“Queer and Christian” the aspiring human rights activist’s bio read. “But, wait,” I thought, “isn’t this person a married heterosexual?” As it turns out, mine weren’t the only eyebrows raised by this proclamation. Many members of the LGBTQ community sought to challenge this self-description, only to be told that they misunderstood the activist’s nuanced usage of the term to connote “non-normative” or non-conformist. This indiscretion, well-intentioned or not, is just one example of a common and harmful – oppressive even – error we commit when we fail to comprehend and respect identity politics.
For those who are firmly committed to the postmodern ethos of “boundary-breaking” and non-dualistic discourse, the rhetoric and efforts of solidarity often emphasize similarities and identification with “the Other” in hopes of eclipsing differences. The idea is that focusing on differences is what leads to dehumanization. This concept coexists in our society with the sensationalism associated with claiming a marginalized, minority, or oppressed identity or experience. Just look to the media’s portrayal of Olympic competitors or talent-show contestants, and you will see the effortful attempts to create “sob stories” of triumph over adversity. Interestingly, most persons and populations who legitimately suffer from oppression do not glorify their experiences as much as those who simply wish to be identified with said persons and populations. And yet, we oftentimes feel that the only way to have a voice – or the only way to be admirable – is to be identified with a marginalized group, not as an ally, but as a member.
I first began questioning the categorical rejection of boundaries as oppressive when I was researching Native American groups. I found that for them, boundaries were functional, protective, and empowering, and only those who shared their historical experience of struggling against oppression were permitted to claim the identity of Native American. Although according to blood quantum, I qualify as Cherokee, and although I wanted desperately to be able to advocate for the rights of indigenous persons, I realized that I had no right to claim this identity on my own terms. Instead, if I truly care about Native American peoples, I must allow them to name for me the terms on which I am permitted to engage with and advocate for issues pertaining to Native American rights and justice – as well as the extent to which I can identify myself with their experiences and culture.
What lies at the heart of oppression is the attempt to steal or silence the agency of a particular group. Agency – the ability or power to act – can never be completely co-opted; instead, even the most oppressed peoples are constantly retaining control and asserting their voices in ways that those in power cannot anticipate or suppress. One of the manifestations of this agency in terms of the LGBTQ community is self-labeling. This community has reinterpreted the term “queer,” its original denotation of “strangeness” which could be construed as derogatory when applied to humans, as that which does not fail to conform to norms and conventions of sexuality but instead refuses to conform – and in its non-conformity, demystifies these norms as social constructs erected by those in power. This re-appropriation of what was once a label thrust upon them is an act of agency on the part of the LGBTQ community. This self-labeling is an act of speech, an act of agency, and to redefine the term “queer” to be “more inclusive” is an act of stealing, an act that is ultimately self-serving – even if we are redefining “queer” with the best of intentions. Those of us who do not have the experience of identifying with the LGBTQ community and struggling against the oppressions leveraged against them do not have the right to decide when and how the boundaries marking “queer,” “heterosexual,” and “homosexual” ought to be deconstructed. We may see a need for the eradication of boundaries, but to usurp the voice of the marginalized and take their own terminology into our own hands “on their behalf” is an act of power that seeks to assert itself over and against the community with whom we are supposedly hoping to align. Such an act is exactly why Gayatri Spivak asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” (Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., 271-313).
So, can boundaries be deconstructed, and can those of us who “look” like the oppressor by identity politics’ and history’s standards advocate for the oppressed? Yes, definitely. However, if we, as aspiring allies and advocates, truly care about justice, we must care more about the oppressed than we do about ourselves and our status as an insider to that group. Yes, we can speak of common ground and oppressions, but we cannot attempt to paint our own struggles to be the same as that of a group of which we are ostensibly not a part and force that group to accept the elision we are attempting to make.
The best way to view boundaries, I believe, is as ambivalent: that is, they are harmful in some circumstances but also helpful in others, because humans retain the agency to employ and interpret them in diverse ways. In order to navigate these boundaries, we must own up to identity politics (yes, I am a white, female, educated, American Christian, now married, though once a single mother), be honest about our struggles, and identify the differences and similarities between our struggles and others’ situations. And then we must be honest about our intentions in advocacy, humble in allowing the oppressed the agency to decide whether they accept or reject our advocacy, and passionately loyal if our offer of alliance is accepted. By owning up to our ostensible identities but performing in ways counter to the history or expectations of these identities, we can redefine our own labels and identities while diving into the trenches of the struggle for justice.
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