an open invitation to "queerness" even as it issues an obituary for any specific use of the term: "The queerest of the queer,/ The coldest of the cool," sings Shirley Manson, the lead singer, in a deadpan voice, over a jauntily sinister beat. "The lamest of the lame,/ The strangest of the strange,/ You're nothing special here." Through a series of superlatives, the lyrics hail an interlocutor only to take back whatever distinction they attribute to that "you," who is at one and the same time the "queerest," the "coldest," the "strangest," the "lamest," and the one who is "nothing special." The song delineates a position in which to be "queer," even "the queerest," and it then holds that position open to any addressee, while nevertheless denying anything significant about such queerness.

Enunciated by Garbage, "Queer" provides the ideal theme song for an era after "queer," when the term no longer designates any distinctive identity ("you're nothing special here"). In queer theory, "queer" has become exactly the crossover vacuum that the song produces as a kind of transitive intransitivity. If any addressee can now be "queer," then "queerness" is nothing to write home about. Take Michael Warner, for example, on the ins and outs of queer belonging:

I've heard people worry that the political experience of lesbians and gays is being trivialized [by the use of "queer"]. Through the rhetoric of queer, they say, straight people score coolness points without suffering. It may very well be impossible for the sentence "I am queer" to be false. I can't say that bothers me. (14, emphasis added)

But contrary to Warner and other queer theorists' view, "queer" did at one time indicate membership in a specific group in very particular ways. We understand "queer" to have been the marker for a distinct subculture, at least initially, whose members emphatically distinguished themselves from dominant straight culture and lesbian/gay parent culture alike. (See Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, and Roberts for more on "parent culture.") We are a little skeptical about recent quasi-ecumenical claims for "queerness"; by contrast, we proceed from the unastonishing assumption that identities are tactical, relational, and distinct, that is, social, historical, and necessarily collective.

In this paper, we limit our focus to the precise uses of the marker "queer" as it was adopted by participants in self-styled queer subcultures between 1989 and 1993, especially by that section that named itself "queercore" or "homocore." Direct and indirect participation in the "core" was facilitated by the variety of media through which this collectivity imagined itself. As such, fanzines, records, clubs, music, videos, and some novels even, effectively opened what can be termed a queer counter-public sphere in opposition to the institutions of the lesbian and/or gay public sphere already in existence and exemplified by organizations like GLAAD and NGLTF in the U.S., or the Stonewall group in England, spaces like established middle-class gay neighborhoods (West Hollywood, Provincetown, the Castro), or events like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival or Gay Pride marches. If anything, the queer counter-public sphere created new positions in the field of cultural production, a process which caused prior positions to shift as well.(1)

Through its cultural production the queer counter-public consolidated distinct identities, thus simultaneously reproducing and historicizing itself. When Jennifer Terry suggests that a "new archivist [of deviance] . . . [should be] on the street, in the thick of things, occupying a mobile subject position" (57), we feel the resonance that her phrase "archivist of deviance" has for queer cultural workers such as Vaginal Creme Davis, Danielle Willis, and Steve Abbott. "Queerness" is not a magic word that can be called on to cover a limitless range of identities, but instead exists only in "the thick of things," in contingent situations and precise contexts. Queercore writers and cultural producers create such an "archive" by offering an "autoethnography" of their own queer subcultural worlds.(2)

A crucial component in the production of a counter-public sphere is the multitude of fanzines which, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, defined "queerness" in highly oppositional ways. Fanzines originated in the do-it-yourself ethos of punk (circa 1976) and circulated expressions of fandom, often vehemently opinionated, to establish networks of the like-minded (Burchill and Parsons 88-89, Austin, LaBruce). As their name indicates, "queerzines" compounded punk fandom with a simultaneous refusal of heterosexuality and dominant models of lesbian and gay identity (Viegener, "Only Haircut" 11617). Here, for example, is the domain that the Toronto 'zine BIMBOX opened for its addressees:

You are entering a gay and lesbian-free zone . . . . BIMBOX has transformed into an unstoppable monster, hell-bent on forcably [sic] removing lesbians and gays from non-heterosexual society.

Effective immediately BIMBOX is at war with lesbians and gays. A war in which modern queer boys and queer girls are united against the prehistoric thinking and demented self-serving politics of the above-mentioned scum. (BIMBOX n.p.)

Obviously, the "modern queer boys and queer girls" are a very different constituency from the vague "queer" hailed by Garbage's song or suggested by Warner. The BIMBOX harangue continues:

BIMBOX hereby renounces it's [sic] past use of the term lesbian and/or gay in a positive manner. This is a civil war against the ultimate evil, and consequently we must identify us and them in no uncertain terms, a task which will prove to be half the battle.

In what has become a notorious statement, the collective issuing the 'zine assert confidently: "FACT: All victims of gay bashing DESERVE what they get. All victims of queer bashing are unfortunate cases of mistaken identity" (n.p.). Thus the lines are drawn in a symbolic battle over positions in a field of cultural production; the outside is vituperatively imagined to create an inside, a core. As BIMBOX stresses, "we must identify us and them in no uncertain terms."

This establishment of an inside and an outside, an "us" versus a "them," is articulated most force fully in the term "queercore" ("homocore" is sometimes used synonymously with the former, Smith). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as punk mutated on the West Coast, it increasingly authenticated itself as "hardcore." Minimalist thrash, hardcore music is characterized by rapid-fire, loud, four/four bursts of chords with ultra-fast, barely comprehensible vocals, and is accompanied by slam dancing, moshing, and crowd surfing during highly valued live performances, which constitute the center of the core. Variations of this musical genre, such as speed metal and grindcore, can trace their lineages back to the hardcore scene (Goldthorpe, Belsito, and Davis). In creating a compound of "queer" or "homo" and "hardcore," queercore and homocore not only signaled their allegiances to post-punk subculture, but also positioned themselves as equally distinct from lesbian and gay culture and the masculinist tendencies of hardcore punk (namaste). Thus, an issue of JDs presented itself as a "soft core zine for hard core kids . . . queer core for hard core kids" (n.p.). Soft, hard or queer, the central issue is the core.

Several subcultural allegiances can intersect in queercore, as writer, sex worker, full-time goth, and sometime drag king Danielle Willis makes clear: "[Queercore] is really diverse. There are goth kids, straights, punks, bisexuals, rockers, fags, dykes. Look at me, I'm a female who dresses like a rocker boy so I can go out with transvestites" (interview in Cooper, "Johnny Noxzema" 33). Willis cannily envisages the moment when queer will lose its "core" identity and become, in the words of Garbage, "nothing special": "But I'm afraid the scene's becoming too homogenized. I guess that was inevitable, though, because most people are conformists. I'd say there's maybe another two to five years of vitality in Queercore, then we'll see what's next. It's already starting to produce clones. Ugh" (33). (This was in 1992!) The fear of "clones" taking over the sphere of queercore is frequently reiterated, and indicates how jealously guarded subcultural distinction can be. Jena von Brucker and G.B. Jones (frontwoman of the band Fifth Column) declare, "we are angry with those awful people at Queer Nation . . . They stole our word. While there is [sic] a few o.k. individuals at Queer Nation, they are for the most part clones in queer's clothing" (BIMBOX n.p.). In a discussion with Johnny Noxzema, Jones twists Warhol's famous bon mot to proclaim, "In the future everyone will be queer for 15 minutes" ("Naked Lunch" 244). Bruce LaBruce, one-time associate of Jones and Von Brucker, serves notice of the definitive end of queercore: "'Queercore' is dead. I know, because I say it is" (LaBruce 186) and adds, "No, I'm not 'queer,' and I don't know why they had to ruin a perfectly good word, either. They are so gay" (194).

"Queercore" may then have had the function that Pierre Bourdieu attributes to avant-gardes, which is not to say that queer-punk emerged solely as a variant on an ongoing and uninterrupted Western avant-garde tradition. (For examples of the latter, see Marcus, Berlant and Freeman 221, and Viegener, "Revolting" 31). Bourdieu details how the history of the field of cultural production is determined by struggles over difference and distinction:

On one side are the dominant figures, who want continuity, identity, reproduction; on the other, the newcomers, who seek discontinuity, rupture, difference, revolution. To "make one's name" [faire date] means making one's mark, achieving recognition (in both senses) of one's difference from other producers, especially the most consecrated of them; at the same time, it means creating a new position beyond the positions presently occupied, ahead of them, in the avant-garde. To introduce difference is to produce time. (106)

Queercore introduced or created such a new position ahead of "consecrated" (Bourdieu 78) lesbian and gay cultural and political monopolies, and as evidence of the struggle which Bourdieu outlines, "queer" has been almost universally understood as a generational issue. From Linnea Due, who notes - as apparent fact - in her work with Queer Nation that "many of the QNers were terrified of older gays" (xv) to Judith Butler, who describes the adherents of the term "queer" no fewer than three times in as many pages as "younger" and particularly a "younger generation" (228-30), there has been almost no reflection on what such an assumption of youth might mean, other than the banalities of biological age. This is why we believe that subcultural theory, which has long interrogated "youth" as "metaphor for social change" (Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, and Roberts 17), is so useful.(3) Queercore was not, in effect, about the chronological ages of its adherents or opponents; rather, it revealed the "social ageing" (Bourdieu 59) that accompanied the ossification of a lesbian and gay public sphere into what BIMBOX denounces as "a generation of misogynist capitalist swine clones and half-baked numskull [sic] granola feminists over 30," "a complex network of selfish, over-educated, self-appointed rich people overseeing a vast fake-democratic lesbian and gay multi-national bureaucracy that dictates how we think, dress, act and fuck" (n.p.).

Queercore's adamance about its difference, its sense of "us versus them" and of an absolute inside against a monolithic outside, must be grasped as a struggle over distinction.

Hence the importance, in this struggle for life and survival, of the distinctive marks which at best aim to identify what are often the most superficial and most visible properties of a set of works or producers. Words - the names of schools or groups, proper names - are so important only because they make things. These distinctive signs produce existence in a world in which the only way to be is to be different, to "make one's name," either personally or as a group. (Bourdieu 106)

The functions of queercore, then, are to deny legitimacy to the public sphere, to stress internal coherence around its own proper differences, and to turn to the networks created by queerzines, clubs, music and other subcultural practices so that a counter-public sphere can be created.

Such a counter-public forms the subject matter of Steve Abbott's mythopoeic autobiographical account of San Francisco's queer club scene, The Lizard Club, the terrain of which is Chaos, Screw, Club Uranus, and Klubstitute. If Lawrence Grossberg has theorized the investment of fans in rock and roll as "encapsulation," as "a kind of 'bubble,' a mobile environment surrounding its fans, sometimes weak and transparent, sometimes strong and opaque" ("Is There Rock" 115,116), Abbott's novel seems to take such "encapsulation" to extremes when it insists that the particular music played in each of the queer clubs of San Francisco marks out a dense and secret territory of competing heresies.

All the bars in town, at least the ones I like, are fronts for heretical sects. The Lizard Club is Manichean, Club Chaos, Arian. Club Uranus is Apollinarian, and Screw - well, it's rumored to be the last holdout of the Borborites. DJs have to play music espousing the club's theology . . . . (21-22)

Song lyrics and musical forms are intensely scrutinized for their arcane theological messages - "Arius, who lived in the fourth century A.D., was the first to realize pop music's great potential in disseminating propaganda" (27), we are told.

Music thus constitutes a secret code in which denizens of the subcultural world trade subcultural signs that have now been transmuted into heretical tokens of recognition:

"Ooo Baby, whaddya think," Jerome squeals, twirling around to show me her new outfit. I answer by paraphrasing a new song by Coil, a band especially popular with us Manicheans ever since Clive Barker rejected their "Hellraiser" soundtrack as "too scary."

"Your wandering mind is over the border, a mind like a cemetery where the corpses are turning."

"Oh doll," Jerome gushes, batting her three inch eyelashes. "You say the sweetest things." Then she elaborates on my doctrine using as her text a stanza from Wire. (22)

(In an intriguing return of this kind of recognition, Coil, a foundational queer industrial/ambient band, has quoted Abbot's novel on the liner notes for one of their albums, How To Destroy Angels.) Music can literally become a code in the novel, as in a section in which the narrator describes an entire restaurant experience by means of band names such as Lubricated Goat (an industrial band) and the Virgin Prunes (an early goth act). After a few paragraphs, the narrator gives up the game: "Actually, this is just a coded rundown of a few bands we like. Lex is a DJ and sometimes we talk in code about what's happening on the music/heresy front" (69).

The Lizard Club is obsessed with codes, ciphers, acrostics (49-50), or language games of all kinds (Chapter 16, "A Few Insults From A To Z," for example), and it even names a central character, who, significantly, is a club DJ, Lex Icon. From language games the novel proceeds to conspiracy theories. It reveals that "homosaurians" exist, as mutant descendants of dinosaurs, and that the narrator - Abbott "himself" - is one such a "decadent, ambiguous" being (153); it exposes the story of human evolution as yet another grand narrative, another thinly veiled conspiracy theory. Like Marcus's Lipstick Traces, The Lizard Club situates punk in a fabulous genealogy which brings every possible heresy in its wake (for example, the "Hippie Histomap: A Brief Chronology of Various Counter-Cultural Influences" 42) - the chief differences are that Abbott is much less bombastic than Marcus, and that Abbott specifically deals with queer punk, unlike Marcus, for whom queers had no influence on punk or vice versa.

While The Lizard Club as a baroque and willfully Pynchonesque epic in miniature may seem far removed from the queercore concerns we have outlined, it exemplifies the subcultural insider's proprietorial gaze over secret signs. As John Clarke has argued, "style objectifies a group's image. . . . One of the main functions of a distinctive subcultural style is to define the boundaries of group membership against other groups" (18). With evident delight, the narrator cites in full a letter by an angry gay citizen about the "lewdness" and "bad taste" of the float which Uranus sent to San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade in 1990 (38). Even the novel's elegiac concern with the evanescent quality of subculture becomes an aesthete's bittersweet revenge on the "clones" so dreaded in the queercore scene:

...I marveled at how quickly we'd all changed. We danced, sang, drank and fucked, and what did we have to show for it? Not much. Chaos moved, then closed. Screw burned down. New clubs came and went. But the raving venues of our sexual and theological liberation had faded into oblivion. Yet though we didn't last as long as certain early heresies, our lives were no less glorious for that. We'd found freedom in the moment, in the cracks, and that was something. Better we now drift off, maybe to do nothing or to create something entirely new, before we become a "church." (153)

Everything in the novel seems to be on the verge of disappearance. Humans, like dinosaurs, are virtually an extinct species: "how exciting to live amongst a doomed species in a society so stagnant that phosphorous vapors flare up like a halo over a corpse" (86-87); the narrator intrudes to alert the reader that he is writing against time because of his AIDS-related infection: "I must rush to get to the end of this book before my eyes give out. My right eye suffers from CMV retinitis and a detached retina, the optic nerve of my left is scarred from an old case of optic retinitis. In short, I'm fast disintegrating" (91). But this potential for disappearance also guarantees the authenticity of the subcultural world: "But already Maddy, Lex, Jerome, Diet, Sean, and all the others were starting to fade - not because they weren't real, but because they were. For it's only the real that decays and dies, not the unreal" (153). The "lizard strategy," we are informed, is "appear, then disappear" (151). Sadly, Abbott himself died before the publication of the novel. His mixture of fact and fiction nevertheless preserves the vanished world of the queer clubs as a delirious archive.

Ingestion and incorporation, key tropes of The Lizard Club, work as structural devices: "Famous Last Words," the last chapter of the novel, consists, Abbott discloses, of "a pastiche of last lines from 101 of my favorite books" (155). Homosaurians are characterized by their habit of swallowing humans whole, thus, Count Lesard, homosaurian and supposed associate of Rimbaud, devours that other mythical count, the Comte de Lautreamont (78). This ubiquitous incorporation - "A cannibalistic society has no unconscious" (87) - does not ultimately aim at unsettling the distinction between subcultural inside and outside; rather, it becomes a figure for the subcultural practice of bricolage, which, as Clarke stresses, depends for its work of "transformation and re-signification" (178) on pre-existing systems of commodities and signs. Likewise, a counterpublic can only appear in relation to an already existent public sphere. Abbott swells the inside by sucking all of the outside (fragments of mainstream gay culture, the avant-garde, the history of rock and roll, the "real world") into it. He stretches what Grossberg calls the "bubble" of rock to its extremes.

Like Abbott, Danielle Willis uses tropes of monstrous incorporation in her subcultural bricolage, and she draws extensively on goth subculture, a post-punk amalgamation of glamour, horror, and melancholy. In her short story, "The Gift of Neptune," a female vampire falls in love with a moribund mermaid and rescues her from the freak show in which they have been imprisoned (Dogs In Lingerie 17-22); her poem, "Kicking Omewenne," is an elegy for her relationship with the transgender goth singer, Omewenne Grimstone (who also appears as a character in Abbott's novel!), and has as its refrain, "monsters always cry over their dinners" (74), a suitably goth image of lachrymose, ravenous monstrosity. While mermaids, vampires, and even Gilles de Rais (74), occur as figures of a hyperbolic queerness and insatiable bricolage, Willis still situates herself as the jaded insider who can demystify what she has previously mythified. "Monsters are supposed to cry over their dinners/ and you and I want so desperately to be monsters/ and not just a couple of ex-Catholic suburban kids/ with the right kind of hair and bone structure to carry off the clothes and the ghoul makeup" (75), she declares at the end of "Kicking Omewenne." The subcultural insider expects both the shocked incomprehension of the "straight" (lesbian or gay or heterosexual) outsider as well as the shared recognition of the rules of the game by other insiders who will "get" the queer address; indeed, part of the fun is to imagine the mute misunderstanding of the outside. "They say/ They say/ They say/ They say I'm strange and I wish I were," Willis writes in the poem "Pigbaby" (13, another monster!). Abbott justifies his use of documentary in conjunction with fantasy by stating: "Everybody's autobiography is fantastic, the more so the more detail that's provided" (Lizard Club 15). Willis, like Abbott, produces a detailed record of one subcultural scene - the intersection of goths, transsexuals, bisexuals, and sex workers - and does so in the register of fantasy to make a queer autoethnography.

Vaginal Davis (aka Vaginal Creme Davis), self-styled blacktress and African American punk writer, musician and performance artist, engages in an equally elaborate bricolage to the ends of another fantastic autobiography/ autoethnography. Her writing is a dense mixture of Black English, sexual slang, queer gossip, homo-folklore, neologistic wordplay, ribald narrative, and revenge fantasy which recalls the specifically African American traditions of boasting and signifying.(4) For example, Davis signifies on the highly influential but very white and masculinist hardcore band Black Flag in the name of one of her side projects, Black Fag (Rogers 93). Words are decomposed: "penis-cilin" ("MonStar" 2), "homey-sexual" (Fertile, Paris 5), or "Hell He Lou Ya!" ("MonStar" 4). Portmanteau words abound, such as "beefthrob" ("heartthrob" + "beefcake") ("MonStar" 1), "fourgy" ("four" + "orgy") ("MonStar" 1), "beat-manifesto" (for "masturbate": "beat your meat" + a reference to the industrial band Meat Beat Manifesto) ("MonStar" 4), or "condomint" and "condominium" ("condom") ("MonStar" 2 and "Myself" 109), alongside wild and willful malapropisms, such as "pis de resonance ala eleganza" ("MonStar" 1), "coital simultaneouptus" (for "coming together") ("MonStar" 4), and "hypo glysteria" (for "hysteria," the effect of sex with Davis, according to her text) ("MonStar" 2). There are poetic flights of metaphor and alliteration: "donkey-donged dorks" ("MonStar" 2), "passion's hissy fit" ("MonStar" 4), or "milky magnesia mouth" (a condensation of "mealy-mouthed" and "milk of magnesia" perhaps) ("Myself" 107). Odd rhymes show up out of nowhere: "sex in a tree, throw down the key, i'se got to pee" (Fertile, Visual 4). Often, Davis's language is held out for emulation as catch-phrases or taglines: "What Fertile Sez People Copy," the 'zine tells its readers, and obligingly supplies more of the Fertile/Vaginal lexicon (Paris 5). All of this is carefully crafted to make an argot that will be impenetrable to the outsider, whose incomprehension is once again imagined even as it is dismissed: "For your part all you have to do is accept FERTILE into your life and body. Worship her for the goddess that she is, recognize that your life is a desperate sham without her" (Visual 6). Mainstream gays may nonetheless be reluctant to follow Davis's lead: when she was approached by The Advocate to write for a "Gay Voices, Black America" issue, timed for Black History Month, her idiosyncratic prose was edited without her approval; quotation marks were even put around her self-description, blacktress (discussed in Noxzema, Jones, von Brucker 248-49). Davis frequently uses the phrase "Stonewall or Stonehinge" to indicate that even the post-Stonewall generation is out of date (for example, Visual 22, or "Myself" 107).

In her several projects, her bands, the Afro Sisters, Cholita, and the "retro positive punk speed metal band" (Davis, "To Live" n.p.), Pedro, Muriel and Esther, her frequent readings, and 'zines, Davis has undertaken an amazing archival project that, through its wayward style, carefully makes an inventory of each shift in Los Angeles's underground clubs and events. Her songs likewise constitute a kind of historical reservoir of the queer scene and the transformative presence of people of color. For example, "Anna-Ee," performed by Pedro, Muriel and Esther, about a pre-operative Latina transsexual, actually records the experiences of the real Anna-Ee, a transsexual performer at one of the club nights in Los Angeles. "anna you anna me anna-ee!," runs the chorus, "he's a him, you're a you, i'm a she!/she's a real fine chick!/she's got tits, and a dick!" (in Visual 5).

At the same time, Davis is engaged in a process of self-writing on multiple fronts. When she talks about her exclusion from the culture industry of Hollywood in her video 'zine, she declares, "When they see a woman like me, they can't deal, so they dismiss me, but I'm way too big to be dismissed!" ("big" here could be both a reference to her stature and her import): this statement captures how persistently Vaginal Davis has asserted her identity. When the video begins, for example, she introduces herself, "Hello, I'm Vaginal Davis!" She repeats her introduction over and over again, while the video executes a series of eye-blink jumpcuts, or small glitches, which underline, the reiteration of her name and visually stress both her insistence and a struggle in self-naming - almost against the grain of the apparatus, as it were. This significance of self-writing and -naming for Davis as a black drag queen can be connected not only to queerpunk styles but also to Afrodiasporic practices of naming, most recently in rap (although Davis herself does not directly work with this musical form).(5) Davis often practices self-aggrandizement, exemplified by utterances such as "my boldness and complete uninhibitedness" ("Myself" 107), while keeping a keen eye on racist/genderphobic exclusions. "[A]cting like he's never seen a big beautiful black drag queen before," she comments after an encounter with Brett Easton Ellis, who "[gives] me dagger eyes like he disapproved of my African-American flamboyountcy" ("Myself" 109). She remarks on the hip pseudo-tolerance of a Hollywood crowd: "[they] all think that they are being so progressive and cutting-edge because they are trying very hard not to be shocked by my giant black drag-queenedness" ("MonStar" 1). Davis will not let anyone rest comfortably with an assimilable presence.

A scene from the video 'zine shows how bricolage could work specifically to black queer punk ends. Davis's cohort, Fertile La Toyah, makes an appearance to address the question: "What Makes Fertile Mad?" White people who claim not to be racist make her mad, she answers, and she insists that all life in the U.S. is defined by racism. "We ain't all one big happy family like the little birdies! Fuck that shit!" At the end, Fertile is seen in a T-shirt with the legend "I'VE HAD 21 ABORTIONS" and a baseball cap with an X marked on it in duct tape, another big X visible behind her. "Soon I will be at your doorstep, me, Fertile La Toyah Jackson X, with my army of beautiful, beautiful colored people ready to tear your white, blue-eyed devil asses apart . . . .I will get justice by any means necessary." She rises from her seat, raises and cocks a rifle at the viewer, at which point the frame freezes, as if to forestall the inevitable shot.

This scene spells out an intense rejection of the domesticated image of the benevolent black drag queen in mainstream media (most recently instantiated by RuPaul); through bricolage, it contests the marginalization of African American women and black queers from the rhetoric of Black Nationalism.(6) Paul Gilroy has cautioned that the categories of "race" and "blackness" have stabilized themselves through a dependence on gender, masculinity in particular (7); in contrast to such dependence, Davis and Jackson conjoin race, gender, and sexuality in unpredictable, unruly ways. Their excessive invocation of Malcolm X in the video testifies instead to what Gilroy describes as "a desire to set the historical memory of black struggles loose in a world where memory and historicity have been subordinated to a relentless contemporaneity" (13). It is such memory and historicity that we should value and recognize in the queer counter-public sphere, and which Davis's work exemplifies.

As the term "queer" moved from counter-public to public sphere, it may have shed some of the distinction through which it was articulated, but this process also allowed many disenfranchised groups to stake their claims in a "queer" public sphere. Unlike Warner, for whom anybody can be "queer," and unlike the open yet limited invitation issued by Garbage, several constituencies, notably transsexuals, transgender people, and bisexuals, have been able to render themselves distinct and visible through the use of "queer." In the transsexual 'zine Gendertrash, transsexuals state: "We're just as queer as dykes and fags maybe even more so." Activists and cultural workers of color such as Lani Ka'ahumanu, Cherrie Moraga and Elias Farajaje-Jones have situated "queer" within a politics of multiculture in the U.S. Despite its limitations, this appeal to multiculturalism establishes a "chain of equivalences" among and between identities that Kobena Mercer, following Chantal Mouffe, sees as fundamental to radical democracy.(7)

This is not to reify the term "queer," but to recognize that it, like any other signifier, can be resituated in specific contexts to open new possibilities for identification, alliance, and action. All too often, the stories of the formation of subcultures and specific communities are lost because they are not recorded by institutions (such as the academy) that reproduce the public sphere. Here we have tried to recall some stories about "queer," but this is by no means the last word. We await the invention, rediscovery, and assertion of many others.

"It is in the future that we must see our history," the narrator states near the end of The Lizard Club (158). Abbott's final paragraphs echo our concerns: "A story like this can have no happy ending . . .or can it? . . . Matter of fact, I think this was the youngest we ever felt. It was our best time but we couldn't find a single mention in the press of this turning point in our lives" (158-59, first ellipsis Abbott's). We share the narrator's sense of urgency and fear of not finding any record of fundamental shifts in our societies. Lisa Duggan points to the difficulties early work on reconstructing a gay and lesbian history faced since few documents exist that detail transgender, bisexual, lesbian and/or gay existence; it is therefore vital that all of us who work in transgender, bisexual, lesbian and/or gay studies become "archivists of deviance." We imagine future histories still to be written: accounts of transsexual resistance, of the poor, of youth cultures in specific regions, of bisexual existence outside urban areas, of older lesbians and gay men, of those surviving with HIV as the U.S. health care system continues to suffer attacks by an increasingly vicious government. All these stories remain to be recorded.


1 Here we draw on Jurgen Habermas's concept of the public sphere, articulated in Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 14-26. We are also taking into account the various critiques and refinements of Habermas in Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere. We derive "counter-public sphere" from Negt and Kluge, especially their elaboration of the concept in Public Sphere and Experience 54-91. We are also relying on Bourdieu, Field of Cultural Production 30, for an account of how shifts in position in a field of cultural production affect all the possible positions.

2 We take the term "autoethnographic" from Goldman, "'I Yam What I Yam'" 189. Especially pertinent here, too, is McRobbie's call for a renewed ethnographic engagement with the everyday of real people's lives, McRobie 730.

3 We are aware, nevertheless, of the difficulties that subcultural studies has had, historically, with subcultures that are not both male and straight. See Garber and McRobbie, and McRobbie in Hall and Jefferson 25.

4 See Rose for the persistence of these Afrodiasporic traditions in rap music as well, for example, 19, 61, and 85.

5 As in many African and Afrodiasporic cultural forms, hip hop's prolific self-naming is a form of reinvention and self-definition," writes Rose, Black Noise 36.

6 For a useful discussion of the circumscribed role of black women in nationalistic hip hop in the U.S., see Decker. See also Rose, Black Noise 146-82.

7 Mouffe writes: "the progressive character of a struggle does not depend on its place of origin . . . but rather on its link with other struggles. The longer the chain of equivalences set up between the defense of the rights of one group and those of other groups, the deeper will be the democratization process, and the more difficult it will be to neutralize certain struggles or make them serve the ends of the Right. The concept of solidarity can be used to form such a chain of democratic equivalences" (100). Also, see Mercer's discussion of race in the late 1960s as crucial to forming such a "chain of equivalences" (424-49).


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Du Plessis assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder, focuses on lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gay studies. Chapman, on the adjunct faculty at the same university, concentrates in lesbian/bisexual women's cultures.
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Title Annotation:Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis
Author:Plessis, Michael du; Chapman, Kathleen
Publication:College Literature
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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