What is queer theory?
I had a vague idea, an idea of an idea, perhaps, but keen to learn more about the world around me and especially keen to ready myself to learn more about myself on a deep, profound and physical level, I decided to read this “Very-Short-Introduction-with-pictures” type book from activist-academic Meg-John Barker & illustrator/comics artist Julia Scheele.
Queer: A Graphic History is surprisingly hefty and unexpectedly rigorous, taking the reader on a chronological journey from the beginnings of academic discussion of sex and gender through to the present day. With a focus on the existentialists, then black feminist academics, followed by a lengthy sections on both Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, Queer: A Graphic History moves us closer to the now and the pervasive attitudes and ideas espoused by contemporary queer theorists. Alongside this gently complex theory, Barker offers suggestions on how to live more queerly, how to be happier in oneself and how – hopefully – we (the “we”, myself included, being people who have voluntarily chosen to read Queer: A Graphic History) can make the world a better, queerer, place.
The most important take away from this book is that the idea of “queer” is rooted in behaviour, not identity. An act is queer, not a person. This may seem counter-intuitive to many readers, ignorant like I was, who thought that claiming and being unashamed of differing identities was key to contemporary societal ideas. Queer theorists argue that this is in itself a problem – that if someone chooses to label themselves as “gay”, “bi”, “transgender” (or even “cis & straight”), they are putting themselves in a position where their identity can end up being policed, both by members of that group (whether “normative” or not) and the self. To label oneself, ones essence, as explicitly anything, potentially locks the self in a psychological space that makes a later change harder. Queer theorists – some of them – believe that people should reach towards a society where any mode of existence, of lifestyle, of clothing, is accepted, acceptable and of no issue to other people. We should, queer theorists argue, be free to pursue our bodily and psychological desires without the pressures of gender norms and gender roles, and this is something I understand. I like wearing make up, glitter, sequins and dresses, and have often met people who have treated me as if I’m abhorrent for doing so. Queer theory looks at the ways in which these kind of prejudices have formed, who they do and don’t benefit and how the world would be improved should things change. This covers not just ideas related to appearance and traditional gender roles, but ideas and beliefs related to sexuality that seem so inherent we almost forget they are a form of discourse. A key idea, and one that keeps being returned to, is the societal notion that heterosexual, penetrative, one man one woman, procreative, penis-in-vagina sex (“PIV” for short) is the main aim of all sexual interaction. Sex acts other than this – be they heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual – are deemed lesser, but why? Pleasure and sexuality, queer theorists argue, shouldn’t be prejudiced towards a certain activity. Different people like to get off in different ways, but many people have felt [and many people still feel] required to perform sex acts they don’t necessarily enjoy, because that’s “the way things are”. Queer theory explores vast amounts of decisions in our lives and questions why why why we do them and what stops us from doing what we want to do?
I removed the nail varnish from my nails after wearing them golden and glittery for a few days, because I was going to see my grandfather and then, the day after, going to work in a suit like a grown up. Why did I feel the need to do it? Why did I feel uncomfortable hanging out with a retired carpenter in the Midlands (my grandfather) or “hosting” a corporate event in Central London wearing gold nail varnish? Did I feel uncomfortable, or did I fear that I would make other people uncomfortable? Or is that the same thing? Most women who were attending the event I was working these last two days were wearing nail varnish – why shouldn’t I be? The woman who sold my grandfather and I instant coffees for £2 each in a murky rural cafe near Northampton had nail varnish on of a similar hue to what I’d been wearing – how was it appropriate for her, but not appropriate for me? And would it have been inappropriate? Would my grandfather have cared? He knows I don’t live a “conventional” life and he knows I don’t have a girlfriend any more, but would nail varnish on a man signify homosexuality to him, and – even if it did – would he care? Was my presumption that my grandfather would become uncomfortable if he drifted into contemplation of my [imagined] man-on-man sex parties me holding a negative stereotype? Was I, presuming this man homophobic – due to his age, his class, his educational background, his one long marriage to a woman, his [sadly] age-appropriate right wing politics – being as prejudicial as I was worried he might be? Would my grandfather care if I wanted to have sex/relationships with men? Would he care if I was wearing nail varnish? Would he care if I got into swinging?
I JUST DON’T KNOW.
I don’t know what I’m talking about. But what’s important for me is that I begin asking myself questions about myself I have deliberately refrained from asking for a long time.
I used to kiss a lot of men, when I was a teenager and when I was a student, before I met my ex-long-term-[female]-partner. Though I never had sex with a man, and turned down direct offers of sex (from both men and women) on multiple occasions, I think very few men who don’t identify as either gay or bisexual have kissed as many men as me. There are probably gay men and heterosexual women who have kissed less men than me, tbh. I’m not bragging, because I’m very confused. I suppose, now, freed of the sociological constraints of a long term relationship and with access to the internet of hook-up apps, it is possible for me, right now, to arrange to find a man and kiss him and fuck him and suck him and have him kiss and suck and fuck me, all before bed time. But I’m not going to do that. Of course I’m not, because I’m too repressed. “Ewww, sex.” That attitude, I know, isn’t going to be changed unless I actively change it. But ewww, sex. 😦
What this book on queer theory taught me is that being confused about my relationship with sex and gender is fine, and that seeking a label to describe myself is likely to leave me more confused. Though I’m happy to be naked in public and am comfortable with the look of my body, I’m not necessarily comfortable with the physicality of it. I don’t mind anyone seeing my naked arse or my flaccid cockerel, but I don’t feel the same way about my erection. Rn I don’t feel like I have the confidence to wander round an orgy with a throbber on, y’know. But nor do I know if I want to…
I’m probably being far more frank (again) than I should be, but fuck it, it’s my blog, I’ve abandoned a corporate trajectory, I can say what I like.
Queer: A Graphic History is an informative and thought-provoking text, especially for someone like me who doesn’t really know very much about themselves at all. I need to think more, I suppose, but – also, as the book said – I need to act. Who we are is not the same as what we do, and what we do does not have to define who we are. But I’m not going to find out what I want to wear, what I want to touch and what I want touching me by sitting around on my own and – very platonically – cuddling my dog to sleep.
Maybe soon I’ll explore myself a bit more, but right now I’m going to go out for ice cream. BYE!!!