Queer: What’s In A Word?
Over on the Queereka Facebook page, someone left a couple of comments in response to Benny’s fantastic post about the “born this way” narrative. I think the issue that came up in the comments there is worth exploring in a bit more depth.
Eden Munday: It seems inappropriate to consider being “kinky” or polyamorous alongside gender and sexuality
Will Robertson: Why?
Eden Munday: The former are relatively trivial lifestyle preferences, the latter violently enforced power relations. Conflating them all in some sort of sanitized “queer identity” is unhelpful, and while “queer” is often used as a violent slur against people because of their gender and sexuality it has no connection to being kinky or polyamorous, so reclaiming it to encompass those things seems distasteful
Eden Munday: Basically, straight cis people have no business trying to include themselves in a queer identity because they are kinky or polyamorous
Will Robertson: I think we probably have a fundamental disagreement over what “queer” encompasses. I would argue that kink and polyamory are both expressions of gender and sexuality, and they are non-normative expressions which is what makes them queer. As for who gets included in the queer identity category, the queer theorist David Halperin would disagree with you: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence” (from One Hundred Years of Homosexuality).
Benny replied there, stating that the question of whether kink/poly people are queer is a different question from what he is talking about in his post. I want to take up that question, because I find the policing of the boundaries of “queer” both troublesome and antithetical to what “queer” is and what it does.
I gave David Halperin’s definition of queer in response to Eden because it’s one of the most useful definitions of “queer” that I have come across. It is certainly a queer theory perspective on “queer,” a term which colloquially is used as a synonym with LGBT, and I want to use this perspective to push back on the assumption that the borders of “queer” are so clearly defined. Queer is a term and a category of contestation, and the main impetus of queer theory is to challenge the apparent stability of identity categories. This is what we mean when we talk about queering something—it is to challenge the normative underlying assumptions of some phenomenon. To “queer” something does not (necessarily) mean to make something lesbian or bisexual or transgender or gay; rather, it is to turn something on its head, to expose normative assumptions that usually go unexamined in an effort to expose some essential trait for the arbitrary construction that it actually is.
Given this perspective, it should become clear why kink and poly could be considered queer. In direct contradiction to Eden’s claim above, you cannot separate kink and poly from gender and sexuality. Both kink and poly challenge normative assumptions of gender and sexual roles, expressions, and behaviors. In this sense, they are queering social mores of gender and sexuality. To argue that “queer” identities are only those identities who have had “queer” used as a slur against them seems myopic, and it tries to situate “queer” as an identity based in injury and thus in need of protection. It also presents this injury as an essential element of queer identity. Under that perspective, a bisexual person who has never been pejoratively called queer perhaps could not stake claim to a queer identity.
I want close by drawing a connection back to Benny’s post. These efforts to police queer identity boundaries by setting up an essentialness to “queer”—whether it is being “born this way” or it is being pejoratively called queer—runs counter to what queer actually does. While I recognize that it can be uncomfortable when cisgender heterosexual people identify as queer and there can certainly be issues with denying privilege, I think it is nonetheless important to keep “queer” as open and fluid as possible. We need to think of privilege as intersectional spectra, rather than thinking that all cisgender heterosexual people move through the world with the same kind of gender and sexuality privilege. Further, trying to lay down some uncontested borders around “queer” is itself an exercise in power, and engaging in this power play while denying the role of kink and poly in gender and sexual power relations seems hypocritical and wrong-headed. If we are to take such gender and sexuality power relations seriously, I think it is wrong to consider kink and poly “trivial” issues.
As far as slur reclamation goes, my impression is that “queer” is most widely adopted among people who have had less personal experience with it as a slur (including myself and a lot of the younger generation). The most common reason I’ve heard for individual disidentification with the term is that they feel too much of the negative associations.
Queer theory serves the analytic purpose of sussing out what assumptions or premises are built into some institution or text. It is diagnostic and its role is exposure.
Isn’t that a little bit different from the idea of queer as a political identity, which seems to necessarily involve demanding particular rights that the world must recognize in order to prevent the marginalization and killing of certain kinds of people? The whole thing with being gay is that the world won’t tolerate the existence of gay people, and so everybody with a conscience should try to make the world tolerate gay people.
What exactly does the world not tolerate about people who do BDSM? BDSM can frequently be straight, white, rich sex, and is thus doesn’t really offend anybody–or not in the same way. It seems like these two different senses of queer–one describing an analytic activity and one describing an identity or way of living–might be two distinct phenomena. What do you think?
Thanks for your comment.
I don’t think they’re separable in that way, and I don’t think queer identity necessarily involves demanding particular kinds of rights. I think “queer identity = demanding tolerance” is too narrow of a view of what queer is and how people take it up as part of their identity. Especially early on though perhaps less so nowadays, there were many queer separatist movements that weren’t seeking the approval of mainstream society but were actively opposing it.
Queerness, both as an analytic and as an identity category, is about being or doing things that are counternormative. So in this case, BDSM is queer because it is not considered a normative set of sexual behaviors, even when straight white etc. people engage in BDSM.
I don’t know: if queerness is just dismantling normative categories, that could become really broad and hard to pin down. The whole thing about normal as a category–I guess what queer theory underlines about it–is that it’s so particular and restrictive that nobody could really pass as normal. Queer theory is about showing that everyone is abnormal, and that the more aggressively you defend something as normative, the queerer it becomes–like how American football is often celebrated as the pinnacle of heterosexual masculinity but simultaneously gay as hell because of that. Yet recognizing that seems pretty elementary of me relative to the effort and danger tied up in being openly trans or organizing politically, which itself only becomes necessary because our world has historically been organized in ways that marginalize and deny the existence of certain kinds of people. When I say “tolerate” I guess I mean “allow to live” or “not destroy,” which has mostly not been a possibility in modern times. For sure people who identify as queer would want and need queer space and community to live, but it seems like it has to be a fight for now because so many other people try to keep those spaces from appearing in the first place.
I can do a queer reading of whatever I want whenever I like, and maybe even personally benefit from it in my straight private life by loosening up my own behavior. But that’s not revolutionary: it’s still just my own silly private indulgence, like all sex. I can queer things in the way that anybody can, but I just don’t see how that makes the world safer for anybody else in the same way as, say, a community resource center or people who canvas for gay adoption or whatever. Yeah, they’re countering certain ideas about what is normal, but it’s not just intellectual like it pretty much always has to be with me. Even if I get involved politically, I can walk away whenever I want with no negative consequences.
I don’t know: policing labels seems counterproductive, but I kind of feel like I need to make space for people getting things done, which bondage people really don’t seem to do too much of unless they’re also trans or gay or marginalized in some other way
Yes, this is correct and seen by queer theorists as unproblematic.
I think it’s important to note that normal is not the same as normative. Normative has prescriptive moral implications–what kinds of things should be accepted, tolerated, whatever. Queer theory, then, is more about taking normative expectations/beliefs/whatever and troubling/disrupting them. So, I am queer in that I don’t do gender as society expects male-bodied people to do gender, but in my everyday life I move about and am (mostly, maybe until I open my mouth) viewed by people as normal. Of course, we do attach moral values to “normal” and “abnormal,” but that’s not really what I’m trying to get at. Something can be normal and not be normative. For example, it is normal (as in, not abnormal) to celebrate Hanukkah in the US, but it is not normative.
But doesn’t that actually just show that everyone is normal? 😉
Anyway, I don’t see queer theory as doing that. I see queer theory as trying to call into question the normative (i.e., what people should do/value/be/etc.) assumptions that underlie people’s worldview(s).
I do not accept the argument that American football is “gay as hell” because I don’t necessarily associate “gay” with “opposite of heterosexual masculinity.” Queer theorists are not fond of binaries. “Gay” itself is a broad term with varied meanings for different people in different contexts. There are plenty of gay men who perform the traits we might associate with “heterosexual masculinity.” Even that concept is something I would want you to further define, because I don’t think its meaning is so obvious. Couldn’t I just make the argument that part of “heterosexual masculinity” is being comfortable enough with one’s heterosexual orientation that homosocial activities lack a sexual connotation and are therefore not viewed as gay at all? What makes something “gay as hell” anyway?
I don’t disagree with this, but I also don’t see how it necessarily entails the refusal to allow BDSM or poly to be considered queer.
I think you bring up good points about establishing spaces and thinking about who benefits from those spaces, but I also think doing the work of a queer ally necessarily entails queering things both in your straight private life and your public life. I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. It’s not just intellectual when you do it, because your actions potentially have consequences in the world, and you have the ability to change people’s ways of thinking and behaving by challenging normativity.
I agree policing labels can be counterproductive, and I agree that establishing spaces for people to gather and do political work is important. I think that’s the difficulty here, yes? How do we establish spaces for marginalized groups if it’s difficult to pin down who fits into these groups? But I think that’s actually a problem of our need to create neat and clean categories when, in reality, people’s identities are much messier than our categories indicate. And I think this is especially true the larger the category becomes, which is the “problem” with “queer” as an identity to rally around politically.
Again, I don’t move in BDSM communities so I can’t speak to the work they’re doing.
Thanks for the interesting conversation. =)
This is a set of concepts I wrestle with a lot! I won’t pretend to be up to date on all the latest theories, my queer practice is based in grit and urgency.
I have recently met people practicing bdsm or poly in a way that they believe makes them queer. I know that it is best to think of everyone’s identity as their own to create, but then I also think of rachel dolezal. Who polices belonging? Nobody should. What is the intent of creating a container or space? I don’t need things to be hard and fast but there is such a clear gulf between homo and trans folks, and the straight folks I know who practice hetero flavors of sexual deviancy, that I must admit I feel the loss of a container and space that is valuable to me. When gay space seems to exclude women, or bi folk, and if queer space must include straight folk, I am left without a medium-sized container that fits a group of people I can articulate fairly well. For me, queer is a colloquialisation of LGBTI and if it isn’t to be that then we must create a space for a new word for this to emerge, and pledge not to appropriate it.
I demand a colloquial way to discuss my community within my community. I thought I was contributing to one but I guess not.
Thanks for your comment.
Don’t you think there are ways of creating such spaces that don’t require setting up these kind of boundaries around “queer”? For example, you say:
But you already have the solution in the problem as you outline it there. Why not use LGBTI when you want to refer to LGBTI people? Why insist on limiting “queer” to only be inclusive of those identities?
Look, if you use “queer” in that way within your community and everyone knows what everyone means and that enables you to set up the boundaries you need for your spaces, that’s fine. I’m not going to come in and tell you to stop using that way in your space. But I will push back when your colloquialization is pushed out on everyone else and demands for stricter boundaries around “queer” start being made for people outside your groups/spaces.
Sorry for the very late reply, but I felt the need to say something.
When you say
you are allowing straight, cis people to claim we have gender and sexuality related power over them. It is not a large jump to saying we have privilege over them. This is dangerous. Queerness lately has been about simultaneously letting in people who should not be let in while simultaneously painting actual queer people as the enemy, something to be removed from the community. I am uncomfortable with my identity becoming so broad and useless that people have license to say that I am just the same as a cis straight person. I am not. Fundamentally, I am a part of a community that has been hurt for what it is, and when you say
you deny that. We are queer because we as a community have been hurt. Kinky people have not experienced anywhere close to the same hurt that we have. We experienced a genocide, and just because a modern queer person has not personally experienced hurt for their gender or sexuality, does not mean the heritage is not there. Our community is based in a shared oppression. It is based in our need to fight the wrongs that have been done to us. When you say that queer is simply “not normal,” you rob us of our hurt and say that it is not valid.
Queer theory is not about real people and their identities, but instead about normalness. As a discipline it is fine, but we need to remember where the language we use came from. By broadening “queer” until it is meaningless, you rob an entire group of agency and community. We can no longer define ourselves as queer, because you are removing its direct associations with our community. When queer theory hurts actual queers, maybe it’s time to stop?