distinction without difference: why i’m rethinking my queer identity

Hello kittens,

Welcome to part one of this series, “distinction without difference: why i’m rethinking my queer identity”.

I knew almost instinctively that 2012 was going to be a year of big changes for me.

But even I didn’t know how right I was.

If you had told me a year ago that I would be sitting in my office in 2012 writing about thinking about not calling myself queer anymore, I’d have washed your mouth out with rhinestones.

The thing is, nothing has fundamentally changed about me – except the way I view naming myself.

Objectively, I am as queer or queerer now than I’ve ever been. And although everyone loves to play queerer than thou, I’ve never actually considered that someone wouldn’t think me queer.

I am a gay~ish man~ish polyamor~ish genderqueer~ish person of MTF history. Ish. My core identity is perched perhaps precariously atop my queer feminism, and my flag is a flag of many colors.

Maybe it’s all the ~ish that gets to me. It certainly gets to other people.

When I was prepping to transition, someone told me I wasn’t really trans if I didn’t want to pass 100% of the time.

And I’ve never been able to escape the feeling that, when I look around at other gay men, I see people who are a lot like me and with whom I share a history and perhaps even a destiny, but I’ve never really felt at home.

And Lorde help me being a polyamorous person in a monogamous relationship.

Queer was a great word that really helped me out a lot when I decided that I didn’t want to spend all of any more days trying to figure out exactly what I was. I am Big Mama Schlomo, and that’s that.

I never foresaw myself having so much in common with the post-gay/post-gender kids. I thought it was really important to attach myself to an identity because there is obviously so much left to do. And there is. And I think not naming yourself because you’ve bought into the notion that we’re actually presently living in some sort of gendertopia is a big, fresh road apple.

Since I don’t have anything to lose, I will admit that I (shamefully) was initially against renaming the Office of LGBT Affairs (now known as the Spectrum Center) at the University of Michigan. We all heard the rumblings that were about to go above ground about the kids for whom even the alphabet wasn’t big enough anymore, and the good (nay, great) people at the Office responded rapidly and with great alacrity.

I was dismayed. And I still refuse to engage in the notion that the emergence of post-gay and post-gender identities somehow invalidates or decommissions sexual and gender identities. See, here’s one of the places where I just don’t even want to tango anymore with the contemporary queer dialectic anymore (fuck, and ps, fuck the notion that there is one truth to be found) – no one’s identity invalidates anyone else’ identity.

Honestly, had this discussion happened later, I probably would have recommended changing the name to The Interlinking Unbound Spectra Center. The alphabet is too goddam small.

And here again I’ve so often come back to the word queer.

Queer has served and continues to serve an amazing service for me and all other queer-identified people. But I of all people know how easy it is to take this work horse of a term for granted – and I’ve watched it really start to buckle under our neglect.

I’m not saying there has to be or should be a definition of queer. But I do think it’s interesting how fast our arguments devolve into the shallow and divisive when we do try to pin down just what queer means. More and more every day I come to see queer as a distinction without difference.

Do it for the cache

The gay rights movement lost its way. Some people might place the date earlier, but I think the present cluster-whoops that makes up the mainstream gay rights movement as represented to the American public by the Human (White Affluent Male) Rights Campaign is more or less directly attributable to the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996.

Suddenly having a federal statute that excluded gay people from marriage where previously no federal definition of marriage even existed artificially turned the conversation to marriage. Like, all the way.

Now, to be sure, the soon-to-be very chunky wedge between gay and queer had been brewing for some time.

The widely distributed and influential leaflet, “QUEERS READ THIS” – which, on a personal note, gives me total naches (that’s Yiddish for ‘the warm fuzzies’) – generally uses “queer” and “gay and lesbian” synonymously and interchangeably. But that doesn’t mean the anonymous writer or writers didn’t see differences:

Being queer means leading a different sort of life. It’s not about the mainstream, profit-margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It’s not about executive directors, privilege and elitism. It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it’s about gender-fuck and secrets, what’s beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it’s about the night.

Predictably, it took about four minutes flat for queer identity to be overrun by all of those things. But more on that later.

It’s hard to remember (or imagine, for the people who don’t remember), but the gay rights movement was in a very different place in the 80s and early 90s than it is now. Picture it: 1991. Dan Savage, an unknown writer wants to start an advice column to make fun of straight people called “Hey Faggot!” His editors balked at the title, but he used the salutation in his column until 1999.

Dan Savage – possibly the most visible symbol of everything queers hate about gay people aside from Joe Solomonese – Dan Fucking Savage started his column to make fun of straight people and he wanted to call it “Hey Faggot!”

I think it’s safe to say that AIDS activism gave a pretty resolute kick in the pants to the more sedate gay rights movement of the late 70s and early 80s – which itself had ridden on the tails of the more radical gay liberation movement that followed in the years after Stonewall. There was no place for pleasantries and making straight people like us in the face of a health crisis that was tearing communities asunder.

DOMA did a bad, bad thing – it ushered in the newest wave of corporate monied white gay concern activism and helped to stamp out the visibly radical nature of queer activism in this country.

If you’re keeping track, these are roughly the four minutes I referred to earlier.

While the Pride industry is busy collecting vodka ad dollars and selling water at a higher price than the vodka being advertised to us, queerness is chased out of the streets and into the classrooms – out of reach of the people who created it and needed it most.

Which I guess more or less is where people my age come in.

I showed up to the University of Michigan gay with maybe some queer tendencies. I was already a Marxist after all.

But I definitely left queer. In a perfectly fitting twist of fate, becoming immersed in the queer dialectic (there’s that awful word again) gave me the vocabulary I needed to denounce queerness.

Queer has become a detached, disembodied panacea for gay panic. Queer is used like a holy noun, like milk and honey:

“queer unsettles and questions the genderedness of sexuality” – Teresa de Lauretis

“A political statement, as well as a sexual orientation, which advocates breaking binary thinking and seeing both sexual orientation and gender identity as potentially fluid.”

Queer is your get out of gay free card.

Because in a world and time when gay is Joe Solomonese, gala dinners, vodka pride floats and marriage activism, and queer is DIY vegan potlucks, gay shame and hair dye, it’s almost a no-duh proposition what politically and socially engaged people are going to be – or call themselves.

You need a get out of gay free card when LGBT activism is cannibalized by the oppressions it should be fighting.

But when it stops there – when queerness becomes little more than not-gayness – it is an academic distinction.

And I choose my words carefully.

What’s so goddam queer about white college-educated people reading books by white college-educated people about what being queer is? And for obvious disclosure: I am a white college-educated person.

It could be queer. But academic queerness has assumed unto itself sole responsibility for the definition and direction of being queer, and being queer? It has become entirely too consumed with being not-gay.

Queer feminism has become a closed loop of teachers and students, of tuition bills and publications. We need queer studies. But we also need to rectify access to education. It’s not really enough to point out the bitter irony of taking or teaching classes about marginalized people who couldn’t get into your school because of institutional oppressions.

There is – or should be – room for queer feminism outside the walls of the ivory tower. And academic queerness should be taking its cues from the outside – not trying to force its privileged nouvelle definition(s) of queerness on queers.

To put it bluntly: I need to be told how to be queer like I need another hole in the head. Whom I love and whom I fuck and how many people I love and fuck and what we call it when we love and fuck and where we’re standing or sitting or lying when we love and fuck in the context of true and informed consent is as much Joe Solomone’s business as it is Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s.

Which is to say: it’s not.

I will not call myself queer for the sake of not calling myself gay. Let me say that again: I will not call myself queer for the sake of not calling myself gay.

I will not do it for the cache.

I will not do it when it feels like white queers my age – and, to again point out the obvious, I am a white queer my age – have about as much in common with ACT UP and Queer Nation as we do with the Human Rights Campaign.

I’m not saying people aren’t doing shit. Young people are totally doing shit. Don’t even get me started on the demonstrably false ‘kids these days’ bullshit.

But doing shit is not the goal of academic queerness. And if queerness doesn’t start in the streets, in our hearts and in our heads – then queerness is little more than the gossamer-thin bulwark we build against being called L, G, B or T.


You can continue onto part ii of this post here.

11 thoughts on “distinction without difference: why i’m rethinking my queer identity

  1. Oh muh Gawd, a thousand times this. I’ve been discussing the irony of queerness being rooted in academia a lot lately. I don’t have the same language as other queers, so I often have no idea what people are talking about and I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts using the deemed socially appropriate language. The language we use is terribly alienating. Which leads to a stratification within the queer community, and whomever can throw around the most buzzwords—like “racially reconciled,” “social capital,” or “identity politics,” among many others—becomes the monarch of the queers, even if they’re just regurgitating what other people have said. And the cycle continues and we’ve accomplished nothing.

  2. Excellent, sir or should I say, Big Mama? Unfortunately it was so well written that I have to read it again (probably twice more) to really comment on the specific content because a) I always failed reading comprehension in standardize testing and b) I’ve only had one cup of coffee so far this morning.

    From what I gathered in the first read through, I agree with your views on gender identity and also, I must say that you have an excellent vocabulary. I had to look up several words. Looking forward to part 2!

  3. The defining of queer or gay confines either or both of the groups of people who claim to be one or the other, or both, to a stricter guideline than can possibly cover all of us, except for those who need to have a definition, like the behemoth groups that have been created to foment political influence. In reality, there are as many definitons of queer and gay as there are people who call themselves gay or queer. Unfortunately, just as organizations become powerful enough to create the changes for which they were originally intended, the politically adept people who come to run them and who have been rewarded and recognized for their success, see themselves as something greater than the movements themselves… In other words, putting anyone into a box sucks, except when, for representational reasons, we put ousrselves there to bring about positive change… human rights should cover everyone… everyone is “ish.” Good, thought-provoking piece, Mama!!!

  4. I want to comment, but my words will seem so inadequate. Suffice to say, this distinction without difference discussion is long overdue.

    If I get to PDX in May, I so want to have a long dinner conversation with you.

  5. I want to comment on so much of this, but words seem so inadequate. Suffice to say, this distinction without difference dialogue is so overdue. Thank you for putting it out there.

  6. As a straight, male WASP, I was anticipating rhetoric, obnoxious buzzwords, and faulty logic when I read the subject of your post. I was pleasantly surprised. The buzzwords were there, but you seemed to find them just as obnoxious as I do. There is a lot to be said for movements, and it is necessary to identify the group as such in order for them to work, but, as you poignantly explained, it is a shame when the group identity overcomes the individual, especially when the purpose of the movement is to more freely permit individuality.

    My upbringing and sexual identity have been such that I have not been very thoroughly exposed to the gay (or queer? What is the proper term? I don’t even know, really. Whatever, you know what I’m talking about) rights movement. I don’t really know much about it, and there was one thing I didn’t really understand. Why do you balk at corporate sponsorship? To me, it seems that the fact that corporations are joining your fight, or even just trying to feed off of it for publicity, is a very good sign, and something to celebrate. ‘Gay’ was marginalized, and fought hard, and now it has power and influence. Sure, there is a long way to go, but wasn’t getting public recognition and acceptance the goal? With that recognition and acceptance comes corporate backing, doesn’t it? So having corporate backing seems like a sign that you are succeeding. Fifty years ago, corporations supporting PRIDE events would have been boycotted by millions. Now, they actually think it will win them customers. Isn’t that a good thing?

    But enough of that. Here’s hoping for a future where people can just identify themselves by their names, instead of needing groups and labels. Here’s hoping that someday even the word “queer” is no longer necessary, and being queer can be seen by society as just as natural as breathing. It’s a long time off, but it might come. Cheers!

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