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Would My Birth Certificate Matter at Paris’s Drag Ball?

A commentary on “Race and the State: Male-Order Brides and the Geographies of Race” by Jacqueline Stevens, Theory & Event, Vol. 2, No. 3 (1998)

Although non-heteronormative possibilities are raised only in passing in Jacqueline Stevens’s piece—most notably in the stupid joke by Jean-Marie Le Pen that inspires the article’s title—the larger project from which the piece is taken, the book Reproducing the State, has a queer inspiration. As I will suggest, Stevens’s is a strange kind of queer project, one that I want to call primarily emancipatory, based on her conclusion that there is “no possibility for one’s race to be a form of being with emancipatory possibilities,” and anti-sovereigntist, based on the statist focus of her analysis. Reading Stevens’s article on the reproduction of race in terms of the queer referent that inspires it, I want to evaluate it in terms of (1) work in queer theory contemporary with Stevens’s article and book, and (2) the complicated relationship to family, intergenerationality, and kinship among queers of color.

Stevens aims to show in “Male-Order Brides and the Geographies of Race” that all the supposedly natural grounds that would stabilize the racial categories that name an intergenerationally inherited “racial” identity are actually determined by political communities, yet the social scientists, historians, and natural scientists who work on race or racism approach any such conclusion confusedly if at all. In practice, the determination of race by political communities means that, while one can call oneself “black” or “African-American” because one’s parents are, they in turn are only so named because of complex juridical technologies of racial taxonomy given official force in birth certificates and other legal documents, marriage and kinship law (including anti-miscegenation laws before Loving v. Virginia), and so on. One counts as black because a certain number of one’s ancestors were counted as black in their state-issued documents: “one’s race is the race of one’s ancestors, which is always what the state announces was the race of one’s ancestors,” Stevens wryly notes. Moreover, the official taxonomies themselves, “Hispanic” or “American Indian,” are based on physical appearance as connected to geographic spaces of “origin.” [End Page 55] Stevens shows how odd these bases are, for not only do other genotypic and phenotypic characteristics (e.g., baldness) not produce “race”-like categories, but also (cultural) geography is not (physical) geology. For geography is itself constituted by political communities. “What makes Asians?,” Stevens wonders, answering, “whatever made Asia.”

Throughout both the Theory & Event article and the book, Stevens draws on methods from ordinary language philosophy to discern, by series of contrasts, the grammars of “race” and other identitarian claims dependent upon ancestry. In one instance, she reveals what I take to be her queer political inspiration for the project: “‘Are you sure you’re French?’ ‘Yes, both my parents are’ is idiomatic, whereas, to the question, ‘Are you sure you’re lesbian?’ . . . the dispositive answer would not be, ‘Yes, both my parents are.’”1 The latter is not merely a counterexample, humorous because of its non-idiomatic character. It also discloses the queer character of Stevens’s project, which is anti-identitarian because anti-reproductivist. Race, ethnicity, nationality, and to some extent religion depend on what Michael Warner once called “repro culture”2 for their ability to capture their identity-claimants—although, according to Stevens, this repro culture is codified by political communities, rather than, as for Warner, public formations of normalcy and normativity.

At the end of the book, Stevens confirms that the political implication to her critique would be to find “ways of reproducing political societies so that kinship principles would play a diminished role,” for example through “the elimination of any state involvement in marriage and the curtailment of citizenship requirements based on birth or ancestry.”3 In place of state-codified and–enforced kinship rules, Stevens presumably would endorse political association on the basis of non-intergenerational affinities, as she hints when she makes the following contrast (in the Theory & Event article), “One may...