Queer Sex: A Trans and Non-Binary Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure and Relationships
Lately the culture wars have been making their way into the queer community. You may be thinking that the queer community has always been part of the culture wars, on the side of the left, but I’m not talking about the culture wars on the level of our whole society. I mean that right now, LGBT culture is having its own microcosmic culture wars—ironically, or perhaps very aptly, one of the major fronts of these wars is happening around whether LGBT, queer, or an infinitely elongated acronym from hell, is the best thing to call our community.
Just like in the macro culture wars, the two sides are roughly the right and the left. Here, they are specialized into the assimilationist side, which seeks to include queer people in the institutions and privilege matrix of the macro culture, and the anti-assimilationist side, which rejects the idea of becoming part of a culture that only a decade ago was upholding Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the Supreme Court, and which three decades ago allowed a plague to ravage our community without even speaking openly about our existence. As you can see, just like in the macro culture wars, the stakes here are no less than the culture itself, its very soul.
Souls are intangible, and the souls of communities even more so. How, then, is this battle for the soul of queer culture playing out in practicality? Culture wars are fought over culture, but they are also fought through culture—while economics and legislation are often involved, the main theater of war here is the stories we tell (both to ourselves and others) to make sense of who we are. As with other marginalized population, any story about us is taken as a definitive statement that applies to all of us. On the flip side, each story about us is another affirmation that we are gaining toeholds in the macro culture wars. The question is: What kind of toeholds are we trying to gain?
Gaining these toeholds is definitely important—from narrative liberation, all other forms of liberation flow, because under late capitalism, propaganda is the de facto currency underlying all forms of existence. To stay alive, you have to beg Middle America to vote to keep you that way. But what portion of our stories should be this queer PR, campaign outreach-style approach, rather than a truthful expression of our reality? And what if this queer PR starts to affect how our own community functions? What if life starts to imitate this assimilationist art, such that we begin to simplify and sanitize ourselves in accordance with these flattened-out narratives?
With that lengthy contextualization, I bring you my main thesis: telling queer stories is weird. Read the queer stories in this book, and maybe together we can make it all a little easier.
Juno Roche’s exploratory book Queer Sex is the story of a trans woman over 50 who is reconnecting with her body and her sexuality. Roche has been involved in queer scenes for decades, but has been held back from sex and intimacy by her disconnection from her body, even after her transition. In a search for herself, Roche interviews other queer activists and artists about their own self-discoveries; her interviews with them, and meditations on what she learned from each interviewee’s relationship to their gender and sexuality, is the meat of the book. As you prepare for your next skirmish in the culture wars, this book and its voices can open up new possibilities for what kind of soldier you can be.
A queer reader will be able to find bits of their ideal selves in the accomplished, experimental, and confident queer people this book has to offer as its interviewees. Just as importantly, though, they will see themselves in Juno Roche’s narration, which is just as clueless and questing when it comes to sex/everything as many queers are, even after years of being out and about in the queer community. The people in these interviews offer perspectives that are liberating and affirming to read, especially to me as a genderqueer person, and especially especially because they offer an illustration of why trans and nonbinary identities are the ones that have often been left behind by the mainstreamer contingent of the queer culture wars.
There are a lot of queer stories that focus on the experience of coming out, or the journey leading up to it. In these stories, the protagonist starts out thinking they’re straight, or maybe knowing they’re not but not ready to be open about it, and then once they tell everyone in their immediate social circles that they’re queer, they self-actualize, maybe find a queer partner, and then there’s a feel-good ending to top it all off. These protagonists are gay or lesbian, and always cis, without the B or T parts of the acronym making appearances at all. There’s a movie out now called Love, Simon that looks like a poster child for this trope.
These stories seem to think that the process of finding one’s identity as a queer person ends with coming out, when really that’s just the beginning—I don’t think I know a single queer person living in a happy ending right now. The “coming out” brand of story serves an assimilationist narrative, because these stories tend to put a “gays—they’re just like us!” spin on queerness that seeks to place queers within the architecture of cis-het privilege, under the guise of a push for liberation and equality. Same capitalist wedding cake, different figures on top.
The narratives in Queer Sex are not those queer stories. The narratives the interviewees give are not totalizing or simple—few of them have cut and dried answers to give about their identity, and when they give advice they focus on the need for everyone to find their own way to self-acceptance and peace. These people are not neatly packaged, nor is their queerness. A straight person reading Queer Sex might not know what to make of it, because these stories aren’t packaged for the consumption of a straight reader—and that’s exactly why queer people will love them.
Queer Sex shows that queer identity is about both exploration and experimentation—who you are, and who you want to be. Are those two things inextricable? Yes! I think most queer people will agree with me when I say that creating one’s own identity is one of the central projects of any queer person’s life. It’s not just the usual finding yourself that most people do during youth—more than for any straight person, the queer journey of self-discovery involves a lot of unlearning, and re-conceiving of what’s possible.
The culture we’re born into comes with rigid guidelines for straight people. People who identify as straight (or people who simply live as straight to blend in) get a clear set of standards for how to mold and present their bodies. When I adopt straight modes of behavior I do not need to be told what to do. This is true whether I’m thinking of the phenomenon in terms of Margaret Atwood’s inner man, an internalized agent of patriarchy watching me from inside my own mind, or as Foucault’s panopticon, an external, violent force which may or may not be watching me at any moment, but which I can’t afford to assume is not.
What I’m trying to say is that I am my own gender police. I know how to tell the lie that is womanhood; I could probably tell it in my sleep. Ironically, it is my truth that I have to figure out how to tell. Juno Roche is still figuring her truth out too. As the kids say, she’s relatable af.
For queer people, both our liberation and our restriction is that we have no blueprints to construct our selves with. All the characters in Queer Sex have to build their selves from the ground up. This exploration that each of us is doing every moment we exist as ourselves is like any cultural exploration, in that our findings are ultimately political. The straight narratives and codes we get before we begin our journeys bind us. They also bind straight people, because they were made to bind straight people. If, in creating our own narratives, we begin to bind ourselves anew, then we won’t have achieved anything but the repetition of our own oppression in a microcosm.
Foucault considers knowledge to be a form of power. Since knowledge, and ways of creating knowledge, are constructed by society, they reflect the system of power at work in society. When we classify people as “straight” or “gay,” we invest those categories with a power differential. The reason we classify people as “straight” or “gay,” is in service to and for the reproduction of this power differential. Additionally, any queer person who has ever been in the closet knows very intimately that knowledge is power when it comes to identity. Knowing what we know about knowing, then, when straight society looks into ours and wants to know us, we should be suspicious.
While there are large, seemingly decisive battles in the culture wars, such as the Supreme Court decisions and Oscar victories, it would be a mistake to feel like these are the only parts of these wars that matter. I don’t want to be that guy who keeps talking about Foucault, but Foucault also speaks of power not as a binary, oppression or freedom with no in-between, but rather as a constructed set of systems whose goal is to police the body, and which operates on the level of each individual body in a “microphysics” of power. Power is not “univocal,” it has “innumerable points of confrontation…each of which has its own risks of conflict, of struggles, of an at least temporary inversion of power relations.”
It is this microphysics of power that is the everyday slog of the culture wars. When we name power, when we come to know it, we can reverse its own dynamics against it, if only incrementally. This can also happen when we name and know ourselves. In all your coming battles, remember that identity is a story—one that you tell about yourself, to yourself as well as to others, with the medium being your body. Queer Sex is about joyfully learning to tell the story of your body, to and with other people (and yourself). It could contain within its pages the role model you’re looking for, or just make you feel less alone as one of those queer people who doesn’t feel represented by the characters in Rent or Glee. These stories, our stories, are vital, and deserve to be told.