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Queer Hope: One Virtue’s Limits and Potential for Queer Lives, Theory, and Theology

Hope is a virtue that has fallen on hard times. Miguel De La Torre’s recent work on Embracing Hopelessness is a stirring challenge to hope’s grip on our theological imaginations. Hope, he says, is too often used by those in power to prop up oppressive systems, justifying anything in the name of a better future. In this regard, De La Torre is saying nothing that was not already known to queer theorists for some time. Lee Edelman, Sara Ahmed, Jack Halberstam—all have voiced concerns about hope grounded in queer experiences of heteronormative oppression. Edelman, for example, focuses on the way that hope’s future takes a particular shape: the Child, the one for which everything can be justified for the sake of the children. Lauren Berlant calls this hope “cruel optimism.” If De La Torre makes us wonder about hope’s place in the lives of the oppressed, these queer theorists raise questions specifically about hope’s place among LGBTQ persons.

Yet Harvey Milk said “You’ve Got to Have Hope.” Moreover, hope has sustained LGBTQ folk facing everything from AIDS to renewed anti-sodomy laws in postcolonial Africa. And LGBTQ people have deployed hope to revolutionary effect: at the height of the AIDS crisis, the spark behind the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) was lit when several guerilla artists placed the famous “Silence = Death” slogan on posters around New York City. Accompanying this slogan was a simple image, an upward-pointing pink triangle. Avram Finkelstein had taken the Third Reich’s infamous triangle and quite literally flipped it on its head to proclaim LGBTQ persons’ suffering, power, and, most of all, their hope.

My aim here is to identify a kind of hope that emerges from queer experience, that does justice to the concerns of queer theorists, and that promotes the flourishing of LGBTQ persons. To do so, I am building on José Esteban Muñoz’s work on queer utopianism. Muñoz recognizes hope’s importance for queer folk, especially queer youth of color; and he is critical of the racialized presumptions that underlie critiques like Edelman’s. Nevertheless, Muñoz agrees with Edelman that we must avoid hope that suborns oppression by claiming the future at the expense of the present. One important corrective, according to Muñoz, is that queer hope is not to be collapsed into certainties, but rather is glimpsed through gestures and ephemera, over which no one can claim ownership.

Wrongly placed or wrongly timed hope subserves domination. But deficient hope kills. It sounds like true, salutary hope, will find its mean between these extremes. That is to say, it sounds like hope is a virtue, the perfection of some power, subject to both excess and defect, whose existence contributes to a person’s flourishing. Moreover, hope has historically been considered a theological virtue, somehow pertaining to God. That says something important about rightly-ordered hope, with significance for queer persons religious and non-religious alike. My hope is to say that there is a kind of hope that is the naturalized sibling of the theological virtue: like it in form but distinguished by not having God as its object, which makes this kind of hope available to non-religious people as well. This hope will benefit from heeding queer theory’s warnings about hope’s potential excesses and limitations. This hope, in turn, should meet the needs of LGBTQ folk; but it also should benefit those, like De La Torre, who worry about hope’s relevance more generally.

I am not the first to suggest that hope is a theological virtue with special importance for queer people. Liz Edman has written about hope as one among many queer virtues; but she has not paid sufficient attention to other queer theorists’ concerns about hope. My aim here is to wrestle more seriously with Edelman, Berlant, and others. I am also not the first to discuss hope as a naturalized sibling to the theological virtue. Michael Lamb has written on a naturalized hope that is operative in democratic politics and especially within efforts like the Civil Rights Movement. He too, however, does not pay sufficient attention to the way that hope can subserve oppressive regimes, rather than overcoming them.

The theological virtue tradition, especially Thomas Aquinas, teaches that hope is not inward-pointing but rather depends on the help of another. In theology, this other is God; in democracy, one’s fellow citizens; in the Civil Rights Movement, one’s co-laborers. Recognizing that hope means hoping in another opens up new possibilities. It also sets safeguards against presuming to do too much (which underlies cruel optimisms) and against abandoning hope for abjection (Edelman’s path). Queer experience also offers a reminder regarding what we ought to hope for. Theology hopes for God and God’s reign; democracy hopes for individual flourishing and the common good. Edelman, Berlant, and others rightfully point out that hoping for certainties leads to disastrous hubris and oppression. Better to follow Muñoz and look to the ephemeral and quotidian to find our hope. In theological terms, that means stressing the apophatic in God’s nature and reign, as well as our consequent inability to reduce God down to our projects and ambitions.

Thinking of hope as queer virtue cannot, however, address all our problems. Certain tensions remain. Namely, those with hope will believe and act differently from the hopeless around them; and those who hope in God will believe and act differently from those who settle for the naturalized sibling. In conclusion, I want to suggest that here is where hope’s revolutionary potential is born. Because those with hope look askance at the world, queering the world as it exists, they are unable to accept that world and its oppressive structures. Instead, they live differently in a manner that resists oppression and works for liberation.

 

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism.

De La Torre, Miguel. Embracing Hopelessness.

Edelman, Lee. No Future.

Edman, Elizabeth. Queer Virtue.

Lamb, Michael. “Aquinas and the Virtues of Hope.”

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia.

Ruti, Mari. The Ethics of Opting Out.

Van Klinken, Adriaan. Kenyan, Christian, Queer.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Hope has been rightly critiqued both in theology and queer theory for its potential to prop up oppressive regimes. Yet hope remains, for many, an essential component of flourishing, even and perhaps especially for LGBTQ people. Here I begin by appraising what theologians and queer theorists have said about hope’s limitations and dangers. Next I consider queer utopianism, which also seeks to meet these challenges. Then I show how queer utopianism helpfully accentuates what was nascent within the theological virtue tradition: First, rightly ordered hope hopes in the assistance of others (God, other people) and rejects presumption or despair about one’s own powers (pace oppressive forms of hope). Second, rightly ordered hope hopes for something (God, a better future) that is better glimpsed, as queer utopianism says, in the world’s ephemera than in the certainties of our own ambitions and projects. Finally, I argue such hope will inspire revolutionary action.

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