Obama, homonationalism, sex classification

So, a short piece I wrote has just been published in a special symposium section on the 2012 elections in Theory & Event.The essay, “Homonationalism, State Rationalities, and Sex Contradictions,” is in no way a paen to Obama or his neoliberal agenda, but neither is it a typical rehash of the homonormative critique. (It does, though, explain what’s meant by homonormative, heteronormative, and homonational and go over each term’s provenance.) I try to move the discussion sideways, suggesting we displace the mainstream LGBT rights crowd and the queer left’s tendency to fetishize  “the state.”

Spending most of my (unfortunately rare) research time poking through agency rules on sex classification, state court decisions on “transgender marriages,” and the “freeze-frame” policy governing incarcerated trans people, I can’t help but see a much more jumbled, complex picture.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the piece:

“While the queer critiques of homonormative and homonationalist agendas are more complex than the GLB mainstream’s celebration of recent victories, the emphasis on the interpellation of queer subjects through national biopolitical projects tends to frame the discussion around activities regulated by the federal government (commerce, war, immigration, national security, etc.) and national discourses of American identity (marriage and family). In doing so, this scholarship tends to overemphasize a unity of intention on the part of state actors and to imagine the “the state” as far more monolithic than it is. Similarly, while gay rights advocates have been forced to battle official homophobia at the state and local levels, they seek a singular, all powerful, champion to resolve the problem once and for all at the federal level. One act of Congress could end employment discrimination everywhere; one Supreme Court ruling could rid us of the patchwork quilt of laws and constitutional amendments on marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnership.”

“However, construing the election as presenting a choice between Obama the good and Romney the bad [the mainstreams LGBT position], or as a battle between Obama the not-so-great and Romney the bad [the queer left], elevates grand narratives and concepts—marriage, the state—over the thousands of ongoing and quotidian decisions that regulate life. That simplification is understandable. It’s certainly much easier to talk about same-sex marriage than to do archival excavations of applications of SSA policy, to delve into the cracks and crevices of the regulatory state apparatuses….Becoming swept up in the romance, or tragedy, of the electoral narrative, gets in the way of understanding the minute technologies of governance that regulate our lives.”

I simply can’t reduce all that I’ve found (apologies for the empiricism here) into a singular narrative–be it one of progress or not (the other being, what, something like neoliberalism in the age of declining empire).  What I can say, though, is that different decisions on sex classification represent different state projects. Sometimes those projects are contradictory.

Hats off to  Steven Johnston, of the University of Utah, for organizing the symposium and the convivial post-election conference in Utah.  You can see my piece and the other symposium contributions–including Paulina Ochoa Espejo on Obama and the Dream Act, Robyn Marasco  on “Romnesia,” and Michaele Ferguson on women as an interest group (not!)–in Theory & Event, Vol. 16, no. 1. Email me if you’d like to read it but don’t have access to Project Muse.

Next up…something on the Court, same-sex marriage, federalism, and–to add something new to this discussion–sex classification.

Media flare up on Virginia groom-groom marriage

Va. Accidentally Marries Two Men,” headlines a story by Dionne Walker in the AP wire. Two individuals the state of Virginia later classified as male got married in March. When one of them, Justine McCain, went to court to change her legal name to “Penelopsky Aaryonna Goldberry” officials realized that McCain’s legal first name was actually Justin, and that her birth gender was male. I’m using this media anecdote as a teaser into the more dense legal stuff in a chapter I’m working on for my book, The United States of Gender: Regulating Transgender Identities.

Of course, the VA officials and the media had a hard time getting their minds around this, even though a story like this erupts in the mainstream every few months, it seems. But there are a couple of points I want to put a little pressure on for this analysis. First of all, the idea of an “illegal marriage,” a phrase used by the reporter and the marriage commissioner she quotes. A marriage can be invalid, improperly executed, later annulled, but “illegal”? That’s an incoherent concept from a legal point of view. But that something is muddled as a technical concept doesn’t stop it from gaining traction in the popular imagination. (Like “illegal” alien.)

Another point of interest: “A prosecutor says the decision to press charges could turn on whether the pair knowingly misled officials…If the bride was transgender, and identified as a woman, it is unclear whether the marriage would be consider illegal.” So, if it were two individuals legally classified as male and also identified as men themselves, then the prosecutor says charges would be brought. (What charges? “Fraud”? “False personation”? ) But if Justine can be classified as transgender, if she identifies as a woman, then that might not result in the same sort of charges for an “illegal” marriage–perhaps just further civil litigation about determining her legal sex for purposes of marriage in Virginia. So the state’s response depends on what she says about her gender identity. A same-sex marriages draws possible fraud charges; a transgender marriage might be challenged under a different logic, but not fraud. (Of course, I doubt the prosecutor would actually pursue fraud charges, but the initial reaction is what I’m interested in here.)

This is how it goes. I start off wanting to make a simple point about something or other related to the legal regulation of sex, but it’s never simple…bodies of all sorts, unexpected gender identities, different state rules in different jurisdictions.