In the last post, I looked at the first article in a terrifically intriguing series of articles that came out over the course of the last few weeks. The first was a piece from Vice, wherein Dora Mortimer provides a view of their own in posing the question “Can Straight People Be Queer?” In response, Chloë of After Ellen wrote a rebuttal aptly titled “No, Straight People Can’t Be Queer.”
Chloë begins by describing Mortimer’s article as “an analytical abortion that grasps at the incorrect answer to an obvious question” (ouch!). In response, Chloë gives the obvious answer to an incorrect question. Again, the dialectics of the internet can be, in this case, refreshingly simple, no? Following the dialectical path, I will just outright say that I agree with Chloë’s argument; it’s just a matter of formal and material principles (now I’m really getting theological).
That being said, I’m going to make my analytical case: (1) ‘Straight’ being ‘queer’ is a linguistic fallacy. To understand this, we need to move past ‘straight people’ and ‘queer people’ and just examine straight and queer. The term ‘straight’ is used to differentiate straight people from things that are queer (redundant, I know). Why would straight people produce an identifier for themselves unless it is a means of differentiation from something other than themselves?
But that is the ‘essence’ of heteronormativity: to differentiate a population from a difference as a means of solidifying power over and against that difference. I have explained this in The Ocean, the Boat, and the Wind, particularly the third act ‘From On High.’ So, by linguistic fallacy I mean that straight wanting to be queer defies its own language; straight cannot be something other than what it has named as itself against something different from itself (still following me? good).
In the preceding article, Mortimer writes that the definition of queer “defies any meaning that is pinned to it.” This I agree with, but I would go further to say that by definition, queer defies any meaning that is pinned to it. But how can something that defies definition have a definition?
This is an example of a paradox, a suspension of certain categories of rationality. Paradoxes seem absurd or self-contradictory, but that’s the point of paradoxes; they are propositions that regardless of their veracity are uttered as correlating to some truth claims, however objective or subjective it may be. So, in my view, I see queer as not only the embrace of paradox but its exercise (more on that in point two).However, Chloë’s insistence on the literal meaning of words (i.e. queer) defies what queer is about. “Words have meanings,” Chloë writes, “These meanings are real. You can’t just say ‘words can mean whatever I want WOOHOO KITTENS ARE SHARKS AND HABERDASHERY MEAN DEATH.”
Oh but you can, Chloë, and that’s what we do with words; that’s what words do. In fact, we would not have words like homosexual or heterosexual unless someone back in the mid-to-late 19th century decided that as a means of differentiating classes of people they would define them based on their sexual preference. After that, we see an increase in both the self-identification of homosexuals and the visible discrimination of homosexuals because of the power of naming. The creation of terms for sexual identity is a ploy of heteronormativity. In fact, sexual identity itself is a ploy of heteronormativity.
Which brings me to my second point: (2) Queer is not an identity. It is a speech-act. The linguistic turn in philosophy has helped us out tremendously to dethrone systems of oppression. This is done through critically examining the role of language in creating these systems.
Take for instance the speech-act of the coming-out experience: “I am gay.” This utterance does less to confirm an epistemological assent (“Through my rational faculties, I think of myself as belonging to a category of being known as ‘gay’”) but does more to create an action (“By uttering this phrase, I am making a commitment of living publically and privately as belonging to a category of being known as ‘gay’”).
Speech-acts create realities. Let’s use the queer-tessential The Wizard of Oz as an allusion. Consider the sepia-tinted world of Kansas to be the world of the proverbial ‘Dorothy’ in the closet. Through the speech-act of “I am gay,” Dorothy emerges into a world of color.
The utterance is irrevocable in that the reality it creates for the utterer and the listener remains. However, another speech-act could alter the reality; for instance, someone retreating back into the closet with “I am not gay.” And so, with three clicks of one’s heels, one is returned to the oppressive Kansas Kloset.
Furthermore, we only make utterances with the language that we inherit (or more like subjugated to). The system of heteronormativity makes it a reality that one can only choose to be ‘straight’ or ‘gay.’ Moreover, the system of heteronormativity gives the burden of this choice only to ‘gay’ folk.
Straight people have no need to utter the speech-act of “I am straight” because the reality of the world is shaped by and benefited by those who are ‘not gay’ (i.e. straight). It is the ‘gay’ who wrestles with the angst of living in a straight world where it is expected to be straight because there ought to be nothing else.
This is what makes the speech-act of coming-out so powerful. It is a disruption in the world of heteronormativity. It speaks into existence another reality apart from the dominant (and dominating) system. It is a daring-to-be-in-spite-of a system that does not recognize its legitimate existence.
But here’s the problem: the system of heteronormativity does not view these utterances as speech-acts; they are viewed as epistemological assents. This is the nature of the category of sexual identity. Sexual identity has less to do with who people really are and more to do with making a category based on a characteristic of a person.
By forming sexual identity as a category of being, heteronormativity disarms the speech-act as being disruptive and reframes it as a way for heteronormativity to understand difference. Heteronormativity creates the categories of sexual identity as a means of differentiating itself from those very categories.
Why is this a problem, you ask? Perhaps it’s not for some, but that leads to my third point: (3) Chloë embarks on the sort of identity politics that queer would likely abandon. Sexual identity politics emerged as the collective consciousness of LGBT folk began to actualize itself through liberation. From under the oppression of heteronormativity, LGBT folk rose up and demanded to be recognized and to have access to equal rights. This is a good thing, no doubt.
However, the liberation came up from within the system of heteronormativity and not outside of it. This is not a bad thing, as most revolutions emerge from within the system it revolts against. The problem is that the revolution inherited the form of that which it was rejecting: it inherited the system of categorization of sexual identity as a means of satisfying heteronormativity’s penchant for differentiation. By playing this identity game, LGBT liberation movements kept sexual identity as the category for their emancipation, all the while not realizing it was created to keep LGBT folk in their place.
This is the point of queer. Queer deconstructs identity as a means of disarming heteronormativity. Queer also emerges when gay and lesbian systems reject other modes of being (I’m thinking specifically of bisexual and transgender persons), but it only emerges as a means of rejecting the categorization of sexuality (that phrase is oxymoronic-sexuality is categorization).
This is why queer is so difficult to comprehend: it is proposing a new way of thinking about ourselves, counterintuitive to the ways we have been taught to view ourselves. Queer proposes a new being without identity. Queer moves beyond identity politics by envisioning a wholly different politic.
Thus, while I agree with Chloë that straight folk wanting to be considered ‘queer’ to be disconcerting, I do not agree with Chloë invoking heteronormative identity politics to make the case. I think it is sad to see queer folk co-opted by identity politics to the point of perpetuating the us-and-them dialectic of heteronormativity.
I will end with this methodological piece. In my work ‘doing queer theology,’ primarily from a Christian starting-point, I approach it with these three axioms:
1. To be queer means to be deconstructive.
2. To be Christian means to be deconstructive.
3. The preceding axioms are neither queer, nor Christian, nor deconstructive.
This is the paradox of queer. In my queer theology, it is a task of mine to correlating the paradox of queer with the paradox of Christianity. A difficult task, sure; but not impossible. But what I’ve found beneficial with the study of religion is its impact on our ethics (our being of doing and doing of being). Religion does not have to impact ethics in an authoritarian manner (as it is especially wont to do); that is not how I approach religion. A good religion helps navigate within paradox, not to remove oneself from it. Queer is an embrace of the paradox of sex and gender. Together, the paradoxes of identity and ethics are a virtuous pursuit in coming to grasp what it is to be human.
 Or even earlier when the Roman Catholic Church “invented” sodomy as a category of sin.