Gender studies: Essay Example

Identity Politics and the Queer Challenges to Conventional Identity

Introduction

Gender and sexuality is one area that has generated a lot of debate in sexuality studies. Identity politics has been a topic of debate especially due to its many segregations and counter-arguments by the feminists themselves. Identity politics has been characterised as one based on class characteristics, sexual preferences, gender, racial and ethnic characteristics. Thus the identities of ‘woman’, ‘feminists’, ‘radical feminists’, ‘lesbians, ‘lesbian feminists’, and ‘gay’ among others. Rudy1 says that radical feminism, essentialism, cultural feminism, lesbian separatism and woman-identified-woman are all terms that share the borders of similar experiences.

An area that has brought a lot of impact in identity politics is the issue of queer theory that has faulted the basis of identity politics. The works of Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick and Diana Fuss and Michael Foucault among other in the field of queer theory faulted the essentialist presumptions which had been circulating in radical feminists. They critiqued the basis of identity politics; a universal basis of commonality denoted by oppression and suppression.

The term queer appeared in the English language in sixteenth century.2 It has generally meant something ‘unusual’ or something ‘strange’. Queer has been used to denote sexual defiance. The term queer was used in the 19th century for a homosexual. Taylor3 says that the term queer was once a pejorative term used to refer to lesbian and gay identity. Later in the mid-1980, the tem evolved to mean resistance against binary organization of one’s sexuality and gender. According to Jagose4 queer is concerned with cross-examining the idea of fixed coherent categories of identity. Thus, in the 19th century, ‘queer’, ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘feminist’, would mean the same thing.

Kopelson says that “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant. The word ‘queer’ itself means across – it comes from the Indo-European root- twerkw which also yields to German quer (transverse), Latin torque (to twist), and English athwart5

Butler6 suggests that queer is not gay or lesbian, but an argument against gay and lesbian especially their assumption that gender and sexuality should be performed in a particular, fixed manner.7 This view of ‘queer’ is the one adopted in this paper which seeks to answer the question of the different kinds of queer challenges that have been raised over identity politics and how the challenges have changed identity politics.

The paper starts by first laying the background of the liberations that gave rise to identity politics in the section ‘Women and Gay Liberations. This will show the common ground in which identity politics is anchored; reaction against oppression by the mainstream society. The second chapter of this paper, ‘queer critiques to conventional identities’ carry the major theme of this essay. It discusses the major grounds on which identity politics have been critiqued by queer theorists; philosophical, political and historical grounds. Further, the paper examines whether the queer theorists have made any achievements with the challenges they have levelled against conventional identities. Finally, the conclusion sums up the findings of the paper and gives a recommendation that would take the identity debate further.

Women and Gay Liberations

The birth of gay liberation is said to come from the same place that the other social movements like youth liberation, feminism and black liberation came from. It is believed to have been born in June 1996 in Greenwich Village in the Stonewall rebellion when gay men, lesbians and drag queens fought back against the routine harassment that had been taking place against them through police raids. This rebellion was an outward reaction to deep-seated, growing frustrations that had been growing in lesbian and gay organizations.8 At this time when the movements were coming up, there was a critique that these movements were a distortion of how sexuality was viewed in the society. The common denominator between the women liberation movement and gay liberation is the perceived oppression which resulted from the imposition of sex roles. Feminists and gay liberationists replaced ‘sex roles’ as ‘gender roles’ which they argued were politically constructed to foster male dominance. Blausius and Shane9 note that prior to the movements, women were relegated to the role of sex objects and were required to beautify themselves for this role. This explains why lesbians were persecuted since they were seen to challenge the female sex role of servicing men. On the other hand, Gay men were victimized for challenged the sex roles of males. Lesbians first identified themselves as ‘women’ because they identified with the oppression that came from male domination.

In 1969, there was the first ever collective reaction to neutralise homosexuality’s stigmatisation when many homosexuals met at the Stonewall bar in New York to protest the repressive measure that had been set by the police10. The term ‘gay’ was thereafter accepted as the new identity for the homosexuals. Kopelson says that “since then, the Anglicism ‘gay’ has become a globally recognised sign of identity that endows gayness with an aura of cultural, social and medical normalisation”11

In the her book ‘My dangerous desires: a queer girl dreaming her way home’, Amber Hollibaugh12 express her frustration with the tenets of the 1960s feminism; the notion that heterosexuality implies male domination and suppress the love of lesbianism and that lesbianism is the deliverer from male domination since it rejects anything masculine. In her article ‘Who did lesbian history’, Faderman13 gives her views related in lesbian history. She feels that 20th century women were intimated and did not talk about their lesbian experiences, that is, before the lesbian-feminist movement in the 1970s. Putting it plainly, Faderman14 attributes their silence and intimidation to the anti-lesbian prejudices.

Queer Critiques to Conventional identities

One of the major critiques of identity politics is that “it fails to disturb hegemonic systems of domination”15 Identity politics is a politics of recognition and affirmation. It has been faulted on the fact that it does not seek the transformation of the society but inclusion of subordinate groups in the power structures of the society.

There are various grounds on which conventional identities have been challenged. First, they have been challenged on the philosophical ground for instance on biological binarisms. Secondly, conventional identities have been challenged on historical grounds; conventional identities have been challenged based on Foucault’s16 rejection on sexuality being a basis for identity before the 19th century (in Europe). Thirdly, conventional identities have been challenged on practical or political grounds. The challenges on this ground argue that claiming an identity pivots on sameness with others which can lead to demands of conformity.

Philosophical ground

Butler17 poses the question of identity and why there is the assumption that it should be internally coherent, unified, self-identical and persist through time. Butler believes that gender is culturally constructed and it is not the causal result of sex, neither is it fixed as sex is. She argues that ‘men’ will not only mount up to the bodies of male and ‘female’ cannot only interpret female bodies. There is no reason to assume that there are only two genders in the world; having this assumption of binary gender system would only mean that gender mirrors sex and is restricted by it. In the Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says that one is not born a woman but becomes one. 18 This means that one becomes a woman but there is cultural compulsion. And Butler19 adds that clearly, the compulsion is not from sex. Humanists conceive the subject to assume a substantive person who bears many essential and non-essential attributes. Thus, a humanist feminist takes gender as an attribute of a person characterised as a pregendered substance20.

There are cultural association of femininity and body and that of the mind with masculinity in philosophy. From historical tradition which began with Plato and is continued by Descartes and the others, there are efforts to put the distinction between the soul and the body. Universalist claims of femininity are pegged on shared epistemological angle which are understood as women sharing structures of oppression or articulated consciousness. The Universalist view of femininity has been met with a myriad of criticisms from women who claim that the category of ‘women’ is normative and is influenced by racial and class privileges. The category of ‘women’ is influenced by social, cultural and political factors and thus it cannot represent all women.

Political/practical Ground

Butler21 says that the subject of women being the subject of feminism “raises the possibility that there may not be a subject who stands before the law awaiting representation in or by the law. She says that gender is not is not coherently or consistently consisted in different historical contexts. In addition, gender intersects with ethnic, sexual, class and racial and regional modalities of broadly created identities.

Butler22 says the presence of an assumption that there must exist a universal basis for feminism which is based on the assumption that this identity exist in all cultural contexts carries with it the notion that women oppression exist in a singular form which is apparent in a universal structure of patriarchy. Claims of universal patriarchy have lost the credibility it enjoyed.23 The notion of commonality of women has not been displace. However, it raises many questions; for instance, whether there is a commonality among women that precedes their oppression, or whether women gain a bond as a result of their oppression, or even whether there exists a specificity on women’s cultures that is liberated from their subordination by masculinity cultures.24

Butler points to the fact that that the resumed universality and unity of feminism cannot be taken as a seamless category and it generates many refusals to accept it as a category. She argues that there are many fragmentations within feminism. In addition there exist a paradoxical opposition from ‘women’ to feminism while feminism claims to represent these women. This suggests limits of identity politics. There is a political problem, which feminism face in its assumption that ‘women’ denotes common identity.25 She argues that if one is a woman, that is not all she is and that gender overlap with sexual, class and racial identities.

Historical Ground

In his book ‘History of sexuality’ Michael Foucault argued that in the 18th century, sexual regulation did not concern preserving alliances that would legitimize paternal sovereignty. In a quest to produce healthy and productive workers, professionals began to develop what Foucault refers as technologies of sex in the interest of ‘power’. This means that technologies of sex would serve the ‘omnipresent’ issue of power. This is how sexual selves were produced. Foucault argues that thus, the sexual object has no origin because it was meant to regulate the effect of power; “it has no intrinsic essential meaning or drive”26 Foucault argues that sexuality is not an immovable or fixed thing; instead it is “a set of effects produced in bodies, behaviours and social relations by certain deployment.”27 Foucault faulted the conventional assumptions that the history of sexuality was the history of domination which demanded liberation. He argues that the notion was born in by the middle-class in the 19th century in their quest to create a symbolic sexual body according to their own view. This quest was recognised by psychoanalysts, professionals and social workers. In his view, power produces all sexual subjects and in turn, all sexuality is in its interests. On the issue of sexuality as a means of gaining an identity, he says that historically, there was no apparatus for identifying a person’s fixed and determinate sexual orientation.

Contrary to Foucault’s believe, Dean28argues that Foucault’s work stems out of a crisis in male subjectivity which comes from the Great War. She faults him for failing to account for the historical process which produces sexuality. She also notes that his work lack gender as a category in his work.

Halperin29 argues that sexuality have a history although not a long one. This is because, in the classical times sexuality was not conceptualised the way we conceptualise it today. In present times, sex is viewed politically, economically and socially. On the other hand, in classical times, each group of acts was connected directly or indirectly. For example, in classical Athens, sex took place according to the political standing, that is, between a social superior to a social inferior. This means that sexuality was interconnected and dependent on politics. Dean30 observes that in Foucault’s work, gender is not considered as a category of analysis. The article also identify that Foucault does not discuss the historical processes involved in the production of sexuality

Achievements of Queer Theory

Rudy31a radical feminists admits that the critiques levelled by queer theorists made her to question the basis of her attachment to lesbianism. She notes that after the queer theories there have been open coalitions between gay men and lesbians. Queers are now open to the fact that they cannot exist under only one identity and they can move in and out of various communities without the restrictions of identity politics. Organizations like the ACT-UP, Queer Nation and the Sex Panic have allowed queers to get to the streets with techniques that informs on issues of sexual preferences and issues of sexuality.32

There have been varying attitudes towards sex. Before the influence of queer politics, lesbianism was about politics in the same way it was about sex. Sex was not a topic of discussion in the open. However, as Rudy notes, queers agree that all sex is acceptable especially if it is mutually consensual. As is their quest to build their identities without restrictions, queers want sex constructed without confining structures. She argues that if ‘male’ and ‘female’ is not normal, then queers believe that ‘sex’ should not be normal either.

Halberstam33 says that there is a decline in queer theory and that is in no longer vogue. Dennis Atman in his article, ‘Talking sex’, says that queer theory failed in that it does not imagine itself outside the London, Paris and New York.34 Jeffreys35argues that inclusivity in the queering politics is opposing to lesbian interests. She argues that queer politics as hostile to the interests of gay men and all women. Sheila is of the opinion that queer identities and practices recreate masculinity which is dangerous to women.36 Jeffreys37defines masculinity as “the behaviour of male dominance”. Following this definition, she argues that any political goals that urges women and lesbians to tolerate masculinity is illogical.

As Marcus38queer has deliberately become a compact alternative to the identities of ‘transgender’, ‘bi-sexuals’, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbians’. He refers to it as a loose, inclusive association. Queer theorists believe that sexual identities are unstable and flexible, it is supposed to show the how instable all sexual identities are. Marcus believes that despite how queer has been faulted by feminists, it has made a valuable contribution that has established a link to feminists work on sexuality; to show how heterosexuality and homosexuality mutually define each other.

Rudy discusses queer theories; that being a man or a woman is a cultural and social construct rather than a scientific one, made her to question her attachment to radical feminism. The theories brought about realities of experiential realities of the fragmentation in lesbianism, for instance lesbians of colour. Queer theory aims at building coalitions, as such; it is opposed to the policy of categorization. The article finally examines how the radical separatists have formed a coalition with the queer politics to give birth to the new queer lesbian world.

Conclusion

The debate on identity politics and queering politics doesn’t show signs of ending soon. Maly Daly39 argues that a women who identify themselves as gay cannot have identified themselves as female. However, Shannon40argues that both gay men and women need to show solidarity. Rudy believes that for feminists that insist on maintaining who wish to live beyond gender, then they should strive towards a ‘feminist version of queer theory.’41 Feminists still want to maintain the main basis of their identity; male domination. This is the reason why getting a feminist version of queer theory would help feminists maintain the main aim of their course; sexism and misogyny in representation of woman as secondary and inferior.

Bibliography

Maite Escudero-Alias, ‘Transatlantic dialogues and identity politics: theorizing bilateral silences in the genesis and nature of queer studies’, Journal of Transatlantic studies, 7, no. 4 (2009), pp. 389-398.

Jodie Taylor, ‘The queerest of the queer: sexuality, politics and music on the Brisbane scene, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural studies, 22, no. 5 (2008), p. 651-665. Jagose, A, Queer theory, (1996) Melbourne, Melbourne University Press

Judith Butler, ‘The desire of Philosophy, Lolapress, http://www.lolapress.org.elec2/artenglish/butl_e.htm

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge, 1990

Mark Blausius and Phelan Shane, ‘Gay liberation and lesbian feminism’, in Mark Blasius & Shane (eds.) We are everywhere: a historical sourcebook of gay and lesbian politics, Routledge, (1997) pp. 377-379).

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Vintage, 1990 [1978]), 43

Karen Kopelson, Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer binary: “Reconstructed identity politics” for a performative pedagogy, College English, 65, no. 1 (2002), pp. 17-35

Carolyn Dean, ‘The productive hypothesis: Foucault, gender, and the history of sexuality’ History And Theory no. 3 (1994), p. 271

Halperin, David, ‘Is there a History of Sexuality?, History and Theory, vol. 28 (1989), pp. 257–274

Dean, Carolyn, ‘The Productive Hypothesis: Foucault, Gender, and the History of Sexuality’, History and Theory, vol. 33 (1994), pp. 271–96

Judith Halberstam, ‘Reflection on Queer studies and queer pedagogy’, Journal of Homosexuality, 45, no 2-4 (2003), p. 361-364.

Dennis Altman. ‘Talking sex. Postcolonial Studies’ 3, no. 2 (2000), p. 171–78

Craig, Ailsa. 2004. «Unpacking Queer Politics: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective (Book).» Contemporary Sociology 33, no. 4: 470-471

Sharon Marcus, ‘Queer theory for everyone: A review essay’, Signs, 31, no. 1, (2005), pp. 191-218

Amber Hollibaugh, ‘Desire for the Future: Radical Hope in Passion and Danger.’ (2000) Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Faderman, Lillian, ‘Who hid lesbian history?’, in Sue Morgan ed.) The Feminist History Reader, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 205–11

Maly Daly, Gyn/ecology, ‘The metaethics of radical feminism, 376 (1990)

Gilreath, Shannon, «feminism and gay liberation: together in struggle. «Denver University Law Review 91, no. 1: (2014), p.109-139

1 Rudy, Kathy, ‘Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory’, Feminist Studies, Spring 2001, vol. 27, no. 1, 191–22

2 Maite Escudero-Alias, ‘Transatlantic dialogues and identity politics: theorizing bilateral silences in the genesis and nature of queer studies’, Journal of Transatlantic studies, 7, no. 4 (2009), pp. 389-398.

3 Jodie Taylor, ‘The queerest of the queer: sexuality, politics and music on the Brisbane scene, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural studies, 22, no. 5 (2008), p. 651-665.

4 Jagose, A, Queer theory, (1996) Melbourne, Melbourne University Press

5 Karen Kopelson, Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer binary: “Reconstructed identity politics” for a performative pedagogy, College English, 65, no. 1 (2002), p. 17.

6 Judith Butler, ‘The desire of Philosophy, Lolapress, http://www.lolapress.org.elec2/artenglish/butl_e.htm

8 Mark Blausius and Phelan Shane, ‘Gay liberation and lesbian feminism’, in Mark Blasius & Shane (eds.) We are everywhere: a historical sourcebook of gay and lesbian politics, Routledge, (1997) pp. 377-379).

10 Ibid, 2

11 Ibid, p. 391

12 Amber Hollibaugh, ‘Desire for the Future: Radical Hope in Passion and Danger.’ (2000) Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

13 Faderman, Lillian, ‘Who hid lesbian history?’, in Sue Morgan ed.) The Feminist History Reader, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 205–11

14 Faderman, who did lesbian history, p. 207

15 Karen Kopelson, Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer binary: “Reconstructed identity politics” for a performative pedagogy, College English, 65, no. 1 (2002), pp. 17-35

16 Foucault

17 Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge, 1990

18 Simon De Beauvor

19 Ibid, 18

22 Ibid (Butler)

23 Ibid (Butler)

24 Ibid (Butler)

25 Ibid (Butler)

26 Carolyn Dean, ‘The productive hypothesis: Foucault, gender, and the history of sexuality’ History And Theory no. 3 (1994), p. 271

27 Halperin, 257

28 Ibid, 27

29 Halperin, David, ‘Is there a History of Sexuality?, History and Theory, vol. 28 (1989), pp. 257–274

30 Dean, Carolyn, ‘The Productive Hypothesis: Foucault, Gender, and the History of Sexuality’, History and Theory, vol. 33 (1994), pp. 271–96

31 Ibid, 1

33 Judith Halberstam, ‘Reflection on Queer studies and queer pedagogy’, Journal of Homosexuality, 45, no 2-4 (2003), p. 361-364.

34 Dennis Altman. ‘Talking sex. Postcolonial Studies’ 3, no. 2 (2000), p. 171–78

35 Sheila Jeffreys

36 Craig, Ailsa. 2004. «Unpacking Queer Politics: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective (Book).» Contemporary Sociology 33, no. 4: 470-471

37 Ibid (Jeffreys), p. 7)

38 Sharon Marcus, ‘Queer theory for everyone: A review essay’, Signs, 31, no. 1, (2005), pp. 191-218

39 Maly Daly, Gyn/ecology, ‘The metaethics of radical feminism, 376 (1990)

40 Gilreath, Shannon, «feminism and gay liberation: together in struggle.»Denver University Law Review 91, no. 1: (2014), p.109-139

41 Rudy, p. 220.