A great cartoon posted on BuzzFeed today raised the question of ‘queer’ again.
The question of ‘queer’ and what it means is still something that is widely misunderstood by the general public, and the lesbian, gay and bisexual community. I’m re-posting this as my contribution to clarifying what it means to me.
8 October, 2012
I am horrified by the incident between clashing sections of the LGBTIQ community at Joburg Pride this year. It deeply saddens and angers me that divisions within a community already much-maligned by society at large turned on each other. The fact that the Pride organiser shouted out of the window of her luxury car to a group of people paying homage to the rapes and deaths of queers in the townships that “this is my route” is just abominable and speaks of the classicism, depoliticisation, commercialism and narrow-mindedness that Pride has been associated with for too long now. I don’t want to go into the issue of the horrific stand-off that happened between Joburg Pride and the 1 in 9 Campaign* this past weekend (the YouTube link and a selected article are provided here though if you haven’t seen them online), but the point I want to make is that what happened stems from the danger of homonormative* politics, from placing people under the same umbrella for the sake of making people who do not, or do not solely, identify as homosexual, more palatable to the straight community.
But engaging in political rhetoric is a futile, blood-pressure raising effort to eat an elephant in one go. (My father once shared this quirky metaphor, and it’s stuck). The only way to eat an elephant is spoonful by spoonful. My politics extends as far as my ability to change things goes. And my ability to change things only goes as far as me living my truth and sharing it with others, spoonful by spoonful, one person at a time. So that’s what I’ll do: speak from the personal, the individual, the private (as this is where all politics stems from, is it not?)
I chose not to attend Joburg Pride this year, for many reasons. I also choose to identify as queer rather than gay, lesbian or homosexual. This identification is very confusing to many people. I’ve had numerous conversations with my girlfriend, who identifies as lesbian/homosexual, as to why I choose queer over lesbian. The term ‘queer’ is misunderstood in both the straight and LGBTI communities and I will explain here why I insist on this identification and why I did not go to Pride.
Why do I want to write about this and share this? Because it’s very important to me, and because it’s very important to the LGBTIQ community: this community is as diverse as every person who is part of it, and it is the lack of recognition of this diversity that leads to the misrepresentation of ‘straight’ and LGBTIQ people. And if we’re not represented properly, how can our rights be protected properly? It might appear to be a case of splitting hairs, but the bracketing of these diverse groups into one ‘gay’ group is extremely problematic when it comes to recognising and respecting the huge differences within the ‘gay’ community.
The main reason I identify as queer, the main reason I did not go to Pride, is because I refuse to be constricted by homosexual norms, which are, I believe, more disempowering, dangerous and insidious than heterosexual norms.
I’ve had to free myself from two closets: the first closet is the one everyone is familiar with – the old, I’m not like everyone else and I, as a girl, am attracted to other girls. So I came out of the straight closet and identified as gay, lesbian, homosexual. And that was so freeing. I felt like I’d come home for the first time in my life; that I belonged for the first time. What I did not realise at the time was that I stepped out of that restrictive closet into another, even more restrictive.
When I ‘came out,’ I had no lesbian role-models in my immediate circle of influence. So, according to the visual representations of ‘lesbian’ I’d seen, I did the whole ‘butch’ thing. I did the whole ‘I should only be attracted to women’ thing. And any feelings outside of that led to huge confusion, which I immediately suppressed. But I’ve never been good with belonging to clubs and the confusion I was feeling made me think about this ‘club’ I had chosen to belong to. And I found the politics hugely problematic. It seemed that most gays I knew, knew of or saw represented in the media, were adopting heterosexual norms for their own lives. Lesbians were acting like men, wearing men’s clothes, talking like men, obsessed with cars, shaving their faces. Gays were effusively effeminate, loved shopping, cooking and their mothers. Gay couples mimic the relationships of their parents, re-applying husband:wife stereotypes, using the ready-made examples of domesticity, co-dependence, inseparability. Did I leave the restrictiveness of straighthood to become a stereotype along with a mass of other stereotyped people; stereotyped not by society at large but by themselves and other homosexuals?
This did not make sense to me at all. I saw being gay as a huge freedom: a freedom from the oppressive rules, structures and other people’s enforced ideas; a freedom to create and design my own morals, norms, beliefs, behaviours. Why would I exchange all of that for another set of equally oppressive norms and ideologies, exchange one cookie-cutter self for another? Yes, I love wearing men’s clothes, lifting weights, blue, sports, action movies, braaing, working with tools and with my hands. Does that make me a dyke? Yes, I love painting my nails, playing dress-up, cooking, knitting, cuddling, talking about my emotions and rom-coms. Does that make me a girly-girl? Does the fact that I’m butch make me a dyke? Does the fact that I also find men sexually attractive make me bisexual? Does the fact that I love people mistaking me for a man mean I’m transgender, a man in a woman’s body? The Homosexual World of the Gay and Lesbian did not answer these questions for me. This world confused me, made me feel like a pervert and a freak and uncomfortable in my own skin. I found myself repressing so many of my thoughts and behaviours, to the point where I became unaware of them, to the point where I wallowed in the misery of the cloistered halls of lesbian dykehood I wandered.
And then I came across Queer and I finally understood who I was, who I could be. Or I finally understood who I was and then came across Queer. Who knows. The point is, I could be any one and any thing I wanted to be! And THAT is freedom! For me, queer is this: identifying outside of the binaries of straight:gay, male:female, butch:femme, etc. Queer is not just about sexual orientation. It includes issues of gender identity (do I identify as male or female?), gender expression (do I feel more comfortable expressing myself as a boy or a girl?) and sexual orientation. And these very subtle, yet important, differences were not separable by the homosexuality I was used to. As a lesbian, I believed that my butchness was inherent to my sexuality. It’s not. As a lesbian, I believed that attraction to other genders was an aberration. It’s not.
Queer has allowed me to redefine myself in a much broader sense. It has allowed me to incorporate the disparate and contradictory aspects of myself. Instead of constricting and labeling me, stereotyping me, queer has given me a freedom to explore the endless possibilities of human experience. Queer has allowed me to accept the contradictions within me and I have come to the realisation that this acceptance and the enactment of the apparently conflicting parts of me make me the best embodiment of myself.
In terms of sexual orientation, I identify as queer, which means that I am neither straight, nor gay, nor bisexual. I am attracted to people, not regardless of gender, but based on the combination of different and varying gender characteristics. The Violent Femmes line, “I was with a girl, but it felt like I was with a boy” best describes it, as well as e. e. Cummings’ great line: “Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need.” I love androgyny: the combination of both male and female characteristics, and people who embody both male and female within their physicality and personality are deeply attractive to me. I am attracted to the presence of both genders (androgyny), either physically or in terms of personality, in others. This, for me is the difference between queer and bisexual. Bisexual, for me, means you are attracted to people regardless of their gender, or you’re attracted to a person of a certain gender, regardless of whether they’re male or female. Queer, for me, means I am attracted to people because of the contradictory gender qualities they embody.
In terms of gender identity, I identify as genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, trans*. Transgender literally means ‘across’ (trans) genders. Some people are biologically male and identify as female and vice-versa. Others go on to change their biological genders surgically. Both pre- and post-operative people are transgender, regardless of whether the pre-ops ever undergo surgery, or all of the surgery. I am trans* in that I identify as both genders, therefore literally ‘across’ both genders. I am completely comfortable being physically and anatomically female. I have never wanted to be a male. But I do not identify as a woman. I am both. The more I get to know myself, the more I realise that I am more comfortable physically when my physicality reflects the male and female personality characteristics I have. I have no issue whatsoever with the fact that I physically appear masculine and butch and that I am handsome, protective, a gentleman, chivalrous, while at the same time being pretty, curvaceous, very gentle, sweet and feminine.
So what does this have to do with the reason I did not go to Pride? Firstly, influenced by Gay Shame*,I believe Pride to be a homonormative attempt to wrap the many embodiments of an LGBTIQ person into one, neat, glittered and high-heeled package; or one neat, mohawked, tattooed and leather-clad package. Pride presents a very sanitised stereotype of the ‘fun fag,’ the ‘gymbunny jock’, the ‘S&M dyke’ and the ‘glamour Barbie femme.’ I am not any of those. I am all of those. I am more than the sum of those parts. I am more than the sum of my parts. More than that, though, one day’s political statement should not define who you are. Who you are, every day, should define your politics. That way, you don’t need a day-glo pink banner to tell the world who you are.
Secondly, the horror of the violent stand-off between the 1 in 9 Campaign and Joburg Pride organisers is the festering wound of the attempt to homogenise an exceedingly diverse community. There’s a reason more and more letters keep being added to LGB -> LGBT -> LGBTI -> LGBTIQ: we cannot be categorised, stereotyped, pigeon-holed, painted with the same pink brush. We are legion. Each of us individually, each L, each G, each B, T, I and Q. And as my story shows, within each one of us is a legion of experiences, desires, selves. And they all deserve to be represented, heard and they all deserve to have the rights that this country so proudly tells us we can have.
* 1 in 9 Campaign: Carrie Shelver from 1 in 9 described the organisation as a “feminist collective of predominantly queer women.” The motivation of the 1 in 9 Campaign is to draw attention to the sexual violence, rape and murder perpetrated against queer women, particularly in the townships.
**“Heteronormativity is the body of lifestylenorms that hold that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. Consequently, a ‘heteronormative’ view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles.
Homonormativity is the assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into LGBTQ culture and individual identity. LGBTQ people that come the closest to mimicking heteronormative standards of gender identity are deemed most worthy of receiving rights. LGBTQ individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy (transsexuals, transvestites, intersex, bisexuals, non-gender identified) are seen as an impediment to this elite class of homonormative individuals receiving their rights.
Trans*: Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum. There’s a ton of diversity there, but we often group them all together (e.g., when we say “trans* issues). Trans (without the asterisk) is best applied to trans men and trans women, while the asterisk makes special note in an effort to include all non-cisgender gender identities, including transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderfuck, genderless, agender, non-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, and trans man and trans woman. – See more at: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2012/05/what-does-the-asterisk-in-trans-stand-for/#sthash.qzmWYHai.dpuf
Gay shame is a movement from within the LGBT and queer communities described as a radical alternative to gaymainstreaming and directly posits an alternative view of traditional ‘gay pride’ events and activities which have become increasingly commercialized with corporatesponsors and ‘safer’ agendas to avoid offending supporters and sponsors. Gay shame was created as a protest of (and named in opposition to) the overcommercialization of the “gay pride” events. Members attack ‘queer assimilation’ (homonormativity) in what they perceive as oppressive and conservative societal structures.” (Wikipedia)