Some of the themes I’m introducing here lead into some thoughts about HIV and identity that I’m excited to share in my next article. Enjoy!
In the late 80’s and early 90’s the term ‘queer’ began an evolution of being reclaimed and recast as a non-oppressive expression. Gays, lesbians, and other people with non-traditional sexualities began identifying with ‘queer’ and eventually the term established an umbrella-type character that encompasses a gender and sexual diversity spectrum.
Growing up in Northwestern Ontario in the 90’s, I remember identifying with the term queer. It may have been the first ‘sexual identity’-related term I ever related to. My connection to the term wasn’t the positive, modern, urban one we talk about in my Sexual Diversity Studies classes in university though.
My queer identity was one of self-hate and self-rejection. I was different. I was backwards. I was sick.
With the nearest city about a three-hour drive away, the area where I grew up was (and still is) far removed from the diversity and inclusivity of the urban environment. My self-hating ‘queer’ identity evolved into a gay identity by the time I reached my final year of high school, which was when I began ‘coming out’ as gay. The first time I told someone I was gay I’d never met a single out gay person. I was an anomaly, even to myself.
My apologies for this, but I’m about to vomit some jargon-y academic queer theory into this piece. After all, what would my education be worth if I didn’t?
So, here’s a question: what is identity?
I’ve already begun throwing the term around by proclaiming my ‘gay identity’ and my ‘queer identity’, but what does this even mean? We like to think that our identity, in particular our sexual identity, is somehow an intrinsic, fixed, extremely intimate part of who we are as a person. Something it just needs to be discovered. Once we make that discovery, we can use our knowledge of who we really are to associate with others who are the same, and fight for equal rights on the grounds of our shared differences from society’s norms.
So, what that means is… I grow up, I slowly realize I’m not heterosexual, I finally ‘discover’ that I’m gay, I embrace my gay identity, and now I can fight for gay marriage, or, more historically (in Canada), decriminalization of homosexuality.
The concept of ‘Queer Theory’ turns this on its head.
Now, keep in mind that people can do entire degrees in Queer Theory, so I’m really just going to share a couple of ideas that I think relate to where I’m headed with this article.
Judith Butler, a well-known academic in this field, has written a lot about what she calls ‘performativity’ of identity. We associate ourselves with a multitude of different identities, but under this way of thinking we can only ‘perform’ or act out a limited number of them at once. So, in a given moment I may ‘perform’ my gay identity by standing on a float in the Toronto Pride Parade, and I may be concurrently ‘performing’ my identity as a man.These identities exist as something tangible only in the moment that they are being proclaimed or shared. Identity is something that we establish in relation to society and our surroundings, and not actually something intrinsic and fixed.
To bring this back to my story, let me remind you of how my ‘queer identity’ emerged. I didn’t wake up one day when I was 10 or 11 and say: “I’m gay, that’s my new identity”. Rather, I knew I had different sexual and emotional interests than what I was being told was normal, and generated a self-hating ‘queer identity’ relative to how my rural community used the term.
My identity emerged not as an intrinsic, fixed entity, but as a way of understanding myself relative to my surroundings at the time.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the term queer is now being used as an umbrella term. A reduced way of understanding how it’s emerged in that way is to say that it allows individuals to reject labels. Labels put people into categories, which, by necessity, means other people are left out of the category. Someone is always excluded. That’s exactly why we’ve found ourselves struggling to keep up with the ever-growing alphabet soup of LGBTT2Q-etc spectrum.
What I have taken from my education on this topic is two-fold. First, trying to think in a queer theory way about how we fit into the world is useful to ensure we don’t adopt labels that exclude others. Second, unfortunately, we need identity labels.
We need these labels for two primary reasons. We need them because as people are maturing or coming to terms with sexualities that are non-normative, these labels give provide strength to learn and grow and overcome obstacles. My embracing of a gay identity near the end of my high school years was part of what helped me carry on and figure out my place in the world. And finally, our legal and political structures require these labels.
We need to come together as groups of individuals with collective interests if we want to achieve legislative change.
An important consideration is that we need to remain unified as sexually oppressed communities, even when some of us attain the rights we desire. So, as a ‘queer’ community, gay men and lesbians should not drop off the advocacy boat as soon as marriage equality is achieved. I feel that it’s important to continue standing in solidarity and fighting for the rights of everyone in our LGBTT2Q-etc alphabet soup.