Kevin Camp

Queer Activism: When We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

I shared this column with a non-Quaker audience earlier in the week. Now I'd like to lay it before you and see how you feel about what I've written. Though my criticisms are sharp, they are not intended to be deliberately hurtful. Here I've described cultural aspects which beg for revision.


A year and a half ago, I attended a three-day long conference for queer Quakers. The name of the festivities was a typically awkward acronym, one that made sure to use L, G, B, T, I, and Q in sequential order. As much as I appreciated the gesture and with it a desire to be radically inclusive, it was my opinion that the sheer length of the umbrella term was getting ridiculous. When I questioned it openly, many people nodded their agreement, but just as many opposed me. The issue remains unresolved.

Queer theorist Jack Halberstam writes a recent column on this subject and others. He titles the work “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger an... Unlike George Will’s hurtful and clueless dismissal of trigger warnings and rape, written earlier this summer, Halberstam actually has several interesting key points to add to the discussion. Will writes out of ignorance, Halberstam writes out of personal experience and insight.

Early on in his essay, he states some substantial problems within many queer groups.

Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

Debates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room.

I experienced this flummoxing conundrum as well, wondering if I was caught in a time warp or an alternate universe. A well-meaning, kind, older black woman had been hired to gingerly take charge of the anti-racism and anti-oppression programming for the event. A good number of us were of a generation later than hers. The woman’s approach, which at times resembled finding the best way not to detonate a hand grenade, was only one aspect of the dysfunction.

I found it was depressingly easy to observe how the same flawed standards and counter-productive attitudes were adopted eagerly by young adults. One woman with a chronic illness made a point of putting her arm in a self-made splint for all to see. It reminded me of how Jesus criticized the way that the Pharisees said their prayers loudly in the streets, a gesture done only for show. They placed rules on top of rules, those that were deeply unnecessary and not for anyone's benefit but their own.  

People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

This describes the LGBT conferences I’ve attended with pinpoint accuracy. Though I met lots of interesting and friendly people, these sorts of behaviors are the reason I have no desire to ever return. What I saw displayed is the opposite side of victimhood, the narcissistic nightmare of pity. I’ve never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me and I’ve never demanded it of anyone else.

Though for three months one long summer I was kicked out of my house due to a confluence of bisexuality and homophobic parents, this is a detail I feel no desire to share with every passing stranger. I am not ashamed of it, but I question why I should always need to call it out into the open.

One particular activity asked us to define ourselves as either Caucasian or a Person of Color. We were to form a great continuum stretching from one end of the room to the other. In the act of separating out our own identities, someone decided that Jews should be categorized separately from white people. To him or her, being Jewish lent itself to inherently less white privilege than ordinary white people like me. In my opinion, Jews pass as white very easily, and are usually seen as Caucasian in a way that no black person (aside from someone very light-skinned) ever can be. That was Malcolm X's view, at least.

Furthermore, I’m not sure if opening the opportunity to rank oppressions is to anyone’s benefit. It caters too easily to baser prejudices and leaves little room for more noble sentiments.

Halberstam continues, with no small controversy,

The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work.

A piece at a performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities.

And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

Part of me understands that transgender men and women might see the word “tranny” as offensive. But in our rush to judgment, we forget that individual expression must be equally weighted to group preference. Neither of us could rightly define any other Quaker by defining for themselves what they believe.

If the LGBT community has reclaimed terms once thought to be very hurtful, why should we stop at "queer" or "dyke"? In the foreseeable future, could the same standard be applied to terms like "tranny" or "fag"? One answer might be that it's only a matter of time. "Queer" works well for everyone and is a term I assign to myself more readily than LGBTIQ or whatever it will be next year. And this leads to an overdue argument about Freedom of Speech rights.

And on the subject of "tranny", as much as I recognize the severe stigma assigned to it, we live in a country supposedly predicated on the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is important and I grit my teeth and tolerate hateful attitudes as long as mine are given the same weight. Arguments advocating for a greater good, by which everyone ought to adhere, have their place but must be considered more delicately.

I will say this, LGBTs know how to pitch effective boycotts. I count no fewer than five products and companies I personally avoid buying because of their stance against same-sex marriage. 19th Century Quakers boycotted the products of slave labor, and in this regard I am no different. Even so, this is a very personal choice on my part and one I would not force anyone to take on against their will.

LGBTs have enough genuine problems to deal with due to centuries of persecution, persecutions that are blessedly growing fewer and far between.  I don’t understand why we wish to invent oppressions or have a compelling need for an excess of positive gratification from the world. I often cite a quote by the poet T.S. Eliot. "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used.

These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.”

Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place!

I see the worth and the intent of conferences and gatherings like these, but a culture based upon attention-getting devices and extremely self-centered drama is the worst antidote imaginable. I wouldn’t begin to know how to make things saner and enjoyable. We may need to re-invent our own safe spaces, pushing away old ways that can’t be changed and couldn’t be modified in the first place.

Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become.

Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns.

Hence the reason LGBTIQ etcetera always strikes me as obsessive. I’ve always had such mixed feelings about being queer that I rarely feel any reason to hold fast to my sexual orientation or even my disabilities as some strange badge of honor. By contrast, many folks have devoted lots of head space to that very concern, which is where the internal wars that become distractions are allowed to germinate. Once, this was a liability, and now it is almost a privilege.

I don’t have a lot of patience for hair-splitting and pity parties, and I don’t understand why we allow them to take over when we face a new chapter and frankly, exciting era in LGBT activism. We have benefited from roughly fifty years’ worth of activism and hard work, but we live in a very different time, one now our own. We have great promise ahead of us.

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