Rather Theorize Than Read Poetry

On October 18, 2009, I did a presentation entitled “Is Poverty Queer?” in a panel called “Queer and Attributes: Who Gets Recognized As Queer?” at an annual meeting of the Japan Association of Queer Studies. Other panelists are Kazuyoshi Kawasaka (PhD student from the University of Tokyo), Makiko Iseri (MA student at Hitotsubashi University), and an independent writer/activist Akira Miyama.

The panel session began with Kazuyoshi’s presentation on how the term, “tojisha” or “the concerned population,” has been circulating since Kazama/Vincent/Kawaguchi’s 1997 book, “Gay Studies” (in Japanese), in Japanese academia especially in queer discourses as something that guarantees truthfulness of data collected or a weapon with which to attack previous research for not being down-to-earth and speaking to “real” people. Quite a Foucauldian himself, Kazuyoshi critically asks, “what/who is tojisha?”

Our second presenter, Akira, cited quite several comments from people who demanded the Women’s Weekend (annual women’s festival) be trans-inclusive, as well as her own interviews with three butch lesbians, to discuss how FTM, FTX and butch populations in queer communities here are of less interest to many of cisgender woman activists and community members who seem to assume the right to define who is a woman, who isn’t, and who can be granted access to woman-only spaces out of their courtesy.

Thirdly, Makiko talked about how we tend to understand queerness as “crossing borders” and how the work of mimicry in female-female impersonation has been belittled and reduced to mere conformity. I’m sorry I can’t give out any detail here, not only because of the reason I mention below, but also because I was so worried during her presentation about how my presentation would go after having gone through a huge technical problem a.k.a. the famous I-forgot-my-display-cable incident.

And finally, I talked about how heteronormativity is often associated with middle-class white heterosexual non-disabled bodies and practices, which is further reinforced and, ultimately, linguistically constituted in academic queer discourses and analyses that explain gender/sexual normalcy across regions, class borders and racial lines in somewhat universal ways that only allow “variations,” not “differences.” I’m hoping to elaborate on it during graduate school to write about the same subject matter in my dissertation, and I think the other three of us are going to publish their work in some way in future, so I’m not going into details about each of the presentations. Rather, I’d like to focus on one question that was raised by someone in the audience.

The person in the audience said, as I understood it, “I think the kind of theoretical work that all four of you are doing in your research projects really contributes to the undermining and questioning of existing discourses surrounding and circulated among queer subjects, but queer people have been socialized and influenced by, as well as instilled, social norms about normative categories, just like everyone else. We do not always see things in critical ways. We do fail every now and then. How do you think your theories can be applied to real issues when not everyone in our community isn’t aware of things like what you talked about today?”

Well, I think the person was right in pointing out the fact that underlying our presentations was a critical perspective on what queer subjects say about queerness, and the fact that we tried to figure out ways to change some of that. To some people, especially those who are doing activism work in queer communities, our talks may even have been aggravating, even backlash-like. But I thought, “how do we keep content those who we think do harm on other people, while trying to figure out how to help those “other” people? I don’t care. Do I ever plan to conciliate those naive people whom I might have aggravated, so that I can offer more “inclusive” theories? Hell no.”

My theory is NOT inclusive of everyone. It is NOT general or generalizable. It merely offers a voice to the existing discourses, to be recognized, to be one of the voices that count in this world. It is a voice translated into theory. And just because that voice has been uttered in a theoretical way, doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with reality. It has EVERYTHING to do with reality. It emerges in reality, it belongs to reality, and it speaks to reality.

So I said, “theory, to me, is the only means that I know that I can use to explain otherwise unheard voices that tend to be buried away, you know, the voices of minority people within the minority. And at least that’s what I tried to do with the aid of theory today, and I’m sure that’s true for all four of us here, like Akira, who talked about how some of us queer people are not paid as much attention to as others within our communities.”

People make mistakes–the person with the original question is right–but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil, nor was our point that they should be condemned for being not “critical enough.” Our point, or at least my point was to open dialogues about “who gets to recognized as queer,” especially when it comes to those not easily labeled as tojisha, FTM/FTX/butch individuals, female-female impersonators, and sex workers in poverty. And to us, the means is theory. We do create dialogues through theory. And I cannot possibly think of any other means. Even our loudest voices do not seem to attract attention in this society. Then, why keep quiet when we know “loud” doesn’t work, let alone “quiet,” and there’s theory right in front of some of us who are lucky enough to know how to read and understand language, as well as write language understandable to those with power?

Asked by the same person if I knew any other idea besides using theory, some useful ideas about what could be done, I said, “nope, but let me know if you come up with any, ’cause I’ll jump right in and join you. ;)” I mean, I really would jump right in! (unless it’s poetry-reading–it’s something I’m horrible at)

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