12 October 2013



A more personal word about me than I ordinarily post here, connected to some cultural politics I consider more interesting than my own story. There was no talking about the one side without the other, and no saying it any shorter, so here it is as well as I can say it at the moment.

I do not know that I feel a need for anybody to read it. But having succumbed to a Twitter rant, I needed to revisit this a bit more properly.

My Twitter rant was sparked by a young trans person encouraging middle-aged people to come out as trans, even late in life.

I am not trans. I understand myself as a cishet man.

But saying that is a best-first-approximation with some weirdness around the edges. I wish I had better language for talking about how that is a bit fraught. Just naming it at all requires getting more long-winded than I think those complications merit. And I also think it is irresponsible to leave it unnamed. So here we are.

At the time I write this I am a bit over fifty years old. I have sunk costs in a gender identity which formed under very different conditions than the world we have now.

I was assigned male at birth and while masculinity has never sat quite right on me, I do not experience dysphoria, nor do I have a strong inner sense that I am not a man but something else.

I just find masculinity kind of dumb.

I imagine that someone born in 1996 in analagous conditions to the ones I grew up in, someone built on the same frame as me, likely might understand themself as an nonbinary demiguy, perhaps saying My Gender Is No or some such.

But that is not me. I am a product of a different world. I have a little pang of envy for the Youngs who have better vocabularies to work with than I did when I was their age, who can work out who they are in a world which offers these to them. The Youngs are magnificent and are doing a great job and I am there for them 100%. It is a victory that they simply cannot imagine the world I grew up in, in which I was exceptional in having a handful of queer friends who were out to me but could not even conceive of someone Out at large as a possibility. The current vocabulary of nonbinary idenity, or even trans identity at large, simply did not exist.

They told me I was a boy, so I found a kind of boy to be. I made a peace with it which worked well enough. I have worn long hair with a coat & tie for three decades now; “eccentric dandified man” has served me very well in a lot of ways. It should be evident I am not just talking about grooming, yes? A friend used to say that I was the only man she knew who dressed as a man and had it read like drag. It reflects a whole way of interacting with the world and its gendered understandings, a way of performing myself, a way of understanding myself. I developed hard-won skills in a certain masculinity I built for myself.

Again, this does not come from a strong draw to a different gender than I was told I was supposed to inhabit. I felt — and still feel — weakly gendered. When advocates for trans liberation say “imagine if everyone insisted that you were the other gender”, I find myself thinking, “well that doesn’t sound any worse”. I would have found a way to roll with that.

So with all that, saying I am simply a cis man in a world with better vocabularies feels a bit dishonest but I still have to count myself a cis man. “Sunk cost gender identity” is not just a joke. Do I have the time and patience to figure out something new?

When I was young, I was scrawny and soft and poorly socialized in masculinity. When I performed masculinity people were not easily convinced; they scented something different on me. Now I am flabby and beefy and my middle-aged hormone cocktail reads on my face. Masculinity has gone from hard to sell to hard to avoid. There is a way in which it is a relief for me that I have less performative work to do to read with a gender that civilians understand. Indeed, there are many people who read me as very masculine; that does not feel like they have read me wrong, but rather like I have gotten away with something. It aligns with skills which I invested time and energy to develop.

I am old and my limbs are stiff, but hardwon skill at a distinctive way of dancing masculinity means I can do those steps. I cannot easily pick up a new dance with my gender identity & performance the same way limber young people can. And that is not just about naming it to the world; that is about naming it to myself. My sense of myself is threaded with the experiences I have had moving through the world presenting and understanding myself as a man.

I move in circles where people have been introducing themselves with their pronouns for long enough that my “he or they” has now shifted in implications a couple of times ... and each round has suited me. If I get read as a fella, it feels like a victory. If I don’t get read as a fella? That too feels like a victory.

And. I want to be careful about cultural politics.

A decade ago, I wrote about how in the 1990s, there was a school of thought in queer liberation which framed “queer” as a cultural and political position, such that one could be gay or lesbian but not queer, implying that perhaps there were ways to even be cisgender (though we did not yet have that term) and heterosexual yet also queer. That formulation of “queer” disappeared, but it was and is important to me for a host of reasons, not only in suiting my ambivalences about how to talk about myself. In retrospect it is obvious that a big part of what I was writing about then was non-binary gender identity which we did not yet have well-developed vocabulary to describe. So I wrote that I counted myself a little bit queer, in that old sense. (You can find that essay further down this page.)

For a time, I shared that essay around. Many people found that it reflected something they recognized in themselves. But I do not circulate it any more, after an exchange with people who hated it, taking it as appropriating the word “queer”, taking me as shouldering my way into queer spaces, evading the responsibility I bear in occuping a place of cisgender & heterosexual privilege. I had tried to avoid exactly those errors. I was stung by the harshness of the responses. But my feelings are less important than how that response reflected that people were hurt by what I wrote — people I want to support, including people I knew personally. The essay is still up on this site not because I stand behind it but to hold myself accountable for the ways in which it stepped wrong.

It is no good to name myself with a word if it hurts people who need that word more than I do.

But no other words at hand entirely hit the mark.

I need something else.

It feels dishonest to say that I simply am a cis man. I hope I have made clear why it also feels inaccurate for me to say that I am non-binary.

And having opened the door, I have to address how my sexuality is comparably blurry around the edges.

I have been attracted to and attractive to a lot of queer people assigned female at birth, including (but not only) non-binary people who would take on “they” or “he” as their pronouns years or even decades after we flirted. Some people would reject the relevance of any of that, saying I am describing nothing other than a species of heterosexuality with a side order of implicit transphobia, me misreading all AFAB folks as “women” even when they are not. I respect the very good reasons to have that skepticism. Yet on the other hand, some people who have known me for quite some time observe that this has shown up enough times in enough ways that it is absurd not to see a pattern which one cannot call “straight”. And that reflects how there are a number of other little particulars and complications which make “heterosexuality” another first approximation which is also an over-simplification. Having gotten more personal & confessional already than I like to get into in public, I hope that readers will accept that as given without further details.

If there is an identity and an orientation in that, what to call it? Despite our ongoing Cambrian Explosion of queer language, I lack anything which fits. This is part of why I think language and taxonomies around gender and sexuality will remain a moving target for a while longer; I think quite a few folks remain offshore from the mainland of clear terms and categories.

One friend, who was among those very angry at me saying that I was “a little bit queer”, proposed “askew”.

The longer I sit with that, the more I like the turn of phrase. I am cishet to a first approximation, but a bit askew.

I am posting all of this in the place where I put the older essay below, because they are about the same thing in a way which I hope will be clear.


July 2016

In the time since I originally wrote the essay below, it became clear that I have to retract it. That realization does not come easily, as I have received a lot of positive feedback from people (LGBT and otherwise) who found it affecting and clarifying. But I cannot stand behind it.

The question of how we use the word “queer” is fraught. In the 1980s, gay and lesbian activists reclaimed this slur for themselves. “Queer” developed, in the course of a long and difficult conversation in the relevant communities, as a term of art describing lesbians and gay men ... and bisexuals ... and trans people ... and a range of other people with marginalized sexual and gender identities.

That conversation included a strand which saw queerness not simply as an alternative way to say “LGBT” but as a distinct quality of its own which overlaps significantly with those identities but is not congruent with them. “Being LGBT doesn’t necessarily mean you are queer; being queer doesn’t necessarily mean you are LGBT.” I know many LGBT people who advocate for this usage. This essay tried to explore some of the implications of using “queer” that way, as a response to seeing it fade away from contemporary use.

And therein lies the trouble.

Many other LGBT people have only encountered the use of “queer” in a sense synonymous with LGBT. For many of those people, this overlapping usage I talk about in this essay is not just unfamiliar, it is baffling. Bizarre. Outrageous. A disruption and violation of what they understand the word to mean. In that context, this essay sounds like me personally trying to demand a place in the LGBT tent, coöpting the credibility of communities who have struggled against terrible adversity for their place in the world.

I don’t want to do that. I deliberately tried to avoid that implication. But I failed.

Hearing support from some LGBT people and outrage from others presents a certain navigational challenge. But I cannot wound and insult people whom I ardently wish to support. And so I cannot stand behind the words, and apologize to the people wounded by them.

It is tempting to simply delete the post from the blog, or to replace it with this retraction. But that seems irresponsible, an erasure of the paper trail of what I said, even though I no longer say it. Too often I have come late to a controversy and cannot see what was originally said. It is better that I am accountable for what I wrote.

So here is the thing that I no longer say.

I originally authored this retraction in March 2016; in July I edited it to make the apology and reasons for keeping the post up more explicit.

October 2013

A little bit ago, I had a Twitter exchange that began with an exasperated tweet from Khadijah Britton saying:

Wait, wait, WAIT — Cis heteros are trying to start using the word queer? What in the holy dagnabbit is that?

(For the uninitiated, “cis” means “not transgender or transsexual”. It’s a witty use of a Latin root, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

I replied, in a series of tweets:

“Queer” means non-normative sex/gender/sexuality. So yeah, that’s a completely valid possibility.
Kinky butch hetero cis woman? Queer.

Poly dandy hetero cis man? Queer.
Russel Brand. Tilda Swinton. Dennis Rodman. Marilyn Manson.

Kinda queer.
This comes out of Queer Theory cultural politics from the late ’80s through the ’90s which framed things in terms of asking whether it was even desirable in the first place for non-normative sex/gender/sexuality to stake a claim to being “normal”, or whether a transgressive stance was actually desirable.

Queer identity says NO to normalization. It says, “No, being gay is not just like being straight with just one difference that doesn't matter. It is radically different, and that difference needs to be embraced and supported.”

So the queer sensibility is actually opposed to (or more precisely, radically disinterested in) gay marriage. To the queer sensibility, which is explicitly radical, becoming just like heteronormative straight people is dumb, a denial of the genuinely different character of gay life.
The queer sensibility lost the fight of the ’90s over the cultural politics of lesbians and gay men. Most embraced an un-queer politics. And in the trans community today, we are seeing a similar split. Are trans people meaningfully different from cis people? There are folks in the trans community on both sides of that question.

Britton replied to this Twitter rant ...

Please do blog about it. I think the world forgot.
... which appeals to my Generation X vanity beautifully. Gather ’round, Millenials, as I sing the song of when I was young and cool, and had impassioned conversations in San Francisco coffeeshops about heteronormativity and Kathy Acker.

T. Thorn Coyle points to the animating principle of the queer sensibility:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently about the need to become “conscious pariahs” rather than parvenues, assimilationists. Attempts to assimilate to sick systems make us sicker. Breaking from our need to belong frees us to become who we really are, in touch with our core natures. This freedom enables us to choose. When we can choose, we can build what we desire.

This shows us two different ways of operating from what we would now call the oppressed position in identity politics. The assimilationist parvenu cultivates the approval of the social order which rejects them, trying to remake both themselves and society so that they are not seen as different. The conscious pariah refuses to evade society's rejection of them, instead challenging it directly. Every liberationist movement against bigotry and systemic injustice has some form of this tension between the two strategies, and it's typical for the pendulum to swing between the approaches being favored in the broad movement.

At the moment, the parvenu/assimilationist sensibility is ascendent in the culture politics of homosexuality. As a hetereosexual fella trying to be a good ally, it’s not my place to question that choice by a group I don’t belong to. And I've applauded the gains that this has produced.

But I have to confess that I miss the more forcefully “conscious pariah” school of queer theory that I cut my teeth on in the 1990s.

That school argues that one should not say, “Relax, we are not a threat to society.” Rather, say “Hell yes, we are a threat to society, and we should be, because society is wrong.” One should not say, “We are just like you, quiet and monogamous and sweet and safe.” Instead say, “Our very existence is a challenge to a world which deserves to be challenged.”

From that point of view, having bourgeois monogamous married gay couples on sentimental sitcoms is the opposite of what one should be fighting for. That is tame, in every sense of the word.

OK, there’s some sheer rock ’n’ roll bravado in the queer theory stance, which is part of what appealed when I was young, but it's not only that. For there is good reason for cultural critique, is there not?

Which brings me back to the Twitter exchange which started this. The queer sensibility claims the word “queer” because it highlights outsider status. Not “normal”, which would require queer people to change to fit, to file off their rough edges. Which then takes us to seeing that queer cultural politics is not simply a different approach to advocacy for the rights of homosexuals. It represents a different set of allegiances, not defined simply by homosexuality.

I remember seeing a flyer for a queer San Francisco event years ago which said, “This event is not only for lesbians and gay men; it is for anyone queer. Not being gay doesn't mean you’re not queer. Being gay doesn’t mean you are queer. If you are, you know, so come join in.”

“Queer” claims a shared interest for all people whose relationship with sex and gender and sexuality is outside the “norms” offered by society. It includes not just lesbians and gay men but also trans people and intersexed people and sexually submissive men and butch straight women and polyamorous families and straight men who cross-dress and asexuals and countless other people who “don't fit” ... and who resist fitting. It’s an unlimited, open-ended category which defines itself in part by its refusal to police its own boundaries, which is why in my tweets I referenced heterosexual celebrities.

Which brings me to why I’m posting about this today. I started writing it yesterday, for Coming Out Day, and I’m lagging a little late.

The core idea of Coming Out Day is that visibility is important. People who can claim their gay and lesbian identity should because it helps make the world better for the people in circumstances where they cannot yet do it safely.

I’m heterosexual and hesitant to shoulder my way in to that, for all the familiar identity politics reasons. I offer my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters my applause if they are out and whatever help I can muster if they feel they cannot be.

But the principle of Coming Out Day is to serve the community through visibility. It says there’s a responsibility to be out if you can be. So while it would be irresponsible of me to “come out” as cis gendered and heterosexual, and the confessional personal narrative isn't really my thing on this blog, I’m thinking that it’s also irresponsible for me not to come out as a bit queer in the broad sense.

I’ve been living a polyamorous life since before the term “polyamory” was coined, and I’ve been living in a triad for almost a decade. I’m what Dr. Charlie Glickman charmingly calls a “dainty man”. When occasion calls for it I'm a BDSM service top. A sweetheart who identified herself as a lesbian once gave me a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues because it reminded her of me.

Yeah, I’m kinda queer. And here I am. So, as they say: get used to it.


John Beckett writing on his blog Under the Ancient Oaks at Patheos uses this post as a springboard to talk about Responding to a Dysfunctional Society.

I’m not a queer radical any more than I’m a celebrity-worshipping materialist. But given a choice — and I do have a choice — I’m playing for the queer radical team.

I finally tracked down Charlie Glickman's excellent meditation on this subject, Queer Is A Verb, plus instructive commentaries on the histories of the words “gay” and “queer”.

Shon Faye offers a propaganda video on similar themes.

Jenna Wortham writing at the New York Times ruminates in When Everyone Can Be Queer, Is Anyone? and Hugh Ryan at Slate replies by objecting Why Everyone Can’t Be Queer. I’m inclined to agree with Ryan, but your mileage may vary.


AuroraRose said...

Thank you so much for your eloquent words and brave openness. It gives me courage to try to come out as well

AuroraRose said...

Thank you so much for your eloquent words and brave openness. It gives me courage to try to come out as well

T. Thorn Coyle said...

I have to admit to having felt discomforted by the word queer coming to equal gay in recent years, because indeed the very reason I use the word queer to describe myself is that I do not fit into any tidy boxes.

This post also brings to mind a time around 12 years ago when I spoke to a college class in Chicago on Queer Spirituality. One of the young men wondered why I used the word queer. He and his friends would never use that word, he said. I had to explain why it was so important to me as a gender fluid person, as someone who was attracted to and had been in relationship with men, women, trans people etc etc etc. I wasn't gay. I wasn't lesbian. I was queer. He looked startled, but seemed to understand.

Cobb said...

I'm glad to see this. It's what I was saying back when there were loud politics involved.


Jonathan Korman said...

It's perhaps important for me to underline that I'm not saying that the conscious pariah stance is superior to the assimilationist stance. The fight for same-sex marriage is a worthy one. I think of the last monologue in Tony Kushner's Angels In America: "We will be citizens." If the state is to be involved in the marriage business, then let it do so with equity. Anything less is an insult.

But the assimilationist stance is not complete in itself.

Beth Adele Long said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. When I first spent time in the lesbian community, I was flummoxed because I'd expected my not-quite-articulated sense of being "queer" to find a home in the LGBT space. My first clue that this was absolutely not going to happen was when a transsexual informed me of the dangers of dating bisexual women. It took many years before I was able to reclaim my queer identity in any useful way.

Beth Adele Long said...

(Wow. Just reliving that experience revoked 12 years of learning. I meant "a transgender woman warned me...")

Also, thank you for clarifying the assimilationist view. I consider myself trangressive but understand, respect, and support those who identify as "normal."

Lasara said...

“This event is not only for lesbians and gay men; it is for anyone queer. Not being gay doesn't mean you're not queer. Being gay doesn't mean you are queer. If you are, you know, so come join in.”


All day long I was pondering the "coming out" post, and out of fatigue with the state of things - shattering after shattering of collective voice, and some heartbreak rooted in the need to self-segregate, I found myself too tired to declare myself.

I have identified as queer since my late teens. Two hetero marriages, two term pregnancies, two teenaged daughters, and two decades later...I'm still here.

Yes. Get used to it.

Thanks, Mr. Korman.

P.S. Day before yesterday I told Ror she should friend you. We were tlaking about men and feminism. I told her you are literally the only man I have even witnessed being an impeccable feminist.


Jonathan Korman said...


Sheila said...

I couldn't agree with you more, as an extremely Queer person. You have been able to articulate this concept for me, which previously existed as a load of jumbled up words and feelings. I myself have been saying that I was "half gay," because it never felt quite right to just say I was merely bisexual. To say that merely implied it was all just about sexual attraction, rather than identity and personality. Right on, brotha.

Polarity Lineage said...

awesome JK thank you !

Anonymous said...

Wow, a straight white dude insisting he's "queer" and down with the cause while also making sure we all know he's straight... How unbelievably transgressive and so very HELPFUL of you. You're just so...so...brave.