"And in the last fifteen years queer theory has harnessed the repetitive, unpredictable energy of currents, waves, and foam to smash and wash into bits many I’s — from the gendered self to the sexed body, from heterocentric feminist speech to homonormative gay discourse. In this field where groundlessness is celebrated, writers also explicitly or implicitly rely on metaphors of fluidity, which provide an undercurrent for expanding formulations of gender and sexual mobility. Judith Butler’s praise of the resistant power of drag’s fluid genders and sexualities in the pivotal Gender Trouble is echoed by many a queer theoretical text: “Perpetual displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the right to claim naturalized or essentialist gender identities.” 29 This proliferation multiplies the genders and sexualities explored by queer theory beyond women and men, gay and straight. They soon include, as Eve Sedgwick puts it, “pushy femmes, radical faeries, fantasists, drags, clones, leather folk, ladies in tuxedoes, feminist women or feminist men, masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! queens, butch bottoms, storytellers, transsexuals, aunties, wannabes.” 30 No deviant is a desert isle here, but part of an archipelago rushed together by a common sea of queerness.
Does this queer sea have a color, though? As the cascading, un-color-coded sentences of Butler and Sedgwick suggest, in the early 1990s prominent queer theorists denaturalized conventional gender and sexuality while renaturalizing global northernness and unmarked whiteness, initially unreferenced as if they were as neutral as fresh water. In both theorists’ early genderscapes, the bodies and selves rendered fluid are first and foremost gendered and sexualized, only faintly marked by other locations — only secondarily racialized, nationalized, classed. When Butler acknowledges that codes of (presumably white) racial purity undergird the gender norms disturbed in her initial consideration of “fluidity of identities,” she does so belatedly and between parentheses (as part of a long list of clarifications to her discussion of drag in the 1999 preface to Gender Trouble). 31 Sedgwick’s list, somewhat differently, momentarily parts the waves of queer theory’s uncommented whiteness as race fades in subtly with the African American – associated terms bulldagger and Snap! queen. Not only is this faint racialization limited to the black-white landscape of the contemporary global north, keeping terms like mahu, mati, tomboy, tongzhi unlistable, but the particularities of this possible racialization remain as unspecified as the color of the leather favored by “leather folk” or the jacket cut of the “ladies in tuxedoes.” The list’s sheer heterogeneity sweeps the bulldagger’s racial particularities into the same washing currents as the butch bottom’s sexual particularities.
These queer theorists are innovative, rigorous scholars whose work focuses on a predominantly white global north but who do — often in introductions— acknowledge how racialization intersects the construction and deconstruction of ossified genders and sexualities. Shortly after her list in Tendencies’ introduction, Sedgwick contends that “a lot of the most exciting recent work around ‘queer’ spins the term outward along dimensions that can’t be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all: the ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality criss-cross with these and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses.” 32 This is not her work in a text that goes on to deftly engage Jane Austen and Sigmund Freud, but she does gesture toward the importance of “other” scholars taking it up. Similarly, in the preface to the tenth anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, Butler remarks that “racial presumptions invariably underwrite the discourse on gender in ways that need to be made explicit” and concedes that if she rewrote the book she would include a discussion of racialized sexuality. In thinking through performativity and race, she suggests that “the question to ask is not whether the theory of performativity is transposable onto race, but what happens to the theory when it tries to come to grips with race.” 33 But of course there is not just one question to ask of the meeting point between Butler’s theory and race, and those I would pose would be different still. Namely, what happens when queer theories start with explicit formulations of racialized sexuality and sexualized race, rather than add them in after theories like performativity have already been elaborated? How does this change in point of departure change the tidal pattern of queer theory? How might it shift the field’s dominant metaphors, decentering performativity’s stages and unearthing other topoi?"
Black Atlantic, Queer Atlanic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley
The entire piece is great and I encourage anyone who can find it to read it!