SEXUALITY RESEARCH & SOCIAL POLICY

Journal of NSRC

Sexuality Research & Social Policy
Journal of NSRC http://nsrc.sfsu.edu

Foucault, Gay Marriage, and Gay and Lesbian Studies in the United States
An Interview with David Halperin
Interview by Cymene Howe

Cymene Howe (CH): In terms of social and political transformation in the United States, how do you think Foucault’s work, or social constructionist ideas in general, transformed the political and social climate of the United States to bring us to the point where we are today? Perhaps you can also include your thoughts about how Foucault might have responded to the current discussion regarding gay marriage in the U.S. David Halperin (DH): First of all, I should say I’m no expert on the United States, on the contemporary scene here, or on social movements in general in the United States. It might seem that Foucault’s thought has been responsible for some of the recent political transformations in this country, and it is certainly true that a number of people who were involved in ACT UP New York in its glory days during the late 1980s were academics or graduate students who were versed in Foucault and who thought of Foucault’s work, especially The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction (1976), as a charter for sexual politics. But I believe the influence has largely been in the opposite direction. Foucault was inspired and his thinking was transformed by the social movements he saw going on around him, including ones that he couldn’t have anticipated, even though some of them did come out of his own work—or at least, if they didn’t come out of his own work, they referred to it. Here I am thinking of the anti-psychiatry movement, the movement associated with R. D. Laing (1959) in Britain and later Thomas Szasz (1960) in the U.S. Foucault was unaware of such a movement, perhaps it had not even started when he

wrote his first book on the history of madness, but when that book was seized upon and taken up by the anti-psychiatry movement, which developed and gathered speed later, he was very pleased. He said on a number of occasions that he hoped people would use his books as toolboxes from which they could get implements to short circuit the workings of various forms of domination. But I think Foucault himself was surprised by the student movement in May of 1968. He wasn’t even in France at the time; he was in Tunisia. He was overtaken as well by the development of the women’s movement and the children’s rights movement. He did play a big role in the prisoner’s rights movement in France, but he was also influenced by it, and ultimately his thinking was very strongly affected by the emergence of the lesbian and gay movement in the United States. I do not believe that Foucault could have predicted the development of those movements on the basis of his experience in France, and they certainly were not generated by his work. However, his own work was changed by them, and when at the end of his life he developed an interest in what he called the “aesthetics of existence” and invoked the way Greek ethics refused to normalize populations but rather stylized freedom to create new possibilities for the shaping of free existence through various technologies of the self, he was reflecting his experiences with gay communities in the United States as much as he was providing them with theoretical reflections that may have proved useful to certain intellectuals in queer theory.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David M. Halperin, Department of English, University of Michigan, 3187 Angell Hall, 435 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109. E-mail: halperin@umich.edu; Cymene Howe, National Sexuality Resource Center, 2017 Mission Street, Ste. 300, San Francisco, CA 94110. E-mail: cymene@sfsu.edu ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ September 2004 Vol. 1, No. 3 32 © Copyright 2004 National Sexuality Resource Center, San Francisco State University, all rights reserved.

SEXUALITY RESEARCH & SOCIAL POLICY

Journal of NSRC

I feel very strongly that the creative dynamics of gay culture are much more fertile, much more powerful, than anything that most academics could come up with on their own. I think that work in queer theory has been strongest when it’s been most directly inspired and shaped by the explosive creative energies of lesbian and gay life in the U.S. The situation that we now confront, in which there is more and more of a divide between the academic wing of the lesbian and gay movement and the mainstream lesbian and gay movement in the U.S, is impoverishing for both, but it’s especially troubling for our current academic work, because it deprives us of a real source of energy and imagination. You can see the nature of this gap if you compare the 1993 gay and lesbian march on Washington with the Millennium March in 2000. Even though a lot of the speeches at the 1993 march were devoted to the themes of gays in the military and gay marriage—two topics that had not been especially prominent or promoted by the academic queer left— there was still a very strong participation of left-wing intellectuals and gay academics in this march, whereas the 2000 march was pretty much boycotted en masse by gay intellectuals and by the academic left. So at that point, by 2000, you could see that the popular movement and the academic wing of the movement had pretty much gone in different directions. In some sense it could be claimed now that certain important cultural traditions of the gay movement are alive and well only in the academic world, to the extent that they’re alive at all. CH: Which traditions in particular? DH: Well, a lot of the gay movement in the 1970s and 1980s was very much opposed to the normalization of queer life and therefore emphasized the importance of sex, arguing that sex was good for you, that sex should not be restricted by narrow theories of health or adjustment or conservative therapeutic notions of maturity, and that gay life was at its most creative when it invented new possibilities for relationships beyond the ones laid down since antiquity in the form of kinship and conjugality. These were some of the most creative parts of the gay movement, the most original parts, and the most valuable parts. This is very

different from a model of political activism in which gay men, as Leo Bersani (1995) says, have no more radical goal than that of “trying to persuade straight society that [they] can be good parents, good soldiers, good priests” (p. 113). That radical dimension of the gay movement, though it’s not extinct, flourishes today within the academy, perhaps even chiefly within the academy, and I think this is a very unfortunate state of affairs, both for the movement as a whole and for the state of academic theory. CH: Could you elaborate on that idea a bit more? DH: At the risk of repeating myself, I’d say that the best work gets accomplished when academic theory can draw on the kind of creative energies produced in a social movement, because the cultural élan of the movement is always more generative and more surprising. Gay culture spontaneously produces many more and diverse kinds of cultural contestation, whether in the form of street theater or the overturning of heterosexist social forms, than academics could have come up with on their own. I know that, in my case at least, it was very important for me to be able to immerse myself in a gay world, especially the world of the Castro in San Francisco in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s. When I left the country in 1993, I would come back to the Castro, looking to it as a source of continual renewal and instruction. When that cultural energy began to evaporate, or to move elsewhere, I was not able to do the kind of work that I had done earlier. For example, I was not able to reflect in a theoretical idiom on the transformative potential of gay culture, because I lacked the concrete, empirical inspiration I had had earlier. CH: It’s very similar to what has happened in women’s and gender studies in so many ways. Women’s studies was generated out of feminist organizing and genderbased social movements but for the last twenty years we have seen a real rift develop between academia and advocacy. DH: Absolutely. This is a much more generalized phenomenon. I have an appointment in Women’s

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Journal of NSRC

Studies at the University of Michigan and for the last couple of years I’ve been on the executive committee of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender there. The phenomena are very similar in these settings, except that I think that there is still so much work to do to achieve equality for women within academia—especially within fields in which they have traditionally not been represented, such as engineering—that one still feels a kind of political fervor in these institutions, particularly within departments of women’s studies, which to me is quite significant. Although many problems on college campuses remain, particularly around transgender issues, on the whole I think there is a lot of complacency, even among lesbian and gay students. Nothing has really prepared me for my current situation. I find myself as a professor somehow representing the possibilities of a radical movement to my students, many of whom have grown up in a conservative or cynical culture and in the absence of any broad idealistic movement to change the world. This was not the case when I was a student. I had some quite inspiring professors, but for the most part I did not look to them to represent the cutting edge of a movement for political or social change. For that, we had the Black Panthers, the feminists, the hippies, and the homosexuals. Of course, students today are rightly impatient with professors who preen themselves on various radical credentials that date back to the Vietnam War but who don’t seem to have done anything interesting since then. Students are also sick and tired of being condescended to by professors because of these students’ supposed political backwardness: professors sometimes bathe themselves in an aura of radical chic as if having good politics were simply part and parcel of tenured privilege. I don’t blame students for finding this attitude difficult to tolerate. At the same time, it’s distinctly odd to find that one is the only person in the classroom who thinks both that the lesbian and gay movement has not yet achieved all of its political or cultural goals and that it is not yet completely obsolete. And then there’s another consideration. When I began to engage with lesbian and gay studies in the mid-1980s, I did so because I wanted to change what qualified as knowledge, to change the practice of

knowledge as it existed at the time, and to change the way academic institutions codified certain kinds of knowledge. To that end, I collaborated closely with both tenured and non-tenured colleagues, as well as with graduate students. This effort was part of a larger movement to try to create new possibilities for scholarly and political practices that had not existed before. And now, because of our success, we have students who enroll in our courses in order to be trained in the field of lesbian and gay studies or queer theory as a discipline: they come to the university for something that already exists at the university, not in order to change what the university has to offer them. This creates a very paradoxical situation in which, without my wanting to occupy this role, I end up being positioned as a kind of gatekeeper who controls access to lesbian and gay studies as if it were a discipline like any other, in which students, including gay students, are graded up or down depending on how well they know queer theory. So instead of being involved with me in a collective movement to change what counts as knowledge, students wind up treating me, more or less necessarily, as someone who is authorized to determine what’s valid knowledge and what isn’t, and to grade them on the basis of how well they master a body of thought that’s already in place. In other words, they find in me an academic functionary like any other. Once again, nothing in my entire career in queer studies has prepared me for this role: I never played it when the field was new. It’s a very troubling role for those of us who went into this field not to impose another discipline on our students but to engage with them in a kind of large-scale collective experiment in what could be thought and said. CH: And yet it’s a pretty Foucauldian dilemma, isn’t it, for you to be the gatekeeper of this particular body of discourse? DH: Foucault was very sensitive to the way that social institutions both restricted certain kinds of possibilities and also provided certain other opportunities. I think he was very canny about how he used his own role as an academic and as a prestigious intellectual in France to make things happen, to undermine the kinds of authority he himself enjoyed, and to try to use his own

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ September 2004 Vol. 1, No. 3 34 © Copyright 2004 National Sexuality Resource Center, San Francisco State University, all rights reserved.

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Journal of NSRC

position strategically to make other things happen. And I’ve tried to learn some of those lessons. CH: What, in your estimation, would Foucault have to say—twenty years after his death—about what has been called the gay marriage movement in the United States? DH: Well, I’m not someone who can speak for Foucault and I’m very bad at Foucauldian ventriloquism. One of the pleasures for me of reading interviews with Foucault is trying and failing to anticipate what Foucault will say in response to a question. Every time I think I know what Foucault is going to say, I keep being surprised by what he says, which goes off in some totally unexpected direction. That’s all the more reason for me to be sure that I’m not able to speak for him. My intuition, though, is that he would be delighted by the whole gay marriage movement, that he would find the trouble it was causing for all sorts of social institutions to be extremely enjoyable. Of course, once the question is posed—“Should gay people have the right to marry?”— there could only be one answer, which is, “Yes.” And, in fact, although gay marriage isn’t an issue I care very much about one way or another, I do think it’s notable that no valid argument against gay marriage has ever been put forward. In fact, there is no basis on which to oppose gay marriage except prejudice. This makes the arguments against gay marriage examples, particularly striking examples, of intellectual or moral disgrace on the part of the people who make them. Nonetheless, we don’t have to imagine what Foucault would say about the gay marriage movement, because we know some of the things that he did say. For example, in 1963 over dinner at the home of Jacques Lacan he said, “There will be no civilization as long as marriage between men is not accepted” (Eribon, 1991). But beyond that, there’s a very interesting interview Foucault gave to Gilles Barbedette that was published in Christopher Street in 1982 called “The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will: A Conversation with Michel Foucault.” In that interview one of the things that Foucault said is that we live in a world in which relational possibilities, the possibilities for different kinds of relationship, are extremely impoverished.

There are family and marriage, and that’s about it. Further, rather than calling for specific rights for gay people—though he acknowledged they were also important—he emphasized the necessity for defining the right for all persons to have new relational possibilities. He was aware of the fact that friendship in the ancient world was often elitist and a part of other social institutions that were deeply distasteful, but he invoked friendship nonetheless as an example of how earlier Western cultures had managed to institutionalize other kinds of relationships besides just kinship and conjugality. Foucault felt that if, in the past, forms of friendship and elective kinship had been more fully recognized, then they might be institutionalized again; that if there was a wider range in the pre-modern world of forms of relationality, then in the post-modern world there might also be new forms of relationships. And this, by the way, is an argument that has been made now much more explicitly and passionately by the late Alan Bray (2003) in a wonderful book, The Friend. Foucault went on to talk about—and I think here he was simply exploring opportunities in the current legal system—the possibility of using adoption, a legal option that already exists, as a way of expanding relational choices. Foucault asked: Why should one person not adopt somebody unrelated to him who was younger? Why could he not adopt someone who was older, in fact? He said that instead of claiming that we should have rights on the basis of who we are now, though that was necessary, it was also important to imagine new rights, to have new forms of relationship that did not already exist. In the end, although I think Foucault would have been perfectly delighted by the push for gay marriage, I also think he would have wanted the gay movement to seize this opportunity to promote and to valorize many different forms of relationships between two or more people, what Foucault at one point called “relations of provisional existence,” that is to say, relations between people that are not necessarily intended to last for life but that may be valued even though they last for a shorter time. I think he would have wanted the gay marriage debate to open a space for the discussion of a plurality of possibilities for different kinds of relationships that could be promoted alongside of

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ September 2004 Vol. 1, No. 3 35 © Copyright 2004 National Sexuality Resource Center, San Francisco State University, all rights reserved.

SEXUALITY RESEARCH & SOCIAL POLICY

Journal of NSRC

marriage. A number of left-wing intellectuals in the gay movement and elsewhere are quite right to criticize the inherently conservative and normalizing dimensions of the push for gay marriage. But it is equally wrong not to acknowledge the quite astounding anarchic possibilities in the current wave of resistance to the restrictions on gay marriage. I mean, when was the last time that an elected public official in this country engaged in a large-scale act of civil disobedience? The way that the gay marriage debate has fueled a kind of challenge to the legitimacy of existing anti-gay discrimination is something that shouldn’t be despised. So while I do not want to criticize the quite legitimate critiques of gay marriage that people on the left have put forward—I think Michael Warner in particular has sketched out brilliantly in his book, The Trouble with Normal (1999), what the downside is of the current gay marriage movement—at the same time, it is worth pointing out that even Warner did not anticipate that gay marriage would provoke the kind of political mobilization that it has. I think the political mobilization and the questioning of the legitimacy of existing laws that bar homosexuals from love and family—at least in their socially recognized forms—are very valuable, and I think that left-wing intellectuals make a serious mistake when they simply dismiss those developments. CH: Going back to what you were saying at the beginning of this conversation about the lack of interchange between the popular gay movement in the United States and intellectual approaches to gay/lesbian/queer/transgender issues, is there evidence that the gay marriage movement would suggest, on some popular level, the failure of queer theory as an intellectual intervention? DH: Yes, I think it is possible. A lot of the radical promise of queer theory, and of lesbian and gay studies before it, to reach down or to reach across to the relevant communities has not panned out. This lack of communication was not always the case. Up through about 1990, gay community newspapers were covering developments in lesbian and gay studies; those developments were big news. I know that I spent a lot

of time talking to gay community groups as well as to doctors and psychiatrists. My work on ancient Greece was reviewed in local gay papers; there was a great deal of dialogue back and forth. Some have suggested that the move into theory, into high theory, made lesbian and gay studies inaccessible to people who were not taking classes at universities. I think that is an exaggeration, because it is also the case that the hometown gay press across America largely went out of business, except in San Francisco, when the highly organized local gay communities that had existed in the 70s and 80s also disappeared. That disappearance was one of the combined effects of the simultaneous advent of AIDS and of real estate speculation in major U.S. cities. Those changes served to disperse the highly concentrated and urbanized gay populations, as Gayle Rubin has shown (1997, 1998), and therefore eliminated the structural foundation for a coherent, informed social movement. What disappeared with those populations was the base for most local gay newspapers, which have vanished from one city after another across the country and been replaced by national lifestyle magazines, glossy magazines that survive by promoting a generic version of gay identity and aren’t really interested in the debates taking place in local communities or in movement issues. CH: Some of this lifestyle material has now evolved to include television in shows like The L Word and Queer as Folk. DH: Or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. So what you have is not just that queer theory has become inaccessible, but that the infrastructure of gay culture that was responsible for disseminating lesbian and gay studies to people outside universities, and also for communicating the cultural dynamism of the gay movement in the local communities to people at universities, has broken down. That pattern of circulation has been interrupted. Consequently, if people outside of universities are hostile to queer theory or hostile to what they see as left wing academics’ abandonment of them, that’s not just because our work is impossible to understand, or because gay and lesbian individuals are uninformed or uninterested, it also results from the fact that the

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ September 2004 Vol. 1, No. 3 36 © Copyright 2004 National Sexuality Resource Center, San Francisco State University, all rights reserved.

SEXUALITY RESEARCH & SOCIAL POLICY

Journal of NSRC

means for disseminating our intellectual work to a larger audience and explaining its relevance have disappeared. I think the first large-scale misunderstandings took place during the controversy over the biological origins of homosexuality, as represented by Simon LeVay’s (1993) work on the “gay brain,” Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland’s (1994) description of the “gay gene,” and Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard’s (1991) twin studies, all of which were discussed extensively in national gay magazines like The Advocate. To the extent that queer theorists had reservations about that work, their concerns were not communicated well by the national gay magazines—in fact, they were often mischaracterized or simply dismissed. And this was not because the objections to the biological studies were necessarily encoded in highly abstract or sophisticated language. It had to do with differences of purpose and background and context between the delocalized gay readership of those magazines and academic communities. The fact is that the newly dispersed members of gay communities were dealing with the burden of church and other institutionally based homophobia that drew a sharp division between homosexuality as a natural condition—one which appeared to be confirmed by the identification of a gay gene—and as a sinful choice. By contrast, the academic community was trying to deal with this new version of positivism or essentialism in the context of a constantly revised critique of identity categories, which had partly originated in tendencies within the movement itself, specifically in the work of women of color. Interestingly, academic versions of social constructionism had often played very well in local communities when they were attached to the new gay social history, but then turned out to play very badly when they involved hostility to the new theories about the gay gene. And this controversy marked, I think, the beginning of an ongoing divide and misunderstanding between queer theory and the larger social movement. CH: Thank you very much for your comments.

References
Bailey, J.M., & Pillard, R. (1991). A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 48, 1089-1096. Barbedette, G. (1982). The social triumph of the sexual will: A conversation with Michel Foucault (B. Lemon, Trans.). Christopher Street, 6(4), 36-41. Bersani, L. (1995). Homos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Bray, A. (2003). The friend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Eribon, D. (1991). Michel Foucault (B. Wing, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Foucault, M. (1976). The history of sexuality, volume one: An introduction. London: Penguin. Hamer, D., & Copeland, P. (1994). The science of desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior. New York: Simon & Schuster. Laing, R.D. (1959). The divided self: An existential study in sanity and madness. London: Pelican Books. LeVay, S. (1993). The sexual brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Rubin, G. (1997). Elegy for the valley of the kings: AIDS and the leathercommunity in San Francisco, 19811996. In M. P. Levine, P. M. Nardi, & J. H. Gagnon (Eds.), Changing times: Gay men and lesbians encounter HIV/AIDS (pp. 101-144). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Rubin, G. (1998). The miracle mile: South of market and gay male leather in San Francisco 1962-1996. In J. Brook, C. Carlsson, & N. Peters (Eds.), Reclaiming San Francisco: History, politics, culture (pp. 247-272). San Francisco: City Lights Books. Szasz, T.S. (1960). The myth of mental illness. American Psychologist, 15, 113-118. Warner, M. (1999). The trouble with normal: Sex, politics, and the ethics of queer life. New York: The Free Press.

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