oh my, more to say about ‘genderqueer’ and terminology history because i am agèd

one. 3/28/2014

after some discussion by skysquids, i wrote:

there’s another thing going on here as well: the near-complete capture of the term “genderqueer” by female-assigned folks (largely white and expensively educated) to mean a specific, extremely limited range of their gender and style expressions.

when “genderqueer” was first being used (as far as i know) in the mid-1990s, it was a very broad umbrella term covering the whole space that we’d now refer to as “nonbinary”, as well as to some extent non-trans genderdeviant folks and trans folks who don’t have conventional gender expressions (butch trans women, fem trans men, etc – a zone we still don’t have good language for, except maybe by taking serano’s distinction between cissexual and cisgender more seriously).

“genderqueer” was very consciously created as a political project like “transgender” or “queer”, aiming at bringing together a very mixed group of people, not on the basis of ‘shared identity’ but on the basis of an analysis of structural power. in this case, an analysis of the enforcement of binary gender, as something that specifically targets women and other folks who are seen as imperfect men, and that affects in specific ways folks who aren’t easily read into a conventional masculine man/feminine woman box.

and it’s worth saying: a lot of the folks doing that creating were trans women. just like with “transgender” and with “queer”.

but within ten years, the meaning of “genderqueer” had been narrowed down to where it usually is today: a very limited microidentity for female-assigned folks. if i remember right, rocco bulldagger has a nice account of that shift in an issue of Bleached Blonde Bimbos from years ago…

the effect, of course, was to marginalize male-assigned trans and genderdeviant folks, further valorize conventional masculinity within dyke communities, make it easier for folks in dyke communities to maintain a double standard for trans men and trans women (as ‘not *really* men’ and ‘not *really* women’), and to actively depoliticize the term.

( parenthetically: i’d argue that this is at heart just a particularly blatant version of a general problem with a shift in the 00s from an expansive, strategic identity[-with…] politics (rooted in women of color feminist/womanist work and in the GLF/STAR/ACT UP lineage) to a boundary-policing, purist identity[-as…] politics (rooted in cultural nationalist movements, niche-marketing & liberation marketing, and TERF lineages). )

alongside that, though, i think the elimination of “genderqueer” as a usable umbrella term has encouraged more male-assigned nonbinary trans and genderdeviant folks (nonbinary trans dykes, in particular) to identify ourselves more actively with trans women, and to insist that the category of ‘trans women’ be expansive enough to include us.

two. 1/6/2015

after some back-and-forth between gravitys-rimbaud and ptero, referring to rocko buldagger’s germinal zine on the history of the term ‘genderqueer’, “Bleached Blonde Bimbos”, i replied:

1) “I’ve really begun to resent the idea that all DMAB nonbinary people are simply baby trans women or trans women too scared to call themselves women.”

yes this so much. and/but.

part of what’s a problem with that is the way that it puts the focus of political work and support work on internal identity and labels, rather than on how we’re perceived in the world and what that means for our everyday experiences.

no one looking at me can see whether or not i would call myself a woman – they might see me as a woman, as a failure-at-trying-to-be-a-woman, as a failure-at-being-a-man, as a drag queen, as a trans woman, as a faery faggot, or any number of other things. but whichever one it is, they’re going to treat me according to their reading. and the mix of those readings i experience isn’t necessarily closer to someone else’s according to how much we share identity labels.

and when we do our work based on identity labels, it gets a lot harder for us to build solidarity based on the actual experiences we share. and in turn, harder to prioritize and center the folks who are most heavily targeted for and most vulnerable to the worst versions of those experiences.

which is to say: part of the problem there is that it makes it harder for both woman-identified and nonbinary folks who’ve rejected an initial male assignment to have the backs of those of us who get read in the least socially acceptable ways. which is almost always going to mean folks who get read as failed-women and/or failed-men – which happens more easily to black folks regardless of presentation, as well as (less consistently) poor folks, older folks, etc.

to me, the it’s-just-a-phase bit is eerily similar to the late 90s / early 00s thing where normatively gendered trans women (in current terminology – then we’d’ve said something like ‘transsexuals’ or ‘post-ops’) were dismissed as hopelessly unevolved by some folks we’d now call nonbinary. in both cases, the same folks wind up getting thrown under the bus, and it’s rarely the folks having the arguments about identities and labels…

2) ‘genderqueer’ emphatically did not begin as a term exclusive of male-assigned folks. but ‘currently constituitive’ doesn’t mean ‘original’.

to throw a bit more fuel on the historical fire: as i remember / now understand it, ‘genderqueer’ began partly as a way for folks to distance themselves from the surgery-centered ‘pre-op/post-op/non-op’ terminology current (especially on the male-assigned side) in the mid-90s.

as gravitys-rimbaud says, the term’s approach was modeled on ‘queer’, and so was a deliberately fuzzy/center-less one in ways that set it up for its current state. but it’s hard, i think, given the depoliticization of ‘queer’ in the 00s, to see how much that “vacancy” was an active political strategy at the time.

the model for ‘genderqueer’ was ‘queer’ as a specifically political alternative to the rigidly bordered diagnostic gender-of-partners ‘gay/lesbian/bi’ terminology, offering a point of identification that said “who cares who you fuck? this is about common enemies – both the straight world and the respectable gays”. to me, cathy cohen’s “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens” is still the best articulation and critical analysis of that political moment…

if ‘queer’ was a political stance opposed to hetero- and homo-normativity (and explicitly if often only rhetorically committed to an antiracist, class-conscious politics), ‘genderqueer’ was a political stance against against the medicalized enforcement of binary gender; the One True Path trans circles that endorse and benefit from it; and the exclusion from trans social and political worlds of folks deemed ‘not trans enough’, often for racially inflected reasons (folks in the Ball/House scene; fem fags; butch dykes; folks with culturally specific gender positions that can’t be easily shoehorned into a binary model).

initially, ‘genderqueer’ was the smaller umbrella term within a set of moves that aimed at expanding political solidarity among different categories of folks facing oppression based on gaps between their gender expressions and/or identities and the expectations on them based on their assigned genders. like the other main move at the time – the propagation of ‘transgender’ as an overall umbrella term – there are plenty of critiques to be made of this initial version of ‘genderqueer’, but exclusion of male-assigned folks isn’t one of them. personally, i’d add to gravitys-rimbaud’s critiques around vacancy, whiteness, and accessorized femininity, its embrace of a sex/gender distinction (especially given its lack of attention to the different experiences of male-assigned and female-assigned folks).

that initial phase was pretty brief (and itself included bullshit like the anti-ts/post-op stuff i mentioned above). what quickly happened – which rocko describes a particular phase of – was the active, fairly deliberate colonization of that solidarity-oriented political position (however problematic its practice was), which by the early 00s had turned it into a definition-by-exclusion identity position for mostly white and expensively-educated female-assigned folks with a particular set of haircuts.

i do think that it does, at this point, make sense to think of the the current race/class/assigned-gender connotations of ‘genderqueer’ as constituitive of the term – but that doesn’t make them original to it. the whiteness, now, that was original; the professional-class and assigned-female parts came in later. which is as good an argument against the importance of knowing about a term’s origins as it is for knowing them…

i don’t think terminology’s ever apolitical. and i don’t argue with folks about what terminology they use for themselves. i think our experiences of them often have to do with how, from who, and in what contexts we encounter them – which varies real widely even within one age-cohort in either from-birth years or trans years… i’m just happy there are more folks visible these days in the messy borderzones where i tend to hang my hat.

for me, my experience of the past fifteen or more years of the term’s history mean i only use ‘genderqueer’ in particular nostalgic/sarcastic ways about myself. i’m more comfortable with ‘nonbinary’, which i see as moving away from an assigned-female original center – and, really, with ‘trans woman’, which is amazingly more open as a point of political identification to non-op/genderqueer/non-binary/whatever folks than it used to be, and which i’m interested, politically, in supporting as a point of identification even for those us who wouldn’t necessarily call ourselves ‘women’.

3) not because anyone mentioned it, just because it needs to be said every time anyone over 25 says “trans” right now:

hey #RealLiveTransAdult – #ItGetsBetter called, and they want their useless bullshit back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.