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Kevin Barnhurst's Media Queered: Visibility and Its Discontents [19 March, 2008]

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Edited by Kevin G.  Barnhurst, published by Peter Lang.  298 pages, $32.95


Queers are everywhere in the media and we no longer have to furtively seek and consume images of ourselves. Media Queered: Visibility and Its Discontents, edited by Kevin Barnhurst, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, ponders the costs and advantages of this new-found visibility. 

The liveliest pieces complicate our understanding of the conditions that produce queer visibility. Edward Alwood’s “A Gift of Gab” is about pre-Stonewall appearances of gay and lesbian activists on talk shows and their complex negotiations with broadcasters and audiences. Vincent Doyle’s “Insiders-Outsiders” describes the campaigns by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the group (SDL) to force Laura Schlessinger’s sponsors to drop her radio talk show. While Doyle doesn’t address the inherent contradiction of queers fighting to influence someone’s rhetoric—when the Right protests gay expression, we call it censorship—but he does show that SDL, despite its self-characterization as a grassroots group, was as professional as GLAAD. That goes at the heart of what it takes to gain queer visibility: “Getting heard requires…ways of framing arguments that do not question the structural inequality…of media activism…”
Barnhurst’s “Visibility as Paradox” notes “the rise of the full-time homosexual, who works at the crossroads of queer and straight communities … .” That issue is a theme here, as is the changing nature of activism. Katherine Sender’s “Professional Homosexuals” points out that out queer professionals define respectable activism as promoting their visibility. Sender alludes to the fact that one lesbian’s employer banned gay and lesbian employee groups “out of fear they would function as trade unions.” This raises the issue of whether structural inequalities in the workplace are left untouched by the cause of queer visibility as an end unto itself.
The least productive essays here are those that emerge from queer theory. Han Lee’s “Queering Race in Cyberspace” considers online personal profiles on and how users deploy racial categories. He describes how people use metaphors around race to construct narratives of desire and exclusion and concludes that, online, “Race is queered.” That statement only seems daring and revelatory and ignores the embodied realities of race and class in the off-line world. Clearly, the process of “queering,” has exhausted itself and offers few new insights.
Other than in a set of pieces by journalists like Windy City Times’ Tracy Baim and NPR’s Jason DeRose, Media Queered doesn’t overtly address the economic restructuring of the media landscape where conglomerates and rising queer corporate power forge messages about what ‘the community” wants. That’s partly an effect of the disciplinary roots of this anthology, but it also speaks to a fact to which queers have not yet reconciled: We have queered capitalism, and are paying the price. 

Essays frequently contradict each other. Todd Mundt’s “Talking Gay” celebrates the rise of queer representations but Gavin Jack writes, in “Whorephobia,” about the media’s refusal to engage the complexities of queer sex workers, “the point is to question claims that visibility achieves practical equality and that a more talkative media is necessarily more progressive.” Such contentiousness makes Media/Queered a textured and interesting record that questions our fealty to visibility.

Originally published in Windy City Times March 19, 2008.

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