A typical touching point when queer folks discuss (or are discussed) is to question the purpose of our terms. Interrogating the words we use is an important part of critical projects, as it allows us to survey our positions in a political field and to understand normative claims implicit in our speech. Reflecting on our language can also highlight limits to intelligibility and thus provide space for creative solutions. And when I speak of language I mean more than just words—I mean the broad repertoire of terms, symbols, and themes in which life is communicated.
Language is the foundation of living as social beings and the place where life is constituted. We enter the social world when we are captured by language. Language interacts with social forces which circumscribe personhood, and thus being captured does not ensure we will be afforded equal treatment and dignity. One might be tempted to condemn all language that captures, but the alternative to being captured is to be written out of reality. To be understood—to be made or make oneself intelligible—requires a language to let one be placed in relation to others and oneself. To be captured by language is to be considered possible in the social world. But for those who find themselves outside reality, it is to struggle to find words---to suffer the "social death of persons" (Butler, 2008). The edge of the possible and the unreal is where the margins end and oblivion begins:
...Possibility is not a luxury; it is a crucial as bread. I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is most urgent. If the answer to the question, is life possible, is yes, that is surely something significant. It cannot, however, be taken for granted as the answer. That is a question whose answer is sometimes "no," or one that has no ready answer, or one that bespeaks an ongoing agony. For many who can and do answer the question in the affirmative, that answer is hard won, if won at all, an accomplishment that is fundamentally conditioned by reality being structured or restructured in such a way that the affirmation becomes possible.
Evaluating our terms is an essential part of restructuring our reality so to make "the affirmation becomes possible." But doing so is a difficult process, as it can make our politics unstable at times when we depend on it to assert basic human rights. So the broader challenge (which is not the subject of this article) is to learn to walk a "double path," where we can learn to assert the needs of basic human rights, while also interrogating the very terms on which we make our assertions.
But not all instances of questioning our words is part of the expansion of possibility. For those for whom possibility is a luxury, expanding dialoge at the margins threatens the stability of the center. Some question why queer people would choose to identify explicitly as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, etc, because it is uncommon for cisgender heterosexual people to self-identify—for them, possibility is a luxury and self-identification a choice. Confusion or distress is often a response when queer people use "labels" to make explicit the heterosexist or cissexist contours of the world we live. At its core, this confusion is due to privilege cisgender heterosexual people experience: they are able to navigate the world unmolested by "labels," because their gender and sexuality dominate our culture.
But you see here, we've already encountered one of the serious problems "labels" create that people rebel against: they seem to get excessive and clutter our sentences. For many in cisgender, heterosexual dominated society, using the adjectives cisgender and heterosexual appears in excess of the term person. In On Writing Well, William Zinsser gives some very poignant advice: most adjectives are unnecessary, "they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun" (Zinsser, 1990). For the typical writer, the noun "person" already contains the concept of cisgender and heterosexual, as these are the categories privileged as the default. If I were to rewrite the above paragraph to remove the words "cisgender heterosexual," my overall meaning would not be lost. Cisgender and heterosexuality regularly go unmarked and unremarked because they are already implicit (and hence privileged) within the category of person.
The "normal" of Cisgender Heterosexuality
Part of the deployment of "labels" by queer folk is the identification of the social characteristics that correspond with these marginalized queer "labels." Historically, queer folk have been made intelligible by dominant discourses that mark our bodies and minds. The term homosexuality was introduced into the English language as a means to capture a specific subset of "sexual inversions," where the former focused on the "issue of sexual object choice" and the latter was "a broad range of deviant gender behavior" (Haperin, 1986). Homosexuality became part of a discourse intent on capturing deviant behavior and rendering intelligible in reference to unstated cisgender heterosexuality. Sexual inversion was one of the first instances of a term used to capture all queer people, whose "gender traits" didn't fit into the unstated heterosexual cisgender social order.
Homosexuality ushered in the breaking down the "broad range" of sexual inversions into specific "labels" which atomize and construct sexual deviance. Natural, medical, and psychological sciences seized on deviant sex, sexuality, and gender through the construction of objects like homosexuality. Social reality changed as sexual deviance was gridded out against the backdrop of heterosexual cisgender dominance. To be marked as a homosexual meant to be brought to the forefront, where the category of person was uncertain.
Modern queer politics arose within the conflict between being identified by one's deviance from personhood, and being able to articulate one's personhood despite one's deviance. The natural, medical, and psychological sciences operated on objects like homosexuality that were already only intelligible through cissexist, heterosexist social structures. The sciences engaged with homosexuality as part of the generic process which constructed knowledge of sexual deviance as a means to gain power over sexual deviants. Sexual inversion was expanded and broken down to generated power over deviant sexuality and gender. Relations between them were laid out and tabulated. Queer people were coerced (through violence and other means) to offer up their selves to authoritative discourses. Queer people where made intelligible through disciplined investigation which rendered them into distinct species through a heterosexual, cisgender vocabulary. Queer people were obligated, wherever they are, to prove their personhood by appealing to implicit heterosexism and cissexism. This created an inherent in conflict with being queer: our very appeals through the dominant language only served to reinforce the essentialized cisgender, heterosexuality of personhood.
In recognizing this conflict, queer people began to resist these heterosexist and cissexist forces by generating novel lexicon through queer discourse. The term gay became part of sexual subcultures through resistance to the clinical authority of homosexuality. In a similar manner, lesbian arose out of women's struggle against patriarchal social orders at the intersection of sexuality and gender. Where gay men struggled to find language to express sexual attraction, lesbians have struggled to find language to express women's sexual autonomy. A "broad range" of languages and practices arose as queer people moved together to fashion ways to make themselves intelligible as persons in resistance to the dominance of cisgender heterosexuality.
Queer Lexicon, Not "Labels"
It is in this lexicon that we've developed the terms people pejoratively call "labels." Terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender are just a narrow selection of queer lexicon that has been offered to or appropriated by a social world dominated by cisgender heterosexuality. I say "offered" to point out that the lives of queer people make up the reality of what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender mean as self-identification. I say "appropriated" to point out that many conceptualizations of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender life are continually recirculated through a framework illuminates queer life against the backdrop of heterosexual cisgender dominance. Today's queer struggle comes out of how gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people navigate a world hungry to consume or assimilate queer life.
One challenge to the viability of queer life face is cisgender heterosexuality regularly goes unmarked and unremarked. When queer folk are brought out of the category of person along axis gender and sexuality, cisgender heterosexuality is left behind as the "normal" or "natural"—an unquestioned privilege in dominant discourse. To work against this, words like heterosexuality and cisgender enable queer people to articulate what is goes unmarked. Thinking of oneself as "normal" is a luxury for those who do not have identify themselves along sexual and gender axis. Introducing heterosexuality and cisgender into popular usage troubles the backdrop of heterosexual cisgender dominance, making it available for remark. Through marking and remarking on heterosexuality and cisgender, queer discourse can engage the problematic of the heterosexual, cisgender culture and vitalize an expanding queer lexicon.
In this respect, the simplicity of calling the queer lexicon "labels" reveals to be a fundamental misunderstanding. Calling them "labels" implies that they are placed over already neutral designations, such as person. But those designations are not neutral. Marriage is implicitly heterosexual until it becomes gay marriage. Bars and clubs are implicitly heterosexual until they become gay clubs and dyke bars. Feminism is implicitly cisgender until it becomes trans feminism. Proms are implicitly heterosexual until they become gay proms. Institutions, sociality, movements, and even adolescence are deeply embedded with heterosexuality, leaving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people at the margins of society.
The diversity of the queer lexicon also demonstrates the misunderstanding that these terms are simply "labels." Other dimensions of inequality manifest in differential treatment of queer subjects in dominant discourse. Homosexuality arose, in part, as an attempt to dissociate deviant sexuality from the authority of religious knowledge. Sodomy was the term used to capture deviant sex by men, and homosexuality retained that focus when deviance was taken up into scientific discourse. When gay was introduced into dominant discourse, gay was reduced down into androcentric homosexuality. Dominant discourse understands queer life through a patriarchal, monosexist framework, and thus privileges men over women and marginalizes bisexuality. The contours are different, but as a result, bisexual and lesbian people tend to be overwritten as "gay." To call these terms "labels" misses the dominant logic which circulates these terms differently outside queer discourse. The fact is, queer discourse works to bring forth all the unmarked and unremarked things that lay in the background. And by subjecting these dominant categories to critical queer thought, we can broaden the possibilities for queer life.
One of the critical misunderstandings of the queer lexicon is how essential it is in the lives of queer men and women. As I mentioned earlier, the queer lexicon goes beyond the sparse set of terms offered up to the dominant discourse. In fact, the queer lexicon is part of a broader queer language that grows up in the milieu of a cissexist, heterosexist society. We enter the world hungry for meaning, but are faced with a broad array of social structures devoid of queer intelligibility. We struggle to create or find a queer language to capture ourselves and the ones we love. Things like our posture, dress, voice, self-care, consumptive practices, sexual practices, poetry, fiction, allusions and performances are hard won through tears, sweat, and blood. This cumulative effort on the part of queer people is extraordinary because we are constituting new ways of of living.
This is part of what I meant when I mentioned above that the terms heterosexuality and cisgender vitalize and expanding queer lexicon. By definition our language grows as we accumulate ways of living. But there is a second sense in which I touched on: a vitalized queer language opens up new possibilities. For many queer people, life isn't possible within a society dominated by unmarked and unremarked norms. The struggle to live necessitates an expansion of the queer lexicon, and expansion that must pull the unmarked from the backdrop and subject it to queer discourse. At the frontier of the margins the backdrop is undone, vitalizing the queer lexicon—creating life where it was once unthinkable, unspeakable, or fantastic.
To intervene in the name of transformation means precisely to disrupt what has become settled knowledge and knowable reality, and to use, as it were, one’s unreality to make an otherwise impossible or illegible claim. I think that when the unreal lays claim to reality, or enters into its domain, something other than a simple assimilation into prevailing norms can and does take place. The norms themselves can become rattled, display their instability, and become open to resignification.
(Butler, 2004, p. 27)