Dreaming of Post-Queer Times


Actor Josh Hutcherson recently won GLAAD’s Vanguard Award. This award is presented to entertainers who have made significant contributions to the promotion of LGBT equality. Hutcherson, who was in a little movie you may have heard about called The Hunger Games, won the award for his work with the Straight But Not Narrow campaign.

During his acceptance speech at the 2012 GLAAD Media Awards, he said:

I’m so sick of saying the words “gay” and “lesbian”—like, just people.I’m so tired of that. One day I want my son to come home from school and be like, “I found this guy and I love him!” and I’m going to be like, “Yes, you do, and that’s okay!” Like, you know, I so want that.

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but this annoys me to no end.

Members of a privileged class talking about how they are so annoyed with words used by oppressed people to describe their identities does not give me much confidence in the privileged person’s status as an ally. When you seek to erase these words, you are seeking to erase people’s identities and experiences.

I do not understand this drive to erase difference. I thrive on difference and diversity. I don’t want there to be no more differences between people. Difference is a good thing!

More to the point, not all queer people want these identity markers to be erased—and it is quite presumptuous to assume that we do. These are the same sorts of things we hear when people believe we are in or should be in post-racial and postfeminist times. These assertions usually come from people not of the oppressed groups. Part of being an ally means accepting the ways that oppressed peoples talk about themselves. This means not being annoyed or sickened by the words people use to identify themselves.

My suggestion to those who wish to be allies: accept our differences, and don’t try to erase our identities by making us more like you. And Josh, we are already in times where your son can come home and you can be happy about him falling in love with whoever he wants. And it won’t require you rejecting whatever words he might use to describe his identity.

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  1. seconded!!!  this bugs the hell out of me.  i recently wrote a comment on my facebook wall about gay and trans issues, and i had multiple responses from (as far as i know) cis, straight, gender-conforming men about how they were so over labels or how it would be better if we just got rid of gender and that it's a problem that people still have any gender identities.  seriously?

    my hypothesis is that they've been exposed to enough progressive thinking to be conscious of their privilege but haven't worked through the implications of that and are feeling guilty and/or self-defensive.  also, it's really easy to say you don't really identify with the words "straight" or "cis" when you've never had to fight for or even question the basic legitimacy of your identity.

  2. I feel like my head is on both sides of the issue, and I'm trying to sort out what it is that is putting me in that position.
    On one hand, the idea that I would be accepted without question, and not be labled as an other is incredibly enticing.  So I was reading and generally siding with Josh.  But then I got to the end where you said, "…it won't require you rejecting whatever words he might use to describe his identity." — and I agree with that completely too.
    It seems that maybe it's the internal vs external label.  I'm worried about being judged, not judging myself.  I am a transwoman, but I don't want that lable to 'other' me.  I don't want to have to pretend that I'm someone that I'm not, either, and using vocabulary to describe myself is certainly my right.
    I guess I agree with you.  It's not the lable that I use that matters – it's descriptive, contains accurate information, which words are supposed to! – but the reaction of others.  I guess I'm agreeing with the reaction that Josh describes, but not the avoidance of useful lables.  I will have to think more.

    • Yeah, I get what you're saying. It would be nice to live in a world where difference was celebrated and not stigmatized. It would not be great, in my view, if we were all "just people" and were all the same, though. I guess I would say to you that we should be fighting for our differences to be recognized, accepted, and celebrated, and not for our differences to "not matter." They should matter, but in positive ways.
      This is ultimately my point: that difference is good, and attempts to bring equality by erasing difference is not useful. I would rather live in a society that is extremely heterogeneous and full of difference than one that is full of people who are glad to all be "just people."

  3. YES!  I'm completely with you on this one.  especially:  "Part of being an ally means accepting the ways that oppressed peoples talk about themselves."
    I get told pretty frequently that there is something wrong with using labels and words to describe myself and various aspects of my identiy.  Things like "I don't see gender, I just see people" in particular get under my skin.  I worked hard to be perceved in the world as the gender that I believe fits my brain and identity best, and erasing that sucks.
    Having language to describe differences between people does not have to mean the same thing as considering those people lesser than anyone else.  The words "tall" and "short" can exist without value judgements, just as words for sexuality and gender can.

  4. Okay, another thing: I think the desire to get queer people to be "just people" is sometimes also about erasing the parts of queer community that are more likely to be uncomfortable for the mainstream culture.  If we're all "just people" maybe the drag queens, promiscuity, genderqueers, leathermen, and polyamory will all dissapear!  Then we can all be "just people" in cute little traditional families with two people having boring sex (or none at all) with white picket fences and cardigan sweaters.
    Not only is diversity important, but diversity-within-diversity is too.  Part of what is great about queer culture is how many different ways we can be queer.  If we get rid of labels for sexual orientation, do we also erase the language we use for other parts of this big beautiful culture we have?  I suspect that would be the expectation.
    Please excuse my (20 meter tall) strawman there.  I'm just feeling bitter today.  I spent my weekend in a wonderfully accepting place full of diversity and peole who embrase differences – coming back to the real world isn't always easy.

  5. Can I just say how much I appreciate the much more interesting conversation in the comments over here at queereka? I'm a very rare commenter on either site, and usually enjoy the thoughtful conversations in the comments on both. But, I just was over at skepchick, and I am befuddled by some of the negative responses.  I just want to show my support for Will for the post and the patience he's shown in trying to enlighten some really ignorant commenters.  

    • Thanks. I really do appreciate it. I expected some disagreement, but I'm pretty shocked by the level of privilege defense going on there. And that is the first cross-post I've done from Queereka to Skepchick! I wonder how it will be with some of our more controversial posts from other Queereka contributors. I mean, honestly, I didn't think this was that controversial at all. Clearly I underestimated how far we've come in combating straight privilege.

      • Aww, the Skepchick thread made me go 🙁
        I too thought this was relatively uncontroversial.  It's the same thing I would say.  Because every time someone dreams of a post-label society, it comes off as an STFU.

        • Seriously. 🙁
          I hope you still crosspost in the future and for more queereka crossposting in general. 
          For the record, I identify as a straight, white, cis woman–it really bothers me to see a bunch of folks who *seem* to have understood priviledge in one area assume they are OK in all areas–and therefore suddenly don't need to *listen* to people from groups without privildge!
          As in skepticism more generally, we all have to be vigilient and self-reflective *all the time*, not just on particular issues. (i.e. skeptical of bigfoot but not of climate denial?) We should be constantly seeking out our blindspots, not congratualting ourselves on how enlightened we are.

  6. I agree with a lot of the points made here (i.e. that the comment was kind of presumptuous, that a vision of a "post-orientation" culture is kind of naive, that there's an implied of erasure/assimilation of some underlying subcultures). But I do sympathize with the idea of relying less on these labels, because they do tend to have some unfortunate effects on people who are in-between, or not covered by, the common labels.
    Probably there are other examples, but in my life there were some problems with the questioning phase and coming out as bisexual. When I was young and questioning, if someone asked if I was straight or gay, it was easy to say "I'm straight", harder to say "I'm questioning" (because of the implication of immaturity and because of people wanting to "help you choose/figure it out"), and hardest of all to have the self-awareness and honesty to say, "I don't know, I find all kinds of people interesting, but it seems socially and statistically easier to focus on women for now". When I came out as bi, it was easiest (if frustrating) to let people have their misconceptions, harder to correct them (no, it's not the same as being polyamorous, no, I'm not just trying to pretend I'm not gay), and hardest to just be blunt and say "Seriously, I haven't had some kind of personality transplant, I'm just the same person except that now I'm acknowledging that I like men too."
    This is aside from the irrelevant distinctions and weird claiming behaviors that happen. I had a straight guy patronizingly "remind me" that I shouldn't be annoyed by anti-gay slurs because I'm not technically gay (so many things wrong with that…). I've been told that the way I'm interested in women "really isn't the same" as how straight guys or lesbians feel, from someone who knew almost nothing about me or my past relationships. People who said they wouldn't date "someone like that" because they'd be afraid of cheating. My point here isn't to go through the whole litany of stuff that happens to bisexuals. The point is that a lot of these people were perfectly capable of learning the lesson "Gay and lesbian people can have emotions and habits that aren't totally different from straight people's." And they were perfectly capable of learning the lesson "Just accept it when people say they are gay or lesbian, rather than trying to second-guess them or change their minds." But the moment you threw in a new label, for some reason they had to relearn all the same things about a "totally new" group they hadn't thought about, even when there was nothing truly new to learn there.
    Of course, some people do express themselves very differently after they come out, partly because they can feel more open (I'd guess that this is especially true for gender identity). And (admittedly without a very broad perspective on the matter), I'd think that it can be very helpful to be supported during those changes, which people might be better at doing if they have a label that helps them understand what changes, exactly, are going on. I'm just bothered when in some people's eyes you've suddenly turned into an alien being from a distant culture because you changed labels (as Besomyka says, "othering").
    So I guess my concern about labels is the essentialism that sometimes comes with them. A world that makes fewer assumptions, that asks more open-ended questions, in which you don't always have to "come out" as a specific thing but merely live it, might allow more room for people to do what they like, explore what they like, and not worry about what kinds of judgments or confusions might happen because of one very generic word. Whereas a world in which everyone has to choose a label (or have one applied for them) is one in which "coming out" is like asking people to take you out of one box and put you into another box. Which makes things easier if you do fit more comfortably in the other box, and harder if you don't.
    I don't know if there's an easy answer here at all. Maybe there is no way to reduce labelling beyond a certain point without threatening diverse identities. But I think that they are two different issues to some extent: on the one hand, having diverse communities, and on the other, framing the way each individual lives in terms of group membership.
    (Addendum: Naturally there are similar questions that arise outside of the "queer" umbrella. Issues of multiracial, subcultural, and immigrant identity can raise the same issues.  To use myself as a self-centered example again:
    Am I white because of I look white, and because of the social/economic privilege that comes with having light skin color and growing up in suburbia? Hispanic because of our convention of hypodescent, my last name, the influences of my father's family and school's mostly Latino neighborhood, and because my father lacked the aforementioned privilege? Multiracial because of the difference in my parents' culture, heritage, and skin color, because of my actual genes, and because it's a catch-all group? White Hispanic because I look white but have Hispanic heritage? Non-white Hispanic because of hypodescent and because it's the category I'd be under for assessing medical risks? Should I broaden this to the increasingly common "Latino", narrow it to "Mexican-American" (in the 3rd generation?), or stick with the "Hispanic" self-description my dad's family always used? Should I take my brother's experiences into account? Cousins? Weigh our barbacoa against our barbeque? Our privilege against our deprivation? Immigration statuses and cultural identifiers? Does my small, distant amount of Native American ancestry on my mom's side matter at all, so many generations later?
    Are some of these labels ones I shouldn't use because they are wrong or deceptive, or do I have the moral right to identify however I want? Is it better to try to be a visible Hispanic person working in science to undermine stereotypes, or is it silly or inappropriate to say that about someone with blond-ish hair who isn't much of a target for discrimination? Would the answer be different if it was "black" versus "white", race rather than ethnicity? Can I change my answer on a whim? Should I declare that there is no generic answer and never will be, because race and ethnicity are socially constructed and there's no one sensible socially constructed answer? Then do I have to leave those checkboxes blank on surveys? What will my kids or nieces or nephews check, if I ever have them? What if I move to another part of the world?
    These identity labels may be useful in many situations, but sometimes they confuse more than clarify, and it's even harder when I have ambivalent and varying feelings about how to self-identify. From a purely rational/philosophical perspective, the mistake here is to assume that everyone has a label for each type of social classification, and that no one has more than one or two.)

    • You make a lot of really great points. Ultimately, I think we can all agree (at least all of us here in the Queereka comments) that it should be up to people to choose whatever labels or no labels at all they want for themselves. It should not be up to other people to make decisions about how people label themselves.
      I think your points about fluidity and essentialism are spot on. Those are things we should be hyper aware of, and I thank you for bringing them up. One of the things I've tried to do in the Skepchick comments is use "queer" instead of "gay" or "gay/lesbian" to point out that this really is about more than just the LG of the LGBT. It's about all gender-variant people and sexual minorities being the ones to decide how they talk about themselves. The more we talk about these things openly and honestly, the less people will have to deal with things like the bi-shaming and bi-phobia that you've dealt with. Not talking about them and not using specific words does nothing to lessen the frequency of those types of experiences.
      Thanks again for commenting and sharing your experiences.

      • "Not talking about them and not using specific words does nothing to lessen the frequency of those types of experiences."
        That, I can certainly agree with. If you can't talk about the unique struggles and obstacles for specific groups, you can't adequately address the problems or concerns of any groups.

  7. I'm not sure how to interpret what Mr. Hutcherson said. If he's referring to how gay and lesbian individuals are thought of as being gay and lesbian first and foremost, I could easily sympathize, because I've grown to feel greatly unsatisfied by our current categorization of sexuality and gender identity, and the assumptions that come with it. I understand the cultural and historical significance of these terms and could relate to them strongly at one point in my life but so often it seems like they are used naively, with only a relatively broadminded notion of difference and variety. I would much rather be seen as a Human person in the process of becoming than have my sexuality and gender made out to be the most significant part of who I am. I view this as an unfortunate causality. When any movement seeks visibility and recognition the “stupid masses,: complete with their cognitive biases and intellectual limitations, are bound to misunderstand.

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