Power, Prejudice, and Paradox

I’ve recently changed how I describe myself or, more accurately, my experience. I now talk about “my paradoxical experience as a queer, caucasian, cisgender man with unique function (disability).”

indecision-967718-mEven doing this is paradoxical, given I argued the point in 2012 at TEDxAuckland that we need to decay labels to reveal diversity. But I’m doing it to explain a phenomenon of power, privilege and paradox, rather than to label myself.

Power and privilege have long been part of the politics of diversity and discrimination. Recently I heard another diversity expert, Leslie Hawthorne, encourage those with privilege to raise awareness of it by, for example, not using the word “lame” to describe something that is bad or stupid, because you are implying that people who can’t walk are bad or stupid.

There has also been the story of Ijeoma Oluo, a woman of colour, who experienced an instant reduction in racial slurs when she changed her Twitter profile picture to one that made her look caucasian.

These examples seem to me to slightly simplify the understanding of power and privilege — change a word here, look a bit different there. I think there are more complex subtleties at work, like context, subjectivity and objectivity, that paint a broader, more complex picture of power and privilege.

So back to me — let’s deconstruct those labels (or decay them) in terms of power and privilege (I’ll use P&P to save keystrokes).

  • Queer — not heterosexual (but not obviously so) — P&P comparatively low
  • Caucasian — not of colour — P&P unquestionably high
  • Cisgender — not transgender — P&P unquestionably high
  • Man — not woman — P&P unquestionably high
  • Unique function (disabled) — not non-disabled — P&P unquestionably low

So the question becomes, where do I sit in terms of P&P? We could do simple maths: 3 high P&P, only 2 low, ergo I have +1 P&P.

More complex maths — let’s give more points to unquestionably (2) than comparatively (1): -1+2+2+2-2=+3 — so I have +3 P&P? Or do I have +6 P&P as well as -3 P&P?

Of course this is where the paradox and complexity comes in, as well as context, subjectivity and objectivity (and other things I haven’t thought of but probably will do later). Let’s do some more decaying…

Context: As I said at TEDxAuckland, but to reframe it slightly, if I’m in a room of cisgender, caucasian men, they will not see my +6 P&P. They will see and/or sense my -3 P&P, feel awkward, discount me and I will lack P&P.

If, however, I’m in a room of indigenous, transgender and/or queer disabled people, chances are my +6 P&P will become very noticeable and my -3 P&P won’t be enough to save me. There goes my P&P. Again.

Similarly, if I’m in a recognised leadership role or on stage talking about P&P to a TEDx audience, I’ll have more of it than if I’m a stranger in the street.

Subjectivity: This works two ways. 1. The more people know me (i.e. the more subjective their experience of me), the more relative P&P I will have. They’re looking past the labels and seeing me for who I really am. 2. The more P&P I feel I have in different contexts, and the more I am aware of the behaviours and language that are commonly understood in the situation, the less threatening my perceived lack or abundance of P&P is likely to be.

Objectivity: I’ll refer back to Leslie Hawthorne, who recounted a story of an orchestra, which lacked female members. On becoming aware of this, “blind” (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not to people who can’t see) auditions were held, so that decision-makers couldn’t tell the gender of the auditioning person.

Within a few years, female members had increased several-fold. So, ensuring some objectivity around P&P can decrease its impact.

So, where are we? Well, if you’re anything like me you’re likely in some state of confusion and uncertainty which, I would hazard to say, is a very good state from which to tackle diversity, not to mention leadership, complexity and change. Our human need to be sure and certain and to know the answers are precisely what leads us astray in the world, a world which is nothing like what we would like it to be.

In “A Short History of Stupid” by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, Razer observes:

When you elevate lived experience to centrality in your socio- political critique and politics, you delegitimise the contribution to debate from other perspectives; if the traditional logical fallacy is appeal to authority, since the 1990s appeal to experience has come to rival it, creating a hierarchy of analysis with lived experience at the apex of authenticity. Moreover, as the phrase ‘check your privilege’ implies, it is not merely that a non- experience- based contribution to a discussion lacks legitimacy, the possession of other forms of experience creates an illegitimacy that is impossible to overcome: the scoring systems used to allocate ‘privilege points’ can be neatly flipped into a ‘how illegitimate is your opinion’ scale, depending on the colour of your skin, your sexual preference, your income and your gender. The result is a further fragmentation of public debate on issues, with fewer voices heard and greater unanimity among those voices given the imposition of dominant narratives even within sub- groups. The result is also a lesser willingness among generalists, and particularly media practitioners, to genuinely engage on policy issues arising from or including identity politics, for fear of being labelled racist/misogynist/homophobic/middle class/transgenderphobic/ableist/fattist/perpetrators of rape culture. They live in fear of fatally missing some critical nuance that would reveal them as inauthentic, or worse.

I agree. I don’t see myself (or anyone else) as absolutely either owning or lacking P&P — I don’t think it’s a useful paradigm. Sometimes we have, it sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can influence it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we’re prepared, sometimes we’re not. Sorry kids, it’s messy out there.

And — hate to say it — it’s getting messier.

Theory Behind the Label: Queer Theory

Being blind to gender and sexuality seems to be a common theme within what makes a queer a queer.  There is a non-binary outlook on what identity and gender really has become, like an evolution past Male and Female.  Queers have ventured into a new section of the sexuality spectrum.  They have stretched gender and sexual identity to the point that a new language has been developed.   The language has gone beyond defining who they are to defining what they do, sexually and socially.

Others that place themselves within the queer cornerstone are individuals who stretch what sex has become.  Sex is not just a man and woman in the missionary position.  Sex now comes in all kinds of new and adventurous flavors.  From group sex to the rise of S&M culture, queers have ventured past “normal” sexuality to a sexuality that seems to not have boundaries.  Boundaries seem to be what these individuals are trying to blur.  And blur they have with the introduction of what is considered a third sex.

The New Gender

 Transgender is a whole new gender.  It is where biological sex and gender really start to blur and become a person who has evolved past the gender binaries to a queered outlook on how the mind and body can be within the same person, but also tell that person two totally different things about themselves.  Transgender people are people born into the wrong biological bodies and take it into their own hands to become who they really feel they are.  They alter their bodies in such ways as with hormones to even body modification with sex reassignment surgeries.  There are so many sexual identities that are within the umbrella of queer that there has been a new subculture that has developed.

Queer Theory

There is so much that falls under this semi-new cultural term that along with the label comes a new way of thinking. With so much meaning behind such a small word it is no wonder that there has been an uprising of the theory behind this discourse.  Queer Theory in academia has become more prevalent in the last 25 years.  You can now find courses within the university curriculum that are just dedicated to Queer Theory. Queer has also found its way into other courses such as literature and art.  The study of Queer Theory evolved from feminist theory and gender studies.

Just like feminist studies, Queer Theory revolves a lot around gender and sexuality issues.  The use of ‘queer’ texts and the words of theorist such as Michael Foucault, Michael Warner and Judith Butler are used to expand into the construct of what makes this theory worth the exploration.  These individuals’ theoretical works have brought a new way of thinking about sexuality and the politics of gender (Turner 123).

As stated earlier, non-normative sexuality and non-binary ways of thinking have blossomed into a new theory of where the sexual spectrum has expanded beyond the boundaries of heteronormative thinking.  The study of this theory balances history with identity.  As queer theory becomes more integrated into the academic setting it becomes more visible in day to day society as well.  It flows out of books into the streets as a political movement.


Turner, William B. A Genealogy of Queer Theory.   Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Social Movement Behind the Label Queer: Understanding LGBTQ populations

The politics of being queer is a radical social movement that deals with sexual identity and gender performativity. It has become a movement of individuals who feel they do not fall within the ‘normal’ social structure.  Some, who claim the term, would venture to say that the label has become to be understood as promoting non-identity or even an anti-identity .

“In the context of a current queer politics, which celebrates those who play out precisely these roles in the form of butch/femme, transgenderism and sadomasochism as the transgressive vanguard of the revolution”, one cannot fully understand where the movement is headed according to Shelia Jeffreys. Queers seem to claim the notion that being labeled as such makes them a walking statement.  But the politics of being queer is not one that just differ “us from them”, it is also looking for a place to fit within society.  It is a term of assimilation.

queer_700In other words, we could say that groups such as these took, for the most part, what we would now refer to as an assimilation approach to politics and to social change. The aim of assimilationist groups was (and still is) to be accepted into, and to become one with, mainstream culture. Consequently, one of the primary tenets of assimilation discourses and discursive practices is the belief in a common humanity to which both homosexuals and heterosexuals belong.  And this commonality – the fact that we are all human beings despite differences in secondary characteristics such as the gender of our sexual object choices – is the basis, it is claimed, on which we should all be accorded the same (human) rights, and on which we should treat each other with tolerance and respect. ~ Nikki Sullivan

So, the politics is not just one of what separates, it is trying to find exactly where they fit into today’s society.  The social movement is a movement that is searching for tolerance.  It is true that queers see themselves as something different and want to own the identity, but with what makes them different is exactly what makes them want to find a place to be accepted.

Growth of this Identity

The growth of this identity is an everyday action.  A new term or way of identifying oneself changes as fast as someone chooses that there is not a word satisfactory to describe who they feel they are.   Putting meaning to a term that represents a wide spectrum of identities and sexualities is most definitely no easy task.  But with the knowledge that “queer” is a term that takes identity to a level in which it flows as easily as the sexuality in which it encompasses, one can try to understand where this new wave of culture is coming from.  Knowing that a label with such harsh beginnings can be reclaimed and used as a word of empowerment is just the beginning in understanding what queers are really trying to convey with their terminology.  In venturing into who uses the label “queer” we begin to see that this identity is one that many claim as a general term for what separates them from “normal” society.

Umbrella Term

With this notion of what this all-encompassing word brings to the table, it is no wonder that the branch of Queer Theory has sparked the interest of scholars.  Queer Theory in academia has brought more justification to it being allowed into everyday situations.  With the new flow of “queerness” out of text to the tangible it has allowed for the act of being a “queer” as a walking, talking political statement.  With the rolling of identities into this neat little package of a label, it has forced this term to not only be an identifier, but it is also a social movement of individualism, which is also looking to be accepted into today’s society.

More Information:

Jagose, Annamarie.  Queer Theory: An Introduction.  New York:  New York University Press, 1996.

What’s in the Label: Understanding LGBTQ Populations

Youth1From gay veterans being banned from the St. Patrick’s Day parade to a father killing his own daughter because she was a lesbian, these types of incidents appear to be more common and frequent in today’s world. Maybe if we created a foundation with a bit of information about this community, there will be a better understanding and more acceptance toward LGBTQ individuals. This article is the first in a three part series looking at the labels and stigma attached to LGBTQ populations.

According to MSNBC, organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in one of the most liberal states of the union prevented LGBTQ service members from marching in the parade. Organizers stated,

The vets will only be allowed to march if they do not reference their sexual orientation. “It is our intention to keep this parade a family friendly event,” the group wrote. “We will not allow any group to damage the integrity of the historic event – or our reputation as a safe and fun filled day for all.”

Labels are not something most people want to be associated with, but in today’s society everything must be defined. People must construct a system in which to identify each other. The words that define who a person is can range from their race to their gender. These identifiers can be ones bestowed on them by history, by the way the worldviews them and even by the individual. These chosen labels have been sometimes ones that have stemmed from hate and are meant to hurt instead of liberate the people in which it is defining. Even though a label started out as one meant to hurt and humiliate, sometimes that same term becomes reclaimed as a positive defining word used by someone to justify who or what they stand for.

With acronym’s such as GLBTTIQQ, (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgendered, Intersexual, Queer and/or Questioning), one must find homosexual lingo as confusing as ever. It almost seems that more letters and more terms get attached to that acronym and fall under the umbrella of queer every day.The term “queer” has not always been a label someone would want to coin themselves, at best the term was slang for homophobic use. Then somehow throughout the years, queer has become more than a label, it has become a social movement.

Reclaiming the Term

With the rise of Queer Youth today, the sense of identity is a huge part of who they are, and it seems they are changing how to represent themselves on a day-to-day basis. Queer is not just a simple label someone chooses lightly. According to Leslie Feinburg,“Great social movements forge a common language – tools to reach out and win broader understanding”. The term “queer” is not one that is easily defined. “Queer” and the terminology that goes along with it does take one to broaden their mind in order to construct the meanings or anti-meanings to which queers are trying to define.

There is thought and action behind the use of the label “queer” to justify who they are and a claim to what their sexuality says about them. Some of the groups who coin themselves “queer” range from Asexuals, (sometimes referred to as nonsexuality), in its broadest sense means the lack of sexual attraction to others or the lack of interest in sex, to Pansexuals, which refers to the potential for sexual attraction, sexual desire or emotional attraction towards persons of all gender identities and biological sexes while pansexuals see themselves as being “gender blind”

Queer is not only an umbrella term that encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and asexual, it is a statement of where one stands as far as their politics and culture goes. In defining this term, one must also explore who associates themselves with the label, how has “queer theory” in academia affected the term, where has this identity been taken as far as political discourse and what is this social movement that goes along with the meaning of the word “queer”?

Photo Credit: Courtesy of LGBTQ.Org

Greenberg, David F. The Gender Sexuality Reader. Ed. Roger Lancaster, Micaela di Leonardo. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Feinberg, Leslie. The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker, Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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