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Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Belong to You: On Queer Individuality and Identity

"I think, as I get older, I become stranger and more generic. A generic queer, for queer is my nation and my culture."
-Dragon XCalibur, "Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue"

(source)
My genderqueer translady friend is showing off her haircut. As usual, it's long in some parts, short in others. Like me, she almost always has the hairstyle we call an undercut: Longer hair on top, covering or partially covering shorter hair on the sides. Often, the sides of the head get buzzed with the clippers, down to a bristly-soft stubble.

It's not just my friend and I who have undercuts, either. If I could point to one haircut that predominates among queer and trans folk -- especially of the non-binary, androgynous or genderqueer variety-- it would be the undercut. And that makes sense. It's a half-and-half 'do-- it incorporates the longer hair that our culture associates with femininity, and the svelte butchness of a shaved head. Yet this explanation feels too reductive, too linear. Simply put, having an undercut feels physically and spiritually right to me. When we get together with our undercuts, there is a current of similarity, a thread of visual belonging.

Yet to say that this haircut, this style, denotes our community-- that is not quite right either. There is no dresscode, no hairstyle that encompasses us in our complexity. But still, we find common threads-- an aesthetic, repeated memetically and yet entirely organic, real. Perhaps these common threads hold together even what they do not precisely encompass.

Perhaps similarity, even when it is not total, could be a cherished sweetness when it appears, not because it is better to be the same, but because it reminds us of our connection. Both sameness and uniqueness are beautiful, as they are anywhere in nature. A fabulously unique creature is a beauty. And it is also beautiful when nature repeats her patterns, and we find something deep and familiar has come to us again.

II. The Work of Identity

via queercuts.tumblr.com
Maintaining identity is itself a type of work, and the more individual the identity and the smaller the group of people it represents, the more work the identity will be to maintain. The mental work of maintaining identity can be carried out in two ways: by the individual, or by the society in which they live. Society can make the burden of identity heavy... or light. Erasure, such as the erasure of queer identities and genders, makes the burden heavy, heavy, heavy. Recognition and love make it as light as a feather. When identity is light and free, we can be freer to become our true selves, to blossom. All the energy that went into maintaining and fighting for existence can become energy for growth and creativity. For queer people living today, we bear the burden of our identities ourselves, while the larger straight society misnames us, misgenders us, erases us. Our identities become very private, held within ourselves, and within our small groups of friends and small communities.

As an American, I live in culture that holds individualism in high esteem. I might benefit from being more willing to shed a bit of my training in individualism to reap some of the rewards and comforts of collectivism. That doesn't mean I want to abandon my individuality entirely, or to become oppressed in a new way, forced to conform to some new queer norm. Rather, I want to revel in a bit of our sameness: our tendency toward a certain haircut, a willingness to identify in the same way, despite differences. I should emphasize the willingness: I have no interest in conformity by way of oppression. 

My own journey reflects the way that identity, as a psychological and sociological process, interacts with personal development. I came into my identity as trans when I was sixteen, and that realization kicked off years of struggle. It wasn't just a struggle with the world, which admittedly was sometimes very cruel. It was a struggle with myself, with my identity. I felt I needed identity, needed something to act as a bulwark against a world that wanted to define me without my consent.

Me-- tender age of 17.
Most often, the struggle for my identity occurred at the interface between myself and the world. The battles were fought when I took my queer body out into the world in some way-- even if it was just to the grocery store, to the sidewalk in my shitty neighborhood, to a punk show. My buzzed hair, slight build, flat chest, feminine voice-- everywhere people wanted to know: What are you?

The battle also occurred within me when I was asked to identify in online queer communities and with queer friends and in the amorphous, not-quite-queer punk spaces. I struggled with the words I used to define myself-- stone butch, hetero-queer, genderqueer, trans boy, faggot. I struggled with how to explain and defend my identities once I had arrived at them. I struggled with self-doubt. All of these struggles were painful, because while I knew that both the outside world and the queer(ish) community demanded that I identify myself, I never felt comfortable doing so. I was never sure that I was getting it right, and yet I felt that I could not stop participating. There was the eerie, uncomfortable sense that somehow, armed only with these strange and new words, I was burdened with being unique in the universe. My culture had no category for me, there was no accepted place. An army of one, even among friends.

We gender-weird and queerly beloved people of the western world tend place a lot of importance on our uniqueness, and in that way, we're very much a part of our culture. Western individualism calls for each person to be an atomistic individual, defined by unique traits, and sufficient unto themselves. Of course, we rarely are sufficient unto ourselves. No man/lady/queer unicorn is an island.

Our obsession with identity is a reaction to the highly restrictive, binary nature of our gendered oppression, but it's also the way that we participate in our culture's fixation on individuality.

A little background: American culture falls on the individualistic side of the spectrum that sociologists call the "individualism-collectivism dimension." Individualistic cultures are centered on the self rather than on identification with a group; they value achievement and people are used to performing rational cost-benefit analyses of their interaction in any social situation (ie., asking oneself: what's the benefit for me in going to this event, or seeing these particular people?) . The United States, Australia, Great Britian and Canada, among a few others, are considered highly individualistic cultures.

Photo: Tif Flowers
Whether individualistic or collectivistic, our culture's way of perceiving the world is often deeply written into the way we personally define what is most important to us. The individualism of our culture is invisible to us for the most part: for people in individualistic cultures, thinking of oneself as an individual just feels like "being a person," being a human being.

For queers who are part of highly individualistic cultures, given a choice between focusing on our uniqueness and putting it aside in the name of connection, we will often prioritize uniqueness. The ways that we go about connecting, too, are often fraught with the complexities of our widely divergent identities. In the crucible of identity, we have forged some strange and strong threads which might just bind us together in all of our uniqueness.

And yet, this focus on identity and uniqueness and individuality-- this constant internal work of maintaining our rebel identities in the face of great odds-- can never be just a political exercise. As feeling beings, we crave refuge from the ego work of maintaining the individualistic self. We need and desire to enter spaces in which words are not important any longer. We desire, as beings that are conscious and emotional, to be mute in spaces of beauty, to be connected in spaces where conflict falls away. We eat, we fuck, we plant seeds in the soil, we ride bicycles or breathe deeply or break things. We need ways to be away from mental chatter and analysis just as much as we need those very same things for our political freedom. And it's in those spaces, those spaces of refuge where we find both strength and relief.

Kibele, writing recently in an article for Original Plumbing, My Gender in the Face of Colonialism, says:

"One thing that I notice since relocating to the West is the social pressure (maybe even a requirement?) to define who, how, and why you are the person you are. Sometimes you can't have a simple conversation without taking three minutes to disclose all of your identities and current life practices. Needless to say that is a trend in most queer/trans spaces. The hyper-performance of identification satisfies the individual desire to feel defined and established, along with comfortably placing yourself within the structures we live under." [Emphasis mine  --Ed.]

Do we desire an end to identity, or an end to gender or sexuality categories? Perhaps some people do, but that isn't my desire, nor am I sure that it is possible or desirable. I work to live in the balance between mental activity and feeling, between identity and experience. I wish to see identities for the ways in which they both help and hinder us, and to forge a third path. In this way, identity and experience inform each other, and theory remains grounded in reality, not jetting off into the clouds of ideology, not becoming a foreign thing, unable to serve those who need it most.

Kibele continues: "I was initially thrilled to have a phrase to describe who I am after years of not being able to define myself. These days however, I have been feeling a disconnect with the terminology available to describe my gender to the ways in which I live my life, per my gender. Frankly, I do not even think about my gender that much, it is more of an evolving spiral of production and reproduction as opposed to a set-in-stone definition-- And that is very exciting."

I think the cycle of feelings that Kibele references--feeling first thrilled at "finding" one's own identity, then experiencing disconnection, uncertainty, or restriction-- is not unique. Where queer people living in Western contexts write about their lives, we see these threads come up again and again. Why do we want identity, but feel dissatisfied when we have it? Why is identity not enough?

I conceptualize identity, sometimes, as one half of a binary constructed of the twin human aspects, thought and feeling. Identity is thought: It is based in words, in the naming of things. Feeling is based in the ineffable qualities of things, the unnameable. Thought and feeling are both necessary, but we have to let the leading edge of our lives be made of feeling, not thought. Lead with feeling. When something feels wrong, look for thought, look for theory, look for data to give your feeling bones, to help it stand up in the world. But lead with feeling. When theory and analysis (or identity) give you a bad feeling, when they make you sick and uncomfortable in your stomach and demand that you twist your feelings up until you can't stand it anymore, take a step back. Be quiet a while, find your feelings again and begin there.

The feeling side of us may desire belonging, but our experience and mental self has good reason to be
distrustful and critical. For me, the concept of belonging has always been fraught with problems and potentials. To belong could mean something warm and tender, expansive and yet familiar. To belong is to be oneself, and yet be enclosed and loved and held, as lightly or as tightly as desired. To belong is to be, together.

Azraea (submission to Queercuts)
Yet we have come to see belonging as dangerous, too. To belong could entail a deadening, destructive silencing of the self; erasure. It could lead to homogeneity, the suppression of difference. We have often belonged without our consent. As queer folks, we were assumed straight; trans people were assumed cis; our patriotism, our religions, our dogmatic and deadening schooling, all of these were types of belonging that were put upon us before we had the capacity to choose them or reject them. And when some types of belonging were enforced upon us, we felt helpless to choose the parts we liked and reject the rest; belonging, we were told, was a package deal.

But what if coercive, homogenizing, oppressive forms of belonging are mere substitutes for true belonging? What if true belonging is something else entirely-- belonging to oneself, to each other (in all of our complexity)- to nature? In this modern world, in my culture, I have truly belonged so seldomly. In individualistic, capitalistic, 'civilized', dualistic modern society, we don't belong to nature, to each other, to our workplaces or sometimes even to our families. We have imagined an estrangement from nature that is played out through violence and environmental destruction. We have been placed in competition with each other, defined by interests, consumer preferences, identities, income. In workplaces, communal feeling is often discouraged, sometimes overtly, but more often simply by design. Fewer and fewer workers are unionized. In our families, especially for queer people, we may find difficulty, estrangement, and vast differences of political opinion. Many nuclear families are hotbeds of dysfunction and pain.

If belonging is so problematic, why would I write a love-letter to it, why would I try to think of ways
via hellagay
we could encourage it in our lives?
Perhaps I am looking to reclaim a balance. Perhaps it's because I once felt like I belonged, just once, and I've never forgotten it.

There's this gathering in Maine called the Burdock Gathering, and it's a yearly weeklong get together beside a remote farm, in the floodplain of the Sandy River. Ostensibly a sustainability gathering, it's not so much about workshops, and hardly at all about technology, like many "sustainability" oriented events. It's more about being together in a different way. Over the years, the composition of the group has changed, and will continue to change, so when I remember Burdock, I remember a very special and particular year, when I attended from set-up to breakdown, a whole two weeks.

At that time there were several elder women who were leaders at the gathering. Their presence structured everything, creating natural eddies of energy, where knowledge flowed. Young women gathered around them to learn about sex, pleasure, orgasm and childbirth. Men and women taught skills for finding herbs and dressing chickens. I remember that summer as sweet and silky. I had a number of lovers at the gathering, and I spent time with all of them, and with myself, with the heat and the water and the sand. I was deeply honored when a Native couple invited me to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, but became concerned when the men and women were asked to enter separately. I asked them what to do, and they helped to create a role and a place for me on the spot, as a genderqueer person. "My son," the woman told me, "is trans as well. We support him and are very proud of him."

These days I want to drift away from sure answers, from ideology. I do not want to tell everyone to drop their long strings of words that both encompass and fail to encompass their identities. I want to introduce options: What if?s and How come?s. I want to say: What if you didn't have to identify? What if you could stop identifying, and still be you, and still use words when you need them, without having those same words live inside you, taking up space?

What if you could call yourself by an umbrella term, and not sweat the specifics? After all, you are unique and undefinable, and perhaps you will never have the perfect set of words to tell another person who you are. What if you could use a word like a lasso, nice and loose? Instead of choking ourselves with identity, we use identifying words to bring parts of ourselves into the world. We throw the lasso around those aspects of ourselves and coax them along, into new situations. But we don't tighten that lasso so much anymore.

What if we could belong and be free?




Images taken from Tumblr and public blogs in some cases; please contact zeraph@alchemistscloset.org if you would like your image removed.

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