Jack Halberstam: Queers Create Better Models of Success

“…we’re living with one model of success and failure and one model alone. And that model is, that to make money and to advance professionally is what it means to be successful, and everything else is failure. That’s given us a zero-sum model against which we can judge our achievements in life, and that’s very unfortunate…”

You may know his name as “Judith,” but he’s been going by Jack since The Drag King Book, and, he says, “it’s stuck.” Jack Halberstam is Professor of English and Director of The Center for Feminist Research at USC, teaching courses in queer studies, gender theory, art, literature and film. He is the author of Female Masculinity, The Drag King Book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters and In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.

In September 2011, Duke University published Halberstam’s most recent book, The Queer Art of Failure, a fascinating examination of how “we conceive of the idea of failure in our society, not so that we may correct ourselves, but so that we may see how our various ‘failures’ may actually produce a preferable alternative to conformist lifestyles and the status quo.”

Sinclair Sexsmith sat down with Jack to talk pronouns, Occupy Wall Street, queer parenting, gay marriage, academics, butch identity, and the queer art of failure.

First things first, do you have a preferred gender pronoun?

You know, people are kind of calling me he nowadays. I’m going with that. It’s been such an issue, this name business.

 When did the change happen? I’ve noticed it shift to Jack off the record, but it seems like on your books it’s still Judith officially.

When I was doing all that research on drag kings, I was like, well I’m not going to be Judith in this world of genderqueerness, I’m going by a male name. And at that point, I kind of wish I’d gone with the name Jude, because it would’ve been an easier transition for everybody, and for me too, and instead I just picked a very masculine name, I picked Jack, and now it’s stuck. So I’m Jack. But now I’m going more and more by Jack—I’m not transitioning, necessarily, but I’m in a lot of genderqueer contexts where people do gender by gender preference, not by your body, and I totally appreciate that. But then I suddenly had to face up to the question of whether Jack was my preferred name or not. So some people call me Jack, my sister calls me Jude, people who I’ve known forever call me Judith—I try not to police any of it. A lot of people call me he, some people call me she, and I let it be a weird mix of things and I’m not trying to control it. My next book that’s coming out in the fall, Gaga Feminism, is going to be under the name Jack. It’s going to be an unacademic press.

 So it will be less academic in content, too?

I hope so. I meant for The Queer Art of Failure not to be too academic, but academics are never a good judge of our own accessibility. I think there’s a lot of stuff in The Queer Art of Failure that everyone can read, and then there are a few chapters that are just really for academics and others might be frustrated by it. That’s how it’s going to be—it’s a little like the name thing, you can’t please everyone.

 The “Low Theory” introduction seems very accessible and features references I understand. I don’t really watch Sponge Bob or Dude Where’s My Car, but I comprehend it.

Yes—it’s part of the culture that you live and breathe, whether you are actively engaged with it or not. I think that does make it more accessible, and I have been enjoying going to bookstores and speaking to people who are interested in ideas as well as sometimes undergrads or university faculty—I enjoy the challenge of trying to engage all of those different groups at the same time. I think it’s something academics don’t work as hard at as maybe we should, that finding  larger platforms for our ideas than just speaking to each other at conferences.

 Is that the ivory tower issue?

We don’t really live in an age anymore where we can talk about the ivory tower, we live in an age where both universities and other people are increasingly calling for certain forms of accountability from academics, wanting to know, what is it that you do? How can it be something that I can relate to? And I think in the Humanities in particular, that’s a reasonable question, and people should be able to answer it.

 What are you doing with The Queer Art of Failure in particular? What’s the premise?

The premise of The Queer Art of Failure is that at this moment, intense capitalist accumulation, we’re living with one model of success and failure and one model alone. And that model is, that to make money and to advance professionally is what it means to be successful, and everything else is failure. That’s given us a zero-sum model against which we can judge our achievements in life, and that’s very unfortunate, because it squashes out all kinds of people doing alternative things for alternative reasons that may be much more valuable to their communities and to the world. So if you’re absolutely dedicated to organic farming, recycling, playing in a punk band on the weekend, and blogging, and you do some temp work in your spare time, you’re making a big contribution to the world we live in but you are not able to feed into the model of success that we’ve set out. So the book suggests that in such a moment, the moment of Occupy Wall Street and the one percent and the 99%, we need better models of success and failure. We need to measure ourselves against different standards. And the book proposes that queer people have actually been doing this for a long time precisely because we quickly fall out of the prevailing model of success and failure by not managing to meet the standards of gender and sexuality set for us by our usually straight families. Therefore there might be insights into failure that come out of queer art and queer culture.

So the title is not just queer as in odd, but queer as in the LGBTQIIA etc communities?

 Yes—both. There is something very queer about the art of failure that is odd, anti-normative, perplexing, and then there is something queer about it that has a critical, political spin to it.

 What’s your take on the Occupy Wall Street movements?

One of the things I’ve been trying to theorize about with people, and I’ve written about this on Bully Bloggers and other places, is that these kinds of insurrections and movements are not necessarily just about the people who are there, on site, doing the occupation, but they’re also then about how we spread the information, how we spread the ideas that come out of the occupation, and how we narrate for the press and for general communities what it means to be protesting in the first place. So I consider myself part of the wider sphere, through whom ideas are traveling that can be considered part of the occupation.

 I see my work that way too; I’m contributing to those worlds but I’m not actually standing there on Wall Street.

A lot of people are finding our own ways in. As with a lot of these movements, they happen in New York, then they happen another way everywhere else. Everyone can’t all be in New York. There’s kind of elitism there too, a provincializing move that says, “If you’re doing something and it’s not in New York, you’re not really doing it.”  I think it’s very important in that sense to also not simply just have a lot of places that are not just mimicking what happens in New York.

In New York you have very particular geography—where you could pass through Wall Street, there is a street where banking happens. That’s not true in LA, or in San Francisco, in the same way. Other more postmodern cities are set up with much more dispersed forms of business and so the tactic is going to be different in different places. In other places the tactics are going to be much more virtual than physical. In New York it made sense that it was physical.

In  your new book, it seems like there’s a lot about pop culture as a queer text; I often dismiss pop culture as not representing me or my interest or my community at all. Where is the bridge between those worlds, and how do those connections happen for you?

You’re articulating a very common and important position, which is that for a lot of queer people who are forced to engage with pop culture, they don’t find a lot there that is really about them. But at the same time, we don’t want to retreat into an avant-garde world where everything has to be identity oriented and identity based, and is just alternative small scale cultural production. We live in a world where popular culture is a kind of currency. And it’s important to be able to trade in it. We’re all exposed to pop culture, and pop culture is exposed to us—people who make pop culture are also exposed to the queer worlds that we inhabit, so there are inevitably little areas of overlap. Those areas of overlap between queer communities and popular culture are very important, because it gives you a platform for expression and for ideas to circulate through that isn’t completely insular to your community. Think about it as a platform, rather than as just some multi-million dollar corporate venture that is there to exploit people and to continue to circulate models of normativity. Pop culture is [uncontrollable], it goes viral very quickly, it contains all kinds of contradictions, and it’s a very lively atmosphere for debate and disagreements and contradictions. So I personally get a lot of pleasure from pop culture and I find it to be a very rich resource. And I find it’s a good place for me to connect with readers, who may not have read the latest thing in queer theory but who have recently seen an animated film or something like that.

 Do you see an increase of queer representation in pop culture?

I think it’s more that queer culture has more borders that it shares with pop culture than used to be the case. There used to be more of a split, mainstream culture seemed really different from what we were doing in queer cultures, and now there’s much more overlap.  The people who make popular culture—who make animated films, TV shows, blockbusters—many of them are gay. I’m not saying they’re queer, but Hollywood is bursting at the seams with gay and lesbian people,  and some of those people do have queer sensibilities, and some of those queer sensibilities do make their way in. So we’d be crazy to see ourselves as a little isolated island of radical cultural production that bore no resemblance to this sea of popular culture in which we’re all immersed. That’s a fantasy. We’re all immersed all the time in popular culture, and we’re also engaged in independent ways with our own communities.

 I like this idea of failure as progress and, especially when there’s only one true model of success, looking at the ways that falling short is actually a learning process and a remaking of what normal is or what success there is in general. In some of the work I do, my teachers speak of the wound being the gift.

That’s exactly right, the wound can be the gift, the thing that marks you as other can be the place that you actually want to claim as your own, not the place you want to leave. A lot of people in queer studies have a critique of gay marriage politics precisely because it only sees the wound as a wound: the wound of exclusion, we’re not allowed to get married, becomes, “We need to heal this wound by being allowed to get married.” In a lot of queer studies people don’t want to go that route theoretically. What we want to say is, our exclusion from the institution of marriage actually provides us a possibility rather than being a liability. The fact that we’re excluded from marriage culture—particularly women, people who have been socialized in female bodies—being excluded from marriage culture is not a bad thing. Feminists for two, three hundred years have been saying that marriage is the coercion of young women into dependence and subsidiary roles in relationship to men. Suddenly, when gays and lesbians decide that they’ve been excluded from a constitutional right, we forget our feminist critiques of marriage, and we forget—exactly what you’re saying—that the wound can be the gift, and the exclusion can actually provide us with knowledge with how to do intimacy separately from these state-sponsored regulatory institutions.

If we don’t have to remake it on our own, we don’t have to question what the culture is giving us.

 Precisely. More and more, queer studies becomes a place for these very lively and complicated critiques of what passes for mainstream gay and lesbian politics elsewhere. And that’s a really importunate function of queer studies, it’s hard to explain why marriage may not be the best thing for them to put their money and their time and their efforts into. We don’t always do a good job of that. But it’s important for people to see that, in the spectrum of political goals that a queer movement might set out for itself, marriage should be way, way down on the list and there are other social justice issues that are far more pressing.

 Did you always think you would go into queer studies, or did you have your eye on another career?

If I had another career, I would have tried to be a journalist. I always had a fantasy about doing film reviews, and a lot of the stuff I do is film review like, in some sense. I started writing film reviews for a local queer paper as a grad student and I really enjoyed that. I also really like teaching, it’s an important part of what it means to me to be an academic, and the journalism option gives me only one piece of the thing I like to do. So despite having plenty of critiques about the university and the way it trains people, I’m not sure I could imagine doing other things. It’s hard to be in the university at this moment, especially in the humanities, partly because the humanities are so undervalued. Unlike other people who have other kinds of jobs, academics have very little say in where they go and where they live, you have to go where the job is, and once there, it’s not so easy to change it later on. So that said, it’s an incredible privilege to be able to write and teach and think for a living, and it’s a privilege that is increasingly becoming endangered. The university is filling up with non-tenured track people who are really churning out classes, churning out students, doing remedial education. So even though I have complaints, I recognize I am very privileged to be in the position I’m in. I’m very happy with the career that I have.

 Do you create your own classes and do fun queer pop culture analysis?

Some of it is like that—for example this semester I’m teaching intro to gender and sexualities for 150 students, and many of them are business majors, most of them are straight. I have a few queer and transgender people in the class who speak up regularly, but I also have a large group of heterosexual young men and women who need to be convinced. And that’s a tough teaching gig. And that’s the kind of thing I really like, that I really relish. I don’t think it’s easy, but I think it’s important. This is the only time some of these people are going to hear some of these ideas, and it’s important not to alienate them in the process of exposing them to the material.

So I tend to teach it by focusing quite a bit of time and energy questioning heterosexuality rather than simply exposing them to what queer life looks like, because then it becomes a kind of talk show sensational thing. It’s much more interesting to get them thinking abut their own socialization as heterosexuals, something they’ve almost never had to think about at all, but once they do open up to thinking about it, they get very excited about, and they have a lot to say. I enjoy it and I totally appreciate that students show up for these kinds of classes and struggle through them. It’s one of the real challenges of the university is bringing these kind of world-changing radical ideas to large groups of young people who don’t know why they should care, and doing it in a way that has a lasting impact on them. It’s a place where you can feel really good about what you do, in university. A lot of what we do can be seen as quite irrelevant, you know, conferencing, and department meetings, and other squabbles with other academics can be seen as self indulgent naval gazing, but some of the stuff we do in the classroom is really important. I greatly value what it means to be a teacher and have a lot of respect for people who are doing the teaching of much younger people.

 Most of the folks in my circles know you mostly because of your work with female masculinity and visibility—and your general image of being a hot, masculine of center icon in these communities.  Can you expand a little on your theories about female masculinity?

This is part of the fun of being an academic, is that you can reinvent yourself with each book. But what remains a constant for me is an interest in female masculinity and alternative forms of masculinity in marginalized positions that get seen as freakish or monstrous or unpalatable in the culture. In the new book, I’m trying to do something a little bit different. I’m really issuing a call to academics about low theory, about doing a different kind of theorizing as well as the high theory that gets all the acclaim, doing something lower that might put you in touch with different kinds of conversations. There’s a real commitment in the book to finding ways to theorize issues around social transformation from within the university, and then there are pieces that are about queer culture and the ways in which, for example, the masculine woman is seen as both a failed woman and a failed man. She becomes the absolute embodiment of the queer art of failure. And to the extent that the masculine woman is willing and able to recraft her body and her gender position into one of strength, she’s recreating the model of success in the process. The butch body remains an iconic and representationally rich site for me, whatever book I’m working on.

The new book I just finished, Gaga Feminism, has a chapter that asks what happens in queer families when there is one partner who is gender variant, so the kid is not relating to two lesbian moms, but to a lesbian mom and a butch dad. I have a whole thing in that book about the recreation of fatherhood in relation to butchness. Sometimes I get really irritated when I’m around other queer couples where one person is kind of clearly butch and the other is clearly less butch, but the butch partner is still called “mom.” I think, what’s that about? Why do you want to be called mom? Nothing could be further from my desire, in parenting, than to be called mom. So, we’re doing this queer parenting thing, but the roles of mom and dad have remained completely stable? Only women can be mom, only men can be dad? What’s that about? It’s another frontier where we need better and more interesting ways of thinking about how gender interacts with social functions like parenting.

 I know some butch “moms” who are going by poppy or baba, but they’re constantly othered, not feeling like they have community and confused about the parenting process from their perspective.

This is where Gaga Feminism is going to be very useful, because I write about what it’s going to be like to be the gender variant dad to very gender normative kids. The thing is that the kids do the coming out part for you. So I tell a lot of anecdotes about being with one or the other of my kids, a boy and a girl, and sometimes the girl just introduces me to her friends’ parents as her step-dad, and the parents will look at me like, “You’re the step-dad?” And I say, yeah, I’m the step-dad. They see that their kid is going with it, so they go with it. The boy I parent, he’s very cool, he’s not embarrassed in front of his guy friends, he just says, “Yeah, that’s my other dad.” They say, “How can she be your dad?” He responds, “Well, she’s a he-she, she’s not just a she, she’s a boy-girl.” They have names that they use to explain this stuff to their friends.

It seems like gender’s not quite so rigidified in little kids. They may not get it, but they accept it. As a kid there are a lot of things you don’t get, but you accept.

Yes, it’s a more mobile and flexible relationship to the world in general, and that means that at this age they just accommodate the information, they don’t come at it from a place of judgment. And that works really well for queer parenting, because by the time they’re in the position where they might have judgments, they’ve already been socialized into that queer family, they’ve already bonded. Once they’re bonded they’re not as interested in the critique. That’s what the book is trying to tell people, particularly younger folks who are moving into this parenting mode and unsure what it holds. It’s going to be easier than you think, because for the kids it’s seamless.

 I’m looking forward to reading that. I didn’t realize you were a parent! Is this new?

Four years. I got involved with someone who had two kids, so that’s how it works. When I met her, they were quite little kids. They’re now 6 and 8. So they’re now a more user-friendly age, you can actually interact with them. [Laughs] We have a very queer setup, my partner’s ex is also in the picture, so they have a relation to their dad and to his partner. And that’s what it means to be a family, you have a lot of pieces, and sometimes we all hang out and sometimes we don’t. People are there for you in different ways, and one person doesn’t do everything for you, there are many people. I think that’s a good model, personally. I’m a big recommender of divorce for that reason, because with divorces come more parents.

Sometimes I think in families people get locked in to abusive dynamics partly because there is no outside. As long as there are families the kids go back and forth between, one person’s potentially damaging behavior is really leavened by everything else. We’d like to think of child abuse as being a breed apart, but everyone can get into situations where they’re not treating kids fairly, where they’re not on their game. And the circulation of kids among adults actually, I think, lessens the possibility that they’re going to be subject to one particularly abusive adult.

There’s a study going around about how lesbian parents produce a child abuse rate of 0%.

Wait and see— there’ll be a whole generation of lesbian-raised kids who will tell you otherwise in ten years. That’s the experience of being a kid, you experience the world in a profoundly undemocratic way, your opinion is not always solicited, things happen to you that are not of your choosing, and parents are generally tyrannical because they have to be, in all kinds of situations, simply to get through the day. And that means a lot of what we call parenting in families are vectors for the transmission of forms of power that are tyrannizing. So inevitably there are people who down the road are going to feel hard-done by it. And they will eventually find a way to link lesbians to certain forms of abuse, but the real problem is not lesbians, the real problem is parenting itself, and that we live in a society that gives parents very few options. This is particularly true of poor people, people raising kids without adequate resources, there’s no safety net in this country, and there are really no good ways for people who are making under a reasonable amount of money a year to get a break. That’s the setup that creates bad parenting, it’s not whether you’re gay straight or trans.

 I was behind Top Hot Butches in 2009, a list in which you’re included. What’s your own relationship to the word butch?

Butch has been a great term for me, when I encountered it, it seemed like I finally had a word for what it was that I experienced as embodiment, so I really clung to it. I’m somebody who has seen several waves of transgender activism since I came out, but I still hold onto it, I recognize that it may in fact be descriptive of people of my generation and be less descriptive of younger folks, and I don’t need to hang on to a word that doesn’t work for other people, but I do tend to use it about myself. I like the idea of being a transgender butch, which is that you are completely cross-gender identified, that masculinity is what defines you but you’re not trying to live in the world as a man. That’s the difference between me and a transgender man.

It’s not totally important to my understanding of self that other people read me as a man. It’s important that they read me as masculine, and it’s important that they read me in some way that I’m at odds with female embodiment. But it’s also important that they read me as someone who is not going to have that tension resolved by getting some surgeries. We’re living in a moment where people are pretty creative about their relationship to gender variance, and I think that the queer worlds we live in can tolerate a lot of different gender designations, so I don’t see why we can’t hold onto “butch” along with a whole set of other markers and identity, difference, embodiment, masculinity, variance and so on.

What do you think about the term “masculine of center”?

I think it presumes a center, I’m not sure about that. It presumes a scale that we all know and recognize. I don’t always know that I know what another queer person’s masculinity means anymore. I used to think I knew, but I realized I didn’t.  For a lot of young masculine female bodied people who decide to transition, they’re doing so not because they’re so invested in masculinity but because they’re invested in forms of maleness that are then going to be in relation to other forms of maleness. They want to be gay men! In that scenario, masculinity isn’t the most important vector for them, it’s male embodiment or perceived male embodiment. My orientation is very much to feminine women, so butch still seems to have some sort of signifying power, given my set of desires and orientations. But masculine of center presumes that there’s an ideal, and that ideal presumes all kinds of things about race and class, and that we all know an ideal form when we see it. I can’t get into that kind of normative classification system that has a center and has margins. It’s a kind of colonial way of thinking about things, that there is a center and there are margins, and everyone’s aspiring to be center.

It doesn’t seem like there’s a very agreed-upon standard; every time a new term is introduced, it doesn’t become an umbrella, but just adds another term.

Nobody should accept one standard way of saying things, but I want this to be clear too, that at the same time you can’t have endless varieties of people naming themselves, we do live in a world of categories. Some of those categories have contemporary currency and some don’t. So what butch meant to me in the 1990s is not what butch means now to people. But you can’t just come up with your own name and expect everyone to know what it means, we live with language and the restrictions that language gives us. Some of those restrictions are around intelligibility and legibility. If I call myself a blanket, you know, “I don’t have a gender, so I’m saying blank, then adding et.” Well okay, interesting, but you can’t go around in the world saying, “I’m a blanket,” and expect anyone to know what you mean. They don’t. In fact, terms need communities of users in order to give them validity. Transgender became a term because it explains something that was missing from this medical classification of cross identified bodies, and there was a community of people who wanted to use the term. But each and every person’s own understanding of self doesn’t deserve a name. We also have to group, we have to come up with shorthand and terms that we share and ways of thinking about ourselves in relationship to others. Unfortunately we live in an age where everyone thinks they’re different, that their genders are so unique it can’t be expressed through common language. Well, it’s probably not that unique, when you really question that person you find out that it’s a run of the mill variation on something known.

 Being communicable is important, too.

Yes, communicable. There are categories out there for the way you feel. I’ve nothing against creating new categories, but you don’t do it as an individual, you do it as a community.

 Since there are a lot of queer book nerds who read this site, what’s the best queer book you’ve read in recent months?

I’m a big fan of Chandan Reddy’s book, Freedom With Violence, and Fatima El-Tayeb’s book, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Post National Europe. I liked Justin Bond’s new memoir, Tango, that’s a beautiful book. I’m a big advocate of King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes and Stephanie Benson. A couple I mentioned are very heavy academic, but I like the crossover books where people are thinking but using their own experiences, too.

 Do you mostly read theory? Or do you have a secret indulgence?

I love novels. I’m not just an academic reader. I read a lot, partly because it goes with the job, but when I relax I’ll probably read a novel.

 It’s a pleasure to talk to you, I’m a big fan of your work. We ran into each other at the Lammy’s last year, I think—

Yes I think so! And who knows, maybe we will again!

 Let’s hope The Queer Art of Failure is a finalist! Anything else to add?

I’m super excited about The Queer Art of Failure and that people have been reading it. And in September 2012, look for Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal  from Beacon Press.