Imagining the Place of the State: Where Governance and Social Power Meet

Davina Cooper. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Analysis of the state within lesbian and gay studies has been limited. This is not to say the state is entirely absent; however, it tends to remain in the background, tangential to the topic discussed. Even lesbian and gay political science has generated little analysis of the state, focusing instead on theoretical issues such as rights and citizenship, or empirical questions of political effectiveness. Consequently, drawing together conceptions, analyses and theories of the state from lesbian and gay studies feels a rather archaeological endeavour: sifting and piecing fragments together from other fields; fragments constructed with other goals in mind. At the same time, the concerns of state theory are not unfamiliar to lesbian and gay studies. How public bodies regulate sexuality and reproduce sexual inequalities, the potential that is present for using the state in more progressive or radical ways: these questions underlie much scholarship in the field. However, unlike theoretical work on gender and class, these questions have not tended to generate an analytical infrastructure regarding the state.

We can explain this, perhaps curious, neglect in several ways. Altman (1982: 110) and others (e.g., Cohan, 1982) have focused on the impact of lesbian and gay studies’ disciplinary background, politics departments not forming a significant academic base. From the perspective of my discussion here, two other factors are more relevant. The first concerns the specific relationship between lesbian and gay movements and the state which, until recently, has almost exclusively revolved around exclusion, discrimination and violence: not a context likely to generate accounts of a multifaceted, nuanced state. The second factor is Foucault. Although lesbian feminist writing has demonstrated more ambivalence, Foucault’s intellectual impact on critical western gay and queer scholarship since the early 1980s is hard to overstate. While Foucault’s main influence in the field has been on the ways sexual identity is understood, his work has also helped to generate a paradigmatic shift in lesbian and gay social science away from a top-down model of power and the state to a concern with discourse, subjectivity, and more recently, governmentality.

I begin this chapter by mapping out the contours of existing research on the state within lesbian and gay studies. Because much of the work approaches the state tangentially, this chapter adopts a broad brush perspective, focusing on some of the many encounters within lesbian and gay studies. As will become clearer later on, my understanding of the state weaves together several themes: national identity, political force, governance, institutionalised policy-making, and territory. The first part of the chapter sketches some of the ways in which these concepts have been used, focusing on liberal, western states: the focal point for much writing in this area. At the same time, I also draw upon a growing literature on non-western states (e.g., Alexander, 1994; Brown, 1999; Green, 1999; Lunsing, 1999; Phillips, 1997; Sweet, 1995). Research on the sexuality-state interface outside the western, liberal tradition is a particularly important area of development: both for the insights generated about particular states as well as for its theory and potential to problematise and particularise assumptions that have come out of western encounters (e.g., see generally Gupta, 1995).

In the second section, I pull together the fragments discussed to offer a way of thinking about the state that is less splintered. This forms the groundwork for the final part of the chapter, which outlines three possible research pathways. The first concerns the convergence of gay politics and state practice in stabilising and entrenching sexual orientation as an organising principle around a hetero/homo binary divide. The second addresses the effects of a radical transgender perspective on lesbian and gay state politics. The third considers the distinct contribution lesbian and gay scholarship can make to understanding the state, by highlighting the role of desire in motivating state practices.

State Encounters

From Discrimination to Discipline

While the changing approach of many states towards homosexuality has led writers to explore how states can further lesbian and gay equality, probably the largest body of research concerns the way in which states have constructed and responded to sexual difference in more ostensibly negative ways. Historical accounts alongside analyses of the present have identified the ways in which states subordinate, exclude, harass, prohibit and marginalise bodies, subjectivities, activities and places associated with homosexuality. Much of this writing is based upon liberal paradigms. Centring on the discriminatory treatment meted out to gays and lesbians through family policy, employment and criminal law, in particular, liberal legal scholarship, has generated detailed studies of the problem alongside proposed remedies. While assessing the intricacies of legal frameworks has merit, to the extent liberal scholarship portrays the problem as confined to formal discrimination, ignores the intersection of sexuality with other social relations, and fails to engage with the more complex, uneven and contested ways in which the state regulates and shapes sexual practice, its contribution needs supplementing by more theoretical and critical accounts.

Since the 1970s, such analyses have been forthcoming from several quarters, influenced by feminism, Marxism, and more recently poststructuralist analysis. Here, I want to focus on Foucault’s impact on lesbian and gay ‘state’ scholarship, particularly in relation to ideas of power and governance. The idea of power as ‘creating’ rather than simply denying particular outcomes is not unique to Foucault (1980); however, Foucault’s work usefully drew attention to the idea of power as working through, rather than against, agency. In other words, power is not primarily the process of crushing another’s will or of causing them to act against their own identified interests. Rather, power works most effectively when—by mobilising the capillaries of the social—it shapes the knowledge, behaviour, interests, even desires of its subjects. In this way, state power does not simply circumscribe the options available to an already constituted subject, but actively shapes the subjectivity it simultaneously and subsequently confronts (see Pringle and Watson, 1992: 64).

Foucault’s analysis of public power generated a wave of lesbian and gay scholarship exploring the production of discourses, disciplinary techniques, and processes of regulation. In analysing state-generated discourse, legal decisions proved a particularly fruitful terrain because court judgments offer socially powerful, oral and written texts (see Moran, this volume). While writing has tended to concentrate on the changing character of particular discourses, such as ‘the homosexual,’ the effects of discourse are an equally important site of analysis lest it be assumed that discourses and their effects are identical. The law, for instance, may construct a homosexual subject (or subjects) (e.g., Mort, 1980: 42): ‘the unfit lesbian mother’ or ‘degraded gay sado-masochist,’ but there is a crucial social space between this discursive production and the way diverse communities understand and constitute themselves. This space is not a vacuum, however; it is a heterogenous place of contestation, partial communication, a refusal or inability to hear, as well as processes of domination.

Analysing the impact of state-generated truths about social subjects and practices requires us to look at the interrelationship between discourses and other governing techniques. For instance, Leslie Moran (1991: 156-8) has explored how the discursive production of homosexuality as ‘risk’ was linked, by the British state in the mid-1950s, to investigative and other disciplinary techniques in order to promote national security, and improve Britain’s relations with the USA (see also D’Emilio, 1989; Sullivan, 1999). At the same time, state power may be more effective when it remains both unannounced and undefended; disciplinary effects are not always anchored in contemporaneous discourses. For instance, CCTV cameras and police officers pacing streets may dampen down expressions of gay intimacy regardless of the reasons for which surveillance was initiated. Similarly, lesbian co-parents may continue to avoid physical affection in front of their children long after periods of state censoriousness have declined or ceased.

While writing on state discourse and discipline has tended to focus on specific techniques, other work has attempted to offer a broader analysis of state practice. Two different directions are evident here: the first centring on regulation, the second on governmentality. Analysis of state regulation focuses on the way governments structure rather than direct practice. Franzway et al. (1989: 18) describe regulation as a strategy that uses rules and order to manage conduct. While rules can forbid, their primary effect is to shape the social landscape upon which action takes place, frequently by carving out a temporal and geographical domain within which certain events are permitted or forbidden. For instance, in Britain, the state has regulated homosexual activity according to rules that identify where and with whom sex is permitted. Thus regulatory policies can combine liberalisation in one domain with a more restrictive approach elsewhere (see Altman, 1982: 121; also Mort, 1980: 40). Gary Kinsman (1996b) explores this strategy in his work on governing people with AIDS. According to Kinsman, the classificatory divide between responsible and irresponsible subjects was deployed not just as a discursive framework, but also as a way of enabling the ‘responsible’ to be governed through modes of self-regulation, such as advice, while the criminal law, policing and coercive public health measures controlled ‘irresponsible’ subjects.

State coercion can be seen as identifying the limits of regulation which, as a technique of governance, tends to assume that the majority will act ‘rationally,’ keeping themselves within the parameters of legitimate conduct. However, just as we cannot assume that the discursive construction of subjectivity will generate coterminous subject identities, so the production of rules and norms does not necessarily mean compliance or success (see, generally, Sunstein, 1990). Exploring the gap between governmental practice and actual outcome can be found in foucauldian work on governmentality: the particular mentalities, arts and regimes of government and administration (Dean, 1999: 2; see also Foucault, 1991). While Nikolas Rose (1994) declares that the will to govern is eternally optimistic, failure, he also argues, is inevitable (see also Hunt and Wickham, 1994). Indeed, according to Rose and Miller (1992: 181), it is around the difficulties and failures of governing that programmes of government are elaborated.

The ongoing tension between the will to govern within liberal states and the inability of governing apparatuses to achieve their desired outcomes provides the terrain for studies of governmentality that have built upon Foucault’s (1991: 103) conceptual decentring of the state. While analyses of governmentality have tended to focus on more mainstream areas of social and economic policy, lesbian and gay studies is beginning to explore the potential of this approach (e.g., see Goldberg-Hiller, 1998: 525-6; Kinsman, 1996b). Two aspects of governmentality studies are particularly helpful to understanding the state’s response to sexuality. The first is the claim that governments rule ‘at a distance’ geographically and relationally (see Rose, 1999; also Cooper, 1998). Indirect and mediated rule emerges from the tension between the ambitious ruler or government seeking to extend their remit, and the importance to liberalism of sustaining what is perceived as a relatively autonomous civil society (or private sphere) (Rose and Miller, 1992).

The second key element is that of governmental rationality. In relation to liberal western societies, governmental rationality is concerned, according to Burchell (1996), with the art of government. This has several elements: the way in which governing by different agencies becomes constituted as legitimate; how reality and its ‘problems’ are rendered thinkable and amenable to political programming and strategy; the changing aspirations of liberal governance; and the way in which its subjects are conceptualised (Rose, 1994: 42; see also Rose and Miller, 1992; Simons, 1995: 36). According to Mitchell Dean (1999: 32)

One of the features of government is that authorities and agencies must ask questions of themselves, must employ plans, forms of knowledge and know-how, and must adopt visions and objectives of what they seek to achieve. The ‘welfare state,’ for example, can be understood less as a concrete set of institutions and more as a way of viewing institutions, practices and personnel.

The developing field of governmentality has encountered criticism on various grounds (see Curtis, 1995; O’Malley et al., 1997); it does, nevertheless, offer a fruitful field of scholarship for lesbian and gay political studies. For instance, it provides a framework for exploring changes and conflicts in governments’ perceptions of their role and capabilities in relation to homosexuality, in the light of new knowledges about sexuality, subjectivity and new framings of the ‘problem.’ One example of such an approach to analysing anti-gay US policy is provided by Janet Halley (1999), in her examination of the Clinton administration’s response to ‘gays and lesbians in the military,’ popularly described as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ (see also Herek et al., 1996; Rimmerman, 1996). Although Halley does not explicitly draw on the field of governmentality, her short monograph, Don’t, focuses on the changing way in which state policy understood lesbian and gay sexuality revolving around the imagined relationship between homosexual status and conduct. Halley refutes the claim that the policy under Clinton was more liberal and sympathetic to lesbians and gay men; that it moved from excluding persons to excluding activities. ‘Every moving part of the new policy is designed to look like conduct regulation in order to hide the fact that it turns decisively on status’ (1999: 2). One key theme of Don’t is the intensified and particular deployment of the notion of homosexual propensity in US military policy post-1993. Exploring the complex ways in which propensity as an actuarial prediction, and as a pathological, personality trait, are combined to generate workable knowledge for military governance, Halley provides a close study of the governmentality of sexuality.

Activism against the State and the Pursuit of Change

Halley’s work is useful in linking the production of knowledge to conflicts and disagreements within the US state over the right approach to homosexuality in the military. For, in the main, studies in governmentality, focusing on the practices, objectives and vision of government, have tended to sideline the pressures placed upon government to reform. A similar, although somewhat less polarised, division is apparent within lesbian and gay studies where research and writing that focus on regulation and governmental power sit at a distance from analyses of social movement attempts to revise state policy and practice. In the following brief overview of writing on lesbian and gay state activism I want to address three interlinked questions: how does work on lesbian and gay campaigning imagine the state? What can we learn about the structure of the state from research into political conflicts over sexual orientation policies? And are there legitimate limits to state intervention to prohibit discrimination?

Academic scholarship on lesbian and gay activism has taken several directions. One dominant strand has embraced a liberal perspective leading priority to be placed on removing formal discriminatory provisions such as the criminalisation of sexual activity, alongside arguments for state protection in order to safeguard lesbians and gay men from the hostility and discrimination of others. Liberal ideology shapes not only the character of the claims made, but how the state is also understood. While bias is perceived as encoded within the state’s operations, this is seen as a residue of history rather than an inherent aspect of modern, western states. A similar optimism on the part of campaigners structures and motivates pressures for reform. In his discussion of AIDS campaigning, for instance, Hodge (2000) argues that, in comparison with others who organised politically, white, middle-class male activism was distinguished by its sense of assumed entitlement from the state.

Not all lesbian and gay actors, however, have demonstrated such a confident sense of expectation. Leaving to one side, for the moment, processes of ‘structural selectivity’ in which the state’s form generates a skewed response to different interests (see, generally, Jessop, 1990), critics have explored the gate-keeping, self-interested activities of white, male campaigners that have limited the involvement and influence both of lesbians (Schrodel and Fiber, 2000: 12), and other Black gay activists (Boykin, 2000). Ambivalence about lesbian and gay reform campaigns has also come from two other directions; the first questions the desirability of the state becoming the primary means of pursuing equality intervention; the second questions the goals and techniques of reform movements themselves. Critical voices arguing for restraint in the rush for state-based equality have emphasised the relational quality of the state. The liberal scholar, William Eskridge (1997), for instance, has argued that anti-discriminatory state policies should not dominate civil society. In particular, ‘private’ bodies such as churches and religious universities should be allowed to express and act upon their opposition to lesbian and gay ‘lifestyles.’ From a different perspective, echoing earlier work by feminists and socialists critical of an overly-optimistic, reliant relationship with the state, Wendy Brown (1995) has criticised identity-based state activism, on the grounds it misrepresents the state as neutral, and fixes identity around the experience of injury and suffering. Eskridge and Brown’s positions are interesting because of their explicitly normative stances. However, in the main, critical writing avoids a normative approach; instead many writers, ambivalent about the agenda and techniques of reform based organisations, have focused their energies on studying more oppositional, expressive and grass-roots social movement organisations (Berlant and Freeman, 1993; Brown, 1997; Hodge, 2000).

In contrast to liberal scholarship and activism, radical critics and activists tend to portray the state as neither autonomous, omnipotent nor democratically accountable. Instead, the state is seen as one site of concentrated power (others include the church and large corporations), anchored to a seabed whose terrain is structured by social inequality. Radical activism asks the state to act, but it does so less politely and less hopefully. It sees the state less as an entity marked by anachronistic prejudices, than as a site of power mobilised against vulnerable, unpopular constituencies. But why does the state act in this way? For all its sophistication in analysing movement struggles, radical lesbian and gay analysis offers a thin interpretation of the forces shaping and structuring state form and practice. Even where the state is described in lesbian and gay scholarship as ‘heteropatriarchal,’ ‘racist’ or ‘capitalist,’ there is little theorisation or detailed analysis of what this means.

One illustration of this gap is Lisa Duggan’s influential article, ‘Queering the state’ (1994). Duggan’s analysis problematises the way in which the politics of the state are generally being left to lesbian and gay civil rights strategies (ibid.: 6). Arguing for a queerer approach in the face of right-wing antigay mobilising, Duggan (1994: 9-11) urges lesbian and gay activists to invert special rights discourse to highlight and counter the state’s promotion of hetero-sexuality. She also proposes the reformulation of sexual difference as a form of dissent, understood not simply as speech, but as a constellation of nonconforming practices, expressions, and beliefs (ibid.: 11). Duggan’s proposals are useful, but, to the extent one looks for an analysis of the state, her discussion disappoints. Despite the title, the article offers no conceptualisation of the state, queer or otherwise. This is not so much a criticism of Duggan since she does not explicitly suggest her paper would do otherwise. Nevertheless, it illustrates how far the state has become evacuated as an analytical concept amongst radical gay theorists, that even an article on queering the state does not explore the form and character of the state itself.

One body of social movement writing to provide a more detailed account of the state, particularly of the linkages between different apparatuses, is the research on western struggles between gay and right-wing forces over government policy and legislative reform (Altmore, 1995; Duggan, 1994; Durham, 1991; Herman, 1994, 1997; Smith, 1994). In the US context, writers have examined the ‘gay rights’ battles waged between lesbian and gay forces and the Christian Right through the constitutional systems and processes of different states. One technique popularised in the last decades of the twentieth century was that of ‘direct democracy’ as conservative religious forces introduced local ballot initiatives to outlaw current and future gay rights protection (Donovan et al., 2000; Herman, 1997; Magleby, 1998). With state governments forced to give effect to successful local referenda, often in the face of their own contrasting political stance, lesbian and gay activists turned to the courts seeking to have the new ballot-driven legislation declared unconstitutional.

Juridical struggles between gay and right-wing American forces provide a vantage point from which to examine the intricate constitutional and political arrangements between different state bodies. While accounts of the state often treat it as an aggregate of its apparatuses, or focus on one state arena as illustrative of others, writing on ‘direct democracy’ centres on the differences between state arenas as well as the links, particularly legal and political, that operate between city government, local referenda, state government and courts. At one level, these linkages are strings pulling state and local government to attention, to be held to account, to act. At another level, the linkages are more contested, and contradictory, as I discuss further below.

Entering the State and its Satellite Dilemmas

Research on mobilising the complex links between different state bodies raises the question of whether there is anything coherent or unified about the state. While the links between apparatuses such as local government, the courts, the national executive, legislature, police force and army identify institutional connections, is this the extent of the state’s unity? Or is the state unified by the power relations it condenses, the projects it pursues, and the constraints it shares? While Marxist state scholarship has tended to stress the state’s overall coherence vis-à-vis capitalism, one interesting source of potential fracturing was posed by Althusser (1971: 140) in his discussion of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). According to Althusser ‘[T]he resistance of the exploited class is able to find means and occasions to express itself there [in contrast to Repressive State Apparatuses], either by the utilization of their contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in them in struggle.’ From a different direction, feminist work in the 1980s and early 1990s moved from an assumption of structural constraints to an emphasis on contingency and the ongoing struggle for hegemony amongst political forces (Pringle and Watson, 1992: 63).

In the main, debates about state coherence and unity have not surfaced within lesbian and gay studies. While the scholarship on institutional gay rights conflicts throws light on these questions, for the most part it does not engage with state theory in any sustained or explicit way. One cluster of scholarship that does focus more directly on the state, and thus can illuminate debates on state unity and coherence addresses the entry of lesbian and gay forces onto the terrain of the state itself. To what extent does such ‘entryism’ undermine or reinforce the thesis of state unity?

Work on lesbian and gay entry has taken two primary directions. The first, predominantly US focused, concerns the preconditions and criteria for policy effectiveness (e.g., Haeberle, 1996). Encompassing the entry of both gay individuals and gay concerns, its focus is the institutional mechanisms, coalitions and policy orientations that have enabled lesbian and gay demands to make it onto government agenda, either through political clout or by converging successfully with pre-existing state interests (see, generally, Bailey, 1999: Ch. 11; Button et al., 1997; Wald, 2000: 15-18). While useful in exploring some of the conditions for lesbian and gay effectiveness in particular policy arenas, such as city governments, research in this area nevertheless sidelines wider, more theoretical debates about the state, particularly its relationship to economic, racial and gendered forms of power. Thus, it does not use the experience of lesbian and gay policy-making to address questions of state coherence or fragmentation. Instead, it tends to assume two things: first, that variation as a result of different, operative ‘political opportunity structures’ is possible; and second, that lesbian and gay political agenda are broadly compatible with prevailing state frameworks oriented around liberal equality.

The second direction research on lesbian and gay political entryism has taken focuses on instances where activists have gained apparently unmediated access to the state’s terrain in their own right, as politicians and officials (e.g., see Rayside, 1998). One instance that raises, particularly acutely, the issue of convergence between gay and state agenda concerns the lesbian and gay municipal developments in Britain during the 1980s (Carabine, 1995; Cooper, 1994a, 1994b, 1995; Lansley et al., 1989; Tobin, 1990). Although, in many respects, the policies developed here were framed in terms of liberal equal opportunities and non-discrimination, their confident, assertive style, emphasis on symbolism and the needs of young gay men and lesbians, and their ‘arithmetic’ understanding of intersecting oppression owed much to the feminist and liberation politics out of which many lesbian and gay local government actors emerged (see Cooper, 1994a). Local government lesbian and gay policies provide a good example of the capacity, hinted at by Althusser (1971), of progressive forces capturing a politically ‘vulnerable’ state apparatus. However, leaving to one side the question of whether local government can be considered an ISA, this reading has to be tempered in two respects. First, lesbian and gay urban policy development underwent complex, internal containment processes as a result of which initiatives and discourses were organised out or modified. Second, when internal processes broke down, external forces intervened: in the 1980s, in Britain, this included the Thatcher central government and right-wing media, as well as more local conservative and religious constituencies.

Both internal and external processes highlight the limited capacity of state bodies to ‘step out of line.’ When such transgressing of parameters occurs, other bodies will use the institutional links between them to drag the recalcitrant authority back (see also Cooper, 1998: Ch. 5). However, the overall dominance of a particular project, regime or perspective does not just rely on institutional articulations. Non-state bodies, with an interest in the outcome, may also be involved. In the case of British local government, media ridicule and a publicised loss of credibility proved powerful incentives, alongside the deployment of law, personnel hierarchies, and financial support to re-establish the status quo. But despite such a reversion, troublesome state bodies may also have a more pervasive influence on state projects as a whole. Sexual orientation, by the turn of the 21st century, had become far more accepted as an integral element of state equal opportunities policies. At the same time, convergence across different state bodies should not be overstated. Despite the pervasiveness of certain discourses, policies and structures, state apparatuses operate in different ways. Indeed, this might be seen as an integral aspect of a complex, unified state, as well as signifying resistance to political hegemonising impulses.

The question of unity is not restricted to the agenda and processes operating between different state arenas, it also needs considering in relation to other aspects of the state’s identity. In the second part of the chapter, I explore the relationship between different aspects of the state in more detail. One issue raised is that of boundaries. If the state is a meaningful concept then identifying its boundaries may be important. And if the state is a multifaceted entity, this complicates the question of boundaries further, since each state facet will have its own ‘limits.’ Within lesbian and gay studies the question of state boundaries arises, particularly prominently, in relation to the voluntary sector. From writing on AIDS service and policy organisations (Altman, 1994; Brown, 1997; Kinsman, 1992) to bodies such as the Gay and Lesbian Taskforce in Australia (Hart, 1992), analysts have explored the extent to which lesbian and gay voluntary organisations have become part of the state through the state’s provision of funds, policies and staffing.

While views on the question of state incorporation remain moot, the important point is not, I think, to answer definitively whether the voluntary sector is or is not ‘within,’ but rather to examine the issues such a question throws up. Voluntary sector studies reveal the fuzzy character of the state/civil society boundary—a fuzziness deployed and exploited when governing takes place ‘at a distance’ (Rose, 1996; see also Mitchell, 1991: 90). For governments to ‘step back’ from governing directly, they require a range of organisations to adopt a regulatory function: to promote norms, rules and particular truths, and to monitor, audit, and select. In some sectors, private commercial bodies have fulfilled this role, but within the lesbian and gay community, the voluntary organisation is a more common model. Yet, to say that voluntary organisations are incorporated within state relations of governing does not mean they necessarily exercise state power or reflect the balance of class, gender, and racialised relations that the state condenses. Indeed, one can see such a sector as subject to the conflicting tendencies of state and community, as being both inside and out, at varying, overlapping degrees of intensity. This is not just the case where the state tries to co-opt, in the face of community organisations’ attempts to maintain autonomy and distance; the situation is far more complicated. As voluntary organisations try to build strong bridges to some aspects of the state (its legitimacy and resources, perhaps), while disidentifying with others (the state’s coercive function and condensation of social power), state forces engage in a parallel endeavour (Cooper, 1995: 66). In the process, both attempt to hegemonise their interpretation of the relationship in order to sustain legitimacy within their wider community.

Sexing State Form and Relations

So far I have mapped accounts of the state that draw upon ‘external’ as well as ‘internal’ perspectives. While the former treat the state as an entity that governs and is subject to pressures from the outside; ‘internal’ analyses open up the ‘black box’ of the state to explore the struggles that take place within and across. While some writing combines both approaches, much of the literature in the field prioritises one or other perspective. I now want, however, to turn to a third strand of scholarship. This overlaps both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ analyses, but tends to be explored separately. It concerns the way in which the state’s form and structures are themselves sexualised (Cooper, 1995: 67-74). This extends from the interface between sex and state violence (Enloe, 1993; McClintock, 1992) to the figurative deployment of sexuality to imagine relations between nations (Stychin, 1998: 100-2).

Work on the sexualised state parallels, while also building upon, path-breaking work on the gendered or male state (Brown, 1992; Mosse, 1985; Watson, 1990; Yuval-Davis, 1997). Unlike more conventional scholarship which treats sexual policies as ontologically distinct from the state itself, writers in this area have portrayed the state’s sexual agenda as a reflexive project that attempts to sustain a particular corporate, national identity, at the same time as it shapes and regulates the sexual possibilities of its citizens or subjects. It is the mutually constitutive relationship between nation-state identity and the governance of social practice, both according to a heterosexual logic, that has provided a focus for writers such as Jacqui Alexander (1994) and Oliver Phillips (1997). Jacqui Alexander’s (1994) work on the Caribbean, for instance, explores how reproducing the heterosexual character of the nation-state works to delegitimise and often criminalise sexual practices and relations that do not involve ‘procreative’ sex. Thus, the particular histories of building ‘post-colonial’ states can cause homosexuality to be figured, in some instances, as an external form of invasion or contagion (Alexander, 1994: 15; see also Phillips, 1997; Stychin, 1998: 61, 63) in contrast to its more insidious status within certain western contexts (Moran, 1991; Mosse, 1985).

Nation-building work may be intent on reproducing and sustaining a heterosexual identity, but from an ‘external’ vantage point, nation-states may appear sexually otherwise. Schwartzwald (1993), writing about Quebec, explores the way in which national identity has been both juxtaposed against, and articulated to, homosexuality. Carl Stychin (1998: 99) continues this analysis in terms of how discourses constitute nations through the attribution of sexual identities. According to Stychin (ibid.):

This theme is well established in the context of the Canadian federal system … that the federation is a marriage between French and English, a heterosexual metaphor in which French Canada … takes on the female role … But the construction of national identities is not limited to a heterosexual frame. The relationship between Quebec and the ROC [rest of Canada] has long been constructed in homosexual … terms.

The figurative sexualities of nations, and the relationships between them, opens up a host of metaphorical possibilities: heterosexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, while the nuances added by the complex gendering of butch, femme and camp promises new readings and interpretations of international relations.

Towards a Polycentric Account

The State’s Identities

Is the state itself best defined by its legal form, its coercive capacities, its institutional composition and boundaries, its internal operations and modes of calculation, its declared aims, its functions … or its sovereign place in the international system? Is it a thing, a subject, a social relation. (Jessop, 1990: 339)

My discussion so far has mapped the spread of state scholarship within lesbian and gay studies. Together, these literatures draw attention to different aspects of the state. Liberal writing on state discrimination, and Foucauldian work on regulation and governmentality highlight the power, techniques and effects of state policies, provide an account of how the state ‘thinks’ and acts, and the limits to its interventions, but do not, for the most part, assume intentionality or agency. In other words, state actions and processes, even paradoxically state thought, emerge out of the way political hegemony or rationality is organised, rather than constituting the workings of an inner institutional ego. Work on lesbian and gay mobilising depicts an embodied state open to pressure from the ‘outside.’ From one perspective, this is a state ready to reform its archaic edges, from another politically forced to accommodate movements against the interests encoded at its core. Writing on lesbian and gay entry, in contrast, shifts from a morphology of embodiment to the invocation of a structured terrain, raising questions about state form, ‘selectivity’ (Jessop, 1990: 148-9), the relationship between different state arenas, and the boundaries of the state’s territory. Finally, writing on the sexualised state collapses the space between the two. Analyses of the sexual identity of the nation-state bestow upon it both agency and intentionality. At home, the state promotes its preferred sexual logic while its international identity is sexually inflected by the wider forces of the global arena.

Are these different perspectives contradictory and inconsistent? Is our choice to select between them or is there a way of bringing their insights together to construct a fuller, richer account? For many scholars, activists and policy-makers, the state still most closely resembles a leviathan (cf. Hobbes, 1914): a power-infused monster whose reach embraces, coerces, even suffocates civil society. While this image reflects a pervasive, and for this reason, important understanding of the state, my analysis seeks to draw from less reified, as well as less essentialised, accounts (Boyd, 1994; Watson, 1990; see also Cooper, 1995). In contrast to those Foucauldians who have replaced state theory with studies of governmentality, and those feminists who question whether the abstracted character of the term has anything worthwhile to offer (e.g., Allen, 1990), I want to hold on to the state as an analytical concept for two primary reasons. First, it reflects the way in which political and governmental power is understood, both by those who perceive themselves to wield it has well as by those who experience their subjection to it. Second, as I go on to discuss, the state identifies a particular set of connections or configurations that both accentuate the nature of political power as well as giving it a specific form.

Given the slippage and retranslation inherent in the movement of concepts, what counts as part of the state will vary according to time, place and outlook (e.g., see Gupta, 1995; Held, 1989; Jessop, 1990: 347-9). Within liberal western discourse, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the state operates as an organising principle of power and governance that pulls together, in geographically specific configurations, a combination of roles, practices, powers, technologies, institutions and spaces. These include the state’s condensation and coordination of social relations (Kinsman, 1992: 222), its governmental functioning, nation-state identity, arenas (Pringle and Watson, 1992: 53), and the relations of authority, accountability, law and resources that connect them. While the state organises these ‘identities’ into a complex configuration, identities are not always equally in focus. Depending on the context, different identities or dimensions will come to the fore—a plasticity often ignored by state theorists. Thus, the state may seem to function primarily as the nation’s representative within international relations or as the source of coercive power over citizens and territory. However, regardless of which identity or dimension appears paramount, and regardless of the extent to which political forces present this or that identity as defining the state, such identities or dimensions do not exist in a vacuum. First, they are always articulated to other state identities that, however obscured in a particular context, will continue to shape their meaning and impact—just as gender identities are always shaped and structured by other social relations, such as class and ethnicity. Second, the state’s identities take their meaning from, and operate within, specific socio-economic, political and cultural contexts (see also Mitchell, 1991). For instance, just as a gay identity only has meaning within the terms of wider sexual norms and practices, so the state’s identity as, for instance, the site and means of exercising public, legitimate violence is carved out of, and operates across, a terrain of contested norms, understandings and practices of violence. Identity is not a façade—a front or garment—behind which reality lurks; rather, it identifies a location within and relationship to wider social processes.

It is the complex, productive relationship between the state’s different identities – their particular configuration at any given instance—that is central to the state’s functioning as an organising principle. While the state’s identities interrelate, overhang, and separate in various ways, overlap is crucially important. If the bodies identified as state bodies are not the places where governance occurs, if states are no longer primary international actors or the nation no longer identifies a territory across which states have political power (e.g., see Steinberg, 1994), if the primary chains of articulation between state organs—financial, legislative, guidance, control—slide apart or if governance becomes detached from dominant socio-economic interests, the state may not necessarily unravel (although this is possible), but it will come to identify a different, probably far more diffused structure of power and governance.

The Emergence of Sexuality as a Social Organising Principle

In the discussion that follows, I draw upon this framework to explore developments within lesbian and gay scholarship. But first I need to introduce briefly another element: the place of sexuality within social relations of power. In an attempt to avoid privileging particular relations, such as economic class or gender, a priori, and in an attempt to move beyond a model of asymmetrical, antagonistic groups, writers have looked for metaphors through which the intersection of different social relations can be understood. One approach some feminist theorists have adopted is to equate social relations with axes of power (de Lauretis 1990: 131; Fraser, 1989: 165; cf. Fraser, 1997: Ch. 1). This metaphor successfully evokes two ideas: first, social relations constitute subject positions at both axis ends (as well as, possibly, along it); second, social location depends on where axes intersect. While an improvement upon binary class models of oppression, axes are also limited in that they reduce social relations to points along a linear continuum, and imply a single meeting point. My preference, therefore, is for the concept of ‘organising principles’ used by various authors in different ways (e.g., see Seidman, 1997: 227). In contrast to the state which organises the institutionalisation, depersonalisation and governmentalisation of power, social organising principles identify, can be read off from, and work to reproduce, the complex configurations of social inequality based on race, gender, class, and age, among others.

I have set out this approach in more detail elsewhere (Cooper, 2000). Here, I just want to draw attention to three aspects of relevance to the following discussion. First, social organising principles go beyond identifying relations between situated subjects (men/women, lesbians/heterosexuals). They span out to include organisational processes, and everyday practices, as well as social norms and values that historically and culturally have been articulated to, affected by, or which have structured particular social locations. Thus, organising principles of gender draw together the public/private divide, norms of intimacy, individualism, and forms of personal agency as well as the specific ways in which men and women live and relate. Second, organising principles are not linear. Power does not move incrementally along an axis of subject positions. While social organising principles are defined by the asymmetry at their core, this may take shape in contradictory ways. Third, organising principles are not simply imposed from ‘above.’ Although the role of the state or status quo in sustaining particular inequalities is enormous, the constitution of gender, ethnicity or economic class also depends upon community and individual practices that echo, challenge, disrupt and give nuance to more hierarchical processes.

New Directions

Drawing upon these frameworks, in the remainder of this chapter, I want briefly to identify three research pathways that address the state in different ways. The first asks: to what extent, and in what ways, do lesbian and gay movements work with the state to solidify a binary divide? The second asks: what impact does destabilising gender have on lesbian and gay state activism? And the third asks: what follows from the encoding of desire within the logic of state practice?

Splitting the Hetero/Homo Binary

The concept, organising principles, provides a useful framework for exploring exchanges between different social relations as they evolve over time. Not only are the internal dynamics and relationships between particular organising principles in constant flux, but new principles evolve, while older ones expire. We can see this process of change in relation to sexuality within liberal western societies. Sexuality has, arguably, shifted from functioning primarily as a terrain or register of practice refracting asymmetrical relations of race, class, gender and geography (see, generally, Foucault, 1981) to posing as a social organising principle constituted around the hetero/homo divide (see also Seidman, 1997: 227-9). While a large part of the responsibility for sexuality’s emergence as an unequal binary relationship can be laid at the door of the state, lesbian and gay communities and activists have also participated in consolidating this process.

The rise of the modern lesbian and gay movement involved, among other things, forging sexuality as a distinct organising principle, irreducible to other social relations such as gender (Rust, 1995: 253). Yet, in suggesting that sexuality came to function as a distinct organising principle, I am not denying the intersections between organising principles, including most particularly the relationship between sexual identity and gender (cf. Jeffreys, 1996; and see Wilton, 1996).9 I also do not want to suggest that lesbian and gay forces alone have the political power to determine the form sexual formations will take, or that all late twentieth-century lesbian and gay activists sought to distance themselves from other political movements. Rather, my point is threefold.

First, the hetero/homo divide emerged as the pivot around which lesbian and gay politics and identity were forged. While the more liberal wing of the movement worked to declare the divide misplaced: that respectable lesbians and gay men had been positioned on the ‘wrong’ side of the border, more radical gay and queer forces positioned themselves as the other—the site from which normative heterosexuality could be effectively challenged. Second, the divide came to stand in for more than the gendered patterning of intimate/sexual relationships, encompassing in its train the sexualised organisation of labour, social histories, cultural qualities (camp, straightness), as well as patterns of everyday life and community formations. Third, and most pertinent to my discussion here, lesbian and gay forces were not responding to a predetermined social regime in which sexuality’s binary construction was already immutably determined by state, economy, and church.

The emergence of lesbian and gay social movements and identity has been the subject of considerable historical research that I cannot do justice to here. The point, however, that I want to emphasise is the role played by lesbians and gay men in the production of a sexual divide. Heterosexual forms of social organisation generate a range of stigmatised others, but to the extent that heterosexuality as a social and political patterning remains naturalised, such others are likely to be fragmented and diffused—a series of activities, styles, and exclusions scattered across the hinterland of the social rather than converging across a single frontier of (il)legitimacy. Thus, socially meaningful binary divisions are formed, at least in part, in the process of collective identity formation and social struggle. While neither identity formation nor social struggle can be separated from the wider social, economic and political transitions that have brought them into being (e.g., see Kinsman, 1996b: Ch. 2), this does not detract from the processes through which they help to gel a social location and form of personhood that the state simultaneously both feeds and confronts.

This is not a unified nor a static process. Not only is the character of the divide shifting, but the ways in which state and communities converge is both varied and in transition. Yet, to the extent we are witnessing liberal western states move towards a stance of formal gay equality, we need to consider whether the binary hetero/homo divide is vanishing or remaining as a basis of non-asymmetrical distinctiveness. Queer, bisexual and other sexual forces have suggested the divide is reconfiguring: that mainstream lesbian and gay movements in alliance with the state are causing inequalities of resources, entitlements, freedoms, authority and discursive/cultural recognition to be organised along new lines. While bisexual activists and commentators have relocated the dichotomy between mono and bi-sexualities: between those that challenge and those that consolidate dichotomous thinking (e.g., see James, 1996; Rust, 1995, 1996), sexual minority advocates, such as Gayle Rubin (1989: 279), focus on the divide between respectable and illegitimate sexualities.

Whether the sexual dichotomy at the heart of organising principles of sexuality has left sexual orientation behind for new divides, whether it has exploded, bringing forth a multitude of different inequalities in its wake, remains an open question. In relation to thinking about the state however, it opens up the following line of inquiry: (1) how does the convergence between lesbian and gay communities and the state vary across different aspects of the state’s identity?; (2) are some state identities reorganising around new sexual divides, while others sustain the current hetero/homo dichotomy?; and (3) to what extent are lesbian and gay forces consolidating, challenging or undermining these shifts?

Transgender and the Destabilising of Orientation

In the destabilising of the hetero/homo dichotomy, one force to gain greater prominence is that of transgender (e.g., see Califia, 1997; Namaste, 1996; Raymond, 1996; Stone, 1991; Whittle, 1996). The discrimination, marginalisation and violence experienced by people who cross, and sometimes straddle, the gender divide are seen as reason to identify transgendered people as a significantly subordinated constituency. Here, however, I want to approach trans-gender from a different perspective: one less focused on the discrimination, serious as it is that many transgendered people face, than on the gender problematic that radical trans-gender politics raises for lesbian and gay state activism.

The contrasting, but intertwined, trajectories of transsexuality and transgender have intersected lesbian and gay politics at several junctures: organisationally, in the growing, but highly contested, inclusion of transsexual and transgendered activists within lesbian and gay groups and social movements (e.g., Humphrey, 1999); historically, in the interwoven relationship between gender-ambiguous identity and practices and lesbian/gay communities (Cahn, 1996; Innes and Lloyd, 1996; Meyer, 1996); and, ethically, in the challenge transgendering poses to the viability of lesbian and gay sexual identity being based on a solid knowing and identification of gender.

Traditionally, conventional transsexual politics converged with dominant gender principles. Both worked from the premise that a gender divide existed; the question was whether and how it could be authentically crossed. While cross-gender identification was generally represented by mainstream transsexual and state forces as a psychological or physiological condition beyond the individual’s control, crossing—to the extent it was possible—required hard work, commitment and biological transformation. In a sense, we can see this earlier politics as a contractual one in which transsexuals offered to externalise their ‘inner’ gender to the best of their ability, doing whatever was required to make the performance a convincing one (see, generally, Stone, 1991). In return the state granted the transfer of gender partial (if not proper) effect. Whittle (1998: 397) argues that this approach placed those MTF (males to females) who could ‘pass,’ in control of the movement’s politics, leading to a focus on privacy rights that would allow them more fully to live their gender without the slippage of their prior sex being revealed. From this perspective, little, if any, common ground with gays and lesbians existed. Indeed, homosexuality functioned as the transsexual ‘other’ – whose claims had to be publicly forsaken if the performed gender was to be officially realised.

In contrast, the alliances transgender activists’ forged with gays, and to a lesser extent lesbians, in several countries in the 1990s revolved around a different gender politics. Coalitions were based, first, on the recognition that someone could be both transsexual and gay, and, second, on their shared location as minorities (cf. Whittle, 1998: 391). Transgender also provided, at least rhetorically, a cutting edge for a queer politics that sought to go beyond the hetero/homo binary to embrace all those disadvantaged and marginalised by the dominant sexuality/gender system. At the same time, some activists and scholars moved beyond a ‘third sex’ position to argue that the transgendered person, as a dissonant, complexly legible body, provided a genre through which imaginings of gender could be productively disrupted (see Stone, 1991: 296; Whittle, 1998).

It is this third foundation that raises particularly interesting questions for the future of sexual orientation as a stable category in interactions with the state. If changing gender no longer requires particular genitals but is simply the performance or expression of masculinity or femininity (see Pratt, 1995: 88)—subjectively chosen identifications or ‘registers’—what implications does this hold for gay and lesbian politics? If butch lesbians and FTM (females to males) are both perceived as more masculine than the biological male who expresses ‘feminine’ behaviours and attitudes, what constitutes a lesbian, gay or even heterosexual relationship? Is it based on the particular gendered nexus of behaviour, identification, and emotional display; and can it therefore remain constantly in flux: for instance, heterosexual on the street, lesbian under the sheets?

While this approach to gender is open to criticism on several grounds (Jeffreys, 1996), most particularly its voluntarist assumptions that gender is mutable and chosen rather than socially constituted and relatively stable. My interest here is in the implications of this approach for the way sexuality and the state intersect. Paisley Currah (1997: 1374-76), for instance, has drawn attention to an interesting puzzle regarding the interface of gender and sexuality in the US regulation of marriage. ‘“Same-sex” marriage is already legal, or more precisely, … many states have been unable to successfully regulate marriages between those whose sexual identity, gender identity or even sexual orientation confounds the predictable relationship assumed by state law to exist between sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation’ (Currah, 1997: 1374). Transgender politics, like radical lesbian feminism, raises core questions about the ideological thrust of lesbian and gay demands. Namely, do lesbian and gay political campaigns implicitly consolidate as natural conventional conceptions of gender? Does the hetero/homo divide work to reinforce the gender one? While state bodies and technologies deploy a biologically contingent approach to gender, should lesbian and gay campaigns draw more explicitly from a different model (Currah, 1997) in which gender is far less stable? For, if lesbian and gay movements retain a biologically-based or at least social conception of gender, what implications does this have for state-based activism if gay movements work alongside or confront transgender movements working with radically different perspectives? Are state bodies going to be required to mediate or choose between them?

To the extent that the nation-state and public sector mobilise gender as a meaningful form of classification (e.g., see Pratt, 1995: 162), how gender is defined is important, from the question of fixing identity at birth, migration or death (Namaste, 1996: 196-7), to its impact upon healthcare, employment, and the juridical regulation of sexual relationships (Califia, 1997: 234; Smith, 1997). However, the risk of adopting a more fluid approach is that it may trivialise gender’s social significance and consequences. How can these be acknowledged and tackled without being reinforced? One strategy is for lesbian and gay forces to link gay equality to the erasure of gender as an official category of state practice. To the extent that biological differences are significant, such as the capacity to bear children, or the specific health risks associated with male or female reproductive bodies, these can be identified discretely rather than as part of a broader cluster of gender characteristics. However, this strategy may be of limited benefit or even counter-productive if organising principles of gender still operate in other areas of social life. There is also a further difficulty. To advocate social movement pressure on the state as the way of eliminating gender poses a limited understanding of the state’s polycentric relationship to social power. While campaigning may sometimes be effective, it is not the primary way in which the state negotiates, enacts and responds to organising principles of gender and sexuality.

The Desiring State

A prostitute tells me that a magistrate who pays her to beat him confessed that he gets an erection every time he sentences a prostitute in court. (McClintock, 1992: 70)

So far, my discussion has focused on the intersection of lesbian and gay forces with the state in relation to the consolidation of sexual binaries and the destabilisation of gender. The final issue I want to address raises a quite different concern: namely, the sexualised character of the state itself. The two issues already discussed, while they intimately concern the state, do not tell us anything special or distinct about it. But can we use work on sexuality to give the state texture in ways not simply analogous to the interface between the state and race, gender or class? Sexuality as a social organising principle may still be centred on heterosexuality, with homosexuality its socially constituted other, but as I suggested earlier, social organising principles are not restricted to asymmetries between socially situated persons. Thus, sexuality both organises and is coupled to the incitement of other domains and practices according to a ‘logic’ of desire, climax, corporeality and lack. Earlier, I referred to the figurative sexualisation of the nation-state, here I want to focus on the desiring state. Some work in this area already exists: from George Mosse’s (1985) scholarship on the ambivalent libidinal politics and practices of the German Nazi Party to the sexualised violence of armies (Enloe, 1993). Other analyses have focused on institutional displacement: for instance, judicial vengeance and the production of sacrificial victims in the prosecution of gay sado-masochism (Moran, 1996: 186), and feminist work on the symbolic assualting of women during the sexualised and humiliating ordeal of rape trials (e.g., Smart, 1995: 84).

To talk about the state as desiring does not assume a reified state actor, although it includes this aspect of the state’s identity. It also encompasses the way erotic energy can be found in projects or technologies of governance, often as an unintended effect of state practice. Yet, the liberal state’s relationship to desire is an uncomfortable one. Fascist states may exalt in a displaced libidinal energy, but for the most part, desire, other than in its patriotic, competitive expression, is defined as inappropriate for a liberal state, whose processes fetishise rationality, impartiality, objectivity and lack of emotion instead (see also Cooper, 1999), a distancing nicely captured in Butt and Hearn’s (1998) discussion of corporal punishment in Britain.

Ambivalence about the state’s own desires also affects the state’s relationship to the sexual identities, practices, and agenda of others. It leads to the privatisation, regulation, prohibition, but also, paradoxically, to the intensification of those identities and practices perceived as particularly, uncomfortably or contagiously sexual. For instance, despite appearing ostensibly hostile to sexual conduct between prisoners, the state generates, through its institutional structures and policies, its socially specific form, just as, according to Meyer (1996), it produces the particular contained, directed, thwarted organisation of sexual desire and conduct among military personnel.

Exploring how sexuality articulates to state desire is an important and underdeveloped area of state analysis. Yet, in the process of inquiry, attention also needs to be given to the impact of privatisation and the extension of capitalist market relations within modern, liberal states. Nation—states, such as Britain, are allying themselves increasingly with corporate capital—their bodies colonised by the drive, agenda and practices of market actors. At the same time, there is a considerable tension between the two in relation to questions of desire. Various scholars and activists have explored the ways in which capitalism mobilises sexuality and desire in the workplace, as well as vis-à-vis consumption (e.g., Hearn et al., 1989; Marcuse 1991); in contrast the state’s deployment of desire to generate interest in its services and products seems far less apparent. Indeed, the reverse seems more often the case.

One site with the potential to both trouble and incite the state’s ambivalent relationship to desire concerns the growth and growing recognition of sexualised citizenship identities (e.g., Richardson, 1998, 2000; Weeks, 1998). To the extent that citizenship is limited to the demand for equal rights – including equal consumption—for sexually identified communities such as lesbians and gay men, any challenge to the prevailing sexual logic of state practice remains minimal. However, if a sexual citizenship goes further to introduce into the public sphere and polity norms and practices based upon erotic desire, this opens up questions about the sexualised character of the state in ways that cannot be so easily forestalled. Thus, the move towards a sexualised citizenship—taking desire and intimacy out of its private box – poses the possibility of making demands that the state’s desires—the emotional/psychological charge that both incites and emanates from its practices, structures, culture and relations—be also made explicit, justified and, perhaps most radically, democratised.


In this conclusion, I want briefly to revisit two issues addressed earlier. While these do not exactly constitute new directions, they highlight ‘orientations’ discounted in recent years. The first concerns lesbian and gay studies’ neglect of the factors shaping state action: the question, posed in its most basic form, of why the state regulates sexuality in the way it does. The second issue is somewhat different: it concerns the way political scholarship and activism have been grounded in a politics of experience and identity at the expense of ideology.

The question of why the state acts as it does—the interests or social power that it condenses and organises—proved of far more concern to an earlier generation of Marxist-influenced, gay scholarship (e.g. Mort, 1980: 48), than to lesbian and gay scholars of the 1990s. Yet, despite the Foucauldian insistence that what matters is ‘how,’ understanding the forces or conditions that structure, skew and continuously renegotiate state practice is important to avoid two assumptions: first, that the state is a neutral and open terrain; second, that its reproduction of social inequality is a fully immanent tendency, emanating exclusively from internal state processes. But this in turn begs the question: what is the relationship between state and wider forces? While acknowledging the relationship is not one-way, how do wider forces and the environment shape state practice? To say, for instance, that the state ‘condenses’ the prevailing heterosexual balance of power – in line with a similar movement vis-à-vis race, gender and class (see Jessop, 1990: 149-50) tells us little. In the case of western, liberal states, it does not mean that the state is governed exclusively by a prevailing heterosexual logic, any more than that the state, scale-like, mirrors the prevailing balance between the two. While it has become almost a post-structuralist cliché to describe the state as uneven, mutable, and contradictory, the impact of these discontinuities on the capacity of different forces to shape state practice has received inadequate attention within lesbian and gay scholarship. Likewise, more work is required on the impact of different social processes and systems. How does the polycentric state’s response to explicit social movement pressures intersect the structuring role played by sexual norms, discourses, covert interests, and ongoing social pathways upon state practice (see more generally Cooper, 2001)?

The final issue I want to raise concerns terrain at the heart of lesbian and gay state activism. For some sexual ‘minorities’ on the economic and normative boundaries of propriety, middle-class lesbians and gay men seem increasingly secure: focally positioned by a sexual binary that leaves others invisible. Not surprisingly, these perceptions have generated demands that lesbian and gay organisations widen the terms of inclusion, affirm their outsider status, or risk being displaced by a new ‘vanguard.’ In the face of claims by some lesbian feminists that bi and trans issues are not ‘theirs,’ others are convoking a shared ground (Humphrey, 1999). But while such responsiveness is in many ways admirable, it does raise important political questions about the ideological basis for these new alliances. Namely, is sexual outsider status—as experience or identity—a sufficiently meaningful foundation for political mobilising?

Without denying the value of collective identity, I want to suggest that political organising on the basis of social experience or location, whether as gay, or more broadly as sexual outsiders/minorities, carries several risks. Not only does it pose the possibility of cementing identity boundaries against those who cannot be classified as belonging, but it also offers too vague a foundation from which a transformatory politics might spring. Contrary to the implicit assumptions of liberal political science, there is no single gay politics, no unitary gay ‘interest’ whether expressed discretely or in coalition with other ‘oppressed groups.’ What we have are a diverse spread of political aspirations from formal equality through radical democracy to the elimination of organising principles of class, race, gender, and sexuality. This pluralism is recognised by many scholars within lesbian and gay studies. However, there is still a tendency to see this diversity as the result of our multiple formed locations. What is missed in this interpretation is the role and importance of perspective or ideology in shaping political agenda.

I want therefore to close with two propositions: first, the need for normative political theorising which, while recognising the power and importance of social location, centres political aspirations that remain irreducible to location. This form of scholarship is already being undertaken by theorists such as Shane Phelan (1995), but without an explicit state focus. In addition, we need to explore the state’s facilitation and ‘management’ of current gay politics. While the excesses of identity politics are often placed at the door of feminism and other new social movements, the state is implicated here too. In the case of liberal, western regimes, for instance, how does the particular configuration of state identities work to promote a sexual politics, based not only on formal rights, but according to a ‘welfare’ imperative which centres on ‘raising’ those with less? In addressing this question, we need to ask: what would be the consequences if lesbian and gay forces engaged with state bodies and state technologies in ways that repudiated these leanings, according to political perspectives that explicitly centred norms, ideology and vision? How would our states respond?