Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riki Wilchins on Identity

I’ve returned to reading Genderqueer, an anthology of queer writing edited by Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins and Clare Howell. Riki Wilchins’s essays in the foreword have been inspiring and affirming for me for several years now. I thought I’d collect a few of her thoughts on identity here in my blog. These passages helped me define my identity as queer.

“What do we mean by identity? No one is perfectly gay, completely straight, totally womanly, or wholly transgendered. So what do we mean when we identify as such? Are identities real properties of people, or are they more like approximations, normative ideals against which we measure ourselves but never perfectly fit? ….Is gayness an essential property of gay bodies, so that when we look in the mirror each morning we see a gay person staring back? Or is it rather a way we learn to recognize and see ourselves in the mirrors of others’ eyes?” (pg. 47)

“Does the man ahead of you hold the door for you as you leave your building? Do people step aside when you walk down the crowded street, or do they unconsciously expect you to step aside? When you get to the newsstand, does the newspaper vendor address you as “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or “Miss”? Perhaps he finds you sexually confusing and stumbles awkwardly over pronouns. When he hands you your change, does he look down in respect, meet your eyes, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge you at all? Does he smile in friendliness or frown in disgust?.... Even in this tiny exchange, a small fraction of your day, are piled up one interaction after another that stamp us with our sex, gender, or class. This is not power from the “top down,” but from the “bottom up.” This is not the big familiar power of concrete buildings and visible institutions, power that is both massed and massive. Rather, it’s the power of what is said and thought about us: the small, diffuse, invisible power created and instantly destroyed in thousands of little, insignificant exchanges. It is through just such interactions that queer bodies are made, interactions that tell us what we are, what we mean, and to what names we must answer.” (pg. 51)

“What is it about binaries that so captivates our thinking?...Two-ness is not something “out there,” but a product of the way we see. We look for that two-ness. Our categories assure that we see it. That’s why no matter what gender I do, the only questions are: “Are you a man or a woman?” [and “Are you straight or gay?”]. …When we pick up complex things—like desire or gender—with primitive tools like binaries, we lose nuance and multiplicity…I am feminine only to the extent that I am…not masculine. I am gay only as much as I’m not straight or to the exact number of songs I’ve memorized from the Sound of Music…There’s really not very much meaning or information circulating here, because with only two possibilities, meaning is confined to what something is not….Binaries are the black holes of knowledge.” (pg. 43)

“So I routinely speak before groups of young queers who refuse to identify as gay or straight because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t select their partners by sex…They want not only their freedom as gay people but, paradoxically, also their freedom not to be gay….They are not seeking submersion into large, impersonal preexisting categories, but instead searching for newer, smaller ways to be and understand who they are. They are asking themselves a new sort of question: Who might I be, who would I see in the mirror each morning if I didn’t have to be gay? What other ‘me’s’ could I be?....[The success of ‘queer’] looks like messy new identities we don’t like and can’t name that creates possibilities and freedoms we never intended.”


Rik Wilchins said...

Hey Aaron -- Nice to see GQ is still out and people are finding the book useful. Thanks for the "good ink." -- Riki

Akiko Jackson said...
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Akiko Jackson said...

I love this posting, and was also excited that Riki was able to see her words still effecting many people.

This is exactly how I feel about structures we exist in,... they are essentially measuring our importance, our self worth, and entire being! It's such a struggle to break down barriers to "the way" in which we understand categorical placement. The normative acceptance of this has been embedded into people's psyche, as "what we do" to understand each other. Paradoxically, it forces us into a state of "not" understanding one another, at all. Many want a "black and white" paradigm to identify, but truly, this has never existed in the real sense of understanding "who we are." I hope that one day we can break out of this categorical drive.

Thanks for the post Aaron! I'm interested in reading more of this in the near future...