1. maj 2011

Essay 'Queer Trouble in Ljubljana'

On Friday, April 29th 2011, I presented my essay Queer Trouble in Ljubljana at the Import – Export – Transport: Queer Theory, Queer Critique and Activism in Motion conference in Vienna. Below, you can read the abstract and introduction. The complete version is going to be published in 2012 by Zaglossus.

The essay was originally written in Slovene and published in two versions; the short one can be downloaded as PDF from Tribuna magazine (February 2011), the full-length can be read in Feminizam - politika jednakosti za sve anthology (ProFemina, Belgrade, 2011).

Queer Trouble in Ljubljana
“Ne tlači me v (o)queer”, a graffiti on the streets of Ljubljana claimed “do not push me in a box” and “do not label me as queer”. It summarized an array of contradictory interpretations of the term queer that have appeared in the local academia, LGBTI media and LGTBI community in the last fifteen years. I analyze them in order to see how imported ideas about queer identity, queer politics and queer theory have been received, questioned and transformed by local knowledge production and practices.

People who do not participate in feminist or lesbian and gay (LGBTI) initiatives in Ljubljana but contribute to other political struggles often ask me what the meaning of the word queer is. Since they know I am co-organizing Rdeče zore (Red Dawns), a self-proclaimed feminist and queer festival, they expect me to know. It is a difficult question, I begin, and there are several answers, only some of which are politically encouraging. Then I quote “Ne tlači me v (o)queer,” a paradoxical graffiti written by Vstaja Lezbosov (The Insurrection of Lesbos) activist group in 2009. By claiming both “do not push me in a box” and “do not label me as queer” the slogan summarized an array of contradictory interpretations of the word queer that have appeared in the local academia, LGBT media and LGBTI community in the last fifteen years – in that order of appearance. The graffiti also suggested that ideas about queer identity, queer theory and queer politics have been significantly changed by local knowledge production and practices; changed in ways that bare no resemblance to the discourse of anti-assimilationist activists in the United States in the early 1990s. Since the term was adopted from literature about activism in the U.S. and brought to a completely different sociopolitical context, the change was expected. Less expected was its consequent refusal in large parts of Ljubljana's lesbian and gay movement. Indeed whom or what does the word queer represent today if young lesbian activists do not want to be “pushed” in its frame? In other words, how did this decisively oppositional concept turn into its own negation, into yet another constraining “box”?

In the U. S., queer activism formed within the LGBTI movement in response to the compromising politics of “homo-cons”. In order to reach their aims – gradually reduced to the demand for recognition of their “we're-just-like-you” normality – privileged members of the movement flirted with patriotic, militarist, racist, sexist and even homophobic politicians. In Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's words, activist groups such as Gay Shame “sought to expose both the lie of a homogenous gay/queer ‘community’, and the ways in which the myth of community is used as a screen behind which gay people with power oppress others and get away with it” (Sycamore 2004: 272). Twenty years later, conservative voices can be heard in Slovenia as well even though the political differentiation of the movement happened in another context.

The lesbian and gay movement in Ljubljana began to form in the mid 1980s together with other civil rights movements, many of which – including the peace movement and the feminist movement – were institutionalized after Slovenia declared independence in 1991. The gradual pacification of struggle demanded by their sponsors (the state, Western foundations) did not affect the LGBTI movement to the same extent. Activists from the 1980s say that their insistence on autonomy, diversity and specific visibility was challenged later, in the late 1990s, when neoliberal capitalism and political conservatism began to show their sharpest teeth. As sexism and homophobia increased, some lesbian and gay groups invigorated their Leftist attacks on institutions of power while others, especially those that embraced identity politics as their only viewpoint, continued to seek legal recognition by those same institutions.

The term queer was introduced when the political differentiation of the movement began to take shape. It was met by curiosity, political analysis and historic memory. On the one hand, queer activism seemed to offer merely a new name for practices that were already present in the movement of the 1980s. As such, the term was superfluous. On the other hand, the introduction of queer theory coincided with the “cultural turn” in academia when recognition became the most important theme of feminist and LGBTI studies – studies that had only recently entered university programs. As such, queer theory was viewed with suspicion: it seemed to be yet another colonizing discourse, one that fit too nicely with the voluntarist ideology of neoliberal capitalism. The fact that queer activism advocated a further fragmentation of the relatively small movement confirmed, rather than rebutted that suspicion.

Of course, discursive colonization of local knowledge is only possible if there is nobody to counter it. If there is, the meaning of an imported concept is going to change. If it turns out to be politically harmful or inefficient, the concept can be altogether refused and abandoned – or used by those who profit from its inefficiency. In the words of feminist political theorist Lidija Radojević: “In Slovenia, the meaning of ‘queer’ […] is going to be defined by the people who are thinking about it” (Hvala 2010a: 71). So far, the term has been most often discussed in relation to gender identity or/and sexual orientation and in relation to a distinct lifestyle and club culture. Less often, it referred to academic research methods, contemporary artistic practices and political organizing. The obvious question is whether or not queer as a concept can be accommodated within all those frames of reference and if so, at what cost. I am not going to attempt to answer it as the focus of my essay lies elsewhere: I am going to look at a variety of interpretations in the LGBTI movement in order to see how the concept was adjusted to suit our needs.


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