Queer realities: how our identities are used in politics and under capitalism

Modern LGBT+ movements may have advanced civil rights and improved queer lives, but they have also allowed queer issues to be co-opted by politics and corporations in mainstream discourse, obscuring the urgent every-day issues queer people actually face.

The successes of Western LGBT+ rights movements, AIDS activism, and the fight for marriage equality, meeting the modern era of marketisation of the everyday, have had profound consequences for how queer people (used here as a broad umbrella term) interact with politics and the economy. While these movements have undoubtedly changed laws and minds and improved the lives of LGBT+ people, they have fallen prey to both political actors and corporations, which co-opt queer symbols, queer communities, and queer bodies for political and economic capital.

There is nothing new in the way that queer issues are used in politics for political capital: Homophobia and transphobia have always been employed as motivators for right-wing voters and, somewhat more recently, support for queer issues acts as a shorthand for progressivism on the left. The responses, however, have changed somewhat. Where before there was community and activism to continue to push for those issues ignored in the mainstream debate (AIDS activism or anti-work discrimination campaigns, for example), LGBT+ communities are no longer as coherent as they once were. More acceptance has meant less need to form strong activist communities and the rise of the internet has led both to a new form of disconnected and individual activism and the fragmentation of more traditional LGBT+ organisations. Other changes, such as a growing class consciousness among queer people, mean making political decisions based less on queer issues, and more on social or economic ones. Similarly, fissures among queer people have changed debates within communities towards questions of racism, misogyny, and transphobia within LGBT+ spaces.

I do not mean to say that those conversations and decisions are unimportant, but instead to indicate how much queer issues and discussions have become influenced by and obscured in political discourse. Mainstream queer politics is no longer about civil rights, but about identity. Economic inequality, racism, and misogyny are not discussed as queer issues, despite very clearly impacting most queer people. Politicians discuss transgender access to bathrooms, children’s books, and marriage, rather than anti-queer violence, the exploitation of queer workers, or the prevalence of transphobia across society. Queer politics becomes responding endlessly to bigotry and myths, instead of pushing for solutions to the problems faced by queer people every day: homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, violence, and economic instability. And that is not to say that contradicting bigoted and homo- and transphobic narratives in public discourse is not an important part of queer politics; it always has been. It is instead to indicate that this becoming the primary focus of queer issues is not something chosen by LGBT+ people or movements; it is a result of the co-optation of queer issues by various political actors, on the left and the right, for their own ends.

With increasing success has also come an increasing integration of people with queer identities into the neoliberalised political economy. Queer scholars call the result of this process “homonormativity”, the fitting of queer people into a new type of consumer (explored excellently in Warped: Gay normality and queer anti-capitalism by Peter Drucker): middle-class, usually white, cisgender and monogamous same-sex couples who, instead of challenging heteronormative values and structures, anchored particularly in consumerism, support them. Queer people encounter this ‘acceptable’ queerness in everyday consumerist actions. An anecdotal example is the ad for a shopping centre pictured below, which I saw in December at a Frankfurt underground station. The caption reads “Real X-Mases start with diversity: Look forward to a celebration of brands.”

MyZeil advertisement in Frankfurt am Main, December 2021. Taken by the author.

We see here the use of constructed queer bodies, the ‘acceptable’ queers, the ones who fit into homonormative consumerism, whose relationship is ambiguous enough it could be waved away as siblings or close friends. This queer image is used to sell us something, an idea of “diversity” that, in a country of 83 million people, is encompassed not only by two conventionally attractive, skinny, white, middle-class, blonde, cis-gender women, but more importantly by a diversity of brands; queerness is quite literally equated to consumer choice.

It is an example of the feedback loop that is in play here. Middle-class, monogamous, cis-gendered queer couples become integrated into mainstream consumerism and corporations reward them with ‘representation’, which they use to signal their progressiveness and capitalise off those queer couples. Businesses use queer bodies in this way beyond just ads; the corporatisation of Pride is a common meme in LGBT+ communities, where companies can play rainbow dress-up for a month to gain their progressive credentials and sell their products to queer consumers. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, slights (perceived or purposeful) against LGBT+ rights by companies or their representatives – statements by CEOs against marriage equality, for example – might simultaneously lead to boycotts and massive swells in customers, turning activism into an act of consumption for both LGBT+ and non-queer people. Ever stood in the pasta aisle thinking: “Which spaghetti was homophobic again?”

In the end, the result of this neoliberalisation of queerness is the same as the co-optation of queer issues in politics, only instead of queer issues being obscured, it is queer people themselves. Those who do not, cannot, or will not conform to homonormativity – transgender, working class, disabled, people of colour, polyamorous queer people – are often nowhere to be seen. And this invisibility, of course, plays into the ease with which politicians can ignore real queer issues. The co-optation of Pride and more generally representation side-lines a large portion of queer people who are also the ones most affected by the problems obscured by the political use and misuse of queer issues.

There are, of course, numerous factors which contribute to these developments, and I am by no means a student of queer studies. I have instead collected a series of thoughts I have had about being queer and encountering politics, queer issues, corporations, and consumerism. And it seems to me that, though there has been a great deal of progress, a great many successes, we are simultaneously facing new problems, new ways of being ignored or used, and seeing our symbols, our communities and ourselves co-opted for someone else’s gain.

This blog is the first in the series ‘The Political Economy of Everyday Life’ by SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network. You can access the full series here.