Saturday, March 27, 2010

Too Many Letters, or Not Enough?

I've been thinking a lot about how intersex fits within the queer community, often referred to as the "LGBTQ" community.

Labels can be really great things for many people. Labels help many of us to not only get a grasp on who we are, but to identify other people that feel similarly. From this ability to describe who we are allows us to make sense of and peace with ourselves, and to build community with those who identify similarly and/or are open to those that do.

Labels can also cause as many rifts among people as often as they bulid community among them. Labels can cause people to become obsessed about creating community with only those that share the exact same labels as themselves. This could mean only associating with people that identify as "X" regardless of whatever labels this potential friend and community member may have, or could mean only identifying as people who have a certain suite of labels, such as "X", "Y", "Z", "A," "B", and "C," and anyone who claims "D", "E", or anything else additionally would be scrapped. People may also fight about the exact defintion of label "X", who can be included, and what feelings, lived experiences, and/or goals people claiming "X" may share. There's likely to be a lot of variation in individuals that define as "X" anyway; this may, and often does, lead to the creation of new labels under one larger label. (Think "a" and "b" as being flavors of label "X.") This could cause rifts between even between people that both identify as "X." (Perhaps "a" accused "b" of not being TRULY "X.")

Clearly, this can all get very confusing. Does this mean, then, that we should chuck out labels altogether, or create a plethora of new labels?

I don't think the answer is so either-or. (In case you haven't noticed, I'm not into binaries. Ha!)

I don't think there's any need to chuck out labels, but I think that there are ways to identify using labels without becoming like some label-obsessed individuals - like, the equivalents of the clothing label-conscious who will only talk to you if you're wearing THAT shirt and THOSE pants and THESE shoes. In many senses, though, it's a matter of practicality and SAFETY to associate and build community with those that define themselves similarly. After all, it's a fact that sex-and-gender variant individuals suffer incredibly high rates of mortality from people who feel threatened by them. One only needs to Google "trans deaths" to see how many people are willing to kill others because they don't look or act like what they think people - either "males" or "females" as they define it - should look or act like. Additionally, building community with other people who have similar thoughts, attitudes, and LIVED EXPERIENCE is really important; one of the best ways to beat isolation is to talk like-minded people. But, if this exclusion becomes so extreme to exclude other sex-and-gender variant individuals claming different labels, or non sex-and-gender variant allies, this could actually be hurting a community. After all, people grow not only by sharing commonalities, but being exposed to others who can offer different perspectives.

It's also important to consider where people that choose not to use labels fit in. Lots of individuals that might share similar thoughts, attitudes, and lived experiences might be shunned by communities because they don't use labels for themselves, and instead choose to describe themselves to others using language sans labels commonly in use at the time. People that might be really great members of a community could be shunned by prospctive community members if they don't give these people a chance to describe themselves and their experiences.

A final thing to consider is visibility. Some individuals that already have labels are rarely recognized, or included in conversations about sex-and-gender variant individuals. Intersex people are often excluded, although I've noticed that people that are asexual are often excluded even MORE frequently! (Go check out the Asexual Visibility and Education Network if you'd like to learn more!) Other groups of individuals, some of whom that might really like a recognized label to describe a facet of who they are, might not have one. For example, to my knowledge, there is no word to describe the exact nature of "a person who sexually fantasizes about a person of the opposite sex and might kiss them but wouldn't go further, but who is comfortable being sexually active with same sex members."

Which leads us back to "LGBTQ." If we define the "Q" as "questioning," and not as "queer," then this type of person previously described doesn't fit anywhere in "LGBTQ," despite the fact that they don't have a heterosexual orientation. In this way, non-heterosexual individuals marginalize people that should feel included in the queer community, and not excluded from it. (With so many factions and in-fighting, it is a very good question whether one, inclusive queer community truly exists, and if so, who is included.) Choosing the letters L, G, B, T, and Q in general, when "Q" does not denote "queer," by definition marginalizes all queer individuals that are not L, G, B, or T. Some individuals remedy this by making more letters, such as I for intersex and A for asexual, but adding these two won't include everyone. Do we make a label for everyone? Do we repeat letters if need be, or fight to keep a letter? What about the order of the letters? Some individuals state that the arguably more common "GLBTQ" is a pecking order, whereby gay males, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender individuals, and questioning/generally queer without a label G, L, B, or T represents a hierarchy of who has the most visibility and/or power within a community. (This idea has problems, but it is a good segue into examining visibility, power, and queer identity.)

Okay, so, drumoll... WHAT DO WE DO?!

*crickets chirping*

"Well, it's really complicated and there's no one great, one-fits-all answer," I say.

And then I try shielding myself from the onslaught of rotten tomatoes, and whatever other things you might (justifiably?) try hurling at me.

No, but seriously. WHAT DO WE DO?

One direction I think could remedy a lot of these issues is the more predominant use of one label, and then using other, more specific labels or none at all, as defined. The label that is being increasingly more used today to denote non-straight-of-any-variety-and-flavor is "queer." What would happen if we identified ourselves as "queer" first? People within the queer community might be less inclined to start wars among each other if they see each other as fellow queers first, and not "X" or "Y," which may be perceived as incompatible with one another. If we all identified as "queer" first, it might be more possible to create a queer community, and respect those within the community. People that define as "X", "Y", or "Z" all define each other as having common ground, simply with some variations. And that variety doesn't threaten being included within the queer community. This may work better for individuals that don't use labels, either; by not needing to identify as a "letter" or some variant therein, it might be easier to be accepted by other queers, so long as queers give people not using labels the chance to describe themselves. (This also creates a situation where such people may be labeled "label-less" by non-mindful label-loving queers, however, which a person not using labels may not want.) This might also cut down on pecking order aspects of certain types of queers dominating queer spaces, getting the most visibility, and creating more understanding of other flavors of queers.

Basically, if we stop framing the world in terms of binaries, or fitting into a few strictly-defined labels, and instead accept people with thoughts, attitudes, and lived experiences that may be considered "queer" for who they are as they describe themselves - however they identify and whatever labels they use, if any - then we'd be making a lot more progress and building a lot more community than we are now. More generally, outside of queer community, this ideal would hold well, too. After all, isn't that why minorities everywhere are marginalized? Because we don't see each other as "human," or even more broadly, "living things" first?

This still doesn't solve everything. In terms of intersex, a lot of biologically intersex individuals don't have queer sexual orientations, or gender identities, presentations, or performances, and don't identify their sex as "intersex," but as male or female with a medical condition. For a lot of intersex people, then, they don't fit in with the queer community. Some trans individuals may not identify as queer in terms of sexual orientation, whereby they receive flack from other queers for not being "progressive" enough. Some individuals that want to take down sex and gender binaries altogether feel that those that aren't sex-and-gender transgressive are not "queer enough", and that's dangerous as well (something that Julia Serano discusses brilliantly in her book, Whipping Girl, which is brilliant). What we need is a queer community that is open to all people, despite how they may or may not identify, and not to have a hierarchy. Identifying using one inclusive label first (i.e., "queer"), and being accepting of those who don't use labels, might be a great place to start.

So I've published a novella on this right now. What are your perspectives on building fantastic queer community? What about building community for intersex individuals, who may or may not define their sex as male, female, intersex, or something else (depending when you ask, since identities aren't static!), where some individuals with atypical sex characteristics may or may not identify as intersex, where some individuals may or may not be queer and describe their intersex as overlapping with queer issues, etc.?


  1. Hi, I'm new to your blog, being bisexual myself I have often found that I'm marginalized by the Gay/Lesbian and straight society at large because I can't "choose a side" or whatever. Personally I don't care because it's my life and I'll define myself however I choose to be defined, and if they don't like it too bad. My worries come in when I think how will my intersex child fit in? I'm not sure which gender he (we're raising him intersex male at the moment) will decide to choose when he's older. I don't know how he's going to identify, and that's okay. He can be whatever he wants to be, I am just worried about him being accepted in some sort of community.

    Maybe you're right if we all identify as "Queer" first then we'll feel more of a sense of belonging with each other. One can only hope.

  2. Hi, Britt! Thanks for reading! :)

    First off, might I say how incredibly awesome you are to be open to your child choosing his own gender when he's older? Intersex or not, that's a hallmark of excellent parenting in my book. I wish I could hug you for saying this!

    YES, bisexual stigma is ridiculous. It's sad to say, but I know that I expect a certain level of ignorance from non-queers who might not be familiar with offensive terms, things that make me die inside when asked about, etc. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. I think it's even sadder, however, when queer individuals are marginalized by queer individuals, because if non-queers should really know better, than fellow queers should REALLY, REALLY know better. I read an article for a gay men's magazine a few years ago in which one (rather inarticulate, might I add) gay male went on musing about whether bisexuality was "actually real" and whether bisexuals were perhaps faking. And - *GASP* - maybe this was to give bisexuals a free ride to have sex with males or females, which MUST mean that they're - again, *GASP* - promiscuous! Of course this is so ridiculous on so many levels. ( 1) That bisexuality = slutty, 2) that "slutty" = promiscuity, and 3) having sex with multiple partners or having relationships based largely on sex are somehow bad. {As long as you're being safe, do what you like. Sex-positivity FTW!}) This article angered me, because at the time, I didn't know the word "pansexual" that better described my lived experience, and was identifying as bi, so I was really pissed.

    Another time in the comments to a YouTube video, one male trans-identified individual was telling another trans-identified person that they couldn't be genderqueer and identify as male, or something ridiculous like that. This also made me see red. Cis-gendered people who are not trans allies, sadly, treat trans individuals as though they're just walking delusions that could just be "male" or "female" if only they'd just accept who they REALLY are. (Ugh. More on this in later posts.) Knowing the experience of being somebody others say "doesn't exist," how could this person shoot down a fellow trans-identified individual and invalidate their lived experience? It's mind-blowing how much discrediting and animosity there is within the queer community itself. Even within, there's still tons of pressure to identify as a specific something, and then, those that identify this way are expected to do these things, and go here or there, or dress this way, and it can sometimes be just as oppressive as answering to cis people who aren't allies. What good is having an alternate community when we're just going to create new binaries and gender roles to uphold that are as confining as the ones we try to escape from? Can we really build community through fear and gender shoehorning?

    Queer individuals SERIOULSY need to be more open-minded about this. I think that your giving the middle finger (if you're in the US...other places, proudly use your own "Fuck this noise!" equivalent!) to these oppressive systems that are built up - both within and outside the community - are great, especially having your child grow up in this supportive environment.

    Thanks for writing! :)