Contemplating the Queer in the Contemporary: Kessler Conversations with Gayle Rubin, Esther Newton, and Carole Vance

Last semester, American cultural anthropologists Esther Newton, Gayle Rubin and Carole Vance, all past Kessler award winners, participated in a conversation about the past and future of queer studies, moderated by Rebecca Jordan-Young. As scholars and activists, these panelists discussed many salient topics that are currently aff ecting queers both socially and politically. Several points in their conversation sparked much interest from the audience, and are worth reiterating here.

Firstly, there was a discussion on the fi eld of anthropology and how it can contribute to sexuality studies. The panel was in agreeance that ethnographic work conducted within the U.S. around issues of sexuality is not highly respected within the fi eld. The panel then discussed ways that applying ethnographic methodologies to the study of sexual subcultures in the U.S. is valuable. They further stated that the theory that comes out of ethnographic work (such as a “masochist aesthetic”) often does not have much to do with people’s lived practices, and therefore becomes of limited use in the political and social spheres outside of academic studies. They suggested that perhaps through more practical ethnographic study of these theoretical concepts, ethnographic studies might be taken more seriously as an eff ective area of study for the progression of sexuality studies within a more public sphere.

The conversation then led to more specifi c events occurring in the U.S., especially queer resonances in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Gayle Rubin addressed the debate about the massive redistribution of wealth, considering how race and sex have been used to make wealth extraction politically viable. Newton emphasized the notion of sexuality as a “wedge issue,” noting that if we only perceive economic reality as the “real” issue in the American economy, then we will begin to perceive identity as unviable. Both social conservatives and liberals have bought into sexuality and race as “wedge issues,” thus making them seem “fake” when compared to the “real” issues of the economy, the unfair distribution of wealth, and similar issues related to capitalism and the neoliberalist agenda. The panel agreed that issues of sexuality should not be ignored within this debate, especially as most minority citizens are the ones being aff ected most directly by the issues being fought for on the OWS front. This conversation then brought up the Slut Walk movement, which brought up questions about rights that are being questioned and taken away from queers in very serious legal and political arenas.

The panel also discussed how both porn and consensual prostitution have been hijacked by and made central to the sex traffi cking debate, in eff ect drawing attention away from the real dangers and victims of sex traffi cking. This then brought up a contemporary discussion surrounding the sex/porn wars of the 1980s: the new ways sxe traffi cking is being debated does not distinguish between the sex traffi cking of minors and consensual prostitution.

Lastly, the panel discussed how scholarship associated with queer identities has been accused of being categorical, and that queer studies might not have long-term uses as identity categories change in response to social and political movements. The panel argued that these categories are viable and useful forms of resistance and should be used, regardless of their longevity (within the academy or in society) as they do important work for people that identify with those categories. As we have seen in the last century, these categories shift and change, but the underlying reason for their presence remains important to distinguish ourselves and allow us to come together to help fi ght against oppressive forces condemning our rights and identities. The panel argued, fi nally, that identity is still built into the environment and thus provides cause to continue to investigate and negotiate these identifi catory categories of resistance.