Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who's Queer?

Recently, there was an extremely hostile brouhaha on a feminism-related Livejournal community about whether asexuals were "allowed" to identify as queer. I briefly skimmed the arguments for about three minutes, before my eyes wanted to bleed with all the ignorance and, oddly, hatred. One of the more benign comments was "Only queers should be able to decide who is queer". Wow...circular logic, much? Two main arguments seemed to be that only homosexuals can be queer, and that only people who have been violently discriminated against can be queer. While some people were willing to magnanimously grant that maybe homo-, bi-, or panromantic asexuals could identify as queer, others seemed absolutely irate that heteroromantic or aromantic asexuals might identify as such. A lot of people on that thread also seemed to view asexuality as just one more annoying internet meme, which is sad.

I'm just left thinking that such ardent policing of whatever people consider their one true definition of "queer" defeats the purpose of the identification. I thought being queer was about breaking rules and boundaries when it comes to sexuality, not adhering to rigid definitions. And if asexuals didn't break rules and boundaries, people wouldn't react to us in such defensive ways.

I prefer a more...charitable definition of "queer". I think that deciding to identify this way is completely up to the individual. I know that in response to this, someone is going to think, "But Ily! What if a straight, totally "vanilla" person wanted to call themselves queer?" Well, first of all, I hate to break it to you, but straight people are not exactly lining up to identify as queer, which makes some peoples' extreme defense of the word a little absurd. What realistic threat are they defending it against? And second, if a few straight people did identify as queer, it wouldn't be the end of the world. If you insisted on seeing it as "a price to pay" at all, it would be a small one, for greater inclusiveness.

17 comments:

Janet S. said...

E. Patrick Johnson, a notable theorist on gay identities and performance theory, has this to say about being queer:

"To embrace 'queer' is to resist or elide categorization, to disavow binaries (That is, gay versus straight, black versus white) and to proffer potentially productive modes of resistance against hegemonic structures of power"

Within this definition, asexuals certainly qualify as queer.

grasexuality said...

This pisses me off so much. I've been meaning to make a post about it for a long time now, too. Even within the asexual community there are people who think that asexuals aren't discriminated against, or aren't discriminated against violently. That what treatment we receive is "annoying at worst" when actually, I think it's more like annoying at BEST. There's an unwillingness, like you said, to admit that non-violent forms of discrimination or those that don't involve the workplace ARE forms of discrimination, and this is coupled with an ignorance, dismissal, or refusal to acknowledge of the violent forms of discrimination that DO happen.

I realize that, having done some research, I'm a bit more privy to seeing what's going on than others, but at the same time, there HAVE been some examples of hate crimes posted on AVEN, followed by a lot of discussion about how it "wasn't really because [the person who experienced it] is asexual." I think that first of all, we need to have that acknowledgment within our own community before we can expect others to begin to understand.

But feminists? Really? I'm very disappointed to hear this coming from feminists, because I expect better of them. Of course I know that feminists have a problematic history of exclusion, and of course I see examples of this still going on all the time. But it needs to stop.

As for the definition of "queer," I'm really bothered by the idea that queer people MUST be discriminated against in order to be allowed to claim that label anyway. I agree with you that it's about breaking rules and boundaries, and challenging heteronormativity. I think a straight person CAN be queer, if they approach their relationships in a non-heteronormative way, and consciously subvert that norm. Also, I have to point this out too: how sexuality-focused is their definition of what it means to be queer? Last time I checked, trans people are queer too. What about aromantic asexuals who are also trans or genderqueer? Do they not count either?

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

I thought I was being too cynical when I guessed the entire content of this post from the first sentence.

Turns out I wasn't. People are just predictable.

I feel like being righteously angry. Link?

Kris said...

Thank you for commenting on this. My friends are part of that community and as soon as they saw the direction the post was taking, they complained to me about it -- but also vociferously told me to stay away. I managed to listen to them for the most part, only skimming a few collapsed comment threads before quickly getting out of there. I was mostly surprised by how much it hurt to see so many people saying those things.

My best friend, who is sexual and identifies as queer, uses a definition of queer that is like the one you proposed. Hearing her tell me that once finally let me feel comfortable using the word to refer to myself, and that made me feel a lot less alone in the world.

I guess I just wanted to say that I really appreciate you writing this blog, since I'm not really an AVEN person. I really like having thoughtful media that talks about stuff that affects me.

Ily said...

Janet-- I like that definition. Personally, since identifying as asexual I've come to be really skeptical of binaries in general.

Grasexuality-- Me too. Some asexuals definitely face violence. Some of this is probably because they're perceived to be homosexual, but still, there's a difference between someone thinking you're gay and actually being gay. Also, I think it makes sense to take a broad view of "violence" and say that not all of it is physical. Don't some people have PTSD from verbal/emotional abuse?

It's amazing that people don't see the irony when they say, in mean and hostile ways, that no one is mean or hostile to asexuals. I wonder why asexuals are so hesitant to say that they face discrimination. Maybe that individual really feels they don't, and doesn't have enough information about others' experiences to say. Or maybe the reactions of some other queers have got us a little scared. There's this hesitancy to even imply that we might have similar problems to gay people. Believe me, I'm no fan of the oppression olympics, but "there is no monopoly on oppression, and there is plenty of it left for future generations".

Anyway, that's a topic I would definitely like to discuss more.

SliMe-- Well, it was a very evocative first sentence :-)
Here's a link to the link:

http://community.livejournal.com/asexuality/773903.html

The Asexuality LJ community was where I first learned about asexuality, so I've been a member for a long time. And I think this post had, by far, the most comments I've ever seen there.

Kris-- I really appreciate the kind words :-)

Eli said...

I saw that link too via twittersphere and...I wasn't sure what to say. I mean, even if you just say queer= not heterosexual, wouldn't we fit squarely? especially with the various romantic/aromantic flavors of A out there? Sigh. I hope this leads to more ace/queer discussion and less righteous indignation over who's been beat up the most.

annwyl_cariad said...

The comments on said Livejournal post seriously infuriated me. Apparently the consensus definition of queer was that you had to be attracted to the same gender. Thus, heteroromantic aces, aromantic aces, and straight transpeople were all excluded from the definition. Now, being as I'm panromantic, I think the eventual consensus from the feminists was that I'd be "permitted" to identify as queer. Yeah, like I freaking care about their permission when they'd exclude other asexuals and transpeople from the definition. I'm queer whether they like it or not.

Being queer is about challenging hetero-and-gendernormative assumptions about the world. It is not about who you actually have sex with. Asexuality challenges the assumption that male-bodied people and female-bodied people should want to pair off and have babies. So do some forms of heterosexuality, for that matter. And any time you've got non-gendernormative people, regardless of their orientation, it messes with the assumptions. That, in my mind, is what it means to be queer.

And I'd thank other people not to try and tell me how I can and can't identify. When they've spent as much time in my head as I have, they can be my guest.

softestbullet said...

Oh, but no, queers can't decide! It's already been decided, apparently, and any queer people who disagree (like me) are a bunch of sellouts. NO ARGUING ALLOWED!

I'm really sorry. That was horrible to read. :(

Carolyn said...

I don't totally understand the term "queer," but I remember when it was first being reclaimed from being a slur. How ironic for it to be reclaimed for people who are excluded and then used to make other people feel excluded. Words change in meaning all the time and working against it including more people doesn't sound very feminist to me (but there i go trying to define people who use a label, oops). I agree that everyone who wants to label themselves as something should not be judged for it, then the people who would use queer as a negative have already won.

Lia said...

It's sad when a group that has any experience with "violent discrimination" so quickly jumps at the chance to discriminate against others. I somehow expected the self-appointed queer community to be different, but I guess I was fooling myself. One of the common (and unfortunately highly destructive) ways that many groups foster a feeling of community within themselves is to focus on some other folks whom they can consider as the "outsiders". They get to feel better about themselves because someone else doesn't qualify for admission to this exclusive group, in other words giving "queers" someone to look down on. If you doubt for a second how frequently this happens, just look at the popular cliques at any high school, or any of your major religions for that matter.
People can be abused in many ways, physically, verbally, and emotionally; similarly, they can experience violent discrimination in all these ways. However, I also strongly disagree that discrimination should have anything to do with whether one is considered queer. That would mean a person's identity (i.e. "queer") would be based on other peoples' reactions to that individual. That makes very little sense. The sense of who you are has to come from within, not from how other people treat you, so only you can decide whether or not you are queer.
Finally, although I've been a lifelong feminist, I can only say that no influence in my life has done more to change and expand my views of gender and sexuality than my contact with the asexual community. It's too bad some people are so afraid of influences like that.

Mage said...

Ugh. This kind of thing is exactly why I wanted to have a discussion on Apositive about queer theory. Sometimes I feel like intellectualism is our primary defense, so we need to be ready with definitions of the things we claim about ourselves to back us up. Having a good understanding of what is queer is an example of something we can use to defend ourselves.

The ironic thing about this LJ discussion is that generally in sexuality discourse communities, queer theory is regarded as the notion of challenging heteronormativity AND homonormativity, as well as binaries themselves. Queerness may not even have anything to do with not being heterosexual, so much as it has to do with challenging the hegemony of "straight is normal" (or assert any sexuality as "normal"). ...Or what Janet S. said in their comment. To say that only homosexuals are queer is to assert homonormativity.

tomatl said...

thank you so much for this post. as a queer identified asexual i find this discussion fascinating, but don't always have the emotional energy to engage with people who are hostile towards my sexuality -when they are allegedly in my safe little queer family. i'd fight happily all day with hetero normative jerks, but when it comes from within, it hurts more.

that being said, i kind of understand people's hesitance, wanting to protect "queer" from people (in this case asexuals) who they think might end up siding with heteronormativity, not identifying with the struggle, not being sexpositive...

i agree that 'queer' isn't about biology. i wonder if perhaps gay doesn't automatically = queer any more than asexual = queer. a gay man who chooses to marry a woman and teach fundamentalist bible study probably doesn't fit the term queer any more than an asexual who thinks people who have sex are gross (different from thinking sex is gross) and thinks themselves better and more civilized, and champions abstinence before marriage. still gay. still asexual. queer? perhaps not.

bring on the queer theory!

tomatl said...

thank you so much for this post. as a queer identified asexual i find this discussion fascinating, but don't always have the emotional energy to engage with people who are hostile towards my sexuality -when they are allegedly in my safe little queer family. i'd fight happily all day with hetero normative jerks, but when it comes from within, it hurts more.

that being said, i kind of understand people's hesitance, wanting to protect "queer" from people (in this case asexuals) who they think might end up siding with heteronormativity, not identifying with the struggle, not being sexpositive...

i agree that 'queer' isn't about biology. i wonder if perhaps gay doesn't automatically = queer any more than asexual = queer. a gay man who chooses to marry a woman and teach fundamentalist bible study probably doesn't fit the term queer any more than an asexual who thinks people who have sex are gross (different from thinking sex is gross) and thinks themselves better and more civilized, and champions abstinence before marriage. still gay. still asexual. queer? perhaps not.

bring on the queer theory!

writingfromfactorx said...

Mage: As I remember from the comments on that article, one of the things I noticed was a general distaste for academic queer theory and a sense that many of the nastiest people about the whole thing viewed it as appropriative. So in that particular context, I don't think pointing out how asexuality fits neatly into queer theory would have done much good.

I was bothered by a lot of things in that post, too, especially the assertion that violent oppression is necessary for queerness. I guess that knocks out all the gay people who are lucky enough to live in accepting areas, huh? The tying of violence to queer identity is so short-sighted; if we ever win the war to make non-heterosexual orientations as valued and accepted as heterosexuality, by their definition queerness will suddenly cease to exist.

Ily said...

Wow, thanks for all the comments! When talking about "haters", it always makes me feel better to know we've got such well-spoken people in our corner. I'm not sure that I know much about academic queer theory, but I'd be interested in learning more, as well. My next post is going to be about why I choose to identify as queer, so stay tuned...

AsexyAmy said...

That argument on LJ made me very sad and angry. I always thought that people who know what it's like to be sexually different from the majority would be a bit more sensitive to others who are also in misunderstood sexual minorities. Sure, asexuals can often "pass" and don't get discriminated against in the same ways, but it still blows my mind that people don't want all sexual minorities to be accepted and understood, no matter what one identifies as.

Ily said...

Indeed...I can sort of understand it on an intellectual level, but it's not something I feel I can understand deep down. For me, questioning my sexuality made me a lot more accepting of other people outside the mainstream. I'm sure for some others, the same thing happened, although I find it strange that others could go through such a similar experience and yet lack this crucial insight.