5.10 / October 2010

Why queer?

So there’s this excellent Queer sociologist who said somewhere, in some article about some GLBT organization, that our sexual and gender identities are the source of both our oppression and liberation.

(See what I did there? I used the “de-privileging of academia” as an excuse to be lazy and not look the dude up).

Meaning: There is power in naming and embracing our marginalized identities.   We draw upon our lived experiences to build a collective analysis of systemic injustice, organize together for change, etc.

Meaning also: By naming ourselves, we risk reinscribing the same dualities of “self” and “other,” “normal” and “perverse” that helped structure our disempowerment in the first place.

Over the course of the past couple decades, as the GLBT movement mainstreamed, institutionalized, the boundaries of GLBT (which so often, really means gay and lesbian, or just: gay male) identity grew more rigid. “Gay” became less about a collective impulse toward radical social change, more about extending existing privileges and benefits to “gays,” now understood as a particular type of person or group of people, as something more akin to “ethnic” identity. Too often, the dominant image of gay folks is white, male, middle class, people who inhabit what one informant for my undergraduate senior thesis called, “a very Will and Grace kind of world.”

This issue’s contributors know all too well how “GLBT” identity can confine:

“In spite the ever-growing number of letters in the LGBTQ acronym, I have always failed the requirement of being able to own any of the names for sexuality.” —Sarah Einstein

“As a queer man in San Francisco who happens to be non-white and Southern, I often feel isolated and invisible. Oftentimes, I don’t feel represented in the larger Queer community.” —Kevin Simmonds

“Gay implies particular boundaries and a particular sense of boundedness. Gay reminds me that I belong here and not there.” —Julie Marie Wade

“Queer” emerges as an anti-identity identity. An identity or identities that embraces (embrace) its (their) own instability. An identity that (at its best) acknowledges the upside of so-called “identity politics”—to name our experiences, to name oppression, to use those experiences as the basis for articulating a vision for social change—while also challenging essentialism, challenging rigid identities, and perhaps even more profoundly, challenging the very system through which our identities have been named as “other.’ Queer redirects scrutiny onto those systems of classification. Queer picks at “normal’ like a scab, then eats it. Queer negates labels or else queer embraces many labels. Queer asks what the fuck is a label anyway:

“I love the word queer because it establishes a ground wherein sexual identity can be complicated, wherein me and my shadow can have a strange, slippery label–hopefully without coopting the spotlight from people who need it more—I’m potentials and hypotheticals and could-have-beens, and I need a label that allows me to be liminal.” —Rachel Swirsky

“The inclusiveness and expansiveness of the word ‘queer,’ to include even people in heterosexual relationships and people who refuse to claim a particular sexual identity moniker at all, seems to work against the us-versus-them mentality that sometimes undergirds publications or even simply conversations that privilege or highlight gay sexuality. Queer has a playfulness to it, as both word and concept,  that allows for flux and fluidity, for mixed messages and the Sapphic ‘two states of mind in me.'” —Julie Marie Wade

“I feel the term queerness best defines my sexuality, and how it combines with race in my daily life.” —Crystal Boson

“I used to  have a real horror of being labeled, categorized, exoticized.   (In a tremulous German-accented voice: ‘A spectre is haunting the brown female writer; the spectre of Ghettoization.’)   But now I think: Dress me, mummify me with labels.   Even ones that fit badly; especially the ones that fit badly.   Paper me over with labels so the labels obscure each other, smear, are readable unreadable.   Tagging; what it is to be tagged, to tag.   Disfigure me with labels, since labels are arms, and the arms wounded by arms, and the wounds, too.   But rather those wounds, than the illusion of the neutral, universal, straightforward, straight.” —Elaine Castillo

But why Queer here?

For an issue of a literary magazine to mark itself as Queer is necessarily a political act. It is a response to our absence elsewhere. Or in certain circumstances, even to our active exclusion:

“This essay had previously been accepted by another journal for an unthemed issue. But they wanted changes. First, they wanted me to cut the word ‘dildo’ from the second section, and then they wanted to cut the second section all together because they thought it might be offensive to the lesbian community that, as a woman who seemed to them to be primarily straight, I was complaining about the lack of room for me at the First National Lesbian Convention.  So, of course, I pulled the piece.” —Sarah Einstein

But this issue is not solely a response to lack. It’s also a generative project. We are taking advantage of the opportunity Queer affords not only to obliterate (or at least destabilize) “normal,” but also to imagine new possibilities for both our lives and texts—or for our lives as texts. Or for the texts in which we find ourselves living.

Queer writing is about content, characters and experiences:

“I think that writing into the psychological discomfort of things that squick you, figuring out what it is that makes you freak out, is an important thing to do.” —Rachel Swirsky

“The narrator of ‘Sugar’ is balls-to-the-wall butch, and, in the Queer issue, she doesn’t have to be the sole ambassador to the straight world. She isn’t a victim, a saint, or a stereotype-buster.” —Holly Jensen

“Queer writing may be bitchy yet intimate, out of place, but without worrying about being ‘in place,’ it revolts and also pacifies. These are a few of the things that made me understand that being queer was not just about being rejected and being questioned repeatedly, but also about celebrating these confusions and consoling the tears.” —Abhishek Chaudhary

“Sometimes I like to write about my own queer self, and I don’t feel comfortable sending that stuff everywhere.” —Maureen Seaton

“I write about the emotional side of being bi a lot, but sometimes I underplay the sexual aspect that is really where everything else comes from, but that is also more off-putting to a lot of people. Or so they say. So I’ve been trying to be true to what it’s about, and get past these holdups.” —Brandon Will

“I like anything with sex in it, particularly if it’s well-written sex.” —Addam Jest

Queer writing is also about aesthetics, formal innovation:

“I think it’s important there be interdisciplinary, gender-bending work with fewer (tonal, formal, or content-preserving) suburban walls, and more open concepts instead—I’d rather engender something as close as possible to absolute creative freedom, and what better literary space for it than under the banner ‘queer,’ which makes no claims or cognates for itself other than ‘strange’ or ‘different.'” —Christopher Phelps

“By refusing to leave a sense of queerness out of your artwork, whatever the medium, you insist upon the fact that queerness matters, and that queerness is ubiquitous–though never homogeneous.” —M. Kitchell

“Any journal that encourages the fluid, fresh, and slant, to me, risks queerness and ranks as queer–at least -ish.” —Maureen Seaton

“Queer writing curtly mirrored my anger against the hegemony that ruled everything around me — the crass rules to be the ‘male one’ and abandon my ‘girl-like behaviour,’  the metre riding all the poems and the magazine editors searching for ‘traditional, metric rhythms’ …I wanted to walk around in my bangles and sari, meet hot men and craft poetry whose rules were not determined by some frustrated 16th century British ass.” —Abhishek Chaudhary

I had thought I might use this space to talk about the correspondences between these pieces ‘” their relationship to bodies, desire, public space, landscape. Their aesthetic projects: both viscerally realist or formally inventive, how they seize the power of language to resignify, transform or envision. But, although I think I understand this stuff intuitively, because I have little training in literary theory, and am only just beginning to learn to speak the language of aesthetics, I’m afraid I don’t feel fully capable of offering that kind of analysis. I hope these works will be taken up by a more qualified critic.

No matter how hard projects like this issue of PANK try to clarify our limitations, remind folks that we cannot claim to be fully represent “Queer,” (if such a thing is even possible or desirable), we realize that to name ourselves as we have creates an expectation of representation. Editors’ notes like this one almost always include some sort of acknowledgment of what’s omitted—of whatever communities, identities, experiences got left out. Rather than apologize for these absences, I want to conclude with an invitation: PANK is open to your work, year-round, not just this October. Send them/us the freakiest, Queerest shit you got. Seriously.

~Tim Jones-Yelvington