“Cruising Utopia” 10 Years Later: Revisiting Queer Scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s Most Influential Work

"[Muñoz] first taught me what queer family meant."

“We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality,” queer studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz wrote in his seminal 2009 text Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. “We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.”

The queer future that Muñoz imagined here has yet to be fully realized. But in the decade since the Cuban-born scholar’s book first debuted there has been many positive changes.

In 2018-19, GLAAD found that a record 8.8% of regular television characters were LBGTQ, 26 of whom were trans; the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and leaders like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were acknowledged and recognized on a global scale; and gender neutral ID cards became available in states throughout the U.S. and other countries. In many ways, queerness has been used, as Muñoz wrote, to imagine a better future. However, in the 10 years since those words were written, their author has passed away.

Muñoz’s untimely death in 2013 at age 46 due to heart failure left a hole in the queer, academic, and arts communities that he helped to bridge. However, the impact that Muñoz left is still felt today, particularly within queer studies, a field that centers the voices and narratives of the LGBTQ community that have largely been written out of history books.

Where queer studies has helped to uplift the lives, performances, and experiences of those within the community, Muñoz managed to unite a generation of queer scholars through his work. He came to be known as a giant within the queer and performance studies worlds over the last 20 years, and his works like Cruising Utopia and Disidentifications, published in 1999, played a pivotal role in shaping the way queerness is viewed and studied through an academic lens. His background as an immigrant in the U.S., as well as the larger issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, would greatly inform the way he’d come to conduct his academic work, and his outlook on the world.

I first encountered Muñoz’s work as a graduate student at Simmons College, then later as a student within the Performance Studies Department of New York University where I had the privilege of studying with him. Muñoz’s insightful teaching style and brilliant writings stuck with me and greatly informed the way I have come to approach my own work. His words, attitude, and insights offered me an entry point into the world of queer studies.

Engaging with Muñoz’s research alongside other queer scholars in grad school was also a turning point for me personally, socially, and academically. It was here where I first encountered new terminology and concepts and gained perspective on the larger history and struggles of the LGBTQ community in the U.S. and beyond. Muñoz helped to center queerness, identity, and the multitudes of ways that performance functions in relationship to race and gender. And because of the work he did, I was able to come out as queer, carve out my own space within community, and engage with scholarship that helped me find my own voice.

Disidentifications played a major role in shaping identity politics by centering queer people of color within larger socio-cultural narratives. Muñoz’s groundbreaking concept of disidentification focuses on performing identity that embraces stereotypes while simultaneously engaging with and negotiating the way that identity relates to mainstream culture, and to those who fall out of it. Within the work, he looks specifically at several queer performance artists and melds psychoanalytic theory, queer, cultural, and performance studies to create this groundbreaking concept.

“Muñoz’s work, from his concept of disidentification to his exploration of ‘ephemera as evidence,’ is absolutely crucial to me both in my own work and in my teaching,” Heather K. Love, Ph.D., a professor at Pennsylvania University, tells me.

“Furthermore, his example—from the kind of boundary-breaking scholarship he modeled to the fiercely committed friend he was—continues to help us imagine a queer ethos for the present and the future,” she adds.

By creating a dialogue with the artistic community, Muñoz shed light on another group of people who were engaged in his concepts. He wrote about many artists over the course of his short-lived career, including Carmelita Tropicana; Vaginal Davis; Dynasty Handbag, a.k.a. Jibz Cameron; and Latina filmmaker and performance artist Nao Bustamante. He helped to give these artists a platform and created a conversation between his research and the art they were creating.

Another key aspect of his work centered ephemera as evidence, and looking at what was left behind in order to build a social, cultural, and historical narrative.

“José first taught me what queer family meant, and he was a central figure—in fact, the central figure—in mine,” says Barbara Browning, a professor of performance studies at NYU.

“It’s both lyrical and trenchant—not an easy trick! José’s work attends very carefully to the poetry in the art that people tend to think of as brash or impetuous—punk rock, transgressive performance art—and also to the survivalist tactics of queer acts that aren’t always perceived as such—from a poem to a knowing exchange of glances,” Browning adds.

Munõz managed to touch the lives of all of those he came into contact with. As a person and an academic, he was intuitive, kind, brilliant, and thoughtful, and he brought all of these elements to his research and beyond. Browning and Love were just a few people I spoke to about their admiration and love of Munõz.

“All of Munõz’s oeuvre is a long manifesto for the importance of keep reimagining further and better futures—which, for him, were not waiting far away in some distant time, but already being enacted, right here and now, in every minor, deviant, impish, beautiful, intelligent, and disidentificatory queer performances of feeling,” says Andre Lepecke, Ph.D., head of performance studies at NYU.

Munõz’s writing is something I keep returning to, even though I finished my master’s degree at NYU years ago. When I read Cruising Utopia, or other articles, I am often struck by the nuance and clarity of his words, and each time, I come to a new realization about queerness. His work has helped me find insight into myself and my queer community, and give a voice to people who are often silenced. He helped to ground the way I approach my own scholarship and the subjects I still continue to engage with today.

The future Munõz imagined for queerness is a future I want to—and chose to—be apart of.

Anni Irish has published cultural criticism, articles, and essays in various publications, including Bustle, Bomb Magazine, and Then, among many others.