A Queer Dilemma: Activism and Labels

Content Note: allosexual/alloromantic normativity, mention of queerphobic bullying & homelessness, murder, & homophobic laws/propaganda

Credits: istolethetv via Creative Commons

Credits: istolethetv via Creative Commons

If you told me a year ago that I would be considering how best to defend gay rights, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s funny how these things happen sometimes. I’m not even sure that I know where the desire to be an activist has come from. I don’t think it emerges from a sense of entitlement or a hope that I will better my future, though these feelings are involved.

It seems to come from something like a sense of duty. Duty to those that who have fought for me to enjoy the rights that I do have; a duty to those children who will one day be kicked out of their households or bullied at school because of who they are; a duty to the strong and beautiful voice inside my head, telling me that to be loved is an honour, an opportunity, and a fragile thing, in which there is no room for shame. This dutiful impulse is strong but I’m not sure that I know how best to act upon it.

How can I be an effective activist?

One answer might be: to think about how we identify ourselves. At first this seems counterintuitive. Why should we focus on whether to call ourselves ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, ‘queer’ or ‘pansexual’ when there exists the Russian LGBT propaganda law, the murder of gay people in Iran, or a ban on gay men being able to donate blood? These require direct action, not rhetorical games.

My response to this emerges out of a conviction that the rhetoric used by a movement determines the force and direction of its activism. Words do matter, they do make a difference. If you change them even slightly, you may find yourself representing a different group of people, for a different cause, from a different angle. Labelling yourself can also afford you considerable power in the political sphere. Lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force by giving themselves what the civil rights movement had: a public, collective identity.  Gay and lesbian social movements have built up solidarity by creating their own institutions, festivals, neighbourhoods and flags. Underlying this solidarity is the notion of what gays and lesbians share: the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same sex desires. The aim of the movements is to resist the denial of opportunities and freedoms to actualise this self.

This is what I find difficult. I know that clear categories and collective identity are necessary for political gain, and yet selecting one feels uncomfortable. It’s like I’ve put myself in a box that isn’t really big enough; I kind of fit, but awkwardly, or imperfectly. Part of the reason for this is that our sexual desires can be rather more fluid than these fixed identities allow for. I dance around these categories, flirt with them, straddle their boundaries, and constantly discover that my sexuality eludes them. I can’t be categorised as ‘gay’ because, for me, one gender is not more beautiful than another: there are only more or less beautiful people.

That would make me ‘bisexual’, right? I hope not. I think that part of my discomfort is with the word ‘sexual’ embedded in it. I don’t understand why we must define ourselves by our basest instincts. Basing social identity on these instincts makes us less whole as human beings. What says more about me is who I am capable of loving. Not loving in the way you might love your friends, or a cat, but the sort of love which occurs when you slide into identification with somebody’s way of thinking. The sort of love which has you mirroring their gestures and actions and tone of voice. The sort of love where it feels as though somebody else has inhabited you, with their influence spreading from the inside out until the only natural conclusion, I grant you, becomes a sort of physical inhabitation.

‘Queer’ is closer to the mark. For one thing, it is an excellent example of how a sexual identity category can be used as a means of successful resistance against oppression. The word ‘queer’ was used pejoratively against those with same-sex desires but was reclaimed by activists wanting to assert a politicised identity distinct from the gay identity. What I like about the word ‘queer’ is that it is not reductively concentrated on sexual attraction. This word understands that sexual expression is a political act. The word ‘queer’ asserts sexual identity in tandem with a political vision. When I say that I’m queer – a word which originally meant ‘peculiar’ or ‘strange’ – I am saying that diversity is an amazing, beautiful thing. Diversity, not unity, is what gives our society strength. Society benefits from multiple points of view on a problem. One person looking at a problem is not going to solve it. If you want real progress you need lots of different people, from lots of different backgrounds, who think differently looking at the same problem. This includes people who love differently.

The problem is that the word ‘queer’ is supposed to embrace the different and peculiar but actually ends up including just about everybody. We are all minorities: it’s just a matter of how you slice the pie. Whether it be your skin colour, what you believe, how much you earn, where you are from, these are all ways in which we are different. Even if you were the use the word ‘queer’ purely as a sexuality category, you risk being woefully unspecific about what you stand for, thus losing political clout. If you identify yourself as ‘queer’ or ‘LGBT’ you end up claiming to represent people who you don’t necessarily identify with and whose experiences you will never truly be able to understand. The political power of the term queer is diluted by its breadth. It is hard to feel a sense of affiliation: is this really my movement, fought for my cause, in the interests of my people?

The problem with identity movements is that they are doomed to self-destruct. Fixed identity categories are the basis for oppression and the basis of political power. Too specific and they are reductive. Too broad and they are redundant. So how can we be effective activists?

The answer, I think, is that we actually need to start with the individual. Not with identifying ourselves as part of a community. Not by joining a movement based upon a collective identity. Start by telling our personal stories. This is how we can change hearts and minds. This is how we stop people feeling isolated and alone. This is how we can dispel the myths and lies that surround terms like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘queer’. This is how we can do our duty to our human experiences, the complexity of them, the fluidity of our feelings, the rhythm of our thoughts.

How will I be an activist? I will begin by telling you my story, but for that you will have to wait till next time.

Kieran Hammond (GR. Comment Contributor)

4 thoughts on “A Queer Dilemma: Activism and Labels

  1. Labels can be useful as a shorthand, or as a way of finding like-minded people, but there’s no use in letting them define you. I originally identified as a lesbian, but married a man, who later came out to me as a trans woman… labels feel very inadequate to describe my experience. As you say, what matters is being able to relate to each other as individuals.

  2. Labels can be useful when you need a shorthand way of finding like-minded people, but there’s no use in letting them define you. I originally identified as a lesbian, but married a man, who later came out to me as a trans woman… labels feel very inadequate to describe my experiences. It doesn’t matter – as you say, what matters is being able to relate to each other as individuals!

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