When queerness becomes just one more identity investment

original version posted in 2021

As many of us have long noticed, when it comes to queerness 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 disagreements kept some of us on our toes. When such intellectual debates recede from our view, many queer-oriented folks still reach for conservative tropes of ontological certainty even when we don’t fully intend to.

Even supposedly queer champions will sometimes 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 there are good practical reasons for making such blunt identity 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, themselves, 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 “queer” 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, change and sexual freedom. 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 ethical certainty in a sea of flux and swirl.

It’s hardly surprising that many who identify as queer become quite attached to, and prescriptive 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 supposed queerness. 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 a heteronormative, unimaginative world, we risk falling for our own illusions. The dogma becomes that in this queer moment of 2023, 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, playfulness and sense, in exchange for the psychological and political benefits that supposedly accrue to “knowing who I am.”

For the most oppressed LGBTQ folks, it may seem absurd or dangerous to consider chipping away at one’s own 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 there are 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, playfulness 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 a healthy substrate of doubt, uncertainty, and self-questioning. His life became, then, not an acquisitive quest for once-and-for-all 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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