Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing ended last month, winning the self-confessed WikiLeaker a mere seven days’ prison credit for nine months of human rights abuses. If that hardly seems like just reward for the young man whose moral sense made him the Guardian’s “person of the year,” it’s at least more clemency than mainstream gay politics has shown him.
From the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign to GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans, Gay Inc. has shown indifference at best and contempt at worst for the country’s most famous queer political prisoner. Fierce dissidence and valiant organizing haven’t been enough to bring gay property’s resources — the very networks of funding and patronage that made Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal possible — into play. As the Gay Liberation Network’s Andy Thayer put it to the New Republic earlier this year: “If we don’t have the solidarity for our own community, then how are we going to go farther than that? I would hope that we would at least look out for our own.”
For many gay leftists, this call for queer unity in the face of state oppression may seem like an intuitive strategy. It’s certainly a well-pedigreed one. Thayer and his ilk are heir to a long tradition which posits a special liberatory potential for gay life and sex, one with roots at least as deep as the Walt Whitman whose Democratic Vistas envisioned an “adhesive love” characterized by “manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet . . . carried to degrees hitherto unknown” and having “the deepest relations to general politics.” If the reference seems musty, one need only look to contemporary post-grad ultraleftism for something fresher: “In the post-war period, it was gay men who constituted the most innovative and advanced revolutionary subject. Or rather, despite failing to bring about a revolution, they registered the most successes in actually living communism.” For generations of gay radicals used to rolling their eyes at Marx and Engels’ Victorian moral arthritis, this homoerotic utopianism is swoony stuff. For those who have swallowed it whole, how can the Manning case look like anything but a betrayal of some mythically lusty democratic fraternity?
“The leadership doesn’t view the Manning thing as a gay issue” reports a Gay Inc. apparatchik inclined to liberalism and anonymity. Of course he and his bosses are right — if not for the reasons they’d give at a DC cocktail hour. It’s not that Manning’s case is peripheral to some objective, enduring, and necessary core of LGBT politics; it’s that, at the level of political ontology, there is no such thing as necessity. The punchline shouldn’t surprise anyone reading these words nearly three decades after Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: no element in a discursive field, be it the Founding Fathers or ecology or skinny jeans, can by itself guarantee the progressive character of a hegemonic articulation. Homosexuality — one especially buoyant floating signifier — is surely no different.
It doesn’t take a linguistically-inclined Gramscian to make the point; the gay establishment is paid very well to underscore it every day. If the arch-meritocratic aims of “workplace equality” and “employment nondiscrimination” (far from the minds of the street kids and drag queens who manned Stonewall’s barricades) seem like natural concerns for LGBT Americans, it’s only because committed neoliberals have fared so well in the K Street war of position. Those victories only get more brazen as policy goals like national marriage equality inch closer to foregone conclusions. Earlier this year, the Human Rights Campaign went so far as to name Goldman Sachs “The Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality” and hire Lloyd Blankfein as its corporate equality spokesman. With these kinds of moves, Gay Inc. stitches its rainbow flag ever more tightly against the fabric of late capitalism’s pirate sail, quilting down (in Laclau and Mouffe’s Lacanian parlance) queer signifiers otherwise up for grabs.
Bradley Manning ripped some of those seams, and the gay discursive field flutters a little more wildly these days because of it. Working class, midwestern, gender-dysphoric, and bravely anti-careerist, Manning troubled Gay Inc.’s carefully marketed self-image even before Cablegate. Since his arrest, he’s harshed the mainstream’s collective post-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell buzz and complicated centrist activism’s more militaristic ambitions. And raw material for counter-articulation is hardly limited to Manning himself. Occupy has given us new poles of antagonism, refreshingly independent of the liberal tolerance-homophobia binary that has structured decades of LGBT political gains.
The examples of figures like Gore Vidal and James Baldwin, dissidents who braided sexuality to anti-imperialist and anti-racist projects in idiosyncratic and rhetorically forceful ways, deserve harder looks. And surely gay culture and language, with their famous aptitude for double entendre and semiotic indeterminacy, have a few discursive tricks up their sleeves. Consider the hegemonic masterstroke of a protest banner that, in one clause, aligns Manning’s whistleblowing with a life episode familiar to most LGBT Americans: “Coming out with the truth is never easy – especially when you’re exposing war crimes.”
If Manning’s ordeal has clarified battle lines for an LGBT war of position, the lurking internal threat may be harder to spot: the tendency to backslide to the old, comfortable, and failed ontology of classical Marxism. It’s tempting to view this decade’s vogue for class vocabulary as a recovery of some deeper, more primary form of political struggle, as if the identity-politics makeup were finally sweating off our working-class faces. We know better than that. As good postmoderns, we’re forever barred from the comforting bad faith of economic determinism, and have to make our peace with the autonomy of the political. Peter Frase nailed it: “all politics are identity politics” and all communities are imagined. Proletarian drag might suit us as long as it takes to get over artificial scarcity and class society, the chief (but contingent) antagonisms in our horizon. After that, what we’ll dig out of history’s costume shop, and for what occasion, is anyone’s guess.
Bradley Manning’s treason is one of the most decent things a gay American has done this century, and his courage shames every queer person whose place at the table of power has cost them a pact with war and reaction. Whether he’ll be stitched back into a left-neoliberal patchwork or prove the first link in a new, more democratic chain of equivalences is up to those of us outside his jail cell. It won’t be a matter of appealing to “gay community,” but one of drawing new lines of antagonism, double-crossing old allies and opening up to old enemies. Faithful to the young man who betrayed even his queer superiors for the hope of saner world, the gay left’s politics shouldn’t bring peace, but a sword.