Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives
Royster, Francesca T., Biography
LIFE WRITING QUEERLY
Right now, with President Obama's repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," efforts to counter the Defense of Marriage Act, more states adopting gay marriage and civil union policies, the opening of same sex adoption laws, and normalization of LGBTQ families, we seem to be in a new space of visibility and assimiliation of queer lives, including citizenship and state participation--though, as Jasbir Puar notes, in a time of war, this citizenship serves some queer folk more than others. Reflecting these civic changes, queer lives are becoming increasingly more visible on television. Successful programs like Brothers and Sisters and Glee feature LGBTQ (both queer and questioning) characters as sassy neighbors, classmates, even siblings. The L Word, Queer as Folk, and Noah's Arc also give a (Active) insider's view of queer worlds, and all three also generate a strong cult following in LGBTQ communities.
An example of the increasing ease with which some aspects of queer lives circulate in popular culture came in a breathtakingly casual moment in one of Oprah's final season episodes. Oprah and her best friend Gail King go on a camping trip together in Yosemite. Oprah snarkily jokes that the lesbian rumors that have always hounded them are surely never going to die now that they've been caught on national TV trundling off to bed in the same luxury pop-up tent in the wilderness, a black-girl fantasy version of Brokeback Mountain. This episode flirts with lesbian frisson, at the same time rebutting stereotypes that black folks don't camp--out of fear of those wide open spaces, strenuous hair upkeep, and/or less liberal rural race politics, perhaps. Throughout the weekend, Oprah and Gail quickly fall into a distinctly butch-femme banter about the sharing of labor on the trip: who will rig up breakfast on the campfire (Oprah) and who will watch and be served (Gail); who will get the bathroom door unstuck (Oprah) and who will wait on the sidelines (Gail); who will take to flyfishing (Oprah) and who will complain about the unflattering cut of pants (Gail). What struck me as queer in this episode was not just the offhand joking about Oprah and Gail's rumored lesbianhood, but the other ways that the two uncloseted themselves as downright eccentric, or at least not fitting the manicured image of (straight) black female bourgie-hood: Oprah in nerdy owl pajamas and pop-bottle lens glasses climbing out of bed, or the two of them in bent straw hats and pick-up, trading verses of "The Gambler." Nevertheless, they are embraced by their fellow campers, and presumably by the television audience. For at least a few moments, Oprah and Gail allow themselves to be gender-queer and even racially queer. At the same time, Oprah is of course one of the wealthiest women in the world, and this lends her an almost limitless power to be an exception to the rule. But here and elsewhere, at least in the limited framing of citizenship in Televisionland, it would seem that America is ready to accept and consume queer lives.
Contrary to these trends is a less assimilatable set of narratives about LGBTQ lives and works that counter the sense of an easy fit into US life. LGBTQ life writing is often edgy and countercultural--in many ways deepening and complicating what it means to be lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer in the United States. Many of these works by LGBTQ authors, including Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, Dorothy Allison, Kate Bornstein, and Terry Galloway also blur boundaries of form, moving fluidly between autobiography and fiction, political treatise and personal manifesto, memoir and theory. Often the work of prominent queer theorists, like E. Patrick Johnson, Jose Munoz, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, has a strong autobiographical turn. For LGBTQ writers, both life writing and queer theory have traditionally been places for individual and collective exploration, ways of understanding the self through the larger fabric of culture and history and relationality. These works offer a distinctly critical approach to the fabric of American life, negotiating past histories and offering up new forms of knowledge, new ways of seeing the world.
How are life writing and queer theory at odds with what we've come to expect in autobiographical narratives? Queer life narratives explore the boundaries of truth and feeling, myth and lived experience; they see history from the cracks within the surface. Perhaps the author most explicit about a queer methodology of life writing is Audre Lorde. In her "biomythography" Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde uses equally memoir, history, and myth as lenses to narrate her life. She combines personal with collective experience, bringing in the spiritual, too, as a third way of knowing, to explore life writing that pushes the boundaries of easy recognition and transparency. The result is a narration of a life that embraces odd, uncanny, and not so easily assimilated moments of experience. She explores her first crush, when she was four years old, on a little girl named Toni who appears one day on her stoop. Lorde compares her to the little brown dough creatures she'd make and imagine as her little sister, and conspires, first, to hide her under her pillow, and then to peek under her panties to make sure that she's real. Along with telling LGBTQ history, Lorde dramatizes the otherwise unheard feelings, comportment, bodily experiences, and power relationships that went with the geographic landmarks of black lesbian life in 1950s Greenwich Village. She recounts being young and creative and outspoken in a constrictive educational system, being black and critical in a mostly white lesbian community, and being "kiki," or androgynous, in a culture ruled by butch-femme dynamics.
Sometimes we'd pass Black women on Eighth Street--the invisible but visible sisters--or in the Bag or at Laurel's, and our glances might cross, but we never looked into each other's eyes. We acknowledged our kinship by passing in silence, looking the other way. Still, we were always on the lookout, Flee and I, for that tell-tale flick of the eye, that certain otherwise prohibited openness of expression, that definiteness of voice which would suggest, I think she's gay. After all, doesn't it take one to know one? (180)
Like Zami, the narratives in this issue attempt to bring to light invisible and often taboo areas of experience: sexuality during childhood and otherwise, incest, interracial crossings, drug use, the sexuality of priests and religious brothers, the romantic play of two elementary school boys, a father's erotic glance toward a daughter, the role of Catholicism in one artist's initiation into gay male culture in LA.
In this cluster issue, our focus on "queer" and "performing" brings the following challenges to life writing: first, to expand the social definitions of the self or "I" as the readable, recognizable subject; second, to introduce the resistant, playful, and sometimes odd or eccentric aesthetics of "queer" into life writing's language, form, and treatment of the social fabric, and third, to give special attention to the performative as a process of self-making and recognition of self that is active, ongoing, and contingent on relationships to others, and that is grounded in embodiment. Moreover, as writers of color, each of the authors in this volume interrogates the interlocking identities of sexuality with race, class, and nation.
Brian Loftus points out that autobiography has traditionally depended on a unitary and universalizable "I"--one that the queer is in excess of. Queer autobiographical writing inherently challenges this claim, forcing into question the genre of autobiography and its promises of revealing a true self:
Rendering the unitary "I" plural and tautological, simultaneous and devoid of meaning, queer autobiography refuses the binary oppositions constructed by the "I"--spoken/silenced, subject/abject, symbolic/unrepresentable--and that insure the exclusions of the symbolic order. The "I" that documents subjectivity is forced to become figural, making the text sexually different and sex textually different. I call this strategy and the text it produces "heterotextual" [which] refers to two opposed yet simultaneous operations: to display heterosexist suppressions and textual obscenities and to render the text different in and to itself by forcing it to signify literally its repressed content. (32)
The essays in this collection intervene in the traditional project of autobiography by taking as their subject the process of queered meaning making, the ways that the constructed self is a process of negotiating history, class, taste, race. The intersection of performance and the perfomative with biographical and autobiographical projects gives us a chance to think even more concretely about selves as performative, fluid, and constructed.
These essays queer the forms of life writing by including aspects of embodiment, double-entendre and word play, and irony. Some examples include taking the academic lingo of theory and using it for play, questioning the reliability of history and memory by bringing in dreamscapes, or using song, personal snapshots, t-shirts, inside jokes, and allusions. Certainly these queered pieces ask us to expand our sense of writing--to think of how meaning necessarily depends on information outside of the page while also considering the performative command of writing itself, and the act of writing as a way of staking out biographical territory.
As these authors queer life writing through stylistic experimentation, we might note the consummate importance of lists in these essays, and in particular the ways that these lists of objects and names speak of material realities and consequences. In E. Patrick Johnson's "Queer Epistemologies," the chotskies collected by a white family, versus those by a black family, reflect his growing sense as a child of the politics of taste, class, and queer knowing. In Richard T. Rodriguez's essay, "Being and Belonging: Joey Terrill's Performance of Politics," the list of neighborhood drag queens that artist Joey Terrill recalls (Cyclona, Valerie, Pretty Jim) speaks to the importance of Rodriguez's work of memorializing forgotten lives and histories. Aimee Carrillo Rowe's listing of the items that she finds with her girlhood friend in the junk-heap behind her Southern California home ("other people's cast-offs: beer bottles, an old desk, a stack of Playboy and Hustler," 519) speaks to the unnamed intimacy, somewhere between play and adventure, between two girls as well as to the larger work of historical excavation and the forgotten songs, sayings, dances, and other references that we cull from public life to create our private worlds. These lists ask us to think about the order of things, and the strengths in concrete particularities. These lists become evocations, conjurations, hauntings.
INTERLOCKING QUEER IDENTITIES, EXCESSIVE QUEER IDENTITIES
A discussion of the performance of queer lives necessitates acknowledging the tensions within multilayered identities, and the ways that these identities, in the everyday work of living, sometimes get poked, prodded, ignored, and erased by the communities that surround us. Necessarily, then, these essays explore the interlocking nature of identities, and the ways that our seeing and being in the world inhabit these different identities in sometimes multiple and complex ways. As our stories become more concrete and more complex, in what ways do they put pressure on recent theoretical terms describing LGBTQ experience? How, for example, Rodriguez asks, do commands of familia, in Latino culture, command aspects of loyalty and erasure? Rodriguez explores ways that visual artist Joey Terrill elegantly and fiercely counters the prevailing protocols of Chicano identity. How might working class black identity intersect with queer ways of knowing and surviving in the small town South, as Johnson suggests, in "Queer Epistemologies"? How do race, language, and class intersect in our understanding of Latino female-to-male experience within Latino Butch Circles, as Lourdes Torres asks in her essay, "Becoming Joaquin and Mind If I Call You Sir?: Exploring Latino Masculinities"? What happens when we add non-normative, non-US heterosexualities to our understandings of queer, as I ask in my discussion of Nigerian Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti, "Fela!: Fela Kuti, Bill T. Jones, and the Marketing of Black Masculine Excess on Broadway"?
These questions in turn bring us to the importance of excess in our definition of queerness. For it is in the ways that queer lives and meaning making often extend, expand, and sometimes very messily overlap categories of identity and knowing and being in the world, that we might locate what is "queer" in them. For Johnson, for example, these "quare" ways of knowing are important methods of survival that apply in multiple circumstances of living: at home in the projects of South Carolina, in the first grade classroom, on the playground, and eventually, in academia and in the imaginary spaces of the stage and page.
Uncovering the multidimensionality of queer of color identity, each of these writers are particularly concerned with embodied experience as it is shaped by the particularities of social position. They insist on the ways that we know, see, and critique the world--through the body's experiences, pain, hungers, desires, aesthetics, beauty--as a form of theory, following Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua's conception of "theory in the flesh" as "one where the physical realities of our lives--our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings--all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity" (20). Taking up space and being in the world, queer bodies can open up what we think of as queer theory, and counter the fear voiced by Barbara Christian in her essay, "A Race of Theory," more than two decades ago--that academic theory threatens to take us away from the lived histories of folks of color, avoiding knowledges that don't fit neatly into the needs of the academic trend of the day. For example, Carillo Rowe's haunting essay "Holding" thoughtfully asks: How are bodies themselves the source of memory? How do they bear out untold stories of pain, and how can that pain be teased out? What memories are lost and come to us in panic, in a rush of feeling, in arousal? As she puts it, "Like the vulture, you pick among the rotting flesh of lives cast aside in order to set things right--to recover those stories and the real people behind them; to remind us in the present where we've been and what we come from; and to heal the wounds--not only our own, but also those of the ancestors" (518). Bodies are ways of dreaming utopia, sites for dreaming utopia--for conceiving of one's individual truth, but also for reaching outside of one's own circumstances, learning and understanding others, serving as a bridge. Understanding how we stand in between. At the same time, bodies bear the cost of struggle and can be the site for conflict within and between identities. As Torres's essay rightly points out, sometimes the experiences of in between are not neat; sometimes as we change, we might end up taking our families and friends with us, "dragging them if you have to" (454). However, the space of in between is not always the privileged or preferred state. Torres's essay documents interventions in past conceptions of transgender identity that are interested in, as Judith Halberstam puts it, the "un-mooring identity from bodies" (qtd. in Torres 461). Instead, in performances of Latino trans experience like Maria Guzman's documentary Mind if I Call You Sir?, or Janis Astor del Valle's play Becoming Joaquin, we see subjects whose "aim is aligning their bodies with their sense of self and achieving permanent male identity to end the disjuncture they feel between their biography as girls/women and their desire to achieve a social maleness that mirrors their personal identity" (Torres 461). We are forced to consider ways that gender normative bodies are reinscribed, even under the sign of queer.
THE PERFORMANCE OF POLITICS
The essays in this issue of Biography are interested not only in the ways that queer lives matter artistically and aesthetically, but the ways that lives are performed through "a repertoire of interlocking lived, artistic, and activist practices" (Rodriguez 467, drawing from Munoz). This necessarily means that when thinking about the performance of queer lives, we are thinking about lives as they bear meaning in relationship to others, in and outside of community. This also means that we might think of political practice in a multiple and sometimes genre-bending way: rallying and organizing, art making, making love, talking and writing, dancing and singing. These are folks who are making interventions in the world by the ways that they live, the work that they make, and the work that they do toward a larger social critique. This means, too, that we might think about the ways that folks see and live and do through an oppositional gaze. As each of these writers are grounded in cultural, racial, and historical particularities, we might think about how their identities and positions uniquely animate a performance of politics. How, for example, might a Latino gay male sexuality bring out different social justice claims, produce new expressive forms? This necessarily means taking seriously personal narratives as well as cultural contexts.
These queer lives also help us to think differently about narratives of larger identity movements. Rodriguez, for example, through the narrative of Joey Terrill, helps us see the United Farm Workers of America boycott through the nexus of queer desire: Terrill learned to collect signatures at Ralph's Market while also learning to cruise. New maps of place are drawn, landmarks of old neighborhoods rise up, new aspects of historical moments are remembered. Both Rodriguez and I consider how AIDS cuts into and queers the ways that we understand other historical developments, like post-independence Nigeria. Carrillo Rowe reminds us of the interconnections between sexual and state violence in battles over land in California, while Johnson's "Queer Epistemologies" gives us a queer take on class, taste, and aspirationality that might be connected to the growth of a black middle class in turn connected to the post-civil rights moment.
All written by folks of color, these are also liberation narratives, centrally concerned with freedom and social change larger than but including themselves. Using queer theory, performative writing, memoir, and interview, these essays start from an embodied queer of color positionality to explore queer ways of knowing. These essays also suggest that queer bodies can teach the world, by naming the unnamable, courting the illusive, training us to see and feel differently.
Christian, Barbara. "The Race for Theory." Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 51-63. Print.
Johnson, E. Patrick. "'Quare' Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother." Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 124-57. Print.
Loftus, Brian. "Speaking Silence: The Strategies and Structures of Queer Autobiography." College Literature24.1 (Feb. 1997): 28-44. Print.
Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A Biomythography. Freedom, CA: The Crossing P, 1982. Print.
Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria E. Anzaldua, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Women of Color/Kitchen Table, 1983. Print.
Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.…
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Publication information: Article title: Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives. Contributors: Royster, Francesca T. - Author. Journal title: Biography. Volume: 34. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2011. Page number: v+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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