Queer theory has been a recurring topic on Child_Lit in the past few months. A number of writers and academics seem to be currently involved in projects related to queer children’s literature. (Finally. Alleluia!) But what do we mean by queer?
To some folks, queer relates specifically to sexual preference - meaning whether you are sexually attracted to females, males or both. For others, queer refers to any “non-normative” sexual or gender identity. Gender identity, like sexual attraction, can be viewed on a continuum — how masculine or feminine you feel, or are perceived to be. (I still find this uncomfortably dichotomous, myself.) Transsexuals fall into this definition of queer, as do more socially androgynous people or those exhibiting social gender-bending behaviors or traits.
Whew. So, depending on the conversation, queer can refer to the object(s) of your attentions; to the way you hold yourself, your interests, or how you are shaped; or, how you think of yourself in your deepest spaces.
What about non-normative? Whose norm? Physicians, theologians, journalists, screenwriters… your mother, your dog, your best friend, your lover… your favorite band, your grocer, the gas station attendant? Who decides what is normal? Is it whichever group can shout most aggressively? Is normal based on science? Spirit? Community health? In actual emotion? In behavior?
There’s a new book out, which I picked up this afternoon from Northtown Books (Arcata, CA). It’s called Gay America: Struggle for Equality, and it’s written by Linas Alsenas. Alsenas is tackling tough territory - he’s not being shy about sexual terminology; he’s looking at a sometimes grim, sometimes bawdy, and sometimes delightful American queer history; and he is trying to recreate and articulate that history, which has more often been inside the closet than not.
My favorite passage so far relates directly back to the child_lit thread of trying to define queer literature. Alsenas writes (pg 18):
“In other words, “lesbian” as an adjective could include any woman who chooses another woman as the emotional center of her life, whether as a domestic spouse, partner, or lifelong love. Similarly, historian Jonathon Ned Katz has pointed out that we limit ourselves too much by thinking about homosexuals and homosexuality only in terms of whether or not sex happens. That kind of reasoning would mean that someone is not a homosexual unless that person actually has sex. Does that also apply to a heterosexual? The words and categories we use today are inadequate to truly capture relationships of the past–and for that matter, the present.”
I agree. And I appreciate Alsenas’ strong invocation to his readers to question what he writes, along with history and terminology. The “norms” of sexual behavior and so-called “deviance,” the basic social constructs of marriage and friendship, the expressibility and acceptability of crushes and desire, have changed so dramatically in such a short time that we can only look back making our best guesses.
I choose to be heartened also to think that in yet another hundred years (roughly the scope of Gay America), the struggles we ourselves face may be difficult for future generations to understand… that language will continue to evolve as we comprehend a broader and more generous expanse of what it means to be human, and the sticking points of “queer” and “normal” will be irrelevant for my children’s grandchildren.
In the meantime, I am going to get back to the book, and will post further thoughts on it later!