To be queer is an unhappy state of affairs. It means to be in protest of the way society prefers its social practice, its way of knowing your body, its way of dressing and styling your body, its way of presuming your sexual proclivities.
It means to haunt society’s basic assumptions about nature, about science, about God and good morals – to be haunted by the meaning of your body, the subjectivity predivined for you at birth. It means to be a threat to what Western society has distributed as the sanctioned protocol of behaviour.
Queer symbols such as LGBTQI+ flags are therefore displayed to advocate for the recognition and legitimisation of queer people, against the anti-queer society in which they are displayed.
There is something disembodying about the label “queer”. It means to embody invisibility, an “unThere”, through misidentifying pronouns, official documentation, single-sex schools, bathroom signs, the clothing industry, through naming, sanctioned hair length and the instructive glances from society – if not outright assaulted and killed, rejected from family and friends and discriminated against in the workplace. Even in your memorial you will be made invisible.
The fight against this state of affairs has been, first, to advocate for the recognition of queer people as a significantly and sufficiently discriminated group to warrant “extra/specific” protections. Second, the strategy has been to advocate for rights and protections from the law and morality itself. Third, the strategy has sought to involve queer people into the anti-queer world with gender-neutral bathrooms, gender sensitivity training for government and private sector employees and “other” being printed on various application forms – all other things remaining the same. I will call this strategy “Recognition and Incorporation”.
From the earliest times, the term queer was used in the pejorative – to shame, ostracise and humiliate people. Queer people appropriated its use in the 1980s in the United States by the New York-based activist organisation Queer Nation. In an anonymous flyer handed out at a 1990 Gay Pride March, Queer Nation circulated the following message:
“Ah, do we really have to use that word? It’s trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some, it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious […] And for others ‘queer’ conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering […] Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”
However, the strategy of Recognition and Incorporation is premised on the idea that the discursive and physical world has space for queer people. Further, to be successful, queer people need to exhibit their oppression, become lay biologists, anthropologists, medical experts and honorary doctors of history. It causes queer people to campaign constantly that they exist, using the very linguistic and archival tools that have systematically made them invisible. Recognition and Incorporation thereby fold queer people into non-queer narratives.
In clamouring for words and parts of speech to make queer existence intelligible, we have settled on phrases such as “sometimes I feel like a woman; I always knew deep down I was gay; I identify as a boy”. In these phrases, we express an existential and metaphysical concept of what gender is. In these expressions, gender remains an ascertainable fact of the universe, of spirit and of nature. This way of speaking tries to justify queer existence within a language premised on the nonexistence of queer people. Many queer people have to express their sexual identity through neologisms, and even here it is premised on a gender binary – can a nonbinary person be heterosexual? Can there be a specific sexual attraction to transgender people?
When National Geographic published an issue explaining different queer gender and sexual identities in its January 2017 edition The Shifting Landscape of Gender: Gender Revolution, it signalled the folding of queer into non-queer narratives. It was anything but a revolution. As progressive, if not liberal, as that edition was, what it did was to essentialise queer people as specific, boxable, knowable identities to add to the existing gender landscape. That moment symbolised the isolation of queer politics to a specific race of people.
What Western Queer Discourse has produced is an alternate vocabulary based on the same basic structures of the Western world. By this, I mean that Western Queer Discourse has produced more gender labels and isolated queer communities and not intervened in the logic of gender and sexual ethics, “from the closet, to the ghetto”, as Lisa Duggan would put it.
“Every production of “identity” creates exclusions that reappear at the margins like ghosts to haunt identity based politics.” – Lisa Duggan, Queering The State
In 1999, the transgender flag designed by Monica Helms was adopted by the queer community. It was first flown at a pride parade in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2000, to represent the transgender community. It symbolised the reimagining of the transgender community as an almost ethnic nation without any claim to territory, a race of humans joined together by their experience of oppression in many states across the world, demanding legal recognition and civil rights from a society premised on the idea that queer people do not exist.
“The stripes at the top and bottom are light blue, the traditional colour for baby boys. The stripes next to them are pink, the traditional colour for baby girls. The white stripe is for people that are nonbinary, feel that they don’t have a gender. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives,” says Monica Helms, describing the flag.
Since then, specific flags for different “demographics” of queer people have mushroomed. Kye Rowan created the non-binary flag in 2014, consisting of yellow, white, black and purple bands. Kye created it for people who felt unrepresented by the gender queer flag designed by Marilyn Roxie in 2011. In 2013, Morgan Carpenter created the intersex flag consisting of a purple ring on a mustard yellow background.
“[The ring is] unbroken and unornamented, symbolising wholeness and completeness, and our potentialities. We are still fighting for bodily autonomy and genital integrity and this symbolises the right to be who and how we want to be,” explains Intersex Human Rights Australia.
The flags create a much-needed sense of community, of solidarity across borders and across time. It allows queer people not to feel isolated from the eddies of history and politics. However, the flags reproduce the anti-queer world as we know it – the ethic that people come in boxes, boxes of the body, boxes of the spirit, boxes of desire. As Arundhati Roy put it in an audio recording titled Suspicious of Nationalism, “Nationalism was the cause of much of the genocide of the 20th century. Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use, first, to shrink wrap people’s brains, and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”
The issue is that within the idea of community is the idea of non-community, those that are outside of us. Further, community requires maintenance, a labour of recognition and rejection to guard the territory of those that are within, and those that are without. This process creates an extreme marginalisation and revictimises precarious queers – queers that do not necessarily participate in queer culture, who do not pass for queer within the community, who do not “look queer” or use queer pronouns.
We see the same in South African queer litigation strategies. In South Africa, insofar as it is in the Westernised world, there exists the term “gay rights”. The ideological foundations of queer litigation: Min of Home Affairs v Fourie 2005, Du Plessis v Road Accident Fund 2003, Gory v Kolver 2006 and others, are premised on the idea that queer people are a people, a minority group that is discriminated against and entitled to equal treatment to their counterparts before the law. However, this carries the danger of essentialising and othering queer people into a separate demographic, a para-ethnicity, a ring-fenced subculture, an ostracised identity, as opposed to critiquing the state’s and society’s agenda to (re)produce, and jealously guard, gender and sexual ethics. The problem is not only the state’s failure to protect queer people and its criminalisation of queer practice, but also its cisgender and heterosexual bias.
To a large extent, the strategy of Recognition and Incorporation has been successfully advocating for recognition of existence of queer people, if not only as an other. It has successfully advocated for marriage equality not only in law and gender neutral bathrooms (one or two within entire universities). What is left untouched by Recognition and Incorporation is the dominus, nomos and hegemony of cisgender and heterosexual identity systems.
Queering Queer Discourse
To queer something is in many ways to deconstruct it. It draws from feminist modes of critique to expose the semiotic, political, intersectional and (un)ethical motivations of the subject of critique.
In Queering The State, Lisa Duggan proposes a new strategy for queer advocacy that does not rely on the continual physical, social and spiritual justification of queer people. Lisa proposes we problematise the state’s cisgender, heterosexual agenda. In this way, what is positioned as queer is cisgender-heteronormativity whereas queer practice is taken for granted, is understood as general and in no need of justification. This approach demands that the state justify its insistence on cisgender heteronormative practice and thereby justify its discrimination, socially, legally and otherwise, of queer people today.
“Such a reversal has the potential to expose and disable the conservative rhetoric in ways that anti-discrimination language cannot, stripping it of its phony populist appeal.” – Lisa Duggan, Queering The State
To queer the state would mean to demand that the state rationalise the assignment of gender at birth, justify its insistence on sex identification for marriage, provide an account of its interest in the sexuality of the family unit. Such a strategy is not aimed at winning the case and banning birth assignment as the only prize worth winning, but rather to shift the social paradigm – to deconstruct gender and sexual ethics, problematising them to a point where their semiotic, political, intersectional and (un)ethical motivations are exposed and laid bare.
Queering the state would expose the ways in which sex, gender and sexuality are not self-evident truths of the universe, but social constructs that are produced and maintained by society and the state and therefore leave queer people in no need for epistemic and ontological justification.
Ultimately, the goal is to bring an end to queerness. Nobody is born queer – we adopt the label in protest and antagonisation of the world set against queer people. The protest must be directed, then, towards the world and not towards the continual justification of those outside of its communal imagination.
This piece first appeared in The Daily Maverick.