Post Modernist Sexuality: PomoSexuals, edited by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel

This post was originally featured on a former iteration of this site on August 27th, 2014. It has been reposted here for posterity. 

When I attended Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit 2014, I bought a few amazing books from the person manning the Red Emma’s Book Collective (they’re awesome, and I hope to visit them and some other awesome places when I eventually visit Baltimore to see Artemesia FemmeCock) table- the first of which was PoMoSexuals, a series of short essays and stories edited by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. The subtitle reads: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality… so of course I picked it up.

When I was just starting to read the preface of this book in the hotel bar, the bartender asked me what it was about, what was a PoMoSexual. Since I had only read a page or two in, I pointed to the back cover, which says:

PoMo: short for PostModern: in the arts, a movement following after and in direct reaction to Modernism; culturally, an outlook that acknowledges diverse and complex points of view.

PoMoSexual: the queer erotic reality beyond the boundaries of gender, separatism, and essentialist notions of sexual orientation.

I didn’t really get the full breadth of what they were intending with this until I read the actual introduction-

Only in the nineteenth century did doctors and voyeuristic social scientists began splitting people up according to sexual orientation, drawing boxes around us that many of us later, through our commitment to identity politics, embraced and reinforced. What we have been called has helped to construct who we were, whether the terms were the doctors’ – homosexual, Urning, “sexually intermediate type” (Sexuelle Zwischenstufen)- or our own: homophile, gay, lesbian, LGBT&F. Even words laced with opprobrium (fag, dyke, queer) have been co-opted and used against the hetero world, serving to bind and configure us in our divergent lives. Once named, language has shaped us, both nurtured and circumscribed our identities.
This constructing, shaping power of language mated with essentialism- the tendency to ascribe abiding characteristics on the basis of gender, orientation, or some other quality- begat a fractured, fractious community within which queers risked being ostracized if they did things the “wrong” way or with the “wrong” person.
— from the Introduction of PoMoSexuals by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, pg. 19

After that, they go on to explain that they choose Post Modern because it was something that grew out of but talked back to Modernism, in the same way a child rebels against the parent, in the same way the next generation builds on the work of the last.

From my reading of the pieces contained in the book, I’ve come up with my own understanding of PostModernSexuality.

There was a time when even in western society, it was considered natural that people have desire for both genders, not just the opposite gender- though it was a given that you should generally not act on these desires, and if you did, it should only be in certain ways that did not violate the gender code:

In the seventeenth century, these relations between members of the same gender did not violate the gender code for two reasons. First, all persons were thought to be capable of desiring both genders. Furthermore, the minority who illegally acted on this universal human desire ordinarily had sexual relations with both genders and usually enacted their sodomitical desires within the rules of patriarchal domination. That is, adult men had sex with adolescent boys whom they penetrated and whose bodies tended to be smooth and small like women’s. Women had sex with females, but without penetration. Sodomitical acts contravened the gender system only when they violated the patriarchal code, that is, when adult men allowed themselves to be penetrated and when women penetrated women.
— London’s Sapphists by Randolf Trumbach,from Third Sex, Third Gender, pg. 113

What this means is that same gender relations were tolerated and even considered normal in western culture some centuries ago, so long as they operated within the accepted boundaries and did not threaten their gender norms. However, with the advents of psychological study there became a need to understand and diagnose what had begun to be thought of as an abnormality within the strict roles enforced by a Victorian Society. With these diagnoses, effectively classifying same-sex love and desire an illness to be studied (in the same way someone studies something they revile yet or fascined by, the same way someone studies an illness to be treated), people who loved or desired those of the same sex were pushed further underground in their activities- or they attempted to silence their own desires as a form of self-preservation. It is only natural that certain codes of behavior, visual cues, and rituals would have formed within these underground societies in order to ensure the safety and secrecy of the participants- not to mention certain exclusiveness for those who don’t perform these rituals and customs correctly. As pointed out in my quote from the introduction ofPoMoSexuals, we embraced the boxes drawn around us in an attempt to diagnose our perceived illnesses- we defined what those boxes meant, and we didn’t color outside the lines for fear.

Fast forward to today’s gay and lesbian, not to mention trans, queer, polyamorous, kink, and other subcultures and identities that emerged more concretely as offshoots of the initial coming-out of gay and lesbian cultures- and you can still see to varying degrees the imprints left on us by that past. Those of us who live in grey areas between identities are left feeling like we don’t have a community while those that claim more concrete identities often tell us we don’t belong, especially if our perceived identity supposedly negates or dilutes their perceived identity- as in the case of bisexual or pansexual sexuality being seen as directly confronting the binary of gay vs. straight, or the non-binary gender identity even in name directly confronting trans versus cis gender identities.

As Carol said at Woodhull, (paraphrasing from memory) “our sexualities [and genders] are like little individual snowflakes; but don’t let your uniqueness make you feel alone. Let’s all make a big sexy blizzard!” Gender and sexuality are too complex to be just one or the other. Some of us are comfortable going to an extreme, but others are not. There should be space for both and all experiences therein.

With the lifting of laws real and socially enforced against queerness (for the most part) and queer identity and behavior being accepted within the mainstream, this exclusionism, though it initially functioned as protection, is outmoded and only serves to hurt us as a group. It creates nothing but fractures and what can only be called an intensely conservative and reactionary and almost a xenophobic- my identity culture is the best and most pure, my identity culture is better than yours, if you don’t adhere strictly to our tenets you do nothing but contaminate our purity; submit or be expulsed.

This is at the heart of what I read in PoMoSexuals- and also why I think almost two decades after the publishing of this book, a PostModernist reaction to mainstream queer culture is still needed. Rather than creating, accepting, and even celebrating schisms we need to come together and celebrate our differences, otherwise we’ll be no better than the conservative cishet people that either want to deny our existence despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, still think they can “cure” our illness, or who treat us at the very best, subhuman in order to differentiate us from themselves in the same way they treat people of other races, abilities, and classes.

The stories of lesbians who love gay men, of trans women living in their factory direct bodies (Thanks to S. Bear Bergman for this incredibly succinct description) but loving as a lesbian, the stories of identity, of being a lesbian writing gay erotica, and more collected within the boundaries of this book all made this very clear to me- and also made me feel a bit more comfortable in my skin as a non-binary femme, as a consciously and happily monogamous polyamorous person, and as someone of indefinable sexuality in a relationship that looks, from the outside, like it’s cishet.

My gender and sexuality are invisible because I do not adhere to complex visual signifiers that peg me in any specific identity, and therefore leave me unwillingly passing as “normal.” This leaves me feeling like I need to shout these facts and feelings from the rooftops in order to qualify myself for a pass into the club, when I shouldn’t have to do that- I shouldn’t have to list out sexual partners, experiences, and emotions in order to gain access to something that I identify with.

This is at the core of my reading of this book, why I think it’s important- but the real value in this book is how it made me feel- like for once, I wasn’t alone.