By Joseph Varilone, LSA Senior at the University of Michigan
I know what it’s like to be harassed because of how you look. Whether I’m riding my bike down a busy road on Ann Arbor’s south side, walking down the street I live on, or talking on the phone in front of the campus library; if I’m wearing clothing that marks me, a male-identified and male-presenting individual, as “feminine,” I am immediately subject to staring, taunting, and harassment.
I embrace my femininity. So-called women’s clothing has been a part of my wardrobe since I was 18, and I have come to love skirts, leggings, hair clips, and some other traditionally feminine things. I would probably wear dresses if I felt more comfortable in them. The labels genderqueer and hard femme describe me well; and although I don’t really identify with the labels gay, bisexual, or pansexual, heterosexual doesn’t seem to fit my experiences either. Regardless, sexuality is fluid and subject to change, but however I choose to label my experiences, I feel undeniably, unapologetically, irrevocably queer.
I think of queerness as not something limited to sexual orientation, but as taking on the realm of any significant departure from norms regarding gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Queerness is fluid and dynamic. Queerness does not look like one particular thing, and means different things for different people. Queerness questions compulsory serial monogamy and marriage. Queerness questions binaries, especially the gender binary of woman/man, female/male. Queerness is fierce, confrontational, uncompromising, and political. Queerness creates space for transgender experiences and narratives. Queerness questions the little boxes that gender norms make people fit into. Queerness is not hostile to heterosexuals or people that otherwise fall within gender norms, but only to those that seek to delegitimize those who don’t. Queers ally themselves with other struggles against oppression, recognizing the intersectionality and inter-connectedness of our struggles. Queerness is anti-assimilationist—we make no apologies and don’t try to legitimize ourselves based on supposed similarity to mainstream lifestyles. And we surely don’t apologize for being “born this way” (if that even describes a particular individuals experience)–as if alternative sexual orientations or gender expressions constitute some sort of disease.
Since queerness inherently defies gender norms, it is blasphemy in our hetero-patriarchal** and capitalist society. There are many potential reasons why our culture is misogynist, intolerant of gender nonconformity, and compulsively monogamous. Ultimately, I think hetero-patriarchy has its roots at least partially in the establishment of the nuclear family, marriage, and the way these institutions relate to the development of the concept of private property. Hetero-patriarchy is thus intimately related to the development of capitalism, and is indeed one thing capitalism depends on to this day. There is so much to discuss about the relationship between these oppressions, but unfortunately, I cannot delve deeply into that relationship here.
Queerness is about resistance to oppression. Hiding my queerness is possible, but who can be happy without the freedom to express oneself? And if queerness is about resistance, am I really queer if I don’t resist? It is clear that the gender-policing, gender-normative, hetero-patriarchal culture in which I live in is hostile to my choices. There are times when I fear for my own safety. But conformity seems worse than dealing with harassment and external threats to my well-being. To say it succinctly, my experience being queer has displayed a fundamental relationship between existing in this world as queer and resistance to hetero-patriarchal oppression.
There is a saying that has taken hold in the Palestine solidarity movement: existence is resistance. I interpret this phrase as questioning Zionism’s foundations and that Zionism is so ridiculously racist that the mere existence of Palestinians is blasphemous to the Zionist ideology and project. This is illustrated in what’s known as the Nakba-denial: Israeli attempts to “make the desert bloom,” i.e. plant non-indigenous trees over ruins of Palestinian villages so that they can act as if Palestinians never lived there; and the notion that before Jews migrated to Palestine in the twentieth century, the region was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Just as queerness is blasphemy in American hetero-patriarchal society, being Palestinian is blasphemous to Israeli society and Zionism more broadly.
And just as the mere existence of Palestinians is a form of resistance against Zionist oppression, living as a queer in a gender-normative world fundamentally questions and challenges the assumptions our culture is built upon. Capitalists, misogynists, and queerphobes clearly have an interest in upholding hetero-patriarchy, and hence they attempt to erase and silence queer voices, experiences, and expressions. But if queers merely exist—by expressing and living as their queer selves—then they are resisting. If we defy hetero-patriarchal structures that seek to silence us and are able to express ourselves, i.e. exist as queers in this world, then we are already engaging in resistance against the system that seeks to silence and erase us.
I’d like to situate myself for you in terms of my privilege: I am a white, male-assigned, upper-middle class, queer, able-bodied, college-educated individual. I don’t know what it’s like to live under a military occupation, to be Palestinian, to have my land taken from me, or for the very things I need to survive to be destroyed. But I do feel like I know what it’s like to have one’s very existence erased, to be harassed for who I am, and to feel like expressing who I am will disqualify me from certain privileges. Again, I will never know what it’s like to be Palestinian; but it is difficult for me to deny the similarities I see between what I experience in this hetero-patriarchal society and what Palestinians have experienced as a result of the Zionist project. How could I ignore their plight, then? How could I claim that the “conflict” is too complicated, or that it doesn’t relate to me? To the contrary, queer liberation and Palestinian liberation have much in common, and groups such as Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (PQBDS), Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, and Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT) are doing excellent work to make these connections apparent. In January, a diverse group of LGBTIQ-identified individuals toured Israel and the West Bank and subsequently expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people and opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Queers all around the globe are making the connections between their own oppression and the oppression of the Palestinian people—and that’s extremely terrifying for Zionists, especially so-called progressive Zionists.
I believe in collective liberation. As some feminists say, my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit. It is not possible to fight patriarchy without also fighting racism, classism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression, because they reinforce each other and compound in unique ways. For example, pro-choice groups have historically focused their attention on keeping abortion legal; but legal abortion is useless for the poor if it isn’t affordable. Additionally, many poor people of color have been coercively sterilized without their own knowledge, and there are often strings attached to receiving welfare assistance that interfere with bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom. White supremacist ideology and classism has fundamentally affected who is able to have control over their own reproduction and who isn’t. The benefits of the feminist struggle for bodily autonomy, therefore, have mostly accrued to white women with class privilege and it becomes clear that the liberation of all women is impossible without also dismantling racism, classism, and other forms of oppression.
The collective liberation framework is fundamental to the way I view oppression, because it is clear to me that my liberation from capitalism and hetero-patriarchy is tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Therefore, I am not interested in “helping” Palestinians–patronization is not what we need. We must work in solidarity to combat our oppression together. This is why I will not allow Israel to “pinkwash” its crimes by telling me that Israel is good and Palestine is evil just because there are gay bars in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and that queers are relentlessly oppressed in Ramallah and Al-Khalil. Regardless of the accuracy of these statements, supporting the Israeli state impedes collective liberation. Zionists often defend Israel with racist arguments that supposedly illustrate the “backwardness” of Palestinian culture, which apparently legitimizes occupation, colonization, and ethnic cleansing. This is nothing more than Orientalist propaganda. It may be true that women and queers are oppressed in Palestine. But the same thing is no less true in Israel or America. And besides, since when was the “backwardness” of a culture a very good excuse for occupation, colonization, massacre, and ethnic cleansing?
This queer is not willing to let Israel tout itself as a queer utopia. This queer is not willing to be silent when Western LGBT groups promote Israeli queer-tourism. And most of all, this queer supports Palestine and opposes Zionism, because I know Zionism has no place in any framework of collective liberation. Because ultimately, my feminism, my analysis as a queer, my activism–all of it will be intersectional, or all of it will be bullshit.
** I have struggled to come up with a good term to characterize the oppression that I experience as a queer. I have male privilege, but it seems to me like much of my oppression is a consequence of misogyny and queerphobia. Due to these factors, and the fact that I view patriarchy and heterosexism to be intimately related, I will use the already-established term hetero-patriarchy to refer to the collection of institutions, attitudes, and social structures responsible for gender- and sexuality-based oppression, although the term may or may not be used differently elsewhere.