I’ve been pondering these tensions about queer identities. Sometimes people deny other people’s right to particular identities, consider them appropriation, or try to erase them entirely. When I was in my early twenties, we were having eerily similar arguments, over different identities, with the generation that came before us. This is how I am coming to understand what happens:
We identify ourselves in a certain way. I identified myself as queer and butch. That meant (and means) something quite specific to me. Its meaning to me is grounded in a time and place that’s gone now, and has been gone for twenty years. But at the time and in the place that I affiliated myself with my identities, my meanings were commonly accepted. That’s how I knew that they fit me.
Marginalized people fight to survive as who we are. For many queer people, that has been a literal fight. Some of us have faced considerable bullying and outright violence, and many more of us have faced significant discrimination in jobs and housing. Many people lost families of origin. There are sacrifices that we’ve made, to earn the space to be this thing that we think we are, this identity that we’ve adopted and feel describes us.
Finally, we start to get that space to be ourselves. The world doesn’t get all nice and snuggly, but it’s getting just a little bit easier. We still face violence, but much less often, particularly if we stay in urban areas. Some of our families of origin start coming around. There is more legislation protecting us from discrimination, and occasionally it’s even effective. So we think of this space that we’ve almost got our hands on as a space for us to finally be our identities. For me, it feels like a hard earned space to be queer and butch, as I understand them for myself.
And then inevitably, the next generation floods that space. They use the same words, but to them, those words mean really different things. The same identity labels mean really different things than they did when we sacrificed and bled for our right to them. We’re not really supposed to question those changes. We’re supposed to be accepting and supportive. But I think that a lot of us feel pushed out of the space that we’ve spent our whole lives building, at considerable personal loss.
I want to make very clear that I think this is a normal generational cycle. I also think it’s hard.
So, the important question, which I’ve been pondering, is how to respond. I have been, so far, trying to explain myself, to hold some space, if only around my own body, for what my identities mean to me. But that comes across as identity policing, which I don’t think is useful, and would prefer not to do. Also, it simply doesn’t work. Not only does it not prevent language from changing, which is inevitable, it also doesn’t work to make me feel understood. I think it exacerbates my feeling of being pushed out.
I would like to respond by staying in those spaces that I’ve participated in building and just let them change, even though I feel erased by the changes. That’s in line with my values and my beliefs about history and language. I suppose that’s what I am working toward doing, and is probably my goal, but personally, I do find it very difficult.
In theory, those of us who feel this way could just retreat to our own spaces, where our identities mean what they meant when we adopted them. That’s what TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Reactionary [there’s nothing radical about it] Feminists) do, and it makes me cringe. I don’t think it’s a good solution. It tends to prevent learning, growth, and community building. I don’t want to do that.
Sometimes I think that I might be better off finding new communities altogether with which to align. For instance, I often, now, fit better into childfree spaces than I do into queer spaces. But to abandon queer communities altogether would also feel like erasing my history. It would make my life feel sort of useless. I don’t want to lose those spaces. I do feel like I’ve fought for them.
I don’t have any brilliant conclusions, though I’d like some. Intellectually, I’m glad for much of the change that I see in queer spaces, the questioning, the challenging, and the growth of the community. Personally, those things also come at a cost. I think it’s helpful for me to recognize what’s happening and to keep in mind that nobody intends to erase my experience or push me out of queer spaces. It is a natural cycle, as culture and language change. It’s also lonely.