Sunday, February 19, 2012

Queer: An Evolving Definition

Like all identities, queer is something that is multi-faceted and complex. It is also something that holds different meanings to different people. A queer identity has been claimed by those with gender expressions that vary from the male and female dichotomy, those who proclaim a pansexual orientation, or by those who use the word queer as a launching point into a community of political and social radicalism. It is my argument that there are at least two classifications of the word queer as it relates to personal identity. There is debate surrounding the usage of queer as a verb or as a noun. It is my argument that queer can be used distinctly in both of these forms with validity.
            I have grappled with my own frustration in trying to pin down what it means to be queer. I have stubbornly demanded that the term queer remain undefined. I have personally embraced and vehemently advocated for a queer identity that is understood on an individual basis. For me that identity represents fluidity both in gender identity and sexual identity. I acknowledge that my trepidation surrounding the act of solidifying queer into something that represents an immediately recognizable stereotype is caused by my own insecurities. I feel that it is important that it is known as I discuss my viewpoints on queer where my biases lie. I have a home in a queer identity. For the first time I have found a community that I can relate to. I finally feel privileged in being able to experience the sense of protection and strength that comes with numbers. I who have so often rejected community have begun to see things differently now that I feel that I have found one.
             However, the queer community is tremulous. There seems little stability in this community without a definition. Perhaps this is why within nonacademic circles the precision of the term queer is in the background. It is my assumption that the reason that the issue of what it means to identify as queer is skirted is because we each know that our thoughts on the matter are likely in disagreement with each other. I for one am hesitant to state a clear definition of queer because I know what it feels like to be without a community and would never wish to put my hand in removing a community with all of its comforts from another person. With this acknowledged, there are benefits to a concrete identity that the queer community seems to lose out on. The more defined an identity the more stable that community seems to be. Not to say that a community with clear definition is not without its drawbacks, however having key components of one’s identity agreed upon offers a strength and unity that an identity that is totally fluid forfeits.
            Fluidity is possibly the one consistent aspect of the current definitions of what a queer identity is and should not be entirely disregarded. Instead I would like to suggest a possible compromise. There is debate over whether or not queer should be used in the form of a verb or a noun. This discussion seems contradictory to the nature of queer. Instead of seeking a solution within a dichotomy, a societal norm which is at the basis of what is so often rejected by a queer identity, why not concede that queer can not only be either a noun or a verb, but something in between or outside of such typical linguistic devices. The language of queer is atypical and therefore the language used to define it should reflect that reality.
            It is my assertion that queer be allowed two primary classifications with room for crossover between the two. The first class of queer is specifically relevant to those individuals who are both intergender and pansexual identified. The second class of queer relates to sexual practices that are socially against/radical for the society of the individual practicing them. Included in this second classification are those who identify as queer because of political motivations for such sexual practices. Note that one identifying as asexual could still fall within this category if their actions are considered atypical of social standards. Considering the significance within queer theory of the understanding that there is a difference between sex and gender, a fact that is often ignored within American culture, it is also important to promote a clear understanding of the differences between sexual orientation and sexual identity. Further it should be reminded that gender identity and presentation are not indicative of sexual orientation or identity. I clarify this because it is vital to these two classifications of queer that the crossover between them be perhaps more emphasized than the dichotomy they may appear to pose. It is not a matter of a choice to be made. There is no rule that one who is queer must see themselves as only falling within Class A or only in Class B. Instead, wherever one should fall is a valid part of a queer identity.
            It is my hope that rather than divide the community, these definitions can help strengthen it. What may seem a concrete definition is in fact a roundabout way to describe the fluidity of queer in terms that are able to be explained without a lot of difficulty. I believe that these classifications do not undermine the complexity of a queer identity while at the same time making queer seem more attainable to those outside seeking to better understand what it means for someone to say that they are queer. This is taking into account that personal identity is not so simple as to be summarized into a catch phrase or stereotype, but instead makes an introduction to basic understanding accessible.
            With two classifications of queer being understood, I am going to emphasize the crossover between them. In many ways, queer is about challenging the system. Whether consciously or unconsciously, being queer in American society goes against the grain of heterosexist norms. Queer challenges dichotomies of gender, sex, and sexual orientation. To be queer is to deny the poles of masculine and feminine, male and female, or straight and gay. All three of these facets of identity have in common that that they are male-centric. In terms of gender masculine qualities outweighing feminine ones. In terms of sex, male-bodied individuals are seen as stronger, more independent, and more capable of leadership. Finally, in terms of sexual orientation, straight is still considered synonymous with male dominance in that it is the male’s role to proposition the female for sex and his job to penetrate the female. The commonly used term “gay” is one that specifically refers to homosexual men. This term like many other male-centric words and phrases in American English has been repurposed as the commonly accepted term to refer to a group that may also include female-identified and or gender-queer identifies individuals. Queer challenges male-centrism, male-dominance, and dichotomy.
            This further bleeds into the second classification of queer through the radical political/social aspects of one’s sexual practices. Lesbian feminist movements that reject the act of penetration whether only inclusive of vaginal penetration or penetration at all with their partners is a form of the second classification of queer. However, this practice in some ways also reinforces gender stereotypes. Penetration is seen as a heterosexist act that is instigated by male-bodied individuals. This description makes it impossible to healthily replicate such acts in a safe environment. It further eliminates the possibility of penetrative sex between male-bodied and female-bodied individuals being healthy.  This line of thinking gives weight to the argument that there is a dichotomy between the male and female sexes, wherein male-bodied individuals are socially dominant and female-bodied individuals are submissive. While these roles defined as they are are not without evidence the movement away from partnerships with male-bodied individuals is counterproductive to a queer identity that suggests that sex should not matter in the scheme of things. What is further problematic is that this sexual practice plays into the cultural ignorance towards trans and intersex people and instead places everyone in competing roles as strictly male or female. This refusal to acknowledge a trans identity as a gender that is in opposition to one’s birth sex is in clear opposition of primary components of the first queer classification discussed which emphasized dismissing the sex/gender dichotomy. This example illustrates that queer as a verb is not necessarily indicative of queer also as a noun. One can have sexual actions that are queer without having a queer identity.
            As an example of a broad group of sexual practices that fit within the realm of a description of queer as a verb are fetishes. This is an important group of people to include because fetishists are often thrown into a queer identity by default. It is my assertion that fetishism is a component of queer as a verb, but not necessarily as queer as a noun. Once again, a little to a lot of crossover can be seen between classifications of queer within fetishism. The DSM includes multiple types of fetishes that go into the realm of paraphilias. Paraphilias are distinct within stages of fetishes because they rank in the fourth stage of Gebhard’s model of fetishism which is based off the work of Freud. The fourth stage represents fetishism that involves a total replacement of a human for sexual arousal. Instead, an object or act becomes the sole focus of individual’s sexual encounter. On the other end of the model, the first stage suggests a slight preference for an object and is hardly considered a fetish by Gebhard. It is notable that Freud’s work on fetishism did not cover women as fetishists. He considered women to be fetishists only in terms of making themselves more appealing to the men they sought to have sex with.
            Queer as a verb and as a noun can be two distinct categories, but under the definition of queer these categories have room to merge and crossover so as to not offer a dichotomous definition for an identity which rejects dichotomies. Under this definition, a heterosexual person can be queer as a fetishist, or one who participates in socially abnormal sexual practices. A queer identity can also mean a person identifies as intergender and pansexual, but does not necessarily have sexual practices that go against the grain of society. However, it is arguable that if a person is intergender and pansexual that their sexual practices would also be queer because they do not fit into the narrow category of male dominant, female submissive.

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