Over the Rainbow
By Laurie Essig
I am exhausted from a weekend conference on transgender identities and issues, a late Sunday night meeting with a queer campus group, National Coming Out Week, and the news stories about the Bronx torture of three men apparently for being gay.
All of these things weave in and out of each other like colors of the rainbow and yet I can’t help thinking that what they also point out is that we may in fact be over the rainbow. Identity politics have come to a dead end in the path to liberation, the end of modernist narratives of progress, where closet leads to the public confession ritual of coming out which leads to a liberation of the true self. The liberated gay, one of the most powerful fairy tales of Modernity, is now faced with both pre- and postmodern alternatives.
Let us begin with the Bronx. Last weekend nine men ranging in age between 16 and 23 lured three men to a home where they proceeded to torture them. Their victims were anally raped with baseball bats, beaten with chains and burned with cigarettes. The New York Times has described the oldest victim, who is 30, as a “gay man” and said the torture was “punishment for being gay.”
This is a crime that exists within modernity and premodernity. A stable identity based on sexual practices and a fixed gender– gay man– is attacked by what the police have described as a “wolfpack,” a violent and punishing–and of course racialized–force outside of that state (premodern since the only legitimate source of force within modernity is the state).
But wait. Because the story now leaks into a different time. A time where identity is no longer stable and the assumption that gender and sexual expression are both binary (male/female and straight/gay) and unilinear, that is, there are no narrative slippages, is called into question. Because the victim described as a gay man was in fact someone who used feminine pronouns and was known in his neighborhood as la Reina (the Queen).
As David Valentine points out in Imagining Transgender, it is difficult within modernist thinking to imagine that trans and gay bodies can coincide. We have trouble constructing a story about a person who is both the Queen and a gay man. And so we rewrite bodies that do not express a stable gender as either “trans” or “gay.” If the Queen is trans, then she is in a heterosexual relationship with men, feminine to masculine. But if the Queen is gay, then he is in a homosexual relationship, masculine to masculine.
Yet the body of the Queen confuses us because it doesn’t fit into modernist understandings of stable selves. How can there be a body with a penis that is both a gay man and also female. There is nowhere to turn except to postmodernity, what some have called “the road to nowhere” since liberation is never part of a postmodern story.
Within postmodernity, the demand for a stable and coherent identity where gender is separated from sexuality is refused. Indeed, it is the refusal of stable identities and the embrace of the performativity of self that marks off the postmodern from the modern.
Which brings us to the conference I was at while the Queen and her lovers were being tortured in the Bronx. Within the Translating Identity Conference at the University of Vermont I witnessed modernist notions of stable gender identity rubbing shoulders with postmodernist notions of refusal and subversion of binary and stable gender. In other words, authentic selves are confronted with unstable selves, nouns with verbs, men who are “really” women meet those who identify as gender anarchists.
The results are not that different than the current mainstream gay and lesbian movement meeting up with radical queers. Fireworks, fights, arguments, and a growing sense that the rainbow no longer represents a diversity of gender and sexual expressions, but a stable gender and sexual identity movement.
Which is why I was meeting with a student group on a Sunday night as they tried to think through Coming Out Week, with some trans and gender queer students wondering whether “Coming Out” was a story they could tell since they could only come out as complicated and messy and gay and lesbian students talking about the liberation they felt the first time they confessed their “true” identity.
Modernist time and postmodernist in the same room, the same movement, lumped together by a legal system as well as the extralegal violence of torture in the Bronx. The rainbow as a symbol of stability. The rainbow as no longer a place many queers want to go.
And yet, alongside all of these stories lurks the threat of violence, discrimination, and hate–both from “wolfpacks” and from the state in the form of discriminatory laws and practices. Which leads to a strange melting of stories and times somewhere over the rainbow.