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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Defining Queer



"All the world is queer save thee and me. And even thou art a little queer."
                                                                                    ~Sir Robert Owen
There are countless words that we use to label or name various types of sex acts.  Terms such as homosexual and heterosexual can trace their usage from the late 1890’s. Sodomy as a labeling word for sex dates back to 1300.AD, while terms such as copulate and intercourse were first used in the late 1600’s.   The term queer has been in usage for at least the last two centuries, and as an adjective was widely used to describe anything outside of the socially acceptable norm.  In the late 1800’s queer started to be used as a noun and was (and still sometimes is) used as a derogatory term for a homosexual man.  Queer has reemerged since the 1990’s as a positively perceived adjective, noun, and verb  (the description, the person and the act), both within and outside of the gay, lesbian and transgender community. Queer or queerness describes sexual activity or gender binary outside of the accepted norm with an implied emphasis on challenging, protesting, or being at odds with the norm, thereby diminishing the importance and power of the norm. There needs to be a greater understanding of the new utilization of the terms queer and queerness by heterosexual men and women, as the very convention of the words has changed so much.
Historically Speaking
Prior to the 1990’s, the term queer was pejorative for primarily gay men. In crude American informal language, it is commonly coupled with curse words, such as “fucking queer”, thereby strengthening the vehemence and hate surrounding the word. To be called a queer was on the same plane as being called a faggot, a homo or a dyke. None of these terms have positive associations, as angry homophobics almost always use them.  This historical usage of queer has made those over 40 years old, myself included, leery of accepting the word now in its more positive, identity affirming form.  The academic community, specifically Teresa de Lauretis at the University of California, is largely responsible for constructing the new usage of queer, as the theorization of queerness emerged out of university feminist studies.  Queer Theory, as it has come to be known as, poses that social constructs, rather than nature, define sexual acts and the identities associated with them.  In fact, as a heterosexual mother in my early 40’s, I have yet to hear anyone outside of the academic community of professors and students refer to themselves as queer.  This may be in part because of my age and the types of television shows I watch.  Popular shows, including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer Folk however, are reconditioning teens and young adults to see queerness as cool, fun and edgy.  These shows are also normalizing queerness while at the same time celebrating the very differences that make the characters queer. This is a very good thing, as it helps society to connect with queer characters and gain a better understanding of queers and the challenges they face.
Identity or Identifiable
Some people despise differences among genders and sexual practices and would do anything but celebrate queerness. For persons living their lives as the same gender in which they were born and that engage only in sexual activity with those of the opposite gender, labels for sex acts are only words used to give a name a nature given gender or reproductive drive.  For this segment of the population, these words do not define ones identity outside of the act of sex. For example, if a woman tells a friend that she had sex in the missionary position with her husband the night before, that friend does not hereafter make reference to that woman as “the woman who has sex in the missionary style” whenever referring to her amongst others.  Missionary position sex does not become a part of the woman’s identity, nor is it the lens in which her friends view all of her actions through.  This kind of sexuality is so normalized in our culture that certain lifestyles seem natural, of no historical significance, and universal in nature.  An accurate visual representation of this would be to imagine a circle labeled “identity”.  Within that circle (concentrically) would be another circle labeled “sexual behavior”. The sexual behavior is surrounded by or possibly protected by the identity that encircles it.
 All of this changes if the words used to describe sexual acts include sex with one of the same gender, or if any aspect of ones gender differs from that in which they were born; either temporarily, as is the case with dressing in drag, or permanently, as in male to female or female to male sex changes.  For these individuals, the words that describe their sex actions, such as homosexual, gay, transgender, lesbian, bisexual, sodomite, etc, are no longer a defining verb for a sex act, but instead a noun that is meant to identify the entire person, even outside of their sexual acts. When one discovers a friend is openly gay, we commonly come to refer to him as gay in all matters henceforth.  We say things such as “my gay friend loves this restaurant”, or “my gay friend hated that movie”, as if his gayness somehow changed his taste buds or ability to critique a movie. His homosexuality becomes the lens in which we view all aspects of his life.  Gayness is seen as his identity, and that identity is well transcribed by society, and is not an identity in which the individual has created for himself. Using the circular imagery mentioned earlier, this is visualized as an outer circle labeled “sexual acts” surrounding an inner circle labeled “identity”. This reality of sexual act identity definition amongst those who engage in same sex activity is given as a reason some individuals live an identified life within accepted norms (opposite sex activity, marriage, church conformity, etc) yet engage in closeted same sex activity either through action or thoughts.  This group simply does not want all of their identity to be based on their sexual behavior.  More specifically, they do not want to be identified as homosexual, gay, or even queer, as they fear it will be socially, relationally, or economically devastating for them. 
Assumptions are Not a Good Thing
Identity assumptions are further examined in the book Queer Theory; a selection of arguments and essays by various authors compiled by Iain Morland and Annabell Willox, Donald Hall writes of conceptualizing the epistemological shift of characterizing the act of same sex activities from the identity, or social values we have ascribed to it.  He states: “…if I am eating cold cereal one morning in a restaurant and I see someone else eating hot oatmeal, I suppose I may think to myself ‘ick, how can she eat that?’ but probably it would not even register with me. And I am quite sure I would never place her in a category of ‘hot cereal eater’ that would color my perception of her the rest of the day and forever afterwards. If we work together in the same office and I see her in the hallway, images of her eating oatmeal would not simply spring into my mind wishing her dead or incarcerated…” (Hall pg 98)  The identity constructs that we place on sexual orientation can also only exist in a culture at a particular time. Hall cites the example of two men walking hand in hand down the street.  If thus said men were in Los Angeles, it would be fair to assume they were gay.  It they were in the Congo or India, this assumption would be totally false.  This deconstructing of the social construct that comes with seeing two men holding hands is the very thing queerness achieves.  Do we really know anything about the men just because we have seen them holding hands? Yet how likely would we be to vote for either of them in an election, convict them of a crime, deny them civil liberties or even worse, commit a hate crime against them.  Social Psychologists call this effect Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the over-valuing of attributing disposition or personality based on observable behaviors while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. (Wayne State University Department of Psychology) This practice, which we are all guilty of committing, (albeit unintentionally) is the very thing that drives some to re-label themselves as queers.  What better word than queer to describe a break from the norm of the action (two men holding hands), a break from the norm in the cultural labeling of them (are they gay or not?) and a break from the norm in our assumptions about them. (Is there any assumption we can make about them?)
Claiming the Label
            Identity constructs are the very thing that pushed the usage of queer into its modern form.  Just as the women’s movement challenged the world to stop identifying all women with motherhood, marriage, weakness and domesticity, and the civil rights movement challenged the world to stop identifying blacks with slavery, inferiority and illiteracy, gays and lesbians needed to forge their own identifying characteristics outside of the traditional theatre loving, well dressed moody stereotypes society has constructed for them.  It goes much deeper than naming roles or personality traits, though.  The simple act of naming a movement, person or action gives it power.  It validates it.  Gender theorist Kate Bornstein, who at one time was a man turned woman but now lives as a gender fluid (moves between living as a man and as a woman) and calls herself genderqueer, writes in her book Gender Outlaws, The Next Generation,
There is power in claiming you own labels.  In a world where everyone around you is constantly slapping their own labels on you, without your consent and sometimes even without your knowledge, it is powerful to stand up and say: no thank you.  I do not want that label.  I want this one.  Having a label for yourself is the beginning of being able to verbally express what is wrong with the pre-existing system of labels…Language is an invaluable tool for defending one’s beliefs.  You must be able to articulate your beliefs in order to share them with others. There is also a degree of validation that comes with assuming a label. I am this thing, which is a real thing.  It is real because other people subscribe to it also, therefore I am real.   (Bornstein and Bergman pg 174)
I can understand thru Bornstein’s explanation why power is so very important.  Those who subscribe to heteronormativity hold all of the power to label, restrict and define all those who are not.  By removing what was once a common term of hatred and redefining that very term as a positive, validating expression of difference, the power scale becomes more equally balanced.
Queering It
            Gender and sex acts are highly significant to the identities of those who call themselves queer. However, the individual queer and not the society in which he or she lives, should determine the relevancy of his or her gender and sexual activities.  By questioning, or queering societies accepted norms, we can construct our own identities and labels for our lives. This helps balance power and shift sexuality from social and cultural constructs to naturally occurring ones.  This validation and reclamation of queerness succeeds in broadening discourse, which in itself is very powerful. Questioning the norm? Labeling our own identities? Equalizing power? How very queer

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