This post originally appeared at The Disorder of Things on 30 March 2020.
The UK government message is plain, stretched out over socially-distanced podiums at press conferences: ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.’
Other national leaders and US state governors have similarly appealed to the public to respect emergency shelter-in-place or lockdown regimes, police are patrolling the streets to enforce orders for people to remain indoors, social media users have framed staying at home as a communitarian effort through hashtag campaigns such as Italy’s #iorestoacasa (‘I’m staying at home’), and celebrities are performing their contributions to public morale by sharing video messages filmed in their well-appointed homes.
But feminist and queer understandings of security remind us that even in a global pandemic home can be the least secure place of all, through the forms of structural and physical violence that manifest within.
Homes themselves will be worsening the health of those living in conditions which are too cramped to distance or isolate themselves safely, those suffering the mental health consequences of not having private space or guaranteed access to the open air, and those whose housing depends on informal agreements with arbitrary or discriminatory landlords in the midst of a global economic shutdown. All these circumstances, which can be seen as structural violence, are more likely to affect individuals who have been racialised into stigmatised minority groups, queer and trans people with limited access to employment protections, and migrants kept out of stable housing by the enforcement of the ‘everywhere’ or ‘polymorphic’ border.
The daily work of social reproduction that Juanita Elias and Shirin Rai foreground in theorising a ‘feminist everyday political economy’, meanwhile, is where those bearing the predominant burden of that labour may well experience the ontological insecurity that shortages of basic supplies cause. Beneath the immediacy of worrying how to feed one’s household amid the buckling of neoliberal just-in-time supply chains (their ties to international security detailed in Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade) is, for many, the ontological insecurity of understanding that an economic system one had taken for granted is no longer able to meet one’s basic needs, to the extent it ever could. Women in central and eastern Europe and the former USSR, gender historians such as Jill Massino show, took the brunt of dislocations like these both under state socialism and as that system broke down, while the work of Swati Parashar writes the household into security studies as a unit of analysis by showing how Maoist insurgents in India expand their support base among marginalised households.
Feminist and queer lenses on security, however, reveal that the home is not just where households manage the insecurities that face them from outside: it is also where relationships of power and violence within the household expose some members’ bodily and psychic security to the threats posed by others. Harriet Gray’s research on domestic abuse in military households, for instance, suggests that intimate partner violence may be even more prevalent in the military than it is for the one-third to one-quarter of women who will experience it in civilian life, and highlights the military family home as a site where idealised models of military gender are reproduced.
The escalating rates of intimate partner violence that Lepa Mlađenović and other feminists running Belgrade’s crisis hotline for female and child victims of violence noted during the Yugoslav wars was not only associated with male partners returning from the battlefield but also men becoming angry after watching alarmist propaganda on television. As gun shops in certain US states declare themselves essential services, studies such as Laura McLeod’s on efforts to improve gender security by reducing the number of small arms in Serbian homes remind us that the more firearms in private homes, the greater the risks that they will be turned on partners and children. Women whose gender interlocks (in the words of the Combahee River Collective) with other systems of oppression are, as ever, most vulnerable of all, and in the UK the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is already reporting cases of migrant women being forced into street homelessness after leaving abusive partners because their visas are marked ‘no recourse to public funds’. Activists in China, Brazil, Italy, Cyprus and elsewhere have already noted rates of domestic abuse rising after lockdowns are introduced. It is not hard to imagine how they will rise further the longer that sufferers’ everyday escape routes are closed off, and when male partners in conditions of food scarcity are enacting Iris Marion Young’s ‘logic of masculinist protection’, fuelled in settler colonial societies by the armed frontier myth.
Queer and trans youth with hostile parents, meanwhile, know all too well that home is no security and can often be an actively dangerous place. Those already estranged from their parents, in their home country or elsewhere, do not have the recourse to emergency accommodation in the family home that policymakers expect they might when jobs in the gig economy fold and college campuses close down. Those forced to remain in the family home through lockdown must suddenly adjust to being unable to escape family pressure to renounce expressions of sexual difference and gender non-conformity while losing physical contact with the places of security that friends, queer social spaces, specialist youth services, or supportive educators may have helped them make before.
Digital networks at least enable queer and trans young people with safe enough internet access in their homes to shore up their psychic security by experiencing validation, recognition and virtual interaction with their peers and online sources of support. Even accessing these, however, is more precarious when under the ongoing parental surveillance they are likely to experience in extended quarantine: the UK charity Mermaids, which supports trans youth and their families, added an emergency escape button to its website when the UK lockdown began (on the model of sites for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, which have used them for some time), and was promptly hounded by anti-trans campaigners who have been attempting to spread the belief that trans people are abusively grooming children under their parents’ eyes.
The interpersonal politics within the family home, particularly the pressure to live up to the wishes of a parent who ‘just wants you to be happy’ and not to spoil the mood by asserting the otherness one embodies or the critique one knows, are one of the main foundations of Sara Ahmed’s feminist critique. This has begun with her theorisation of happiness and other emotions (in The Cultural Politics of Emotion and The Promise of Happiness) and continues to inform her theorisation of diversity work in institutions and how organisations work to suppress dissent and complaint. These insights, just as applicable to the co-option of feminist agendas in international institutions as they are to the everyday politics of militarism or affect, are grounded in a knowledge from around the kitchen table that Ahmed shares with many individuals whose ability to step away from that table has been suddenly locked down.
The latent insecurity of the home, nevertheless, is still a source of immediate shelter unavailable to those whose access to any form of housing is insecure. Homelessness in IR is more a metaphor for feminism’s unwelcome reception in certain bastions of disciplinary IR thought (Christine Sylvester writes of ‘the standpoint of homelessness’ in Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Postmodern Era) than a subject of study; yet it is one of the most serious material insecurities facing the subjects of feminist political economy. Gender in its intersections with race and other oppressions structures housing insecurity whether one is a poor trans person living precariously on and off the street (at the centre of Viviane Namaste’s work and other studies of trans political economy, yet disregarded in most social policy) or a Syrian refugee ineligible for resettlement somewhere more stable than a refugee camp because he is a single man.
Almost every imaginable strategy that housing-insecure individuals might use to resolve their immediate accommodation crises is rendered either impossible or much more severely criminalised under quarantine restrictions, while the history of public health shows that authorities have routinely harassed sex workers and other workers in the marginal economy off the streets in the interests of hygiene (not least when commanders have judged the sexual health of soldiers under threat).
The conditions in which individuals who fall sick will be cared for, meanwhile, also exposes the inequality and contingency of ‘home’ within an international political economy of care – another sphere where the feminist study of political economy and of security come together once we acknowledge that the everyday security of the body is a matter of interest (if not, we might even suggest following Lauren Wilcox, the founding matter of interest) for IR. Migrant nurses who will be at the forefront of responses to Covid-19 in hospitals, and migrant domestic workers who will also be at that forefront when the wealthy sick are treated at home, leave their own families behind and submit to repressive visa regimes in order to sustain homes they rarely see, forming extensions of what Maliha Safri and Julie Graham call ‘the global household’; they are among the city-dwellers least able to isolate themselves from the risks of coronavirus, and in the case of domestic workers living in with their employers, among the most unable to escape abusive living situations.
The migrant who is undesirable until her labour becomes essential to what war-themed metaphors are troublingly characterising as a new healthcare front line is, meanwhile, just one of many such ‘unwanted im/migrant’ figures whose position in international politics Cynthia Weber reveals in Queer International Relations by using queer migration studies to show ‘how any attempt to posit home and homeland as secure ontological places is confounded by encounters with movement and queerness inside the home’.
When tragedy strikes, queer understandings of security also recognise that the families impacted by sickness and death are more disparate and diverse than any of the relationships recognised by the state. For many queer people, especially those whose birth families have brought them violence and insecurity, family is a social relation spread across dwellings, forged through networks such as alternative sexual subcultures, fandom communities or sites of queer of colour resistance like the ballroom scene, all far from the nuclear and monogamous units that states privilege with rights. The pandemic which has defined queer collective history since the 1980s, HIV/AIDS, not only accelerated the bitter rejection of heteronormative family forms in 1990s queer theory but also lent emotional urgency to some activists in marriage equality campaigns, knowing that marriage would at least have given them or others like them precedence over homophobic parents when it came to decisions about their lovers’ care.
The history of HIV/AIDS in queer communities, as Steven Thrasher wrote when the US lockdowns began, both testifies to the forms of care that queer chosen families had to build for each other in the face of public hostility and to the problem that taking up space with massed bodies is no longer a viable strategy for exerting political pressure when the deadly virus is carried in the air. A performative theory of assembly (as theorised by Judith Butler) in a moment of pandemic will necessarily, Thrasher suggests, be closer to models of disabled activism than methods of political protest with which most able-bodied activists are familiar, exercised through long-distance solidarities and expressed by individuals physically residing within separate homes.
The myth of the secure home on which the notion of security through staying at home depends is, as the black feminist thought of Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, an illusion obscuring the many ways in which the home becomes a space of violence and insecurity. Acknowledging this, as an everyday perspective on security makes it essential to do, has implications for the myth of the secure national home which, as Collins observes, is so often invoked in attempts to homogenise the public mood and naturalise the securing of the nation’s borders. It is a further irony of the politics of ‘home’ that the health of that metaphorical home is now threatened in several countries by charismatic male leaders setting their personal authority above scientific expertise to impede effective suppression of the pandemic, a further insecurity in what Marysia Zalewski and Anne Sisson-Runyan write of as ‘the grubby vortex of Trump-time’.