Illustrated by Steph Liu (She/Her)
Content warning: discussions of queerphobia and racism
In Fall 2022, guest lecturer, Kadji Amin (he/him) of Emory University, presented his article “Taxonomically Queer?: Sexology and New Queer, Trans, and Asexual Identities.” I was nervous entering a room packed with mostly graduate students and professors, but when Professor Amin walked on the stage, my nerves melted away. I was gripped by his every word. Not only was his lecture the best one I’ve heard so far, but he was the first Asian trans professor I’d ever seen. As an Asian trans man myself, it was life-changing to see someone like me dedicating his life to studying people like us.
Amin’s lecture illuminated the historical intersection between queerness and race. He examined the troubling history of contemporary queer labeling and investigated how queer people of color can resist the Western push towards universalizing queerness.
Amin reveals how modern queer labels stem from taxonomy. Taxonomy, or the science of classification, has roots in white supremacy and contributed to the pathologization of queer identities. In the eighteenth century, taxonomy rose with the dawn of Western empirical science. White Western nations committed colonial atrocities and then used empirical science to justify their oppression of people of color. By classifying people based on supposedly observable racial differences, white Western scientists created a scientifically-backed racial hierarchy. In a classic example of the white savior complex, their logic asserted that since people of color were inferior to white people, they needed white guidance for their own good.
Thus, white people assimilated people of color and their cultures into their white-supremacist taxonomies. They imposed a pseudo-scientific worldview, based around their own superiority, on the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, white Western scientists created sexology, the scientific study of human sexuality, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to address the “deviants” at home. By categorizing queerness into a taxonomy, scientists could single out queer individuals as abnormal, unhealthy threats to eugenics’ vision for human reproduction and the gender binary.
A rigid gender binary and heterosexuality were both ideas white people claimed proved their superiority to other races. They viewed fluid expressions of gender and sexuality as primitive and animalistic. While sexology inflamed societal pushback against white queer people, sexology did not account for queer people of color. The West stereotyped all people of color as sexual degenerates, so to be non-white was to be perverse. By centering their taxonomical, hierarchical worldview, the West silenced and consumed other ways of knowing and being.
Yet taxonomy still influences queer culture today.
Amin defines queerness as deconstructing established systems, so he asks: can taxonomy, as a system of classification itself, even be queer?
The answer is complicated. Queer taxonomy today differs from that of the past. The queer community has collectively constructed most modern queer identities. Self-definition removes the problematic hierarchy of a doctor diagnosing a queer person with a supposedly unnatural condition. In addition, the community acknowledges the fluid, varied nature of selfhood and tries to avoid universalizing definitions.
Although some positive revisions have been made to queer taxonomy, its existence still reflects a desire for easy-to-understand, delineated categories of queerness. For example, we generally view one’s gender as having no effect on one’s sexuality. Amin illustrates this point using his own identity as “a trans fag,” a combination of identities that has only recently been accepted in queer circles. Less than a century ago, masculinity on an AFAB body would have been associated with being a lesbian (i.e. butch identity). Nowadays, a transmasculine person isn’t restricted to being attracted to women. As a queer trans man like Amin, my identity depends on this distinction.
Unfortunately, viewing a person’s gender and sexuality as separate and inborn can echo medicalized beliefs about biological queerness. It attempts to universalize gender and sexuality by divorcing them from other factors like race and class. Gender itself is a socially-constructed concept, and removing it from a person’s other identities mirrors white, colonialist universality.
Returning to queer history, separating gender and sexuality or seeing queerness as innate have not always been driving forces of queer identification. In the 1960s, the gay male and transfeminine community identified people with what they did over who they were. People we might call trans women today identified themselves as “hormone queens,” people who’ve undergone hormone replacement therapy, and “transsexuals,” people who’ve had a sex change.
Other common terms of self-identification included identities which encompassed both gender and sexuality like “butch,” a masculine lesbian, and reclaimed slurs, like “faggot.” But as Amin says, “There is nothing universal about a faggot.” As a result, most of these terms have fallen out of use, subsumed by other more generalizable identities.
Amin argues that the current universalizing, palatable nature of queer taxonomy prevents queer people from deconstructing the very systems which other us.
When we place everything within the pre-established systems, identities that could disrupt harmful societal constructions become disempowered. For instance, asexuality opposes the belief that sexuality is central to a person’s identity. Likewise, the agender identity not only challenges the gender binary but the belief that everyone has an unchanging, inborn gender identity. Being asexual or agender disrupts the very existences of gender and sexuality. Yet, because we view them as just another identity under a broader umbrella, the Western constructs of gender and sexuality persist, unquestioned.
The queer community has minimized many culturally and/or racially specific identities because they often require lived experience to understand. The community doesn’t prevent people from identifying with terms like “stud,” a Black masculine lesbian, but it expects everyone to also identify with the established categories. In this way, niche identities are consumed by delineated, well-known identities. This flattening of queerness contributes to the devaluing and absorption of cultures of color by white supremacy.
While Amin does not provide clear-cut answers to the dilemmas raised by queer taxonomy, he concludes with the subversive potential of rejecting these acceptable queer terms as a person of color. By rejecting these identities, we can introduce varied ways of viewing queerness and selfhood, and disturb pre-existing Western systems of power.
For some of us, it can feel overwhelming to realize the queer community still suffers from deeply-rooted societal issues. Still, I hope that the more we learn about our past, the more invigorated we feel to mold a better future for ourselves and our community. After all, the beauty of queerness lies in its diversity, its freedom, and its power to shake up the very foundations of our world.
Author: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Artist: Steph Liu (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Bellze (They/Xey), Bella (She/They)