Queer Musings: Brianna shoots her mouth off about random aspects of queer politics
Wednesday, October 17, 20070 Comments
What does it mean to be queer?
My conception of queerness has been evolving ever since I came to embrace the term soon after I came to University. I came out to my family and friends as a 'lesbian' four years ago. Since then, my understanding of queerness has expanded, and has affected my ways of thinking about: my gender identity, the way I go about relationships, my sexual orientation, my 'queer community', families, and the way I feel represented and/or underrepresented in the media, just to name a few.
The notion of an all-encompassing 'queer community' seems to me to be inherently flawed. The definition of 'queer' is very wide, yet inevitably some people will be left out. The construction of group identity necessarily involves inclusion and exclusion, which is based on a collection of characteristics. Different queer communities have existed throughout history, and they have never comfortably included everyone. I think it's very important for organizations to try to expand and be as inclusive as they can, which always involves a big effort to understand power dynamics, and why it might be tempting for queer people with social power in other ways (such as racial, gender or class privilege) to exclude those who are more marginalized. Something that I find hilarious as well as telling is the way the queer acronym, once GLBT, is now so long I can't even remember it all. And what that is pointing to is that 'queer' is expanding. The question is: will we reach a point where we have to stop adding letters? Or, how many letters are too many? What I mean by this is, can one group ever really include or cater to everyone, with all their differences, without starting to reproduce power dynamics? I'm hoping so, but it remains to be seen. I think it's always going to be a challenge to convince people who benefit from a particular social structure of power in certain ways, to work to dismantle that structure (such as middle class white gay men). This is why I think the most essential people in a movement are those with the least to lose and the most to gain: for example, queer people who are also oppressed due to their gender, class, race, or ability (among others). Unfortunately, these are also often the people with less access to resources and time. But I think we'd all benefit from recognizing that those who are seen as the worst 'degenerates', those who tend to be valued the least, might just be the ones with the most wisdom as to what needs to be done to liberate everyone.
Some of the people who get the most flack in the queer community are the ones who refuse to come out. When you're out of the closet and you've gone through whatever you've gone through to come out, it's easy to get angry or frustrated with people who you know are queer but refuse to admit it. It can also be tempting to make fun of people for this. I think the anger comes from the feeling that a person's denial of their queerness functions as a statement against queerness in general. But there are lots of quite legitimate reasons why some people can't come out. These reasons include: fear of losing a needed job or financial support from parents, fear of losing the support of one's community (many people who face racism every day cannot afford to lose the support of their family and community), and the challenge/process of reconciling religious beliefs with queerness, among others.
People wouldn't have to 'come out' if it weren't for the fact that everyone is generally assumed to be straight until they make known otherwise. But coming out is complicated, because many people don't fit comfortably into the categories of 'gay' or 'straight' or even 'bisexual'. In some ways, the idea of 'coming out' reinforces the mistaken idea that all people are either in or out. I came out four years ago as a lesbian, but since I've lately found myself to be interested in men to an extent, I've joked with my friends that I'm coming out of my other closet, the one where I hide my feelings for men in order to fit neatly into the 'gay' box.
The media and queerness
When it comes to the media and queer representation, our diversity is not there. Especially in mainstream media. This is because it is designed to fit the mainstream, and so it will always reflect the gender identities, relationships, and sexualities that are supposed to be valued by the masses. People in powerful positions (who are granted power through our systems of value and privilege) produce the media to be approved by other people in powerful positions. But I'm not trying to say it's the fault of 'powerful straight people', but I think our most powerful media will always reflect the hegemonic values that are simply assumed modes of living, that everyone is supposed to aspire to in order to be 'normal' and thus valuable to society.
Shame and Pride
A friend of mine once asked, "why do we fight so hard to be straight?" And it's a really important question, which begs another question: Are you really out of the closet if you still deny parts of yourself in order to seem more acceptable in mainstream society? We come out of the closet and then build the closet back around ourselves by dressing in the clothes of heterosexism, no matter how uncomfortably they fit. What I'm talking about is: looking disparagingly on drag queens, butch dykes, people with fetishes, or whatever it is you're afraid of in yourself, and making sure you prove to everyone around you that you're definitely NOT like 'them'. You're a GOOD queer who may be attracted to the "same" sex, but you certainly act like a proper feminine woman or masculine man. On the other hand, there are plenty of situations we'll find ourselves in where we may benefit from playing down our queerness. I don't think we should be ashamed of that. Being 'out' and about can be challenging in many ways for us personally, and because of that, you may choose to act 'straight' in certain situations, and that's fine. Queer people have a hard time in many settings, such as with family, certain friends, or out in public, and you can't always be fighting battles to challenge people's faulty assumptions. Sometimes, in order to make Christmas dinner comfortable for you, you're gonna have to hold your tongue and tell Gramma, "nope, no boyfriend (or girlfriend) yet", or laugh off your Uncle's snide comments about your tight pants or unshaven legs.
When it comes to queer pride and shame, it really helps to question your assumptions, and most importantly, where you got them from. There are probably things which are generally associated with 'the queer community' that make you uncomfortable. Take the time to explore them. Ask yourself what about them bother you, and why? What or whom does it benefit to feel this way? For example, I used to feel uncomfortable with the association of queerness and promiscuity, but now it's something I take pride in (as long as people are practicing safe and consensual sex). Another example of something that used to bother me was the association of lesbians with butch, overweight women with bad fashion sense. It's pretty obvious that, in our society, these women are not valued as much nor seen to be as beautiful as 'feminine', skinny women who spend lots of money and time on their appearance. Since exploring this more, I've come to really appreciate and value these women as representing sites of resistance to patriarchal norms. Someday I may even become a somewhat butch, somewhat overweight woman with bad fashion sense. If this happens, it will probably be because I don't care about gender norms, I like to drink beer with my friends and eat chocolate, and I choose to spend less of my money on expensive clothes. And I'm sure my friends will still love me.
The subject of gender is something that I can't possibly begin to cover in an intelligent way in one paragraph. But here are a couple of really important things that I've learned, which have changed the way I conceptualize myself and others:
- We think that gender is connected to specific bodies, but in so many ways, it is not. In many ways it is simply a performance that reflects (to a greater or lesser extent depending on who you are) the way we feel or identify. Example: I have a female body and in most ways I perform 'female' in gender, but this performance is made up of a combination of: social pressure and the need to be understood, hegemonic ideas of 'normality', and the way I actually feel.
- Gender is a spectrum, where we each fall in some spot between masculine and feminine, regardless of our body, although there might be tendencies for bodies to match their prescribed gender (but only tendencies!).
- It is constantly shifting in each of us, depending on the day, our mood, and who we're interacting with.
When it comes to the way that we interact with each other, there are specific ways in which we are expected to have relationships. The most dominant and culturally valued relationship is the heterosexual, monogamous, emotional/sexual relationship. Often, to 'make up' for being queer, queer people try really hard to be seen as 'normal', with 'normal' monogamous relationships. To these people, promiscuity, which is quite prevalent among queers, is seen to be 'making us look bad'. I used to think this too. But then I realized that, although it is nice to have your relationships validated by society, maybe people don't have to have monogamous relationships in order to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Here's a question: what if the gender you are attracted to physically tends to be different from the gender you tend to be attracted to emotionally? I know a number of gay men who enjoy sex with other men, but who rarely have what most would consider 'relationships', especially long-term ones. These men also often have very close and loving friendships with women, friendships that involve a significant amount of commitment. Combining different kinds of relationships can be - and often is - wonderfully fulfilling, but neither of these relationships are really validated by society. These men are probably asked frequently if they have a boyfriend 'yet', but their non-sexual relationships with their best friends (male or female) are not celebrated. This is just an example. The idea of having different types of meaningful relationships, some that are sexual and some that are not, is very appealing to me. In many ways, the relationship model we value so much can be quite harmful. I hate black-and-white conceptions of relationships, because it makes breakups harder than they need to be. I'm not trying to pretend that some changes are not difficult to adjust to, but relationships with friends and lovers should be cultivated and allowed to change and shift with time. The key to having alternative relationships, which might include more than one partner (if everyone is happy with that), or more committed friendships, is honesty and communication about people's desires and needs. I think this could be a lot more positive than the 'normal' way, which too often involves the neglect of close friends in favour of a romantic partner, cheating, lack of fulfillment, and painful breakups where all ties are severed with the one person you put so much of your energy into. Lots of people are happy with monogamous relationships, and I think that's really great. But I think that many people could benefit greatly from opening up and exploring other ways of having caring, communicative relationships based on trust rather than ownership.
*If you want to chat with me about any of this stuff, to go into more
detail or to have a good debate, my email is .