Do you identify as genderqueer? What does that word mean to you? Did you take it on for personal reasons, or is it a political statement against binary gender?
I had the pleasure of drinking beers with a couple of my favorite people, Nick and Elijah, a few nights ago. The three of us have a lot in common, identifying as non-binary butch types who’ve had a lot of the same experiences in our personal histories. That doesn’t mean we all use the same words to describe our identities, however.
At one point we were talking about ‘genderqueer’ as an identity, and how we saw ourselves fitting into that identity, or not. Nick told the story that when he met me, I was the first person who embraced the identity ‘genderqueer’ from a place of lived experience rather than as a political statement. He’d been turned off by people identifying as genderqueer so they could fuck with the gender binary, but without the internal identity that went against the gender binary. I remember having those conversations with Nick, and I remember that I was confused as to why he didn’t embrace that identity label. Sure I’d seen some discussion online about people adopting the label ‘genderqueer’ as a rebellion against the gender binary, I understood that for some it was more political than personal. To prepare for the Genderqueer Identity workshop I gave at Butch Voices in Portland, I read lots of blog entries and comments debating the validity of ‘genderqueer’. As Nick and I talked about it, and he related his experiences, I could see where he was coming from, and respect his choice not to identify that way.
Coming to an identity from lived experience is very different than coming to an identity as a political statement and a statement against something. I embrace genderqueer as an identity that fits me and my experiences with gender, and though I might oppose the gender binary as a restrictive social construct, but I’m not a political genderqueer. I chose that identity label as ‘for me’, rather than against something. As we talked more about this, and about the various identity based groups and gatherings that we’ve attended, one concept we agreed on was that identity based memberships are restrictive in ways we weren’t comfortable with. We pondered the idea of experience-based gatherings and events instead. For example, I may not identify as a lesbian anymore, or as (strictly) a woman, but based on shared experiences, I can certainly participate in a discussion about how it feels to have been socialized as a girl and woman from birth, the kinds of restrictions I experienced as a result. Those are common experiences for many who were identified as female at birth and socialized as such.
My disillusionment with identity based groups and events really started with the last Butch Voices conference. One of main conflicts that came up was around the use of the word Butch: who was allowed to use it and a lot of policing around that identity. One group was very upset that people who identified as butch also identified as transgender or genderqueer, and didn’t necessarily identify as female. There was a lot of tension around that issue. The issue was not really resolved, despite multiple debates and discussions. My thought at the time was that we had so much in common based on our socialization as females, our experiences around gender and gender policing, that there was plenty of common ground to meet on. Unfortunately, for many people who are coming from the identity based viewpoint, that’s not enough. I left that conference feeling disappointed and disheartened.
In contrast, Gender Odyssey felt like home. I felt fully welcomed, didn’t feel the pressure of identity policing, I felt like common experience trumped identity in many situations and there was truly a feeling of community across the many, many identities of people present at the conference.
Words and labels are funny things. Coming from the starting place of common experience, I might not relate well to other people who identify as ‘genderqueer’. Nick and I are more alike than almost anyone I’ve ever met, but we don’t both use the same identity labels. Our experiences are so broad and labels are shortcuts to communicating those experiences and the impact they’ve had on us, so of course labels aren’t going to tell the whole story.
Conversations like this and my experiences over the last couple of years, have solidified my view that identity based politics are limiting. You will get some number of people who share an identity and who also share enough experiences that they can group together comfortably and productively. You will also shut some people out on the basis of identity words and physical cues that are expected by the group. People who identify differently or who don’t look like the stereotype, won’t feel as welcome and the group will miss out on their perspectives. I’d really like to see the queer community move toward more experience based organizations and events, would love to see some really open honest conversations about ditching the policing that’s so rampant.
And I want to be clear, I really believe in and support self-identification. The results can be confusing at times, but I’d rather have to work to clear the confusion rather than have gatekeepers. Identity gatekeepers kind of piss me the hell off, ya know?
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