by KC Clements
Queer theorist and activist Eve Sedgwick defined the term “queer” as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically.”
It may seem clumsy to start a discussion of queer identity with a definition, as the very idea of queerness is meant precisely to elude definition.
In coming to know and recognize myself—a non-binary trans person—as queer, theory like Sedgwick’s has proved tremendously helpful. My seemingly idyllic women’s college was fairly progressive on matters of gender and sexuality, and yet many held the belief that all people can only be attracted to one gender ( known as monosexism). I had a persistent feeling of disorientation, of difference.
Queer theory helped me to understand that my interest in women didn’t necessarily have to limit my scope of attraction, that my desire to transition didn’t necessarily have to limit my gender identity and expression. I wasn’t a woman who liked women—a lesbian; or a FTM trans person who liked women—a heterosexual trans guy. I found that the interaction of my non-normative experiences of sexuality and gender, while challenging to navigate, could also be beautiful, an opportunity for possibility and exploration. This was liberating.
However, through my studies and through my political evolution, I have learned more about the history of the term queer, about the precise political moment from which this identity which is not one emerged. Queerness is not merely a theory; it comes loaded with a rich political history that we would do well to call back to the surface.
It is hard to pinpoint the precise moment when people began reclaiming the term queer, a word which had once been a harmful slur. However, it’s widespread use finds its beginnings during the direct-action HIV/AIDS movement whose most vocal and visible arm was ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, c. 1987).
The movement formed as a response to government inaction in the face of the lethal and growing threat of the spread of HIV in the 1980s. While HIV affected gay men at much higher rates than women, many understood the lack of response from the government and from the nation as a whole to be a result of systemic homophobia which threatened the lives and well-being of so-called gender and sexual “deviants.” In recognizing this, the movement brought together a diverse group of people who had suffered from experiences of homophobia. Lesbians with a long history of political activism became movement leaders and respected caretakers, a fact which undid much of the painful fracturing that had devastated the earlier gay liberation movement.
ACT UP formed unprecedented coalitions between queer and trans people, white people and people of color, men and women, IV drug users, incarcerated people, and the poor and working classes. The politics and the actions that developed from these allegiances, while far from perfect, were an incredible example of the power of intersectional activism.
Despite the heaviness of ACT UP’s mission, the spaces carved by the movement were full of fun, pleasure, and, of course, sex. In bringing such a diverse collective of people together in a space that was both erotically charged and accepting, ACT UP created an environment in which people felt able to explore unique sexual identities and experiences.
To be more blunt, everyone was having sex with everyone in a way that challenged previously rigid notions of gender and sexuality. It was from this actual practice that queer identity took shape. It was the politics and the practice that informed the theory—not the other way around.
Recently, I found myself in a heated argument with another transmasculine person about our respective identities and politics. What became clear throughout the argument was that he and several of his supporters wanted to create a sharp division between himself as a binary trans man and myself as, to use his words, one of the “queers.”
But, the history of LGBT politics is also a history of divisiveness, of deviants and marginalized people being thrown under the bus. As iconic Puerto Rican trans activist Sylvia Rivera noted in her legendary speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day, the gay liberation movement was quick to give up on people of color, trans people, incarcerated people, and sex workers, many of whom had fueled the movement in the first place, in favor of a white, cis, middle class agenda.
It is only recently that trans people have been acknowledged by this same mainstream LGBT movement. As recently as 2007, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) willfully supported a non-trans-inclusive employment bill for an anti-discrimination campaign. This event was merely the culmination of that organization’s history of transphobic policy.
The recent increase in inclusion and representation has certainly seemed like progress. But, the gains of those who have a more normative or binary gender and sexuality, particularly those who are white, middle class, monogamous and heterosexual, have all too often come at the expense of further marginalizing the deviants, the “queers” who are resist these same norms.
Ultimately, it is not an identification with queerness that is important; many scholars and activists have critiqued and revised the implicit whiteness of queer theory. What is crucial to me, and I hope to others as well, is the ethos and the possibility that a queered politics and a queered world view can extend.
It is only through an expansive and inclusive politics, one that views issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class as interwoven and interconnected, much like that from which the queer movement was born, that we can unleash truly revolutionary political power, and create a world where everyone has the opportunity to safely self-determine who they are and how they want to live. And, that’s the kind of queerness I want to live, to be.
KC is a queer, non-binary, white, able-bodied writer based in Brooklyn, NY. They hold an M.A. in Gender Politics from New York University. You can follow their writing at aminotfemme.wordpress.com.