Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
The Bryn Kelly Scholarship for Trans Women/Trans Femme Writers
Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
I’ve never been very dedicated to school. As a non-traditional learner with typical ‘atypical’ learning (dis)abilities, I was never very adept at the “learning environment” as it was presented to me. I entered grad school with two primary motivations: hope and desperation. I was hoping to become better; to become more skilled and learn the things I hadn’t been able to teach myself. I was desperate for more; I wanted to do more to help my community. I wanted more authority over the systems that ruled over me. I wanted more power, and power comes from getting that paper.
I really don’t like my university; And not just because it is an exemplary representation of the corporate college industrial complex; its sick sports obsession; its gross financial incompetence; or its staunch conservatism. I don’t like it because I’ve got a grudge. It was there I first put faith in my ability to change a system, and was first truly let down. I was used to being rejected by the learning process, but this was the first place I actively decided I would do something – not wanted to it or hoped to; I decided I would change it, no matter what. Contrary to the stories I flung at administrators, I didn’t work for change out of school spirit. My activism was aimed more at thwarting the institution’s dynamic, rather than supporting it. The institution pushed back, and hard, until I ended up spending all my time doing activism, not studying. The school was a system I was trapped inside and making resources felt like the only way out. Activism was my education, the classes were auxiliary. When I look back, I’m still amazed I graduated; only took me 6 straight years… And when I was done, I prepared my activist projects for new leaders and I got the hell out. I don’t think I thought I would ever come back, but here I am.
This winter, I attended an open house for the campus’ brand new LGBTQ Center. It was surreal for me to walk into the (exact) space that six years ago, I ignited the (long smoldering) fight to get. I came to the event feeling happy about the space being built, but still angry about my own blood in the bricks. But when I walked in the door, all I felt was nervous relief; a mix of retreating anxiety and seething frustrations. The small program started and I listened to the administrators ramble about how great their work was for this space. I wondered if they were really as delusional as they seemed. Looking them in the face, they didn’t remember me as the frustrated student activist in front of their desk. I was just another student they “helped.” I felt even more disconnected from the institution, and just as jaded about the administration. I listened to the last speaker with low expectations. There was a lot of disappointment in our joint past. Years ago, she was both a hurdle and a step in my work to get a queer center. I felt like she could never see past her desk, though perhaps not from a lack of trying. She always loved to compliment the faculty and staff, forgetting to mention the reason they were all there: the students. In my years as an organizer, it was a huge point of contention between us. I respected her for listening to my complaints; I judged her for not acting on them. When she stood in front of the room, I was shocked to see, through the folds of her papers, the names of student organizations. After all these years, she thanked the students first – in fact it was the only thing she talked about. You could tell she was a little out of her element, but her intention was clear. She was the only speaker that day who mentioned students in any context that was not a direct compliment to themselves. She made a point to show the students had done the work, and I made a point to thank her for that. In the after-program crowd, a dean walked past me. I recognized him as one of the many talking heads I had met as an undergrad; another face behind a desk, saying he wanted to help, but mostly powerless to do anything about it. As he came by me, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Good to see you again.” he said, “I glad you were hear for this.” I have to admit it. I was shocked. I smiled and shook his hand, but I doubt he knew why I was so glad to do it. I was grateful that someone cared enough to remember me. Sometimes we have to be reminded that administrators are people too. I guess I should know that, considering I was one for a short time. And if working in a college environment (as an activist and again as a professional) taught me anything, it was that administrators are not all suits behind desks; there are ones who really care about the students. Being in front of the desk showed me the red tape; being behind the desk made me feel it. An administrator can be a wrench in the gears, yes, but the machine is the real problem. “Higher Education” “Student Life” is a machine; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That day, it worked, in more ways than one.
All of this didn’t sell me on the institution. Call me a judgey mcjudgerface if you like, but it takes more than a couple warm fuzzies to win me over – though it is a good start. And though I wasn’t feeling any strong sense of kinship with the admins, I did sense was a bond with the students. I watched them sitting on the floor, smiling, happy to have their own space; a place where they could feel safe and be themselves. They have a LGBTQ center. It isn’t perfect, and I know I’ll soon decide it still isn’t good enough, but it is there – it exists. When I was in undergrad, that was just about all I wanted… Standing there, seeing the reality that I had only dreamed about, it reminded me of how I used to feel: that passion I felt, and the desperation; how tirelessly I worked, how much it hurt every time I was kicked down, and how much stronger I felt every time I got back up. I was filled by a humbling sense that I played a small part in something bigger. It reminded me of how important campus activism can be, how many people it can reach, and how many lives it can change. It may seem like an organizing “small fish,” but when the pond is a puddle, a small fish is pretty damn big.
More than once, and at a growing rate, people ask me about my uses of the words queer and genderqueer, raising concerns that I may be encouraging appropriation of these terms. It is a fascinating topic and I’m always glad to discuss it, but I’ll admit that it pains me a little whenever it is brought up. Why would anyone not want to share the word queer? Now, you might be thinking “JAC, you know it is not that simple.” And yes, I know it isn’t a simple situation, but is complicated or just complex? Unexpectedly, as a response to a question someone asked me on Tumblr, I formulated a response that does a decent job at encompassing my thoughts on it, but I felt the need to expand on it more.
Queer is a word that, in the most general sense, represents a lack of normalcy and cultural recognition/legitimization – most often directly related to personal sexuality and/or gender identity and expression. When I say “almost everyone is queer”, what I mean is that despite the projected norm, the majority of people have/are non-normative behaviors, expressions, and/or identities. An easy example of this is found in the sexuality research of Kinsey and Kline (whose studies have been repeated globally with the same results). Their research showed that the average person was somewhere on the non-heterosexual (or “queer”) spectrum. Is it considered normal for two people with similar bodies to partner with one another? No. Is it more normal for two people of increasingly different bodies to recognize the legitimacy of variance? No. Gender thickens the plot because there is such an immeasurable variance within gender identities and expressions. Is it normal for someone to identify outside the binary or as something other than what they were assigned at birth? Is that more or less normal than a male assigned at birth, male identified person who really loves to shop, make crafts, and is inclined to cry? Who is less normal? Who is more queer?
Now, even though it is probable that most people are objectively queer in some, that doesn’t mean that they are subjectivelyqueer – and in when speaking about identity, subjectivity is all that matters. No one can define our identity for us. I think that people don’t own queerness either because 1) they don’t feel it applies because of their proximity to normalcy and/or 2) they don’t know it could apply because of our culture’s rigid use of labels and related negative views personal exploration/flexibility of identity. This leads us to the other half of your comment about levels of oppression in experience. You ask if someone can be queer if they haven’t experienced certain oppressions. My question is who defines what oppressive experiences are required to be “queer?” We all experience varying levels of oppression and privileges – some more of one than the other. I think the issue is not whether or not someone is allowed to claim the identity of queer based on experiences of oppression, but whether a person recognizes their own experiences of oppression and privilege based on their identities. If you are appropriating something then you are claiming something that is not yours. Unlike cultural traits/practices or community words like tranny or fag, queer has no real definitive property other than a lack of normalcy (generally applied to gender/sexuality, but not always). Difference is a spectrum that no group or person can exclusively own which means there are an infinite number of ways to be queer. Because of this, I feel that queer is a word that is rarely appropriated. There is no way to decide that someone is not the identity they claim. You can assume they are not, you can even decide they are not based on your own definitions, but that doesn’t change the other person.
I’ll be honest, I am not as saintly as I appear, always welcoming people to come under the queer umbrella. I have hang-ups about what queer “should be” too. To me, being queer is more than having a non-normative sexuality/gender identity or expression; it is also about personal politic. Queer is more than LGBT; it is radical, proactive, and socially just. If someone claims queer but I don’t think they fit the bill, I will totally be a secret Judgey McJudgerface about it but I will challenge myself to be open-minded. To that person, queer may not include personal politic and I have no right to tell them otherwise. Queer is about more than what I think it is, whether I like it or not.
Many people seem feel that if words are more widely used they lose meaning but I think, if anything, it puts more meaning into them. It’s like people are worried that if we aren’t careful, our language will spin out of control and go beyond our reach, but that fear is a little too 2nd wave for my comfort. As long as we use it, own it, educate about it, this language is ours. People will change words to mean varying things because that is what language does; it grows and changes to better fit a growing and changing community. And yes, that means that some more words may not always be used in the exact same way that applies to you, but community isn’t just about YOU, it’s all about US. Community has an I and a U in it. (It also has an O for OMG he just made a horrible 3rd grade”letter” joke.) No, I don’t want someone to ‘steal’ my communities’ words or misuse our language; some might say I’m pretty damn picky about it. I think that when people appropriate things they should be held accountable. This isn’t about allowing language to be misused, or to become some foreign, meaningless thing. It is about helping it grow into something that is truly useful for our community. We must be flexible: we must try to understand intentions and recognize privileges to promote the most inclusive and accessible community we can. Sometimes I want, no I need boundaries and safe spaces; somewhere I can go where I know everyone else there will be very similar to me. I want to listen and understand; I want to speak and feel understood. Closed spaces are very valuable, but they are not the only things we need. A community can not be a closed space.
I’ve been repeatedly told that I’m not queer enough, not trans enough, not genderqueer enough, femme enough, not ‘insert identity here’ enough… Someone else can’t define me; that’s my job. Their job is to listen and try to understand and in turn, I must do the same for them. Instituting hierarchies and requirements disempowers others and that is the opposite of what queer is all about. Boundary policing is one of the more significant inter-community oppressions we must overcome in order to obtain our equal rights and recognition in this world. We can not continue to separate each other out of frustrations that one may have it easier than we do. We are all scrambling for limited resources, but legitimacy is not one of them. There is enough for everyone if we are willing to fight for it. So, if someone tells me they are queer, I’ll take it; not just because I can’t prove otherwise (nor would I want to) and not just because there are not enough of us, but also because by using the word “queer” they are saying “I see the need for radical change and I want to be a part of it.” If I meet someone who thinks they might be queer, I will gladly state that queer could be for them what it has been for me; empowerment. I’m not just inclusive, I’m a fucking recruiter. I want as many queers as possible, and that is not just my Midwestern isolation talking. With so many people, even within our own “LGBTQ” community, counting us out, I want to be the one counting people in. That is why I say “most people are queer.” I believe that if you feel different and want a place to call home, if you want change and you are willing to fight for it, then you count. In this movement, if you are here, you’re queer.