by Mauro Osborne
I am often loathe to engage in debates of labels, left only to re-hash arguments, choose a position of righteousness, and dig in my heels. The snares of identity politics entrap even the most careful of thinkers. As a trained anthropologist, I have been taught to develop a keen ear for conversational constraints and to think through arguments in ways that do not re-entrench others and myself in age-old ruts. In an attempt to make space for a different conversation, I am going to make a concerted effort to resituate the current strands of conversation between trans communities and lesbian/butch communities that have come up, precisely as these diverse groups come together to find common ground; the particular strand I’m referring to has to do with providing an umbrella term that does not offend. I do not believe this is possible, and we will have to find another way to be hospitable across generation, gender, identity, and race. It is also important for me to note that it is largely because of the tenacity and hardship of elder LGBTQ constituencies that we even have the social space and freedom to engage in these conversations. For that legacy and continued effort, I am eternally indebted. Supporting dissonance and ongoing struggle within shared cultural space is essential for providing opportunities to challenge one another and negotiate difference.
Given this context, I am hesitant to engage debates of labels at all, but when racism is masked as elite queer theorizing, intervention is crucial. I also believe it would be an incredible disservice to assume that elder queer theorists are incapable of shifting their own thinking over time when presented with different viewpoints. Recently, I came across an interview with Jack Halberstam, a highly respected queer theorist who teaches at the university level and has written numerous volumes that are held dearly – and in high regard – by many. The full interview can be found here, and I have copied the relevant portion below:
Q: What do you think about the term “masculine of center”?
Halberstam: I think it presumes a center, I’m not sure about that. It presumes a scale that we all know and recognize. I don’t always know that I know what another queer person’s masculinity means anymore. I used to think I knew, but I realized I didn’t. For a lot of young masculine female bodied people who decide to transition, they’re doing so not because they’re so invested in masculinity but because they’re invested in forms of maleness that are then going to be in relation to other forms of maleness. They want to be gay men! In that scenario, masculinity isn’t the most important vector for them, it’s male embodiment or perceived male embodiment. My orientation is very much to feminine women, so butch still seems to have some sort of signifying power, given my set of desires and orientations. But masculine of center presumes that there’s an ideal, and that ideal presumes all kinds of things about race and class, and that we all know an ideal form when we see it. I can’t get into that kind of normative classification system that has a center and has margins. It’s a kind of colonial way of thinking about things, that there is a center and there are margins, and everyone’s aspiring to be center.
And here is one of the biggest problems I see: in many white spaces of resistance, the focus becomes a question of naming something and how proximate that name is to the core of what is being named. The prioritization of the name/naming does not allow for a meaningful engagement with the work that is actually being done under that name. This is one of the most insidious products of (middle class) white culture, the desire to name people and communities in a way that speaks for itself, without having to see what has led to the naming and what are the effects of the actions of those named. It is with this logic that major multinational corporations can carry mantras of “do no evil” and “spreading progress” while simultaneously wreaking economic, political, and social havoc across the globe. There is so much more than what’s in a name.
The term “masculine of center” (MoC) was coined in a progressive, social justice-oriented community of color that seeks to find sustainable and ethical representations and practices of alternative masculinities that can contribute to the empowerment of marginalized genders (including women, girls, young boys, and transpeople). Mincing words between maleness/masculinity/center/margins/etc. distracts from the work that goes on under the label of MoC. To do so takes away from the effects of the groups who take on this label, and the ramifications are especially harmful when such careless speech comes from a respected queer theorist. Additionally, identity and labeling in many communities of color do not usually take on the same priority that labeling takes on in white spaces I’ve observed. It appears to be an epistemological priority of whiteness to be able to identify, categorize, and manage expectations accordingly. Even trying to break identities apart is something that can only be fully carried out in white spaces, where intersections are not something that are necessarily viscerally acknowledged and understood on the day-to-day level (making the statement “masculinity is not the most important vector” an incomprehensible thought in many POC spaces, as it requires imagining that parts of ourselves must always reign supreme over others). To fixate on language, on finding the best and most perfect way to describe something, is to play into dynamics of truth and knowledge production that often marginalize and delegitimize the complicated relationships to resistance that exist within communities of color.
Whiteness is often socially constructed as a blank canvas onto which gender can be painted. Because (white) queer theory is often put forward as the only way to theorize queerness in its lived realities, I find it important to color queer theory so that the rainbow might not become so whitewashed. As someone who has experienced the very real implications of how a body is raced by others as my presentation of gender has shifted over the years, I understand how gender and race are inextricably linked for so many. White masculinities, working class masculinities, and masculinities of color are responded to, privileged, and targeted in very different ways. For white queer theorists to allege an understanding of how a term as ostensibly simple as “masculinity” functions within communities of color is to play into very problematic power structures that allow some to assume instantaneous knowledge through surface recognition of terms, despite claims of not making assumptions about what the masculinity of another person means. Part of the beauty of MoC as a term is the incredible diversity it holds, and that the point is not to label other folks as MoC, but to create spaces where people who resonate with this terminology, for whatever reason, show up intentionally to question ideas of gender, race, and privilege. Additionally, just as MoC is a term used by folks who identify as queer, it also opens up space for alliances between straight men and queer people. A huge barrier to queer organizing is how much time we spend preaching to the choir - which isn’t to say that queer-only spaces are not essential, because they are - and we need to understand that to rock the boat, we need all hands on deck, including straight men (and that includes those transgender people who identify as straight men).
As I have spent time in these communities out of which the term MoC has emerged, I can confidently say that there is no “ideal” within these spaces. We leave room for one another’s difference. I’ve described white queer communities quite often as spaces where groups of people decide to come together to commit to policing one another’s identities. This is not necessarily a shared prerogative in many queer communities of color. In terms of my own self-understandings, there are few terms that have really suited me. I’ve been described in various moments as a dyke, a fag, a butch, genderqueer, androgynous, masculine, manly, etc., and all of these have been externally imposed labels. I came into the usage of MoC because it was a marker that seemed amorphous, constantly changing, and invested in looking at practices of gender, rather than embodiments/identities of gender.
At the risk of delving into inaccessible rhetoric, I will ask for a moment to respond to theory with theoretical orientations of my own. Embodiment of gender may not be the telos of transgression for many who engage with queer POC spaces; many communities of color have maintained strong relations to body/embodiment as a form of resistance throughout history; therefore, reclaiming a body that has not been alienated in the first place is not necessarily a priority, though it may be for some. This is very different from legacies of (middle class) white relations to body, legacies that possibly necessitate re-negotiations of embodiment, precisely because forms of liberatory embodiment have not been made possible through oppressive relations to disciplinary institutions of the body that proliferate in many middle class spaces. I emphasize “middle class” because, in my understanding, it is a middle class ethos that shapes standards of whiteness, and whiteness has historically contoured dominant queer discourse. For many white queers, there is a racially neutral body that has emerged discursively, onto which embodiments of gender can be authored. For queer POCs, gender is already understood through race, rendering (masculine) POC genders as hyper-visible, with no possibility of parsing out gender from race.
When “the center” is the place where gender is made unclear, messy, and defies biological expectations, and the margins are where people may be perceived as more clearly gendered, that can be seen as an interesting and powerful re-inscription of binary thinking that is worth trying on before reactively dismissing. In many communities of color, marginality and aspiring to be part of the norm aren’t viewed with the same moralistic values as in many white and middle class spaces; particularly in urban queer spaces, there is a moral binary drawn between the true radicals and the assimilationists. The diverse histories of oppression that queer POCs run from and the futures we run towards are very different than white queers, and this can never be forgotten. The way that POC’s bodies are gendered comes, in part, from a colonial history of bifurcation: the invisibilization/exotification of feminine bodies/women, and the depiction of masculine bodies/men as violent, dangerous, and hypersexual. For someone to describe the usage of the term MoC as “colonial”, a term which relies not as much on embodiments of gender but practices of gender, is to re-invigorate that very colonial history of white scholars endlessly dismissing the complicated forms of resistance that materialize in communities of color.
Beyond shame and denial, white people are given very few tools with which to respond to accusations of racism. Very few want to acknowledge the fraught history that makes these cultural collisions possible, and it is at this point that I would like to extend the invitation and the permission to put aside individual shame and to refuse a moment of denial, and to instead view this moment of education as a gift that might open up space for reflection on the ways we come to understand ourselves. The most freeing moments I have had in this lifetime have come exactly when I was told I could be something more than what history had allowed me to become. Humble are those who learn to listen, and powerful are those who take what they have heard and learn to invest energy in cultivating hospitality towards difference.
Mauro is a scholar of social justice who is invested in addressing issues of discrimination in CA public school curricula. A native Californian from Fresno, he now lives in San Francisco and spends his spare time dreaming of being reunited with his cat, Oscar, who currently lives in Fresno.
Mauro also has his own blog starting up soon!
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