Queer Utopias


Regardless of left- or right-leaning political agendas, it is unanimously agreed upon by politicians and journalists alike that a disaster of some sort has occurred—and perhaps is still even unfolding—in the sociopolitical sphere and that the state and the electorate must recover from it. The slogans “Building Back Better” and “Building Back Stronger” are almost identical in their emphasis on building back. It is immediately evident that both of these mottos are ultimately conservative ideas of a future made perfect by either an augmentation or concentration of past social structures and policies in order to achieve an ideal state or utopia.

Thomas More’s original Utopia was not a new or even progressive social formation (Jameson 229), just one transferred to a distant land where the totalitarian governing system functioned smoothly and without meaningful dissent to disrupt the static social order.  This paper argues that since conventional (or ‘abstract’) ideas of utopia uncritically idealize the past and seek to bring about a sociopolitical order based on the continuation and rehabilitation of a glorified past, it is necessary to adopt a praxis of queer utopia in order for society to truly move forward.

by looking to the past, queer utopian dreamers see what can be redeemed but also what can be avoided. The past is not a template, but more a loose collection of guidelines or a ‘moodboard’ that provides inspiration and a target for utopian hopes, which may well be disappointed at times by the events that transpire on the way to the future. But just because hope can be disappointed (and is prone to it) is not, Muñoz writes, a reason to forsake it as a critical thought process. Disappointment needs to be risked in order to resist certain impasses (Muñoz 20), such as the despair induced by the slow-moving but ever-present threat of climate catastrophe, or the long dreadful waiting of coronavirus lockdowns, or the intensification of current political fascisms. Further to this paper’s discussion, Muñoz writes that the strategy of turning “to the past for the purpose of critiquing the present, is propelled by a desire for futurity” (43). Queer utopias are a practice: not a noun, but a verb, always informed by a critical methodology of hope that evaluates the past to make sure that the future is worthwhile.

While Cruising Utopia discusses the nature of utopian dreaming in the context of queer politics’ mid-90s obsession with achieving marriage equality, Muñoz’s critical interrogation of the way that utopian dreaming is mobilized politically is useful to apply to the contemporary sociopolitical moment of coronavirus and climate catastrophe. Muñoz explicitly likens the abstract utopian desire for the attainment of marriage equality with what Lauren Berlant calls a “stupid” form of optimism: “the faith that adjustment to certain forms or practices of living and thinking—for example, the prospect of class mobility, the romantic narrative, normalcy, nationality, or a better sexual identity—will secure one’s happiness” (126). Muñoz critiques the desire for marriage equality as an investment in a surface-level issue that grants the appearance of utopian achievement, but is still dictated by the standards set by heteronormativity and does nothing to change the deeply homophobic—often violently so—structuring of society. 

The rhetoric of “building back” is intensely problematic not just for the above reasons, but most significantly for its depiction of an alternate reality that clashes with the bald fact that there is no place for anyone, no matter their identity, to which to return where their pre-climate change way of life can be continued happily and safely. The Anthropocene progresses; climate catastrophe progresses, whether politicians want it to or not (Casselman). Politics as usual deliberately ignores the fact that climate catastrophe is much larger than the concerns of human political campaigns, implicating and affecting all life on the planet (human and non-) and, as Timothy Morton points out, reaching backwards into geological time as well as forward into the future (49-51). Berlant terms the abstract utopic desire for the ‘good life,’ despite the fact that the world as we know it is actively falling apart, as “cruel optimism,” describing it as “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24), even if that object is what prevents the ‘good life’ in the end—for example, a treasured car whose fossil fuel emissions contribute to the warming of the world that will in turn drive up the price of the fossil fuels the vehicle needs in order to run. Abstract utopia can be seen most clearly in conservative politicians’ wishful thinking to return to a less complicated time when citizens (aka cismale white heterosettlers) were prospering, the economy was doing well, and climate change was not a thing that existed to be worried about. 

In contrast to the wishful abstraction of classic utopianism, queer utopia as presented by Muñoz is concrete and actionable, in keeping with present reality—climate catastrophe, racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia and all—and still dares to hope for the future. Muñoz writes that, while these ‘concrete’ utopias can seem like daydreams, they are “the realm of educated hope” (15) that directly contrast the abstract, uncritical utopia—“‘utopia’ in its pejorative sense, the good place that is no place” (Alberro 20). This paper could exchange “educated” for “informed” or “radical,” the kind of clear-eyed hope that assesses and understands the past and present in order to inform the future.    

Queer utopia relies on a praxis of explicitly radical hope, separating out wishful, uncritical versions of hope from a more concrete, informed, earned hope. Hannah MacGregor, in conversation with Eugenia Zuroski, observes that uncritical expressions of hope “[come] so often packaged in … toxic positivity” that insists that “we are all in this together” and that “we will get through this terrible situation,” yet for many people (especially people of colour and queer people) “we don’t always get through this” (11:52-12:05). Zuroski therefore posits a “radical hope” as a hope that is earned: the kind of hope that marginalized people such as Black, Indigenous, people of colour, LGBTQ2S+ and disabled people, have been “earning all along … just by living under conditions that are designed to deprive you of … hope for yourself … for your own survival, your own flourishing, and your own future” (13:52-15:25). Radical hope is an outgrowth of a kind of political consciousness that comes from being trapped inside a system that is wholly devoted to a cruelly optimistic promise, of a recognition of that promise of the good life as cruel, denying it, and searching elsewhere for optimism. 

Queer utopia stands in contrast to the slogans of building back better in its fundamental refusal to believe in the inherent good of the sociopolitical structuring of the world before COVID-19. A practice of radical hope, to me, is not wishing for a world in which the same neoliberal policies, petroculture, patriarchy, and heterosettler society of the Canadian state is restored by way of a vaccine, but instead a fierce sort of hope for a radical restructuring of the status quo that recognizes indigenous sovereignty, tackles climate change as much as possible, and makes a just recovery from the pandemic that recognizes and prioritizes the health and wellbeing of all. Practicing radical hope also means a daily engagement with building the conditions by which certain elements of queer utopia can be made possible: relation-building, advocating for climate policy, standing up for the rights of oppressed peoples, working to undermine capitalist modes of transaction and exchange in favour of communitarian and social endeavours. Braidotti states that it is not enough to be against: the critical dissatisfaction of utopian dreaming that Muñoz describes as queer must always be married to action inspired by radical hope. This hope will be disappointed again and again – as Muñoz reminds us, utopia is always destined to fail. This paper argues that instead of building back, we need to take up the practice of queer utopia, and, in spite of failure, to build forward.


While queer utopia theory is very complex topic and I have only a naive understanding of it, I will continue to dive into it along with queer theory. This article suggests using queer utopia as a verb rather than noun. The goal is to constantly strive for a queer utopia and that ‘building back better’ is impossible. We cannot have what we had before climate change and cannot reverse societal movements. Basically, ‘Building back better’ is just a neoliberal wet dream and can never be anything more. Utopianism is more realistic when built on new and essential queer theory — especially queer theory that centers people of color. So when considering financial literacy, is there anything that the bank should undo or form differently? What do we assume about financial education that goes against queer theory?