Complicit: Thoughts in the Wake of a Massacre

A few weeks ago, I was half way through an article about how Brock Turner, the Stanford Rapist, would likely only serve 3 months of his criminally short 6-month sentence. I moved my thumb from the smudged screen of my unfashionably small iPhone, and I stopped. I stopped subjecting myself to the hurt and horror of the USA Criminal Justice System’s misogyny. I stopped engaging with the unpoliced victim/survivor blaming in both mainstream and social media. I stopped anxiously reading about the competition at home between two old white men as to who can concede fewer rights to women and queer people. I realised that every story about someone in power putting money before vulnerable lives or leveraging fear of social change to maintain their power, that every time a journalist misgendered someone, found a way to justify violence against women or the limited rights of queer folks was reminding me that this society is one in which many would prefer that I didn’t exist. Having to face the queerphobia of my society and my lawmakers each and everyday was, as happens occasionally, wearing me down, shoving my head back below water every time I summoned the strength to rise up for a gasp of air. So I avoided the news for a little while, retreating into the world of my own making, with my queer chosen family.

And then Orlando happened.

A man with a military grade weapon walked into a gay nightclub’s Latinx night and murdered 49 people.

On the other side of the world I was ensconced in a bright, loud, delightfully queer party. I kissed my girlfriend and laughed with old and new friends. I danced like a fool and drank cold cider from the can. It wasn’t perfect; masc white men took up more space than they needed to and the bathrooms were needlessly gendered. But I was myself in a space that actively encouraged it, a rare and precious thing. When my partner and I left the party we were tired and happy and cold, the midnight winter wind giving us all the more reason to hold each other close.

Then she checked her phone. ‘Mass Shooting at Orlando Gay Nightclub’.

Shit.

When I read the headline, all I could really comprehend was exhaustion. Sadness, vulnerability, horror and rage, these would come a few hours later on the train home, with tears clouding my vision as I read the latest update on the massacre. But in that moment of initial realisation, I felt the sort of tiredness that seeps into the bones. I was preemptively exhausted by the inevitable racism and Islamaphobia that the media and politicians would draw out from this, at the predictable erasure of the ethnicities, genders, and sexualities of the victims and survivors. I felt already sick of what I was certain would be a Facebook feed full of misery porn, of non-queer folks sending ‘thoughts and prayers’.

I had assumed that people would make the Pulse nightclub massacre about gun control, mental illness and ‘Radical Islam’, erasing the meaningful and devastating reality that this happened at a Latinx themed night at a queer club with trans headliners. Of course, it would be reductive to deny that the issue of gun control, among others, is relevant here. However, there are many people, from Malcolm Turnbull to an acquaintance on Facebook, who appear unprepared to concede that this was a hate crime, that the roots of the Orlando massacre lay in racism, homophobia and transphobia, as much as they lay in the US’s gun laws.

This sort of straight-washing and white-washing is pretty standard. However the tenacity with which some refuse to admit the role of ethnic, sexual and gendered prejudice in the shootings, barely a day after they occurred, caught me off guard. Why can’t (straight) people just let us have our grief? Why would anyone push their point against someone who was simply trying to make visible the fact that this was a hate crime against queer people of colour?

Yet all over my social media feeds, and those of most people I know were long comment threads in which one or two people responded to a queer person’s expression of grief by reframing the massacre as being about “all of us, as people”. I have seen people deny the significance of the victims and survivors Latinx and queer identities as less important than the fact that “it could have been any of us” and that “none of us are safe” when anyone can access guns.

This sort of ‘me-too-ism’ is typical of privileged groups in the wake of crises that do not primarily affect them. It seems to me that this occurs most often when members of a majority group are somehow implicated in the perpetration of a tragedy. I wonder if the Facebook commenters, media outlets and elected members of parliament who try to erase the specificity of this and other hate crimes do so in an attempt to simultaneously erase the reality that they have something in common with a murderer. Because they do. We do.

My own white and cis privileges and the everyday, unintentional racism and cisnormativity that I perpetuate, even as I learn how not to, are responsible for making groups who are not white and/or cis, targets of violence and discrimination. Everyone who continually expresses – or fails to stand up to – homophobic opinions and transphobic microaggressions, who accepts the disintegration of programs like Safe Schools, who can’t be bothered learning their colleague’s new pronouns, who hands out flyers saying that same-sex couples are bad parents, or who makes a “harmless” f*g or tr*nny “joke” is implicated in making non-heteronormative and non-white minorities accessible and acceptable victims of violence. The more we fail to actively oppose queerphobia and racism, the deeper our complicity with the murder of 49 innocent people grows.

And that is fucking uncomfortable. So much so that some would rather perpetuate the very white-washing and queer erasure that enabled the massacre, rather than bear witness to the grief of those affected. These are difficult, ugly things to confront within ourselves and those we love. It is work that will be neither fast nor straightforward. But it is important that we try.

I think that’s what I’m trying to do here, by writing this piece. Like the many, many think pieces that flooded my social media feeds in the hours and days following the Pulse massacre, I do not have anything particularly original to offer in response to this tragedy. However, when we say these things aloud, that queer communities are brave and hopeful in the face of violence and erasure, that queer Muslims face a double burden of islamophobia and homophobia, and that our inaction in the face of racism, homophobia and transphobia makes us complicit in the murder of 49 people, what we are doing is trying. We are making an effort to actively oppose the Whiteness and heteronormativity of the media, of the political system and within ourselves. We are trying to change the social conditions that enabled queer Latinx people to be murdered, and that is all that we can ask of each other right now.

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Queer Allyship and Other Workplace Taboos

I want to say that for those of us with privilege, doing extra work is what allyship is all about.

I want to say that to those of us who have lived with invisible advantages our whole lives, equality often feels like discrimination.

I want to call up the strength gifted to me by the words of Audre Lorde, which I have read only a few hours ago: “your silence will not protect you”.

But I am sitting in a work meeting. And it is to my boss that I want to say these things.

For me, activism had always been a collective endeavour. I would raise my voice with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of like-minded others against injustice. We would march down George St. or Oxford St., we would meet in the University’s Queer space, or even in my High School’s chapel. Never before had I been a lone voice advocating for my own rights and the rights of others.

And this is undoubtedly a reflection of my privilege.

Sure I’ve had long discussions with friends, family members, even colleagues about why asylum seekers are not ‘illegals’ or why it is important to respect other people’s non-binary pronouns. And yes these discussions are a type of activism. I choose to engage in them in the hopes of influencing the hearts and minds of people around me. But unlike many of my friends and partners, I have never had to engage in activism by virtue of being who I am.

I have come to see it as my responsibility, as someone who walks around every day with the invisible benefits of cis, white, middle-class privilege, to use my relatively empowered position to work towards change

I have never had to be the one to test my workplace’s anti-discrimination policy by wearing a dress to work, having presented as male prior to that. I have never had to force my school administration and peers to accept gender-neutral bathrooms, because if they didn’t I’d have nowhere to pee. I’ve never had to be the person making material change happen because my life depended on it.

I cannot help but view these acts of survival as indicative of a failing on the part of our broader community, queer and non-queer alike. Most of us believe in equity among all genders and human rights for non-heterosexual folks. Indeed, some of us are gender and/or sexually diverse. Yet it is often our failure to speak to the most marginalised in our communities, to understand their needs and to work with and for them, that results in the most oppressed people being forced to do the hardest work in the pursuit of change.

I have come to see it as my responsibility, as someone who walks around every day with the invisible benefits of cis, white, middle-class privilege, to use my relatively empowered position to work towards change. After all, as Audre Lorde reminds us; “unused privilege becomes a weapon in the hands of our enemies”(1)

So, when I was recently given the opportunity to give feedback to my employer about my workplace, I spoke up. I told my boss that I’d like to devise a strategy for making the place more queer friendly. And the first thing on my agenda? Gender neutral bathrooms.

Unisex bathrooms are a pretty hot-button topic in the United States right now, but it has been an issue for most non-cis folks their whole lives. I only became aware of the possibility of unisex bathrooms once I stepped out of my all girls catholic high school. The problematics of gendered bathrooms became even more apparent to me a few years ago when I found myself speed walking across the University of Sydney. I was with a genderqueer friend and we were rushing to the one and only unisex bathroom on campus. Thus slowly dawned my awareness of my own cis privilege.

my suggestion that they be labelled “this bathroom has been liberated from the gender binary” was ignored

Fortunately, my boss is relatively receptive to the idea of changing the signs on the bathrooms from gendered ones to those that simply say ‘bathroom’ (my suggestion that they be labelled “this bathroom has been liberated from the gender binary” was ignored). The sticking point seemed to come at the prospect of extra work for me and my colleagues (and him) in the form of reactions to the change or the effort of having to announce it.

Rather than respond as I would have in a collective activist situation, with perspectives on privilege and allyship, I quietly agreed that I understood his concern. Given that I am on no formal contract and therefore have – as far as I know – almost no legal rights in this workplace, I don’t regret the way that I responded. But I don’t feel good about it either.

The Marxist analysis almost writes itself: workers must bend to owner-class ideology because their livelihood depends on being able to sell their labour to those who own the means of production. And while it should be stated that I am no political economist, this way of seeing things has its uses. Certainly, neoliberal capitalism depends on a rigid gender binary; it’s not only the basis upon which we are sold things but also the basis upon which the owners of land, businesses and intellectual property – who are, coincidentally, often white, cis, straight men – maintain their socioeconomic power. However, in this framing, it is me, the worker, who is the one being oppressed and marginalised. In this perspective, my gendered privilege, as a cis woman, is erased(2).

I do not believe that my boss was hesitant to go to extra trouble to accommodate non-cisgender folks because he is a man who oversees only female employees. However, I do believe that a gendered lens illuminates this situation. Everyone in my workplace is, as far as I know, cisgender. We all feel that the genders assigned to us at birth based on our genitals align with the way that we feel about our genders in our own minds and hearts and bodies. In a way, it makes sense that my boss baulked at the idea of extra work.

Why would you do extra work to make a place more comfortable for folks whose ways of being gendered are so far from your own experience?

How can you access empathy for a concept totally foreign to your own life?

For me, the answer to these questions lies in the idea of allyship. That means taking the initiative and responsibility to learn about lives beyond our own. It means learning when to step back and let people with lived experience of oppression speak over and above us. It means using our own privilege for good.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve convinced my boss to change the bathrooms at work to gender neutral ones. I have agreed to field any and all complaints, questions and challenges. This will be extra work for me that will not be easy, just like summoning the courage to ask for change was not easy. However, if activism is difficult for me, how much of a challenge must it be for those who do not have the privileges that I have? If they can make change happen against all odds, and indeed marginalised groups are often the only people who do effect change, surely my small effort is not so hard after all?

(1)Quoted on pg. 90 of Coyote, I.E and Sharman, Z. 2011‘Persistance: All Ways Butch and Femme’ (A book for which I could not find an online copy)

(2)It is entirely possible that there is a Marxist analysis which accounts for cis privilege, however, I am not across it (please see above re “I am no political economist”)

 

The Gay (A)gender: On Labelling Sexuality

“Are you a Lesbian?”

It is close to midnight at the height of summer and the air is still heavy with the day’s heat. I am waiting for a train home when he approaches me, all dark eyes and full lips. For about sixty seconds I think I am about to have a conversation with an attractive stranger. Then he asks me if I am a Lesbian.  Why do you want to know? Why should I have to tell you? What makes you think I am gay? At least you don’t think I’m straight. Fuck your assumptions, you aren’t entitled to box up and label my sexuality! Why is that the first thing you want to know anyway? Responses simmer away in my mind. Yet the thought that bubbles to the surface is the truth universally acknowledged that a lone woman can never provoke or challenge a man in public for fear of violent retribution. So I ask nicely.

“Why do you ask?”

His answer is all the kinds of unsatisfying you’d expect. He’s not homophobic, he didn’t mean any offence, it’s ok if I am, I shouldn’t look at him like that because he’s a good guy. Soon my partner – coincidentally the female one – arrives, granting me an excuse to extricate myself from this increasingly uncomfortable conversation.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that this stranger was so eager to box me up and label me. After all, it seems that in our current cultural climate this is the way that we simplify the world for ourselves. His question to me is perhaps symptomatic of a wider desire to categorise everything around us, a desire that is most certainly motivated by our society’s obsession with defining who is the same and who is different to us. I once witnessed a man in the bank line ask the woman in front of him where she was from and when she replied “Ryde” asked, “But where are from, originally”. This elicited his apparently desired answer of “India”, satisfying him despite his conversation partners’ obvious discomfort. Surely this instance is not so different from my experience?

Unless someone is wearing an ‘I AM A LESBIAN’ T-shirt it is impossible to tell someone’s self-identified sexuality or the gender(s) of their sexual and or romantic partners

However, when it comes to labelling someone else’s sexuality, there are different layers of complexity. Unlike skin colour or religious dress, which can sometimes indicate ethnicity, faith and even nationality, sexuality has no outward markers. Unless someone is wearing an ‘I AM A LESBIAN’ T-shirt it is impossible to tell someone’s self-identified sexuality or the gender(s) of their sexual and or romantic partners.

Gender, on the other hand, can have an outward expression. And it is gender expression which is often used as the basis of labelling sexuality. I use the phrase ‘gender expression’ to refer to the way that I outwardly perform my femininity (femininity or femaleness being the gender identity that I feel most accords with how I understand myself) through my choice of clothing, the way I speak and the way that I move my body, among other things. Of course, many of these actions are habitual and automatic, inherited from being raised as a girl in a society where the media, capitalist institutions, education system and laws have a very narrow idea of what it is to be an acceptable female. Conversely, because I am very conscious of the socially created nature of gender, I enjoy deliberately re-working the meanings of things like red lipstick, floral dresses and hairy armpits to express my queer femininity.

Gender expression can convey many aspects of ourselves; our religion, ethnicity, politics, taste in music, profession, and sometimes even our sexuality. Given this, as well as the inherent role that heterosexuality plays in social understandings of ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ masculinity and femininity, it stands to reason that gender and sexuality are so often confused and conflated. After all, for many people – especially those who only experience attraction to one gender – their sexual identity is predicated on the gender of their object choice. This often then feeds back into their understanding of their own gender, as the same or the opposite of that which they desire. It could be argued that this is why feminine boys and masculine girls are so often labelled ‘gay’ (or more accurately called f*g and dyke, usually with the intent of invoking shame and embarrassment).

The increasing oversimplification of the difference between gender and sexuality has serious limitations

Many gay and lesbian advocacy groups have spent the last few decades working to show that being gay is very different from gender nonconformity, arguing that it is problematic to label someone’s sexuality based on their gender expression. The claim that same-sex attracted people can be gender normative is produced by, and is productive of, the idea that sexuality and gender are separate things, with the former relating to the gender that a person is attracted to and the latter being a social expression of genital sex. This is a very basic distinction that lacks many perspectives, including those of trans and non-western folks. However, it is a useful way to introduce people to ideas beyond those inherited from our heteronormative social and government institutions. However, the increasing oversimplification of the difference between gender and sexuality has serious limitations.

I am by far not the first to suggest that homophobia is rooted in misogyny. In the schoolyard, boys use the word f*g, not to bully someone that is same-sex attracted, but to police femininity in other boys. Indeed, even within non-heterosexual social and community groups, women and men who express femininity are often maligned and marginalised. Amongst gay men, this can be seen in the phenomena of tinder and grinder profiles seeking ‘straight acting’ men and clearly specifying ‘no fems’. Similarly, masculinity seems to be privileged as a site of resistance and lesbian identity. When we label these as issues related to sexuality, we miss the important role that gender plays. 

Gender is often central to issues around sexuality and to sexual identity. To oversimplify the separation between gender and sexuality is equally as problematic as conflating the two. I suspect that the stranger at the train station saw my shaved head and unshaved legs, not as expressions of gender nonconformity, but of sexual non-conformity. Maybe he sought to categorise me as ‘other’ in order to make sense of or become comfortable with my lack of normativity? But when we are overeager to label those around us, based on oversimplified ideas of gender and sexuality, we miss things. Be it the role of misogyny in homophobia, or perhaps even more devastatingly, the opportunity to get to know someone as a person.

Que(e)rying Power: Safe Schools and the Comforts of Conservatism

It is rare, these days, for me to expend energy getting passionate about the regular injustices that politicians perpetrate against non-heterosexual, non-cisgender folks. Impotent rage is neither effective nor satisfying. However the government’s decision yesterday to launch an inquiry into the Safe Schools Coalition was, shall we say, the straw that broke this queer’s back. There have been many excellent pieces written by LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual Plus) folk about the importance of the work that Safe Schools does.

This is not one of those pieces.

This is a piece fuelled by anger, by exasperation and exhaustion at the way that those with power keep their power through maintaining the status quo.

“It’s not about gender, it’s not about sexuality…It makes everyone fall into line with a political agenda…Our schools should be places of learning, not indoctrination.

Cory Bernardi’s words are always easy to critique. At times his remarks are so inflammatory that one wonders if the LNP press machine isn’t directing him in order to make Turnbull look moderate by comparison. The hypocrisy of his comments almost makes them seem like parody. As if our society’s ingrained homophobia, transphobia, our rigid and binary gender roles are natural. As if the attempted suicide rate for young LGBTQIA+ folks being 14 times higher than their peers , is in some way normal and apolitical. Bernardi and so many like him seem to be saying that this state of death and discrimination is not the product of an agenda. In doing so he downplays the role of religion, media and capitalism – all of whom profit monetarily and socially from a heterosexual, gender binary status quo – in the production of this ‘normal’.

Ideas about heterosexuality and binary gender are constantly and subtly forced on us day in and day out. These ideas are together often referred to as heteronormativity and they are EVERYWHERE. Movies and TV shows overwhelmingly show cis, gender binary characters in monogamous, heterosexual relationships. Young girls’ clothes are delicate and easy to get dirty while young boys are dark coloured and more practical. Advertisers so rarely feature same-sex couples that when they do it is news. Movies about trans people use cis actors, because Hollywood can’t seem to find a trans person that looks like what their idea of a trans person should look like. If this total saturation of heteronormativity isn’t indoctrination, I don’t know what is.

But of course Bernardi’s concerns reflect typical liberal conservative ideology: conserve the way that things are now because they are right and good, normal and natural. We know this because the way things are benefits ‘us’ – and who gives a fuck if it doesn’t benefit ‘them’? After all, ‘they’ have the same life chances as ‘us’, any little boy or girl can grow up to be Prime Minister, just work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we have so much formal equality! Look at the Anti Discrimination Act! Sure you are only given legal protections from transphobia if you’ve had genital surgery, but who wouldn’t want that? Never mind that it is prohibitively expensive, anyone can make money and have job security if they just work hard enough – pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

“(homophobia) should be no more tolerated than racism, especially in the school environment…However, it is essential that all material is age appropriate and that parents have confidence in any resources used in a school to support the right of all students, staff and families to feel safe at school

The Education Minister Simon Birmingham takes a slightly less sensationalist approach than Bernardi and should be congratulated on his dressed up “I’m not homophobic, BUT”. The idea that discussions of sexuality and gender outside of the norm is somehow inappropriate for young people is both laughable and damaging. Why is it that we deem some subjects taboo? Why are we uncomfortable with discussing these things when every other aspect of young people’s lives, from the pictures in their science text books to the billboards they pass on the way to school are saturated with heterosexuality and binary gender roles?

While Birmingham certainly can not be faulted in supporting all students’ and staffs’ right to feel safe at school, what he actually infers is that the majority of families, students and staff should feel comfortable at school. Which is an entirely different thing.

When we get too comfortable it is, in my opinion, a symptom of lapsed empathy. The majority of students, staff and families should not always be in their comfort zone at school. Because if this is the case, LGBTQIA+ members of the school community, any community really, are never comfortable. By gently challenging assumptions about what is a ‘normal’ gender identity or expression, about what is ‘natural’ sexuality, we cause discomfort. And that is good. Because from that discomfort, non-LGBTQIA+ folks can see what it is like for their queer peers. They can critically examine their assumptions and develop an outlook that doesn’t settle for blind acceptance of the norm.

The thing is, this would be disastrous for any political party, indeed any straight white cis man whose social power is dependant on the disempowerment of those who are different. Because when we begin questioning the status quo, suddenly the comfort of those in power, both politically and socially, comes under threat.

So who benefits from an inquiry into a program designed to make school safer and more comfortable for queer students? It is not only people like Cory Bernardi who would, it seems, like for their hatred of difference to be indulged. It is everyone who has naturalised privilege that many of us, queer and not, take for granted.

In order to achieve equality, those with the power that privilege grants them must give up some of these comforts. Which is perhaps why they would prefer to funnel money and time into an inquiry into Safe Schools rather than actually back up their claims that homophobia is unacceptable with action. In which case perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to keep asking questions. To keep querying the status quo, asking why something seems normal, why we view some things as natural, and perhaps most importantly: who benefits from this?

Doing what you are, and being what you do? Sex and the Medical Ga(y)ze

‘Are you just having heterosexual sex?’

‘I…uh…’

‘Because if you are just having heterosexual sex you only need to pee into the cup. If you’re gay – gay men – or bisexual or one of you is an IV drug user, well then we’ll have to take bloods as well.’

I have been rushed into a small office by a harried doctor who now looks at me imploringly. I doubt that she is curious about my answer so much as she hopes that I will give it soon, that she can send me away and see to the next poor soul stuck in waiting room purgatory. I’m here for an STI check and the thing is, I actually don’t know how to answer her.

For some years now, I have understood and presented myself as queer. For me, that means that I am outside of whatever is considered “normal” in terms of gender and sexuality. I am unconcerned with my sexual and/or romantic partners’ pronouns and plumbing, I am polyamorous, shave my head to a number three and wear almost exclusively floral dresses. Existing in this way in this world means that I often need to do a lot of explaining. Explaining my haircut to hairdressers (yes, I’m sure I want it that short), explaining one of my partners’ non-binary pronouns to my family, explaining to colleagues why my ex was a boy and my newest partner is a girl… and, so it would seem, explaining my sex life to medical professionals.

This doctor was not the first health practitioner with whom I’ve had to talk through my sexuality in the past few months. Late last year I was filling out a form before my monthly plasma donation. The Red Cross Blood Service asks donors: ‘Within the last 12 months have you: Had sex (with or without a condom) with a male who you think may have had oral or anal sex (with or without a condom) with another man?’. Usually I fly through this page of the questionnaire ticking no, no, no, no, no. However, I came to this question and had to pause.

We know that social mores around sex are useful ways of controlling people who are not cis, straight, white men.

I am definitely not having any sort of sex with anyone who is a man, nor was I at the time. But I had a hunch that the Red Cross didn’t mean ‘man’ as in someone’s self-identified gender. I think that what they meant, was ‘have you had penetrative sex with someone who was born with a penis, who you think may have had penetrative sex with someone who was also born with a penis.’  To that question, my answer was yes. One of my partners is a woman who was assigned male at birth, who I trust enough not to subject to an intense quiz about her sexual history and who therefore could have had partners with all sorts of genitals.

After telling the nurse who interviewed me this, he proceeded to misgender my partner and ask if she was a sex worker, “promiscuous” or “untrustworthy”. The nurse proceeded to tell me that I was unable to donate for twelve months based on ‘bisexual contact’, as a HIV risk.

Which brings me back to the doctor’s office. I never for a moment believed that I might have an STI – as I understand it, the science behind rejecting my plasma as a HIV risk is tenuous at best – but I was due for a check-up, what with having a new sexual partner and all. I explained to the doctor that while I most certainly was not having ‘heterosexual sex’ – even when I am fucking a man I do it as a queer woman – I am a person with a vagina having sex with a person who has a penis. When I told her that my sexual partner is a trans woman (for want of a better way of communicating it), the doctor immediately decided that I would need bloods taken too.

It is almost certain that there was an element of trans* discrimination behind my rejection from the blood bank and the doctor’s decision to test me for all  STIs. I think that there are underlying assumptions about the type of people trans* people, and trans women particularly, are – and that these assumptions are based on old fashioned ‘science’ that locates any disagreement with one’s gender as assigned at birth with a mental illness. Transphobia in the medical profession continues to be well written about by trans writers who are both more experienced and articulate than I (here and here are some good starting points).

However there was something else that troubled me about these adventures as a queer woman in the medical gaze. What underscored the Red Cross’s rejection on the basis of ‘bisexual contact’ and the doctor’s use of the term ‘heterosexual sex’ was that both parties were talking about sexual acts, with the language of sexual identities. I identify as neither heterosexual, nor as bisexual – although Julia Serano makes some good points as to why I maybe should – yet my sexual acts involve my vagina, other people’s penises and their vaginas (not to mention teeth, fingers, eyes, nipples, arms, legs, tongues…). However, there is a difference between sexual acts and sexual identities, just as there is a difference between genitals and genders.

We are not what we do. In any other area of life, this is pretty easily accepted. People who stargaze are not automatically classified as astronomers, weekend gardeners are not classified as botanists and if I ride a bike it is something that I have done, being a cyclist is not who I am.

Why is it any different when it comes to sex?

What is it about sex, sexual acts and sexual identities that render them outside of the ordinary? What is so special about sex?

These are important questions to pose and ponder, even if we already know the answers. And we do. Know the answers, that is. We know that sex sells, that sex is the most private and the most public part of our lives. We know that social mores around sex are useful ways of controlling people who are not cis, straight, white men. We know this because we live it everyday. Everyday we are queer in a world that finds it easier to conflate acts and identities than to think critically about what ‘good’, ‘normal’, ‘natural’ sex and sexuality actually means and how it came to be like this. 

After all, how hard is it for medical practitioners to say what they mean? And why don’t they?

Ease, tradition, colloquialism, these are not good enough answers. When health professionals, or anyone really, continues to use language that conflates sexual acts and sexual identities or perpetuates old fashioned ideas about genital/gender correlation, they condone, indeed they perpetuate, the erasure of queer folk within both the medical practice and broader society. And when we are invisible, so too are our rights, our needs, our desires and our stories.

Which is why I have told this story. It is neither a new nor a unique one, but I tell it as a refusal to be erased, to defy my invisibility as a queer woman in the medical gaze.