A Space for Women of the World
As a straight girl, I’ve constantly battled with what queer means. As I have learned, on one hand, queer is not simply about homosexuality and rather includes everything that confronts, addresses, and acknowledges all things taboo, shameful, marginalized, non-normative, as well as anything that threatens the hegemonic structure. Yet, on the other hand, queer does not, and cannot, exist on its own to separate from or downplay homosexuality, especially since homosexuality has contributed so much to the queer movement in terms of its long and continued history of addressing and fighting against marginalization, victimization, shame and silence.
In taking these two things into account where queer is not simply about homosexuality and yet still must acknowledge homosexuality as a significant factor in the queer movement, I explore what queer means when it comes to identity and identification for me. As a straight girl, would it be wrong of me to say I am queer, even if that means I have never been in an intimate/sexual relationship with another woman? And who is to say whether I am right or wrong to call myself queer and according to whose definition? I have no desire to aim or offend anyone, and yet I feel simply raising these questions places me at an uneasiness warning me to tread cautiously when weaving my arguments.
I. Queering the Straight
One of the challenges in addressing the definition of queer is that I do not want to be seen as the patronizing straight girl attempting to compare my struggles to people who are gay and lesbian.
As Gloria Anzaldúa put it:
“When a straight writer writes about us, perhaps also out of curiosity – or latent queerness or to capitalize on a trendy forbidden lifestyle – s/he often ends up appropriating our lives, paying them token attention, and focusing on sex instead of the full complexity of our lives” (Anzaldúa 272).
Echoing Anzaldúa, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote about her straight students who were in her first lesbian and gay studies class in the English Department at Amherst College in 1986:
“Their sense of entitlement as straight-defined students was so strong that they considered it an inalienable right to have all kinds of different lives, histories, cultures unfolded as if anthropologically in formats specifically designed – designed from the ground up – for maximum legibility to themselves: they felt they shouldn’t so much as have to slow down the Mercedes to read the historical markers on the battlefield. That it was a field where the actual survival of other people in the class might at the very moment be at stake – where, indeed, in a variety of ways so might their own be” (Sedgwick 5).
I admit that when I first read these statements in Anzaldúa’s “To(o) Queer the Writer” and Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now,” I felt these statements were personal attacks against straight people because we were not gay or lesbian. After further reading articles by Sedgwick, I realized that my reaction fell right into the trap of the common misconception that the automatic opposite of queer is straight. I had played right into the trap without being aware of the heteronormative brainwashing that I had been subject to all my life. It was after a closer reading of Anzaldúa’s phrase, “focusing on sex instead of the full complexity of our lives” and Sedgwick’s “the actual survival of other people . . . might at the very moment be at stake – where, indeed, in a variety of ways so might their own be” made me realize that it’s not so much about one side being given the opportunity to look at the other through a microscope, as if the heteronormative group is the scientist and the non-normative is the specimen, but that maybe we are all specimen and no one is looking in.
Anzaldúa’s use of “our complexities” seems to infer a collectivity and community to truly mean that “our” does include straight, not demarcating straight from queer. Thus, what if we all truly fell under the umbrella of queer where there were no boundaries of sexuality to pit us against each other?
I realize Anzaldúa meant well when she addressed straight individuals. Just because you are straight doesn’t mean you are non-queer. Queer is not simply about sexuality. As Sean Griffin states in his Introduction to Hetero: Queering Representations of Straightness, “When everything – including normative heterosexuality – is considered queer, then the terms of sexual identity (as well as concepts of normal or abnormal sexuality) will cease to have meaning and real social change may be accomplished” (Griffin 4-5).
As a guinea pig testing and applying queer theory to myself as a straight-identified female, I realize the majority of straight people do focus and center on sexuality when it comes to defining queer, when really, the most recent work around queer theory transcends gender and sexuality (Sedgwick 8-9).
When I first approached my research on this topic, I was very much afraid and nervous that I would offend self-identified queer individuals. I thought, Am I alone? and Are there straight allies in the queer movement? After reading the works of Anzaldúa, Sedgwick, and Griffin, I now feel like kicking myself in the head for being so ignorant and self-righteous to think that queer could not apply to me. As I learn, and am still learning, straight is not the automatic opposite of queer but can be very much a part of being queer. It was Sedgwick whose biography as a straight queer made me realize that heterosexuality is not as normative as what it claims itself to be. There are complexities to heterosexuality that need to be recognized and acknowledged as queer. As Sedgwick wrote in her memoir, A Dialogue on Love, about her own sexuality and sexual practices:
“As far as ‘having sex’ goes, things couldn’t possibly be more hygienic or routinized for me. When I do it, it’s vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower, with one person of the so-called opposite sex, to whom I’ve been legally married for almost a quarter of a century.”
So one may ask, what is queer about Sedgwick to call herself “queer”? Well, if we were to solely focus on her sexual practices with her husband, then she looks like she falls into the normative standard, but to reiterate, it would be incorrect to solely base a queer identity on someone’s sexual practices. As Sedgwick said, “Sexuality in this sense, perhaps, can only mean queer sexuality: so many of us have the need for spaces of thought and work where everything doesn’t mean the same thing!” (Sedgwick 20).
In other words, Sedgwick admitted that even though her sex life with her husband might appear banal to others, she felt queer in her sexual practices where she confessed having a fantasy world that she had masturbated to since childhood, which she described in a haiku:
Violence and pain Humiliation. Torture. Rape, systematic.
Her fantasies had institutional settings, schools, prisons, waiting rooms, undressing rooms, and quasi-medical “procedures” to be submitted to (Russo). She said there was not one single thing about them that she was ashamed of, and yet the actual content of these fantasies could easily be interpreted as dehumanizing but all the same sexually enjoyable for Sedgwick (Russo).
Even if we consider Sedgwick’s heterosexuality and non-normative sexual practices, these should not exist as the sole determining factors in identifying her as queer. Rather, greater recognition should be given to the content of her theory and life work which were clearly queer in nature.
Similarly, if we consider Langston Hughes, he preferred to cultivate a sexual ambiguity, very much like Sedgwick, where his life work as a poet assumed a queer attitude. As Shane Vogel explains in “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife,” Hughes’ poetry archived the prohibited New York practices of the 1920s which could not be otherwise found in bureaucratic repositories of knowledge such as police reports, arrest records, and investigative statements. Rather, Hughes played an integral role in the discussion and acknowledgment of the almost always clandestine lives of many queer individuals whose night life in Harlem could never be accurately portrayed as it was in his poetry. Vogel states:
“Asking after Hughes’s sexuality in the way that critics on both sides of this debate have done, however, is to misrecognize the fundamental queerness of Hughes’s life project, not only because this unknowability was something that Hughes cultivated in his life and in his literature, but also because such debates locate the answer of sexuality and desire in the object choice of individuals, rather than posing the question of the constitution of the sexual subject in the first place” (Vogel 399).
In the same vein that Vogel’s discussion of Hughes’ sexual orientation remains unknown should not disqualify that his work wasn’t queer simply because we don’t know for certain whether he was homosexual, Anzaldúa drives a similar point about Chicana writing in “To(o) Queer the Writer” where the ethnic background of the author does not necessarily guarantee that the writing is Chicana simply because of the author:
“I have the same kinds of problems with the label ‘lesbian writer’ that I do with the label ‘Chicana writer.’ Si, soy Chicana, and therefore a Chicana writer. But when critics label me thus, they’re looking not at the person but at the writing, as though the writing is Chicana writing instead of the writer being Chicana. By forcing the label on the writing they marginalize it” (Anzaldúa 264-265).
Applying Anzaldúa and Vogel’s problems with labeling, I also identify with this problem as a Filipina-American poet and writer. Thus far, most of my work published to date appear in Filipino anthologies and literary magazines. Because I am Filipina, I feel I almost instantly qualify to be published in these anthologies and magazines and as a result, oftentimes wonder: if my writing did not always address the Filipino-American experience and rather delved into other issues of humanity, would my work still qualify as publishable in these Filipino anthologies and magazines?
So far, everything I have published specifically addresses some aspect of the Filipino-American experience, and yet on the other hand, I also feel that I write on subjects that attract all audiences across the board, where I address issues including, but not limited to, prostitution, rape, trafficking, colonization, immigration, self-esteem, sex, love, and family. I’m sure any of these issues affect almost anybody in some shape, manner, or form.
Looking back at my own reasons for being an advocate for LGBT rights, I realize that my initial motives were not necessarily correct when it came to understanding the queer movement. As an activist, I fight against the discrimination of individuals who are denied their fundamental rights through strict enforcement and regulation of heterosexual marriage laws, heterosexual family planning laws, heterosexual education laws, among other heterosexual legal restrictions. I realize the problem with my disposition is that it does not take into account every other person who is not at all interested in marriage, or having a family, or their right to enlist in the military. So how are they accounted for? My activism is not what you call “queering the heteronormative.” Rather, one could say that my activism is just another model of achieving some kind of normativity, in this respect what some might call a “homonormativity.”
As Sedgwick best put it:
“That’s one of the things that ‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick 8).
It is the term “monolithically” in the passage above that grabs me, shakes me, makes me realize that forcing anything into any kind of normative structure is not a way to queer it. To queer something is not about trying to make it fit into some socially accepted box. Rather, it is recognizing the autonomy and voice of a subject as free and independent to exist on its own in a non-normative way. As Griffin states:
“[Q]ueer theory needs to draw out the bland, white bread, vanilla, missionary position, monogamous, married, patriarchal form of heterosexuality and point out it is just as much a social construct as any minoritized sexuality” (Griffin 4).
This brings to mind what a colleague of mine made a point of. She mentioned how even though there is an ideal to heteronormativity, people still struggle with the failed feeling that they have fallen short in accomplishing the ideal, even despite being married, having the house with 2.5 kids, 1 pet, and 2-car garage. The result is that the constant struggle to pursue the normative ideal is a queering of heteronormativity itself. In other words, heteronormativity is supposed to reflect what is not only normal, but what makes life perfect. But what if your life isn’t perfect and you’ve tried everything in your power to attain the ideal and you still feel unfulfilled? Then what? It is here that heteronormativity “attempt[s] to assert one ‘proper’ heterosexuality and deny or pathologize the multiple other forms of heterosexuality that exist” (Griffin 6). Then you may feel like an outsider. You may be an outsider. You are an outsider. Does that then qualify you as queer? In many instances – yes! Is it possible that you could be part of a majority who feel the same way you do when it comes to feeling unfulfilled even after attaining the ideal house, home, and career? In many instances again – yes!
Queer is the inclusivity of all those contradictions, struggles, rebellions, truths, and questions within the structure that appears heteronormative on the outside.
II. Queering Me
Applying queer theory to my own life that appears heteronormative on the outside, but is teeming with contradictions, struggles, rebellions, truths, and questions on the inside, I recall my childhood when I was about ten years old and became tired of my mother and aunt’s attempts of making me look as girly as possible. They had dressed me up in pink dresses with ribbons, sashes, and frills. I found them ugly and annoying. They didn’t make me look like a girl. More so, they made me feel like a doll. I hated that – to be played with and controlled by my mother and aunt, for isn’t that what dolls are for?
Despite my mother favoring flowery pink and red dresses, she insisted that her two youngest daughters have short hair, in which she complained that long hair was a hassle to deal with. Every year, she subjected us to bowl cuts, claiming that she couldn’t be bothered taking care of our hair, whatever that meant. She wasn’t the one who washed or combed our hair. My younger sister and I did that ourselves. I was ten. My sister was eight. We were too old to have our hair taken care of by our mother, and yet she insisted that the overindulgence of care it took to get our hair brushed and combed in the mornings made her late for work and us late for school. Thus was the reason for cutting our hair short to the bottom of our earlobes. Only until I turned sixteen did I take full charge of growing my hair long and in which I learned my hair was the object of other females’ envy. So many women have complimented my long straight mane of thick black hair as something to die for.
Hating the ribbons, hating the pink dresses, and especially hating the damn white frills that lined the hems of my dresses, I resorted to wearing boyish looking clothes. Clothes that hung off my body. I boycotted pink, red, and white. I had taken up a pair of paints, collecting them as one would collect scratch-and-sniff stickers. I preferred long sleeve shirts. They were comfortable and not annoying. I had even developed a swagger to my walk, and if not a swagger, I didn’t dilly-dally but walked with purpose. Quickly. No lightness of foot. I stomped if heavy footsteps were to get me anywhere.
At one party where my father’s old high school classmates held their annual reunion dragging their children for the day, my cousin who also attended had not recognized me. When he saw me, he asked my older brother and sister, “Who’s that?” as I sat in a chair with baggy jeans and my long sleeves rolled up past my wrists. To me, I was cool. I wasn’t some stupid girly-girl. I was just a cool badass kid.
That same year, while my sister and I were dragged to the mall with our mother – the usual Saturday afternoon torture – my sister and I had taken up a game of tag in one of the big department stores while my mother was browsing the racks. On the walkway, unaware that I was blocking the path of an elderly white-haired gentleman with steel-rimmed glasses, he gently pushed me out of his way and said, “Excuse me, little boy.” I was horrified. My younger sister laughed hysterically when she overheard.
“Maybe it was his glasses and he couldn’t see quite right,” my fourteen-year-old big sister consoled me. True, I didn’t dress like other little girls with their pink outfits or long hair tied in ponytails, but to be mistaken as a boy!
I never wanted to be mistaken as a boy. That wasn’t my intention. I just didn’t like girl clothes and found them not only ridiculous but confining where they made it quite impossible to swing freely and hang upside down on monkey bars. Who wanted that restriction? I certainly didn’t. But still: never had I been mistaken as a boy!
It was that moment that made me aware of my girl body, a girl body I wanted to make sure was never to be mistaken as a boy ever again. From then on, as I climbed into my teenage years, I went through the painstaking task of choosing clothes that accentuated my figure. Because I had small breasts and a thin body, I became afraid that I could be easily mistaken as a boy again, where this irrational fear followed me into my college years. I had to wear the tightest jeans and the most form-fitting tops to accentuate the little curves and breasts I had. Since ten, I thought girls were not to be mistaken as boys, ever. I learned that was a bad thing.
However, as I came to realize later in my twenties, this obsession to fit into the girl ideal had gone far for other women where they felt they had to surgically enhance their femininity by subjecting their bodies to breast augmentations, nose jobs, rib removals, toe removals, liposuction, and if not surgical enhancements, then bulimia, anorexia, and creatively unhealthy diets. Seeing the extremes women would subject their bodies, I knew I would never go to that extent.
As Griffin states, “Whereas many in lesbian and gay studies have emphasized the emotional and psychological oppression of the ‘closet’ that lesbians, gay men, and other queer individuals have faced for generations, pressures are also brought to bear on straight people to ‘live up to’ expectations” (Griffin 13).
I realized in my twenties that it wasn’t such a bad thing to be mistaken as a boy. While I’ve adopted, accepted, and enjoyed my girly attired appearance, I still refuse to fulfill other girly expectations such as wearing make-up, getting my nails done, and dyeing my hair. I still prefer outdoor activities of diving off cliffs into the open water, hiking through rough terrain, biking fifty strenuous miles, and hanging upside down from monkey bars. As much as I like to think that the death-defying activities are gender-neutral, these activities are usually viewed as masculine, in which I, a female, no matter how girly I look, cannot be stopped from participating in such activities.
On a more personal note, I sometimes engage in sexual acts that may be considered “deviant”. Unlike Sedgwick, I’ll spare the gruesome details of this sexual practice. However, to come out in the open and share such intimate information is not something I ever brag about, let alone disclose, and it’s definitely not something I would ink on my forehead to publicly announce being queer. As much as Sedgwick’s bland description of her sexual practices with her husband did not solely constitute or disqualify her as queer, do my non-normative heterosexual practices qualify me as queer? But allow me to correct myself again. It is not so much whether one qualifies as queer, but more so whether one identifies themselves as queer.
So far, my most recent bio describes me as “a Philippine-born and California-raised writer, poet, partner, feminist, kayaker, cyclist, law graduate, and women’s freedom fighter.” Could I add “queer” to this laundry list to accurately describe me? After some serious exploration and research into the definition of queer, I’m seriously considering it.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “To(o) Queer the Writer – Loca, Escritoria Y Chicana.” Living Chicana Theory. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1997.
Griffin, Sean. “Introduction.” Hetero: Queering Representations of Straightness. Albany: State University of New York, 2009. Russo, Maria. “The Reeducation of a Queer Theorist: Battling Cancer, A Nice Male Psychoanalyst and Her Own Sexual Demons, The Diva Of Queer Theory Learned A New Way Of Living.” Salon. Web. 27 September 1999 <http://www.salon.com/books/it/1999/09/27/sedgwick/print.html>
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. A Dialogue on Love. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer and Now.” Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
Vogel, Shane. “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife.” Criticism, Summer 2006, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 397–425. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007.