Credit: Flickr/Charles Hutchins. CC 2.0. Some rights reserved.
I’m sipping a large cup of organic tea on a break from my usual diet of dense academic reading while watching the Baroness von Sketch Show poke fun at people just like me—killjoy genderqueer academic feminists who read too many books and complain that everything is trapped in the heteronormative matrix.
In the sketch, a non-clued up girlfriend of one of the members keeps interrupting a queer reading group meeting and embarrassing herself by not knowing the right lingo or etiquette—as well as being ‘only’ an old fashioned lesbian instead of a poststructuralist genderqueer.
So I keep watching the sketch and I'm laughing, though in the same awkward way that people laugh at their uncle’s one-liners. Presumably the joke is that these pretentious academic types are incapable of expressing themselves to the lesbian girlfriend in a way that normal people can understand—that they can’t help but use unnecessarily obscure and academic language.
Or is it queerness itself that we're supposed to be sniggering at? And if so, why?
‘Genderqueer’ is not synonymous with ‘gay’—it means something entirely different. It’s about questioning gender norms and identities—the idea that there are two groups of people (men and women), and that membership of either of these groups should determine our life choices and behaviours.
More importantly, the urgency of genderqueerness doesn’t stem from some smartass eggheads’ need for a special language or membership of a club: it stems from the daily tragedies and atrocities of patriarchy. The fact that women die every week as a result of domestic violence; that men commit suicide and violent crime since they aren't taught how to express their feelings socially. The fact that transgender people are being murdered and that lesbian and gay people face violent abuse because their church, school, family or the media says that they are sick.
So being genderqueer is not about displaying an intellectual image—it’s a matter of life and death. And queer theory is an attempt to understand why and how patriarchal gender norms can enable all this violence, and how we can stop it.
Born out of feminism's rejection of traditional gender hierarchies, queer theorists in the 1980s and 1990s began to question the role that gender norms play in society—in other words, they started to question the very identities of being a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. (Well to be honest they questioned lot more than that, and different queer people will disagree about what queerness is, but I'm presenting my own summary here).
For example, why are men supposed to be assertive and strong and know how to fix stuff? Why are women supposed to be lovely and beautiful and look after the emotional wellbeing of others around them? (I'm talking about norms here rather than actual behaviour). Since the argument that gender identities are 'natural' or 'biological' is impossible to maintain—not least because of the extreme variations in gender identities and norms across time and space—queer theorists became suspicious. Why, they asked, are so many of the personality traits, behaviours and life choices seen as ‘masculine’ so empowering, while ‘feminine’ ones are so disempowering? Could gender itself be a tool of oppression—a way for all of us to internalise another social hierarchy?
For sure, gender norms and identities have shifted substantially in recent decades, and many stereotypes that used to be universal in Western societies have started to be eroded. But don't forget that in large part, this is thanks to the intellectual and practical work and lobbying that feminists, queer theorists and activists have done. In addition, people often say that traditional gender norms are outmoded, but when they’re presented with real-life situations that go against those norms they often balk.
For example, have you tried going out and about whilst looking tangibly gender-wrong? I do every day (in central London), and it's not uncommon that I get verbal abuse, pieces of rubbish thrown in my direction, awkward stares and bullying by security guards. Would you seriously consider raising your child gender-free? If not, then how can we say that gender norms no longer have any influence on society?
Put simply, we have to rethink, and perhaps reject, the notion of gender altogether in order to end gender inequalities. Gender gives us a set of prefabricated choices and styles that can feel convenient sometimes, but for the most part it has a very constricting and damaging effect on our lives by placing us in hierarchies and limiting the choices we can make, and the behaviours we can engage in. Only when we've moved beyond masculinity and femininity and invented new modes of human interaction based on equality can gender oppression be overcome.
What would that look like in practice? Acting ‘beyond gender’ might sound confusing to some, but we actually act in non-gendered ways all the time, as Michael Kimmel shows in his book The Gendered Society. You don’t have to be a man or a woman (or accept the roles traditionally assigned to them) to buy a newspaper or read Open Democracy or do a million other things, and queer feminists have presented a whole range of ideas on de-gendering existing institutions.
For example, they’ve criticised capitalist businesses for being coded masculine (on account of being competitive and hierarchical) and instead suggested that we organise our economy along the lines of workers’ co-operatives. They’ve suggested de-gendering our language by using non-violent communication techniques and gender-free pronouns. And they’ve pointed out that women do disproportionate amounts of unpaid housework and suggested that we all split it equally and start counting domestic chores as work.
Building alternative social and economic systems like these takes generations, but we can start to challenge and change gender structures right away—in the form of our own assumptions and expectations, as well as the ways in which we categorise people and their behaviour. One way to do this is to imagine and enact a world that doesn't have gender at all. Another is to satirise gender norms by overperforming or exaggerating them—to put them in drag and mess them up.
The charge that genderqueer ideas are largely stuck in academia is sad but inaccurate. I’d venture that at some point, most people have asked themselves why they have to behave like perfect men or women defined in traditional terms. Many of us already feel fed up with the pressure of playing to these expectations, so why don’t we just stop?
It's good to take the mickey out of insular academics who can't speak like normal people. But when it comes to queerness as a feminist strategy, we need to think more carefully before surrendering to the joke.