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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 engage in long debates over one’s own racial identity, but the only definition that has force is that of the state birth certificate, and its criteria have to do with national boundaries, not personal, subjective affinities.”

Certainly building and reproducing political societies on such a basis accords with an aspect of the queer political critique that Warner developed contemporaneously with Stevens’s article. To Warner, some signature features of queer culture are consequences of its fraught relation to birth families. Restating, in a way, Stevens’s joke about how lesbianism isn’t transferred intergenerationally, Warner writes (more as tragedy than as farce), “Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual . . .”4 Unlike other minority groups, in other words, members of sexual minorities are usually minorities within their own childhood families, and this intra-familial difference often generates a specific kind of shame. Any group affinity that a sexual minority forges is not given through kinship, as it [End Page 56] is for racial, ethnic, or national identity-groups. Lacking transgenerational heritability to scaffold group membership, non-heteronormative people, as a consequence, actively have to seek each other out to associate—as in Stevens’s personal, subjective affinity model.

From the perspective of the future lesbian feeling alienated and stuck because surrounded by straight kin, then, it may make sense to argue for an emancipation from families (and the states that juridically arrange them). However, there are a number of reasons to be cautious about the model inspiring Stevens’s queer critique.

First, as Warner and Lauren Berlant point out, queer cultural formations are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of intergenerational scaffolding. On the one hand, unable to rely on transgenerational culture-building, and without the given anchor of families or clusters of families, queers are more dependent on occupying urban space to “concentrate a publicly accessible culture,” without which they “would always be outnumbered and overwhelmed.”5 Young queers often have to leave their families to access such spaces rather than possibly accessing minority culture through their families. Hence, while ethnic, racial, and national minorities can reproduce group membership even in the absence of urban enclaves, queers could not reproduce a culture without some urban concentration somewhere—and are for that reason more vulnerable to neoliberal transformations of cityscapes, especially when these are in league with anti-vice campaigns.6 On the other hand, as Warner points out, queer politics itself is vulnerable to historical amnesia about past struggles because “queers do not have the institutions for common memory and generational transmission around which straight culture is built.”7

Second, perhaps precisely because of these vulnerabilities, some queers of color—as both sexual and racial or ethnic minorities—adapt rather than abandon the kinship model, while others critique the oppressions of the family form while still being willing to defend kin groups against outsiders. As Paris Is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990) showed, queer and trans African- and Latin-Americans involved in the New York drag ball circuit organized themselves into houses of substitute kin relations, with mothers, sometimes fathers, and their children. Such kin relationships provided psychic and occasional material support when these were lacking from biological families.8 Certainly, these are “fictive” relations, but they are still largely though not exclusively constituted on racial lines, so they are not based on merely “personal, subjective affinities” if by these are meant voluntarist and idiosyncratic associations. As so many of the documentary’s subjects indicate, the families organize themselves in resistance to racial prejudice, lack of economic opportunity, gender regulations, and homophobia in order to try to survive them. Central to much political commentary in the film, racial ancestry and kinship, in fact, are as [End Page 57] much strategies for resistance as they are vectors of domination and exclusion. Along these lines, Cathy Cohen cautioned queer theorists not to “ignore the ways in which some traditional social identities and communal ties can, in fact, be important to one’s survival.”9

Likewise, Gloria Anzaldúa pursues an ambivalent politics in regard to ancestry and kinship. She notes eloquently, “As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me” and “I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos,” yet at the same time “I’ll defend my race and culture when they are attacked by non-mexicanos . . .”10 For Anzaldúa the new mestiza culture and consciousness is based on incorporating elements (and specific intercultural positionings) of one’s ancestral cultures—“an Indian in Mexican culture, . . . Mexican from an Anglo point of view”—in order to achieve a higher synthesis, “greater than the sum of its severed parts.”11

There is also a third caution, which I will not pursue here but merely mention. A psychoanalytic strand of queer theory presents the search for sexual (non-) society with others not as a question of an autonomous personal pursuit of affinity, but as generated, impersonally and compulsively, by the death drive.12 Queer (non-) association on this view would share rather little in common with the voluntary associations that Stevens occasionally mentions as alternatives to kinship and national membership (for example, the possibility of transnational labor unions that workers would organize if labor markets were as free to move as capital, rather than bounded by nation-states).13

Ultimately Stevens’s piece bears a curious relation to queer theory, despite its inspiration in a queer insight about families, marriage, reproduction, and intergenerational relations, and despite its critique of identitarianism. Her article and Reproducing the State are not critical studies of normativity, the opposition to which, it has recently been claimed, “unites the multiple and at times discordant analyses that comprise the queer theoretical archive into a field-forming synthesis.”14 Rather than cutting off the head of the king to study the operations of normalization “beyond the state and its apparatus,”15 Stevens keeps her focus on law, on the sovereignty-function even when it is performed by political communities other than states. This is why she can say (I quote again, adding emphasis): “One may engage in long debates over one’s own racial identity, but the only definition that has force is that of the state birth certificate, and its criteria have to do with national boundaries, not personal, subjective affinities.” But, one might ask, aren’t there other definitions that matter and that have force in other, non-sovereign, relations? Does my birth certificate matter, for example, at Paris’s drag ball, even if it “has force”?

Stevens’s focus on sovereignty impels her to favor emancipation from state-ordered kinship principles, and from the ancestral and familial [End Page 58] claims that follow from them, and for this reason she envisages no emancipatory possibility in race. Yet the countermodel implied by “Are you sure you’re lesbian?” and its non-answer “Yes, both my parents are,” is not an apt one for other minorities.16 Methods of ordinary language philosophy may lead one astray here unless, to put it in Wittgensteinian terms, one sees race and ethnicity on the one hand and sexuality on the other as different kinds of language games. Or, as Wendy Brown argues in a Foucauldian idiom, “various markings in subjects are created through very different kinds of power, not just different powers. That is, subjects of gender, class, nationality, race, sexuality, and so forth are created through different histories, different mechanisms and sites of power, different discursive formations, different regulatory mechanisms.”17 Thus, one kind of minoritarian marking—the lesbian seeking emancipation from a birth or adoptive family of straight people who may make her feel ashamed of her sexuality—would be inapt as a standpoint of critique for another, in this case, race, ethnicity, or nationality. For members of racial, ethnic, or national minorities, certain kinds of claims about ancestry, heritage, and intergenerational transfer may in fact be crucial not so much for emancipation as for resistance, survival, or longer-term projects of decolonization—even when the very categories of kinship have become distorted or overburdened by ongoing histories of slavery and racism.18 In light of these differences, it would make sense that queers of color might, after leaving or being abandoned by the families in which they were raised, insist on building public or semi-clandestine cultures that nonetheless adapt kinship principles rather than reject them.

Jimmy Casas Klausen

Jimmy Casas Klausen is Professor Adjunto I at the Instituto de Relações Internacionais at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. His article “Michael Rogin on American Empire: A Retrospective” appeared in Volume 19, Issue 3. He has also recently published articles on civilization and race in J.S. Mill’s writings after the Indian Revolt of 1857, and sexuality and patriarchal hospitality in Rousseau’s and Diderot’s political theory, and is author of Fugitive Rousseau: Slavery, Primitivism and Political Freedom. Jimmy’s email address is jcklausen@puc-rio.br


1. Jacqueline Stevens, Reproducing the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 15.

2. See Stevens, Reproducing the State, 14.

3. Stevens, Reproducing the State, 282.

4. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 8.

5. Lauren Berlant and Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (winter 1998): 563.

6. See Berlant and Warner, “Sex in Public,” 551–2, 562–4; and Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Deviations (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 166–8.

7. Warner, Trouble with Normal, 51.

8. By contrast, the classically (but not exclusively) white daddy figure in gay culture seems mostly to be a positionality within a couple form only. That is, rather than being a part of a larger “kin” network as are the mothers and children in drag houses, the independent daddy figure acts as a mentor and sexual partner, and sometimes provides material support, for the younger son or boy in a dyad (which may be serial, even concurrent—i.e., a daddy may have more than one boy at once though these boys don’t necessarily form bonds with one another). [End Page 59]

9. Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” GLQ 3.4 (May 1997): 450.

10. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: Toward a New Mestiza, second ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1999), 105–6, 43.

11. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 101, 102.

12. I say “(non-)” because this approach has been labeled the “antisocial” thesis in queer theory. For the Laplanchean version, see Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” in Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 3–30; Teresa de Lauretis, Freud’s Drive: Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). See also Jean Laplanche, “The So-Called Death Drive: A Sexual Drive,” in Between Seduction and Inspiration: Man, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: The Unconscious in Translation, 2015), 159–82. For the Lacanian version, see Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

13. See Stevens, Reproducing the State, 39–40.

14. Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Introduction: Antinormativity’s Queer Conventions,” differences 26.1 (2015): 2.

15. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), 89. However, cf. Cynthia Weber, Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), which uses Foucault to interrogate sexuality as propping up or scrambling sovereignty.

16. See more generally Cohen, “Punks,” 437–65.

17. Wendy Brown, “Suffering the Paradoxes of Rights,” in Left Legalism/Left Critique, eds. Brown and Janet Halley (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 427, original emphasis.

18. On such overburdening, see Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” diacritics 17.2 (summer 1987): 64–81. [End Page 60]