Tag Archives: heteropatriarchy

Like a lake in a thunderstorm: men, patriarchy, and feminism

For all of us who are men who believe in social justice, who want healthy and beautiful lives for our loved ones, and who are working for positive change in the world, let us commit or re-commit to making feminism central in our lives, values, and actions.

Chris Crass

A friend recently pointed out that in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings—and the feminist responses that followed—the silence from male allies has been deafening. As many feminists have explained, the Isla Vista killings were not an extraordinary occurrence; rather, they were a particularly violent and visible outcome of misogyny and male entitlement. My friend challenged me to write something in response to all this. I’m grateful for that challenge because the process of putting this piece together has reminded me how much I have to work on, and how important it is for men to do this work individually, interpersonally, and collectively. As Cecilia Winterfox writes:

It’s both exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics with men who haven’t bothered to think about their own privilege before. Men are not entitled to expect feminists to educate them. Real change will only happen when men accept that the burden of education is on them, not on women.

The burden of explaining and combatting patriarchy and misogyny consistently falls to women, and men can do more. I am not writing to convince anyone that patriarchy, misogyny and rape culture are real and they need to be challenged and dismantled. Women, queer and trans folks, and some men have explained and re-explained what these structures are and how they work, why it’s hard for men to see them, why all men are implicated, and some basic ways to change our behavior. The outpouring of feminist analysis that followed the Isla Vista shootings has created more space to have more radical, constructive, public conversations about misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy, and the role men can play in uprooting these systems. How can men take this as an opportunity to deepen our commitments to feminism? How can we be more vocal and active in addressing misogyny and patriarchy? If we were better at taking this on, what would we say and do? What are the obstacles? What are the potentials and pitfalls of this work? There are a bunch more questions below, drawn from feminist theory and practice.  I don’t think these questions are asking for straightforward answers from men; they’re asking us to respond to them with integrity, openness, and uncertainty. These questions ask us to challenge ourselves and each other, without any guarantees or formulas. Sometimes what we need to do is embarrassingly simple, sometimes it’s complex, but it’s never easy, because easy isn’t transformative.

What are men waiting for?

It’s less risky for men—especially straight white men like me—to speak out against patriarchy: As Ben Atherton Zemon writes:

When I write about feminism and men’s violence against women, I often receive supportive comments. While some of the praise is earned, much of it gives me a lot of credit for doing very little.

Atherton-Zemon contrasts this experience with that of women he knows who are consistently stalked, verbally abused, and threatened with rape and murder for speaking out against patriarchy and misogyny. How can men be responsive to this? It’s absolutely crucial for men to interrupt patriarchal violence, and become more vocal in challenging sexism. But if we just join in feminist conversations, we can end up silencing the women who’ve been having them for a long time. How can we make more conversations happen, and help create more feminist spaces and conversations?


These questions aren’t new; they’re part of an ongoing, too-quiet, too-small conversation about men’s work: the ways men can challenge patriarchy and gender-based violence personally, interpersonally, among families and caregivers, and in broader communities and institutions where we live and work. I’m not an expert in feminism, or men’s work, or anything else I’m writing about here, but I am really lucky to have men in my life who are constantly modeling feminist practices to me, and to have inspiring women in my life who are holding me accountable and providing feminist leadership. At the end of this piece there’s a list of online feminist resources, which I’ve drawn on and quoted to write this.

This piece centers feminism—and the culprits of patriarchy and misogyny it confronts—and I’m writing primarily to men and other masculine-leaning folks, from my own experience as a white, educated, middle-class cis-man. While I’ve learned from people with very different experiences, my perspective and analysis are still shaped by a confluence of massive privilege, sheltered and benefitting from the everyday, layered violences of racism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, among others. What I write will be most relevant to other white, heterosexual men. We are also the biggest perpetrators of violence and misogyny, which means engaging white hetero dudes is an urgent task, and we can and should develop an intersectional, anti-oppressive praxis. All men are starting from different places, with different experiences and things to work on, but we can learn a lot from sharing those experiences and trying to figure things out together. We can’t wait until we feel like experts, or until we’ve figured it all out, because unlearning and confronting patriarchy is a life-long project, full of mistakes.

How can we unlearn patriarchy and support the leadership of women?

Even among men who have are committed to feminism, women and trans folks are consistently silenced and marginalized, and men—especially white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero-cis-men—end up in positions of leadership and recognition. When these problems are raised by women, men often get defensive. These problems aren’t new; feminists have been naming and resisting patriarchy for centuries. In the 60s and 70s, organizations like Movement for a New Society, a radical feminist anti-war organization, explored the ways that men tend to talk first, too much, too loud, and too often. Men take conversations over, we get defensive, restate what others have said, present our ideas as definitive, put down others’ ideas, intellectualize and avoid vulnerability, condescend and compete, and speak for others in meetings and conversations.

The fact that all of these behaviours are still widespread attests to the persistence of patriarchy. I struggle with these things all the time, and constantly find myself taking up more space in conversations with a lot of women in my life. It’s a life-long project to change our conduct by thinking relationally, being mindful of how our ways of speaking impact others (especially folks who aren’t white hetero men). How can we learn to listen and be more curious, vulnerable, and attuned to the ways we speak and hold ourselves? How can we create spaces of emotional connection and ongoing care—especially with other men—beyond mere exchanges of ideas or opinions?

What would it mean for men to root feminism in our everyday lives?

One way to move beyond conversation is to center care and the reproduction of everyday life, for which women are often responsible. I have been part of these patriarchal dynamics in activist collectives, shared houses, and intimate relationships, and it’s still one of the major things I need to be working on. Women and others not socialized into patriarchal masculinity are left with the less gratifying, less public, less visible forms of work, like sweeping floors in the house, caring for friends and family, and making a budget for the organization. Being mindful of what needs to get done to care for people and maintain collectives and communities in material ways—and doing it—is really basic and it’s embarrassingly difficult for me sometimes. It’s also not a question of good analysis: the male role models in my life haven’t developed these capacities by reading the right books, but by being proactive, vigilant, and accountable to the women in their lives. What do we do when nobody’s looking? I think these low-to-the-ground, quiet forms of feminism are among the most important. They tend to be less public and less celebrated, and they are absolutely crucial to creating space for women to take on more of the creative and visionary work of smashing patriarchy (and other things).

A consistent reminder from friends and mentors who read earlier versions of this piece was the reminder that as men, we’ll almost always benefit from taking on feminist practices: we will often be congratulated, recognized, and valued for doing work that others are always already doing. Being more vulnerable and emotionally available makes me a more attractive partner or lover; learning anti-oppressive practices makes me more hirable; developing a feminist analysis lends me authority and status; and I can be congratulated for doing childcare or housework just because it’s unexpected. Taking on feminism can shore up new forms of male privilege in weird ways. What are the implications of all this? I think part of it is a reminder there’s no endpoint: as C.B. Egret explains in Ex Masculus,

there also isn’t a plateau you are going to get to where you can brush your hands off, claiming to have reached official ally status. The work is life. It doesn’t end but only gets deeper and richer and fuller, like a lake in a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorms are powerful, exhilarating, dangerous, transformative, and humbling all at the same time, and there’s no shelter in the middle of a lake. I’m learning that there’s a deep ambivalence in taking on feminism as a man, especially a man who benefits from other layers of privilege. A lot of unlearning patriarchy—like becoming more vulnerable and emotionally available—can be a transformative, life-affirming process, and it can end up reinforcing patriarchy in all kinds of ways. Men can use emotional literacy to manipulate situations and center their own needs in new ways. We can allow ourselves to be celebrated as feminists, in ways that reinforce patriarchal, self-centered conditioning. But ambivalent doesn’t mean ineffective or unimportant: I think it means that feminism, for men, will always be tricky, full of pitfalls, and absolutely crucial. How can we be attuned to this ambivalence, and navigate it with integrity? How can we push ourselves to take on practices and roles that are unlikely to be celebrated or even noticed? How can we redirect recognition or privilege in ways that benefit or support others? How can we have more of these conversations with each other as men, and how can we support each other in deepening individual and collective feminist practices?


How can men work collectively to challenge patriarchy and misogyny?

I am just starting to think about how to engage other men beyond my circle of close friends, and even among friends, really uncomfortable transformative conversations are rare. I am often scared of this work with other men: scared of implicating myself, scared of letting down my defenses and being vulnerable, and scared that I’ll mess it all up or do it wrong somehow. One problem I grapple with—especially when I’m scared—is the tendency to distance myself from patriarchy and misogyny. Paul Kivel, a long-time men’s work activist, points to the pitfalls of talking down to other men about patriarchy:

[It] made us the “good” men with the “right” ideas and allowed us to feel powerful by attacking and berating other men. We became the best liberated men on the block, and that became another way of winning women’s approval and attention. It also allowed us to feel self-righteous toward other men.

It’s always easier for me to create distance, rather than finding a way to implicate myself in discussions about patriarchy and misogyny. Predictably, this shuts men down, and it makes the conversation safe for me, as long as I can stay on the “good” side of the good/bad men dichotomy. The worst part of this is that it makes it difficult to talk about and address misogyny and violence in a meaningful way: nobody wants to be the bad man.

Alexandra Brodsky writes about the urgent need to engage in uncomfortable conversations about “the texture of 20-something heterosexual sex in America, the insidious habits and habituations that look exactly like violence except, somehow, we’ve decided they aren’t violent.” It means having conversations about the ways we—as men—are implicated in blurring and crossing lines of consent, the ways we feel entitled to sex and the fulfillment of our fantasies, and how we let all this dissipate into the silences of rape culture and patriarchy. To address all this by implicating ourselves is profoundly uncomfortable. “We will have to disrupt the whole body, and though all men can help, most won’t want to. Today’s allies might think it’s easy not to be a rapist but find it harder to accept that their desires are not paramount,” Brodsky writes.

How can we engage each other in these conversations, as men? How can we create a shared language that helps us hold each other accountable? How can we support each other in setting goals, making commitments, and following through on them? One way that men have begun to do this is by holding men’s circles: intentional, pro-feminist gatherings of men to address patriarchy and misogyny among ourselves and in our communities. I recently found a zine called Ex Masculus: critical reflections on pro-feminist men’s groups, with writings from folks with a wide variety of experiences of men’s work. Toby explains the importance of men’s groups:

I know that in my life it’s been the times I’ve been with other guys (whether in formal groups or just hanging out and having real discussions) that have been the best times to work through my lifetime of socialization as a male. To some extent we know what the other person is going through, I am able to empathize with how hard it is to challenge those privileges and get to the bottom of why I treat people the way I do. It’s other guys who are able to support me when I make a mistake and need help figuring out what I did, and how not to do it again. Without some intentional space to make that possible it usually just doesn’t get talked about (p22).

The contributors in this zine share a broad array of insights into men’s work, and a common theme is the challenge to deepen our practices in these groups so that they are more accountable to women and actively challenge patriarchal violence. C.B. Egret explains that men’s groups can go wrong when they function as spaces “for other men to ‘confess’ their privileges and conditionings to one another, pay penance as such, pat one another on the back and go home feeling like good feminists” (51). Egret makes it clear that this is not about dismissing the ways that men’s groups can be spaces of care and healing. The point is that this work can be deepened, so that it’s more transformative for men involved, and leads to meaningful action beyond meetings. Vanessa, another Ex Masculus contributor, raises some crucial questions along these lines:

  • how do we deal with situations that come up where people we like are perpetrating abuse and assault in our communities?
  • how can we change our culture to begin to see confrontation as constructive?
  • where in the depths of ourselves are we recognising a need for a men’s group? is there shame there? guilt? is there fear? what else?
  • are we afraid of accountability processes?

Other contributors raise similar questions, pointing to the possibilities of using men’s groups to hold perpetrators accountable, provide support for survivors, and help create community healing and care. This is a high bar for men socialized into patriarchy—especially those new to feminism—and I read these as visionary goals that we can aspire to in men’s work.

Everything I’ve learned continually points me back to the recognition that there’s no universal formula, and we’re all coming at this with different experiences. Men’s groups are only one response among many that we can take to be more active in confronting patriarchy and misogyny on an everyday basis. How can we be more active in taking up the quiet work, the caring work, and the work that we won’t be recognized for? How can we engage with other men in ways that open space for transformative conversations about patriarchy and misogyny? How can we be accountable to women and trans folks and take leadership from them? What’s stopping us? I’ll end with some further questions by Vanessa, from Ex Masculus:

  • who have you abused in your life? how?
  • what comes to mind when you think about how the majority of the women and trans people you know could be survivors of sexual assault?
  • what do you have to gain from talking about your life experiences with other people relating to having male privilege?
  • what experiences have made you want to be accountable to people you have hurt?
  • how has your gender socialisation shaped your practice of consent? your sense of entitlement?
  • what makes you different from other “men”?
  • have you ever used the rhetoric of feminist allyship to gain credibility, or to seem attractive, to feminists you thought were cool / hot?
  • when you become down on yourself because of the amount of work you need to do to unlearn patriarchal indoctrination, how do you stay brave?


This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the feedback, edits, advice, and ongoing support and mentorship offered by Jeanette Sheehy, Kim Smith, Carla Bergman, Seb Bonet, and Dani Aiello. I wasn’t able to be responsive to all their insights, questions, and critiques, so I’m responsible for all the mistakes, omissions, problems, and other crappy bits.


Spaces Between Us: Queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. Spaces between us : queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

I skipped over a chapter in this summary and I found myself quoting Morgensen extensively as I tried to summarize, because so many of his claims were quite complicated and nuanced.  I’m still digesting this book; I might be able to say more about what I actually think about it later…

Morgensen’s book tracks what he calls “the biopolitics of settler colonialism” in queer movements.  He shows that the biopolitics of settler colonialism structures Native and non-Native queer movements, and their interrelationship.  Colonialism is always there; it structures desires and relationships, and it tends to remain naturalized in settler society: the targeting of indigenous communities for death seems natural, necessary, or already-accomplished.  In the intro, he advances three claims:

1)   “In the United States, modern queer cultures and politics have taken form as normatively white, multiracial, and non-Native projects compatible with a white settler society.

2)   Within broad transnational alliances (focused here in the United States), Native queer and Two-Spirit activists directly denaturalize settler colonialism and disrupt its conditioning of queer projects by asserting Native queer modernities.

3)   Settler colonialism and its conditioning of modern sexuality produce an intimate relationship between non-Native and Native queer modernities that I interpret as conversations (ix).

Thinking settler colonialism ‘biopolitically’ means “reading ‘modern sexuality’ as the array of discourses, procedures, and institutions that arose in metropolitan and colonial societies to distinguish and link primitive and civilized gender and sexuality, while defining racial, national, gendered, and sexual subjects and populations in biopolitical relationship.  The colonization of indigenous peoples was a “proviing ground for the biopolitics of settler colonialism,” which, he argues, “defines modern sexuality as ‘contact’ between queered indigeneity and its transcendence by settler sexuality” (23).  In short, settler colonial biopower affects all modern sexualities (32).  Heteropatriarchal settler colonialism sought “both the elimination of Indigenous sexuality and its incorporation into settler sexual modernity” (34).  He argues that the sovereign power of death and the relegation of indigenous people to a state of exception worked in tandem with “a modern and siciplinary education of desire that produced normative subjects of life” (34-5).  European sexualities fostered misogynist hierarchies and ‘queered’ indigenous peoples, interpreting transgressions of heteropatriarchy not only as abnormality in individuals, but as symptoms of a flawed society, requiring heteropatriarchal interventions and discipline (36-7).  This is part of a shift from the singling out of individuals (the regime of sovereignty) towards their subjection “with their communities to military attack, containment, or removal” (38).  Thus residential and reserve schools “used disciplinary education to try to break Native communities, languages, and cultural knowledges” without the need for “brute violence” (39).  This is part of the “deadly logic of regulation,” which never precluded overt and extreme violence, but nonetheless represents a distinct and pervasive aspect of colonialism (40-1)

So what are the implications of biopolitical settler colonialism for settlers?  Morgensen situates the subjugation of indigenous peoples as “proving ground” for the sexual regulation of settler societies and modern sexuality more generally.  Colonial settler subjectivity was still in formation, not yet naturalized: “far from reflecting the finality of conquest, this period was one of tense negotiations of active and contested settlement.  Any iteration of modern sexuality in this time that placed Native people in the past knew itself to be a contingent claim that remained open to challenge” (42).

Method and ‘conversations’

Morgensen combines metatheory, textual exegesis, ethnography, document analysis, and history to analyze non-Native and Native queer movements.  He interprets these movements as “conversations.”  These conversations aren’t (usually) literal; the term orients us to power-laden relationships produced in and through settler colonialism, so they aren’t necessarily unsettling or anticolonial; they can involve appropriations and other interactions that reproduce or naturalize settler colonialism.  This idea of conversation conditions the way Morgensen interprets narratives, “interpreting U.S. queer politics across the national differences of Native peoples and sovereignties” as a way to displace settler colonialism (xi).  He follows Andrea Smith in reading (Native) activists as theorists who challenge settler colonialism.  These conversations can also be about disruption or contestation, “where interlocutors’ competing claims tell more in their differences with one another than any single narrative can tell alone” (xi).  “This book explains non-Native queer modernities as forming within the friction of conversations with discrepant Native queer modernities denaturalizing settler colonialism.  Neither chosen nor denied, these conversations are not utopian; but they nevertheless form creative zones of contact and transformation whose outcomes are not preordained.  Interreferential moments in conversation show that the meaning of non-native or Native queer subjectivity appeared by engaging relational claims” (28).  In the end, more than a study of conversation, this book is a kind of conversation, as well as an effort to transform those in which it arose and that it examines” (28).

He aligns his work with settler colonial studies, which he positions alongside recent currents in Native studies that have focused on indigenous decolonization (2).  He explains that he interprets “non-Native and Native queer modernities as forming within the intimate relationships of conversation, in which their friction produced a multiplicity of narratives for textual and ethnographic interpretation, while mapping genealogies wherein their differences became interreferential amid the persistent and transforming power of settler colonialism.  M positions his book and his ethnographic method in relation to these conversations, by “shifting my ethnography of queer spaces where I lived to studying their formation in relation to the spaces they elided: those formed by Native queer and Two-Spirit activists” (13).  In the 1990s he encountered different, Native spaces “only by moving outside normatively white queer politics to attend to Native queer activists space, including women of colour feminist spaces where Native queer women were providing leadership” (14).  He is keen to point out that he is not framing Native activism and theory as a “discovery:” “Instead, I cite Native queer activist texts as a distinctive body of critical theory to which queer non-Natives already were intellectually and politically accountable, and to which my now-comparative and historical study of non-Native queer politics offered a response” (14).

Morgensen also engages with literary and theoretical texts to work through multiple interpretations, teasing out the political implications of competing interpretations, raising questions about how to read the intended audience of a piece and putting writing in historical context.  At several points in the book, this close attention to texts seemed tedious to me, as if Morgensen has spent a long time parsing these texts and so feels a need to write about them.  However, upon reviewing the book, I can see how he situates their importance in the book.  He explains that the book “explains narrative relationships among queer subjects by situating them within ethnographic and historical accounts of U.S. queer politics” (12).  So these close readings of narratives and identity are required, so that they can then be situated in the context of movements.  In his discussion of the Radical Faeries, for example, his reading of Native writing and activism allows him to show that the indigenous people begin answers in other places and arrive at different conclusions than dominant settler discourses (155), they tend to avoid generalizations or universalizations of their indigeneity, and when they do articulate transnational spiritualities, Morgensen insists that it is “neither primordial nor authenticating, but historicizing” (156).  This emphasis of history over and against autheniticity/primordiality is an important theme in Moregensen’s text; it could be read as a methodological (and ethical) axiom in this context.

In this way, he explains that his work is not really an ethnography of Native or non-Native peope, but rather “on the genealogies of settler colonialism that produce non-Native and Native queer modernities in relationship.  I examine non-Native tales of Native truth—anthropological or popular, romantic or objectivist, colonial or anticolonial—as claims conditioned by the persistent power of settler colonialism.  I comparate them to Native narratives that address non-Natives without beginning or ending in non-Native logics (16).

Settler colonialism

Morgensen’s analysis is based on the insight that settler colonialism is ongoing, and that it conditions and produces relations between settlers and indigenous peoples, even and especially when those relations seem absent: “Settler societies engender a normative relationality between the designations “Native” and “settler” that imbues histories of intermingling, interdependence, or the attempted erasure of indigeneity as a marker of national difference.  The distinction between “Native” and “settler” informs all power in settler societies and their relations with societies worldwide” (1).

Because settler colonialism is a ‘structure’ rather than an ‘event,’ it’s ongoing and it calls for “a sustained denaturalizing critique” (2).  He extends this to queer subjectivity, explaining that “queer will refer to statuses produced by the heteropatriarchal power of what supremacist settler colonialism” (2).  This isn’t a claim that all queer identities are equivalent (or equally conditioned by whiteness and colonialism) but he is arguing that “queer politics produces a settler homonationalism that will persist unless settler colonialism is challenged directly as a condition of queer modernity” (so settler colonialism is a condition—however differential and uneven—of all queer modernities).  Settler colonialism produces “non-Native queer modernities,” in which “modern queers appear definitively not Native—separated from, yet in perpetual (negative) relationship to, the original peoples of the lands where they live (3).  Settler colonialism “is naturalized whenever conquest or displacement of Native peoples is ignored or appears necessary or complete, and whenever subjects are defined by settler desires to possess Native land, history, or culture.  Settler colonialism thus must be denaturalized not only in social and political spaces but also in definitions and experiences of subjectivity” (16).  “Settler colonialism is present precisely when it appears not to be, given that its normative function is to appear inevitable and final.  Its naturalization follows both the seeming material finality of settler soecity and discourses that fram settlers as “those who come after” rather than as living in relationship to Native peoples in a colonial situation” (42).  This is why Morgensen is so focused on desire and narratives of settler subjects: because these give him some clues about the intentions and motivations of settlers, and he locates these spaces as important sites of intervention.  He says settler colonialism is naturalized in two ways here: (1) in the seeming disappearance of indigenous peoples from a settled landscape and (2) through the incorporation of indigeneity into and as settler subjectivity (18).

Non-white settlers?

Morgensen argues that settler colonialism produces non-white people “are located distinctly from the settler status inherited by the representatives of Anglo whiteness—even if they might accede to that status if the interpretation of their racialization changes” (18-9).  He cites Bonita Lawrence’s critique of antiracism as a call on non-Native people of colour in white settler societies “to ask themselves how their histories of racial subjugation and antiracist resistance might be compatible with settler colonial elimination of Native peoples and their sovereignty” (19).  He suggests that the differential positions of people of colour within settler colonialism can also be understood as an effect of settler colonialism: “the control of non-Native peoples of colour reproduced their collective subjection for economic and social roles within a normativiely non-Native multiracial and transnational settler society (43).  But people of colour and their struggles can also naturalize colonialism if “the experience of subjection or the struggle for liberation among non-Native people of colour naturalizes the erasure of Native people as inevitable, necessary, or complete or has Native people’s subjection as its effect” (43).

He points back to white settlers and the normalization of whiteness even in anti-colonial solidarity movements: “white radicals often fail to note the racial specificity of their settler colonial inheritance.  If they project their experience into theorizing the responsibility of non-Natives to demonstrate Indigenous solidarity, they may reproduce white supremacy by not considering how people of colour negotiate settler colonialism—perhaps within Indigenous solidarity that white people will not share (20).

He articulates a shift away from asking “who is a settler?” and instead asks “how subjects are produced by social processes: ‘who under what conditions, inherits the power to represent or enact settler colonialism?’” (20)… “the teleological binary Native/settler is perpetually complicated by the nonbinary relations of diverse non-Natives and Native peoples across commonalities and differences” (22).

Beyond identity politics and including diverse voices

Although he wants to challenge and unsettle queer theory and its whiteness and settler colonial heritage, he insists that “the problem is not that white, class-privileged, national inheritors of settler colonialism have been central to queer accounts.  The problem is that all conclusions drawn from such accounts fail to explain not only all who are excluded from them but also all who are included: because the only possible explanation of queerness under white-supremacist settler colonialism is one that also interrogates that condition.  Queer studies must examine settler colonialism as a condition of its own work” (25-6).

Primitivity and (queer) appropriations

A major argument in the book is that non-Native subjects [in this case, queer folks] appropriate indigeneity and reinforce settler colonialism: “white settlers adapt indigeneity’s putative opposition to civilization through “Indian impersonation,” which performs opposition to settler rule as well as the authority to claim it for themselves as settler subjects.  In both accounts, settlers supplant and incorporate indigeneity to attain settler subjectivity” (17).  He argues that the colonial demand on settlers to replace indigenous peoples “incites white settler desires to be intimate with the Native authenticity that their modernity presumably replaces.  Indigenity’s civilizational replacement thus is complementary to the settler pursuit of primitivism” (17).  “Settler citizens in the United States are at once civilizationists and primitivists” (27).  “Modern sexuality comes into existence when the heteropatriarchal advancement of white settlers appears to vanquish sexual primitivity, which white settlers nevertheless adopt as their own history” (1).  By this he means that white settler sexuality emerged in colonial relationship with indigenous sexualities, as more civilized and coming after.  Indigenous sexuality is something in the past and it is universalized as the past of ‘all of us;’ this is what he means by settlers adopting primitivism as their own history.  He points to “a settler colonial logic that disappears indigeneity so that it can be recalled by modern non-Natives as a relationship to Native culture and land that might reconcile them to inheriting conquest.  Thus ‘non-Native’ signifies not a racial or ethnic identity but a location within settler colonialism” (3).

In particular, Morgensen focuses on the way in which Native people are produced within settler discourses through the anthropological concept of ‘berdache,’ which anthropologists used to describe indigenous people who would now be understood as Two-Spirit.  By linking their own identities with berdache as a transhistorical form of sexuality, settlers position their identities as part of an eternal and sacred form of sexuality, and reconcile their position as settlers, Morgensen argues.  In the intro, he focuses on the writings of Judy Grahn, a lesbian feminist writer who was among the first to make this move.  He argues that “positing an indigenous embrace for queer exiles from a white settler society lets her imagine switching allegiances to play “Indians” against her own people… white Americans associate marginality and resistance with the Indian as an internal antagonist to settler society, which then lets them impersonate indigeneity when they launch social critiques that reconcile them to settler society.  He generalizes this through his ethnography: “I recurrently heard participants tell that Native American societies historically honored people like themselves with social esteem and spiritual gifts” (12).  Even though Grahn and other settlers readily admit that indigenous societies are still functioning and resisting settler colonialism, “her story displaces that intimacy with occupation by investing in emptied Native land as a past and present home” (6).  He is pointing to a pattern whereby settlers narrate their exile from white settler society and then take comfort in imagining their own “indigenized emplacement” (6).  Morgensen also points to distance as an important part of this relationship: settlers don’t have much actual interaction with indigenous peoples, but they often desire this interaction/appropriation/indigenization as a path towards cathartic healing and reconciliation.

If his critiques of particular groups or writings seem harsh, it’s because they can easily be read as a simple attack or critique of their complicity with colonialism.  But he repeatedly explains that he’s actually more intent on showing how all of these appropriations are more like symptoms of a broader problem: “if white sexual minorities traversed their primitivity in order to claim national whiteness, they followed a normative path to citizenship for white settler subjects” (45).  He links this to the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and other forms “when modern sexuality discourses taught white men to tap and control their inheritance of primitivity” (45).  It’s this ‘normative path’ that he wants to trace, and his ethnographies function more like examples of the way in which people get caught up in these paths, as ways to reconcile/erase their relation to colonialism (45).  In terms of settler appropriations of berdache in particular, M argues that it “allowed white subjects in a settler society, led by white men, to answer their settler colonial inheritance by accepting Native roots as theirs to possess and replace” (48).

The Radical Faeries

Morgensen has a full chapter on his ethnographic work on the Radical Faeries, and they’re woven into other chapters, as well.  This chapter was of particular interest to me because he’s focusing not only on the appropriation of berdache and indigenous ritual in white queer sexuality, but also on settler desires to possess and live on settled land.  He explains his longstanding links with them through queer networks, and his eventual acceptance of an invitation to engage with them as an ethnographer: “my ethical responsibility to experience and understand the situated practices in which I participated on their own terms complicated the relative simplicity of distanced criticism and generated, in its place, the critically reflexive account I provide here” (128).

He summarizes his ethnographic account:

“My ethnographic account portrays the way Radical Faeries produce queer subjects by creatively deploying rurality and mobility in the context of settlement.  Notably, this resolves racialized exclusions of white queers from sexual modernity by claiming roots in Native authenticity that appear to resolve contradictions in their non-Native inheritance of settlement” (129).

He locates the Radical Faeries within a broader genealogy of settlers who have sought to “enact self-exile from privilege” as part of a revolutionary opposition to racism, capitalism, and imperialism.  This rejection is materialized by “relocating to homes based in democratic socialism, anarchism, or counterculturalism” (131).  So what?  “Belief that removing U.S. gay men or lesbians to spaces coded as communal, antiauthoritarian, or premodern would interrupt their power was the very means by which such practices fostered modernist sexual politics animated by colonial discourses” (131).  Again, the problem here is not anarchism or antiauthoritarianism as such, but the way in which these ideas and practices are deployed to naturalize settler colonialism, in a way that is assumed to nullify privilege and/or oppose dominant systems (131).  They imagined themselves as “allies to people of colour and colonized people worldwide, but their desire to also emulate or even embody the oppressed whom they knew they were not translated into their ruralist, naturist, and primitivist projects” (132).  The Faeries’ founder emphasized “gay shamanism” and although Morgensen acknowledges critiques of normative whiteness, anti-intellectualism, and appropriation, he suggests that these were rare and failed to shift RF practice (133).  In particular, Morgensen is interested in the ways in which RF practices shape desires through enactment of their practices, creating a “performative map” that Radical Faeries can then take with them (134).

He’s not only critical of the appropriation of indigenous spirituality, but also of the reclamation of paganism and European spiritualities, a move that is often seen within anticolonial settler movements as a viable way to avoid colonial appropriation.  Again, this is because his prime concern isn’t with the unethical practice of appropriation as such, but with the way it function in the broader colonial context of settler colonialism: “neo-paganism itself is reinvented by them to gain a relationship to Native land and culture that does not feel like the conquest that they know they inherit” (136).  He locates the most thorough naturalization of Native culture in the practice of ‘heart circle,’ which foregrounds “emotional speech, deep listening, and collective conversation” as something central to Radical Faerie subjectivity (136).  These and other practices, such as memorialization of people who had died of aids, “created radical faerie community in an indigenized relation to settled land that simultaneously healed the trauma of epidemic and the inheritance of conquest for non-Native gay men” (139).  Unlike straight back-to-the-landers, Radical Faeries suggested that the land they acquired and their ties to indigeniety “were a birthright of being gay” (139).  He’s critical of the multicultural aspirations of the RFs, where they express desire to live in a multiracial space “while deflecting responsibility for forming a white space that produces the absence they regret” (147).

Reading indigenous people against settler narratives

Morgensen doesn’t just criticize settler narratives as colonial from his own position as a settler, he also narrates their unsettlement by interpreting indigenous writing and activism.  I think this is what he means by ‘conversations’ between Native and non-Native politics.  Whereas Judy Grahn looks to Native traditions to incorporate into her own identity, he points to narratives about indigenous queer subjectivity by Gay American Indians (GAI) as an alternative.  These narratives “do not divulge information about historical gender roles in Native societies, and non-Natives are not invited to identify with Native histories” (8).  Moreover, “No contributor argued that Native gays and lesbians represent the original nature of all sexual minorities” (8).

Morgensen argues that Radical Faerie encounters with Native Two-Spirit activists transformed some of their practices and ways of thinking.  First of all, he suggests that RFs initially had an appropriative mentality about this relationship: RFs tend to ask or assume that Native or Two Spirit people will “interact precisely as a difference that Radical Faeries desire” (152).  Instead, Native people invoked friendship as a way to affirm “how non-Nativeas have supported them while still holding them [non-Natives] accountable to work for indigenous decolonization” (153).  This interaction “brough Radical Faeries to admit their non-Native locations in a settler society and to hold themselves responsible to Native people as critics of colonialism” (153).  However, he’s careful to emphasize that these encounters did not fundamentally transform Radical Faerie culture.  Instead, these encounters “appear to be signs of a potential epistemic shift, in relation to which present and future accounts may ask to what extent a responsibility to Native work for decolonization leads to troubling colonial desires for queerness, modernity, or indigeneity or to denaturalizing the relationship of Radical Faeries to settlement” (159).  They are interpreted as “moments in larger conversations articulating non-Native and Native queer subjects within the power relations of ongoing settler colonialism” (159).


Morgensen is also intent to show how the power of relations produced by settler colonialism can be and have been destabilized and unsettled, or ‘displaced.’  He follows Foucault and Butler in suggesting that “power is the very condition of agentive action—a transformative context for its repetition and potential destabilization” (3).  Analytically, the task of critique then requires “close reading to ascertain which forms of creativity might produce decolonizing ends” (3).

In terms of useful responses, he insists that “even antiracist and anticolonial work by queers of colour may become compatible with settler projects,” and suggests that “displacing any such effects can start by locating U.S. queer modernities in the biopolitics of settler colonialism that still impose non-Native, normatively white, and settler relationships on Native peoples, and by efforts of Native queer and Two-Spirit people to denaturalize settler colonialism” (49).

He thus locates the primary (perhaps the only) agency in unsettling colonialism in organizing efforts among indigenous people.  In terms of queer politics, he points to the recalling of “subjugated knwoeldges of embodiment, desire, kingship, and peoplehood in modes of language, memory, and reliatnality that were discrepant from colonial modern definitions of sexuality and gender” (51).  He insists here that indigenous activism is not simply reactive to or derivative from settler colonialism; on the contrary, “settler colonialism is a relationship between something that may attempt totalization and all that it attempts (forever incompletely) to suppress” (51).

Morgensen suggests that “non-Native queers can evaluate their work by the degree to which it troubles settler colonialism while being held accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit activists and allied critics” (226).  Here he implicitly positions himself as someone to whom non-Native queers might be accountable, since he repeatedly positions his work as an non-Native allied work in conversation with Native decolonization.  But is the reverse true?  Is Morgensen accountable to non-Native queer activists, who are trying to figure out their own relation to colonialism, or how to challenge it?  Has he interrogated the (often invisible) power relations accorded to him as an academic critic, and what it might mean to write in a way that’s relevant and accessible to non-academics?  I’m not invoking this as an imperative or an obligation, but as a question that seems to arise logically from his standpoint.  He says that he wants to challenge and unsettle non-Native queer activism, but it’s unclear whether the people he criticizes (like the Radical Faeries) are actually his audience in this book.  Instead, the book puts him more into conversation with other academics who are steeped in at least some of the literature related to queer theory, postcolonialism, Native studies, ethnography and post-structuralism.

In his conclusion, Morgensen briefly offers the notion of groundlessness as a way to unsettle settler desires for indigenous land: “critically engaging histories of colonial, national, and racist violence and their survival has engendered mobile and transformative modes of decolonization for queers of colour in diaspora.  Such work links to Indigenous queer decolonization of Indigenous nations by acting from within mobile alliances.  I invoke groundlessness to invite new theory to displace settler imaginaries among queer non-Natives.  By detaching from their colonial desires to belong to stolen land, the settler state, or their projections into global possibilities, queer non-Natives can release imaginaries of indigeneity that formed to resolve the contradictions of settlers possessing stolen land and Native peoples’ pasts and futures.” (227).  He returns here to the idea of “conversations as the spaces between non-Naïve and Native queer people that shift when made accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit people’s pursuit of decolonization for their nations (227).  He locates the problem in the distance produced by settler colonialism: “Queer non-Natives in the late-twentieth-century United States regularly found everyday speech, activist agendas, and historical and anthropological writing that invited them to form a relationship with indigeneity at a sustained distance” (229).  “Native history was easy to consume, prepackaged in settler narratives; yet no degree of consumption placed non_Natives in greater relationship with queer Native people, or indeed any Native people, across the distances of geography, community, and politics that already divided them (228).

He concludes by explaining that even though this book focuses on denaturalizing settler colonialism, that’s not an end in itself: “it would be all too easy for non-Natives to merely unthink their relationship to settler colonialism rather than act in relationship to others in struggle” (230).  At the same time, he worries that solidarity efforts will be conditioned by the colonial desires he names.  These are “desires of non-Native queers to find theselves in Native religion, to form multiracial, global movements that incorporate Native people, or to define Native truth: they desire to be even closer to Native people than adopting Native culture as their own history satisfies.  I fear that their desires will perform the coloniality that initiated them if they include, or join, Native people after being motivated to adopt Native culture as queer history” (229).

It follows that “all normative modes through which non-Native and Native queer people appear to be in onversation must be disrupted for dialogue to occur from the decolonizing stakes fo Native queer and Two-Pspirit activists.  My experience has taught me that if this disruption occurs, it might follow non-Native queers first critiquing settler colonialism in the power-laden conversations that already constrain them.  Their critical work will mark them as accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit activism, and they may be drawn into collaborations with Native people who work with them in the fraught spaces of a settler colonial society.  Such ollaborations must be sufficient for non-Native queers who wish to act as allies to Native decolonization struggles.  NO greater proximity to Native cultural space is necessary, nor necessarily helpful for them to desire” (229).