A very queer Presidential election campaign: personal reflections from an LGBT perspective

This is a ‘feel’ piece that includes some thinking. I have deliberately avoided using sources or checking the facts. Instead I have reflected on living through the campaign and what that has meant to me. I have generated what might be considered an ‘approximate analysis’ partly inspired by reading Proxies: Essays in near knowing (2016) and by being in close proximity to a hate crime during the campaign. In a queer way, I owe a very different form of appreciation to both.

The gays will be better off under me so stated Trump with the bluster and lack of consideration for words we got used to in this campaign! Was Hilary much better? Conventionally yes; uttering consistently supportive noises about LGBT issues, but crucially, she represented the mainstream in her approach to issues of gender and sexuality. Repeating the mantra “gay rights are human rights” to the point where one started to ponder, so did she once doubt this truism?

Whilst there was much queer about this campaign; that hair, her emails, the FBI, a Republican candidate who the last two Republican Presidents did not publically support and the first female candidate for ‘high office’… Despite all of this, from an LGBT perspective it was actually rather conventional. The most affirmative reading of the two main candidates engagement with LGBT issues was little more than permission to join the mainstream is partially granted…but on our terms. 

The notion that is was an electoral liability to be ‘anti-gay’ appeared to take hold in both camps, though this sentiment was clearly not shared amongst many Trump supporters. This position was superficially welcoming. However, it contributed to a re-presentation of the politics of sexuality that hid ambiguity, denied critique and excluded challenge to hetronormativity. In effect we had two versions of shallow inclusivity; queer cultural worldviews remained off limits. 

Specifically I recall:

Trump being ‘accepting’ of an NFL player kissing his boyfriend in public but complaining on behalf of ‘rednecks’ about how hard it is for them to express their true thoughts on this subject. 

Hilary complaining that gay rights had moved faster than women’s rights in recent history (of course about half those identifying as LGBT are indeed women!).

Trump reminding us that he lives in New York and actually knows some gay people, referring to them as ‘tremendous lovely people’… how sweet.

Clinton asserting support for transgender people who should not be held back from participating fully in ‘our great American society’. An act of welcoming them ‘inside’, rather than confronting structures that constitute ‘insider status’. 

Trump talking about how he will protect ‘the gays’ by hating another group. In this case ‘Muslims’ held responsible for the shooting in an Orlando nightclub that led to 29 deaths. 

Trump was keen to show just how ‘red blooded’ he was referring on several occasions to transgender people with feign disappointment; “she’d certainly be attractive as a real woman” and how being a lesbian was “a waste of raw talent”. 

In several interviews where LGBT rights were raised Trump retorted to answering with a rhetorical question along the lines of “what do I know about gay men, I was bought up in a family to think differently about what we are supposed to do in our beds”.

Our ability to put words into play creates what is possible (see the philosophies of Wittgenstein or Barthes). Words associated with LGBT were never queer, always orthodox. These were campaigns of containment, of ‘holding in’. This view may seem perverse given this has been labelled the vilest campaign in history. But just think, what would Trump have really liked to say about vulnerable groups (we caught a pathetic glimpse with the ‘bus tape’). Clinton too acted with reserve on hot queer topics such as fairness of health treatment access and religious bigotry under the banner of free speech. This containment was literal in relation to the candidates’ past lives and misdemeanors and was metaphorical in relation to LGBT experiences; where ‘what it is to live a secret’ was kept concealed.

How could a presidential candidate ever speak from or for the margins? Obama whitened up, Hilary manned up, and any future LGBT candidate will no doubt straighten up. Given this, what meaningful contribution might this queering lens of the 2016 campaign offer? Firstly, that whilst political calculation defines candidate’s engagement with LGBT issues it will perpetuate the construction of LGBT subjectivity within neoliberal forms of governance. Perform productively, distance yourself from deviance and you too can share our American dream.

Secondly, it speaks to a sense of cultural corrosion. Bringing to mind Norbert Elias’s 1939 magnificently articulated ‘The Civilising Process’. Trump’s campaign in particular was shameless, unreflective and deliberately immodest. Elias explained the process that resulted in widespread distaste of dirt, danger, and disregard for others; Trump has legitimised bullying, bigotry and ignorance. Narcissistic delight was manifest in ‘social cruelty’ directed at anybody in his way. An almost medieval concept of gender relations and sexuality has thus reemerged in the public sphere. Even if a Trump presidency differs qualitatively to the campaign, the de-civilising affects will remain.