RETHINKING CONTEMPORARY QUEER IDENTITY POLITICS
Written by Carmilla Reyes
On March 22nd, the Chicago Dyke March posted a meme on their twitter that read: “i like butch girls and i cannot lie/you other femmes can’t deny/when a butch walks in and is rude and abrasive/you’re like, i kind of hate myself/and wish my politics of decentralizing masculinity/could override my horrible self-destructive desires.” Besides being a really terrible rendition of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” this meme represents a largely unprecedented, public attack against butches by organizers of a dyke march. The general idea here was that butches, because of their relationship to masculinity, act similarly towards femmes as men act towards women in heterosexual contexts. This kind of ahistorical, absurd accusation of butch women embodying the toxic masculinity traditionally attributed to men is unfortunately representative of a broader trend that has recently emerged within queer politics: the substitution of “femme” and “masc” for “woman” and “man” when discussing gendered power dynamics.
Born out of a superficial attempt to be more inclusive to nonbinary people, this discourse attempts to define one’s relationship to patriarchy based on whether they appear to be feminine or masculine. Femmes are then said to be universally oppressed by mascs, allowing groups such as the Chicago Dyke March to justify their recycling of old homophobic arguments originally conceived by heterosexual feminists as somehow empowering for “femmes,” a term which has in turn become generalized beyond any sort of concrete meaning.
How have we gotten to this point in queer politics where femmes are attacking the women who were originally the primary targets of the reclaimed slur “dyke?” And how can we push queer communities engaged in these reactionary politics back in the direction of more materialist, critical analyses?
I believe that any meaningful attempts to answer these questions must first be situated within the broader history of identity politics. Because this history has already been excellently recounted and analyzed by Salar Mohandesi in his article “Identity Crisis” at Viewpoint Magazine, I will not be taking to time to repeat all of that here. I encourage you to read Mohandesi’s piece, while I focus on the implications this history has for contemporary queer politics.
Before we continue it is important to note that the term “femme” was never designed to refer to anyone and everyone who appears feminine. Rather, it was established in the 1950s to describe a specific, working class embodiment of queerness. The term “butch” was additionally constructed for this same purpose. Historically, femmes and butches have actually fought together to reclaim their queerness from a heterosexual gaze that has attempted to equate the relationships between femmes and butches to those of heterosexual women and men. This is not to say that there have not at times been contentious relationships between members of these groups, rather that these conflicts have generally been resolved within queer communities, without being publicized through mediums as widely accessible as social media platforms. Joan Nestle has made some incredibly important contributions to analyzing this history, and I recommend reading her works for further insights into the development of these categories from the 1950s onwards.
With the conservative marriage inclusion campaigns of recent decades, there have increasingly been demands by more affluent gays that queer relationships conform to the standards of the heterosexual, patriarchal institution of the family in order to achieve greater levels of respectability and inclusion. This political shift, coupled with the recent obsession with trans communities by mainstream media, has allowed the term “femme” to become abstracted from its original context and generalized into a category that essentially just means “feminine,” with “masc,”—obviously short for “masculine”—being characterized as its counterpart. By positioning these categories as dichotomous entities, as opposed to qualitatively different forms of queerness with a much more complex relationship to one another, queers have begun to inadvertently reinforce the gender binary we have dedicated so much of our history to resisting.
Yet for some reason, the establishment of this new gender binary is somehow seen as magically more inclusive of nonbinary and gender nonconforming communities. People these days love to talk about gender as being a “spectrum,” as if only being allowed to choose which shade of feminine or masculine you are is somehow liberating.
Unfortunately, patriarchy does not dole out privilege and oppression according to the words people choose to attach to themselves. Rather, this system continues to categorize bodies by their proximity to femaleness or maleness. Gender nonconformity in this context, of course, is met with all kinds of violence and discrimination, as it represents a challenge to the gender binary that capitalism depends on to structure people’s relationships to capital and labor. Everything from wages to housing are influenced by gender, and people and institutions generally don’t ask you how you identify before treating you like shit. Butch women are not afforded privilege within this system for being masculine, rather they are oppressed for being both female and gender nonconforming. To argue otherwise is to deny the lived experiences of countless butch women, past and present.
The key analytical error advocates of this brand of identity politics seem to be making is defining people’s experiences by the identity categories ascribed to them, instead of the other way around. When we take identity categories as the starting point for our political analyses, instead of the actual lived experiences of the people we are attaching those categories to, we cease to engage in materialist analyses and quickly find ourselves lost in the realm of idealist abstraction. Everything at this point just becomes pure language disconnected from the reality of the actual struggles our communities face every day and, in this instance, it is merely logic and not history or politics we are concerning ourselves with.
This is why it is so important for us to remember the socialist roots of identity politics as they were originally conceived by the Combahee River Collective. The debate regarding whether the framework of identity politics can continue to be of use to us today or whether we must invent new ways of accounting for the heterogenous composition of the working class cannot even begin to happen in any meaningful way until we first critically reflect on this history, and acknowledge how we have strayed so far from what identity politics were originally meant to be: a framework for analyzing the role of race, gender, and other social realities that shape the struggles of the working class within capitalist social conditions. Of course, Kimberlé Crenshaw is perhaps the most well-known example of someone who has attempted to examine and surpass the limitations of contemporary identity politics by developing the framework of intersectionality. The extent to which this framework has sufficiently resolved these issues is still a subject of debate among the left, but it has generally seemed to be a step in the right direction.
So here we are, in 2017, where terms like “femmephobia” are gradually starting to replace “misogyny” and “transmisogyny,” and the project of conceiving of gender in a way that is inclusive to all is replacing the practice of refusing to conform to gender in the first place. Certain (mostly white) gay and trans folks have been able to secure comfortable positions within the capitalist class, while huge sectors of our communities uncritically celebrate inclusion into violent institutions such as marriage, policing. and military. None of this has done anything to significantly improve the living conditions of working class queers.
We need to critically refocus our analyses in ways that better lend themselves to defending our communities from violence and radically transforming society. Our primary concerns should be making sure every member of our community has food to eat, a roof over their heads, good access to healthcare, and so on. To be sure, we have plenty of intercommunal issues we need to resolve so we can build the solidarity and organization we need to effectively change things. But we are not going to resolve these issues using political frameworks that refuse to listen to the lived experiences of working class queers, and approach the act of creating language from an ahistorical position. We need to do better work in developing frameworks for analyzing how heteropatriarchy structures our society and lives. These frameworks must be informed by the experiences of queer communities in all of their heterogeneity. We do ourselves no favors by carelessly throwing around uselessly broad analytic categories in some superficial attempt to be more inclusive or unifying, especially when doing so just produces further exclusion and division. Building solidarity takes much more work than that, and is much more rewarding as well.