Confessionals and Coming Out: Being Queer in Neoliberal Times
By Harshita Iyer
In 1977, on the 27th of October, the Montreal Gazette published an article about Eric Hill, a man who was arrested in an armed raid of a popular gay bar in Montreal. The article contextualizes Hill’s experiences within an emerging trend among the city’s queer population that “Hill seems to typify” in the publicly declaration of his homosexual identity in protest of the State’s repeated deployment of violence against queer populations.[i] The article captures the deeply radical and self-sacrificial spirit of “coming out” and the deep political significance it held at the time. Now let’s fast forward forty years— it’s 2018 and gay bar raids seem wholly incompatible with Montreal’s queer-positive urban landscape, with its numerous queer events, bars, businesses, and neighbourhoods. Not to mention, the city’s historical patronage of the arts has facilitated the integration of queerness into Montreal’s mainstream with significant success. This seems largely generalizable to most Western urban cities; of course, some outliers exist, but as a whole, liberal democracy condemns homophobia as an ignorant, outdated, and unenlightened view and celebrates gay rights as one of its proudest achievements. Despite such supposed markers of social progress, “coming out” continues to remain fundamental to the conception of gay and lesbian identity in the public consciousness. However, the narrative in its current iteration has changed drastically since Eric Hill’s time; shifting from an act of political resistance to external struggle, today, coming out is a matter of internal self-acceptance. The transformation could very well be attributed to the success of liberal human rights discourse in relegating queer oppression to the past— but if that were the case, surely it wouldn’t be necessary for queers today to come out at all! Now, we understand coming out as a queer rite of passage, it’s almost as though the process of coming out creates the queer in the first place. Under the celebratory and feel-good stories of gay and lesbian youths coming to accept themselves is something more sinister at work, that only comes to light when we contextualize the narrative in the historical context Hill’s story provides. The problem of queer identity is no longer queerness itself, but rather a lack of transparency, truth, and self-acceptance— seemingly positive values that create the figure of the well-adjusted individual essential to neoliberalism. The transformation of the coming out narrative from its original act of political resistance reflects the transformation of the queer person to a queer subject within neoliberal structures. In the process, the State and the heteronormative mainstream absolve themselves of their role in marginalizing queer populations, as external barriers are reduced to internal struggle that the individual must overcome. In contrast to Hill’s political objectives, coming out today is based in a model of confession that effectively preserves queerness as sin.
Let’s examine the circumstances that informed Hill’s coming out to understand why it was so deeply radical at the time. Queer life existed at the periphery, pushed out of the public and forced to operate entirely in fugitive spaces outside the mainstream. However, queerness was such a threat to the social order that queer spaces were marked by constant and extreme violence. Such was Hill’s experience, as fifty officers bearing machine guns descended on the bar, arresting 136 patrons and levelling 8 charges, simply for daring to be gay in public. Many sustained injuries, stating in subsequent interviews that the officers used unduly aggressive force. Further, at the station, the detained were crammed 20 to a cell, and stated that the conditions were so violent that they could hardly breathe.[ii] The political significance of Hill’s actions and similar come out narratives in the ‘70s is apparent in the gratuitous nature of the State-sanctioned violence deployed against queer populations. Eric Hill effectively refused to be erased and subsumed by the heteronormative status quo. For Hill, publicly asserting his gay identity was not a denial, but a rather, a radical disavowal of both the arrests and the underlying violence that informed them. Hill’s actions were enacted at the individual level, but his coming out was a form of collective activism that sought to advocate against the criminalization of homosexuality, heroically taking on the selfless labour of representing the queer community as a whole at great personal cost. Now, the follow-up question is obvious—why is this no longer the case?
It is largely believed in today’s neoliberal democracy that queerness simply doesn’t pose the same problem it did in the past. After all, gays and lesbians are well-adjusted contributing members of mainstream society who enjoy significant material success. At a cursory level, this may seem like a result of human rights advances since Hill’s arrest, but the reality is much darker; the selective integration of certain privileged gays and lesbians was directly informed by the expansion of neoliberalism. Ronald Ragan sparked the mass liberalization of fiscal markets, globalization, and deregulation, establishing a political and economic structure that had mass ripple effects across the globe. From the renewed emphasis on private ownership emerged a culture of individuality to which values of self-governance, self-sustenance, and well-adjustedness were imperative. It is precisely these neoliberal values that coming out narratives in their current iteration uphold, marking a divergence from the radical objectives of collective social change of Hill’s era; rather to become a depoliticized individual practice of “self-realization.”[iii] Today’s tolerance for a range of sexual activity is borne not from a respect for difference, but the valorization of private space; yet queers are compelled to publicly declare gay or lesbian identity in order to access the freedom to be queer and live a private queer life. The seemingly celebratory integration of gays and lesbians into the mainstream only disguises rather than dismantles society’s inherently anti-queer structures, as the pressure to come out only upholds “the continued presence of compulsory heterosexuality.”[iv] Current narratives prioritize fixed categorizations of sexuality, as gays and lesbians are more accepted than their non-binary and queer-identifying counterparts.[v] Additionally, they predominantly cater to white liberalism by failing to account for the unique cultural challenges faced by racialized queers.[vi] In coming out, Hill sought to call attention to the violent realities of queer life; today the narrative erases the structural foundation of anti-queer violence as “self-acceptance” suggests that the problems of queerness are internal to the queer subject, effectively forcing queers (namely queer youth) to not only accept themselves, but to simply accept themselves as lesser than. This seemingly cynical view examines queer inclusionary politics through an urgently needed critical lens; the positive advances of queer integration may rescue historically “othered" communities from their periphery positions into the folds of State recognition and protection. However, in doing so, the other is transformed into the governable subject whose integration is too often predicated on a number of insidious conditions that uphold their lower social status.[vii] And it is this precisely that Eric Hill sought to challenge in the valiant declaration of his queer identity; by no means did he intend to appeal to the State, but rather to expose, challenge, and protest its role in producing and exacerbating anti-queer violence.
In many ways, coming out today mimics a confessional, where the individual carries a heavy and bothersome lie, and a subsequent declaration of the truth absolves them of the burden. While this may seem to offer a cathartic release to the subject in question, confessions are fundamentally informed by legacies of surveillance and control.[viii] While the confession may seem to be an act produced by and to benefit the self, in reality, confessions occur solely in the context of power structures. Foucault writes:
One does not confess without the presence or virtual presence of a partner who is simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes, and appreciates it, who intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile: a ritual in which the truth is corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated; and finally, a ritual in which the expression alone promises salvation.”[ix]
Here, Foucault intelligently defines confession as a relational act between a speaking subject and a power structure; the former surrenders to the latter and inadvertently strengthens the imbalance of power between the two. Coming out, as conceived of and enacted by Eric Hill and queers of his time was a means to disempower the State by empowering masses of queer populations instead. This is precisely how social hierarchies simultaneously disguise and strengthen themselves; the inclusion of gay and lesbian subjects is contingent on the transformation of former tools of resistance. As such, the transformation of coming out narratives from protest to confession effectively turns State resistance into State power, as the emancipatory potential ascribed to coming out continues to uphold queerness as a self-destructive and damaging burden.
Comparing Eric Hill’s story to the current narrative of coming out exposes the sinister reality of queerness in the contemporary period. The symbolic meaning currently attached to coming out forces queer subjects to simply accept themselves as marginal subjects. As a society, we remain deeply attached to coming out stories that subsequently make up the focus of nearly all of mainstream portrayals of gays and lesbians in the media. The feel-good moments of self-acceptance afford an immediate surge of emotional satisfaction as they allow liberal democracy to take credit for achieving progress while absolving itself of their role in the historical and ongoing realities of anti-queer violence. This is why stories such as Hill’s continue to hold relevance to queer politics today; juxtaposing his experience with current identity politics offers a much needed critical perspective that emerges not from homophobic conservatism but radical anti-neoliberalism. The article reminds us today of the anti-State, resistance-based, and political objectives of coming out in its original form that expose the stealthy mechanisms of inclusionary advances that still hold queerness subordinate. Hill’s experiences illuminate the insidious reality of power that cunningly co-opts historical modes of resistance to strengthen its underlying structures. As such, Eric Hill reminds us that the objectives of coming out have departed from their political objectives to only keep heteronormativity and social hierarchy alive by transforming gays and lesbians into well-adjusted, self-accepting neoliberal subjects.
[i] Ruimy, Joel. 1977. “Homosexuals Fighting Back After Raid.” Montreal Gazette, October 27, 1977.
[iii] Stephanie D. Clare. "“Finally, She’s Accepted Herself!”." (Social Text 35, no. 2 131 2017), 17.
[iv] Ibid., 20.
[v] Ibid., 25.
[vi] Ibid., 18.
[vii] Ibid., 25.
[viii] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. (London: Allen Lane, 1978), 58.
[ix] Ibid., 60.