This is a transcript of the reading Gabriela Falzon gave at our October 2016 Story-share on Queer Meets Feminism.
Feminist and Queer theorist Judith Butler wrote in the radical book ‘Gender Trouble’: ‘The deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics; rather, it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated.’ (1990: 203).
In this powerful quote Butler explains to us that by being Queer, by delegitimising the binary assumptions of gender and sexuality, we do not compromise our feminist fight for liberation, but instead we make every aspect of identity political and this is in fact crucial to the feminist movement.
This is central to our discussion today because something we hear all too often is that Queer movements are detrimentally compromising the categories and identities that movements such as feminism rely on, categories such as ‘woman’ or notions of ‘woman-hood’. I think it is true that Queer politics works to deconstruct universally accepted categories of gender and sexuality, but I do not think this automatically entails a weakening of the feminist cause. In fact by demonstrating the constructed nature of gender binaries, Queer movements are providing more of a reason to end gender oppression.
I would like to point out that being Queer is not only deeply political but is the perfect example of how, to use the second wave feminist slogan, the personal is political. This is because identity and desire are tied to social understandings and norms and by subverting dominant notions of identity we are challenging the patriarchy we live in; a patriarchy which wrongly assumes not only that there are two genders but that sexuality is a correlative of gender and that social, economic and political roles are a consequence of the capacities that go along with gender.
I discovered feminism a long time before I discovered my Queer identity. I was brought up in a radically feminist and socialist home. I knew the word Marxism before I was 5 years old and I also knew about the gender pay gap. When I was in pre-school I took a Barbie doll in for show-and-tell. It was given to me as a present from a cousin to piss my mother off; she was strongly opposed to the dolls due to her feminist principles. I proudly told my peers that Barbies are an unrealistic and sexist depiction of women’s bodies. I witnessed an equal division of domestic labour at home between my mum and dad and I’ve been going to protests and rallies for as long as I can remember. But as I began to come to terms with the fact that I was Queer, or something other than straight, I didn’t feel a sense of pride, instead I felt shame, it seemed like something I had to hide and I certainly didn’t connect it with my feminist or my socialist values.
It wasn’t until I went to university that I discovered Queer theory and Queer politics and its connection to the feminist cause. I still think that doing gender studies has been one of the most important life experiences. This is because learning about theory meant that an aspect of my identity that I viewed as personal and even shameful became deeply political. And I realised that the concept of Queer was a fundamentally liberating one. By identifying as Queer I didn’t need to define myself in terms of a strict dichotomy between gay and straight; instead my very identity could be a fluid one. This broke down the binaries of gender and sexuality that society tells us are natural but are in fact destructive and work to reinforce oppressive gender roles. The kind of destructive ideas that, from the minute a baby is born, assigns them with an assumed gender, an assumed sexuality and an assumed role in society. This function of gender structures has created a society that divides the genders and has resulted in the total relegation of all women-identifying people. I would add that a further consequence of this has been the silencing of identities that don’t fit into either categories of man or woman.
At university I also came across the ideas of intersectional feminism, as found in the work of incredible writers such as Audre Lorde, through these ideas I realised that feminism wasn’t solely about gender-based oppression because a person’s experience of gender oppression changes depending on their sexuality, their class, their ethnicity or experiences of disability.
These insights are the foundation of an identity where being Queer and being a feminist compliment one another. Now I see the two as inherently linked because by challenging hetero-normative society, meaning a society that views heterosexuality as the norm, we are challenging gender roles and by challenging gender roles we are overthrowing patriarchy and the oppression of women. This insight is fundamental to the combination of Queer-ness and feminism. And I continue to be surrounded by powerful Queer feminists who fight for equal rights and speak loudly about their identity.
While this link between Queer and feminist politics is an essential theoretical link to make, and while in our minds theory can be rationalised, it doesn’t always play out the same way in reality. This is where I think it is important to attempt to bridge the theoretical and the practical; something that I admittedly struggle with. It is very easy for me to say to you all that deconstructing binaries of gender and sexuality is a political act that complements the feminist fight for liberation. However throughout my life I have constantly been met with challenges related to my Queer and feminist identities. I’ve struggled with questions such as: which department at university do I most identify with, the women’s department or the Queer* department? Am I even Queer enough to go to Queer events now that I’m not in a same-sex relationship? And how do I continue to identify as a woman when I know the category of ‘woman’ is socially constructed and not essential or biological?
In order to try and explain why I, and many other Queer feminists, continue to face these kinds of dilemmas I’m going to draw on a metaphor from Greek mythology. In the story of ‘The Bed of Procrustes’, Procrustes owns an estate between Athens and Eleusis. He abducts travellers and gives them a big dinner before inviting them to spend the night in a special bed. He wants the bed to fit each traveller to perfection. So if a traveller is too tall he chops off their legs and if they are too short he attempts to stretch them out. He does everything he physically can to make the traveller an ideal fit for the bed.
The metaphor of this slightly crazy story is that humans too often try to squeeze real life, which is messy and unpredictable, into reductive classifications, prescribed vocabularies and preconceived ideas (Taleb, 2010). In other words we try to mould reality to fit theory. But the truth is that reality never properly reflects theory and sometimes trying to combine Queer politics and feminist politics is a challenge. So instead of claiming that life will always reflect the important links between my Queer and feminist identities I’d like to say that life doesn’t always do this because life is spontaneous, and sometimes it’s very disordered. Instead of trying to shape and recreate life in a way that justifies theory we should be open to the infinite possibilities and questions that we will be presented with. And this isn’t something to dread but is rather something to look forward to. Far from being a rejection of theory this affirms that good theory comes from our revolutionary practices in life.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. London: Routledge.
Taleb, N. (2010) The Bed of Procrustes. Accessed: 17/10/2016, http://dixiederivatives.com/Taleb/TheBedofProcrustes.pdf
Gabriela is a poet, activist and musician. She is currently a student of gender studies at ANU as well as a campaign organiser for UnionsACT. As a member of local Canberra band ‘Late Night Cooking’ Gabriela prides herself in her radically feminist lyrics. She has been involved in various political campaigns, especially for Queer* and refugee rights and is an avid member of the Canberra literary community. Demos Journal, The ANU Women’s Department, Feminartsy and The Canberra Times have accepted her work for publication.