The last time I was in my hometown, it was after a shitty semester of college. I had four months before I could leave my (equally shitty) hometown and head off to a semester abroad. A few weeks after getting home, I met up with a longtime friend from high school with whom I was in a bad place.
It wasn’t long before we got into an argument – one that was much more about years of issues with each other we had never addressed than anything else. Nothing is safe in those arguments, especially when you’re like me. I had been forced into the role of the constant giver, someone who always had to be understanding and sweet even when something terrible was being said. Friendships like that drain the hell out of you; going off to college just made that more apparent.
During our argument, which lasted quite a long time, the topic somehow shifted gears to my identity.
“What words do you want me to use for you?” she said, her voice angry and high, as though this was the most difficult thing in the world for her.
Surprise surprise, in the heat of a new argument my identity had been turned into a point of contention.
I told her that I wouldn’t mind someone using “they” pronouns for me at some point. That it wasn’t happening now, but that I’d want her support if I decided to go through with it. I had explained being genderqueer to her once before (spoiler alert: it went terribly).
“Well, if that happens I’m just going to use your name because I wouldn’t be able to remember,” she told me. She sounded haughty, as though this was something impressive.
“But that’s not okay,” I told her. “That makes me feel dehumanized, that you wouldn’t even make the effort to learn the words that I prefer for my identity.”
I was definitely raising my voice at that point. There’s a particular feeling when someone brings up your identity in an argument to dehumanize you. They make it seem like it’s something to excavate and understand, even though they really just want to change the power dynamic.
“Well, I know someone bisexual and someone transgender at school.” She proceeded to tell me how “he” used to be a “she” (which, FYI, using someone’s old pronouns and saying they “used to be” a gender is supremely shitty). She also felt the need to tell me that she tried using "they" pronouns once to refer to someone, and her friends got confused, so it was clear to her that it wouldn’t work.
Needless to say, I left soon after and didn’t talk to her for several months.
Being genderqueer and queer has gotten me a lot of random crap over the years. My gender identity is something fairly new. I go to one of those liberal arts colleges that forces you to have a theme for your four years of study. During my first year orientation, I latched on to the theme of identities. After all, they affect everyone, and my budding queer activist self is in love with the formation of identities in everything.
I soon realized that my gender never quite felt the way society made it out to be. I loved being “one of the girls” with my best friends at school; I also never coded my actions as masculine or feminine. It didn’t make sense when I was a band geek, a theater lover, or an intensive book reader. Nothing I did was coded for what we believe guys to be, but it also wasn’t coded for what we always believe girls to be.
It wasn’t long before I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really identify with either. I was attracted to cisgender men, so identifying as queer wasn’t a huge step for me in that department, but the gender stuff took a bit more time. I found that it explained why I was uncomfortable in most restrooms (traditional male or female restrooms), why I never wanted to room with a cisgender guy at school, and why I never really felt defined by my body parts or lack thereof.
"Queer" as I use it here is intentional. When I talk about being queer, I talk about it because every part of myself cannot be separated by my queerness. My attraction to people who share similar gender and sex characteristics as me – as well as some that don’t – has impacted me from day one. I also identify as genderqueer.
Queer identity is as fluid as our individual definitions. Oftentimes I have encountered people in the queer community that use identity as an oppressor rather than a liberator. Instead of embracing the numerous ways someone can embody bisexuality or pansexuality, aromanticism or asexuality, transness or a total absence of gender, people take to restricting identities to make themselves powerful.
I think it’s easy for queer people to say that accepting these identities is enough – that their erasure is all we have to fight. And, sure, people who are bi, pan, trans, non-binary, asexual, etc. are often erased from the fold of queerness completely. That hasn’t changed. But when we are accepted by our community, it often comes with a price.
For example: if someone identifies as bisexual, people often deny them that identity if said person has only dated people who make them appear to be “straight.” If someone identifies as trans, they are denied that identity unless they talk about various surgeries and ways of dress. What happens when we don’t meet these standards? Our identities get denied.
That move is the mark of an asshole. It’s asinine and ignorant, born of a mode of policing that’s rooted in why our communities are screwed by society in the first place. The power of identity as someone who is oppressed is that taking pleasure and personal joy in it is subversive. Our world doesn’t want to see queer people, both in gender and sexuality, that are happy. Our world wants to see them miserable, if not eradicated.
By policing queerness and limiting what those identities mean, we suggest a similar mode of existence. We turn queerness into something that is okay because it oppresses others. Identity is powerful as a tool of oppression because it was often created to other and to limit a person; by saying that an identity can be limitless, we present the possibility that identities can be complex and positive and uninhibited by traditional social structures.
Throughout high school, I would talk to countless people about sexuality. A few people in my year identified as bi. More often than not I’d hear someone saying, “She can’t be bisexual if she’s dating a guy,” or “I think people say they’re bisexual when they really just want to fuck everything that moves.”
It was utterly ridiculous. Not only was it wrong, but it also said a lot about what those people felt about my queer identity, too. If I dated a trans man, would they tell me that he was "a woman," or that I was straight if he had specific body parts over others? Would they tell me I was straight if I fell in love with a cisgender girl, even though everyone blatantly knew how thirsty I was for countless hot guys of all types?
I started seeing this policing for what it was: a way to take away the subversive, relishing joy in loving an identity that society said we should hate. Identity doesn’t have to be eradicated to be radical. Apparently, taking it on with more than tragedy and shame is enough to shake things up.
There’s definitely a place for the argument that we should shout a loud “fuck it” to any sort of identity labels – but that very much ignores the history of turning labels into our own, and also ignores how people like me usually need to make a word for it to simply exist. Because we create these words from the fabric of ourselves, because being queer or agender or trans isn’t something concrete regardless of who identifies the words – we should embrace the identity without policing it.
The same goes for other queer sexualities, too. We need to be aware of who we are: our selves are our greatest weapons. I’m fucking tired of hearing what queerness should be, instead of hearing that queerness could be infinite and unending. When we police and limit our communities to fit the standards of privileged society, we’re assuredly buying into some screwed-up shit.
Queer identity isn’t a rigid set of parameters and behaviors. Queer identity is away from the norm. It’s not cisgender or straight. Queerness is the ever-expanding space away from that, and that’s the space that I know I belong in; that’s a space I know many others belong in, too, and that’s even more important.
Image: Flickr / CC