Rigidly queer: Essentialist attachment to fluid identities

As many of us have long noticed, when it comes to queer theory, and how to think about gender identity, we’re often playing a herky jerky dance across a chasm of contradiction and cliche. We argued across the essentialist/social constructionist divide for so long that many of us, it seems, finally just got bored and went back to living our lives. Though the theoretical debate never did, and never could, do justice to lived reality, the debates kept some of us on our toes. When they recede from our view, many of us still reach for conservative tropes of ontological certainty even when we don’t fully intend to.

We may even occasionally trot out essentialist golden oldies: “This is just the way I am” or “This is who I was born to be” with the same insistence that sexist assholes divide the world into clear camps of blue and pink. Sometimes we have good practical reasons for making such blunt assertions. We may wish to forestall offensive challenges to our identity claims, for example, that a trans person “really” is the gender they were assigned at birth or that you will “grow out of” your same sex desire. There are sensible reasons for embracing ontological rigidity when surrounded by folks who frame reality in ossified, binary terms: It’s either real or it’s not. You either are or you’re not. And sometimes, of course, essentialist identity proclamations really do just feel deeply authentic to the person making them.

Too often, though, we make such rigid assertions habitually and casually while still being deeply hungry for queerness. “Gender fluidity” and being “non-binary” came into currency precisely because of the phenomenological insufficiency of the either/or: “Are you a boy or a girl?” “Are you gay or straight?” Queer identity emerged as a gesture towards embracing ambiguity, indeterminacy, and openness to possibility and change. It’s disorienting and disappointing, then, when identities explicitly based on non-binary fluidity themselves come to function as reified identity categories, as little more than a few more islands of certainty in a sea of flux and swirl.

It’s hardly surprising that many who identify as queer become quite attached to, and normative about, labels like “fluid” and “non-binary.” “I refuse to be labeled” or “put in a box” can itself become an identity proclamation around which defensive strategies proliferate. It’s especially noticeable with some younger LGBTQ folks, as their desire to avoid the reductionist assumptions of others clashes with their longing to individuate, self-designate, and “know who I am.” The irony emerges when the very identity asserted with such bravado rests on the shifting sands of process. After all, “fluidity” points to anything but the static fact of having arrived once and for all.

When we thoughtlessly attach to stories we habitually tell others and ourselves to survive in an ontologically unimaginative world, we risk falling for our own illusions. We suggest that in this queer moment of 2021, we have arrived at the truth, albeit the truth that there is no truth. While there’s nothing new about this paradox of relativism — even Socrates puzzled over it — there is something especially remarkable when self-designated queer people do it. It begins to seem as if we’re eager to capture, tame, and domesticate ontological (and ethical) fluidity, stripping it of much of its magic and sense, in exchange for the psychological and political benefits that supposedly accrue to “knowing who I am.”

For the most oppressed LGBTQ, it may well seem ridiculous to consider chipping away at conventionally defined foundations of ego security. Vulnerable queer people simply can’t afford the luxury of bottomless self-questioning, can they? Besides, doesn’t basic psychological stability require the “rocks of certainty” some have been so quick to dismiss? It’s not for me to say. Certainly I see sensible, comprehensible reasons for sometimes gripping tightly to identity categories. But for anyone motivated to revisit the bracingly corrosive waters of identity dissolution — not everyone, to be sure, and perhaps not for the whole of one’s life — under-explored possibilities for queer selfhood, agency, and freedom may await.

After all, the same Socrates who hunted ruthlessly for certainty also insisted that his moral and political power was rooted in his embrace of his own ignorance, in a substrate of doubt, uncertainty, and self-questioning. His life became, then, not an acquisitive quest for satisfying answers, but an ongoing deep dive into the questions themselves. It’s this intoxicating process of falling into the asking that I’ve always loved about philosophy, especially Buddhism and queer theory. It has left me content — at least sometimes — to dangle my legs over the edge of various identity pools. I remember, though, that Socrates chose death rather than abandon his queer gadfly ways. It’s a brutally high price to pay to wander in a realm of unknowing, even if it is there that awe and wonder make their strange, gorgeous homes.

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