'Cruising Utopia', José Esteban Muñoz
Listen to Niall Farrelly read an excerpt from queer theorist, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. In this text, Muñoz recalls and details the defiant nature of sexual acts in the age of AIDS, and the role of utopianism in queer worldmaking.
Witnessing Queer Sex Utopia
In 1989 I saw Douglas Crimp give a rousing and moving talk titled “Mourning and Militancy” at the second national Lesbian and Gay Studies conference, held at Yale University. Crimp explained the workings of mourning in queer culture as he catalogued a vast, lost gay male lifeworld that was seemingly devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I want to call attention here to a specific moment in Crimp’s talk in which an idea of Freud’s is put in conversation with queer spaces and practices from a historically specific gay male lifeworld:
Freud tells us that mourning is the reaction not only to the death of a loved person, but also “to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as a fatherland, liberty, and ideal . . .” Can we be allowed to include, in this “civilized” list, the ideal of perverse sexual pleasure itself rather than one stemming from its sublimation? Alongside the dismal toll of death, what many of us have lost is a culture of sexual possibility: back rooms, tea rooms, movie houses, and baths; the trucks, the piers, the ramble, the dunes. Sex was everywhere for us, and everything we wanted to venture: Golden showers and water sports, cock sucking and rimming, fucking and fist fucking. Now our untamed impulses are either proscribed once again or shielded from us by latex. Even Crisco, the lube we used because it was edible, is now forbidden because it breaks down rubber. Sex toys are no longer added enhancements; they’re safer substitutes.
It has been seven years since the zenith of AIDS cultural criticism when Crimp wrote these words. One thing that has become clear at this moment in the epidemic is that the ideal spaces and practices that Crimp described never completely ceased to be. During the age of AIDS gay men have managed to maintain our queer sex, our spaces, and, to some lesser degree, the incredible sense of possibility that Crimp evokes. At this juncture, commercial sex spaces (backrooms, movie theaters, bathhouses) are weathering a new round of attacks from both the repressive state power apparatus and reactionary, sex-negative elements of the gay community. Despite these eruptions of antisex and homophobic policings, many gay men have managed to maintain the practices that Crimp lists, as they have been translated in the age of safer sex. Negotiated risks and other tactical decisions have somewhat modified these sexual impulses without entirely stripping them away. Although the moment that Crimp describes is a moment that is behind us, its memory, its ghosts, and the ritualized performances of transmitting its vision of utopia across generational divides still fuels and propels our political and erotic lives: it still nourishes the possibility of our current, actually existing gay lifeworld.
Crimp’s writing stands as a testimony to a queer lifeworld in which the transformative potential of queer sex and public manifestations of such sexuality were both a respite from the abjection of homosexuality and a reformatting of that very abjection. The spaces and acts he lists represent signs, or ideals, that have been degraded and rendered abject within heteronormativity. Crimp’s essay reclaims these terms, ideas, and remembrances and pushes them onto a list that includes such timeless values as fatherland and liberty. Crimp’s essay thus bears witness to a queer sex utopia.
In a starkly dissimilar manner, Leo Bersani’s own important essay in AIDS cultural criticism, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” debunks idealized notions of bathhouses as utopic queer space. Bersani rightly brings to light the fact that those pre-AIDS days of glory were also elitist, exclusionary, and savagely hierarchized libidinal economies. Bersani’s work does not allow itself to entertain utopian hopes and possibilities. His book of gay male cultural theory, Homos, further extends the lines of thought of “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in different directions. Homos is even more concerned with dismantling and problematizing any simplistic, sentimental understanding of the gay community or gay politics. Through an especially powerful reading of Jean Genet, Bersani formulates a theory of anti-relationality. The most interesting contribution of this theory is the way in which it puts pressure on previous queer theories and exposes the ways in which they theorize gay identity in terms that are always relational, such as gender subversion. But this lesson ultimately leads to a critique of coalition politics. Bersani considers coalitions between gay men and people of color or women as “bad faith” on the part of gays. The race, gender, and sexuality troubles in such a theory—all people of color are straight, all gay men are white—are also evident in his famous essay. The limits of his project are most obvious when one tries to imagine actual political interventions into the social realm, especially interventions that challenge the tedious white normativity that characterizes most of North American gay male culture.
Bersani’s project does not need to see and believe in utopianism. Yet queer politics, in my understanding, needs a real dose of utopianism. Utopia lets us imagine a space outside of heteronormativity. It permits us to conceptualize new worlds and realities that are not irrevocably constrained by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and institutionalized state homophobia. More important, utopia offers us a critique of the present, of what is, by casting a picture of what can and perhaps will be.