Refreshingly Ambiguous: Straights Need a Bit of Queer in Them,

Article excerpt

I was disgusted at the start of this decade when young lesbians and gays began to call themselves "queer." For homosexuals of my generation, that word signified a jagged stone that straights would hurl at us to show their contempt. With its constant use in lesbian and gay writing (as in "queer theory"), though, I've become pretty inured to the meaner connotations of queer. Maybe by claiming the word, queers really are succeeding in defusing it, just as African-Americans did with black, which had been considered a slur before the 1960s.

I've also come to see some queer ideas in a feminist light. Now I think the queer challenge to gender can hurry to fruition what many feminist have been struggling the past 150 years to achieve: an escape from the imprisoning limitations of "gender-appropriate" behavior and roles. Historically, women who fought to break free of that prison have always been called "queer." Queer meant "the refusal to accept the unimaginative and constricting notion that your personal, social, or political behavior should be dictated by the shape of your genitals.

What was most threatening to the sexologists who morbidified homosexuals in the 19th century was not that some men had sex with men or some women had sex with women. They were more bothered by what they deemed the "inverted" gender behavior of those who didn't act like "real men" or "real women." The threats so-wed sissies and tomboys posed to the stagnant status quo were tremendous -- and wonderful. Susan B. Anthony, for instance (without whom American women would never have gotten the vote), was called by her detractors "a grim old gal with a manly air." She was "inverted" and "queer" because she demanded that those born with a vagina have the political rights that, according to the wisdom of her day, only those born with a penis should have.

Queers have always understood -- though perhaps it was unarticulated before feminist theorist Judith Butler put words to it -- that one is born with a sex, not a gender: You learn to perform gender, and anyone (regardless of his or her genitals) can perform what society arbitrarily deems "masculine" or "feminine." You can perform a gender (or genders) permanently, sequentially, exclusively, simultaneously, or alternately. …


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