As you may know, on Saturday the GLAD Alliance of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) published my contribution to their Easter Writing Project. In case it didn’t come through clearly enough in that piece, I have officially come out as queer.
The GLAD Alliance sought, and rightly so, an essay on LGBTQ concerns in the church. Coming out there was something I felt like I needed to do to explain where I stand relative to those concerns. But I didn’t try to explain there just what I have at stake in identifying myself as “queer.” I am using my own space here to do that.
Let me be clear up front that this post is aimed mostly at straight friends and readers who are friendly to LGBTQ folk generally but who may not feel confident yet navigating the labels and distinctions we employ to describe the specific textures of our lives. I’m not trying to stake out firm ground in debates within the queer community, or to make a significant contribution to queer theory, even though knowledgeable friends will no doubt be able to discern immediately the place from where I engage those issues. I’m not putting myself out as a representative or spokesperson, just speaking for myself. If you do want to talk about theory or general issues some more, how ’bout let’s get coffee sometime, OK?
I also make no attempt to defend or apologize for my identity here. I plan to do as little of that as possible, here or anywhere else.
So: why queer? In order to get at that, I will beg your indulgence for a bit in some generalities.
In thinking through my identity, I find it useful to start with a threefold distinction between gender, sexual identity, and sexual practices. Sexual practices have to do with what one actually does, sexually speaking: When, where, with whom, in what way, and so forth. Sexual practices are concrete actions. Sexual identity, by contrast, involves patterns of action and dispositions to action. Sexual identity has to do with one’s general pattern of attraction to others and ability to form attachments to others. Sexual practices and sexual identity are, in turn, both related to, but different from, gender. Generally, we describe the patterns of attraction and attachment designated by sexual identity with reference to gender. We speak, for instance, of a straight or lesbian woman, a gay or queer man, and so forth. Gender, though, is a broader identification than sexual identity, at least as gender functions in the context in which I am writing (the contemporary USA). Gender is related to one’s sexual identity, certainly, but is also (at least traditionally) bound up with normative expectations regarding physical anatomy and social roles and expectations unrelated to sexual identity or sexual practice. There are traditional gender norms, for instance those regarding social roles, dress and appearance, friendships, leisure activities, and the like that have no ostensible link to sexual identity. Of course some or all of them may be shown to be implicated in norms regarding sexual identity. Those traditional norms are also deeply problematic, and I am not attempting to defend them so much as characterize how they function, generally and for the most part.
I do want to nod to the fact that the concepts of sexual practices, sexual identity, and gender are vague as I have defined them. For instance, the question of just which acts are sexual practices and which are not is notoriously messy. Vaginal heterosexual intercourse is clearly a sexual practice, but what about kissing? Holding hands? Flirting in public? There is also much more that could be said about how the three relate to one another in concrete contexts. Obviously there is no sexual identity without sexual practices, as these are the way in which we express ourselves in the first instance as sexual beings. Given the circumstances, even refraining from sex acts can be a sexual practice, if only that it can constitute a form of sexual expression in the same way that the refusal to speak can, in the right context, speak volumes. The three concepts are useful, though, in that they give me some large swaths of the world and experience at which I can point.
Here is how these three help me unpack what is wrapped up in my queer identity. Calling myself “queer” is a way of describing my sexual identity. I am a man (my gender identification) whose ability to feel desire and to form emotional attachments is not limited solely to persons who gender-identify as women. I am also able to feel desire and form deep emotional attachments to people who identify as men. This means that I don’t identify as straight or heterosexual, obviously, but I don’t identify as gay, either. I understand ”gay” to refer to men whose desire and attachment is generally exclusively to other men. Obviously, too, I am not “lesbian” either, since lesbians are by common consent gender-identified women, and I don’t identify as a woman.
To this extent, calling me “bisexual” would work well enough. In a pinch, I describe myself that way. Why ”queer,” then? I use “queer” because to me the word “bisexual” is problematic and doesn’t quite capture the reality of how I identify. For one, “bi-” sexuality is clearly tied to binary (male/female) conceptions of gender, and the gender binary is inherently problematic. Both generally and in my own experience, the normative expectations tied to gender obscure, block access to, and impede my ability to relate to other people more than they enable it. Non-heterosexual sexual identities may even be best described as collectively “queer” just to the extent that they collectively put gender norms into question. Perhaps I will say more about this point elsewhere, but I won’t right now, and I won’t insist on it. This is a huge subject about which it is easy to go astray rather quickly.
Second, and more telling really, is that how another person’s gender is identified and ”read” has little to do with how I experience desire and emotional attachment to that person. I sometimes explain this to other people by talking about celebrity crushes. Most people, it seems, can name a list of celebrities they find attractive. Some people are very much into this game and fantasize about celebrities. They are not attracted to these people because they know anything about who they are in real life; they are instead attracted to their appearance and presentation. I, however, get very little out of this game. It’s not that I can’t recognize when celebrities are beautiful or attractive, or why others may think them attractive. It’s just that my attraction doesn’t start with the surface characteristics we tend to know about celebrities. My desire and attraction simply do not work this way.
The same point holds for real-life interactions. I very rarely experience a spontaneous strong attraction to, for example, strangers in public places. It does happen, but it is very rare, and I don’t make a habit of doing anything with it when it does. In the long-term relationships I have had, this sort of spontaneous desire hasn’t played much of a role either. Desire, attraction, and emotional attachment are for me very much a matter of what I am able to get to know about a person, and it is the knowledge, the relationship, the deepening acquaintance that generate and sustain the attraction, not the person’s appearance or gender identification in their own right. My understanding from conversations I have had with others on this subject is that this experience of desire and attraction is not universally shared. It doesn’t even seem that all people who would identify as bisexual or queer, broadly speaking, would describe the operation of their desire and attraction this way.
It is this specific operation of desire, attraction and attachment which I designate by the word ”queer.” It is a freighted word and this use of it is by no means universal. But it seems to fit me better than any of the alternatives, all of which send inaccurate messages about me or leave out things about my sexual identity which feel tremendously important. It’s my sexual identity to own and describe, after all, so I may as well try to get it right.
Please take note that none of the above says a single thing about my sexual practices. My statement on those is: They are absolutely none of your business, unless they already are your business, in which case you don’t need to read about them here. End of story.
If you have questions about my sexual identity, about labels, or about theory, I am willing to entertain them, up to a point. These are important conversations for everyone to have, no matter how they identify. Now that I am out, these are conversations I hope we can all have together. If you’re ever in Louisville, we can even have them over coffee. I know some good places.