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Refreshingly ambiguous: straights need a bit of queer in them,.

I was disgusted at the start of this decade when young lesbians and gays began to call themselves "queer." For homosexuals of my generation, that word signified a jagged stone that straights would hurl at us to show their contempt. With its constant use in lesbian and gay writing (as in "queer theory"), though, I've become pretty inured to the meaner connotations of queer. Maybe by claiming the word, queers really are succeeding in defusing it, just as African-Americans did with black, which had been considered a slur before the 1960s.

I've also come to see some queer ideas in a feminist light. Now I think the queer challenge to gender can hurry to fruition what many feminist have been struggling the past 150 years to achieve: an escape from the imprisoning limitations of "gender-appropriate" behavior and roles. Historically, women who fought to break free of that prison have always been called "queer." Queer meant "the refusal to accept the unimaginative and constricting notion that your personal, social, or political behavior should be dictated by the shape of your genitals.

What was most threatening to the sexologists who morbidified homosexuals in the 19th century was not that some men had sex with men or some women had sex with women. They were more bothered by what they deemed the "inverted" gender behavior of those who didn't act like "real men" or "real women." The threats so-wed sissies and tomboys posed to the stagnant status quo were tremendous -- and wonderful. Susan B. Anthony, for instance (without whom American women would never have gotten the vote), was called by her detractors "a grim old gal with a manly air." She was "inverted" and "queer" because she demanded that those born with a vagina have the political rights that, according to the wisdom of her day, only those born with a penis should have.

Queers have always understood -- though perhaps it was unarticulated before feminist theorist Judith Butler put words to it -- that one is born with a sex, not a gender: You learn to perform gender, and anyone (regardless of his or her genitals) can perform what society arbitrarily deems "masculine" or "feminine." You can perform a gender (or genders) permanently, sequentially, exclusively, simultaneously, or alternately.

I first learned that in the 1950s, through Conchita, who was the most beautiful and feminine woman I had ever met. But Conchita had a penis. And every once in a while s/he would get tired of performing "feminine," slick her hair back, don pachuco garb like he'd worn in the years before he became a drag queen, and lower his voice into as menacing a tone as that used by the most macho of the toughs he once ran with. The drag queens at the Stonewall Inn also knew they could turn from "women" into "men" when they wanted to or needed to -- and they made the police run and started the gay revolution.

Rigid notions about gender have had far-reaching effects: In the past they've kept women from getting an education or a profession. They've encouraged men to brutal bellicosity. It is not surprising that Nazis and Promise Keepers value manly men and womanly women. But a hopeful sign that heterosexuals are becoming bored with the straitjacket of gender into which they've sewn themselves is the popularity beyond our own community of queer films like The Birdcage; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and Different for Girls. What do straights see when they watch? Don't such films invite them to share the knowledge that queers have always had about the illusion of gender's inevitability and inflexibility?

Straights need a bit of "queer" in them. They need gender blending and flexing -- for the sake of personal freedom as well as social and political sanity, to which rigidity is inimical. And they're getting it. "Men's roles " as opposed to "women's roles" are no longer clear-cut and segregated as they were at mid century. More women are entering "men's" professions, such as business, medicine, and law, and when I telephone the operator these days, I'm just as likely to get a male's voice as a female's. In mid century only dykes wore pants. Now, except perhaps in churches, there's nary a dress in sight, unless it's worn by a femme or a lipstick lesbian. In mid century no one but a lady or a drag queen would be caught dead in earrings. Now every third guy sports a gold hoop and sometimes even a rhinestone.

What worries me, though, is that when straight people get more "queer " queers won't be "queer" anymore. What then?
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Last Word
Author:Faderman, Lillian
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 11, 1997
Previous Article:The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996.
Next Article:Macho, Latino, HIV+.

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