From people who insist that they will have a part in our descent to hell, to those who insist that LGBTQ+ people are the future, there is much debate over the part that LGBTQ+ people may play in the world’s future. American politics are filled with debate over same sex marriage, with some politicians working their viewpoint on the issue into their political campaigns, with those against it often inspiring dystopias where same sex marriage leads to unwanted behavior and encouraging reparative therapy. This holds true for many politics around the world, with governments such as Uganda and Russia proposing laws that prevent same sex couples from achieving equal rights. Similarly, various dystopias are speculated about in political spheres that concern issues involving transgender people and their rights. For instance, there is much debate over whether or not to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender, with hyperbolic scenarios of men entering women’s bathrooms being proposed to create shock value.
“You may have heard the term “San Francisco values” bandied about from time to time. […] Central to San Francisco values is the notion that the only thing immoral is to believe there are things immoral.”
Lee Edelman, an American queer theorist, proposes a different type of dystopia; he proposes a scenario where LGBTQ+ people are the central force in the eradication of the idea of the ‘child’ – a symbolic representation of innocence that society feels the need to protect. He discusses the idea that, biologically and socially, queer people are set up to be the antithesis to the idea of the child and that they should simply embrace that. Queer people, he decides, are the future because we lack the need to reproduce or protect the child, leading society to its death drive. This death drive, as he defines it, is the natural drive towards death and destruction, which will make society react in different ways and adapt to whatever happens. It is both a positive and a negative – it creates change, but also brings around the death of society as we know it.
However, if we are to critique his argument, the first thing that comes to mind is the use of language, rather than anything specific to his proposal. Much of academia, and indeed Edelman himself, refer to LGBTQ+ people as ‘queer’, and use this as a very general term that encompasses a wide variety of people. PFLAG has a more specific, yet still very general, definition of the term:
From Queer Problems
“Think of queer as an umbrella term. It includes anyone who a) wants to identify as queer and b) who feels somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender or sexuality.”
The problem with using ‘queer’ in this manner is that you naturally exclude many people who know this word as a slur. The usage of ‘queer’ as a slur tends to be in places outside of the central cities in the Western world, rather than in the universities and the halls of academia for which Edelman is writing. It is elitism to define ‘queer’ as an umbrella term under the guise of reclamation, when it is a distinct use of the term that is reserved for a very specific group of people. The use of the word ‘queer’ houses Edelman’s arguments strictly in academia or simply in parts of the Western world where it is possible to even consider it as something other than a slur. To consistently defend the usage, or to use it in such a manner that imposes it on such a broad group of people without qualifying its use, as Edelman does, suggests coming from a place of privilege that may not be reflected in every individual in the group. Coming from this place of privilege without acknowledging its existence implies the lack of consideration for those who may not have the same opportunities to critically evaluate the world they live in or to have the opportunity to consider reclamation of a slur. By not acknowledging his position, the general public of LGBTQ+ people, those he theorizes about in his book, are not considered and their lives are reduced to simply speculation rather than lived experiences. Furthermore, his examples make use of literature and popular culture, rather than addressing events that concern actual LGBTQ+ people. This distance removes his critique from the realm of the real world, which allows new viewpoints and new technology to pass him by.
Another issue is that using the word queer as an umbrella term serves the purpose of allowing us to forget certain people who fall under it. Edelman himself falls prey to this, suggesting that there is an inherent lack of ability to reproduce with regards to ‘queer’ people. This excludes people who actually fall under the umbrella term ‘queer’, such as those who are transgender or even lesbian couples who may have the opportunity to have biological children of their own. There are many cases of transgender parents who have spawned biological children before their transition, which is common in those who transition later on in their lives. There are also transgender parents who have conceived biological children after they have started their physical transition, such as in the case of Bianca and Nick Bowser – a trans woman and a trans man who have biological children together. Similarly, recent advances in technology have made it possible for two women to have biological children with each other, with the bioengineering of a ‘female sperm’ that is inserted into their partners egg. Edelman’s use of the word ‘queer’ is symbolic of the times of which he is writing – he looks at LGBTQ+ people in society with a specific focus on gay men. Anything other than that group is ignored, which is a reflection of the modern day LGBTQ+ movement. As much as Edelman suggests that queer people should embrace the anti-child position, that position is as much rooted in modern society as the idea of protecting the innocent child.
Similarly, the rejection of the ‘child’ suggests a cultural context that Edelman resides in. It is nonsensical to assume that LGBTQ+ people would not be involved with family in other ways. LGBTQ+ people don’t live in a bubble, nor are they birthed without context – they would still be involved with a family in a different role, whether that be an uncle, a daughter, a cousin, or even a parent. Edelman’s rhetoric is similar to the old rhetoric of the Western world – that queer people are the antithesis of society, that they are fundamentally different from those who are heterosexual and cisgender. This idea brings to mind pre-Stonewall and pre-LGBT rights society, where even the idea of someone being something other than heterosexual and cisgender was enough to inspire violence and exclusion from society. Indeed, these mindsets still exist in our current society, but there is definitely a very big shift in the perception of LGBTQ+ people, resulting in many individuals who have never experienced that kind of hardship. I would like to assume that the LGBTQ+ movement has moved on from that – that we have realized that our sexuality and/or gender does not dictate our personality, our likes or dislikes, our beliefs, our abilities, or anything that fundamentally makes a person who they are. We have moved away from the gloom and doom society that Edelman seems to believe exists universally. Indeed asking a social group to embrace a stereotype does not make it any less of a stereotype – there will always be exceptions to the rule and it is impossible for such a diverse group to be monolithic in identity. Edelman’s belief in the role of LGBTQ+ people being an anarchistic or an anti-society presence in society reveals much about LGBTQ+ history, but indeed remains rooted in history rather than critically examining modern day society. Many LGBTQ+ people live in societies that allow them to express themselves as they want, and the push to allow them to create their own families – biological or not – suggests an impulse for reproduction that may still exist regardless of their LGBTQ+ status. They are not universally positioned as the antithesis to the traditional family structure, and a lot of this change is due to recent changing beliefs concerning LGBTQ+ people. Edelman’s position seems like the logical conclusion of the terror mongering that exists in history, but does not actually apply to many communities today.
Edelman’s conclusion of linking the idea of ‘queerness’ to the lack of ability to have children also calls into question the status of those who are heterosexual and cisgender but may not biologically have the means to create a child. For instance, those who naturally have a low sperm count or those with ovarian issues that prevent them from conceiving – are these people counted as queer since they fulfill the same purpose as that which Edelman is describing? Much as the idea of queer does not imply the lack of ability to have children, the lack of ability to conceive does not signify a queer. As you could simplify his argument to be “those who cannot conceive are the antithesis of the idea of an innocent child”, the lack of mutual exclusivity calls into question the necessity of linking queerness with the concept of being anti-child. Is this really a queer future, or simply a dystopia that results from those who cannot conceive defining how society should run? Why is necessary to link the idea of queerness to being anti-society, unless it is already a belief held by the one theorizing it? This is not a queer issue, but rather one that deals with childbirth and biological sex–things that aren’t exclusive to queer circles, but is rather one that involves society as a whole. Rooting this in queer circles implies an already skewed idea of what being LGBTQ+ means in today’s society and may simply be a reflection of the society in which the author grew up in rather than what currently exists in many places in the world.
The theory proposed by Edelman suggests an idea of society that is deeply rooted in history and antagonism. The changes in modern day society are not reflected in his paper, and it is foolish to so easily put those things aside in a proclamation that only serves to divide society. Our society should move towards envisioning a future where antagonism does not have to be the logical conclusion. The death drive does not have to be linked to one group in particular, especially one as diverse as LGBTQ+ people, but linked to a critique of how society functions. If we are to determine the role LGBTQ+ people will play in the future, we must first explore the multitude of ways in which they naturally express themselves, rather than defining them by a stereotype.