Dare I speak to oppressed and oppressor in the same voice? Dare I speak to you in a language that will take us away from the boundaries of domination, a language that will not fence you in, bind you, or hold you. Language is also a place of struggle. The oppressed struggle in language to read ourselves—to reunite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action—a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle.
– bell hooks, ‘on self-recovery’
Conceptions and categories of sexuality, gender and race all evolved alongside equivalent developments in language and are inexorably intertwined with these oppressions. It is uncontroversial to state that such categories have no objective basis but are cultural constructions that inevitably create hierarchies. Because its development was concomitant with this oppression, language is clearly far from neutral, especially from the perspective of the groups on the wrong side of these constructions. We must investigate the exact nature of the language around these subjects at the same time as examining their place in society – it is impossible to separate the two positionings.
Judith Butler famously declared, regarding the performativity of gender, that ‘the anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures the object’.1 There is no ontologically distinct gender-object that causally determines what it is to have a particular gender. Instead, the matrix of gender roles is caused by our anticipation of gender. Butler’s ideas were heavily influenced by Monique Wittig, who had previously claimed that ‘gender is the enforcement of sex in language, working in the same way as the declaration of sex in civil status‘.2 It is a frequent response to arguments such as Butler’s and Wittig’s that there are fundamental differences between genders, namely the social expression of the difference in the sexes. Not only is this position seriously, if not irrefutably, challenged by the mere existence of transgender people, it also ignores the false dichotomy of sex. There can be differences in chromosomes, exterior genitalia, interior sex organs, hormone levels and numerous other sexual characteristics within a binary ‘sex’ – doctors have found cisgender men with uteruses and cisgender women lacking ovaries. Chromosomes also often do not fit neatly into just XX and XY for a person; a person might have some cells containing XX and others XY, and different configurations such as XXY and XXX have also been found.3
Alongside the conflation of sex and gender in the general consciousness, even the supposed objectivity of biology is compromised. In equating the role of the egg as feminine and the role of the sperm as masculine, biologists for many years misinterpreted the actions of zygote formation: it was believed for years that the sperm swam towards the egg, struggled and penetrated its way inside to fertilise the egg. In this scenario, the masculine sperm acts as an active aggressor pursuing the feminine and passive egg; more recently a cooperative process has been posited where the egg and sperm come together. In fact, much of the chemical breakdown of the exterior of the egg is performed by the egg itself, while the mechanical force generated by the sperm is weak, contributing very little to the process.4 This insidious gendering is taught as an objective ‘known’ in anatomical training, suggesting an impartiality that simply isn’t there. This assumption of objectivity within such discourse is very common, and, in its subliminality, is at least equally damaging as outright instances of sexist behaviour. In addition, the normalisation and simplification of the sexual dichotomy is highly damaging to the everyday wellbeing of intersex and transgender people, who have been found to constitute up to two percent of the world population.5
Of course, it is in the interest of oppressive groups to ignore this sort of information. It perpetuates their dominance by maintaining these ‘established truths’. Wittig calls this system of ideological control ‘the straight mind’, stating
I can only underline the oppressive character that the straight mind is clothed in its tendency to immediately universalize its production of concepts into general laws which claim to hold true for all societies, all epochs, all individuals.6
The straight mind presents itself as the global neutral position; however, it is merely how the generic cisgender, able-bodied, white, heterosexual, neurotypical man living an unexamined life would view the world. Wittig calls upon such established traditions of the difference between the sexes in a series of such comparisons. A book about a queer love affair is a book about queerness; a book about a cisheterosexual love affair is a book about love. These sorts of attitudes are insidious – we may see it again in the category of ‘women’s writing’, where men’s writing is just writing. Wittig posits gender as a mark, arguing that maleness is not a gender but rather the general point of view that characterises the straight mind. With regard to each axis of oppression, those who live outside the oppressive class (of, e.g., whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality) are seen as a marked point of view: their experiences can never be universal.7
With this establishment of the primacy of the male comes the parallel development of compulsory heterosexuality; the binary opposition of male and female leads to the understanding of the interplay of the two as fundamental to societal interactions. Through the insistence of such falsities as the binaries of sex and gender, we are taught that conflict across such dichotomies is necessary to all aspects of society, where instead reality is much less ordered. The significance that is placed upon an action within its cultural setting is entirely contingent and arbitrary. However, it is the aim of the straight mind and compulsory heterosexuality to make us think that they are necessary absolutes, and then to gain control by establishing a power dynamic from one end of the binary to the other. Wittig claims this interaction with the world through binaries is endemic of compulsory heterosexuality, and thus our very usage of terms such as ‘men and women’ or ‘straight and queer’ are playing into such oppression. It is from this that she calls for the rejection of heterosexuality and thus rejecting such culturally imposed binaries, leading to her claim that ‘lesbians are not women’.8
Wittig does not make explicit the mechanism by which compulsory heterosexuality is the root of modern binary thinking; indeed, one can criticise much feminist discourse for its assumptions regarding the primacy of gender and sexuality, especially when talking about elements such as the philosophy of mind and epistemology. While the theories provided are often useful in interpreting the nature of modern oppression, there is no confrontation with the contingency of that oppression. Thus we have the assumption of the existence of gender alongside the rejection of more essential properties, or perhaps the rejection of factors such as race as unnecessary to an understanding of womanhood. This can result in a skewed analytic that furthers oppression along other lines. It is a relatively recent phenomenon to really take into account the total constructedness of gender.9 It is important to take this not as a rejection of this feminist thought in totality, as, moving outside the realms of theory, gender’s large role in our contingent world and understanding is plain to see. In this sense, we should examine the use of language within oppressive structures in a situation where the substantial assumptions made when discussing issues of sexuality can be comfortably assumed.
Where queer discourse has entered the academy, it is often phrased in dense and impenetrable language. Given the ongoing oppression of queer people, intersecting with issues of class and race, this often renders the discourse inaccessible to the very people that it concerns. In opposition to this, queer people have a history of subverting traditional methods of communication. The relative scarcity of queer voices means that they have to forge their own communities. This is itself a radical act. Throughout history we can see queer communities organising through subcultures and navigating societal underbellies. In the early twentieth century, when discussion and distribution of any material referencing homosexual activity was illegal, early activists worked with the avenues that were initially in place for distributing pornography to distribute their revolutionary manifestos.10 Significantly, these networks could only become politicised and could only be politically useful once they had already been established on a large scale – fundamentally, the issue that isolated gay men could primarily unite under was lust, with radicalisation and a politics of liberation coming soon afterwards.
This history of illicit queerness – barely a history given that there are people alive today who remember it – is subsumed by assimilationary tendencies within the neoliberal gay rights movement, with prime examples being organisations such as Stonewall and the Human Rights Campaign. It is this attitude – one of allowing the queer to merely survive alongside the straight mind while still under its influence – that undermines work done by revolutionary queer activists such as Sylvia Rivera and Leslie Feinberg. It aims to remove the anger from liberation, an anger that fuelled the Stonewall riots and an anger that undeniably was vital to twentieth-century struggles for queer liberation.
Lisa Duggan, writing about such organisations, including the International Gay Forum, a libertarian gay rights organisation affiliated with the Republican Party, notes:
By producing gay equality rhetoric and lobbying for specific policies that work within the framework of neoliberal politics generally, The IGF and its affiliated writers hope first to shore up the strength of neoliberalism in relation to its critics on the Right and Left, but especially in relation to the gay Left.11
These organisations work in a mode that Duggan calls homonormativity, which trades in the rhetoric of normalcy, trying to show that the gay narrative is in fact no different from the straight one. Part of it comes from an uncritical and unintersectional approach: elevating white, middle-class, cisgender gay men and denying voices to ‘less desirable’ members of the queer community. What is most problematic is that this is still presented as a liberal, socially responsible view, allowing those in power to appear progressive in their acquiescence to ‘gay rights’. However, in doing so it often preserves functions of mass oppression, including neoimperialist tendencies.12 This is the insidiousness of the neoliberal worldview, which ‘is often presented as not a particular set of interests but as a kind of non-politics – a way of being reasonable and of promoting universally desirable forms of economic expansion and democratic government globally. Who could be against greater wealth and more democracy?’.13
Despite queer women and trans people having always been part of the historical movement for equal rights for queer people, the movement is still referred to as ‘gay rights’ and it works towards ‘gay marriage’; this again is the straight mind’s application of cisgender maleness as universal. Through the use of such normative language in struggles for the much broader community, they are watered down and tailored for consumption by and assimilation into the straight mind. This can be seen in campaigns such as ‘I’d bottom for Hilary’, supporting Hilary Clinton’s nomination for the 2016 US presidential election. Not only does this perpetuate the idea that ‘bottoming’ is shameful, a misogynistic product of the straight mind by equating receiving anal sex with receiving heterosexual sex in a cis body (namely, the straight mind’s understanding of ‘sex’) and thus with being a woman, it does so in support of someone who has implemented some of the most indiscriminately violent foreign policy in recent years, destroying the homes and killing the families of queer people in the Middle East where, as Secretary of State, Clinton sent drone strikes.
However, there are many people that do fight against these normative trends and one of the most potent battlegrounds for this is language. Language can be a method for which the oppressed can be rejected from the universal point of view, or can let in only the least undesirable. In this context Julia Kristeva sets up, alongside the subject and object of traditional linguistics, the idea of the abject – that which the subject expels from the body or makes Other.14 However, as Butler argues, ‘prior to this asymmetrical relation to speech […] is an ideal social contract, one in which every first-person speech act presupposes and affirms an absolute reciprocity among speaking subjects’.15 There is always a radical potential within language tied to the potential of the universal subject; it is possible to make queerness universal simply by speaking about it. In speech from queer to queer we can attempt to push at the boundaries of the straight mind and reject compulsory heterosexuality. Heteronormative and cisnormative language is hard to avoid in most contexts, but the possibility always remains, and in that possibility lies liberation.
It is important to see the impositions of the straight mind as acts of violence and as a constant reminder of society’s ever-present processes of othering. We can see this throughout everyday language in the processes of abjection by the straight subject. The immediate response to this is to attempt a reclamation of language. Reclamation comes from the Latin reclamare, meaning to shout back,16 and is a way for oppressed groups to fight back against the everyday assault upon them, embracing and redirecting the oppressive power of slurs as a weapon of solidarity. The use of the word ‘weapon’ here is intentional: many writers, including Wittig, use the language of violence when talking about resistance against oppression. This is done in response to the everyday violence of the straight mind. Starting with reclaimed language such as ‘queer’, the resistance movement can rally around this. This is exemplified in the reaction of the queer community to the AIDS crisis, especially through the ACT UP direct action group, as seen in their ‘Queer Nation Manifesto’, where they aggressively self-define as queer:
Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike gay, doesn’t mean male. And when spoken to other gays and lesbians it’s a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy. Yeah, queer can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.17
Here we see explicitly what Wittig discusses theoretically – the use of language to politically unite a group in the face of subjugation. The manifesto’s focus is wide-ranging, but it concentrates most on the HIV crisis and living in a straight world. It uses language of violence and resistance, but above all it is celebratory, and it is a celebration that only exists because of the state-sponsored violence against them, not in spite of it. Its opening line – ‘How can I convince you, brother; sister that your life is in danger’ – is the universalising language between deviants, in assuming that the person addressed transgresses the straight mind and in offering advice in how to do so. It is still phrased in a language that contains oppressive structures, but it moves to subvert these by destabilising the subject. Most crucially, it acts to relegate the straight mind, an entity which gains its semantic charge in opposition to its Other, to the place of Other.
More recently, the insurrectionary anarchist group Bash Back continue on this trajectory, calling for violence against the straight mind and using its own language, totally rejecting academic discourse exemplified in their slogans: ‘Read less, fight more’, ‘Friendship, Vengeance and Contempt – these are the only guides worth following’. Their publication I-Don’t-Bash-Back-I-Shoot-First is a handbook for replicating their insurrectionary tactics, responding to the institutional violence queer people face at the hands of the straight mind with actual violence, usually against known abusers or rapists, who face no consequences in modern corrupt systems.18 Such tactics may be seen as extremist and rejected by the majority of activists. However, it is clear that the monolithic effect of society’s imposition of the straight mind is a much greater act of violence than those of a small group resisting it. They work to reject the cultural assumptions of compulsory heterosexuality, and especially those attitudes of homonormativity, that emerge from the neoliberal embracing of liberation rhetoric. As social liberalism starts to become a more dominant worldview, it is clear that we must acknowledge the totalitarianism of the straight mind and compulsory heterosexuality in their pervasion of every aspect of modern life. Otherwise, the reign of ‘gay rights’ will continue and any true liberation will be stunted, privileging those acceptable faces already positioned to gain the most from neoliberalism. Without such critical engagement with our politics, it is clear that true progress is unachievable.
Henrx Holmes is a second year Mathematics and Philosophy student at Wadham College, Oxford. They are the treasurer of the Oxford Left Review and a member of the editorial collective.
1 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 10th anniversary edn (London: Routledge, 1999), p. xv.
2 Monique Wittig, ‘The Mark of Gender’, in The Straight Mind And Other Essays (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 79.
3 See Claire Ainsworth, ‘Sex Redefined’, Nature, 518 (February, 2015), 288-291.
4 Emily Martin, ‘The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’, Signs, 16 (1991), 485-501, p. 494.
5 Melanie Blackness and others, ‘How Sexually Dimorphic are We?: Review and Synthesis’, American Journal of Human Biology, 12 (2000), 151-166, p. 154.
6 Monique Wittig, ‘The Straight Mind’, in The Straight Mind And Other Essays, p. 27.
7 Wittig, ‘The Mark of Gender’, p. 80.
8 She claims this in saying that through queerness’s rejection of heteronormative standards, lesbians remove the mark of gender by diverting the male gaze’s categorising effects – see Wittig, ‘The Straight Mind’, p. 32.
9 Butler, p. 3.
10 See Michael Stabile’s (dir.) Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story (2015) for a depiction of this.
11 Lisa Duggan, ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, in Materialising Democracy, ed. Dana Nelson and Russ Castronovo (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 179.
12 See for example Israel’s use of socially liberal gay rights rhetoric as part of ‘Brand Israel’.
13 Duggan, ‘The New Homonormativity’, p. 177.
14 Butler, p. 181.
15 Ibid., p. 164.
17 ACT UP, ‘The Queer Nation Manifesto’ (1990) <http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/queernation.html> [accessed 28 May 2015].
18 Bash Back! ‘I-Don’t-Bash-Back-I-Shoot-First’ (2011) <http://zinelibrary.info/files/i%20don’t%20bash%20back%20i%20shoot%20first.pdf> [accessed 28 May 2015].