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Sexuality As Gender Non-Conformity As Labor

A few days ago, trans* woman writer, academic, and activist Meredith Talusan (who prefers ‘they-them’ pronouns) published an article about the erasure of gender non-conformity from the musical version of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home as opposed to the book. As is typical of their work, the piece – no srsly, read it now – makes its point while engaging with a few really important dialogues about gender, sexuality, and identity.

To wit:

Fun Home is the American literary work that comes closest to the idea that sexual orientation is more accurately and productively seen as a form of gender nonconformity…In arguing that homosexuality is a form of gender variance, I’m not claiming that all trans people are gay, but rather that all gay people fall within a gender-nonconforming space whose borders are demarcated by “transgender” in the current Western model. This other model of sexuality operates inside of a model of gender, instead of simplifying gender to make sexuality equally binary. This broader model has been more dominant at earlier points in Western history.

Yesthis. I’d like to piggyback on their succinct and elegant explanation of what is to some folks a fairly challenging idea by offering some historical context from the early days of the American queer liberation movement. Talusan writes about this model being “more dominant” while alluding to literary works; this alludes to Fun Home‘s rich array of literary allusions. I want to add some context from a historical activist who we now think of as ‘a gay man’ when in fact he and his colleagues thought of themselves as another thing within the gender spectrum entirely.

After an early life spent as a communist activist, actor/singer, and writer; Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society (one of the first American queer liberation organizations) in Los Angeles in 1948, was kicked out in 1953, testified before HUAC in 1955, and spent the next ten years in a dead-end relationship.  During this time, encounters with indigenous cultures and individuals, and continuing study of Marxist theory, led Hay to fully elaborate his vision of the place and role of same-sex loving people and relationships. At that point he resumed his activism and helped found several organizations including the Radical Faeries. Hay’s reading of Marx’s ideas about the contours of labor in family and social institutions, and Engels’ writing about family dynamics and matriarchy in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, are a unique, queer contribution to the history of same-sex loving people and relationships.

His argument, essentially, was that the unique contribution of same-sex loving people was their innate gender non-conformity. In the 1950s, Hay used his own readings of indigenous texts and anthropological research to argue that what he variously called homophiles and berdaches* were not fundamentally men attracted to men, or women attracted to women, but others attracted to others. This idea deconstructs ideas of binary gender by proposing a space for the berdache (and by extension contemporary individuals) outside that system. Then, he took it a step further: regarding straight marriage as being fundamentally about the raising of children and the splitting of property, he argued that queer people performed a kind of affective labor in our relationships – he awkwardly referred to this as the production of “Children of the Brain” – which were based on spiritual and intellectual attraction and intended to create and raise ideas, art, and activism. We were uniquely qualified to do this, he thought, because the fact that we had to define our own relationships, identify and give accounts of ourselves, and enter into relationships outside binary gender granted us a radical subjectivity – that queer people could each be the subject in relationships constructed how we pleased, rather than objectify one another to fulfill social and reproductive expectations. Hay referred to this as the “subject-subject” or “subjective” relationship, and it represented (in final form as a keystone of the Radical Faeries) the culmination of his thinking about labor, history,  performance, and the queer relationship as historicized affective labor.

I know, citation needed. More than you wanted to know, citation-wise, here.

This is important to know, I think, because it – along with everything else that smells of gender non-conformity and Politics with a capital P – has been so thoroughly whitewashed out of the mainstream “LGBT movement” history. As Talusan eloquently puts it, queer liberation means that “the boundaries between gay, transgender, and genderqueer would merge and intertwine, and be thought of as part of a space of gender nonconformity that everyone can occupy according to the specific ways they perceive their identifications at specific times.” Talusan notes that this model, or something like it, has been at the heart of many non-Western modes of queer identity, and at the heart of lots of writing about queerness in Western literature. It’s also the literal foundation for how we identify today, and has been at the heart of the most important and liberatory moments in our contemporary history: the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall rebellions, the founding of the earliest organizations and the writing-down of many peoples’ first attempts to give accounts of themselves. It’s been silenced and gentrified on purpose. Our hope as a people is that we have a chance to get it back again in a small way, each time a new one of us is born.

*his term, an outdated and imperfect one. In other work on Hay (see here and here), I’ve dealt more with his problematic use of ‘noble savage’ narratives to essentialize and fetishize indigenous people. The idea here is not to center one white dude as the creator of these ideas about queer lives, but rather to use his theory as an example of how connections between ancient practices and contemporary movements can be made.

update: it’s come to my attention that some folks who are trans* and gender conforming, and/or bi/queer and gender conforming, have interpreted this piece to conclude that there is no such thing as a gender conforming queer person. I do not think that is true (speaking as a somewhat dudely cis gay dude). Rather, the relationship to me seems to be one of relatedness rather than causality: it’s not that gender non-conformity causes or is caused by a particular sexual identity or gender identity, but rather that gender identity, orientation, conformity, and sexual identity are interrelated in ways that aren’t often acknowledged within queer movements.

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