Queer theory is a field of study in the humanities that attempts to understand exactly what queerness is and what it does in society. Though it was originally centered around alternative sexualities and gender identities, the idea of queerness has expanded to include a wider variety of non-normative and deviant practices and identities. Cruising Utopia was scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s interpretation of queerness, in which he develops his theory of “queer futurity.” In queer futurity, queer is not a thing we are, instead, it’s a thing we are “always becoming;” queerness represents potential for a different, better future. Put more simply, everything sucks right now, and the people and practices that are called queer point the way to a better future by criticizing the present. Muñoz condemns the popular focus on marriage equality and gays in the military, arguing that they are short-sighted goals that will assimilate us into problematic, heterosexual institutions. In other words, marriage and the military are inherently flawed, so why should we bother fighting to participate in them?
What will be most interesting though to non-academic readers are Muñoz’s analyses of queer avant-garde art, pieces and productions the average person (like me) will probably never come in contact with otherwise. A lot of these works of art were ephemeral, either short lived performances or pieces designed to disappear or dissolve after serving their purpose, so I think Muñoz’s illustrations of them are valuable. My personal favorite is his chapter on Fred Herko, a gay dancer in the ‘60s who comitted suicide during a private performance by leaping out an open window on the fifth story. It’s a moving moment to picture, and Muñoz does a great job teasing out the optimistic and utopian aspects of what seems to be a great tragedy. Fair warning though, Cruising Utopia is a work of academic theory, so these stories are told in the complex, jargon-heavy style common to theory books. Reading them becomes easier with practice, but for those just looking for something fun or entertaining this book is probably not the best option.
While I do enjoy the book, I take issue with Muñoz’s argument against gay marriage and military service. I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind it, but as flawed as those institutions may be, they still represent real, tangible life improvements for many LGBTQ people. Marriage equality, for example, has coincided with a real decrease in homophobic violence, and the military, problematic as it certainly is, is an important opportunity to escape poverty that was previously denied to young queer people (and still is, for transgender folk). So I can’t agree with those in die-hard opposition to those causes. It’s easy to oppose them when you don’t depend upon them. I feel similarly about the nostalgia for the ‘70s. Undoubtedly there were many good and important things happening at the time, but they were only happening in big cities. For those living elsewhere, things were not so great.