[Reaction Paper] The Queer Theory of Heterosexism

Hello again everyone,

It is time for a bunch more reaction type papers! Yay! Aren’t you excited!? Because I sure am! (Gah.)

Anyway, this time rather than watching movies in class and then having time to write about them afterward, we are being assigned readings on a specific social issue each week. The first week (which I have finished already) was on prejudice against Aboriginal peoples. The seminar on this was presented by the professor of the course. The rest of the seminars will be presented by the students. This week it is my turn to present for the class, but I still need to read and react to the readings assigned by the other student that is presenting after me. Her readings are below.

Of particular interest this week is the second reading which is explicitly focused bringing Queer Theory into the practice of Counselling. 

Reading List:

van Gelderen, L., Gartrell, N., Bos, H. M. W., van Rooij, F. B., & Hermanns, J. M. A. (2012). Stigmatization associated with growing up in a lesbian-parented family: What do adolescents experience and how do they deal with it? Children and Youth Services Review, 34(2012), 999–1006.

Smith, L. C., Shin, R. Q., & Officer, L. M. (2011). Moving counselling forward on LGB and Transgender issues: Speaking queerly on discourses and microaggressions. The Counseling Psychologist, 40(3), 385-408. doi: 10.1177/0011000011403165

Considering my interest in sociological and feminist theory, it should come as no surprise that the article by Smith, Shin, and Officer (2011) captured my interest and started me thinking. Of course, this is because, in this article, the authors explicitly invoke Queer Theory in an attempt to offer fledgling counsellors new, more effective ways of addressing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT or Rainbow) clientèle in an appropriate and affirming manner. In doing so, the authors use an example of a counsellor who is meeting a cisgender, gay male client for the first time. The client appears to be experiencing some distress arising from his relationship with his transgender partner. After this first meeting, it is clear to both that things didn’t go at all well. The authors use the rest of the paper to de-construct, analyse, and discuss the actions of the counsellor, and how these actions may have portrayed negativity or ignorance rather than positivity towards the intersectional standpoint of the client.

Although Queer Theory is often referred to as dense and obtuse, even by experienced academics, the authors did a wonderful job of making their analysis clear, concise, and approachable. The authors accomplish this through winding their way through the analysis slowly, taking one step at a time. In this way, the authors lead the reader deeper into the applications of this complex theory without diving into (or being bogged down by) the depths of its finer points. This, while disappointing to the experienced reader of queer theory or post-structuralist literature, is ultimately of great benefit to the average reader of the article.

Further, through expertly framing the narrative of the article, the authors cover more advanced concepts of queer theory without explicitly mentioning the theory or the tenets thereof. Instead, the authors rely on their use of literary assumptions, and the readers desire to tie the entirety of the work together, to accomplish this. However, the implementation of this method of avoidance means that the authors never actually addressed their underlying assumptions in the article. Because of their skill in this regard, this may not have actually contributed to the confusion of the readership, though it very well could have. This is because many of the assumptions made throughout the article ran counter to those that make up our daily experience.

Nevertheless, the use of this framing allowed the authors to explain (without actually explaining) the mutualistic relationship between hegemonic discourse and the structural oppression that it reproduces. In the context of the article, this implicated gender and sexuality in perpetuating the oppression that those in the Rainbow communities suffer under. Taking this to its logical end, the authors argue that the mere existence of gender and sexuality as hegemonic identity classes birth, support, and reinforce heterosexism, cissexism, homonegativity, and transnegativity as we in the Rainbow communities experience them.

This notion that identity classes, through their very existence, actively recreate and support structural oppression—despite not being stated explicitly in the article—truly strikes at the heart of queer theory. In fact, many argue that this is the tenet which the entire theory is built around. If not, it is most certainly one of the points that the theory hinges on, and one which attracts much of the debate. And, realistically, there is much debate to be had at this point.

However, to claim that the debate is truly about whether or not identity classes should exist at all would be doing the debate, or queer theory more generally, a great injustice. As with most things, the actuality of the situation defies simplicity. Even the article seems to acknowledge this, as it both calls for the dissolution of hegemonic identity classes while endorsing them through their continued proliferation in the text.

This makes the reality somewhat complicated, as it isn’t so much the identity classes themselves, but rather the hegemonic nature of these classes, that create and facilitate structural oppression; a point made clear in the writings of Foucault. This means that, so long as the hegemonic aspects of these identity classes are removed, the identity classes themselves can stay. However, as is also made clear throughout Foucault’s writing, this is not a task easily accomplished. Rather, given our propensity to create hegemony through the selective inclusion or exclusion of members of our peer group, the argument to end hegemonic discourse and the argument to end identity classes are, at least at this point in time, functionally the same. To many, this is inherently problematic.

As much as hegemonic identity classes allow for the creation of structural oppression, they also allow for the construction of culture and shared experiences. Knowing that someone else belongs to the same socially oppressed class as yourself allows for a connection that isn’t possible without this knowledge. This bond is something that those in the overclass cannot and do not experience. This is, in part, due to the discourse of the other that reinforces and perpetuates social dominance through leaving the dominant identity unnamed, but also because the impetus for this connection is simply not there.

For those suffering under societal oppression, the need to cling together, develop culture, and find solidarity is very real. The stakes are simply too high not to. Those without the support system to counter this ever-present, top-down pressure are crushed into cultural assimilation. This obliterates the pride that comes from the development of the culture of the oppressed and replaces it instead with shame, self-policing, and internalized oppression. This becomes a self-destructive spiral, which feeds off both the continued pressure towards cultural assimilation and the inability of the person to ever fully assimilate.

For those with the cultural supports that comes with finding community around one’s oppressed identity class, these negative results can be largely avoided. What’s more is that positivity can start to take hold and personal strength and resilience can flourish. Tying this back to the topic at hand, this may help to elucidate the findings of van Gelderen, Gartrell, Bos, van Rooij, and Hermanns (2012).

In their study of adolescents born to lesbian parents, they found that stigmatization based on their parents sexual orientation was common; However, for the most part, the adolescents were able to handle these stigmatizing situations through the deployment of the adaptive coping mechanisms. If these adolescents, through finding other children in similar situations or with similar identities, had developed community pride and a community culture around their shared experiences with oppression and marginalization, this could explain the ability for these adolescents to deal with this negative attention in such positive ways.

Without the positivity of this community pride and community culture arising from the negativity that is oppression and marginalization, it is hard to say what would have happened in the case of these adolescents. Perhaps they would have still shown these positive attributed in dealing with these stressful and unnecessary aspects of growing up. But at the same time, perhaps, without the hegemonic identity classes that pigeon-holed their mothers and, by extension, them, these negative experiences wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Whether this would make for stronger or weaker adolescents, or whether this would make for a truly egalitarian society, free of oppression, marginalization, and discrimination, it impossible to really tell.

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