What is queering theory, part 2: Explaining the title

The subject of class for Thursday (9.17) is “What is queering theory, part 2.” We will be focusing our attention on Cathy Cohen’s chapter in Black Queer Studies entitled, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” (also found in GLQ). For this reading reflection post, instead of writing a lengthy post on Cohen’s argument, I thought I might briefly discuss one possible way to reflect on the reading–I call it “explaining the title.” [note to students in queering theory: you might find this form helpful to use in your “direct engagement” entries]

Many authors, myself included, like to spend a lot of time (maybe too much) picking out a title that succinctly or cleverly or playfully describes what our central argument is. So, as I often tell students,  one effective way for recognizing, understanding and articulating the thesis of a reading is to think (and write) about that reading’s title. While this doesn’t always work (some titles are hard to explain or don’t necessarily get at the point of the essay), I think it works quite nicely in the case of this reading. In fact, I think Cohen’s repeated explanation of the title (in different ways) throughout the essay is a real strength of the article.

Here is my brief explanation of the three parts (“Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare queens,” “The radical potential of queer politics,” and the ? mark at the end) of Cohen’s argument. Cohen believes the radical potential of queerness and queer politics can be found in queer’s ability to bring a wide range of non-normative folks–whose relationship to power marginalizes them in many different ways that are not exclusively based on heteronormativity, (like the punk, bulldagger and welfare queen)–together to engage in “progressive transformative coalition work” (22). Her question mark at the end of the title speaks to her doubt about whether this radical potential can be realized within the term “queer” and queer politics because queer, as it is currently used by queer theorists and white queer activists, fails to consider the complex (and intersecting) ways oppression occurs. Another way of explaining this doubt is this: queer politics frequently fails to attend to the complex ways in which power relations work and, without an analysis of power (and how it travels based on gender, sexuality, race and class), the radical potential of queer politics cannot be realized.

In case you are interested, my summary is 157 words. Now, this explanation of the title is a good starting point, but it doesn’t get at how Cohen makes this argument. In engaging with this reading, it would be helpful to offer a few examples that Cohen uses to support her argument. Like when she talks about how some queer politics-as-it-is, as particularly manifested in “I Hate Straights,” is based on a “single oppression framework” (31) that fails to offer any intersectional analysis of how power works outside of the hetero/homo divide (32). Or when she discusses how ‘mall visibility actions’ fail to address a whole bunch of reasons (besides sexuality) that queers might be feel alienated and unsafe in the mall (33). Or, you could talk about how she explains her title through a brief history of how marriage is an oppressive institution for many not just because it perpetuates heternormativity, but because it shores up “white supremacy, male domination, and capitalist advancement” (39).

I will admit, it can be hard to sum up an author’s argument in such a short amount of space. How do you think I did?