By now, I’ve lived in Australia for roughly half the time I’ve lived at all. Three decades is significant. Three is the number of sides in a triangle, a shape that, for millennia, has so fascinated our species. Three is a holy number—the Christian Trinity, the Hindu Trimurti, Wicca’s Triple Goddesses. Halves have always been significant, too—binaries more so. Man, woman. Human, world. Soul, body. Right, wrong. In his Symposium, Plato imagines proto-humans as Franken-beings with two faces, eight limbs and two sets of genitals, bisected by wrathful gods and doomed forever to search for their ‘other half’.
Some months ago an acquaintance asked me why I hadn’t come out as non-binary yet. Yet, as though it were inevitable, and with the implication that the public had more of a premium on my preferred gender label than I do. The fact that this person is an acquaintance is salient: I barely interact with them, so it’s clear their question had arisen from scraps of my personality they’d gathered from what I’d made visible in public contexts. ‘Plus you’re functionally non-binary, anyway!’ It bothered me then, as now, that to this person my only choices were to ‘come out’ or stay stealthy. Never mind all our talk about gender and sexuality being fluid; it seemed the trajectory ostensibly ahead of me was a linear, discrete transition towards making it ‘official’.
Nowadays, there are few terms as loaded as identity. Not only are we facing a reckoning on a global scale regarding our understandings of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, physical and mental ability, age, citizenship status—the list goes on—but it has filtered into the deepest reaches of our political paradigms. This evolution has run so deep that in 2017 I even penned an essay on the subject for human rights outlet Right Now: 4000 words on the promises and pitfalls of today’s rather more rigid brand of identity politics, as facilitated by internet algorithms and rapid-fire communications technologies.1 I won’t rehash those points here, as I remain steadfast in what I argued therein, nor will I wade into the murky marsh that is twenty-first-century politics generally—in the last two years alone, the world has become infinitely messier than any level-headed commentator would hope to tackle. Instead, I will restrict myself to something decidedly smaller scale: identity itself. For, as my own case shows, it seems identity no longer rests on the individual.
Perhaps it never did, and it definitely seems impossible in this panoptic world, where a glut of devices monitors our every action and subjects us to unrelenting scrutiny, forever attempting to influence us as citizens and as consumers. Or perhaps my concern signals that I’m now in thrall to the individualistic propensities of post-industrial culture, losing touch with the manifold ways in which my assertion of self is intermingled with those of others who share my struggles. In the realm of ‘woke’ neoliberalism, where personal brand and public face are the currency of kings, what it means to know oneself is becoming more slippery than ever.
• • •
It’s 1991. My mother caught me prostrate on the bedroom floor: pyjamas attached to my head like hair, singlet coiled into a makeshift bra, bedsheet wrapped around my legs. My throat was painted yellow—that ghostly yellow assumed by Disney mermaid Ariel’s voicebox while sea-witch Ursula grabbed what was, contractually speaking, rightfully hers. Apparently, my mother had heard me singing ‘Part of Your World’ but she did not expect this; it was then, she said, that she knew her three-year-old was special.
Special. Back then the word possessed perhaps as much weight as identity does now. Caught because I was, in fact, hiding—even at that infantile age, I knew this type of dress-up play would ruffle feathers. But I so adored mermaids. I could parrot every word and melody in that animation; I had storybooks recounting both Disney’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s versions of the tale; I lapped up localised renditions in trashy Filipino films, the sirena hounded by the amphibious green siyokoy desiring her humanoid beauty. An inexplicable feeling of kinship drew me to the mermaid’s in-betweenness; even if I couldn’t articulate this then, the mer-figure resonated with my quiet sense that there was something ‘not quite’—something special—about me.
I may not be remembering this right; I may have fabricated that entire scene from 1991. Memory is all mosaic: a pieced-together patchwork of remembrance—visual, aural, textural, including pop culture we’ve consumed and the tellings and retellings of our own and others. It’s not always the most reliable, yet it’s nonetheless through memory that we make sense of ourselves. Philosopher Paul Ricœur called it emplotment—the process of ‘storifying’ who we are, how we got here, why we are the way we are; it forces a narrative shape, coaxes causality, into what was very likely a series of unconnected events. Coming to terms with the self is, thus, a process of choosing which self-narrative to take on—something especially pressing for migrants and the mentally ill, like me, for whom physical displacement and psychical disorientation are constant battles.
But this was my childhood—or my confabulated version of it, anyway: one surrounded by stories of liminal beings and handsome heroes, interwoven with hyper-heterosexuality and bolstered by conservative Catholic ideals about self-effacement and sacrifice. They all converged on notions of being ‘saved’ and never quite being enough, which jelled well with the Filipino concept of hiya. In English, we say ‘shame’, but Filipino shame is less personal, more communal; a criticism of you is a criticism of your kin. And so, while my parents laughed off my effete displays and fixation with princesses, I quickly cottoned on to how much they feared I would ‘turn into’ one of those gays. What’s interesting is that there is a relative tolerance for queerness in the Philippines, inherited from a pre-colonial framework of gender that eschews the binary. If you’re called bakla in Tagalog, this can mean all manner of things—from what, in English, we’d describe as ‘gay’ to something that approximates Western conceptions of transness. As researcher J. Neil C. Garcia reminds us, bakla descends from the tribal babaylan figure: a prophet-warrior who has ‘gender-crossed’.2 This tolerance is complicated by status, however. In our case, bourgeois Manila society would not have taken too kindly to a prominent businessman rearing a bakla with so much ‘wasted’ potential. To appropriate Anglo-speak, what a ‘shame’.
It’s all very cyclical. If you’re a bakla, your chances of being taken seriously dwindle; you are relegated to typecast professions such as hairdresser or entertainer or personal assistant. In turn, with these jobs the only ones visible to society at large, the possibilities accessible to you are limited—no bakla nor their parents could dream of anything different. With the Church also retaining its foothold in the everyday Filipino’s life, it isn’t difficult, then, to demonise same-sex attraction. So any whiff of queerness immediately needs to be purged through ‘respectability’: blending in by approximating the cisgender, heterosexual majority’s preferred expressions of gender and sexuality. Cast out the sin; save the sinner.
In How We Desire, Carolin Emcke asserts: ‘Defining what is yours begins with a no […] when certainty is suddenly uncertain, the unquestionable suddenly doubtful—at this moment, in this crack, the self emerges.’3 Detailing the ways in which she formed a conception of her own homosexuality, the German author alludes to a series of eschewals: desire, domestication, alcohol, debauchery. For me, understanding my identity began instead with a list of prohibitions: don’t be girly, don’t squeal, don’t cross your legs, don’t think dirty thoughts. Don’t shame the family. Early on, I was yoked with a mould of manhood that I was expected to shapeshift into, rather than receiving reassurances that I would be fine to find myself. But what is a ‘man’? What is the ‘good’? How does it feel to traverse land that wasn’t made for you, a hundred sharp knives pricking aquatic skin with each step?
• • •
When I first assumed the role of editor-in-chief of sexuality, gender and identity magazine Archer in 2017, I was told that a couple of themes had been pre-set for subsequent issues: we were working on ‘Family’ as the handover edition; the next one would be ‘History’; after that, ‘Bodies’. ‘History’ would be the magazine’s tenth issue and, as a sucker for the mystical symbolism of round numbers, I felt that theme was a perfect match. But ‘Bodies’ didn’t sit right with me for reasons I couldn’t clearly express. On practical grounds, it seemed too restrictive: it lacked the interpretive openness of other single-word themes I’d grown accustomed to seeing on the covers of magazines. As ‘History’ approached its finish line and my editor-brain began shifting gears from production to curation, it soon dawned on me: philosophically speaking, ‘Bodies’ would consign the magazine to a very narrow conception of identity—one that puts primacy on the physical apparatus, and which could even trap us into inadvertently validating those damaging ideas about us queers having been ‘born wrong’, ‘gender = genitals’ and other such notions. In the end, we settled on ‘Gaze’ as Archer’s issue 11 theme.
My daily travails as someone who works with words for a living have crystallised the extent to which words are limited—and limiting. Inbuilt into language is a tendency towards fixity, and this rigidity corners us into neglecting the ways our words can hamper or harm. We even fall into the trap of forgetting that words are, as I argued in that Right Now essay, conceptual implements that we ourselves have created and thus should not be subjugated by.
This tendency also belies the reality that our words—and the concepts behind them—evolve. A fascinating discovery I made recently was that heterosexuality wasn’t always, well, heterosexuality. An illuminating BBC Future report traces the lineage of the concept, finding its provenance in the late 1800s.4 At a generous estimate, that’s just 150 years ago, a nanosecond in the context of the Anthropocene. This isn’t to say that heterosexuality hadn’t existed before then. Rather, it didn’t have a name—this newly invented term identified a ‘class’ of human whose erotic desires were directed solely at members of the opposite sex. Before then, opposite-sex intercourse was merely one among various practices in the human sexual spectrum. Non-heterosexuality (and related practices like non-monogamy) was, of course, policed on religious grounds, but the report stresses the growing secular link between heterosexuality as a normative label and the rise of the middle class in industrialised urban centres. Heterosexuality became a method of control, a conduit for conservatism, to maintain the ‘purity’ of the ‘morally superior’ city.
The constructedness of identities, while not always an appealing revelation, is key. In an incisive passage, Emcke reflects, ‘I’m homosexual because homosexuality is a label, a historical category that takes a single practice and uses it to create an entire person, an identity, a way of life.’5 Her jab at this faulty universalisation aligns with my own reservations about the prevalent streams of contemporary identity politics (there I go, invoking it when I said I wouldn’t): it presupposes a permanence in identity markers—an essentialism—when what truly make a mark on everyday life are our tangible guises, our shifting outward self-presentations. The gaze persists, with or without an accompanying label.
The year of Little Mermaid–gate, 1991, saw the publication of the essay ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’,6 in which the formidable Judith Butler questioned the validity of societal designations, instead championing the resistive potential of performative identity. The following year, in ‘The New Queer Cinema’, the famed B. Ruby Rich examined the proliferation of LGBT content in indie films of the time.7 Both thinkers inscribed their work with descriptions of multiplicity: how selves are variable, varying, dependent on context, companion, communicator—unstable. In Butler’s analysis particularly, we find a clanging encapsulation of how terms like homosexuality easily become a muzzle: ‘identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes’, she wrote, and from their tyrannical rigidity we need to be ‘liberated’.8
I’ve gone from bodies to terms to tyranny, a logical leapfrog that’s not, on first inspection, the most cogent. But imagine it this way: I am a person existing in the world and, finding myself constantly labelled, seek a label that sticks. Once I’ve found one, there’s no guarantee that the way I identify—and, more specifically, the terms I’ve used to delineate this identity—will be understood or respected by others. On top of this, the path to a reliable, restitutive label is littered with inconsistency; as Butler put it: ‘what will be taken as the true determinant of [the label’s] meaning: the phantasy structure, the act, the orifice, the gender, the anatomy?’9
Much as the meanings of words evolve over time, the correspondence between adopted label and actual person can dwindle as that person grows. This isn’t to say we need to dispense with labels altogether—far from it. Carving out a psycholinguistic space for oneself is a potent act of reclamation. The solace derived from the sense of shared experience that labels can facilitate—from knowing that other people struggle the way you do—can be life-changing. But trouble brews when we fall prey to the tantalising proposition that these concepts predated our creation of them: that they’re absolute, moulds that we can fit neatly into, rather than casings that we don and discard to suit our circumstances. That they can ‘save’ us.
I quote Emcke again because, with this single line, she leaves my chest heaving: ‘I am more homosexual than I feel, because my homosexuality means more to others than it does to me.’10 This invocation of ‘feeling’ highlights the disjuncture between interior and exterior, identification and presentation. In The Postcolonial Challenge, cultural-theory academic Couze Venn demarcates identity from the more phenomenologically rich notion of subjectivity. Whereas the former points to the public aspects of a person’s self, made incarnate in performances observed and engaged with by others, subjectivity has to do with ways of interacting with reality on the individual level: interpretation, perception, emotion, thought.11 In this schema, it is not identity—the more visible, socially sanctioned elements—that is central to personhood, but rather the more experiential subjective lens, which ultimately forms the interface between self and world.
When it comes to identity, therefore, feeling comes first. In pursuit of the ‘big’ things like recognition, belonging, respect, love, we take on certain labels—whether by choice or resignation—then feel an obligation to act out what we think other people would expect of those identifications. The affective impact of this form of role-play is the opposite of what we’re seeking, however; we shouldn’t be imprisoned by our concepts. Just two issues ago, in Meanjin, Jonno Revanche suggested that queer, for many, ‘was a label forcibly assigned from the moment they began expressing “unconventional” traits, one they could not escape from and had to react to’.12 Emcke again: ‘Identities aren’t only a matter of choice; they are also constructed, assigned, ascribed […] I can reject that. I can find it ridiculous […] But it won’t make any difference to the social reality of the world where I live.’13
How have we arrived at a point where concepts—akin to Platonic Forms—are seen to pre-exist, and sometimes plague, the actual persons they’re meant to describe? I don’t purport to speak for every single person, but ‘living non-binary’, for me, will always feel more authentic than ‘identifying as non-binary’. In a world where some still regard deviations from traditional norms as morally deviant, what people see about you (presentation) is often more dangerous than what they know (label). It’s tricky enough traversing the world the way I do: unable to ‘pass’; making men double-take in discomfort as they share public toilets with me; having elderly women mutter under their breaths about whether I’m ‘a transgender’ while the kids they’re minding stare, fascinated. I’ll admit it: I don’t find the prospect of expending mental energy to wrestle with label choice and the exhausting ceremony of ‘coming out’ particularly appealing—I’m already living it, every goddamned day. I imagine I’m not the only one.
• • •
In November 2018 I spoke on a panel about gender and sexuality for the Jaipur Literature Festival in Adelaide. I kept invoking Michel Foucault, betraying my fanboy status, and a fellow speaker threw a playful jibe at my relentless references to poststructuralism. I recognise that French theory can be dense at the best of times, even to an übernerd of my calibre, but there seemed to be something else driving my co-panellist’s facetiousness. Because he wasn’t really dismissive—much like all other well-planned panels, there was an evident spirit of respectful disagreement permeating the stage. Then it occurred to me: India (his country of origin) had only recently repealed Section 377 of its penal code, ending more than a century of colonially sanctioned criminalisation of homosexual activity.
I was reminded of the way my queer predecessors in the West had to forego the constant instability championed by queer theory in favour of momentary fixity, as part of their fight for liberation. In their day, this was the only recourse available in making LGBT people not just palatable to the wider population but understandable: We are born the way we are, just like you are. I’m the same person you’ve always known and loved. But, as anthropology professor Roger Lancaster stresses in an astute op-ed for Jacobin, the activists of the 1960s and 1970s ‘embraced identity in order to abolish it’: ‘From the start,’ he notes, ‘they maintained that labels like heterosexual and homosexual would be cast aside after liberation.’14 Half a century on, this fight continues but in a different form, and I worry that our awareness of the temporary nature of the concessions we’d made to get to where we are is evanescing in historical smoke.
We young folk may not completely grasp this, but our elders do. In Gaga Feminism, Jack Halberstam—a stalwart of queer theory whose own gender identity wavers—reminds us that ‘the categories of being that seemed to specify and define human nature over one hundred years ago have quickly become rather inadequate placeholders’15 and marvels at how, today, we ‘let kids who have not yet learned the appropriate languages for indeterminate identities name what escapes adult comprehension’.16 Similarly, gay academic and activist Dennis Altman wrote in the Summer 2016 issue of Meanjin: ‘One of the ironies of current “radical” discourse is that it simultaneously accepts that identities are products of social forces and that there is an authentic self that only needs support to emerge.’17 Indeed, we farewelled the idea of the singular, coherent self in the middle of the twentieth century, when we realised the degree to which this modernist notion disregarded wide-reaching societal influences. Each encounter is an act of creation, bringing to life the thinking, acting ‘I’ that itself may transform in the next encounter. In Butler’s formulation, ‘there is no performer prior to the performed […] the performance constitutes the appearance of a “subject”’.18
Our war rages on various fronts today. On the First World vanguard are grassroots activists, wielding social media and a plethora of online outlets as part of their arsenal. From the so-called ivory towers, intellectuals brood over theory and ways we can reform and reconceptualise. The fights vary depending on locale, too: while we in the West are advocating for wedding cakes and joint home loans, our siblings in the developing world are hitting the streets and haranguing their politicians to recognise their basic rights to exist. Our concerns take shape relative to our situations, so it’s vital that we account for these distinct circumstances.
Elsewhere, the born this way rhetoric is still necessary as a precondition of battle. For us here, it’s not—and this explains why we now have think pieces advocating, ‘I’m Trans, but It Doesn’t Mean I Was Born in the Wrong Body’19 and even personal essays in Archer that poignantly assert: ‘I wasn’t a woman trapped in the wrong body. I was an authentic expression of a woman trapped in a limited society.’20 This narrative is precisely that: a narrative, devised for a specific function, in a specific moment in time, from a specific perspective. To reinvoke Ricœur, it’s a line of thought that individuals can choose to adopt; self-concept is all about self-narrativisation. But it’s not a universal (nor a universalisable) truth.
I do recall, though, that I had to appeal to the idea of a stable self when I came out, aged 16. They say you ‘find’ yourself in high school—figure out your place in the adolescent hierarchy, which uncannily mirrors the adult one—but, for me, it was more about carving out the guise of the person I wanted to metamorphose into. I’d just immigrated to Melbourne six months prior, but, in that time, I increasingly felt the pressure of hormones and horniness and who am I? That time also saw me lodged in the fissure that grew between my homeland and new home—between the self-effacing ‘sanctity’ of Catholicism and the self-directed chutzpah of secularism, between my parents and me. As puberty progressed unchecked, so was I besieged by the demons that whispered, daily, for me to break free of the straitjacket gifted me by the conservative Philippines.
At school, there was no real way to keep a lid on it—everyone had an inkling that the new kid was a little queer, and not just because he was foreign. Plus, I’d been fooling around for months with a classmate who eventually became my first boyfriend. Like Emcke says, it seemed to mean more to everyone than it did to me. So I resolved to quell the hearsay; the best way to seize power back is to control the narrative. My line was this: ‘I’m still the same person you knew, except I like men and now I don’t need to hide it.’ I used it on my family as well. If that chapter in my life were a Hollywood bildungsroman, you’d hear soaring strings in the score; there’d be sun-dappled tree scenes with arty lens flare, a heart-warming voiceover celebrating how my inner self had ‘finally’ emerged from its closeted shell. That’s the stuff people see—what they want to see.
In reality, I wasn’t the same person; I doubt anybody ever is after they’ve ‘come out’. That moment of revelation instigates a series of changes in demeanour, disposition, dreams, even if not immediately. It changes others’ dealings with you, too. Dad’s subsequent month-long ‘hunger strike’ has become infamous in our family, though nobody ever talks about how he’d asked my sister’s then-husband to ‘fix’ me so I could ‘become a man’. My sister eventually spilled Mom’s harboured hopes for me to settle down with a wife so I ‘wouldn’t be lonely’. And, in another six months, that boyfriend—racked by insecurity about his own unannounced bisexuality—would cheat on me with a female classmate on a trip to Paris, later telling me and the whole school that I was ‘just an experiment’.
But isn’t everyone always an experiment? We affirm who we are with every decision, every interaction. Every denial. ‘Defining what is yours begins with a no.’ That ex is now married to a woman and, to my knowledge, hasn’t been with another man since me. I frequently make out with women and, once, got an erection during an erotic tumble session with a female friend on her couch. Is he still bisexual? Am I still gay? (That friend’s housemate, after catching us in the act: ‘But I thought he was gay?’) Our labels fall short and that’s okay, because it’s their job to keep up. What isn’t okay is the way we institutionalise constructs like gay and coming out. By publicly professing our emergence from the ‘closet’, to cite Butler again, we reiterate ‘the framework that privileges heterosexuality as origin’.21 As we march forwards in this revolution and devise spaces and labels that empower some of us—they do, and that’s great—my hope is that we stay on guard against building new closets in place of the old one.
• • •
I can’t say I take the zodiac super seriously, but I also don’t not take it seriously. Yes, it’s impossible for each of the 7 billion people on Earth to fit neatly into one of 12 archetypes. I’ve met other Virgos who irritate me to hell and back because they have idiosyncrasies that clash with mine. But I also think it’s incredibly arrogant to think that millennia’s worth of folk wisdom amounts to nothing. I also know that, as a matter of physics, bodies act inexorably on other bodies—gravity, friction, magnetism, electrochemistry—so enormous matter on a cosmic scale must play some role in the action of neurons, enzymes, heart rates. I don’t see the zodiac as deterministic: there’s free will; there are environmental and cultural factors. There are even zodiac micro-factors that complicate each assignation—I’m a Virgo on sun-sign terms, but, based on my ‘natal chart’, I’m also a Sagittarius-moon and Sagittarius-rising. So it’s a spectrum, the way Myers–Briggs polarities aren’t actually polarities but percentages: I’m a strong-N, strong-J, but weak-I, weak-F.
I like typologies because I’m a writer-type trained to see life as having clear cause-and-effect and people as characters with consistent motivations. It’s the same reason I’m strongly drawn to the Japanese role-playing game (RPG) genre. You start each play-through with the awareness that you’ll very likely need to form a team of four. One of these is, almost inevitably, a healer; another is ‘ranged’; another, ‘melee’. When you see a foe with an axe, you know you’ll succeed if you wield your sword because they’ll be high on brawn but low on speed. If you’re having trouble following, just remember that RPGs, like the zodiac, are underpinned by the same human drive to systematise that has produced archetypes in fairytales and legends since time immemorial: damsel, hero, villain, fairy godmother, good, evil. RPGs, at heart, are narratives, too.
Unlike videogames, however, life doesn’t comprise finite variables and limited outcomes; there’s no shorthand for someone’s moral valencies, or even the way they identify. So, if not an analogy for choice and action, maybe RPGs afford us a way of thinking about identity itself. Each RPG character has an assortment of ‘skill points’—for things such as physical strength, magical abilities, dexterity and evasion—that, together, make them fit for particular roles during gameplay (the aforementioned healer, melee, etc.). These combinations of traits are reminiscent of the way we conceive of intersectional identities today: each person is a melange of race, gender, sexuality and all those other politicised markers, each of which contribute to their privileged or disadvantaged position in society. The interesting thing is that RPG roles aren’t ‘locked’—as you level up, you can bulk up your point allocations in specific skills, ending up with, say, a ranged spell-caster who isn’t totally defenceless physically. How you start the game need not determine how you keep playing.
In Archer’s ‘History’ issue, renowned photographer William Yang shared how he ‘came out as a gay person first, and then […] “came out” as an Asian 12 years later’.22 Like Yang, I didn’t really grasp the extent to which I was different, on racialised terms, until I moved to Melbourne. Who knew that not everyone ate rice for breakfast! How unbelievable that, here, parents wheedle their kids to move out of home upon turning 18! Yang’s case highlights how, despite society having us believe that identities are putative, contextual factors such as time and environment can alter them. It’s the same slow process that underpinned the gradual absorption of Mediterranean migrants into the ‘white’ mantle from the 1980s or so.23
My own experiences attest to this, too: every time I’ve visited Manila, I’ve been shaken out of my self-conceptual stasis. There, I’m the ‘Australian’—a refreshing change from the exasperating enquiries about where I’m ‘really’ from. There, I’m ‘edgy’ because of my tattoos and piercing, but not because of my queerness, which I express in a way not too dissimilar from the bakla. It’s more perturbing to some relatives that I talk so openly about my mental illnesses than it is that I have them. Melburnians and Manileños have differing literacies when it comes to the vagaries of identity, and it would expend more energy than it merits to expect everyone, from everywhere, to be on level footing. So we play the game—we perform our identities—strategically.
Interestingly, in the internet age, strategic performativity has assumed another, less gratifying, face. Halberstam notes that what can be termed ‘global-gay discourses’ have ‘scoop[ed] up all signifiers of sex/gender difference into the net of “equal rights”, presuming simple correspondence between legibility, identity, and recognition and rights and liberty’—ultimately so that ‘sexual tolerance is only used to free up new avenues for capital’.24 Arguably, other identity markers have faced comparable co-option, especially in the online arena, which rewards performances of the ‘right’, meme-able—sellable—selves that are sure to get ‘likes’ and ‘shares’.
These expressions of identity are neoliberalism par excellence: one of today’s most commonly invoked catchcries is ‘Own it!’, a dutiful reminder of the centrality of the capitalistic mode that associates power with possession. It’s a truism to say that we derive satisfaction from the momentary doses of serotonin doled out by social media—and whenever numbers are involved, even for things as seemingly superficial as thumbs-up on a screen, capitalistic power-plays are soon to follow. Going beyond the web, Altman has expressed concern about this ‘strange mix of conservatism and radicalism’, with multinational corporations and other entities capitalising on minority dollars by putting on charades of tolerance.25 I too have critiqued this, using Thailand as a case study, the country’s latest tourism campaign inviting foreigners through ‘gay-friendly’ initiatives while ignoring its local LGBT population.26 Of the interplay between self and spending in cinema at the turn of the millennium, Rich lamented, ‘Queer audiences flocked to films every bit as mediocre as those pulling in heterosexual dollars at the multiplexes […] Identity politics doesn’t meld well with market considerations, so the new films dumped the politics overboard.’27
With louder and louder battle cries for politics-driven-by-the-personal on one hand, and insidious corporate cooption of politics-lite on the other, we are witnessing the increasing reification of conceptual identities. We are embracing neoliberalism full throttle—and, in yielding to commodification and the cultivation of ‘personal brands’, we give shape and scaffolding to the walls that are dividing us. Difference and diversity are, certainly, worthy sources of passion and celebration, but they must not themselves be the reason for our crusade. ‘Liberation’, warns Altman, a member of the generation that fought for today’s rights, ‘means more than being “squeezed into the existing system”.’28 I agree, but what system is there to replace this one? ‘Perhaps those who call themselves non-binary or use gender-neutral orthodoxies feel they have surpassed the binary,’ ponders Revanche, a member of the generation currently fighting, while recognising that ‘gender non-conformity has severe material implications’ and ‘brings meaning and momentary structure, even if it can only be realised among their own communities’.29 I feel caught between my liberationist predecessors and my separatist contemporaries; I am moved by the electric rage emanating from both groups, but discern how neither position is fully sustainable. Virgo caution; strong-J fastidiousness; ranged spell-caster, watch and wait.
• • •
The synthesis of liberationism and separatism may well lie in the notion of queer itself. Musing on ‘authenticity and essential identity’, Emcke suggests: ‘Concepts of collective identities make good rhetorical vehicles in political struggles for legal recognition, but they cannot provide a home.’30 Home is as weighty a word as they come for a migrant like me—something made more formidable by my queerness. Can a naturalised Australian ever just belong here, settler-colonialism notwithstanding, or will I be asked evermore to justify my existence on this land? What spaces am I permitted to enter? What spaces are mine, and which ones do I have to smuggle myself into by putting on the right face? Fifteen years on, I still feel ‘not quite’: both Australian and Filipino and neither, a mer-person by the coastline.
Our selves and our circumstances remain in flux, so for matters of identity, nothing feels more apposite, to me, than queer. As much a verb as it is a noun and an adjective, the term invites reformulation and reformation: not just ‘weird’, but also transgressing against the expected, breathing life into buried potential. It has limitless possibilities because everything has the ability to disrupt hetero-normativity and/or traditional moral systems. Ursula? Queer. A mermaid flouting the natural order and living on land? Queer. Occasionally breaking into sass when writing for one of Australia’s most longstanding literary journals? Queer. If identity is mutable, mouldable, ever-shifting in response to our changing social worlds, then why must we demand that the language we use to refer to it be static? It may seem paradoxical to put forward a single notion as a catch-all, but doing so effectively renders its definition as everything and nothing—full of gravitas yet playfully like a game.
Each of us is an object of discourse—party to ideology, wards to society and superstructure. But, as philosopher Louis Althusser reminds us of this process of ‘interpellation’, it is also we who heed the call of ideology when it beckons.31 In coming out of the closet, we reinforce heterosexuality as the norm. In fighting for new terms, we validate the societal imperatives requiring that terms be specified at all. In Othering others, we Other ourselves—embodying not just subjectivity but also intersubjectivity. This is how we play: we repeatedly negotiate the boundaries between person and polis, our senses of self rebuilt each time we distance ourselves from that which we reject. We are, to put it in Foucauldian terms now, both subjects with autonomy but also subject to outside forces that elevate and efface us.32
Like all schemata, queer is fallible, but in this way, it embodies the very illusory stability that it challenges. Unshackled from definitude, using slippery semantics to its advantage, it heralds a chance to rehabilitate ideas about identity and to play, internally and outwardly, with what and how to present. Non-binary, officially or not; mongrel Asian, dual citizen; identity double bind—for me, queer is coming home, or always making one. •
Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of film and media periodical Metro and editor-in-chief of sexuality and gender magazine Archer. He is also a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. His work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Right Now, Cordite and elsewhere. See <http://www.adolfoaranjuez.com>.
- Adolfo Aranjuez, ‘The Abstraction of Privilege’, Right Now, 27 June 2017.
- J. Neil C. Garcia, ‘Male Homosexuality in the Philippines: A Short History’, International Institute for Asian Studies, no. 35, November 2004.
- Carolin Emcke, How We Desire, trans. Imogen Taylor, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2018 , p. 119.
- Brandon Ambrosino, ‘The Invention of “Heterosexuality”’, BBC Future, 16 March 2017.
- Emcke, How We Desire, p. 171.
- Judith Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, in Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, 1991, reprinted in Henry Abelove et al. (eds), Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Routledge, New York, 1993.
- [B. Ruby Rich, ‘The New Queer Cinema’, Village Voice, 24 March 1992, reprinted in New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, Duke University Press, Durham, 2013.
- Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, p. 308.
- Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, p. 310.
- Emcke, How We Desire, p. 171.
- Couze Venn, The Postcolonial Challenge: Towards Alternative Worlds, Sage, London, 2006, p. 79.
- Jonno Revanche, ‘Flitting between Many Middles: A Primer on Non-Binary Actualities and Individualism Down Under’, Meanjin, vol. 77, no. 3, Spring 2018.
- Emcke, How We Desire, p. 172
- Roger Lancaster, ‘Identity Politics Can Only Get Us So Far’, Jacobin, 3 August 2017.
- J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, Beacon Press, Boston, 2012, p. 67.
- Halberstam, Gaga Feminism, p. xvii.
- Dennis Altman, ‘Is the Personal still Political?’, Meanjin, vol. 75, no. 4, Summer 2016.
- Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, p. 315.
- Margot Fink, ‘I’m Trans, but It Doesn’t Mean I Was Born in the Wrong Body’, Gay Star News, 26 November 2018.
- Keira Leike, ‘They Speak’, Archer Magazine, issue 11, 2018, p. 48.
- Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, p. 310.
- Leah Jing, ‘Q&A with William Yang’, Archer Magazine, issue 10, 2018, p. 10.
- Fotis Kapetopoulos, ‘When Did I Become “White”?’, Neos Kosmos, 31 October 2016.
- Halberstam, Gaga Feminism, pp. 127-30.
- Altman, ‘Is the Personal Still Political?’.
- Adolfo Aranjuez, ‘Tickled Pink: Thailand Tourism Comes Out’, Archer online, 11 September 2018.
- B. Ruby Rich, ‘A Queer and Present Danger: The Death of New Queer Cinema?’, in New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, Duke University Press, Durham, 2013, p. 132.
- Altman, ‘Is the Personal Still Political?’.
- Revanche, ‘Flitting between Many Middles’.
- Emcke, How We Desire, p. 174.
- Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation’, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2001 .
- Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’, in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (eds), Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.