A pride month graphic featuring Ian Barnard, author of Sex Panic Rhetorics, Queer Interventions

Guest Post: Exploring Queer Representation with Ian Barnard

I remember the thrill with which I read a conversation between British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien and British music journalist Jon Savage in Critical Quarterly in 1994, in the midst of the boom in queer theory. Isaac Julien explained, “We’ve been excited and intrigued by the whole ‘queer’ debate . . . where there’s been this epistemological break with ‘positive representations,’ that rallying call to be represented within an assimilationist acceptance.” Julien was speaking of how “queer” was liberating for him as an LGBTQ+ artist, freeing him from the imperative for “positive” LGBTQ+ representation. For me as a queer rhetorician and cultural critic, the anti-assimilationism, oppositionality, radical politics, rigorous intersectionality, and even negativity championed under the auspices of “queer” offered exciting spaces for my own identifications as well as for the kinds of scholarship that I was interested in pursuing, from my examination of the intrication of race and sexuality in the discourse around a monstrous figure like Jeffery Dahmer in my first book, to my critique of Kevin Spacey’s “convenient” gayness in my most recent book, to my current work on the British trial of gay mass rapist Reynard Sinaga.

In Sex Panic Rhetorics, Queer Interventions (U of Alabama P, 2020), I was especially committed to pushing “queer” to its limits. I wanted to build on contemporary queer scholarship that makes “queer” an ever-expanding category of dissident and decentered identities and epistemologies, and think through queer’s inextricable intersectionality, while at the same time resisting the temptation to unmoor queer from its originary ties to gender and sexuality, and to anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic critique. In the book’s chapter on “Sex Trafficking Panics,” for instance, I trace the ways in which, under the mantel of combatting sex trafficking, sex work is rhetorically and legally demonized and criminalized in current political and cultural discourses, while heteronormative family structures are rewarded. I conclude that chapter with a reflection on the slipperiness of “queer”:

“In an article on the preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Gregory Mitchell discusses antiprostitution raids that were conducted in Rio de Janeiro in the name of stopping sex trafficking (with the real goal of ‘cleaning up’ the city for foreign tourists and international sponsors), while at the same time gentrification and other kinds of trafficking related to international sporting events (e.g., construction labor) continued unabated, and white middle-class gay tourism to Brazil continued to be promoted: ‘Prostitutes are out; gays are in.’ So the relationship between sex work and homophobia is quite complicated, as inequities run apace in the name of abolishing inequity. We could say that one kind of queer sexuality is being valorized at the expense of another, if we are willing to subsume sex workers under the mantel of ‘queer,’ in solidarity with [Gayle] Rubin’s delineation of the ‘outer limits of sexuality,’ and as long as white middle-class gay tourists maintain their status in these outer limits. Certainly, Mitchell’s research offers a corrective to my suggestion in this chapter that sex-trafficking panics are necessarily homophobic, though not necessarily to my claim that they are queerphobic. After all, Mitchell points out that the Brazilian government’s crackdowns on sex workers were undertaken in cahoots with evangelical Christian organizations’ desire to valorize the ‘traditional family unit.’ In time, this valorization will no doubt include married white (or, at least, light-skinned) middle-class gay couples.”

We can see the ruptures and potential ruptures in “queer” here, queer’s complicated, uneven, and even adversarial relationship to “gay,” and how shifting political imperatives and alliances destabilize identities, categorizations, and terminologies—this is a particularly urgent rhetorical parsing in our current moment where, in some circles, pinkwashing is used to rationalize Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. I should add, to return to Isaac Julien’s (and my) excitement about “queer,” that I don’t lament these instabilities, but rather find them to be rich and productive prompts for honest and dynamic intellectual and activist work.

This is an important component of “pride” for me: having reached a scholarly space where I don’t have to center heteronormativity, where criticality has replaced defensiveness, and where LGBTQ+ identities, experiences, positionalities, and epistemologies are studied, celebrated, critiqued, qualified, nuanced, and complicated in all their myriad manifestations, contradictions, and possibilities.

I am grateful that presses like The University of Alabama Press have supported scholarship such as mine, despite the exponentially increasing attacks on queer people, trans folx, queer studies, gender studies, feminism, and critical race studies in the US and worldwide, and despite, on the other hand, continuing calls on scholars like me to attend to “positive representation.”


Social Media Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com