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Quickie: Identity and labels

March 11, 2012

One thing from Qwo-Li Driskill (Stolen from Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic (pdf). Studies in American Indian Literatures. 16.2. (2004): 50-64.–available, with other work, through Dragonfly Rising) makes a lot more sense in light of the last Quickie: Deviancy and prescriptivism post.

I have been wanting to write more about this basic theme of identity and labels, but it’s a huge topic and I’ve been low on spoons. (And I keep running across things that influence the way I think about this kind of thing, when I have half a draft floating around my head. *wry smile*) This quote, in context, talks around it somewhat. (Bolding added.)

The term “Two-Spirit” is a word that resists colonial definitions of who we are. It is an expression of our sexual and gender identities as sovereign from those of white GLBT movements. The coinage of the word was never meant to create a monolithic understanding of the array of Native traditions regarding what dominant European and Euroamerican traditions call “alternative” genders and sexualities…

I find myself using both the words “Queer” and “Trans” to try to translate my gendered and sexual realities for those not familiar with Native traditions, but at heart, if there is a term that could possibly describe me in English, I simply consider myself a Two-Spirit person. The process of translating TwoSpiritness with terms in white communities becomes very complex. I’m not necessarily “Queer” in Cherokee contexts, because differences are not seen in the same light as they are in Euroamerican contexts. I’m not necessarily “Transgender” in Cherokee contexts, because I’m simply the gender I am. I’m not necessarily “Gay,” because that word rests on the concept of men-loving-men, and ignores the complexity of my gender identity. It is only within the rigid gender regimes of white America that I become Trans or Queer. While homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are problems in Native communities, in many of our tribal realities these forms of oppression are the result of colonization and genocide that cannot accept women as leaders, or people with extra-ordinary genders and sexualities. As Native people, our erotic lives and identities have been colonized along with our homelands…

To understand our place in creation, I look at the stories within my tradition that celebrate difference. To my knowledge as a non-fluent Cherokee speaker, there is currently no term in Cherokee to describe Two-Spirit people. We simply are. However, within our stories are roadmaps for contemporary Cherokee Two-Spirits. Many of our stories address difference, the embodiment of dichotomies, and journeys between worlds.

I can’t add much there, other than that it can get frustrating keeping finding yourself in contexts where you need to come up with a bunch of labels to figure out where different aspects of yourself stand in relation to other people. (Harking back to the previous post, much more instrumental and compartmentalized approach, yeah.)  Sometimes it feels much more divisive than illuminating, and this is another reason I have put off writing more about this kind of thing. Right now, I am at a point where none of the labels really feel like they describe me as a whole person. I’m not saying that this is the case for everyone, indeed. Prescriptivism is a good bit of the problem there.

I’ve been wanting to comment more on one dissertation I ran across, in this light. I don’t have the spoons to go into more depth on how similar themes apply to wider Appalachian cultures, but the very real cultural differences (on top of the urban-rural divide) were frustratingly not taken into account by the author of QUEER APPALACHIA: TOWARD GEOGRAPHIES OF POSSIBILITY. One heading: “There are gay people in Eastern Kentucky?”; I knew I had to at least skim it after that. ;) It was a bit dense but very interesting in spite of that lack, especially the focus on urban and rural experiences of queerness and all the oppositional binary, universalist weirdness going on there which too often further marginalizes some of us on the more rural side of things (also with some very specific regional bias)–but I would interpret a number of things differently, being more familiar with and having needed to do a lot more thinking about fundamental cultural differences which would apply here. Some of the questions of visibility, identity, and how labels and terms even translate from more mainstream-US-cultured, urban queer contexts are very relevant.

Another one which was interesting in spite of being horribly dense with IMO unnecessarily thick jargon, and with some similar experiences I would interpret very differently in context: The (Mis)translation of Masculine Femininity in Rural Space: (Re)reading ‘Queer’ Women in Northern Ontario, Canada. These interpretations may well be valid for Thunder Bay; I’ve never even been there. But, this kind of universalist interpretation of cues and cultural themes is part of the problem, in my experiences elsewhere. You can’t just be (descriptively), you must be doing (prescriptive) elaborately coded binary-gender-specific things at all times. Even if all you’re doing is wearing comfortable and practical clothing for what you’re actually doing, it must be part of gender performance. It’s impossible that more things may just be considered gender neutral. And the very idea of “masculine feminity” obviously makes sense to everybody, in the first place. (Yes, I do get the idea, and it does work for some people in some contexts; more power to them. Assuming that everybody who is doing something you don’t understand must be sending some deliberate message which you obviously do understand based on what you are familiar with? Universalist projection, which is kinda the problem here.)

I would like to get around to doing a longer, more coherent post about some of this stuff. To some extent, it also applies to disability and neurodiversity, among so many other things.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2012 12:35 am

    It is very interesting how far off people are about the contexts and interpretations of rural culture huh?

    • urocyon permalink*
      March 13, 2012 3:41 am

      Even in the Detamore dissertation, which was trying to do better.

      Pretty close to the core of that, AFAICT:

      Our gaggle of queer rabble-rousers managed to infiltrate these straight spaces and were welcomed in them. Now, it should be noted that familiarity was certainly at play.

      Erm, yeah. I thought I was going to laugh myself silly over the idea of “queering” (much less “infiltrating”) the local Chinese buffet, in particular. If these are spaces for all community members, how can you infiltrate them? I would be absolutely amazed to get any kind of public hostility in these situations; definitely none with power differentials involved which would make me nervous that way. (Including in those particular areas; I’ve got relatives nearby, and have spent time there.) The differences in expectations still astounds. As does the idea of feeling a need to flee for the city, possibly for your own safety/mental health.

      That kind of expectation difference based on experience–beyond some of the explicit discussion of urban and rural experiences–did make me think a lot, though, about marginalization and the actual need for some separate spaces in settings where people are less likely just to go “Oh yeah, that’s Sally; you know how she is.” Though, one thing that Robert Thomas kept pointing out is that rural cultures, in general (and Southern Appalachia, in particular), tend more toward that way of dealing with people–and I can see why, regularly dealing with a smaller pool of people, so you’d better try to at least act civil or you’ll have an awful lot of unpleasant interactions–with Native cultures toward the extreme there.

      (ETA: Just remembering one guy my mom worked with–as a greedy, powermongering low-level supervisor–and my uncle lived near and also got into some problems with. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought his full name was “That GD Asshole D.S.”–with his first and last names run together into one unit. And it wasn’t just coming from my relatives who knew him, in a wider community with tens of thousands of people. Talk about tons of unpleasant interactions which really are of your own making…

      I was at a community college when seemingly half the people at their former workplace got laid off and took advantage of educational/retraining benefits–and there was this man going around, looking over his shoulder all the time and generally acting paranoid around groups of people. All was explained when I overheard some references to “That GD Asshole D.S.” which obviously applied to him. *sigh* It was darkly funny, in a way.)

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