Published on October 12th, 2012 | by Wild Gender1
Too Queer To Belong? An Inquiry Into the ‘Oppression Olympics’ & Multiculturalism
What is all this obsession with the ways in which one doesn’t belong? By no means am I dismissing the recognition of oppression and divisions of privilege, rather I am raising a gaze into the ways in which ‘not feeling a part of’ can worm its way outside of necessary cries for equality. What does it mean to feel as though one ‘belongs’? What ways do people try to ‘fit’ better in order to feel a sense of belonging? To what extent is a sense of belonging related or not to being surrounded by what one ‘is’ or identifies as? Can ‘queerness’ be a term of its own assumed exclusion? Can it also represent a culture of equality wherein ‘queerness’ can be seen as a part of what creates and embraces a seamless and diverse unity with ‘non-queerness’? To what extent is the question of belonging entrenched, or not, in privilege? These questions about the nature of belonging and queerness are here aiming to address the extent to which notions of belonging can be both problematic and important especially in queer communities.
What is ‘belonging’ anyways? I’ll start with a somewhat colonial direction of definitions and etymology.
/bɪˈlɔŋ, -ˈlɒŋ/ Show Spelled[bih-lawng, -long] Show IPA
verb (used without object)
1.to be in the relation of a member, adherent, inhabitant, etc. (usually followed by to ): He belongs to the Knights of Columbus.
2.to have the proper qualifications, especially social qualifications, to be a member of a group: You don’t belong in this club.
3.to be proper or due; be properly or appropriately placed, situated, etc.: Books belong in every home. This belongs on the shelf. He is a statesman who belongs among the great.
mid-14c., “to go along with, properly relate to,” from be- intensive prefix, + longen “to go,” from O.E. langian “pertain to, to go along with,” of unknown origin. Senses of “be the property of” and “be a member of” first recorded late 14c. Cognate with M.Du. belanghen, Du. belangen, Ger. belangen. Replaced earlier O.E. gelang, with completive prefix ge-.
Let’s dismantle these pieces of the puzzle. “1.to be in the relation of a member, adherent, inhabitant, etc. (usually followed by to ): He belongs to the Knights of Columbus.” So this is more a matter of connections? Like, “I know that person at that restaurant she’ll hook us up with some free fries because she belongs to the same organization as me.” NEXT! “2.to have the proper qualifications, especially social qualifications, to be a member of a group: You don’t belong in this club.” The question of privilege and dominance lurks so near to this definition. Again, how much access have you been given by those controlling the power to access this “club” or group? NEXT! “3.to be proper or due; be properly or appropriately placed, situated, etc.: Books belong in every home. This belongs on the shelf. He is a statesman who belongs among the great.” To be proper? But who decides that? Is inherent similarity or appropriateness the judge? Or is it again the product of privilege ‘given’ by those in control(read:dominant groups) of the social construct of “knowledge”? Ughh. NEXT! The etymology raises something unique from the others that is to, “pertain to, to go along with”. This is interesting due to it’s agency given to the person feeling as though they ‘belong’ in any given situation. Is belonging just the sense of “going along with it?” or of some abstract “pertinence?”
I find these descriptions to be lacking. They are missing some essential ingredient of my experiences with belonging. So when I describe the experience of a true and deep sense of belonging I am speaking quite simply of an authentic sense of connection. Also I am speaking of identity and the way it informs one’s sense of belonging or not. I’m going to attempt to avoid using any more words and colonial mannerisms to further clarify this explanation.
As a queer trans-woman I know what it’s like(to an extent) to not see my representation in culture and my surroundings. I know what it’s like to feel forgotten or threatened by the heavy hand of discrimination and protective brutality of privilege and dominance. I also have found a great sense of belonging in my life including with musicians, academics, queers, people in recovery, certain physical places, exiles, homeless, travelers, activists, lovers, friends, and even with some family who accept me. I am also white. In a culture of presumed (by virtue of colonial sympathies) whiteness I should, and on some level do, know what it feels like to belong. I have lived in widely varied spectrums of income and class which surely influence my perspective(from poverty and homelessness to upper-middle class suburbia). I also struggle. In a room full of queer people of color in which I am the only white person I will likely feel more comfortable than in a room full of hetero white folks(especially if they’re of the upper-class U.S. caste-like system) because I would feel a greater sense of hope for the possibility of having had or sharing similar or relatable experiences with the queers of color(especially if they’re of the lower to middle class). Though I still take part in white privilege, it seems as though I identify more with queerness than with whiteness, dominance, or ‘wealth’. This could be simply interpreted as a denial of complicity with the violence of privilege. Also I feel a greater sense of resonance with those who have been and feel denied, to some extent, access to that which should be granted all human beings. It would seem I identify with ‘not belonging’. How can one ‘belong’ to and abstract notion of ‘not belonging’? To what extent is that sense of belonging referring to the “dominant culture”? It is also beautiful that we can celebrate despite our perceived and actual oppression and repression.
It is often a mirror of privilege to idealize oppression. Do people really believe that it is somehow ‘cool’ to be an outcast or pariah(for examples of this see my addendum at the end of the essay)? Personally, it’s really quite a terrible experience. To be clear, I am in no way supporting assimilation. Our diversity is our biggest strength as queers(and humans). However, I see most often the people most benefited by privilege and/or being a member of a dominant group competing over who is the most oppressed or “has it the hardest”. To be transparent, I’m sure I’ve taken part in this type of negative celebration before. It can in some certain instances and manners be cathartic. However, this phenomena of so deemed ‘oppression Olympics’ is important to see the ways in which a sense of belonging can be related to a desired perception of identity, or from the etymologies stance, to be “going along with” something. This seems to run contrary to the idea of belonging as related to being a “member” of something or of having an authentic connection. No matter who one is, it is imperative that we not be complicit in the violence of perpetuating privilege and dominance by first denying our own privilege. Everyone plays a part in the system of privilege and that might not look the same person to person. To be an ally and recognize one’s place in privilege and dominant groups can be a tool to decolonize one’s personal prejudices. However, to identify with, as opposed to relate to, an experience not a part of someone’s direct experience is to encourage the destruction of the experience of those from which one is stealing. To sympathize(have had the same experience) is crucially different than to empathize(feel like, relate to, or feel similar to). So to belong, I have to first know who I am in a deeper way than just a blind acceptance of what I want to be or consider myself as.
I bring up these issues because of a concern I feel with the ways in which queer ‘community’ can spiritually bypass(i.e. ‘we’re all the same cosmically/or as queers so let’s ignore issues of racism or sexism’) any notions of difference in its pursuit of ‘equality’. This manner of ‘equality’ is more hegemony, or repression of difference, than true equality. To feel a contrived sense of belonging at the cost of someone else’s experience is to deny the possibility of an authentic connection. Who is being left out when someone says something about or intended for ‘all of us’?
This authentic connection is actually the root of a deep and lasting sense of belonging. In “Belonging” bell hooks describes a deep feeling of belonging from the lush countryside and forested mountains of Kentucky. An experience then lost to her when forced to negotiate with the realities of segregation in the city. This just goes to show belonging isn’t even specifically dependent on other people. Her description of a “belonging of place” shows that authenticity of connection supersedes the world of human imposed inequalities of difference. So as queers, do we sometimes use ‘queerness’ to overemphasize the extent to which we are so ‘different’ from others? We do after all share the human condition. The inequality imposed upon queers from society, systems, and even each other is necessary to be noted. This is essential to actualizing human progression. Can we create belonging within our own micro groups? So called ‘queer spaces’ are a crucial and amazing step forward and yet are often notorious for denial of inter-sectional identities. An example can be seen in sentiments wherein a differently-abled butch-dyke feels ostracized by the Female-to-Males. Or where I myself felt not femme enough or (eek!) “fish” enough to belong with the other trans-women I knew. Or a low-income person of color whose questioning(of gender and/or sexuality) is ridiculed subtly or overtly by privileged white queers who may have had greater emotional freedom in their upbringing to explore their gender or sexuality. Even if that looks as simple as a condescending comment as bell hooks insinuates in “Teaching to Transgress”(1994) of, “WHAT?! You haven’t read Audre Lorde!” After being judged in a “safe space”, who can a person such as this hope to trust in the difficult coming out processes? I’ve seen it too many times to ignore and in a plethora more incantations than just these. Not all people, regardless of identity, are going to get along; but, if we can’t feel safe amongst queer peers, then where can we? If we expect culture to recognize our existence and allow us the space to belong then why do we struggle so much with it ourselves? The ignorance of meaning in difference is largely to blame and that the politics of privilege are often the culprit. However, we can stretch our comfort zones and make cross-cultural alliances to make a greater socio-political movement. We can expand our notions of what we allow ourselves to learn from as we know true belonging within the context of an authentic connection. We can surround each other with the love we deserve to get the support we need to feel a part of something worthwhile. We can make our own sense of belonging and not settle for those which an oppressive, dominant, violent, colonial, and prejudiced culture prescribe us. We can be each other’s mentors by listening to each others experience. We can then create the teachers and guides we would have wanted for ourselves, in ourselves and at the service of others.
Only when we expand the definition of belonging to include all of our diversity will we be able to make true authentic community and a context for authentic connection. Together oppression and privilege can be dismantled within, outside of, and between queer communities and the larger, not so distant, ‘non-queer’ world. It can, at first, feel awkward to become an ally. After all, it’s tough to dismantle assumptions. In what experience I have with it, it’s so worth whatever difficulty there may, or may not, be. We can support those with genuine intentions in their curiosity of how to treat us best, and we can reciprocate any respect we find. It’s not my goal to be a part of greater society if that means I have to assimilate. However, if there is a legitimate space for me and my communities that also doesn’t displace those inside or outside of my peripherals, then I’d love to belong to it. I want to belong, and to a great extent I do belong. I just don’t want belonging at the cost of who I am or who someone else is.
Addendum- Examples of the glamorizing of ‘not belonging’. After writing this essay I thought that maybe I could find some queer/trans folks who might be into or have insight to the ideas. One I thought of(probably because of her recent media) was Kate Bornstein. In trying to find her email however I came up with this seemingly appropriate video she posted on her website advertising her new book. Could this be an example of the type of behavior I am critiquing here? What possible benefit could she be gaining from the commodification of “otherness”? Here’s the link. Comments are greatly appreciated. (Note: I have great respect for Kate and her work I am simply looking at one piece of her advertising that she may or may not have even created/endorsed.)
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2009). Belonging: A culture of place. New York: Routledge.
Bevensee, E. (now) Personal experience. Situated situations. Ain’t Published Publishing Co. (unincorporated).
Thank you to Kyla and Khalil for useful and insightful critiques and comments. Thank you to Axil and Coleen for helping to inform my dialogue around belonging.