I mentioned to a friend the other day that I’d been asked to write short pieces for an event called Queer Bodies. He looked at me in confusion. He, a white, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical heterosexual, knew the most salient meaning of queer (the Shades of Noir’s glossary of key terms defines it as ‘an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities that are not heterosexual and/or cisgender’), as well as some of the directions the word gestures in, but what he did not understand was why ‘queer’ and ‘body’ were juxtaposed so. He could not comprehend how a body could be queer, most likely because, for him and his counterparts, their particular relations to their bodies and sexualities are rarely called into question. Instead, they are promoted, venerated, catered to and rewarded.
So to begin these series of writings for Queer Bodies, I will try to elaborate on this marrying of words. What definitions of queer do I see being used here? How can bodies be queer? How can certain bodies be queer? How can queerness be ‘read’ off the body?
Let us begin with what we are used to:
The word ‘queer’ has historically referred to the strange, weird, different, odd. Queer is always how things are not supposed to be. It is precisely never ‘normal’. Queerness is dependant on the belief in and practise of ‘normality’ to exist and be coherent; it is always a deviation from the dominant order of things. Without a widely held assumption of what normal is; what a normal body is and looks like; what normal behaviour is; what normal desires are, the term queer would have no function or meaning.
So here, queer sexualities are non-normative sexualities; sexualities that are understood to disrupt the rhythm of the norm. The normal is generally seen to be the mirror of ‘natural’ but this parallelism is in itself a construct.
The normal sexuality of the here and now (though the concept of sexuality itself has a specific historical origin) is heterosexuality, performed by cis-gendered people. However heterosexuality, or to be more specific, the romantic and sexual relations between cis-people of ‘opposed’ genders has not always been bound to the perceived norm, both historically and geographically. This normal-ness of heterosexuality, made clear by several historians, Michel Foucault being the most prominent, has been consciously generated and disseminated.
So how has heterosexuality become the norm? How has the idea that there exists only two genders become ‘normal’; how has it come to be that genitalia ostensibly determines gender? To answer these questions we should look towards the Church and its teachings on the family and sexuality, the codes on sexual practice it propagated in the Middle Ages up until today. We can look at the State (the Nation, or the Sovereign), how it’s nurtured heterosexual notions of the nuclear family, as it continually seeks to control and discipline its subjects and their labour to ensure social order, and the the (re)production of subjects and labour. Or at medical science in constructing deviant sexualities and the pathologizing of certain bodies, its continued and futile search for the gay gene; its treatment of intersex people. Or at modern mainstream media and its obsession with heterosexual romance and sexuality; the death of queer characters on screen (and when we do get queer characters, especially queer women, the storylines are frequently negative or end in death).
It is important to note that queer sexuality and queer genders can be visible. I’m thinking here of the camp, effeminate man, the butch woman, those with gender nonconforming aesthetics. Queerness can be read through the angle of the wrist, the sound of an ‘s’, the presence of hair under the armpit or the legs, the length of one’s hair, the features of one’s face (according to a study on ‘the gay face’), one’s disposition to physical activity, the presence of rouge beneath a moustache, hips that sway too much or too little… The notion of ‘passing’, with regards to transgender people, implies that some do not pass and so are visibly queer. These signifiers that place those with queer sexualities and genders into the foreground, that mark them and make them hyper-visible, are things we first have be taught to recognise and associate with particular meanings. But while queer bodies produce and bear some of these signs, not all queer bodies have queer sexualities and/or genders.
Let us darken what we already know.
Under patriarchal, capitalist white supremacy there is an ideal human: white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical male. His body is the ideal physiological form, his mind, striving always for normalcy, coherence, logic. His counterpart (in the normalised binary logic of the West) is his wife. Eve after all is made from and for Adam, and though cis and white, she is not of able body or mind for she is, after all, a woman and not the ideal. Non white bodies are always-already queer, non-cis bodies are always-already queer.
Non-white bodies are not only queer because they defy and so threaten the norm of the white body, but they also deviate from modern, western notions of gender and sexuality.
Under white supremacy, normalising/inscribed scripts (the things that tell us and allow us to see what is normal and what is not) are centred around whiteness, designed to disperse and produce white-centric ideals/ knowledge. Queer bodies can never fully realise prototypic whiteness. These bodies, being abnormal, are always outside the normal order of things, casting such bodies to the margins and beyond with no hope of return, reintegration, or reinclusion. Due to some deep, essential, internal, unchangeable factor, we are told, these bodies are not proper humans and so can never assume full human agency and behaviour.
Black and brown melanated bodies are brought under (definitely not into) western notions of gender and sexuality through violent dispossession and captivity.
Before the Middle Passage, and the ‘new-ing’ of the New World (the New World was never new and was always known, it was made ‘new’ through the extermination of the indigenous populations and the destruction of whole histories), our gender systems were not like European gender systems. No surprise there as we were geographically separated, coming into little enough contact that there couldn’t be continuity or great commensurability between gender practices.
Oyeronke Oyewumnmi writes in The Invention of Women that gender amongst the Yoruba before the colonial encounter was not a fundamental social category and was largely nonexistent. Hortense Spillers speaks about the degendering of the body through violent tools of domination, and through the kidnapping and transportation of black people in the Middle Passage, a degendering legible in the documentation of black objects, of black people as objects. There is a growing body of excavatory work that aims to bring back into history the queer gender systems of the millions of America’s indigenous peoples before they were largely wiped out by genocidal, land grabbing/ land raping, baby capitalist Europeans.
Western notions of gender are built on the gravesites of indigenous gender systems and the bodies and labour of POC. These extinct gender systems, and the ones which remain, irrevocably changed western notions of gender as European men sought to consolidate a gender system that would sustain the growing infant capitalism (European women and queer bodies and sexualities and practices were targeted and encountered their own genocides and sites of torture, the witch trials being a major instance of this) and distance themselves from Other cultures and Other bodies.
What it meant and means to be a (white)man was constructed alongside and in opposition to the behaviours, bodies and practices of non-white people, even as they were being simultaneously subjugated and exterminated, so that white women (the ‘fairer’ sex) were always pure, faithful, loyal, quiet, demure, graceful, in opposition to the hypersexual, dirty, ugly, sinful, animalistic subhuman black slave female; and white men were strong, gentlemanly, free, smart, brave, protective, capable of rational thought in opposition to the hypersexual, dumb, cowardly, illogical, jovial, beastial subhuman black slave male.
In fact what it means to be human was constructed at the same time that Westerners (the master engineers) were committing genocide against the majority of the planet. Their horrific actions were shunted onto their victims through political, philosophical, philological and medical discourses from the 14th century to present so that their non-human, non-sentient victim was now deserving of their conquering and slaughter; so that the victims were the cause of the horrors of the colonial encounter; so that it was natural that white men herd the beast that God had given them, incidentally other human beings; so that it was and became the normal order of things. What it meant to be free and human depended exactly upon what it meant to be a slave, and by the 18th century, Black, African, non-Christian.
Black bodies can never be (white) man or (white) woman. They are always beastial sub-humans, our biology incapable of producing minds or bodies able to wholly comprehend or even approach the complexities of gender. We are always too stupid, too rash, too violent, too sexual to even aspire towards western gender ideals. Our bodies are too strange, too curvy, too hairy, too muscular to be a correctly gendered body. Gender in black and brown bodies is always a troubled fact, it never sits well for us.
It is important when looking at our bodies, and looking at ourselves looking at our bodies, we think through, or in relation to, this history of disenfranchisement, of displacement, of genocide. We must always think of the futures lost and destroyed by white capitalism. Possibilities of relation that we once knew and now will never know. What relation would I have had to my body if the transatlantic slave trade had never occurred; what kind of queerness would I bear if sexualities like my own were never shunned but given pride of place as it was in specific communities across the African continent before colonialism? It is important to always think the body queerly through this traumatic history.
Some bodies are always queer. Some queer bodies are not always being queer. Some queer bodies are doubly queered*.
Doubly queered bodies are doubly visible.
Queerness is always not the normal. Queerness is inimical to dominating normalising systems. Queerness is dangerous. Queers are dangerous. Queer bodies are doubly dangerous.
*Queerness does not actually multiply like a number, instead I simply wish to imply a greater deal of variation from the norm, of lives and bodies occupying multiple intersections, being hypervisible in multiple, consolidated ways.
Michel Foucault – The History of Sexuality, Volume 1
Oyeronke Oyewunmi -The Invention of Women
Silvia Federici – Caliban and the Witch
Anne Fausto-Sterling – Sexing The Body
Jin Haritaworn – Queer Lovers and Hateful Others
Afsaneh Najmabadi – Women With Moustaches and Men Without Beards
Alexander Weheliye – Habeas Viscus
Saidiya Hartman – Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self
Dareick Scott – Extravagant Abjection
Hortense Spillers – Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe
Zakkiyah Iman Jackson – Waking Nightmares
Nicolas Rule, Nalini Ambady – Accuracy and Awareness in the Perception and Categorization of Male Sexual Orientation
Maria Lugones – The Coloniality of Gender
Che Gosset – Zizek’s Trans/Gender Trouble
Kerri Johnson, Negin Ghavami – At the Crossroads of Conspicuous and Concealable: What Race Categories Communicate about Sexual Orientation