On Actually Keeping Queer Queer: A response to Cherrie Moraga

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Cherríe Moraga’s essay, entitled “Still Loving in the (Still) War Years: On Keeping Queer Queer,” is a two-part essay that was first published in 2009. The first part is a brilliantly written critique on the mainstream gay rights movement’s focus on marriage equality. The second part is a misguided and misinformed attack on the trans* community in general and the transmasculine community in particular. Moraga is well known within QTPOC activist circles and the purpose for this response is to facilitate an inter-generational dialogue that is both effective and salient. I want to bring our best to the table by continuing to challenge and critique, while at the same time to honor and recognize those that have come before. In short, I want to change the world and the only way to do that is to work together.

In the first half of the essay, Moraga outlines how the gay rights movement is flawed in its mostly white, single-issue politics. She says that the movement is “prompted by the entitlement of race and class” which the mostly white queer proponents of the movement possess.  In other words, she states that the contemporary gay rights movement seeks not to challenge those systems of power that keep people oppressed, which is what it’s original aim was, but instead desires to assimilate into those very systems- both as individuals and as a movement.  Moreover, she argues that the movement fails to recognize the way white queers are implicit in the cultural imperialism involved in transnational adoption and “the support of immigrant rights for gay couples but not for migrant workers”.

She contends that the originating goal of the queer rights movement was to create a world in which queers could build and create the kinds of families that they chose, which may or may not have been the nuclear family of Middle America. However, the movement has become one of assimilation and not resistance, due to the co-optation of the movement by middle-upper class white queers.

Essentially, she calls the contemporary gay rights movement racist in all but name. And I agree with her. This is not the part of her essay that I take issue with, however.

In the second half of the essay, Moraga endeavors to present a well-reasoned critique of the trans* community. The critique ends up falling flat, however, because her assertions are wrong and they are inconsistent with the first part of her essay.

Moraga begins by stating that she is scared that “the transgender movement at large, and plain ole peer pressure, will preempt young people from residing in that queer, gender-ambivalent site for as long and as deeply as is necessary.”(pp. 184) The assumption here is that young people are incapable of making decisions for themselves and that social pressures will force them one way or another. This claim has two problems. First, it is inherently adultist. By making the claim that the transgender movement and peer pressure that will cause young people to transition invalidates their lived experience. Young people, just like adults, are the experts of their own experience and can come to conclusions and make decisions on the path that they want their lives to take. Certainly there are influences that effect those decisions, as is true of adults, but the decisions are ultimately theirs to make. In other words, her argument erases the self-determination that young people have. Second, this statement reduces the trans* experience to those just transitioning. It erases all of those trans* identified folks who are pre-op or non-op and who do exist in that space. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Moraga goes on to state that, “accepted models of transgender [expression], especially for transmen [sic], influenced by a generation of the commodification of Black and Brown masculinity, may not offer young people of color the opportunity or option to draw from their own ‘unmarketable’ cultural traditions and histories in framing their gender identities.” (pp. 184) So in other words, Moraga claims that the narratives society gives to men of color, that Black and Brown men are brutes, sexist, oppressive, criminals etc., are accepted without question by trans men of color. This is, however, not the case. Numerous queer people of color organizations across the country are attempting to define masculinity, and femininity, for themselves, from the Brown Boi Project to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) to FIERCE. The Brown Boi Project in particular focuses it’s framing of Black and Brown masculinity within the contexts of anti-oppression and gender justice and works towards community wellness. SRLP, on the other hand, focuses their gender justice work around legal advocacy and support.

Moreover, Moraga’s assertion fails to recognize that people of color in North America are the byproducts of numerous diasporas. Because of this, many of us are so disconnected from our cultural roots and traditions that we do not have access to them and more, do not even know what they are. We don’t know where to begin. One of the legacies of colonialism is that most Black and Brown do not know where their ancestors come from. This makes it difficult, then, for those people to construct their genders based on cultural traditions. We do the best we can with that tangled skein of linage and tradition.

Moraga then asserts that, in many ways, all queer people are transgender. (184) And while this might have been the case thirty years ago, that is not the case today. The mainstream gay rights movement, which Moraga harshly criticizes, has made it clear that queer people and trans* people are decidedly not the same. The definition of those identities today is clear. If that were not the case, the mainstream gay rights movement would be advocating for the concerns of the trans* community.

Put in another way, pre-Stonewall gay people and gender non-conforming folk needed to stick close to one another because of the desperate intensity of oppression that queer people were subjected to. Heteronormative patriarchy, in those days, made no distinction between transgender and gay. At that time, gays and lesbians might have been able to claim the identity of being transgender. That is not the case today, however. Not only that, but by Moraga saying that queer people are transgender, she is conflating the ideas of sexuality and gender. While it is obvious that the two influence each other, it is not the case that they are one and the same or that they are even dependent on each other. There are many trans people who don’t identify as queer and it’s obvious that many queer people don’t identify as trans.

Aside from all that, however, is the fact that she contradicts herself. She does this by identifying herself as a part of the community and at the same time denying transmasculine people of color the ability to choose for themselves their own identity. One cannot be part of a community and still deny that community its right to exist. And I would argue that is what Moraga is implying. By saying since transmasculine folks of color can’t, or shouldn’t, be trans* she is denying their right to exist.

Moraga goes on to give an account of how she perceived her gender identity when she was younger. She says that she felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body and that if she had been born in 1982 instead of 1952, she would have come out as transgender (185). This is, however, a reductionist account of the trans* experience. Not all trans* people feel like they were trapped in the wrong body, although some do. The trans* experience is as varied and complex as the experience of a queer woman or a queer man.

She says also that she is grateful for the lesbian feminist discourse that was active when she came of age because it allowed her to construct her identity and desire within a critical political framework. The underlying assumption there is that there is no critical political discourse today to help queer people of color construct their identities. If anything, the discourse has become more nuanced since the 70s and 80s and is better able to account for all of the beautiful diversity of experience. The reason for this is because our community is constantly challenging itself to be as radically inclusive as possible. It’s clear that the contemporary discourse is informed and built on the foundation laid down by lesbian feminist of color thought.

Moreover, whether one is being influenced by the discourse of lesbian feminism of color in the 80s or the contemporary trans*, anti-racist discourse, the influence remains the same. We cannot help but be defined, in part, by the context in which we exist; to claim that one is superior to the other is the wrong assertion to make. Rather, we should see the progression of thought as a necessary thing and it is all built on what has come before. The trans* people of color discourse could not be what it is today without the foundation of what came before. However, that does not mean that what came before is superior. Rather, it means that the current discourse is an expansion and clarification of the previous discourse.

Moraga states that she “[does] not want to keep losing [her] macha daughters to manhood through any cultural mandates that are not of our own making.” (Moraga 186) Unfortunately, this argument is very similar to those made by homophobic people of color who posit that queerness is something that belongs to whiteness, therefore queer people of color don’t exist. If queerness is imported from white culture then queer people of color construct their identities from cultural mandates that are not their own. This is something that Moraga, as a Chicana lesbian feminist, clearly does not believe. Why, then, would this argument apply to trans* people?

One of the most disheartening aspects of Moraga’s analysis is the failure to mention trans women and how they fit into Moraga’s claims. She mentions them only twice in passing and both times she mentions them because they were murdered. How can Moraga offer a critique the trans* community and fail to address trans women of color? It seems to me that this is just another manifestation of the transmisogyny that is so rampant in the lesbian feminist discourse. This transmisogyny manifests in areas inside academia but also in areas outside academia. From the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which has a policy of only allowing “womyn-born-womyn” in their festival, to the near invisibility of trans women of color narratives and theory in the academy to the profiling and criminalization of trans women who are street-based sex workers, transmisogyny is everywhere. And while the manifestation of transmisogyny is not overt here, it is still one of omission. By excluding trans women in her analysis, she perpetuates the myth that trans women are not real women. Since trans women were assigned male at birth and their genitals are not the “correct” ones, they cannot be real women or experience womanhood. This argument, however, is in complete opposition to one of the main tenets of feminism, namely that biology does not equal destiny. Our genitals do not determine who we are or what we can do. Except, of course, when trans women are concerned. Just as white feminism universalizes the experience of middle-class white women as “The” experience of woman, so to does feminism in general universalize the experience of cisgender women as “The” experience of woman.

We cannot win the struggle for liberation if we are leaving people behind. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the whole reason we fight is so that we can live our lives free. We fight so that we can control and shape our own destiny and determine for ourselves who and what we are. This will never be possible, however, if we ignore and discount whole sections of oppressed peoples. We must do our utmost to not make the same mistake that the mainstream gay rights movement made. We need to do our utmost to provide inclusion, not diversity. By focusing on inclusion, we can avoid causing injustice while fighting against it.

Ultimately, Moraga’s essay questions where the real site of queer resistance remains; if the mainstream gay rights movement remains preoccupied with serving in the military and getting married as a way of assimilating into a white hegemonic culture and her queer “daughters” are becoming men, who is left to resist? She is afraid that “Ameríca wants to defrock us of our queer powers.” (Moraga 188)

I would argue that the only group that wishes to erase our queerness is the mainstream gay rights movement and that to assert that both the gay rights movement and trans* people are trying to erase queerness is contradictory, hypocritical and transphobic. This is because being trans* is by definition the queerest space that one can exist in. The site of queer resistance most obviously resides in the trans* body. This is because being trans* challenges every assumption that heteronormative patriarchy possesses. Being assigned male at birth and then relinquishing one’s male privilege to live a fully actualized life is one of the most radical things that one can do. Being assigned female at birth and choosing to transition out of that in order to redefine masculinity is one of the most radical things that one can do. Those actions challenge on a very deep level what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, and flies in the face of the gender binary. Trans* people smash and obliterate the assumption that there are only two genders (and sexes) and that one must live within the constraints of that binary. And this is why trans* people are so threatening and challenging to society. Society cannot place them and so it retaliates against them. And this manifests in spaces that are supposedly inclusive and queer friendly.

And it is because of the aforementioned reasons that most trans* people need to fight tooth and nail against the dominant paradigm just to stay alive, especially trans women of color. In other words, queer resistance exists most strongly within the trans* community because it is that resistance that is so necessary for their survival. And it is through this fight that communities and families grow. The trans* community has had to define and redefine what it means to be a family. From the Houses of the drag scene in New York City to the bklyn boihood, there are trans* people coming together to support and love each other the ways families do. It is these life saving communities that keep us able to continue to resist. These families give us the strength to live, love and grow. And we need our elders but how can we have them if they deny us? How can you ask us to listen to you when you refuse to acknowledge and listen to us?

Moreover, to make the claim that in a generation, the trans* movement will erase queerness is completely unfounded. Unless there is a completely radical transformation in the minds and hearts of U.S. Americans, and the world, trans* people will remain queer. When 1 in 5 trans* people are at risk for homelessness, there just isn’t any way that they can erase queerness. They don’t have the agency or the power. Put in another way, trans* people don’t have enough influence to disassociate themselves from queerness.

Moraga’s essay is contradictory on the deepest level because she states that “in the Aztlán that I imagine, our queer bodies, as they were born, will no longer be marked by society.” (Moraga 187) This, however, fails to see the point. This is because all of our bodies would cease to be queer if they were not marked. We can only define ourselves as queer in opposition to that which is not queer, namely straight and cisgender. Thus, our bodies are marked. However, if that distinction ceased to hold meaning then there would be no such category as such. That, then, would lead to assimilation and homogenization. Which is exactly what Moraga is working against. This marking, however, does not need to be a negative thing or something caused by oppression. Rather, we can see this mark as being just that. We are different from straight and cisgender people. That is a fact.  And while this difference stems, in part, from our experience of oppression, that is not the only thing that makes being queer different. Being queer is different from being straight just as apples and different from oranges. The point here isn’t to change that mark but rather to recognize it, embrace it, celebrate it and remove from it the part that results from oppression.

Additionally, the assumption as Moraga has it, that if we were not marked we would not have to transition or change our bodies is transphobic because it erases those people who feel that need. It is basically saying that trans* people would not exist if those things that marked us, namely heteropatriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism, did not exist but that other queers, namely lesbians and gay men, would.

If we are to make a world where power and resources are shared equitably, then the interests of the most vulnerable must be put first. We must fight against those forces that keep us alienated from each other. We must resist those influences that would seek to co-opt us, silence us, and assimilate us. Above all, we must constantly be examining our privilege. We must constantly examine how we are implicit in our own destruction. And we must constantly be grounded in the material reality of life today so that our theory can change, adapt and reflect the lived and embodied experience that our theory attempts to capture.

If we are going to use our collective power to elevate and liberate queer/trans* people of color then we must engage in intergenerational dialogue. I call upon our queer elders to share their wisdom with us. Your wisdom is essential if we are to succeed because of the history that you hold. You can tell us where we come from and that is invaluable. But I also challenge those same elders to expand and learn from us. I challenge those elders to let go of definitions and theories that are no longer salient. I also challenge the young people to seek out and learn from and honor our elders. We stand upon their shoulders and that is important to recognize because if we don’t, we fall.

Never forget: we are all in this together.

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About the author

Morgan Collado

Morgan is a trans woman of color of Colombian and Puerto Rican decent. She is the latest in a long line of fierce warriors; walking in the footsteps of Audre Lorde, Sylvia Rivera and her own mother to achieve the collective liberation of all peoples. She will soon graduate with a bachelors in philosophy and religious studies with a minor in psychology. Morgan hopes to go on to graduate school for writing and to use her poems, essays and stories to challenge, inspire and incite radical action. She also enjoys lipstick.

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  • http://twitter.com/KarariKue Karari Kue

    Morgan, thank you for this wonderfully written analysis.

    I wholeheartedly agree that moving forward us cis queer Latin@s  need to reflect on how old forms of organizing queer raza no longer apply.

    Cherríe has done so much for the development of a queer Xican@/Latin@ consciousness. It was reading “La Güera” that i first realized that I could be both queer and brown. However, that does not excuse her for some of her problematic assertions.

  • Jaguilar

    I appreciate your critique.  However, i caution you from making assumptions about what Moraga is arguing in her essay.  Our critiques need to be informed.  Again, thank you for your work.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/herreraylozano Lorenzo HerrerayLozano

    Sigh. I appreciate the “intent” of intergenerational dialogue, but this is just awful.. on multiple levels. For an article asserting that Moraga is making ageist assumptions, the author is throwing assumptions left-and-right about Cherríe and her politic.

    I’d suggest sitting with Cherríe’s work and legacy, _actually_ understand her politic, _then_ re-engage the essay. Let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons we are even able to engage on these topics and with each other today is because of the work of Cherríe and her contemporaries.

    When I was young, my ‘expertise’ on my own life _never_ superceded respect for my elders. Challenging perceived ageism with disrespect is hardly revolutionary. How about we start with some manners? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=554146118 Morgan Robyn Collado

      Hey Lorenzo,
      I would love to hear your feedback on how I was disrespectful to Moraga in my essay or how my essay is awful. I want to know so that I can avoid doing so in the future. I genuinely think that I worded the essay in a way that keeps Moraga accountable while still not being disrespectful.

      One thing that I keep running up against is idea that I don’t “truly” or “actually” understand her work, because if I did than I wouldn’t have any problems. I really want to push back against this assumption because I have sat with her work. I have read much of her writing. And I find most of it absolutely brilliant. Just because I disagree with her and want to hold her accountable doesn’t mean that I don’t understand her work or the significance of it. Because I do. And my critique is a part of that understanding. I know that I walk on the path that she laid the stones for. But just because she laid those stones doesn’t mean that she is infallible or that she doesn’t have blindspots. I disagree with the justification for white supremacy, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand them. Does that make sense? The other thing that I find interesting is that I’m sure she received this kind of criticism from the Xican@s of her day when she wanted queer inclusion in the vision of Aztlán. She was holding the elders of her day accountable and pushing back against the heteronormativity of the movement. I’m sure her words where ignored because she wasn’t being respectful enough in the eyes of those elders.
      Finally, you might have never had to “disrespect” your elders when you were young but they probably looked like you, had similar life stories and represented your politics. I, on the other hand, have no elders that have my story or look like me. And what do you think that says about our communities? Whose needs are we prioritizing? Certainly not the needs of the most vulnerable if trans women of color have NO ELDERS.Thank you for taking the time to read my essay.En la Lucha,Morgan

    • Trix

      This is a discussion on queer identities and you trot out the “respect your elders” line rather than making any actual constructive statements on precisely *how* Morgan didn’t understand Moraga’s politic. I don’t think the argument was perfect myself, but I certainly don’t sense any disrespect in any of this content – “critique” and “disrespect” are not actually the same things.

      And to imply you can’t critique previous work in the queer space means that nothing will ever progress. Otherwise we’d still be in organisations like DOB or the Mattachine Society. Important in their day – for a few – but not a useful model for now.

  • Alma123

    I would have loved to have read and not a response, but a manifestation of how your lived experience should be not just acknowledged and recognized, etc. All this movement and academic deconstruction sit viscerally disheartens me.  I appreciate Cherrie for who she is to our movement and her unique contributions to our shared history, and I want to here our generations voices untangled from the limitations of others.