One of the ideals of, the reasons for coming out – an idea that I have repeated in other columns – is to reach out and become part of an open and welcoming community.
The reason I keep stressing how important it is for us, as members of the queer communities to be welcoming to all is the unfortunate reality that we are not always as open and welcoming of difference as we should be.
I think at some point, every queer person either experiences or at least sees intraqueer oppression and discrimination. If you’re shaking your head right now because you’ve never seen and can’t imagine how such a thing could exist, there are three possibilities: you are not queer and have not been paying attention because you your survival doesn’t depend on it; you live in the best queerclave ever (except for the total lack of internet access); or, well… there’s an old story about how there’s a sucker at every poker table, and everyone knows who it is, and if you can’t identify the sucker, you should grab your chips and run because you’re it.
I am not going to compete in the Oppression Olympics here. I’m not going to say that group A is worse off than group B or that group C is treated worse than group D. All oppression sucks, and oppression that comes from inside your community sucks worse because, as Shiri Eisner puts it, “it’s more personal, coming from where we least expect it, from where we came seeking support.”
Derald Wing Sue’s fantastic book Microaggressions in Everyday Life talks a little about this, although it leaves it to the reader to push his ideas to the next level and consider them as part of intraqueer oppression. (And yes, it’s definitely a flawed book, but it’s hard to write a general text without some flaws. It’s still fantastic even with its issues. More about that another day.)
Here’s a quote from Sue about sexism. You may want to jot this one down on a notecard, it will be on the test. “To be accused of being sexist or holding sex-role stereotypes toward women is to be considered unenlightened and a bigot.”
This holds true in the queer community, possibly even more than in dominant culture. Because we are queer, there is an assumption that we’ll be less prone to bigotry and sexism and xenophobia than other populations – one of my straight friends the other day, for example, was flabbergasted, incredulous over the existence of intraqueer oppression (specifically biphobia).
It’s sad but true, though – being in an oppressed minority population, a target group, does not somehow make you automatically incapable of oppressing others. The intersectionality of the queer communities combined with the heterogonous nature of teh queer – the way that we are far from a uniform population – means that it is inevitable that some queer people will oppress other queer people, sometimes because of things like racism or sexism or the big one that no one talks about, classism. Yes, I said it. Poor queer people get crapped on by dominant culture and queer culture alike for being poor.
(Look, we’re all friends here, right? Let’s let our hair down. By this point, the people who hate all of us are no longer reading. We can stop pretending that we are all dancing around holding hands in one big Queer Rainbow Of Fellowship 24/7, right? There is no queer population that has not been on the receiving end of oppression from members of other or even their own queer populations. I know it’s important to band together against the Dominant Culture. But we can’t do that effectively if we don’t take a good, hard, and sometimes uncomfortable look at some of the things we sometimes do to each other, and why. OK. Remember that I love you all, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s important for us to be a united front.)
Sexism is generally defined, by the cisgender, as a man>woman issue. Because the power in this society is held by men, there is no such thing as “reverse sexism”, that’s as illogical a construction as “reverse racism”. But these terms, sexism and racism, are terms of institutional oppression. It’s perfectly possible for an individual to be prejudiced against people who are higher up – or on the same level in – the pecking order.
In a lot of corners of queer, gender is approached very differently than it is in cishetereonormative dominant culture. However, even in these areas, masculinity rises to the top. People can be oppressed by people of the same gender, and it’s still sexism. Classic sexism. Because the thing that remains the same is that the arrow points from more dominant masculine>less masculine. And frankly one of the ways we construct masculinity in this culture (in any culture with strong European roots) is that dominant=masculine(=dominant, it’s totally circular). I’ve used the term “emasculating” in other places, and what it means is exactly to be put in a subordinate role. Even in those places where gender is being deliberately queered, masculinity=strength=power.
I’m not talking about kink here. This isn’t about master/servant dynamics. This is about Top and Bottom as it plays out in society. And the Top is the one who is seen as “the man”.
Now this is not to say that in all same-gender (or ambiguous-from-the-outside-gender) relationships have a masculine/feminine wife/husband dynamic. It’s not individual relationships I am looking at here, it’s the actions of people that conform to sexism and oppression even though they don’t necessarily fit into dominant culture’s expectations of “proper” gender roles and sometimes when they do.
In the world of gay men, masculine dominance – alpha maleness – can be a strong dynamic. Ever been to a Pride event, or queer bar, where someone new and (conventionally) attractive shows up? What I am about to describe doesn’t happen all the time everywhere, but it happens often enough that I’m sure you’ve either seen it or seen it described – it looks like someone threw a piece of meat into a shark tank. Slightly older and more powerful men circling around the newbie like a pride of lions cutting a baby zebra out of the herd. Similar things are described in some lesbian literature – and why not? It’s a scene that plays out in the straight world every night, and people are people wherever they go, so why wouldn’t some queer people act the same way? (Again, jot that down, it comes back later.)
What happens with this dynamic isn’t classic sexism on the face of it, because the gender roles aren’t directly in line with the normative of the cisgender world, but it is another facet of the same dark gem. Dominant, masculine-identified people imposing their dominance, their power, on members of the sexually objectified and weaker group.
And sexually objectified they are. Young queer men, especially, are hypersexualized by gay culture. Look at the ads in any queer venue. If there are men, they are young and sexy and barely dressed.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine, a young woman who discussed with me some of what she has seen happening among lesbians of her acquaintance. She said that she’s seen issues with butch/femme dynamics, where some butch lesbians treat femmes the same way that some men treat women in Straightsville – as weaker, as needing their protection, as inadequate to fix cars and carry their own schoolbooks. In the fluidity of gender roles, those who take on an identity with more “masculine” traits can absorb the whole masculine>feminine dynamic, sometimes unconsciously.
But just because a woman-identified person is the one treating another woman-identified person with what Sue calls “benevolent sexism” (what a lot of men who want to justify their behavior call “chivalry”) doesn’t magically make it not sexism just because it’s not Cisman>Ciswoman.
But all forms of sexism, even the most conventionally recognizable versions, are unfortunately alive and well in the queer community. Here’s another piece of the puzzle, the one that started this train of thought.
Being sex-positive is a good thing – accepting all expressions of sexuality involving one or more consenting adults as valid and as things there is nothing wrong with (including, for asexuals, little or no sexual attraction at all) is a fundamental step in recognizing the rights of all people to be the people they are. Like free speech, it’s most challenged when it’s most necessary, when the sex takes forms that are considered problematic (or, well, “ooky”) by the dominant culture. Things like polyamory, swinging (which is one of the many forms polyamory can take), bondage and domination, sadomasochism, and even voluntary celibacy… things that, like much of the reality of queer sex, the general community thinks there’s something wrong with. And, quite honestly, there are quite a few vanilla queers who are turned off, pardon the pun, by these kinds of practices even while they embrace their own practices.
It’s easy to say “I think people should do whatever they do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.” But being sex-positive also means being willing to openly speak of and endorse people’s right to do whatever they frelling want to. Or not to do what they don’t.
Sex-positivity is a very powerful tool. But it can also be used as a way to cover up sexism, aggression, and downright creepitude.
I was recently told a story by a young woman who is active in the bi/queer community and prefers to remain anonymous. She was contacted by a bi man who admonished her for a professional style of dress in public queer spaces that he found to be not sexy enough. He complimented her on her beauty, and then went on to tell her that by not dressing to “reveal and celebrate your sexuality” she was “reinforcing sex-negative culture.” The conversation went downhill from there. See, she does things for bi/queer community at conferences and in other queer spaces, and she prefers to dress professionally for many reasons – and the thing is, those reasons are completely irrelevant. All that matters is that they are her reasons, and a queer man decided that a woman’s choice not to sexualize herself was upholding homo- and biphobic sex-negative culture.
It’s trivially obvious that here was a guy whose concern was not for the rights of people to be able to talk about and pursue whatever form of sexual expression they prefer. No, this guy felt his right to sexualize any person he wanted to was being compromised by a woman asserting her right to be overtly sexual in her dress only with those people she chooses to be so with.
So somehow, a queer man is deciding that his sex-positive stance entitles him to denigrate others because he’s turned on by them and wants more access. And he manages to act like a pig, cheapen sex-positivity as well as the battle against biphobia and homophobia, and show how sexism is alive in the queer community.
A lot of people have talked about what looks Queer. As far as dominant culture is concerned, queer looks either hypersexualized (the phrase “assless chaps” seems to come up now and then, which strikes me as funny because if chaps had asses we’d call them pants) or desexualized – straight men saying butch women are ugly (while convinced that their own angular faces and chest hair curling up out of their collar is the essence of virile masculinity and by definition attractive as the smell of a new car full of money), for example.
But there are plenty of stereotypes inside queer, and the idea that people who don’t sexually objectify themselves aren’t queer enough is one that pops up, sometimes directly like Mr. My Sex-Positivity Is More Important Than Your Autonomy described above, sometimes indirectly but just as blatant and unsubtle (follow the directive of Natalie Clark and do an internet image search of “queer magazines” and see just how the sexual objectification and display of masculinity-as-legitimate-power looks in our own media). It’s not only in straight circles that bisexual women are seen as sexualized objects, and bi men as sexual predators (see that gender dynamic at play again?)
So, there’s the problem. What’s the solution?
It’s going to take a lot of things. The first step is admitting there is a problem. (Isn’t that always the case?) Denying sexism and other forms of intraqueer oppression (including biphobia and transphobia) just lets them thrive in darkness. Sunlight is the great disinfectant.
Next, a dose of feminism – for example, Everyday Feminism.
Taking a good look at gender stereotypes and gender roles will help as well.
Did I mention feminism already? Yes? That’s good, it bears mentioning again.
Ask the hard questions, and keep asking them. The answers will quite often appear out of the act of asking the questions.