it can't be all about oppression (or can it?)
April 30, 2016
For no real reason I’m again thinking about when I kicked off the whole ‘queer is a slur’ thing in response to individuals unfamiliar with both its past and its present. In the ensuing ‘discussion’ a few people remarked that you can’t make being queer/gay just about negative experiences of oppression. Or, in other words, that group membership or personal identity can’t be restricted to a shared experience of oppression.
(In context, this argument was saying that we can’t or shouldn’t restrict who is and isn’t able to reclaim ‘queer’ based on who is a target of its violence. Essentially asserting that queer isn’t a slur any more and isn’t generally subject to the usual rules governing slurs – eg. that only the set of individuals targetted by a slur are able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to reclaim the slur.)
My mind still boggles at this. Not really because I think they are wrong, exactly, but because it is so wildly out of my experience that I don’t know what to make of this statement. Now, I know people like to mock identity politics but…. I think it should be recognized that there are stages or layers to what we call identity polictics.
In my experience, the entire point of using umbrella terms like ‘queer’ or ‘trans’ or ‘poc’ is to acknowledge some shared experience of oppression while allowing each distinct group to maintain its own identity/community based on whatever. But it appears that in the de-politicizing of umbrella terms we’ve also reached a point where people think it is bad or wrong to conceive of these communities based on shared experiences.
Really coming to this realization is actually helping me to understand some of the currents of discourse that I see. It helps me understand why some of the people erased and excluded by Gay Inc appear to focus more on their exclusion from Gay Inc and less on their actual oppression at the hands of cis/het people. Because that is one of their primary sources of distress.
Now. I’m not trying to say that people on the fringe aren’t experiencing oppression but I think it is more the fact that the bulk of their experience is of the general, institutional kind. In other words, they understand that they definitely are Not Welcome in cis/het spaces and that Gay Inc provides most of what little space ‘we’ are allegedly all welcome in. They probably know that their identities however invalidated by Gay Inc aren’t even on the radar for a lot of cis/het people, even as hetero- and cis-normativity impact their daily lives.
Moreover, I also want to point out that I think this is also true even in the Gay Inc Approved(tm) identities. My bro is a great example. He’s gay but also white, middle class, cis and grew up in a really progressive area. He wasn’t bullied by his peers or abused by his parents because of his sexuality. Despite the fact that he’s kind of flamingly gay, he hasn’t felt like its created many barriers in life. Up until he was out in public with me, he’d never even been called a fag.
But he is old enough to remember when gay marriage became legal in Canada. He is also aware enough to know the institutional issues with sexuality and/or gender. As in, he isn’t one of the de-politicized masc4masc white gays who just want to find their husband and happily assimilate into the mainstream. The kind of person for whom gay really is just their sexuality and not a culture they participate in.
Even still…. I don’t think my bro’s experience of sexuality-based oppression had the same visceral, immediacy that it has for me (at least not until we got together). In some important respect he didn’t feel oppressed in a subjective sense, even as he could recognize the ‘objective’ reality of institutional oppression.
Similarly, I think this is what is going on with the sanitized (and depolitized) usage of ‘queer’ – at least for some. To this group, queer is neither a slur nor an umbrella term meant to signal political intent. It is really just a descriptive term for communicating some quality of their being.
Of course I could be wrong about the above. I’m really just trying to understand how queer went from slur to radical political agenda to a community that’s supposed to accept everyone. Trying to understand how we got to a point where people are insisting that basing an umbrella identity on shared experiences of oppression is Bad. In part because its not really something I can understand.
For me… these issues aren’t abstract. ‘Violence’ isn’t just a rhetorical too to make abstract harms seem more visceral. I really can’t quite grasp the frame of mind needed to think that shared experiences of oppression aren’t foundational to this all. No, oppression isn’t the sum total of my experience of being gay, trans, asian, or disabled. But it also cannot be coherently removed from the totality of my experiences.
Gay has always signified freedom to me. But gay is also looking over your shoulder before you kiss a guy in public for the first time. Gay is having slurs shouted at me from moving vehicles. Gay is literally being beaten with a stick at school. Gay is becoming an adult and entering gay spaces only to realize that teh community hates me for being asian and femme.
Certainly, people are more than allowed to establish communities based any principle they want (in fact, I heartily encourage everyone to build the communities they want to be in). I can also see how this is creating a schism that I don’t think is repairable. When I read the experiences of the ‘it isn’t just about oppression’ group, they are so alien to me. My bro’s experience of gay growing up is alien to me.
At some fundamental level, I’m not really clear on how I could build community with those individuals. More importantly, I’m not sure why I should bother trying in the first place. I can respect that they don’t want their identities to be based on some shared experience of oppression. I don’t think this makes any of them less ‘gay’ or whatever the label might be. But I think it does make them the sort of gay that I don’t really want to have much of anything to do with.
In part, I think this also the source of my frustration with fringe identities spending what seems like a disproportionate amount of time focusing on inclusion politics re: Gay Inc. Like. I don’t understand why they care so much. Being in two of the four official letters, let me assure you that it doesn’t mean much and doesn’t really help at all. The only difference there is being on the ‘inside’ is giving other gay people more opportunities to directly harm you. That’s pretty much it.
(Ok. I’m starting to ramble and this post is already unfocused enough. I’m not 100% firm in these ideas, but I want to write them out as a way to process my feelings.)