‘Being Queer’ vs. ‘Doing Queer’

In my previous post , in which I attempted a clear and accessible definition of ‘queer,’ I noted that:

“Some people argue that people who are basically heterosexual can indeed identify as ‘queer.’ For example, if you subvert our strong cultural associations with straight sexuality – by having same-sex fantasies, engaging in anal penetration as a straight man, or by being straight but not having relationships at all, for some examples – then you could argue you are ‘queer.’ However, other people say that this is an example of straight people appropriating a word or idea which has nothing much to do with them.”

This weekend, I went to a talk about gay/queer identity, part of the Science of Sex programme hosted by Brighton Science Festival. The speaker, Charlie Bauer, defined ‘queer’ as anything outside of that core nexus of identities that constitutes ‘the norm’: white, male, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, straight etc.

This provoked mixed reactions from the friends I was with, some of whom would feel uncomfortable if a straight guy identified as ‘queer’ because he was subverting some other norm, for example, by being voluntarily celibate (which we don’t expect men to be) or happy and fat (which we don’t expect overweight people to be.

I think in light of this understandable discomfort, there’s an important nuance to be teased out between ‘being queer’ and ‘doing queer.’ There are some people who I consider to be ‘queering’ something, whilst not identifying as queer. If you’re queering something, you’re challenging a binary, questioning a norm, or rejecting an expectation. My northern, male, broad, rugby-playing partner is queering certain norms by being a vegan and proudly identifying as feminist. But he wouldn’t identify as queer.

Identifying as queer is heavily caught up with
sexuality and gender, after all, and my partner is cis and straight. But what about straight men who like anal sex, fantasise about same-sex encounters, and like to wear women’s underwear in bed? Are they queer, or are they queering aspects of their identities?

The obvious answer is: it depends how they feel! Allowing people to self-identify is an integral part of repecting people’s sexualities and their experiences, so if those men say they’re queer, I’m down with that. I know, however, there would be a point where I’d think, “This straight, cis person is appropriating a label that doesn’t belong to them.” So how do we respect self-identification whilst being free to criticise appropriation?

I have no clear answer to this (maybe you can all help me out in the comments.) Do you feel queer, or do you queer aspects of your identity? How do heterosexual people saying they are queer make you feel?


Queering Forth

The definition of  ‘queer’ is quite complicated. However, for people like me who are immersed in Gender Studies, have queer friends, and live in Brighton, it’s easy to forget that! After hearing some poor attempts from people trying to succinctly explain ‘queer’ to people unsure of the term, I thought I’d have a go myself.

I think the most basic explanation is that ‘queer’ means ‘traditional labels for sexuality (or gender) don’t fit me.’ As far as I can see, there are 4 main uses of the term ‘queer,’ some of which overlap:

  • As a term of abuse – ‘Queer’ was originally a slur directed at gay people. This used to be more common a few decades ago; now, the LGBT community has reclaimed the term, and many use it to refer to themselves. However, some people still throw the term around as an insult. It’s all about context!
  • As an umbrella term for LGBT – Sometimes people will use ‘queer’ as a shorthand for all sexualities that aren’t ‘straight’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual…it’s useful to have a shorthand!)
  • As a term for sexual orientation that doesn’t fit traditional labels – Some people feel that ‘gay’, ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ or any other term doesn’t quite fit them. We have quite strong cultural ideas about what these labels mean, and some people feel those categories don’t reflect the complicated nature of their sexualities. So, if someone says their orientation is ‘queer,’ it means they’re not heterosexual,* but their orientation also isn’t ‘gay,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘lesbian.’
  • As a term for gender identity that doesn’t fit traditional labels – If someone identifies as ‘genderqueer,’ rather than ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or anything else, it means they don’t feel those labels fit them. They might see male/female as too strict a binary, categories which have a lot of cultural associations that just don’t work for them. So, they’re genderqueer. Simple!

If you’ve never met anyone who identifies this way, it might be difficult to understand. But part of the point of the term ‘queer’ is to challenge the categories we have created for ourselves; in many ways it is a byword for subverting traditional labels and binaries, and challenging the idea of ‘normal.’

*Some people argue that people who are basically heterosexual can indeed identify as ‘queer.’ For example, if you subvert our strong cultural associations with straight sexuality – by having same-sex fantasies, engaging in anal penetration as a straight man, or by being straight but not having relationships at all, for some examples – then you could argue you are ‘queer.’ However, other people say that this is an example of straight people appropriating a word or idea which has nothing much to do with them.

What do you think the term ‘queer’ means? Is there anything else I’ve missed?

When Naomi Wolf’s Vagina came to town

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

Naomi Wolf bounced onto the stage of the Brighton Dome’s studio on Friday night with a wide grin, expressing her excitement at being in Brighton “with such cool people.” She wants to talk to us about her new book, Vagina: A New Biography, warning us: “I’m still getting used to talking about such personal things in public. So if I blush or take my time, bear with me!”

That’s the problem with Vagina: it’s just a little too intimate, a little too personal, and, going by the reaction of many feminists to the book, not political enough. Unlike many of her younger contemporaries, Wolf has not learnt an important lesson from the history of the movement: extrapolating the ‘female experience’ from one white, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy woman is an exercise in political blindness. The first section of her book (and most of her talk on Friday night) boils down to this: her orgasms are pretty good. For a while they weren’t so good any more, and her doctor discovered her pelvic nerve was being compressed by her spine. Now she’s all better, and after reading up on neuroscience, she wants to tell us all about the profound ‘brain-vagina connection’ that makes the vagina the ‘centre of the self.’ Wolf is a firm believer that really great orgasms are essential to women’s emancipation, because dopamine, a neurochemical involved with reward, is a “feminist chemical” produced during orgasm.

Unfortunately, the neuroscience Wolf enthuses about may not be as conclusive as she believes, as this collation of neuroscientists’ responses to her talk demonstrates. Wolf is not an expert, and neuroscientists are eager to point out the dangers of making linear cause and effect relationships between a neurochemical and a specific emotion (like ‘dopamine produces assertiveness’). Quite apart from that, Wolf’s argument hinges on the reader accepting phrases like ‘the feminine soul,’ ‘the Goddess array,’ and ‘the Universal and Divine Feminine,’ language which is interspersed throughout the book but which she pointedly avoided during her talk in Brighton, saying “I guess words like that sound odd to British ears.”

Not just British ears; I think the French would have something to say about that too. Simone de Beauvoir famously explored in The Second Sex the way that the myth of the ‘eternal feminine’ serves to undermine and subjugate women, who are portrayed in a male-dominated world as ‘Other,’ strange and exciting, exotic creatures with complex sexual desires and unfathomable motivations. Vagina is ostensibly an attempt to de-mystify women’s bodies and their sexual lives, but serves only to play into the patriarchal constructs Beauvoir identified decades ago.

As well as this explicit language, Wolf also tends to display her attitude in the adjectives she uses to describe the female – ‘lovely’ comes up far too often, as does ‘magical,’ and although ‘delicious’ only appeared once it did make me hiccup in shock – in stark comparison to her descriptions of the male orgasm, which is ‘linear,’ their wiring ‘simpler’ and ‘grid-like.’ How convenient that our nervous systems so cosily match social gender stereotyping.

The anti-feminist implications of the way Wolf has expanded her own relationship with sex to encompass half of the human population should be obvious to anyone. If the vagina is at the heart of the universal female experience, then trans women will never achieve true womanhood. Neither will asexual or celibate women. Nor women who find sex painful, unenjoyable, or simply not very important. Lesbian, bisexual and queer women were not mentioned once. In so many ways, Wolf’s enormous privilege shone through not only as a heterosexual, cis woman, but in other ways too, like when she enthused about her New York apartment (which has a doorman), her education (Yale was name-dropped as her alma mater) and her gynaecologist (who happens to be a world expert on pelvic nerve disorders). Laurie Penny’s snark that the main message of Vagina is that “private doctors are wonderful if you can afford them” seemed rather apposite.

I wanted to like Naomi Wolf, because she was so eager to engage and share with the women in the audience. It is, however, hard to admire any self-proclaimed feminist who theorises in such essentialist terms, and who seems determined to ignore marginalised women who may need her help more than the largely white, middle-class audience at the Brighton Dome.

Let’s Just Say No to Nadine Dorries

This article was originally published on The Yorker.

No one I have ever met had great sex education. I, for one, was given the ubiquitous condom-on-a-banana lesson from a teacher sporting glow-in-the-dark penis earrings. The lesson culminated in a mysterious box, which had been passed roughly around the class, opening to reveal an ominously broken egg. “That’s like your virginity,” the teacher announced. “Once it’s broken, you can’t put it back together again.”

So, having been subjected to sex education based loosely on the fable of Humpty Dumpty, I am totally supportive of efforts to improve the lessons young adults and teenagers are being given on sex and relationships. Sadly, a regressive bill recently proposed by Nadine Dorries MP managed to gain 67 votes to 61, suggesting that Parliament’s views about how to encourage safe and healthy sex amongst teens is retreating a few decades.

The bill proposes that “girls” aged 13-16 must be given “additional sex education [that] must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity”. Seemingly innocuous, yes? But there are several problems with Dorries’ stance. First of all, giving girls this advice and not their male counterparts expresses a very clear attitude to whose responsibility it is to have safe sex. Yes, girls are the ones who might end up getting pregnant from unprotected sex, but that shouldn’t mean that they are the ones who will, or ought to, care more about the decision to abstain. Contrary to Dorries’ opinion that this will “empower” young girls, the gendering of this issue will create further disparity between the ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour of men and women. Imagine the kids comparing notes: the girls have been told to just say no, whilst the boys were handed the banana.

The abstinence route is not a sure-fire way of reducing teenage pregnancy (America has the highest rate in the Western world). We’ve known this for a while. However, abstinence in itself is certainly a choice which should not be stigmatised, and young people of either gender should feel supported in such a decision, by their partner, friend or teacher. Dorries, however, has a far too narrow view of young people’s choices: “Society is focused on sex. Teaching a child at the age of seven to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: now go and try this for yourself.” So she would rather say: “don’t have sex” and leave it at that?

There is a problem in viewing things the way Dorries does. Yes, showing kids how to wear condoms presents them with one idea of sex and sexuality; pornographic images and sexualised media presents them with a different one. It is not enough to deny them all contact with sex and the issues around it; rather, we should be focusing on the positives and showing them that sex can be fun, safe, loving, exhilarating, and utlimately a experience to embark on when (or if) they feel ready. And, most importantly, your gender affects none of this, despite what Dorries might say.