It is very, very frustrating when you are trying to tell a story about yourself, a story about expressing what you know to be true, and someone says “Well, that’s all well and good, but aren’t you just like them? You use the same words as them. And they are really fucked-up!”
It’s tough enough to speak for ourselves, to explain our own choices, let alone to be asked to speak for others, to explain the choices of others that people decide are like us.
When faced with this challenge, there seems to be only two choices.
The first strategy is to explain that we are the good kind of people like us and they are the bad kind.
This exactly the kind of strategy that social pressure would want us to take. Social control comes when we deny others, work not to be the bad ones, separate from and stigmatize others. The gang wants us to turn on others and show that we really belong with the normative bunch. That’s how they divide and conquer, keeping stigma and control in place. We can only hate in the abstract, because when we know someone as a human, our relationship with them is much more nuanced, so abstract groupings are the way society creates separations for control.
Queer theory, on the other hand, makes another choice. It says that dividing the world into groups is unreasonable and controlling, instead saying that the individual is the locus of their own actions. Rather than separating the world into us and them, Queer theory separates the world into us and us, and says that we as individuals have personal responsibility only for our own actions, not some group political identity.
This is a hard leap for many people. It takes away the facility to locate oppression or evil in fabricated identity groups and instead demands that we take personal responsibility for our own actions. It means we can’t just try to jump under one umbrella or another, can’t just try to separate from some other umbrella or another.
If we want people to affirm our individual choices we have to find a context to affirm their choices, even when they make choices we would never, ever make for ourselves. We have to support them when they make choices that squick us, that make us uncomfortable or queasy, as long as those choices are within the bounds of consent and decorum.
For those who have always dreamed about becoming an insider, who have dreamed about not being an outsider, queer theory demands we drop those dreams and accept that everyone is an outsider, and that becoming an insider too is a facet of our choices to affirm outsiders. Queer theory supports diversity rather than separations, and for those who feel too diverse, too liminal and to unique for their own good, it says that accepting that uniqueness in us and in others is the way to creating communal strength.
“There is naught so queer as folk,” goes the old saying, one that affirms the diversity of humans rather than homogenizing them. To me, a queer perspective affirms that the true similarity and commonality of humans isn’t in our affect, our choices, but rather in our fundament, the stuff we are made of. There is only one human nature, and we all share it. Nothing human is foreign to me. It may well not be that people hate me because they hate “people like me,” but rather because my choices lead them to hate me.
This is not at all the same as feminist gender theory, which locates many differences in the bifurcated sexual identification of heterosexism. That theory locates power, and therefore responsibility, in groupings based on birth genital configuration. It’s almost impossible to allow for trans-expression, which is the outward manifestation of trans-truth, in this context, because in this system, biology is destiny, which is exactly what the first wave feminists were arguing against. To join that belief system, we have to change our group classification by constructing a change in our biology.
Queer theory doesn’t demand that, rather it demands that humans are the sum of their choices, and the meaning their choices hold. It takes away the easy fundamentalism of separation, but offers personal empowerment, yet only at the price of personal responsibility.
I hate it when people try to demand I be responsible for people they think should be like me. They want me to justify the choices of crossdressers, when I never identified as a crossdresser, ever. They want me to to hew to their own beliefs about what a transsexual should believe or deny me the use of that term for myself. They want me to pick a group and turn on others in the “bad” groups, even if I know people who fall under that label who are bright and good and healthy and self-actualized.
That’s why I had to find a way to walk away from that trap of “them versus us,” the limits & comforts of grouping identity, and move to queer theory as a defining practice in my life. I had to affirm individual freedom and personal responsibility, not just try to find a new way to explain why I am not like the bad people, why it is right that we all hate the bad people.
What I am talking about isn’t some perfect academic explanation of queer theory, based in textbooks and manifestos. I am talking about how queer theory defines a mindset that helped me move beyond my own fears and limits to an empowering place. I also am not, of course, defending everything ever said, written or done in the name of queer theory, because I don’t subscribe to it as an external scripture, rather I hold it as my own beliefs,
It’s my personal belief that in cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity, across lines of determinism that some think are inviolable. Transgender expression is a reminder that it is not separations that define humans, rather it is connection. That is my deepest belief statement about why transpeople have always occurred in the population and why they continue to do so.
That belief leads me to affirm all forms of expression, from deeply assimilated trans roles that are only different from normative roles with close inspection to very wild trans roles that demand public space for personal expression beyond the limits of gendered convention. The key question for every human has always been how tame is too tame, when our assimilation loses our own personal power & responsibility to the group, and how queer is too queer, when our wildness becomes destructive to the group rather than contributing to it. Both assimilation and individual expression are required from all of us, and our own balance wild and tame defines us.
I believe in assimilation, and honor those trans women & men who take that on as their primary expression. I believe in exception, and honor those transpeople who take on being exceptional as their primary expression. It is my hope, though, that both groups understand that this is not a binary choice, and while one sister may be a bit more out there & in your face, and one brother may be a bit more in there & group identified, that they all understand that these differences are what diversity requires, and that to be respected in our choices means respecting other choices, even those we would never make for ourselves.
“Since when did you ever have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?” Lillian Hellman asked, and I agree with her.
Justice, in queer theory, is justice for individuals, not for some kind of imposed grouping that doesn’t respect the whole messy, contradictory and connected individual. Queer theory reminds us that we can probably find something we share with an individual, even if they don’t fall into our grouping of race, class, gender, ethnic origin, religion, or whatever. Queer theory, to me, reminds us that fundamentally we are all humans, and we share a continuous, common humanity.
And queer theory allows me to look at people who demand I speak for others and say “They can speak for themselves. Now, can you speak for yourself, and not just for your own group identity?”
And that’s why it’s useful to me.