Identity, Policing, and Appropriation
I’ve recently noticed what appears to be the uncritical importing of the language of appropriation from discussions of heritage to those of gender variance. Now, I certainly think that the term is useful in some situations. For example, drag is a rich queer tradition that under certain conditions, might be said to be appropriated in ways that do not honour its history, or that are uncritical caricatures of femininity and queerness (see the practice of straight men dressing up as “girls” for Hallowe’en).
However, I often see the term being used much more broadly, in ways that diminish its analytical usefulness and that sometimes say more about the accuser’s belief in a true trans* or queer narrative than about the accused hirself. I see a lot of folks calling others out for “appropriating” these labels, but that claim implies that the person doing the calling-out is the sole arbitrator of what is appropriate and inappropriate usage of that label. We only have monopolies on the definitions of identity terms insofar as they apply to ourselves. Nobody owns what it is to be queer/a dyke/a fag/trans*/genderqueer for all people everywhere. In particular, it is almost startling how quickly genderqueer — a term which did not even exist 20 years ago — is being shaped into a coherent, readily understood, nonporous identity category. How else could these accusations of appropriation make sense, without reference to a stable, commonsense genderqueer identity?
And while it’s true that “words mean things,” it’s also true that definitions hold power, and that to enforce your definition of an identity label on someone is thus an act of power. What makes your definition better than someone else’s? What makes it truer? Is it, perhaps, because your experience leads you to feel very strongly about it? What would it mean to acknowledge that other people might feel similarly about their own definitions?
I’m tired of folks who feel they have to expel “pretenders” from their identities in order to shore up the boundaries between categories. I understand the motivation, in that if you’ve invested in a particular identity category, you might feel that its authenticity is somehow being diluted by letting “just anyone” claim it. But I can’t help but feel that those who engage in this kind of behaviour are throwing other folks under the bus in order to hold on to some tiny scraps of privilege.
I think that identity policing also results from a conflation of identity and experience. I believe that some of these arguments about appropriation could then be resolved if we were able to distinguish between identities and experiences. Surely we can talk about the myriad different experiences among folks who hold the same identities. There are differences between people who seek gender-related medical inventions and those who don’t, those who have diagnoses of GID and those who don’t. Recognizing these differences doesn’t invalidate anyone’s identifications. In fact, it’s critical if we want to support and understand each other.
The problem arises when the differences between us are used to construct a hierarchy of oppressions, whereby someone must have suffered X, Y, and Z indignities and abuses in order to be considered legitimately queer/trans*/genderqueer. I’d hope we can agree that this is not a useful pursuit. We should be able to talk about our differences without denying anyone the right to identify the way they wish. The alternative — disavowing experiential differences within our communities — carries with it the very real threat that some folks’ needs will be left behind as others who don’t share those needs speak for them, presuming shared experiences and goals.