identity | politics
January 29, 2003 01:45 PM

I'm struggling with the idea of this week's We Have Brains question: What does it mean to be queer and a feminist?.

I tend to ask questions when I'm not certain how to answer them, rather than because I have something specific to say. So. I've been contemplating this germ for a few days. This is what I think.

I think it's about identity.

That's the intersection.

Some time ago VASpider talked about the danger e-prime poses to thinking about sexual identity and reminded me of something I find frustrating about queer politics. It's this idea that fluidity and choice are problematic. Rather than fighting the [perhaps more difficult] battle of sexuality using the rhetoric of religious freedom and choice, the gay movement chose early on (ca. 1970) to take the stand that sexual preference was a fast, immutable truth. Blame it on genes or blame it on experience; you like what you like and you can like none other.

My personal feelings [something to the effect of "Balderdash!"] aside, this perspective is more than just a tool for defending queer rights. It's a community-builder. It fixes sexual preference in your identity, if you accept it. It creates the idea of sexuality as apart from sexual preference.

[A sidebar to explain that idea and the use of some terms here... Sex is your biological determination: male, female, other. Gender is your expression of sex. Sexual preference is who you desire. Sexuality is what you identify as, and is defined by some in terms of sexual preference, by others in terms of sexual preference combined with gender. This usage may or may not be current, but it's what I learned a few years ago when I last formally studied the subject. So. Moving on.]

Early generation feminists talked about gender as if it and sex were inseparable. Not surprising - the prevailing idea had for some time been that certain aspects of one's character were fixed simply by the fact of one's sex. Women were, by nature, more caring, giving and practical. The liberal majority of early feminists didn't challenge this assumption of sex; quite the contrary - they used it to support the idea of women voting. What they argued, rather, was that the qualities of a womanly nature were a valuable political and social counterpoint to abstracted, warlike masculinity.

If you look at modern "women against war" types of political gambits and the predominance of domestic issues amongst "women's issues", you see echoes of the Victorian New Woman (though of course, feminism has been exploring the possibilities of gender disconnected from sex even in the Victorian context). I see certain parallels between this holdover and the idea of sexuality as fixed. [And I took this long just to say that?]

Kerri made some interesting points about fluidity in today's response to the WHB question. But what both of us miss in our reading of gender and sexuality as fluid is the value of defining an identity and belonging, particularly in the context of a minority group.

So. I tried to think historically about this. While contemporary feminists fight the stereotype of feminist as man-hating dyke, that stereotype made live had some use a generation ago. Being a lesbian feminist in my mother's youth wasn't about qualifiers ["lesbian", "feminist", "white"], but about radicalism. It was in one sense a complete rejection of Woman [as subserviant, homemaker, childbearer, sex object], and in another sense a full-on embrace of the same qualities expressed by the New Woman a century prior: strength, practicality, softness, peace. It was, most importantly, a whole set of beliefs, an agenda, a lifestyle - all of which could be adopted as a symbol of one's rejection of the mainstream and acceptance of the group.

And this is what I realized: one of the most important things you can do when you become aware of your position in society as "other" is to claim the right to define your own identity. This is why I am gay, I am black, I am one righteous cuntwhore, etc. are such important statements - because they're indicative of your very right to make them.

Given that, what is a queer feminist? I think this. To be both feminist and queer is to share your identity with both camps. Not that they're exclusive or contradictory - simply that there is meaning in claiming both identities.

Personally, I don't feel I could be one without the other. Both are, to me, at core simply about permitting all choices for all people.

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these are the thoughts of Tish on February 5, 2003 06:23 PM

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