On Monday, I took a look at LGBT candidates running for office. The general frame of that article, and of most of this series of articles for Bitch has been set within the confines of the US election structure—a within-system critique, taking a discursive analysis approach to the text and narratives of these 2010 midterm elections. I have not been asking about forms of government, the viability of democracy, nor envisioning some new electorate-driven strategy for liberating the oppressed. Those conversations happen, of course, but the focus here has been narrow because I have been interested in putting pressure on the many and varied contradictions floating in the messaging in these individual campaigns and in the media coverage of them as a whole. And I do see opportunities for feminist and progressive-minded people in investigating why those contradictions are so prevalent and so unexplored. Today, I’d like to push in a different direction. What would it mean to queer the election?
Just so we’re on the same page, when I use “queer” as a verb I mean it in the old school queer theory way—queering a concept, institution, or flicker of discourse in order to deconstruct it in such a way as to undermine its false credibility and open up possibilities for new/progressive/emancipatory politics to take place. But “queering” is beyond an act of deconstruction; it also examines more specifically the compulsory heternormativity of institutions and undermines their supposed normality.*
So where do the act of queering and the 2010 elections meet? They rumble over all of the nearly incessant calls to “man up,” for one. Then there are the talking heads who dismiss Christine O’Donnell not for her clear inability to govern, but for her known account of a date with another woman, who was a witch to boot. That was a bit too much for the likes of Karl Rove, backpedal though he has. Queer theory and this election cycle have more moments together every time a politician shows off his or her heterosexual-looking family as a stalwart for the institution of marriage. And don’t forget the ways in which female candidates have been at once sexualized and admonished for their sexuality—here I think of Krystall Ball and Mary Landrieu. Queering this election means we identify these problematic, dominating moments of heterosexism, call them out, and open up a new possibility for the space in front of that day when we pull levers for our candidates (or before we fill out our mail-in ballots, whichever comes first).
Queering elections means that straight relationships don’t automatically equal moral perfection. Let me harken back again to California Justice Vaughn’s decision against the anti-gay Proposition 8:
Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.
The government, according to the US Constitution, is not supposed to uphold one kind of relationship over another as more moral. This was a shocking revelation to some last August, I know.
In voting for the citizens to represent us in government, voters have a right to expect that those representatives will not be prejudiced against them. And it may be a staple of elections in the US to parade around one’s family and asserted fidelity as evidence that one is free from turpitude, but it reifies heterosexual couplings over other kinds of relationships to do so. And on this house of cards, so too do the heteronormative gender roles assigned to the candidates cascade into fallacy. Calling candidates “ice queens,” assuming the macho “Joe 6-pack” man represents what male voters should do, whispering that women running for office are “whores”—queering the elections takes issue with all of this.
Also, queering the election could mean we throw the whole system out and hire people based on how well they can recite from memory the entire Sound of Music movie. I wouldn’t put it past queering’s abilities, anyway. There is that congressional district that decides on tiebreakers with a hand of poker, now that I think of it.
To queer this election means that we start asking what and who elections are for. Ostensibly they’re about fulfilling the means of our government so it can deliver it mission to us in the form of sensible policies, laws, and programs. I for one relish seeing a snow plow clearing a road, going to the library, knowing that people are trained to put out fires in my neighborhood and teach my kids. But beyond this, well beyond it perhaps, are the voting cycles that put in place the people who decide if I should continue to receive these things. To queer an election is to ask what we are allowed to expect by voting. We can put the entire shenanigans on its ear if we demand as a country that we’re not going to select people for office in this way anymore. Unlikely, I know, but a possibility. And by having that possibility present in the debate over how elections are conducted and reported, we tell others that we’re not happy with the system as it is.
I would hope that queering the election would make room for debates of substance. Once we get past posturing—if a female candidate’s blouse is cut too low or if her hairstyle is ugly, if a man seems too effeminate to run for office, or he poses with children to make it look like he has a family, or when say, a campaign operative stomps on a woman’s head at a rally—we are left only with the issues that concern us as a collective. In other words, queering the election means, among other things, cutting to the chase. What is the agenda we want our legislative bodies to take up for us? What are the problems we need solved? Where are the advances we need to make as a country? We can no longer let what is hegemonic ideology masquerading as “crazy politicking” defer focusing on critical issues.
Just what are those critical issues? What has been missing from these campaigns in this election cycle? I’ll take that up on Friday.
*I think I got Judith Butler, Michael Warner, and Eve Sedgwick all in there in that description.