A Brief Theory of Queer Violence

by Sophie Monk and Joni (Pitt) Cohen 

29 January 2017

Walt Jabsco / Flickr

This essay contains discussion of street harassment, transmisogyny, self-harm, addiction and abuse.

I was drinking in a park with a friend, and went into the pub close by to use the toilet. On my way in a walked past a group of lads who yelled something along the lines of “Allo sweetheart!” to me as I walked in.  Transmisogyny wields a doubled edged sword; in one and the same moment you are seen as a sexually attractive woman to be objectified and a man in a dress, and therefore fair game for violence as punishment for perverting manhood. I sat in the cubicle, knowing that I would have to walk past them to leave the pub again. I decided that instead of slinking away, if they said anything more, I would confront them. With fists clenched I stepped out the door and something came out the same guy’s mouth. I can’t remember what, because I was already shouting “Leave me the fuck alone!” He grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me over onto the ground, yelling “Fucking queer!” More than the actual pain of the impact, I felt like the hands had acted as a conduit for all his hate, all the violence that had been done to him, now directed into me. As I walked away, too scared of antagonising him any more, I could feel this hate and violence surging through my adrenal system, but it wasn’t my own. Gradually, I am certain, I internalised this violence against myself, and by the end of the day I no longer felt full of hate, but full of fear to leave the house.

Violence as the normative state of queer life.

Sadly, this anecdote does not represent an exception to the rule, but rather the normative state of queer life. Though drawn from Joni’s personal recent experience, ask any LGBT person you know about violence and they will undoubtedly have a pool of similar stories. Tellingly, a recent report by LGBT charity Galop estimates that hate crimes against LGBT folk has risen by 147% in the three months since the EU referendum, dispelling the commonly held idea that as time moves forward and the liberal project progresses, conditions somehow improve themselves for minorities. The efforts of the liberal media to disavow the structural integration of this violence into its system was made bare for us all to see in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. Queer political commentator Owen Jones walked out of a Sky News interview, whose presenters narrativised the shootings simply as an attack upon the liberal, capitalist “way of life,” re-articulating the space of the gay bar primarily as a zone in which the liberal right to consume a variety of lifestyles – rather than a place of LGBT sanctuary – is exercised.

This liberal paradigm lacks a proper theory of violence. Violence is understood as a rootless disruption to the ruling state of peace, the normative state of being. We contest that violence is the normative state of being, both in a structural and immediate sense. The market economy is not just an economy of money and commodities, but an economy of violence. Violence is transferred, exchanged and redirected. Like an electric current, it follows the paths of least resistance, and is turned upon those with least resources to defend themselves: people of colour, women, queers and the disabled. As Marx expounded in Capital, the freedom of the proletariat to sell their labour power at market is only made possible by the immediate violence of dispossession; the violence that stripped them of land and resources, so forcing them to sell their labour to survive. This is not simply an original violence that happened 600 years ago, but is an ongoing and necessary condition of historical capitalism. In the same way, violence against queers underpins the freedom of straight and cis people to be able to take for granted elements of life as simple as walking down the street undisturbed.

Beyond the immediacy of street attacks, violence against queer people operates on a more abstract and structural level, with no less specific and material effects. Blockages to proper healthcare, lack of access to essentials such as food and housing, and the denial of fundamental rights within the workplace, perform a slower but nonetheless corporeal violence against queer people trying to survive under austerity in Britain today. Lack of funding for trans healthcare means that trans women who self-medicate with oestrogen – since their health and survival depends on a transition that is quicker than currently possible on the NHS – will often suffer worse side effects than patients who have access to proper endocrinological supervision by the Gender Identity Clinic. Similarly, survivors of workplace abuse are often forced to leave jobs for their own safety, without access to workplace justice due to the costs of Discrimination Tribunal Fees. These are just a couple of examples of how the defunding of queer life enacts a violent dispossession which can be read on the body as it experiences stress, poverty and side effects. It is a distraction to trace the root of violence therefore to prejudicial impulses deep inside the human soul and more accurate to see occasions of individualised violence as embodiments rather than sources of a much vaster project of social violence.

Violence misdirected.

And so from these structures and fists we intake large doses of violent energy. What to do with this energy is another question. Bourdieu’s law of the conservation of violence argues that violent forces, like all forms of energy, can never dissipate but instead must be converted or re-directed:

“You cannot cheat with the law of conservation of violence: all violence is paid for, and for example, the structural violence exerted by the financial markets, in the form of layoffs, loss of security, etc., is matched sooner or later in the form of suicides, crime and delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism, a whole host of minor and major everyday acts of violence.”

As Bourdieu suggests, the violence we receive must go somewhere, and more often than not it is converted into forms of self-harm and harm to others who share similar conditions of violence. One can imagine that in Bourdieu’s mind’s eye, he somewhat fatalistically and forgivingly pictures the flows of structural violence as affecting primarily the proletarian male and by extension his family unit. And yet, for those of us who lack fundamental access to the heterosexual household in the first place, new and particular forms of misdirected violence arise. Perhaps the following picture will be familiar to you: you go to your room, and close the door, overwhelmed by rage and pain, where the only form of release can be found in pummelling your own head with balled fists, or taking a sharp edge to the skin of your arms. Perhaps also you have known the sensation of slumping into addiction and substance abuse, causing damage to your health with long-term over-drinking and codeine extracted from over the counter painkillers. Soon enough the invisible hand of capitalist violence leaves its traces upon our bodies in the form of bruises and track marks mobilised by our own hands.  

When not directed against ourselves, we direct it against our loved ones and queer siblings. We wrongfully police the borders of the queer community, keeping out those who are undecided or “straight passing”. We turn our internalised transmisogyny against our trans sisters, expecting them to present and act in certain ways. We repudiate each other for often mythical privileges just because we feel the need to justify our own misery. We allow our own mental illnesses to get the better of us, and put our lovers and friends in impossible situations. We must take care, now more than ever, to avoid emotionally blackmailing and indebting our comrades, as if they were the perpetrators of our oppression.

The proper externalisation of violence.

In which direction, then, should the violence we take into our bodies be re-exerted? Towards the structures that exert violence upon us. Instead of the internalisation of violence, which some have previously called pacifism, we propose a reversal of its direction. To short-circuit the normative current of violence as presided over by our market economy and neoliberal state, we suggest that the destruction and disruption of private property and the flow of capital is not only the proper form of political violence, but of political struggle at large. “Violence” as it has entered public parlance is often laughable in comparison to the forms of violence we suffer daily: liberal commentators will declaim the sheer violence of rioters against doors and shop-fronts, and yet perhaps these are exactly the sorts of violence we should be reclaiming and encouraging. If you have ever experienced the immense feeling of relief and power that comes from the smashing of a shop window, the breaking of a door or the boiling over of a police kettle, you will know something about the enormous therapeutic and reproductive propensity of political violence. There is a hatred that we can turn against ourselves and our communities, or there is joyous hatred that can be cultivated out of our immiseration. Violence begets violence, true, but violence properly directed can also beget joy.

We should also of course face down our street harassers when the situation permits, but as James Butler notes in this powerful essay, such individualised confrontations can often leave us feeling hollow and powerless, even when we appear to win. This is likely to be due to the fact that such displays of resistance do not emerge from the collective effort of community violence, where we can claim agency together, but mere individual self-defence in a situation over which we have no control. We may win the scuffle sometimes, but the conditions remain the same, and the next time we leave the house, the spectre of that violence still follows us. It is through planned, collective violence against the proper enemy that we can begin to undo the violences we perpetrate against ourselves and each other.

However, it has historically been the most marginalised members of our communities, the sufferers of the most violence that have taken the most risks. The stone that sparked the Stonewall Riots was thrown by Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, vulnerable to the worst excesses of police and judicial violence. This striking scene from Leslie Feinberg’s novel ‘Stone Butch Blues’ describes a routine police raid of a lesbian bar around the same time that the Stonewall riots broke out:

“Theresa and I both heard the commotion outside the bar at once. She put down her beer bottle and ran outside. I grabbed our bottles in case we needed to break them to use as weapons. We both stopped dead in our tracks outside. Justine was on her knees. A cop stood over her. His club hung loosely at his side. I saw the blood streaming down the side of Justine’s face.

It was a sultry hot evening in July. A number of people had drifted outside the bar in order to drink their beers. Two cop cars were parked in front of the bar. Four cops faced us. “Get inside, all of you,” one of the cops barked. None of us moved.

The cop standing over Justine grabbed a handful of her hair. “On your feet,” he ordered. She stumbled as she tried to rise and fell back onto the concrete.

Theresa slipped off her high heels. “Take your hands off her,” Theresa told the cop. Her voice was low and calm. “Leave her alone.” Theresa walked slowly toward the cop with the high heels at her sides. I held my breath. Georgetta took off both her stilettos and held one in each hand. She walked over to Theresa. They exchanged a look I couldn’t see and stood side by side.

The cop put his hand on his gun butt. Somehow we all knew instinctively that none of the butches should move.”

What is so powerful about this scene is that it is the femme identifying queers who take the lead in a show of force against the police. The police, when confronted by a line of femmes armed with high heels, back off and end the raid, making no arrests. Stories like these are important if we want to detach the idea of political violence from a macho masculinity and give agency to the communities that have most absorbed violence into themselves. The scene also sheds light on the centrality of violence for the reproduction of our communities. It is necessary not only for achievement of our liberation goals, but for our protection and the reproduction of our lives.

However, we must recognise that our capacities for confrontation do not come from nowhere, but are sustained by a variety of affective and reproductive labours, that must be performed communally.  We must attune ourselves to the varying capacities, needs, risks and limits of the members of our communities so that we might develop a praxis that is effective and sustains rather than diminishes our capacities for antagonism.  

We, once again, look to Black Lives Matter for inspiration, a movement led and organised by those who primarily experience police violence, who place white allies on the front lines against the police. Likewise, we call for our cis, straight allies to stand at the front and take the first blows, while we throw projectiles from the back. We must organise ourselves and deploy our allies to take the brunt of the force that we face daily.  The next time you fall victim to any form of immediate or state-supervised hostility based on your queerness, remember this: we will have our revenge, not only against the isolated queer-basher, but against the structural violence that empowers him. We will have our revenge together on the sunny barricades to come.

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