Fourth-Order Queer Nightmare Discourse

Like all self-respecting Twitter users, I do not like getting into legitimately controversial discussions. I like to keep pumping out the ever-faithful ‘trans good’, ‘leftism good’ and ‘capitalism bad’ takes, and to enjoy the lovely chorus I have built up of people who also believe that trans good, leftism good and/or capitalism bad. Unfortunately, I appear to have misplaced my good sense enough to get invested in an area of The Discourse where there are no winners, everyone’s mad at each other, and no matter where you tread, you’re probably treading on a landmine.

This explosive territory, which I mentally call Fourth-Order Queer Nightmare Discourse, involves talking about the complicated edge cases and difficult quandaries that pose inconvenient problems for our understanding of sexuality and gender, such as ‘can genderqueer people experience their attraction to men as gay and to women as gay’, or ‘can a person retain a monosexual identity if they remain in a relationship with a partner who transitions to a gender that conflicts with that identity’. These debates are often centred around lesbianism, mainly because ‘lesbian’ has the unusual status of both historically hosting a lot of very different and complicated people, both sexuality- and gender-wise, yet also historically hosting a principle of exclusion (male exclusion) very fiercely and centrally — even more so considering the long history of misogyny, male abuse and male oppression enforced onto lesbians.

This is not great for me, as someone who is very invested in the edge cases (which often involve non-binary and genderqueer people, like me), because I’m bisexual and have a male partner, and therefore my presence in these discussions is often taken as ‘you want us to call you a lesbian while you’re dating a man’ (I very much do not) or ‘you’re not a lesbian, yet you’re trying to tell lesbians how to use the word lesbian’. My position in this discourse is that I am queer and genderqueer, and a lot of people of all sexualities are insistent on posing easy solutions to the problems that genderqueerness and queerness present for, say, monosexuality — easy solutions that neutralise the productive difficulty these identities have. I have no right to tell a lesbian how to experience their own sexuality (nor do I wish to), but cis people, including cis lesbians, also don’t have the right to dismiss non-binary and trans people talking about issues of gender, or saying that they don’t always have the easy and friction-free experiences with certain identities (like ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’, for instance) that they’re ‘supposed’ to have.

The argumentative territory I’m talking about encompasses stuff like identity gatekeeping, the split attraction model, sexual fluidity and gender fluidity, and has come to a crux somewhat with the recent presence of the term ‘bi lesbian’. A small minority of people use the term ‘bi lesbian’ for themselves (a small enough minority that people arguing over the term have usually never actually heard a bi lesbian explain their use of the term, which is part of why these arguments are always a hellscape). There are various reasons I’ve seen people give for their use of the term: sometimes it’s people who experience their attraction to non-binary people as distinct from their attraction to women, but who are not attracted to men; sometimes it’s people who identify as bi, but do not functionally experience desire for men or a desire to date men, sometimes due to trauma; sometimes it’s people who believe their baseline sexuality is lesbian but who have adjusted because of e.g. a transitioning partner; there are other ways of using it as well. All of these are messy definitions, because it’s a neo-term that a few people are using if they feel like other terms don’t fit. All these experiences can also be approached from the angle of other terms, as well, but it may be that those terms also cause more problems than they solve.

‘Bi lesbian’ has become a shorthand term onto which people project a lot of diverse angers, and this is exacerbated by a misinterpretation of where the term is coming from. Since most people arguing about the term haven’t talked to someone who uses it, they can project the use of the term onto some sort of hostile non-sapphic presence, rather that realising that some of its users would easily be seen as lesbians if they wished to be. The main argument against it is that it implies that lesbians are capable of being attracted to men, and rids ‘lesbian’ of an inherent complete male exclusion; another common argument is that the idea of ‘bi lesbianism’ encourages men to believe that lesbians are available to them (an argument that, to me, looks a lot like blaming ‘irresponsible’ sapphics for the actions of homophobic & misogynistic men).

Saying that absolute definitions always break down somewhere doesn’t mean that monosexual gayness can’t functionally work, or that all lesbians have to open themselves up to the possibility of dating men, etc — it means that individual queer people are always having to navigate the complex, unnameable parts of their own experience, and that any absolute, unbendable laws end up having a problem somewhere. ‘Excluding men’ isn’t the problem here; ‘men’ is the problem. What’s meant by ‘men’? There are lesbians who pass as men; clearly that’s not the same as being men, but thinking that a hard, non-porous boundary exists between ‘lesbianism’ and ‘maleness’ is to ignore a hell of a lot of lesbian and trans history. When it comes to non-binary and genderfluid lesbianism, there are a lot of mines to step on with regard to ‘perceiving’ people as a certain gender, or having different levels of attraction to different non-binary people, or the same direction of attraction being sapphic at some times and not sapphic at others, depending on how your gender changes. Can you be a lesbian if you’re male some of the time? 25% of the time? 10%? 5%? Can you hop in and out? What about people who are plural, and have different sexualities for different personalities? Should you take on a label that takes into account the possibility of future fluidity and change, even if your present sexual reality is a static one?

I have an affinity for people who are trying to cover their big ugly messy experiences in a patchwork of labels, and I tend to get frustrated at the case-solved people who say ‘well, actually you just have to self-define in this way and that way, there, I’ve solved the problem.’ Obviously there are wrong and bigoted ways to use labels, but implying that every person should go the same way when using labels or they’re deliberately being difficult feels intrinsically wrong to me, and it’s often used to oversimplify the legitimate problems that e.g. the non-binary community presents for the concept of monosexuality. Yes, using ‘bi’ to mean ‘attracted to women and non-binary people’ can neglect the existence of non-binary women and the important presence of non-binary lesbians in lesbianism; yes, using ‘lesbian’ to mean ‘attracted to women and non-binary people’ can mean thinking of non-binary people as a women-adjacent monolith. Neither of those have to mean those things, though, and I don’t think we have to, as a queer community, decide on an absolute answer for what you call that experience, nor do we have to automatically interpret non-standard uses of terms as a way to smuggle in bigotry.

I hate the disingenuousness that is ascribed to most people who use labels in a nonstandard way, because I intensely know what it’s like to feel like none of the words at your disposal work. Even if they’re misguided, most of these people are clearly not disingenuous and are trying to encapsulate their experience properly. I understand the knee-jerk anger if someone calls themselves a lesbian while being involved with men, but said person likely has a reason that they’re doing that, and even if it’s a bad reason, it’s probably still worth hearing it. I’ve felt mad at people who give confusing and seemingly bad reasons behind their gender labels, but I’ve often learned more from those people than anyone else, mainly because they’re often talking at a higher level of awareness than I’ve reached. (Most of us have experienced that sheer frustration of someone who doesn’t know anything making fun of what you’ve said, because they don’t understand the references and jokes and awarenesses that you have.)

I tend to sort of take as a given that a lot of queer human experience hasn’t been mapped properly with language yet, and that people using weird-sounding terms should be listened to, rather than first pushed away as a source of threat. I’ve never understood the sheer amount of rage towards, like, Tumblr otherkin kids; they were trying to create a whole language for an alien experience they were having. It’s so callous to disregard and mock them when they were actually being brave enough to try to encapsulate an ‘irrational’ experience, and you can clearly read queerness and neurodivergence in a lot of the stuff they were talking about. They just weren’t savvy enough to call it poetry or queer specfic, so they became a punchline. Figures.

Everything is a mess; everyone is treading on each other’s toes; the seemingly secure foundations are fraying everywhere. That doesn’t mean that, like, bi and lesbian and gay don’t work as words anymore, it just means we have to accept some fraying as a matter of course, rather than trying to produce Easy Simple Rules for how all genderqueer people fit into the matrix and neutralising their inherent difference and disruption. We can’t just quote Google definitions at people and say ‘God, this is so obvious, duh’ when the whole point is that everything’s crumbling and therefore baseline assumptions often do not hold.

The defensiveness built into us all from centuries of queer struggle naturally makes us wary of discussions that peer into the foundations of queerness, because that feels like opening ourselves up for invasion. But the complicated and changeable potentials of human sexuality and gender are not going to wait for us to eradicate homophobia and transphobia before we can talk about them, and saying that sexuality and gender can be fluid does not mean that everyone’s sexuality and gender needs to be called fluid. The principle of exclusion will always lead to us being primarily suspicious of each other rather than first listening to each other, and I think that takes something fundamental away from the meaning of ‘queer.’

Contemporary literature graduate, quizzer and tired leftist.

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