Queer is an Anglo word. Often, an Anglo-American word. One can in a rough gesture of free trade export a Canadian passion for hyphenation to arrive at Hispano- queer or Gaelic-queer. Hybridize or subdivide. Queer remains anglo at root.
From linguistic fact let us move to its implications. The resistance of "queer" to translation certainly can be read as a mighty arm against assimilation. However the very mention of assimilation raises the suspicion that "queer" taken with a seige mentality background is a lexical tool both blind and blunt. Its users and its auditors exist in ambivalent relation to assimilation, passing, closetry, accommodation, collaboration. Lumped together or not, these conditions are judged by the superhuman ideal of continuous confrontation with the status quo everywhere and always. Dogmatic deployments of "queer" especially in nationalist guise conceal what has been vital to the individual survival of sexual and gender heretics: our fear, our desire for self- preservation.
Because queer stigmata, the signs of triumph, are not displayed everywhere and always, they cannot quell the great fear that I am alone, alone in the camp of the enemy, that I will be found out as a traitor to the dominant gender order and my existence will be obliterated. It is a fear we grow up with regardless of our sexual orientation and it never quite goes away.
If the anglo roots of queer send up the shoots of an unselfreflexive attitude towards assimilation, in an American context their fruition is an intense focus on treason, betrayal and disappointment, perhaps equally unselfreflexive. Coming on the heels of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Queer Nation reacted against two particularly frustrating moments in the ongoing campaign to ensure social justice in health care. One, the participation of more "closeted" elements coming out to build service-oriented organisations. Another, the homophobic equation: gay = clone = virus carrier = death. It is no accident that many newly anti-assimilationist queers resituate gay clones as non-blatant and hence semi-closeted. Queer in such a context is deeply reactionary. It denies a rich past and denies the validity of struggle with and alongside people not negotiating daily experience of the dominant culture in the same way.
That some beleaguered persons may tend to affirm themselves by devaluing diversity in forms of struggle has no connection with anglo roots. Yet there is a link between the strength of vanguard concerns over purity and the lack or presence of a state ideology of multiculturalism. When queer seeks to rise to hegemony in a melting pot, it runs the risk of seeing its cutting edge position caught up in a rhetoric uncritically equating newness with revolution when the new may be just a spin of the fashion system. With all the erasure of history it implies, the melting pot allows one to be born again. Allelujah. Such is the paradigm of a queer nation. Amen.
Terribly quaint and vieux jeu to paint the would-be revolutionary as tainted by oppressive thought patterns. And terribly dangerous. Such depictions can legitimate our enemies' divide-and-conquer methods. Remember the migration of politically correct? From in-movement joke about rigid orthodoxy, it has become a big bat with which to bash the movement itself.
Queer promotions, minus nationalism, such as Buddies in Bad Times's annual Queer Culture festival established before the advent of Q-nationals, attempt to subvert hetero-orthodoxy but do they really challenge its allure? Yes, only if they recognize that traitors to one pole of gender thereby do not automatically become allies of the other. Gary Ostrom in a November 1977 cartoon appearing in The Body Politic captured the dilemma with the image of a clone imagining "It's no fun being a lesbian separatist trapped in a faggot's body." Crises of authenticity abound as we continue to provoke more gender malaise. Let us remember we ourselves are not immune. Tensions inherent in the phrase "lesbian and gay", intrinsic to men and women working together, will not be unknown to queer spaces and projects.
Does a queer theoretical project imply gender bender hegemony? Cast as coalition work between lesbians and gay men, bi men and women, transsexuals, asexuals, queer theory making repeatedly confronts the issue of gender. Stances range from abolishing all gender distinctions to restructuring the current bipolar gender order. None uphold the status quo yet one's current location within it impinges upon the desirability of radical change and vision of its possibility.
Staging queer theory making as a species of separatism, salvaging positive aspects from the queer nation experience, inscribing queer culture as insurrection against hetero-domination, some of us come together to make a clearing in the world, steal space so that we may gather. Not sanctuary or safe space. Necessary work space.
Here one can learn from one tradition of separatism queers possess: lesbian-feminist separatism. Sounds ironic coming from a gay man but listen to Charlotte Bunch on its necessity: "lesbian-feminist separation will no doubt continue in some forms as long as there is heterosexual domination." ( 441-442). And what kind of work it thereby facilitated:
Separatism is a dynamic strategy to be moved in and out of whenever a minority feels that its interests are being overlooked by the majority, or that its insights need more space to be developed. (our emphasis) (441)Intellectual work, the development of insights, requires a caucus of peers. What constitutes a queer peer?
Endurance. Intellectual work that lasts requires teaching, research and cultural conservation (archives and libraries). All these educative functions, movement activists have subsumed under the rubric "skill- sharing". Separatism is a particular instance of skill- sharing. Skill-sharing, separatist or open, challenges minority analogies. It enacts recruitment. The proliferation of queers just might put to rest the one in ten claim. I bristle at its invocation because from Carl Wittman's 1970 manifesto, Refugees from Amerika (Amerika with a K), I absorbed the credo that gay liberation seeks to actualize the homo in everyone, that is the capacity to love someone of the same sex. It's an imperative consonant with Adrienne Rich's restatement a decade later of the woman-identified woman position in Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Contemporaneous with Rich's essay is Ken Popert's "Dangers of the Minority Game" where he concludes:
Looking at ourselves as a minority community has definite survival value. But it is a precarious shelter which can be demolished at any time, for it is easy to show that gays are not just another tile in the multicultural mosaic. And the analogy can blind us to our own realities. But it cannot cancel them out. The historical forces which find their expression in us cannot be denied. However much we struggle to fit into the world as it is, we must fail, for we do not fit. But in our struggle we will reshape the world, so that it will fit us. (Flaunting It, 139)
The whole mosaic is ours. From this perspective, queer peers must display along with the quality of endurance, a stamina for skill acquisition. A lust for cross- border learning sprees, excursions risked without guidebook or tourist lexicon, will characterize queer theory making projects.
On the risk taker team, I want a place for translators. They are specialists yet in their person and in their work they incarnate three forms of the intellectual: as researcher, as teacher and as preserver/promoter. They are researchers hunting down the exact equivalent expression to uncover the semantic nuances of the original, they teach in that they impart knowledge and in that by example invite the testing of the limits of skill and they are conservators dealing in cultural and critical artifacts.
No. Despite the unabashed relish I take in describing the intellectual and cultural workers of the risk taker team, I am not proposing a paradigm of queer theory maker as translator in the tradition of two-spirited ones moving between worlds. The queer theory maker is an embodied intellectual, a worker, a shaper both shaped and shaping. Conceived in such a dialectical fashion the person of the translator can navigate uncertainties and chart a course for the unsaid to become sayable.
The unsaid is often obvious and commonplace. It is between the lines. It is where translators travel. Watch. The rendering into French of "coming out" a key concept of gay liberation, poses a challenge. "Faire une sortie" conveys either an outing conducted on a day pass from domestic duty or a covert military expedition. The addition of the reflexive "se" comes from understanding that coming out is what one does for oneself. However "se faire une sortie" roughly retranslated as "to blaze an exit" does not conjure a debutante ball and the magical metamorphosis of being presented to society upon growing up and coming into one's own, an image which I am sure is there in coming out as a rite of passage. "S'éclore" - "to blossom" is sure flowery and suited for pansies but it also means "to hatch" and I leave you to brood upon how that wipes out the intensely singular, unique and particular dimensions of coming out as a social act despite the expression "poulailler" - "chicken coop" used to refer to a gaggle of gays.
Though they explore the territory, between-the-lines is not where translators lodge. Like the proverbial chickens come home to roost, they do settle on choices. The complexity of "coming out" demands two verbs used in tandem with alternating precedence: "s'affranchir et s'afficher" - "to free oneself and to show oneself". What this formulation discloses is a truism clear to the original coiners of the "politically correct" tag. "S'afficher and s'affranchir" can be woefully out of sync. Liberation is not a matter of show and tell but neither is it unconnected with its pleasures. The tension between deed and word has informed many a strategy discussion turning upon whether it is better to seek freedom from exhibition and the ravages of exposure or liberty to exhibit and the joys of flaunting it.
Constant recognition of that tension between word and deed forestalls the guilt trip. Such recognition might not enhance seduction or ameliorate recruitment rates. But it will, in the jargon of pedagogues and administrators, improve retention. People who are free to go often end up staying or returning. Should queer theory choose to strive to be unforgettable then the desire to be free to make the choices must extend to those choices that lead one to participoate in a movement for social change or bind one to extend the possibilities of self-determination, that lead one to join a movement.
And so with this warning about guilt tripping, I return to my own opening --- the anglo roots of queer. "Queer" is a reappropriated term. One cannot quite make the argument that "anglo" too is a reappropriated term. However, its first recorded instance as a noun dates back nearly two hundred years ago to a geographical site then called Upper Canada. Is it a wonder one of its chief cities would come to appropriate from the Huron a name meaning "meeting place" --- Toronto?
Toronto --- it is the gateway into Huronia that Étienne
Brűlé, the first white man to see the Great Lakes,
would take again and again on the path of his own
personal transformation. It has been said of him
"Malleable and uninhibited, he accepted the native
culture and let slip his French traditions, values, and
even religion. Like many another after his time, he
became more Indian than French."(1)Like La Malinche, figure of a
different frontera or borderland(2), the
courreur des bois has always been the icon of a lurking
treachery to the race and to religion. Now it is time
for the figure to enter a queer imaginary space, for
the bush lover to include the unnamed passing women who
don buckskin leggings, time for the figure of the
"truchement" or interpreter to force, as always, a
reinterpretation of the meaning of traitor, of queer,
meanings that the translator can only betray between
the lines but the interpreter offers for trade in the
moves of body language, in moves, hybridized, divided,
and rooted, like millennial lichen spreading rootless
but relentless over the resistive shield of glacier-
exposed bedrock meaning communicating the
untranslatable of bodies in motion corps à
Morris Bishop, White Men Came to the St. Lawrence: The French and the Land they Found, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961), 51. Intext
See Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands: the new mestiza = La Frontera, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987). Intext
Charlotte Bunch, "Learning from Lesbian Separatism" in Lavender Culture, Karla Jay and Allen Young, eds. New York: Jove/HBJ, 1979. 433-451. Intext