Exploring the limitations of queer identity politics
The Gender Blur
GLAM I Am
Gender Aptitude Test
I don't look like a lesbian. Maybe this statement is politically incorrect, but it's honest. It seems to me that the more emphasis queer theory and politics place on the endless multiplicity of sexual personae, and the more postmodernists dissect what exactly a gay man, lesbian, or bisexual "is," the easier it gets to describe what one looks like. At least in New York City, where I live, there is a clearly defined gay community with very explicit ways to declare that you are included or excluded.
In college I called them the "short-hair fascists." I just don't look good with short hair, and from the age of 6, I rebelled against my crunchy feminist mom by preferring frilly dresses and Mary Janes to cords and sensible shoes. (I've since come around to cords, but I bought my last pair of shoes solely to match my nails.) I know that queer theorists insist that you can't have the "butch" without the "femme." But the fact remains that if I try to make flirtatious eye contact with a butch woman on the street, she looks right through me—or worse, averts her eyes with a pained look that says "Why is that straight girl staring at me?"
Many people I know count queerness as a definitive part of their identity. For those who grew up in heterosexual families, coming out must have been a declaration of having found themselves, of discovering their true identity. Queerness didn't play such a role in my development, because I grew up with a lesbian mom. In my hometown, Quincy, Massachusetts, a predominantly Irish Catholic suburb of Boston, homophobia was rampant, and my mother's complete openness about her sexuality often made me uncomfortable. It took a while for me to feel OK about the fact that I didn't have a "normal" family: In high school, my form of rebellion was sleeping with boys and being as reactionary as I possibly could. For me, being different from my mother meant being antifeminist.
But I gradually came to terms with my mom's (and my own) sexuality, aided in part by my decision to go to college in New York City, a decidedly more "progressive" environment than Quincy. By my senior year, I was a born-again lesbian feminist and adopted "girl power girl love = revolution" as my mantra. The idea of existing within a tight-knit lesbian community made sense to me; it was a source of support, a framework within which to organize my identity. The first time I fooled around with a girl, we joked to each other that we could now go out and get our membership cards.
But after I graduated into the "real world" and got a publishing job that took up most of my time and energy, I realized that it wasn't possible to be visually perceived as a lesbian unless I adopted a butch look that didn't in any way reflect who I really am. To "fit in" with a lesbian community, I'd also have to organize my social life around meeting and dating lesbians. Off campus, it simply wasn't that easy to let my life revolve around sexuality in that way. I don't have the time, energy, or money to go to bars—gay or straight—all the time; nor do I envision myself finding a meaningful relationship in one.
It's true that going out to bars is not the only queer lifestyle available to me in New York, though it sometimes seems that way. I've considered becoming more involved in politics, but beyond the occasional pride march, political rallies aren't really my scene. Maybe it's because of all the demonstrations my mom dragged me to as a kid. I'm just not the activist type, so involving myself in politics feels like a forced way to meet people and integrate a queer identity into my life.
Even though lately I find myself more attracted to boys, it seems hypocritical to slip back into straightness as the path of least social resistance—especially after all my idealistic college dreams of girl love. At the same time, I resent the fact that I can't just keep my options open. Sexuality has so much significance above and beyond sexual preference that it seems "queerness" is a state you either exist in all the time, or not at all.
My mom has always spoken cynically of bisexuals as fair-weather friends, people who ditched their politics when they were in a straight relationship. I certainly saw plenty of boy-crazy bisexual women in college (a friend referred to one as "dyke lite"), and I vowed to myself that I would never sell out like that. But I still don't know how it would be possible for me to be a part of the queer community while I was in a relationship with a man—or even while I'm not in a relationship with a woman, as I am now.
I feel that there's some kind of burden of proof on me, as someone who claims membership in a queer community, to be a "lesbian," or at least rack up enough "lesbian points" to feel politically safe being with a man without being perceived as a traitor. Inasmuch as my sexuality has evolved over time along with my political beliefs, I can understand the lesbian community's tendency to hold people politically responsible for their sexual desires and activities. Yet at any given moment, I experience attraction physically and emotionally, but never as a political feeling.
Some people think that any sex can be queer sex if the partners bring a queer sensibility to the act; for example, a woman fisting a man up the ass isn't exactly "straight" sex. This is one of those nice postmodern concepts that suggests infinite subversive meaning in any text (including the body), depending on who is doing the suggesting. But how much can any given sex act really signify, or really subvert?
It's certainly true that the personal is political, in the sense that one's identity, even in its most intimate components, is informed by a larger sociopolitical context. Yet, to me, the idea that individual sex acts will, over time, somehow permeate and alter the collective social consciousness is suspect. The gap between sex and political theory is vast and indefinable. It's difficult to make the argument that one female fist inserted into one male ass—or, for that matter, even hundreds of fists inserted into as many asses—can really make a difference for, say, lesbian mothers fighting for custody of their children. It's true that my mom's being queer made me more aware of queer sexuality and more open to the possibility of being queer myself. But does my not having sex with twice as many people really make the world a better place?
In my current, not-getting-any state, I have come to wonder whether sex isn't a purely selfish act. Are queers and straights and everyone in between kidding themselves if they really think that what they do or don't do in bed is going to change society? Lately I'm the only one in my bed, and while I've read articles that debate the "queerness," or the subversiveness, of masturbation, I have trouble believing that what I do quietly in the privacy of my own room affects anybody but myself.
The gap between my self-perception and how society perceives me has informed my confused sense of identity in many ways. Growing up relatively dark skinned in my predominantly Irish town, I got called "spic" as I walked down the streets of my neighborhood. I happen not to be Hispanic. My family is Assyrian-American, an ethnicity for which few personalized slurs exist—and I don't think I even knew what the word meant at the time, but the hatred in the name calling wasn't lost on me. If anything, there was a particular kind of insult-added-to-injury in the fact that this taunting didn't recognize who I actually was, just that I was "different." A few years later, when my mom came out, I would cringe inwardly whenever kids shouted "fag" and "lezzie" at each other on the playground. Again I was aware of hatred that implicated me but was fundamentally not about me.
Since my sexuality has evolved to include attraction to both women and men, I've experienced a similar sense of awkward disjuncture in the presence of straight people who use "queer" as a pejorative term, as well as with lesbian friends who refer to straight women with barely veiled contempt. In each of these situations I find myself wondering: Who do I side with? Who do I speak for? Who is it my place to defend? If I voice my objections, will I succeed in changing anyone's opinions, or only in alienating myself?
I don't mean to say that I think homophobia isn't my problem. It hurt a lot when I was a child, and it still does whenever I encounter it now. It's just that homophobia—and the queer subculture's occasional reaction of defensive elitism—is by definition ignorant, and as such has nothing to do with who I really am, or who any queer (or straight) person really is.
That's why I resent the implicit imperative to organize my identity around queerness, to walk down the street wrapped in a queer mantle based on the way I look. I would like to fight for gay rights regardless of whom I have sex with, or don't have sex with. I would like to desire, to fantasize without censoring myself based on political implications and thoughts that no one else will ever hear. I don't want to feel guilty for not getting any. I want to be a sexual being without defining myself solely or even primarily on the basis of my sexuality.
Katherine Raymond is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and Web designer. Her fiendish plan for world domination is outlined at http://apokrypha.com. Adapted from PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality, edited by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel (Cleis Press, 1997).