Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Language, Heteroromantic Demisexuals, and Appropriation of Queer Struggle

Note:  When I originally wrote the essay that appears on this page, it was an entirely different essay.  I typically go back and partially re-write essays to correct spelling and grammar, update language I didn't realize was offensive, or add important information to them.  It's very rare that I completely revamp an essay, especially in the manner I have done so for this one (which in many respects now reflects an entirely opposite viewpoint to the one I started with).  That said, if you are coming to this page through a link on somebody else's website, keep in mind that anything they have said about it may be out of date. -- Edited May 17, 2014

I have had to do a little soul-searching before updating this essay, because I have tried for at this point over a year to psychologically and practically conform to the original thing I wrote here.  I'd written something that, in a nutshell, said that we need to pay more attention to whether or not people understand the privilege they have than whether or not they have the "right" to a queer identity.  And in most cases I still agree with that statement.  Not all queer people have an equal struggle.  How much oppression we experience as queer people is directly related to whether or not we're in an opposite-sex couple, how our religious community and families are, our race and color, what region of the world we live in, our gender expression, and a myriad of other traits about us.

After revisiting my own words, though, I had to admit that I don't always feel that way about every identity, and that some of the ways people have tried to claim queerness actually are legitimately insulting to me as a queer person.  The gold standard of this is (cisgender) "heteroromantic demisexuals" who claim that this identity makes them queer and/or oppressed*.  In a nutshell, heteroromantic demisexuals are people who do not feel that particularly sexually attracted to people they don't have a strong emotional connection to... but oh, only people of the opposite gender though.

There is nothing about that that I can read as anything but "normal straight person."

Because this is, quite frankly, one of the most socially acceptable sexual orientations ever.  This is the kind of sexual tendency that typical parents preach to their children when telling them about the birds and the bees.  There's nothing about it that is anything other than "straight," and yet people are calling themselves some other label as if it's a queer identity instead.  I've even seen (albeit thankfully rarely) people write out pissy "coming out stories" that usually end in them being upset that their parents or friends didn't think "I only want to have sex with people I have a deep connection with" was a big, life-changing thing like coming out as, say, gay or lesbian.

Like I said before, being queer isn't necessarily about how much oppression you personally go through.  I once went to a panel meant to discuss being openly queer in the workplace that had four white gay cis men who basically said they had never been discriminated against in their lives, whose advice was limited to "just find a job that accepts you, then."  This is an entirely different experience set than had they been women, and/or trans, and/or people of color, and/or any number of other things.  But these men are still a member of a group that is specifically denied legal rights, that in many states can still get you fired, that can get you kicked out of your house, that can result in coercive and damaging "conversion therapy," and many other things.  Their other privileges mitigate that, but don't eliminate it.

You can't take the most privileged, oppressor-class sexual orientation and gender identity and then call it "queer" just because you think your cisgender heterosexuality is slightly different than other peoples' cisgender heterosexuality.  So no, cisgender heteroromantic demisexuals, you are not queer, you do not experience oppression for being queer, and it is insulting as hell when you continue to insist you do.

But why, exactly, is this a problem for me?  I have a couple of reasons.

First, it assumes that the language the queer community is using is offensive without appropriate reasoning and discourse to explain "why."  This is something I call "forcing the language escalator while jeering at people who use the stairs."

Several years ago it was briefly fashionable for people to insist that they were not bisexual... but bigenderal (with parallels homogenderal, heterogenderal, and so forth).  This thankfully didn't last that long, both because nobody outside of fancy activist communities knew what the fuck anybody was talking about and because the hard distinction so many people make between "sex" and "gender" is actually really harmful to trans people.  The premise, though, was that using the -sexual prefix was not appropriate because we weren't interested in peoples' "biological" sex, but in their gender.  In some fringier communities, calling yourself a "-sexual" rather than a "-genderal" was met with feigned indignance.  It was a bizarre linguistic detour and it thankfully fell by the wayside soon after.

In the same way, people started clinging to the idea that words like "heterosexual" were inappropriate to their experiences because they aren't typically interested in sexual activities.  But that's not what the "-sexual" suffix means.  The suffix refers to a person's preferred gender.  A person who only desires romantic love with members of the opposite gender is still heterosexual... regardless of whether or not they want sex.

That doesn't mean that words don't fall out of favor, but it's important to consider why they fall out of favor.  The "-romantic" suffix comes explicitly from a misunderstanding of what these words actually mean.  This is different from, for instance, the shift away from "homosexual" which was largely due to the medicalized manner in which it's used by anti-queer bigots.  There was a prominent anti-queer organization once that was found to have been editing the titles of articles they linked to so that words like "gay" and "lesbian" were replaced by "homosexual" (this was discovered when somebody with the surname "Gay" was posted on the site with the surname "Homosexual").  It didn't fall out of favor due to perceived inaccuracy, though, which is what's happening here.

But more important to me is the appropriation of the language and identity of queer struggle.   The reason queerness can (with appropriate self-identification) include gays, lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, trans folk, and so forth is these groups all experience certain common oppressions at least to some extent.  "Coming out" as a heteroromantic demisexual might get you called a special snowflake on the Internet and confuse some people.  Any other flack you experience will be because you used a label that is sounds queer... this has absolutely nothing to do with the actual reality of your sexual and romantic experiences.  I can practically guarantee that if you sit your parents down and "come out" by explaining you only desire sex with the opposite gender, but only when you have a deep connection with them--without using queer-coded terminology--they will wonder why the fuck you felt you needed to even tell them.  They might wonder why you felt you needed to "come out of the closet" as straight, and that's exactly what you're doing.

Worst case scenario?  People taking on identities like this as an "in" to invade queer space.  I haven't seen it often.  But it happens, and it's extremely offensive.

I know I'm probably not going to change too many minds here (and suspect at least somebody'll go on Tumblr and write a hate screed about what an oppressor I am), but what I would like--at the very least--is for people to really consider what they even want to get out of a queer identity that they are willing to come to it in such a contrived way.

* - It's important to specify that the problem isn't necessarily identifying with this label, but identifying with it while claiming it is an oppressed or queer identity.  While doing personal research for this essay I found many people who call themselves this who very openly oppose the problems I am detailing.