I’ve been seeing a lot of strong emotions surrounding identity politics, particularly on queer-related topics, like sex, gender, and sexuality. I’ve seen a lot of limited perspective on gender and sexual variation. Perhaps I get so much of this because of the people I’m around, or the fact that I put on The Laramie Project, but regardless, I think a little bit of queer theory is in order. Because the easiest way to explain the philosophical is to ground it in the personal, I’m going to start with my own identity.
I’m queer. While I often describe myself as a gay male, I do not identify as such. I’m simply queer. “Queer” means subverting norms in some way. It’s rather inclusive in that sense. Part of the power of the word is in its lack of definition. Its use as such arose in the 1980s as part of movements like Queer Nation, in part to be more inclusive, but also as something of a more aggressive identity. Queer attempts to break all of society’s social norms regarding sex and sexuality. The term is also often used as a verb—to “queer” something is to subvert some aspect of it.
Many people separate notions of sex, gender and sexuality. For me, this is not the case. They are all one in the same, inseparable. I do not mean to speak for anybody else when I say this; for many others, this distinction may be there. I do not feel it in my own life. My point in mentioning this is that we need to stop projecting our identities on to other people.
The GLBT community has gotten it wrong. We keep creating more and more identity categories to try and describe people. We need to try a different tack. We should stop creating descriptive, specific identity categories in favor of stronger, open ones. If somebody wants to understand my gender and sexual identity, they should be willing to listen to more than two words on the subject. We need to stop flattening identities, and instead embrace the complexity of them. There’s so much beauty in understanding identity on this deeper level.
Certainly, there is some importance to identity categories. Labels help people gather. They’re easier to put on forms or signs. Creating flexible, rather than descriptive, labels can allow us to do this, while still providing the space for everyone to be themselves, rather than shoehorning them into the categories that exist. We keep creating more and more buckets for people, but we haven’t broken the paradigm that you have to fit into a bucket.
The gay community is fond of making general, essentialist statements like “born this way.” While I understand the political usefulness of essentialism—the belief that these identity categories are a fundamental, unchangeable part of who you are—it’s simply wrong. Not everyone—myself included—has such a fundamentalist relationship with their sexuality. Cynthia Nixon got in a bit of trouble when she said her sexuality was a choice. But who are we to tell her what her sexuality is or isn’t? Frankly, I’m jealous. I wish I had a more flexible sexuality. I think that’s wonderful. And that’s just within our own culture. If you look at examples of queer sexuality in other cultures and other times, identity essentialism only breaks down further and further. The truth is somewhere in the middle between strict cultural relativism and strict essentialism. Sexuality is a fundamental part of who you are, but it’s not unaffected by the world around you. Again, we need a more complex understanding of identity.
Now, I have a beef with the GLBT community and the world in general. We are so full of hatred and bigotry. I guess it’s just human nature. Society has a set of norms, and we create our own set of norms. However, anything farther outside the social norm than our own self is weird, scary, frightening, or just wrong. I suppose this is just part of being human. I also think it’s awful.
I see this all the time in gay men. We internalize something about how the world has treated us since birth. Most noticeably, it comes out as effeminophobia. Effeminophobia is bigotry against people, usually men, who act in ways that are conventionally deemed feminine. The gay community has a remarkable propensity for rejecting its own people because they are “stereotypical” or “effeminate” gays. Then, gay men reject lesbians in a misogyny that I cannot even begin to comprehend, and throw trans* people under the bus whenever it’s even close to politically convenient.
The gay rights movement did not start with apologetic HRC gays politely asking Congress to consider passing an act to protect sexual orientation from workplace discrimination. It began with a bunch of very queer people rioting outside a West Village bar. It began with a set of people whose identity is practically indescribable in the terms of the very movement they started. They were not gay men, in the sense of what the term has come to mean, and they were not transgender or transvestites. They were highly gender-variant men, and women, and something-else-entirely.
The GLBT community feels threatened. Their political rights are on the brink. So they set up identities that are easy to define, categories like “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual.” Those who do not fit into these categories confound the political movements that the gay community has set up, so they get rejected. This is not deliberate; the gay community believes the categories that they have set up so strongly that anything different than themselves needs to either be shoehorned into their categories or feared. But this is not okay. If your identity is threatened by someone else’s, it’s time to rethink yourself.