In the recent debate between Christopher Reed, Christopher Castiglia, and Grace Lavery regarding trans people, pronouns, and free speech in the academy, there has been an enormous (white) elephant in the room.
Although Reed and Castiglia discuss race briefly by evoking the specter of Affirmative Action, there is no substantive discussion of race in their open letter, nor in their position on trans pronouns, deadnaming, and marginal people in the academy more broadly. For me, as a Black trans femme scholar, this is a particularly egregious oversight, considering the centrality of race to constructions of gender, as shown by many writers and researchers working in trans studies.
First, let me situate myself in relation to both Grace Lavery and the two Christophers. Despite Reed and Castiglia’s claim that young academics are “looking for trouble” in order to advance their careers, there is copious evidence that challenging powerful people within academia stifles academic advancement. As a Black trans scholar, one of the few of my queer trans fam to make it into the academy, the question of trans rights and pedagogy is both urgent and material. As a precarious graduate student I have organized against fascist and white supremacist speakers, provided resources for anti-fascists, and written about free speech as a “right” reserved for white men in the US and the limits that should be put on that speech.
Here, I will draw on my research in the history of white gay men in conservative far right movements to explore the ways in which nationalism, whiteness, and masculinity continue to promote violence within queer communities today. Rather than argue about whether trans antagonism is legal or illegal, as Lavery does, I aim to deconstruct Reed and Castiglia’s positionality and what I call their “white ga(y)ze.” When I speak here of positionality, I’m not referencing terms of identity, but rather relationships to systems of power. My criteria for evaluation is not just who says what, but what is said and how it advances a particular political agenda.
What do I mean by the white ga(y)ze? I use this expression to point towards the ways white cis gay men view and understand Black trans embodiment and experience. This expression is also used to elicit connections to “the white gaze,” or the ways in which whiteness imposes its categories on others as objects, all while making the positionality of those doing the looking immaterial and unimportant.
Drawing from one particular segment of my work, I’d like to share how in the 1970s the National Socialist League (NSL), a white gay men’s organization created for the explicit purpose of bringing gays into the American neo-nazi movement, leveraged “free speech” arguments, to advance the projects of nationalism, whiteness, and masculinity within “queer” spaces (bars, community events, and political events) in the United States. Reed and Castiglia are situated within this longer history of a strain of white gay politics that attempts to garner the right to abuse and build a fraternity of whiteness in the academy.
Linking the NSL to the claims by Reed and Castiglia requires a bit more historical context. Just five years after the Stonewall Riots, white gay men had already organized their first gay-friendly neo-Nazi organization in Los Angeles. In their 20 year existence, the NSL reached white supremacists across the nation, from their home base in Los Angeles to their East Coast bases in New York and Greensboro, building coalitions between KKK groups, neo-Nazis, and other, more mainstream, conservative gay men. While it is difficult to assess the number of gay Nazis, due to the nature of their organizing, Gay Crusader numbered the satellite chapter in San Francisco at around 400 in 1974.
How did the NSL feel about “free speech”? The best example of their fight over “free speech” occurred in 1977 during LA Pride, which was organized by the Christopher Street West Association (CSW). As part of its mission, CSW had an open door policy for participation, allowing any organization that identified as gay or lesbian to participate. Under the auspices of this open door policy, the NSL sought to table and flier during the event. Their inclusion was opposed by both the organizers and the larger community. In response, the NSL deployed the liberal discourse of inclusion and “diversity” prominent in the CSW mission. The NSL argued that they had a right to be included, as they were a gay organization. This political crisis precipitated a meeting by the CSW board, in which 10 members voted in favor of banning the NSL, three were opposed, and two people abstained. Because of this vote, CSW decided that “[their] Gay pride celebration is a private event, and as such, we have the prerogative to discriminate.” Subsequently, the organizers changed their inclusion policy to reflect that organizations would be included only at the discretion of the Association’s Board.
The NSL used this moment of contention to recruit more members, arguing that being denied the ability to table violated their “freedom of speech” and gave lie to the inclusiveness of the gay community. After this incident the NS Mobilizer, the flagship publication of the NSL, describes being distributed to over 3,200 people, with a special section dedicated to responses from new recruits to the NSL following the CSW decision. NSL founder Russell Veh charged, “Any attempt by the C.S.W. to ban a person or group because of their belief in ANY subject is an affront to freedom of thought and speech.” In connecting freedom of speech to the issue of fascist organizing at the Pride Parade, Veh sets up a defense of his politics through an appeal to traditionally liberal American values. This use of “free speech,” “liberal tradition,” “inclusion,” and “diversity” in fascist organizing eerily echoes both today’s alt-right and Reed and Castiglia.
Reed and Castiglia’s appeal to “queer theory” and their assertion of ownership over the language of gender identity mimic the claims made by the NSL. We might not expect gay Nazis, advocating for fascism, to utilize a liberal concept like “freedom of speech” to make their claims. But these ideas were complimentary for the NSL, who believed that all “responsible” citizens had the right to freedom of speech. Here, the NSL guidelines establish who is a responsible citizen and who is not:
Finally, that true political and social freedom for all responsible citizens cannot be achieved without unity of purpose, self-discipline, and individual dignity — qualities to be realized only in a self-aware White society; and that, to attain his share of freedom, the sexual non-conformist must shed the image of freak, Third World militant, and street f*ggot for that of responsible citizen. [emphasis added]
The “diversity” that the NSL fought for was only for the powerful. Those outside —
“the freak, the Third World militant, the street f*ggot” — were people who either would not or could not participate in “reasoned discussion” and were therefore rendered irredeemable. This, too, is queer history.
While Reed and Castiglia are not arguing explicitly for white gay men’s inclusion in the arenas of power, they have established a language of respectability which determines who does and who does not deserve the right to speak. Reed and Castiglia cast aspersions against both their queer and trans students, and by extension Grace Lavery, who they characterize as adolescents. They construct a shadow other too ignorant to understand their “reasoned” position. Reed and Castiglia attempt to silence any who contend that their speech does harm by reducing them to “adolescents,” by infantilizing them. In doing so, they rely on common historical tropes of the “other” by white men. As race and postcolonial scholarship instruct us, by castigating their Others (students, queer activists, trans scholars) as wild, emotional, and out of control, they attempt to secure their own position as reasonable, self-controlled actors.
Expressions like “free speech” and “reasoned discussion” often operate as dog whistles, allowing white men to disguise appeals to power without relying explicitly on their positionality. Who has access to “free speech” is preempted by historical and social forces. Dog whistles also allow ostensibly liberal speakers to make reactionary claims without stigmatizing themselves. Consider the similarity between the argument Reed and Castiglia made and the point made by Tammy Bruce just a few days ago, who said it was wrong to shame homophobes “just because they are different.” Reed and Castiglia offer a reactionary construction of freedom, in which two white gay men claim that their right to “free speech” is more important than the health and safety of their students and colleagues. From that perspective, Reed and Castiglia’s “free speech” is only the prerogative of the elite.
In similar fashion, their tirade against “call-out culture” reflects their complete absence of critical thinking about why marginalized people use certain tactics to accomplish their goals. “Call-out culture” has its roots in Black organizing and the need to make space for negative affect — a term I use to describe the incorporation of structures and practices which do not promote the emotional responses of those who participate in them, drawing on the work of social and cultural theorists including Raymond Williams and Sarah Ahmed — and shame those who are doing violence to the community, in order to address racial prejudice. Thus, Reed and Castiglia’s criticism of “call out culture” is unwittingly a criticism of Black organizing. Further, they seem unaware that they are parroting white supremacist talking points around the “proper” forms of activism Black people should be undertaking. As a Black trans person, I constantly find my rage at both anti-blackness and trans-antagonism disciplined by the cis and white people around me who value “reasoned” discussion — discussion devoid of emotion, devoid of pain. Reed and Castiglia repeat this argument when they invoke the idea of out-of-control bodies (both racialized and gendered).
The lens of the white ga(y)ze also manifests in their assertion that trans people are “contemptuous of claims for aesthetics, or history, or the mores of gay, lesbian, and queer cultures” and the “subversive and pleasurable” modes of speech therein. Note the absence of trans in their description. I have to ask, as a Black trans person, whose pleasure and history is important here? Trans people are not new. They too have a history, and pleasures, and modes of speech.
The medico-judicial complex that Reed and Castiglia criticize (and which Black trans people have been critiquing for a long time) bases the distinction between cis and trans on the idea that white bodies are more sexually dimorphic and therefore “advanced.” Black trans identity is both in opposition to and in conversation with the medico-judicial complex and the boundaries it imposes. Our cultural practices and community are not less real because they are constructed forms of difference. By positioning themselves as older and more rooted in the “traditions” of the queer community, Reed and Castiglia suggest that trans critiques and positionalities are “new.” This is not only trans antagonistic, it is deeply anti-black.
My argument is not that Reed and Castiglia are gay Nazis, but rather that both the authors and the NSL have no problem bending free speech towards the right — and towards power — when it is useful to avoid feelings of shame and garner material and social benefits. I’d like to offer Reed and Castiglia and other white gay men in the academy a way out of this circuit of pleasure-at-oppressing. Reed and Castiglia want the academy, and “reasoned discussion” to be fun (for them), but the fact is that “reasoned discussion” has always relied on the silences of people like me. Embracing negative affect is necessary for resisting the pleasures of dehumanization, and “call-out” culture is one way to develop a negative affective structure.
Because I am Black and trans and a scholar I have to know not only my own histories, but the dominant white, cis narrative as well. It’s the only way I can survive in an academy structured by oppression. It is, as Du Bois says, truly a state of double consciousness. This gaze goes both ways now, and I’m no longer interested in pretending the white cis gaze does nothing to me and mine. It’s time to sit down and pay attention. As we overly emotional Black femmes like to say, “Take all the seats, darling.”
This article is part of a digital toolkit put together by a collective of scholar-organizers in response to Reed and Castiglia’s article.