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.