PerForming Ourselves

“…one of the differences between straight society and queer society, queer culture or queer consciousness, is that we have a recognition that we form ourselves.
At almost every crucial moment of our lives we have to construct ourselves, construct other ways of being.”

— Joan Nestle, in “I’ll Be the Girl,” from FEMME: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (Edited by Laura Harris & Elizabeth Crocker)

Halloween has always been the holiday for queer people.   It is the moment where we can show ourselves in the world, our deep nature masquerading as play.

Normative identities are issued to us, off the rack, with some allowance for tailoring them to fit.   They mark us as a follower, a consumer of the current and conventional.

Queer identities, though, must be created from whole cloth, cobbled together from bits of this and that we have collected through the years.    They are always bespoke and one-off, fitting no one but us.

Playful moments are always performative moments.    We try on something that we don’t yet own in the world but which still represents what we know in ourselves.   We explore possibilities and directions, new ways to invoke our power in the world.

I once worked hard to champion Halloween parties where you didn’t just come in costume, playing yourself against some wacky clothes, but rather where you came in character, playing a very different version of yourself.    People around here, though, didn’t seem to get the point, much preferring to hold on very tight to their current persona.

Every new incarnation of ourselves, even for just a moment, let us explore a new way to be in the world.   For queers, as Ms. Nestle notes, this construction is an inescapable requirement of finding a way to be ourselves in the world.

Back in my day, this requirement was more acute.   As there are more and more images of lesbian and gay people in the mainstream, many who would previously have to tailor their expression for their own queerness are now struggling to tailor themselves to fit into more standardized representations.

While I understand this urge to convention, I understand playfulness of expression as the way we swing the pendulum wide, finding a new centre for ourselves.    As children, we learned how to fake it until you make it, becoming new over and over again while we explored our possibilities through play.    Why should that process stop as we are need to find new ways to being that represent who we are today, ways that honour our gains and our losses?

Queers are not the only people who have to create bespoke lives.  There was no obvious pattern to become Winston Churchill or  Oprah, either.   You can be pulled to a bold, unique, personal performance of humanity for many reasons.   In the end, it is the people who succeed in writing new rules, not those who slavishly follow the old ones, who will find the greatest success in the world.

Owning our own constructed performance in the world is the only way we can break the bounds of convention and expectation in this world to become powerfully ourselves.

The willingness to try the improbable in order to achieve the impossible, to play beyond comfort, is the only way to find what works and what doesn’t in constructing a new way of being.

I hope, during this Halloween moment, that you take a moment to play with the improbable possibilities of a new you, showing a new face, attempting a new set of choices, which stretch the bounds of your habitual, everyday performance.   May you tighten the corset a bit in order to loosen the girdle of expectations, finding that you can break the bounds of convention and be more potently and playfully you.

And, I hope, you have quite a laugh while doing so.