Jan Wickman

Provokerende kærester, armhuler og en lille smule AIDS

tobias raun

JAN WICKMAN (b. 1964) is a research fellow at Department of Sociology, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland.


[1] Martin Berg & Jan

Since its conception, one of the defining characteristics of queer as a critical scholarly and political perspective has been that it resists definition. On the one hand, this reluctance towards precision reflects the queer-theoretical position that clear-cut categorisations are problematic as such. On the other hand, it is a strategy to maintain the dynamism of the perspective.[1] However, as the literature has grown wider and the concept has been applied in ever new contexts, it has also acquired new, sometimes inconsistent, meanings and connotations.[2] For example debates about intersectionality have involved impulses to widen the scope of queer research. Not only has attention been drawn to the importance of considering other hierarchies – such as race/ethnicity, disability, or age – in the analysis of the consequences of heteronormativity in non-heterosexual lives, practices, and cultural expressions, but some researchers have been prompted to ask whether queer theory could be transferred from the study of gender and sexuality to analyses of those other hierarchies as such.[3] As a consequence of its multiple significations, the concept of queer now risks lack of clarity but also loss of expressive power. In other words, today the term queer itself conveys fairly little meaning and, if no clarification has been offered, the reader is obliged to deduce its meaning at any given time by the context. The increase of the ambiguity and versatility of the concept means that, for example, a summary of wider debates in which the term is used in several ways requires some patience and effort. The complexity of the term queer, obviously, transfers to the derivatives such as queer scholarship, queer readings, etc. In this essay, I will discuss what we mean by queer politics or queer activism and present a tentative typology that might assist in dealing with the multiple significations of queer.[4]


Components of “queer”

According to its canonized genesis, the queer perspective was born about 1990 in the USA as a combination of poststructuralist theorisation and a demand for radicalisation of gay and lesbian politics in the wake of the AIDS crisis. This genealogy points to three central components of the queer perspective: queer theory, radical activism, and roots in gay and lesbian politics. The three components are quite apparent in most presentations of queer theory and politics, but in the literature their distinctness has often been overlooked or ignored and it seems that they are expected to simply merge into one in the queer perspective. They are indeed generally intertwined and appear together in different combinations. Therefore, they must probably be regarded as different ingredients that may produce different emphases in queer thought and activism rather than markers of separate strands of queer discourse. Nevertheless, I find it useful to consider them as distinct for a moment in order to use the distinction as a method to analyse the various meanings of queer. Obviously, the difference between these components has been noted before, but I would suggest that it might, in addition, be helpful to put simple labels on these elements of queer in order to facilitate further discussion of the various meanings of this concept.[5]

In a previous discussion which focused on queer research I termed the three different aspects of queer the theoretical, the political, and lastly (a bit hesitantly) the cultural.[6] The theoretical aspect obviously refers to the body of poststructuralist scholarship on gender and sexuality (for the most part originating from feminist debates) that was branded as queer theory about twenty years ago. The political aspect, then, equals the radical in-your-face activist attitude that does not shun confrontation or provocation which we tend to associate with queer. The cultural aspect refers to the association of queer with gay men and lesbians or, at best, with an extended LGBTI coalition without necessarily considering the theoretical or political aspect of queer. This is an understanding of queer that is rather common in our culture but contradictory to the queer-theoretical critique of categorical identities. Just as queer research is by no means always defined by the theoretical aspect of queer, queer activism need not always be primarily linked to the political aspect. There is activist work that is queer in the sense that it is informed by queer theory, and there is political practice that is called queer just because it carries on the legacy of gay and lesbian politics.

At this stage, this distinction is not aimed to be an analytical vehicle to profound new insights. Rather, it is intended as a terminological tool that could be helpful when situating different perspectives on queer and formulating concise specifications and qualifications, if needed, when we use the ambiguous concept queer – particularly in discourse where we move quickly from emphasis of one of its dimensions to another. In the next three sections, I will discuss the three aspects of queer and provide examples of different kinds of political activism and debate that employ the notion of queer and clearly stress one of its dimensions more than the others.

I) Activism informed and inspired by queer theory

Many queer academics consider their scholarly efforts as a form of activism. Without wanting to contest this view I will here focus on, on the one hand, political work outside the academy and, on the other hand, work in academic arenas that reaches out to political debates outside the university context, engages actively in interaction with the rest of the movement, or discusses the applications of scholarly debates in pragmatic politics.

[5] For example, this distinction



Teksten er første kapitel fra en roman med den foreløbige arbejdstitel ”Padder og krybdyr”.

The relationship between queer theory and activism has not been straightforward. The labelling of the work by Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and other poststructuralist thinkers on gender and sexuality as “queer theory” was apparently originally inspired by the activist reclamation of the word, and students informed by Foucault’s concept of power contributed as activists to the often aesthetically and conceptually innovative forms of demonstrations. Nonetheless, the theorisation was soon to be criticised for being too abstract and esoteric for application in practical politics.[7] In this context, two main issues have long been considered as problems: queer theory’s lack of attention to the social world and its lack of viable concrete alternatives to the identity politics that it opposes. Yet, despite this critique implying that queer theory could not work as basis for any socially relevant activism, there has been a shift toward greater emphasis of the theoretical aspect of queer in the use of the term queer activism. It seems to me that the term was originally associated mainly with the political aspect of queer exemplified by the edgy and provocative strategies of Queer Nation and other groups like it. Soon, however, and increasingly over the years, queer activism came to be understood in terms of practical political work which applies insights of queer theory. In other words, even with tensions the relationship between theory and activism appears to be dynamic and in progress. Next, we shall take a closer look at the points of friction.

[7] For example Jonathan Alexander,

Cultural theory and social movement

While the “classical queer theory” of the 1990s[8] focused on a conceptual and cultural critique of discursive regulations of sex, gender, and sexuality (and their role as prerequisites for subjectivity), which is indeed politically important, this scholarship did not deal directly with the social world, and therefore easily seemed to be of limited use in the day-to-day running of a social movement aiming to change the social circumstances of people and the institutions and structures of society. This, after all, constitutes the core of politics for many. Therefore, the sociological critique of the limitations of queer theory in analysis of the social, which began soon after the breakthrough of queer, has become intertwined with the critique of the limitations of queer theory’s political applicability.

For example, Steven Seidman discussed the tensions between queer theory and sociological analysis in relation to the queer social movement at length in several publications. On the one hand, he certainly appreciated the way queer theory highlighted discursive regulations, which he considered both politically and socially highly significant: “It is this rendering of literary analysis into social analysis, of textual critique into social critique, of readings into a political practice, of politics into the politics of knowledge, that makes deconstruction and queer theory inspired by it an important movement of theory and politics”.[9] On the other hand, he considered the lack of attention to the social world to be a problem for the application of the perspective in a social movement:

Yet, queer theorists have often surrendered to a narrow culturalism or textualism; they have not articulated their critique of knowledge with a critique of the social conditions productive of such textual figures; they have not provided an account of the social conditions of their own critique. The “social” is often narrowed into categories of knowledge and culture while the latter is itself often reduced to linguistic, discursive binary figures.[10]

Adding the lack of articulation of queer theory’s ethics to his critique, he concluded, “If we are to recover a fuller social critical perspective and a transformative political vision, one fruitful direction is to articulate a politics with an institutional social analysis that does not disavow a willingness to spell out its own ethical standpoint”.[11]

In addition, the preoccupation of most queer-theoretical scholarship with cultural production in arts and media has inspired activism that often relies on play with cultural signs and this, in turn, has prompted criticism of queer activism being overly preoccupied with aesthetics (as opposed to “real” social issues). It has been suggested that there is more style than political content to the politics of inaccurate repetition of standard gender performatives that is inspired by Butler.[12] This critique is related to the general concern with the “cultural turn”[13] of leftist politics, and politics becoming “merely cultural”.[14] In general, the criticism has implied deficient understanding of the needs of people and the dynamics of political advocacy.


[8] At present, when we


Steven Seidman Cover


[9] Steven Seidman, “Deconstructing queer

The trouble with identity…

The critique of innate identity and identity politics has constituted one of the most demanding hurdles for the application of queer theory in activism, particularly as queer activism springs from a movement that has historically been founded on gay identity and belonging. It has been a challenge to conceptualise (queer) activism as anything else than work on behalf of one or a few more or less clearly defined groups. In her book Vad är queer? [What is queer?] Fanny Ambjörnsson even asks if queer does not make more concrete politics impossible altogether. She reports that Swedish queer activists have resorted to “strategic essentialism” in order to be able to formulate feasible political agendas.[15] From a queer-theoretical perspective this position involves a paradox since, in such politics, the central critique remains closeted as internal knowledge of the activist group. It has indeed been demanding to realise notions of identity deconstruction in external communication. For example, Liv Mertz recounts problems in a Danish queer group’s promotion of initiatives informed by the queer-theoretical critical view on identity categories to authorities and a general public unfamiliar with the postmodern philosophy, causing the messages to be completely misinterpreted.[16] However, according to her, “politics of contingent foundations” (as suggested by Butler) can successfully be realised, without directly engaging the public or politicians, by making proposals that discreetly create new discursive openings even if their anti-identitarian implications may not be grasped by mainstream society.[17]

Meanwhile, the application of queer-theoretical ideas may have paradoxical outcomes also within the movement. The construction of queer politics as a coalition through increased acknowledgement of the diversity among homosexuals and a reforming of alliances between gay men and lesbians as well as with bisexuals and transgendered people is generally seen as the most concrete effect of the queer-theoretical view of identity as fluid. Nevertheless, the numerous subgroups within the coalition have, according to Ambjörnsson, also become sites of construction of ever more narrowly defined and specialized identities.[18] That way, it is feared, the “new” queer movement might remain almost as identity-driven as the “old” gay and lesbian movement.

[15] Fanny Ambjörnsson, Vad är

… and a solution?

Norwegian sociologist Agnes Bolsø has presented a proposal for sexual politics that aims to “turn queer into practical organisation politics”.[19] Her plan focuses on a departure from gay and lesbian identity politics without emphasising radicalism as a raison d’être and thus constitutes a good example of an idea for queer politics and activism that is entirely based on the theoretical aspect of queer.[20] In an article called “Identitet og homopolitikk etter queer” [Identity and gay politics after queer], in Tidsskrift for kjønnsforskning, Bolsø sketches out the ingredients of a sexual politics that would gradually distance itself from the homo/hetero binary and the identity categories that at present define the dominant gay and lesbian politics in Norway. She starts off from observations that she has made in her own research on sexual encounters and relations between men and women. It turns out that these are not always as unambiguously heterosexual as one might expect. It happens relatively often that the sexual practices clearly break the congruence of sex, gender, and sexuality expected in the heterosexual matrix, for example, when those involved want to emphasise the femininity of the man or the masculinity of the woman either as a self-identification or as something desirable in the partner in the sexual interaction, or both.

Such twists in sexual interactions could superficially be regarded simply as heterosexual because they occur between a man and a woman. Yet, for Bolsø, a focus on these impulses may inspire substantial revisions of sexual politics. In the end, her proposal is elegantly simple: gays and lesbians should no longer be included as groups in public educational and information efforts concerning sexuality. Instead these efforts should on all levels – from counselling of individuals to the research that informs public policies – be formulated in such a way that homosexuality and non-heterosexuality are taken into account as potential elements in any sexual encounter or practice rather than as issues that concern a given minority. Bolsø does admit that creating political engagement and commitment to such an agenda may be a challenge. It is not likely that the people who, for the purposes of her study, accepted to discuss practices that they considered very private would overnight become actors in a new movement in sexual politics. Therefore, it is necessary that organisations associated with the traditional gay and lesbian movement and their activists, in the first stage, take responsibility for the struggle for new queer policies. For this purpose, she calls for a reformed gay movement.[21]

Tidsskrift for kjönnsforskning


[19] Agnes Bolsø, “Identitet og

Sociological research on new social movements makes a distinction between identity- or status-based movements and instrumental movements which are focused on certain issues such as the environment. Identities play an important part also in the instrumental movements, in which they grow out of shared activities and commitment to the cause, but they are not regarded as the motivation of the activity. Bolsø’s proposal involves a transformation of a (gay) identity movement into an instrumental (queer) movement in sexual politics, with the clear aim to leave behind LGBT or any such framework: Queer is here not regarded as an issue of norm-breaking that only a given group of people would be involved in. But what are the content and the goals of the new politics? How are they defined? Bolsø does not discuss this issue, but it seems that the primary goal is still the same as in identity politics, that is, emancipation and liberation, but now it may concern anyone and everyone.[22] Could more be said about the aims of activism that is based on queer theory?


[22] In this Bolsø joins

In 1999, Jonathan Alexander, obviously disillusioned with queer, stating that “the queer movement is running out of steam” because of queer theory’s “non-transferability to activism”, feared that the identity politics which queer theory had denounced had crept back into the LGBT/queer movement. For Alexander, the problem with identity politics was that it did not support solidarity between the separate identity groups in the LGBT coalition. The queer perspective’s bid for solidarity between all those marginalised by the heterosexual matrix appealed to Alexander, but it had apparently failed in his view. Being the hegemonic groups within the movement, gay men and sometimes lesbians with them set interests of other groups within the LGBT coalition aside when they deemed it strategically necessary for their own purposes. Something more was needed as guideline for queer activism than queer theory’s offer of mere critique of identity politics without suggestions for alternatives. Echoing Seidman’s call for articulation of the ethical underpinnings of queer, but with reference to Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks, and Kate Bornstein, Alexander postulated that values were about to replace identity as the base of the movement. But in the end, neither could he articulate what those values might be, beyond relatively vague references to solidarity and sympathy, and a proposal to claim the concept of family values of the conservative right and to queer or adopt it to suit the alternative families (of choice) of the LGBT community.[23] The talk about the need for a discussion on the ethics of the queer perspective has later resurfaced in debates about intersectionality and the obvious power asymmetries between “queers” in different regions of the world that have become topical in the intensifying discussion on the globalisation of queer.[24] However, a more substantial and coherent discussion related to queer theory and research about values that might unite the movement is apparently still missing.

[23] Alexander, “Beyond Identity”.

In conclusion, despite undeniable frictions in the activist application of queer theory, the theory has still had considerable impact on the activism within the queer movement. This influence has been supported by the fact that many of the activists have tended to be young and students. The main part of what they have taken (with varying success) out of the lecture halls and into their group meetings and out on the streets and other public places can be summarised in three points. First, there is a conviction that targeting the cultural sources of oppression constitutes a challenge to the hegemony of the heterosexual matrix at the most fundamental level. There is nothing secondary about addressing the “merely cultural” – the gestures that constitute the politics of the performative are very important indeed.[25] Second, the queer challenge of any ideas of coherent, prediscursive identities and unambiguous identity categories has translated into openness in people’s self-identifications. This has resulted in at least an effort towards increased alliance-building between diverse groups that are marginalised by the heterosexual matrix although there have been obstacles and failures in this endeavour. Third, the focus of the political analysis has been, to some extent, shifted from the problems of the minorities to the oppressive culture of heteronormativity.

[25]  Mary Bernstein, “Identity



II) Politically queer activism

For many, queer is not queer without a radical political edge. Queer activism implies a challenging approach to sexual politics and it shuns neither controversy nor confrontation. Discussions about the political radicalism of queer activism usually revisit the model of all queer activism, the organisation Queer Nation that has been credited for the first use of queer as a political signifier in the legendary flyer with the titles “Queers Read This!” and “I Hate Straights!” on either side. Grown out of the frustration with the wilful mismanagement of the AIDS crisis by the government and with increased violent homophobia, discrimination, and hostility to add insult to injury, the embracement of anger and violent response is the sensational feature of the flyer and the early politics of Queer Nation that is remembered and quoted. Indeed, this aggression, famously expressed in the slogan “Queers Bash Back!”, was represented in the flyer as the force that would unite “queers”.[26] While a lot of what has gone under the banner of queer over the years is a far cry from this uncompromising resistance, the legacy of identification with anger and hatred and a refusal to denounce violence has not disappeared and still attracts a lot of media attention when it resurfaces. For example, in the 2008 Helsinki Pride parade it was represented by a contingent called Pink Black Block. Half-covered faces and pyrotechnic torches were visual signs that evoked associations to violent clashes in conjunction with a completely different kind of demonstrations. The group summons the energy of hate and anger also in their verbal communication with slogans such as “Queer Jihad”.[27]

[26] Rand, “A Disunited Nation



In addition to the discourse of anger and (potential) violence, there are three main (somewhat less dramatic) ways in which the confrontational political radicalism of some factions of the queer movement is articulated. First, some debaters underline the importance of engagement with the abject, in public. For example in Sweden, Don Kulick has maintained that it is crucial for the queer movement to remain subversive, “uncomfortable”, and oriented towards change (which a large part of the movement and culture that today is called queer is not). To this end, queer activists and scholars alike should forefront in public debates with an open mind issues and sexual practices – such as pornography, prostitution, and promiscuity – that are perceived as controversial in a mainstream no longer shocked merely by same-sex desire. These are issues that can be, but are not necessarily, associated with gay and lesbian agendas or subcultures. In fact, Kulick regards discussion about them as a way to question the supposed unity of heterosexuality as something respectable and natural.[28]

[28] Kulick, “Inledning”.

Second, resistance to normalisation suggests a relative radicalism in comparison to more conformist approaches in non-heterosexual politics. Critique of assimilationist tendencies within the gay and lesbian movement was part and parcel of the queer approach from the beginning and still continues. However, obviously, the conditions of this opposition have changed considerably since the 1990s. Under the circumstances of the late 1980s and early 1990s in a USA plagued by AIDS and a conservative government, the gay and lesbian politics intent on respectability and lobbying was at a dead end and could well be criticised for belonging to the past, and at that time getting “us” nowhere. For a time, it may have seemed that the new queer perspective would just sweep all over it. In the past decade, however, and for instance in Scandinavia already earlier, the gay and lesbian lobby has had considerable success in promoting legislative reforms, lately including gender-neutral marital legislation in Norway and Sweden. Thus, it has regained new weight as a rival to queer politics.[29] The queer critique against normalisation and assimilation has indeed changed tone accordingly. In recent years, it has often been articulated using Lisa Duggan’s redefinition of homonormativity as a neoliberal sexual politics that “that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them”.[30] Many of the critics do not oppose the concrete goals of same-sex marriage or adoption rights as such (although others are very convinced that the queer movement must not be involved in recreation of obsolete heterosexual domestic patterns in a gay environment), but express concern over the family rights campaign having become so dominant in the LGBT(I) organisations that alternative choices and lifestyles become marginalised even in the LGBT(I)/queer communities themselves. It remains an open question whether it is the normal that gets queered or the queer that gets normalised in the homosexual modification of the nuclear family, even though the latter alternative is more often presented in the literature.

Finally, there is a strand of queer activism that cultivates its radicalism in its alliance patterns, that is, by cooperating with other critical and subversive movements and causes rather than privileging (LGBT) sexual politics as its primary frame of reference. For example, Gavin Brown has studied “a radical queer activism that is aligned with the anarchist and anticapitalist wings of the global justice movement” in the London group of the international Queeruption network.[31] The activities are characterised by social experimentation in organising the life and activities of the collectives. Activities take place in independent media, international networks, and temporary autonomous spaces created through squatting and groups that are kept as non-hierarchical as possible rather than in permanent organisations, and events rather than campaigns are created. In Europe, the large cities in the West of the continent are centres of this movement although the examples are widespread, including the Nordic countries.

[29] It is worth noting




[31] Gavin Brown, “Mutinous Eruptions:

III) Queer as remodelled lesbian and gay or LGBTI politics

In the gay and lesbian or LGBT movement, the smart term queer has been adopted by many even when they have not been particularly interested in the particularities of either queer theory or queer politics as discussed above. While queer as a political and theoretical concept, notwithstanding insistence on fluid outlines, was from the beginning defined “against a seemingly dissimilar ‘gay and lesbian identity’”,[32] the use of queer as a simple equivalent to “gay and lesbian” or “LGBTI” may still well be the most commonly used adaptation of the term. It can be seen in mass media, among activists as well as in research. In other words, it seems that the queer-theoretical insight that concepts (such as heterosexuality) are defined through difference from their opposites or others is very pertinent to the concept of queer itself. However, this notion also includes the observation that all concepts are simultaneously dependent of and never separated from their excluded others. Queer continues to be perceived as a version of gay and lesbian politics or identity, possibly a reformed version, at best. This appropriation of the concept with little or no reference to – or even knowledge of – its theoretical or political implications has occasionally been considered controversial.

Both the theoretical and the political aspects of queer are defined, in different ways, through negation of gay and lesbian identities and politics. When the theoretical aspect is emphasised, queer to a great extent acquires its shape from the critique of the identity politics that sets homosexuals apart as a particular breed. According to this type of queer critique identity politics establishes a deep and fundamental difference between homo and hetero while it, at the same time, locks homo- and heterosexuality together in an inescapable relationship of mutual exclusion. When the weight is on the theoretical aspect, queer is presented as the opposite of identity politics that is judged problematic as it cements the minority position of homosexuality. In contrast, the criticism that springs from the political aspect of queer tends to castigate gays and lesbians for their meek assimilationist politics that strive for normalcy and stress similarity and sameness with “everybody else”.


[32] Rand, “A Disunited Nation

It is not only people overlooking or being unaware of the political and theoretical queer critique of lesbian and gay or LGBT identity categories that identify queer with gay. Even scholars who critique and distance themselves from identity politics often find queer inextricably associated with gay and lesbian or LGBT(I). Even they assume that queer activism “free of” identity politics will continue to take place within the LGBT alliance. Several scholars contend that because identities have their strategic uses and carry great emotional investments they should not be abandoned completely as political tools even if faith in them as innate or essential is abandoned.[33] Bolsø’s agenda, mentioned earlier, is different in this respect. While she does not talk about identity, she does envision the future of queer politics as separated from group markers such as LGBT.

[33] See, for example, Alexander,

In critical discourse, the part of the queer world defined by the cultural aspect of the concept is often perceived as mainstreamed, docile, consumerist, and commodified. Indeed, arrangements such as the Stockholm Pride Parade can hardly be viewed as counterculture when it has reportedly become the largest yearly spectator event in the country with tens of thousands in the parade and, at best, up to 500,000 viewers watching on the pavements. The former deviants have indeed become trendy, even if they are not universally popular. We find another example of this mainstreaming of queer that takes place in liberal, western urban settings in the analyses of urban geographers: vibrant gay quarters of the kind that house the marketable portion of queer culture have become perceived as a chic asset in the so-called city branding, attracting both tourists and the desirable, well-educated residents.[34] Event organisers working in these circumstances can hardly be called activists any longer, but are perceived as workers in the entertainment business. One might ask (and many have) what they have in common with the angry militants or the youngsters who manifest their queer activism as squatters?

[34] David Bell & Jon

It is, however, not easy to draw absolute clear lines between different factions of queer activism. The commercial enterprises do not negate the political work that is done in LGBT organisations, sometimes with elements of queer-theoretical or -political thinking. The mainstreaming is also a geographically and socially limited phenomenon, and the picture is very different if one looks at many settings outside the English-speaking world and Western Europe. For example in Eastern Europe, there is nothing complicit in fighting for gay and lesbian rights. Also, the adoption of the English word queer in non-English contexts may in certain contexts (be strategically used to) actually conceal the sexual content of politics or scholarship that would be considered provocative.[35] Sometimes, the importance of fluidity in queer theory may function the same way.[36]

[35] Tiina Rosenberg, L-ordet: Vart


This review has been inclusive in the sense that I have not set particular preconditions for the use of the terms queer or queer activism. Rather, quite in the queer tradition of inclusiveness and keeping categories open, I have attempted to create an overview of the ways in which these terms have been used. The concept queer lives several parallel lives, in which its theoretical, political, and cultural aspects are emphasised differently. Hence, what is called “queer activism” also takes a multitude of shapes. If we are to keep the concept queer in its earliest stimulating undefined state, we will have to deal with increasing ambiguity and versatility in its uses. The typology of the theoretical, political, and cultural dimensions of queer may help us to develop our discussions, analyses, and practice of queer activism.


Jan Wickman: Queer Activism: What Might That Be? Trikster #4, 2010.