“Identities are meant to be outgrown. The archive of feeling we all carry around makes a single identity, even multiple identities, seem pretty inadequate. As long as we somehow keep making room for desire, for beauty, for justice, I am on board.”
- Becky Thompson
“Way Before the Word: Queer Organizing and Race When Beauty Still Counts”
In Feminist Studies’ Categorizing Sexualities (2013)
Queer theory, perhaps one of the most significant divergences of postmodern and poststructuralist thought, embraces notions of fluid identity and power relations and centers the profound role that sexuality plays in the construction of social meaning. Queer theory opts to deconstruct what is considered natural, original, or essential as well as rethink categories associated with oppressively normalizing societal conventions. With its investment in challenging essentialist thought, queer theory argues that what we often perceive as real or authentic ways of living in and studying society are in fact artificial and unstable. Located at the center of queer theory are a constant critique of normativity and an ardent attention to the disciplinary and performative nature of identities.
What I cherish so dearly about queer is its many manifestations. Not only is it an identity marker (one that often reflects a critique on identity itself), but it is also a descriptor as well as an act. In other words, queer is not only a noun, but can also serve as an adjective and a verb.
- I am queer.
- Her politics are very queer.
- Women’s Studies should queer its name.
With my comprehensive exam awaiting on the horizon (one week!), I’m thinking seriously about the role queer plays in the field of Women’s Studies. What is feminist about queer? What is queer about feminism? To what extent has queer taken over Women’s Studies? To what extent has queer reached an impasse? How can queer studies sustain a synergy with gender studies? In what ways has queer wandered away from sexuality and arrived on more expansive theoretical terrains? (I’m thinking here of the exciting fields of queer of color critique, crip theory, and affect theory). Generally, I’m wondering: What does queer mean today? What are the intentions, both political and theoretical, of queerness today?
Queer studies has become a field where things like affect, spatiality, and temporality are not only engaged, but seriously questioned. However, while queering space, time, futures, etc brings queer theory into new and exciting directions, where has sexuality gone? More precisely, what role does sex play in queer studies today? This past April, Juana María Rodríguez gave a spirited keynote address at the 8th annual DC Queer Studies Symposium. She spoke on her recently published book Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings and on the life of Vanessa del Rio, a mixed-race (Puerto Rican, Afro-Black Latina), bisexual sex worker who grew up in Harlem. Rodríguez wondered how one could understand experience and make sense of the messy affectiveness of someone else by focusing on sexual experience, knowledge production and speculative possibilities of imagining queer sexual worlds. Taking seriously the ways in which Vanessa del Rio’s body was raced and gendered in 1970's pornographic film, Rodríguez took us all on an adventure that, according to one of the audience members, “brought sexy back to queer studies”.
When I think about the multiple forms queer has taken, I find myself acknowledging how crucial it is to remain cognizant of the ways in which a term such as queer travels and how such a term fails to translate across different spaces. For example, in undergrad I was involved in my campus’ Queer People of Color Collective (QPOCC), a student organization placing education, outreach, community building, and activism at the center of our work. The ways we embraced and used the term queer were sometimes similar, but often times different than the ways I encountered the term in my Ethnic and Women’s Studies (EWS) courses. In QPOCC, we focused on the material realities of our intersectional queer identities; violence, family, sex, and protest. In EWS, we were more concerned with discussing the theoretical dimensions of queer; queering politics and identity for instance. What became evident was that queer took shape differently in QPOCC than it did in EWS.
While my political commitments privilege the material effects connected to queer bodies, I’ve certainly fallen for this magic of queering things. With my style, I often find myself intentionally mix-matching earrings. Everyday playfulness via my take on queering femininity. With my friends, I often talk with them about the need to queer the way we relate with others. We chat about what it means to (v) queer dating. Consent and communication are sexy despite societal messages that say otherwise. With a lack of healthy queer relationship models, these conversations are sustaining. But for me, queer is not simply an act of mixing things up or an ongoing refusal of repressive customs; more importantly, queer is an intentional and assertive pursuit of one’s desires, desires that often exist outside the narrow bounds of normative conventions. Queer, in its many forms, should aspire to always queer itself. Queering queer, in my eyes, means a willingness to expand and adjust. When queering queer, Becky Thompson’s words in this blog’s epigraph especially ring true: “As long as we somehow keep making room for desire, for beauty, for justice, I am on board.”