Queer as Mud4 April 2018
The most infamous tale of star-crossed lovers declares: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And yet, in classic Shakespearean irony, it is the names of Capulet and Montague affixed to both the hero and heroine that predicate their deaths. Were it not for the attachment of their families’ names to their identities, they would have married, had kids, cheated, divorced, lived the rest of their lives in mutual hatred and no-one would have cared. The context and cultural connotations of words are what gives them their meanings.
Words come from language, and language, we must never forget, is not innate. Language develops within specific sociocultural structures; it is a product of our history. We allocate words to objects, emotions, actions, people. And, as humans, we like to categorise. Animal, vegetable, mineral. Black, white, Asian. Man, woman. Words are descriptors and tools, and work as our way of making meaning: from the past, present, and future. Words can degrade, dignify and simply denote. They are part of what makes us human.
The meaning of words can be dependent on the user. Slurs are markers of violence: before physical force come the words that incite it. If a person is labelled as a degenerate, then they are treated as such. As such, our words create and define difference between peoples, as well as bring wthem together.
Reclaiming is the subversion of original meaning. If I call myself a dyke, or if I call myself queer, as a lesbian, I am reclaiming words that have historically condemned me to the margins of society. I am saying that I love women, and I love to love women, and I will not be silent or feel shame. I will wear my history on my sleeve and I will remind everyone every day of what society did to those who came before me. Just like we remember the Anzacs on 25 April, lest we forget those who fought for the rights and survival of the LGBT community.
Power dynamics are thus integral to the effect a word has. One small pebble has a thousand ripples, et cetera. But some words are rocks, and some ripples become waves. When the ‘no’ campaign in the recent postal survey on same-sex marriage called the ‘yes’ campaigners ‘bigots’, they ignored the power relations implicit in discrimination. No doubt, the ‘yes’ campaign also used the word ‘bigot’ to describe their opponents, but because that is what homophobic people are. Historically, culturally and linguistically, the ‘no’ campaign matched the criteria for bigotry. The thing about bigotry is that it’s an act of oppression, and the thing that academics— from Karl Marx, to Michel Foucault, to bell hooks, to most sociologists worth their salt—have observed about oppression, is that it can only come from a source of power and authority. Who has the power here? In this case, a civil-rights issue became a matter of ‘opinion’: when a ‘no’ voter, who wants to keep away another person’s rights, finds themselves a social outcast in some circles, are they not merely experiencing what they wanted an LGBT person to feel in the first place? Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may have made a plea for a “respectful debate” without “name-calling”, but there is no room for respect in a campaign based on depriving a minority of their right to live as equal citizens.
The world does not suddenly flip and fundamentalist Christians—the main voice of the ‘no’ campaign—are not suddenly victims of centuries of Western oppression (religious persecution by other denominations excluded). Heterosexual people have not been psychoanalysed, incarcerated, murdered, correctively raped and forced into conformity for their sexual orientation. It is not bigoted to fight for equal rights, but it is bigoted to pretend that an ‘opinion’ justifies depriving others of the life most take for granted. We were scooping pebbles out of the pond with blistered fingers; they were brokering tidal waves with bloody hands.
Certain academic and leftist circles have appropriated ‘queer’ to mean divergence from social norms. Some use it to describe their politics, their non-monogamy, their practices within a relationship. But pegging your boyfriend does not make you queer, nor does dating several women at the same time, nor having an unusual fetish, nor abstaining from or being uninterested in sex at all. The experiences we face are not the same, nor do we occupy the same social position, nor does our non-conventionality defy the same moralities. There is no question mark around those civil or political rights. So, to reclaim a word which does not apply to you in fact takes away from the act of reclaiming itself. It dilutes it.
I recently got into an argument with an old acquaintance about the appropriation of the words ‘femme’ and ‘butch’ by non-lesbians. The cultural meaning of these identities lies on the axis of gender and sexuality. Male and female, in our society, have always been determined in opposition to each other: and therefore, womanhood has always been defined in relation to men. ‘Femme’ and ‘butch’ are, as such, a subversion and a rejection, respectively, of societal conceptions of femininity. The use of those words by women who are in any capacity attracted to men eats away at their radical meaning.
Some may use the word ‘femme’ as a ‘woke’ substitute for ‘feminine’, ’feminine-presenting’, ‘women-aligned’ or even ‘fem’, without considering how that misuse of the word erases non-gender-conforming women. Similarly, ‘butch’ is misappropriated in place of identities like tomboy or androgynous. The choice to ignore those words in favour of ones so central to many lesbian identities is made because it is still not seen as legitimate for women to define themselves in absentia to men. Resenting lesbians for having our own cultural specificities isn’t radical or acceptable even if it’s from other members of the LGBT community. It’s still another pebble in the pond. It links the distinct gender and sexuality of lesbians to men in a way they have sought to erase.
This is not to discriminate against the tribulations of other women-loving women, or women in general. However, the use of the terms by those attracted to men or male-aligned people directly negates their meaning. In the last half-century, bisexuality has sought to define itself apart from ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. To me, this push acknowledges that there are differences in experiences among these sexualities, which impacts the connotations of the words. The words ‘femme’ and ‘butch’ historically and culturally are rooted in—and only make sense in—a lesbian context. While the meaning of words does indeed change over time, that is typically because the former application has become redundant or less significant. Yet these words are still important to a lot of lesbians in a world that is pitted against us. In a world where men still think they can ‘correct’ us, and in a world where we are sexualised and commodified for others’ use. Gender and sexuality are still very much facets of society, so this term is still critical to a group who have eschewed sociocultural expectations.
Romeo and Juliet didn’t meet their grisly end merely because of the order of letters in their last names. Words mean nothing without their contextual connotations: it’s what their last names represented which gives their story meaning. Montague and Capulet are merely the linguistic manifestations of a material reality. In short: if we take words out of their context, we take out their meaning too. And if we take away their meaning, we become meaningless.