Seeking queer union

Gay and After
February 5, 1999

The project of sexual politics obviously centres on sexual liberation. Which means that running against the political objective of unity in difference has always been a personal quest for sexual self-realisation. Fragile cooperations are established, only to be destroyed by factions warring for sub-cultural authenticity and identity. Such has been the history of lesbian and gay liberation. So much so that recently the whole project of gay liberation, gay culture and even gay identity has been called into question by self-styled queers. Even a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a book titled Anti-Gay to have come from anyone but a homophobe. In fact it was put together by gays turned queer. Further and different challenges have come from racial minorities and bisexuals.

This history of a political alliance repeatedly undermined by internal divisions and evolutions is Alan Sinfield's starting point. He shows how recent moves in the direction of more tolerance of gays are inseparable from the persistence of discrimination against them. The situation is complex, not well understood either by the new queer radicals or by the new conservative gays. The first are too quick to dismiss "gay" and its gains as obsolete and are naive in their celebration of sexual freedom. The second kid themselves that it is homophobia that is all but obsolete and that gays who behave themselves will eventually be accepted without fuss.

Sinfield takes issue with many, but always generously. This is not because he goes in for pussyfooting but because he cares about gay culture deeply enough to welcome any insight into it by others. He avoids the paranoia that has been such a damaging feature of sexual politics in the US academy, and about which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has recently written ( Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction ). Sedgwick suggests that this paranoia was unavoidable. But Sinfield's work indicates that it is, and was, avoidable.

Sinfield genuinely respects the new diversity among sexual dissidents, while wanting to retain a sense of sub-cultural solidarity. He prefers "sub-culture" to "community" because it avoids connotations of cosiness. For Sinfield there is no single, right strategy for sexual dissidents, but much to be gained from a determined searching for alliance in difference, not least because the gains of recent years remain precarious.

One of Sinfield's best chapters is on Leo Bersani's reading of Jean Genet in Homos . On the one side is Bersani: speculatively pushing sexual dissidence to its romantic and political extremes in order to break out of the limitations of contemporary gay culture. On the other is Sinfield, just as aware of those same limitations, but wanting to work them through on the ground, and inside the culture to which he is deeply committed. Between them they represent the best in gay studies and show why it has become such a significant location of cultural criticism in recent times.

The reader inclined to underline persuasively insightful passages will soon have a well-scored copy of Gay and After . If it is one of the most readable as well as one of the most thoughtful studies of gay culture in recent times, this is because, like all wise books, it carries not just its scholarship lightly, but its humanity too.

Jonathan Dollimore is professor of English, University of York.

Gay and After

Author - Alan Sinfield
ISBN - 1 85242 588 1
Publisher - Serpents Tail
Price - £12.99
Pages - 231

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