Acceptable Queer Identities

There has been interesting hype in the blogosphere and media world for a new documentary to air this summer on PBS, “OUT in America,” by director Andrew Goldberg. The documentary will explore LGBT history over the past 50 years.  While the documentary does not seem to be particularly groundbreaking as far as its subject – quite a few documentaries have been made about LGBT/queer history – it does seem to be different in a few ways. One of these ways is that it is being broadcast on a fairly mainstream network (ie. not Logo), which, though tending to be liberal, does not have a predominantly queer audience. As such, it is interesting how the documentary is being described right now in the cyber world and what that means. The blog/media hype also touches on Latin@ issues within the queer world. Speaking about the documentary, one blog says:

“From a gay rancher to a Latino rapper, Puerto Rico’s first openly gay and HIV positive political candidate to a Muslim lesbian, these individual tales of discovery are united in their collective truth.”               

It seems to me that the documentary wants to try and force people to rethink and broaden their notions of what is acceptable in the queer community, and I think that they do this with good intent. But when the film, or at least those writing about it, puts emphasis on certain more “unusual” queer subjects, those who a non-queer audience might be more surprised to find out are not in fact straight, how does that affect the queer person being highlighted? For example, in calling attention to a rapper who is Latin@ and also queer (oh my!), what is the documentary saying?  It seems to me that to a certain extent, they are assuming that their audience should be surprised with such a scenario. Likewise, is the film’s audience to be that surprised that a Muslim woman might also be a lesbian?

Perhaps in a broader context, this issue brings to light what it means to be acceptable as an “out” individual.  Fifty years ago, being out as queer would have been controversial for nearly anyone who came out. Being out in your professional life was almost unheard of.  A queer professor I had last semester at Wesleyan said that when he applied to be a professor here 40 years ago it was controversial for him to be Jewish, and being openly queer was completely out of the question. Obviously today, that has changed. It is common to find openly queer professors at a liberal arts university. Our notions of what it means to be a “normal” queer person have been modified, but there continues to be a more “surprising” type of queer person (such as the queer Latin@ rapper), certainly outside of the queer community but at times within it as well.

In the readings we have done so far, the authors seem to struggle with and at times to try and reform what it means to be “acceptably” queer. As they try to construct their identities as both Latin@ and queer, Anzaldúa and Rodriguez are aware of how their identities are or are not acceptable in mainstream queer culture and in mainstream heterosexual culture. They realize that there are certain “acceptable” queer identity formations, and as Latin@ and queer they seek to challenge our notions of what is acceptable and not surprising. If this film is attempting to show how far we have come in the past 50 years on our collective acceptance of the queer community, it also brings to light how far we have to go until this country is not surprised at the notion of a queer Latin@ rapper or a Muslim lesbian.



6 thoughts on “Acceptable Queer Identities

  1. I’ve also seen this “surprising queer” phenomena, in a magazine spread where they took pictures of a queer evangelical rapper, a transgendered model married to a straight guy etc. This sensationalization is problematic because it makes it seem as if there is only one way that a queer is suppoused to be, when in fact (as we have learned) there are many ways to identify as queer. Due to the many ways to identify as queer, there should be no surpises. I always wonder who dictates who an “acceptable queer” is. The media makes it seem as if your identification with a religious or minority group cannot compromise with queer identifications. The language in the first quote you utilized is interesting especially when it mentions “tales of discovery” as if they are going on an expedition throughout the world to find the “rare”. As a progressive generation we must seek to challenge those who say that there is only one pure dominant category as the legitimate and those who displace other groups as illegitimate or dont take different groups of people into account ie. white first wave feminists etc.

  2. This brings up an interesting point about criteria and who should and shouldn’t belong in certain categories, and the problematic result of surprise. By selectively portraying queerness that deviates from what is “acceptable,” in order to produce surprise, the directors in a way actually emphasize and reify concepts of queer identity that are fixed and essentialized. However, is the product of this sensationalism––surprise––really all that bad? I agree that the fact that people may be shocked at the notion of a Muslim lesbian indicates that the US still has a way to go, but (not to condone the sentiment) perhaps this surprise indicates a step forward. The portrayals of “unexpected queers” will be reaching a wider audience through mainstream media and slowly but surely destabilizing people’s fixed ideas of queer identity and fixed identities in general. At the same time though, it definitely comes at a cost––these queer individuals being portrayed on the film are objectified, commodified, and paraded around like deviant trophies to be shown to the rest of the world.

  3. Great comments above, discussing the production of “surprise,” which is a really interesting problem. Here the notions of the normal and the normative is really useful: what is being protected or preserved when a particular kind of identity is displayed as exceptional or rare? The “surprise” effect is very useful for the purpose of protecting a normative queer–the Will & Grace gay male. The assumption is that the majority of gays match the Will Truman stereotype, but that an occasional rogue looks very different. My question then is, what are the stated political and cultural goals of this documentary, the intended effects? Conversely, what are the actual effects we can map, the way (our) Will does very well here? Are we perpetuating majority rules by showcasing the rare queer? How is the notion of majority itself produced through the production of surprise in documentaries like these? Great stuff, Will, thanks for bringing in something new.

  4. While reading this post two things came to mind: 1) The ways in which we have been defining Queer in class and 2) the realization that not only do queers struggle to gain recognition in the public space but now also in queer setting. When i think about these things mutually interference to this post i think about how queers are judged and seem less of a person to many and how the state lacks to acknowledge them as full citizens in reference to heterosexual privilege. But its sad to think that also in the Queer world they are still fighting for legitimacy. And even more striking the fact that even in along with queers there are normative. Isn’t queer all about going against the norm? It makes me realize the possibility that there are more dimension to being queer. That even amongst queers there are “queers”; those who don’t fit into the mold of Will & grace gay males. When embracing queer, it is true, like Mary’s experience with the magazine, people always try to find the most dramatic story about someone coming out but why should it be dramatic as if some kind of entertainment?

  5. The quote which Will pulled out from the film’s review seems to be essentializing many of the various identities which it mentions, but I am also interested in examining the “collective truth” which is believed to be unifying the disparate lives of these queer outliers. For me, the idea that these individual tales are drawn together by the collective truth of their queerness (which I presume to be defined through western tropes and categories) works not only to establish a normative kind of queerness, but a neutral one as well; Queerness is not classed unless an individual within it is classed; Queerness is not transnational unless a solitary story can be found to represent it as such. The establishing of these individual identities as outlying and “surprising” does more to alienate these stories and their tellers than to unify them, and fails to recognize the ways in which our race, class, and cultural identities can themselves be queer.

  6. From what I understand this documentary failed to broaden people’s notion of what is acceptable in the queer community. I don’t think that there will be anything that will successfully do this though because those individuals who aren’t seen as being part of the queer community are already queer. In other words it’s hard to accept an individual as queer (part of the LGBT community) when they are queer because they are not part of the dominant culture. It seems like that the only acceptable queer identity would be a white man who is part of the fashion world. Other people who are part of the LGBT community (hate to use these terms but: lipstick lesbians, dykes, butch, bois, etc.) have a hard time fitting in because not only are they different but they don’t contribute anything useful to society (these aren’t my words; I read this on a very upsetting acb post). So if it’s hard to be anything but a white gay man, why would a non-white person even want to be part of this community? Why is it that someone who is already part of a subculture (minority) would further want to alienate themselves from the dominant culture by wanting to be accepted as a queer? I think this is why it’s surprising to hear that a Latin@ is gay or that a Muslim can also be lesbian.

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