Since the vast majority of folks who find this blog through a Google search land here on some variation of the question “what does queer mean?” or “what’s the difference between queer and gay?” I thought it might be fun to do a short series on why I use the term “queer” as an identity and what it means to me relative to other possible labels.
One of the biggest reasons I use queer is because it’s inherently intersectional. Queer has a political meaning to a lot of people, and wrapped up in that is the importance of considering policies and human rights issues that go beyond those narrowly focused on sexuality like same-sex marriage or the rights of gay and lesbian folks to serve in the military. Not all queer issues have an obvious connection to gender or sexuality, but they do all impact queer people’s lives, because no queer person is just queer.
In my experience, queer communities are particularly likely to recognize the importance of prioritizing issues that affect our most marginalized members–issues around poverty, immigration, prisons and policing, sex work, and racial justice to name a few. These things don’t just affect queer people, but they do affect queer people (and especially trans queer people) in unique and compounded ways.
I was thinking today about some of the areas of activism that I’m interested in, and how I found them “boring” or just not important to me several years ago. One thing I’ve learned as an activist is that not only is intersectionality important, but it’s a good idea to get involved with things that don’t necessarily seem “interesting” to you, or like “your topics.” Here are three reasons why:
- Internalized prejudice. We all have nasty little prejudices that we don’t like to think about. We may have learned them from the media, our parents, our education, or religion, or almighty “society.” We may therefore bump certain issues off the priority list because they don’t concern us, when in fact it’s that nasty prejudice talking.
- Ignorance. On a highly related note, often we’re not interested in things we know nothing about. For example, I didn’t care much about fat activism, eating disorders, disability, or immigration for a long time because those things didn’t affect me directly. They became issues I care about because the more I read about those issues, the more I could see how problematic mainstream views are and how much those issues really do push my buttons. Not only can you learn interesting things about another culture, community, or problem by doing “unfamiliar activism,” but you might find a new perspective for looking at your own life and your current activist goals.
- Coalition building. Activism lives and dies by the passions of those involved. It’s difficult to work for a particular goal when you only involve people who are directly affected by a problem, know that they are affected, identify strongly with the group, and have the time and energy to work towards the goal. We all need to get involved in each other’s causes, and when we work for our own, we need to be aware of the needs and interests of everyone working towards a cause. I’ve seen some activists claiming to be focusing on a “tight goal” or “narrowly defined cause” shoot themselves in the foot when they later get the deserved label of a white feminist movement, or a transphobic queer group. A similar problem happens in academia when researchers don’t tell it like it is–if you’re investigating the health of straight white middle class women, for example, be frank about your population. Don’t claim to represent everyone if you’re only focusing on a limited group.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about perspective this week.
It’s a topic I often hone in on, though in my everyday life I settle fairly firmly into my own shoes, like most people. Still, I remember the absolute eureka moment when I once learned about some particular African tribal practice (don’t ask me now what it was) and it occurred to me, some time late in my high school career, that I didn’t know shit about what it meant to look at a problem from a different perspective. I thought I knew difference, but in fact, the multitude of options of this world are always going to be beyond my grasp – and I like that. I like knowing that there’s always a new way of looking at things, a new way of understanding.
Wednesday night, I went to an MLK week discussion called “Open Mouth, Insert Foot: An Open Community Discussion on Hate.” Though a lot of what we talked about were things I’d already considered, I did hear some perspectives that were new to me. It had never occurred to me, for example, that when journalists always mention that the Postville immigration raids happened at the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country, the decision to include the kosher part might be interpreted as anti-Semitic, even though Judaism is part of my (rather complex and syncretic) faith. As a panelist put it, “those guys weren’t Jewish crooks. They were crooks.”
Yesterday, I listened to an inspiring address by National Urban League President Marc Morial on the topic of Obama’s presidency and the new multi-racial America. He’s a fabulous speaker, and even in a lecture hall at the law school with maybe thirty people, he spoke as if he were addressing a crowd of hundreds. He made a lot of very poignant statements, but the one I copied down was this: “We as we look to the future cannot be restrained and straitjacketed by the analytical frameworks of the past.” A simple statement, yes, but immensely powerful. He spoke about how whites will soon no longer be the majority, but also about how minorities themselves are complex and diverse – more Africans and Caribbean blacks, for example, are coming to this country, and Latino and Asian populations are similarly made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of interests, values, and concerns. He didn’t mention this, but I also thought about how ethnic minorities include women, and LGBT people, and linguistic and religious minorities. He spoke about how the society is not post-racial, but multi-racial, and we should embrace that. I wholeheartedly agree. I also would add that we should reach across lines, find commonalities and use those points to approach and learn about difference. For example, I have friends who are women of color whom I met because we share a lesbian sexuality. Though I’m learning how to do this in appropriate ways, I would like to use this connection to ask questions about these friends’ perspectives as a racial minority, and as women of color specifically, and I would like to learn what interests and concerns these friends have that are different from my own, both as someone who may be involved in policy and also just as an interested citizen.
Finally, I read this article by Robert Kagan for my European Union law class, and I found it very interesting (and readable whether you’re a legal person or not). Rather than race, it’s talking about the difference in perspectives based on position of power, comparing the United States and Europe, and it’s a way of looking at geopolitics that I hadn’t quite considered.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this.
A month or two ago, I had a discussion with a friend on the bus about identity. We were talking about gay identity, and I was telling him about my seminar paper. He started telling me about how in the black community (he’s black and I *think* straight, though I hate to make assumptions) there are definitely gay men, but no one would ever talk about it, because of the certain image that the black man is supposed to fit into. He explained that a lot of people feel that your “Blackness” is supposed to be superior to all else, and presumably a certain narrow kind of blackness, so that being gay does not fit into that identity.
I’d heard about this phenomenon before, and it got me thinking about how we essentialize all sorts of identities. I definitely think it’s true of the queer community. I’ve noticed myself doing it a lot, not so much anymore, but when I first left the South, with my Southern identity (letting my accent get stronger, cooking a lot more Southern food than I ever cooked at home, exaggerating elements of my background). But where I see it happening a hell of a lot, and where it’s been bothering me a lot lately, is the essentialization of the female identity.
I think many of the problems I’ve been struggling to understand lately – legal, social, political – come from a refusal to accept the diversity that exists among women. Abortion and reproductive issues? Women aren’t supposed to have sex outside of marriage. They’re supposed to be good, pure, and chaste. Even the modern woman isn’t supposed to sleep with *too* many men. Maybe birth control is okay, but abortion? You’re not supposed to talk about it. The abominable state of rape laws and selective prosecution? Women are supposed to dress modestly and stay away from bars and wild parties. Homosexuality? Psh, don’t even get me started.
Here is what society has told me about being a woman: Career is great, but family still comes first. Getting married should be an ultimate goal. When in a group of other women, marriage and boyfriends are the most acceptable topic. Always shave your legs, underarms, and bikini area. Nice girls don’t have hair. Wear makeup, lotion, nail polish, etc. Dress provocatively, but not <i>too</i> provocatively. Wear jewellery and skirts. Short hair is only okay if it’s still “cute.” Women should be independent, but society should still protect them. Drink, but don’t drink excessively. Girly cocktails are the acceptable beverage of choice, by the way. Sexuality is something that can be gossipped about, but never discussed openly in mixed company, and certainly never with your sexual partner.
Of course, the list goes on. Anyway, I find that thinking about it this way makes it easier to understand my position on a lot of things. I don’t want society to dictate how I can be a woman. I don’t want it to say that I can only marry men, because that’s what women do, that I can’t take control of my own reproductive health choices, because I need to be protected, or that if I dress a certain way and get raped, it’s my own damned fault. I want society to celebrate diversity and allow women to be independent and free to choose who they are how they want to live their lives. I want attacks on diversity not to be tolerated, but I don’t want paternalistic “protection” that puts me in a box.
For a long time, identity has been something that’s really interested me. When someone asks in a generic sense, “what are you?” or “how do you identify?” what do you say? (Really. Let me know in the comments; I’m curious). I first became interested in the topic in terms of regional identity (for example, I think being from certain places such as New York makes you more likely to identify with your city, whereas being from some countries may make you more likely to identify with your nationality, and being from certain regions or ethnic groups may strengthen the sense of a regional identity). But this morning, I was thinking about sexual identity, a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately in grappling with some of the issues related to gay rights in the developing world. For once, however, I wasn’t thinking about the problems of identifying in the first place, but for those of us who do identify happily as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, about how important that identity is.
To answer my own question, the strongest identities I claim are being Southern and lesbian (which also encompasses being female). If pressed further, I’d say I’m an academic, a humanitarian, and multilingual. You’ll notice that my race doesn’t come in there (I’m white) nor do my ethnic origins (European mutt). I think we tend to claim identities that make us unique in some way, have a strong sense of group belonging, or are particularly important in our lives. Being from the South makes me culturally unique, and in some ways I’m proud of that heritage (with the obvious big fat disclaimers). Being a lesbian is a similar strong point of identity for me because it’s something I haven’t come in contact with a lot, and every time I come into contact with lesbian culture I feel a strong sense of belonging and group identity. The other three things I mentioned are just things that are very important in my life. I’ve been in school for the past eighteen years (and like it), human rights are a huge issue for me and what I plan to do for my career, and languages are my strongest passion and something I also expect to integrate into my professional and personal life.
I’d guess that for people who come from racial and ethnic minorities, that’s more likely to fall on their list. People who have careers or qualifications that are important might consider those things part of their identity (scientist, computer expert, doctor, musician). People who are a little more dedicated to an art form might claim that as an identity (actually I’m really surprised at myself for not putting “writer” or “cook” down – perhaps some reflected insecurities). Those whose beliefs fall more neatly into a recognised system may include their religion as an identity. Straight people, on the other hand, are in most cases unlikely to immediately say “I’m straight!” when asked what they are.
I think this is a bit of an obstacle when we’re trying to explain why sexual identity should be everyone’s choice, and everyone should have equal rights – we want to say that straight people are included in that, but it’s harder to conceive of how straightness is important in someone’s life and an important part of identity. I think, though, that perhaps the problem is that we just label things differently. If I think about what my gay identity involves, it includes a number of things – whom I’m attracted to, with whom I form relationships, what “family” means to me, with whom I have sex, what group I fit into/how I associate, and how I see myself as a woman. I think that the same things for straight people may come up in their strong identity markers, just in a different way. For example, to many straight women, being a mother or wife may be the most important identifier (not that lesbians can’t identify this way too, of course, but in the context of a heterosexual relationship it’s the relationship to one particular man that is important to the woman, or to the child of that one particular man, which means that the relationships do relate in some small way at least to the sexuality). Maybe some straight women identify strongly as a sex worker, or as part of some group that consists of straight women (I have no idea what that would be, but work with me here). Maybe they identify as feminists, and a big part of feminism for a particular woman is how she relates emotionally and sexually with men.
Anyway, I have no idea what my point is. Thoughts without a conclusion: it’s what I got marked off for in tenth grade English. There will probably be more on this later, but I am curious – how do you identify?