Let me preface this with two things: I’m queer, but my education in queer politics has largely been limited to Glee and Gaga; both of which are important for young queer people to learn not to hate themselves. That said, neither are particularly useful in critically thinking about queerness and its history.
It’s against this background that April Holcombe’s presentation proved so important. Despite the title being ‘Mardi Gras was a Riot’, Holcombe’s presentation broadly tracked the development of diverse queer communities through the twentieth century in the United States. It’s not the slow arc towards justice that is the caricature of the history of activism. Anecdotes, like the fact that the Stonewall riots were preceded by the Cooper’s Bakery riot, where drag queens hurled doughnuts at policemen, or that gay soldiers during WWII would make out in front of uncomfortable guards knowing they couldn’t do anything to stop them, showed queer history for what it is. Complicated, messy, fun.
To this end, Holcombe’s workshop posed questions about the nature of queer activism today.
Importantly, Holcombe noted that the idea of a ‘homosexual’ is a relatively new phenomenon. Whilst clearly stigmatisation and persecution of those that committed ‘homosexual acts’ like sodomy is nothing new, this was broadly seen as something one did, rather than something one was. Anyone who’s read about Ancient Greek orgies probably knows that. The compulsion to pathologise and categorise people in regard to their sexuality is a relatively new phenomenon.
The implications for that, though, are serious. It means that living in a society that has transcended the categories, spectrums or definitions of sexuality is not only plausible, but has existed for most of human history. Now is the anomaly.
It is also particularly important when we consider ‘Born this Way’ discourse. ‘Born this Way’, to be clear, wasn’t just a chart topping hit in 2011, but a way of framing sexuality as biologically innate and therefore not your “fault” that still persists in some queer discourse. Holcombe argues that it concedes too much ground. Who you have sex with is a personal, fundamental choice and liberty, and as long as it is consenting, it causes no harm. Also, it’s no one’s fucking business. The power of this assertive anger, as seen in Stonewall, in Mardi Gras, in 1978, is key to the agency of queer communities.
Queerness is a past, a structure and a culture, and its history makes demands not just on people outside of that community, but also on queer people themselves. Part of coming to terms with that is dealing with those demands, and asking how best we can push for change. There are fair criticisms about the sometimes-alienating impenetrability of queer politics, Holcombe though, navigated that with insight. ‘Mardi was a Riot’ is the best that Radical Education can do: ideas without dogma, accessibility without condescension. We need more of this.