Sexuality, Identity and Undeserved Privilege

Last night I was reading an article about queer politics and identity categories. A heading in this article from Mark Norris Lance and Alexandra Tanesini states, “Straight Is Not An Identity”.

The authors have concluded in their research that claiming straight as an identity category is never appropriate. Their reasoning is based on the notion that people who are perceived as straight are awarded certain socio-cultural privileges that LGBTI people are not. By invoking the label of straight, they say, one is also invoking the privileges and powers of a straight identity that are in no way deserved. Lance & Tanesini suggest that when non-queer people are asked if they are straight or gay, their answer should be, “straight is not one of my words”(Lance & Tanesini, 2005).

But how realistic is this? How can we ever escape identity categories that seem so central to how we understand ourselves and others. How do I say to someone that straight is not one of my words, when so many people understand sexuality based entirely on the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy? I can only see this being wrongly interpreted as avoidance or a way of hiding some sort of truth. I think I would be pestered endlessly until finally giving in and saying, “Ok I like men, there it is, please stop yelling at me.” Even if I was to decide never to use to the words straight or heterosexual again, wouldn’t other, perhaps more passive indicators of my sexual orientation cause labels, and therefore privileges, to be placed on me without my control or permission?

Being a woman, something more visible than sexuality, automatically gives me privileges and disadvantages too. For example, in 2011 I was turned down for a primary school teaching job because the selection panel told me explicitly after the interview that even though I was the most qualified applicant, they wanted a man. In general, however, it is easier for women to secure jobs with children because women are assumed to be more trustworthy and more maternal than men. This is an absurd assumption, but it is one that helps to explain why male teachers and child care workers are few and far between.

I don’t know if we can ever escape the political implications of identity categories, but I do think it is realistic to ask people who are not LGBTI to recognise and be critical of the privileges which automatically apply to straightness.

I think it is reasonable to ask non-LGBTI people to consider that every time we take our partner’s hand in a public place, we are not stared at. That jokes are not made about our sexual lives at dinner parties (well maybe they are, but not as much). That our families still talk to us after we introduce our partners. That we don’t worry about how new friends and employers might react to our sexuality. That we coast through life without these, and more, very real concerns.

It is easy to live a normative life, and it is easy to ignore the fact that people who live non-normative lives suffer oppression at the hands of those of us whose sexual orientation awards us undeserved privilege. What I am beginning to believe is important however, is that queer theoretical perspectives be open to non-LGBTI readers and writers. I may never be able to see the world through a gay lens, but my experience is that it has only been since reading feminist and queer theory and talking with Faux Queens about sexuality and queerness, that I begin to recognise my privileges and think of them critically each time I hold my partners hand in the shopping centre.

For the sake of this blog I have summarised Lance & Tanesini’s argument into a very small slice of what they say. If you’d like to read the entire article is can be found in Morland & Willox’s Queer Theory; Chapter 14 “ Identity Judgements, Queer Politics”.

To tell me what you think, head to the forum!

References:

Lance, M. N., & Tanesini, A. (2005). Identity Judgements, Queer Politics. In I. Morland & A. Willox (Eds.), Queer Theory Hampshire Palgrave McMillan

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