The World Making Powers of Law and Performance: Queer Politics Beyond Neoliberal Legalism
How may queer performances help us think about the limits of, and reconceptualise the mainstream rhetoric of, LGBT human rights? How may queer politics work beyond/against a neoliberal rationality and the gravitational pull of rights? In my thesis, with the provisional title above, I turn to a radical 1970s Brazilian theatre/dance group, the Dzi Croquettes, in order to explore these questions. I begin with a brief genealogy of the phenomenon we may currently call a/the global LGBT rights movement, where I investigate a shift, a process of inundation whereby (LGBT) human rights went from global obscurity to a multi-scalar omnipresence, from the grassroots to international law and politics. A powerful banner under which fundamental political infrastructure and mobilisation has and continues to develop, I examine how such rhetoric has also compounded geopolitical tensions and a false dichotomy whereby the North is over-blown as a queer haven and the South is reduced to its uncivilised antonym. In dialogue with the literature, I contend that human rights have provided us with and circumscribed our political imaginaries by displacing alternative vocabularies and strategies, as if (human) rights were the natural or sole route for queer politics.
Following this genealogy is a critical enquiry about the potentials and pitfalls of the neoliberal rhetoric of global LGBT rights. Both diagnostic and transformative, my critique is concerned with queer politics’ co-optation and assimilation into a (neo)liberal rationality. As such, it seeks to diagnose the (mis)translations between neoliberal legalism and queer politics. Drawing from a diverse body of work, from critical race, legal, feminist, and queer scholars/activists to historians and post-/decolonial thinkers, this diagnosis reckons with law’s intricate ambivalence: on one hand, its power to set new worlds, movements, and subjectivities into being, to boost political momentum and demands; on the other, its collusion with neoliberalism in operations of narrowing down and concealment that, respectively, deflect us from discussing more radical conceptions of fundamental political vocabulary (such as violence, hate, discrimination, equality, and freedom) and from considering the structural disparity historically and materially (re)produced. These operations are ontological too, insofar as they help to circulate/disguise as universal and ahistorical quite particular ways of being sexual and gendered (and not others): a sovereign, self-bounded, and possessive subject with a particular relationship with body, desire, identity, rights, and the nation-state.
Poster of Dzi Croquettes, a 2009 Brazilian documentary film, reproduced from Wikipedia.
I proceed my critique by turning towards but also away from the law. I turn to a “pre-rights” era when Brazil was ruled by an authoritarian military dictatorship; precisely to its Years of Lead, when a group of thirteen queer men in Rio de Janeiro who also called themselves family—the Dzi Croquettes—dared to produce a theatre/dance show where they outrageously defied propriety and social orthodoxy, including gender and sexuality. The Dzi Croquettes were an instant hit and rose meteorically to fame in just over a year, when censorship struck. Starting at nightclubs and eventually performing sold-out runs in traditional theatre venues (totalling almost 100,000 spectators in just a year), the Dzi became a byword for “androgyne”. Remarkably, their transgressive energy was highly “contagious”. The Croquettes quickly amassed followers, who adopted a Dzi philosophy of life and way of being: the Dzi group/family became a movement. Almost five decades later, I spoke to the four Croquettes currently alive and seven participants of the Dzi movement in order to better understand the infectious magnetism of their performances. Based on secondary and primary data generated through archival research and intergenerational oral history interviews, I examine the affective and phenomenological aftermath of the Dzi performances on onlookers and on the broader socio-political landscape. In turning to the past, I seek to spur a critical/queer engagement with current legal-political arrangements.
“I saw there a cultural, philosophical, sexual, and behavioural revolution. And with all the humour, beauty, magnitude, honesty… I was so doped that at the end of it I could not stand up. ‘My gosh, what is this? What force is this? What wonder is this? I had never seen anything like that before…”
Quotation from interview with Dario Menezes.
Therefore, my thesis concludes by juxtaposing the world making powers of queer performance and of mainstream LGBT rights. I show how attending to the former may help us grasp some of the potentials of decentring the law from our political imaginary/arsenal. I suggest that queer performances may facilitate instances of public, open-ended debates on political lexicon and subjectivities beyond those underpinning neoliberal legalism; and as such, appear as a potential site of reformulation and dissemination of embodied, counter-disciplinary knowledge/resistance that may prefigure and feed into political agendas or scholarly debates. Queer performances signal worlds to come that are also already (t)here, providing us with glimpses of utopia and hope fuelling the realms of imagination and social change. Decentring law, thus, means not rejecting it, but attending to extralegal sites of resistance and paths toward social change, which in turn may inform a more robust engagement with the law critical of its upsides and traps for queer politics.
To see a performance by Dzi Croquettes, click here.
André Prado Fernandes is a Brazilian researcher and translator. His engagement with student activism at the Law School of the University of São Paulo, and an internship at the City’s LGBT Human Rights Office, sparked his political and academic interest in the interfaces of law and sexuality. His Master’s research at the University of Cape Town examined the burden of proof of sexuality-based refugee applications in the ‘gay capital’ of Africa in order to grasp how homosexual asylum-seekers negotiate the evidentiary (and institutional) hurdles of the process. Currently a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Law School, his doctorate research offers a critique of LGBT human rights and enquires whether it is the best – or the only – political framework for queer politics. André has also worked as a Portuguese-English translator for many years and believes this skill can function as a means of access and exchange of knowledges and voices. André is reachable at email@example.com.