Rolequeer theory is an umbrella term that generally refers to the growing body of work whose goal is to understand and challenge the ways in which people relate to a power differential in relationships with one another and with the institutions that dictate the structure of our lives. Rolequeer theory rejects the validity of binary power relationships and binary thinking in general, making it a subset of queer theory.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Rolequeer theory in academia
- 3 Relationships to other discourses
The term “rolequeer” was coined by Relsqui in 2011, first popularized by maymay via Twitter, and has up to this point primarily been theorized by R. Foxtale, in conjunction with maymay and others. It was first explored publicly by Kristen Stubbs at Transcending Boundaries 2012 workshop entitled “Queering Role in BDSM Play.” Key discussions of the concept can be found at bandanablog.wordpress.com and malesubmissionart.com.
“Rolequeer” was initially conceived of as an identity within the context of the BDSM subculture, but it ultimately extends beyond that scene’s narrow bounds and describes the experience of many people who have little or no association with BDSM. At its most fundamental level rolequeerness is about “queering” — or disrupting binary notions of — human relationships to power.
There is a widely held belief in both BDSM and mainstream culture that the erotic is dependent on a power differential, on the tension between and ultimate overpowering of a “passive” participant by an “active” participant. Radical feminism rejects this notion of the erotic as fundamentally rooted in oppressive hierarchy. And rolequeerness begins by drawing on that rejection, but it goes further, theorizing possibilities for complex, agentic, and ultimately liberating erotic interface with various positional orientations towards power. (As opposed to the suggestion by contemporary radfems that we should simply somehow eliminate power dynamics from our play.)
In conjunction with troubling the “Dominant/Submissive” — or Powerful/Vulnerable — binary, rolequeerness also complicates binary opposition between “sex” vs. “violence” and the binary opposition between “abusive” vs. “consensual”, arguing that these can never be cleanly differentiated categories within a holistically coercive and violent oppression culture. It points out that, if we are truly concerned about respecting each others’ agency, we must insist on a higher bar for “obtaining consent” from our fellow humans than simply being granted permission to treat each other in violent and abusive ways.
As with other types of queerness, “rolequeer” does not simply refer to how we play in the bedroom or at the club; it describes our relationship to the world around us, to the roles that we have been handed via our positionalities within oppression culture.
Ultimately, rolequeerness centers acts of self-liberation and co-liberation by encouraging (and eroticizing) a traitorous relationship to our own power and a compassionate celebration of each others’ vulnerabilities. Rolequeerness provides a methodological framework for “downward mobility” inside the power gradient of oppression culture. As such, rolequeers refuse to accept cultural capital as a consolation prize for victimization. We maintain that, in a culture in which power corrupts, choosing vulnerability is a move toward freedom.
Rolequeers are submissive as fuck and cocky as hell about it. Break the cycle. Quit the game.
Rolequeer theory in academia¶
Although rolequeer theory is of interest to some academics, rolequeer theory generally condemns academia as an institution that relies on the existence of binary power relationships to exist. Academia is often used as an example of an institution that rolequeers generally oppose, alongside prisons, nation states, employers, and other inter-related institutions.
Relationships to other discourses¶
Although some of the terminology and specific articulations rolequeer theory offers are relatively new, it is informed by many other ideas. Some of those other ideas are also relatively new, and many are not.
- Radical feminism
- Queer theory
- Anti-racism and Critical Race Theory
- Atheism (WIP)
- Existenz Philosophy
- TK-others? Let’s be more specific thtan this. What ideas, specifically, does rolequeer theory accept or reject from other discourses?
R. Foxtale draws on a “fairly common sense thing [that radical people of color have been talking about] since the 60s and probably long before”:
This is ultimately the reason why rolequeerness is so important. The radical act I’m describing is basically “submission” — but the key is that it’s about submitting to someone who is less powerful than you. The traditionalist notion of power relations is that we submit to people because they are more powerful than us, but that’s backwards.
Radical people of color and other marginalized folks have been talking about this fairly common sense thing since the 60s and probably long before: the idea that “allies” exist to support a movement in the ways they are asked to, not to run it; that ”allyship” is about putting your privilege into the service of a movement that seeks to dismantle the institution that privileges you. That’s giving your power over to someone for the express purpose of empowering them to hurt you. That’s a submissive relationship to power.
(Although, depending on your orientation, what appears as “hurting you” to an outside observer might feel like “healing” or “fulfilling” or “freeing” to the person experiencing it. See above quote about how being an oppressor sucks — having your ability to oppress others taken away only appears as “harm” to those who haven’t acknowledged how much it sucks to be able to oppress people.)
—R. Foxtale in conversation with Cool-Yubari
Specifically, she says:
I’ve always been very struck by the classic Lilla Watson quote, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This idea, of those-cast-in-oppressor-roles and those-cast-in-victim-roles working together to dismantle the system that dehumanizes/role-ifies them both feels like it’s at the core of rolequeerness, to me.
—R. Foxtale (source)
Maymay references Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology Barnor Hesse’s “The 8 White Identities” to similar effect:
I find a number of things in Barnor Hesse’s “The 8 White Identities” highly relevant and important.
[…A]mong them is Professor Hesse’s focus on “action-oriented identities.” This take on identity stands in remarkably sharp contrast to the typical (oxymoronic “white anti-racist”) understanding of identity politics. Hesse’s schema focuses almost exclusively on what people actually do, rather than on what people say they do, which should be, like, critical thinking 101 but isn’t because most people are intentionally (mis-)educated out of the ability to think critically by a white supremacist and actively genocidal system of forced schooling.
—maymay, "Allies Must Be Traitors: On Barnor Hesse’s ’action-oriented identities’"