Not Wong: The Invisibility Cloak

Brian Wong confronts the struggles of Queer folks who do not conform to their stereotypes

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*Queerness is used here in a reclamatory manner.

I want to talk about what it means to be an invisible Queer, and the hidden, pernicious oppression embedded in the means through which we imagine (or assume/appraise) others’ identities on the bases of their behaviours. I want to talk about why policing behaviours on the bases that they are not ‘Queer enough’ is a dangerous norm from both within and without the LGBTQ+ movement. Above all, I want to enunciate the fact that harms can and do result from a norm of assuming others’ gender and sexual identities on the basis of their appearances. Yet let’s first be very clear about two preliminary points of note:

  • Passing as cis and heterosexual in a cisheteronormative society apparently has its benefits – at least on the surface. It appears that you are generally less likely to be socially ostracised; that in societies and cultures that still heavily penalise individuals who perform Queerness in non-performance settings (e.g. cultures that embrace drag shows as subjects of fetishisation and yet refuse to accept the existence of non-cis/het individuals beyond the fetishisation and instrumentalisation under the cis gaze), to pass off as belonging to the constructed ‘Norm’ grants you socioeconomic privileges (e.g. being able to attend school, work, acquire economic and culture capital, accumulate networks of friends and connections – without harassment) appears to be a privilege.
  • Homogenisations are inapplicable and inappropriate – and it would be irresponsible (but also unnecessary) for me to argue that there inherently exists an overriding harm in the manifestations of such relative privileges. In some countries, cultures, or contexts, it may be far more harmful to be overtly Queer than in others. It’s important to bear in mind the intersectional critique that the problematic of Queerness varies from society to society.

Yet the main crux of this article is to argue as thus: despite the privileges often associated with the ability to ‘camouflage’ or ‘blend in’ outlined above, invisible Queers often face problems of another sort. These are the individuals who may identify or view themselves as Queer – with Queer sexual orientations, gender and sexual identities. They may indeed have romantic partners of another gender or sex; or identify themselves as non-binary; or view themselves as non-confirming to the conventional categories framed out and developed by the society that they are forced to be situated in. Indeed, this appears to be a blessing from the eyes of many – they are able to embrace their identities without bearing the costs of alienation and discrimination; they could disguise themselves as cis, het individuals and (when it occurs) ‘take the sides of the privileged’ and shirk off the need to protest or contest their personal politics in the public sphere. These individuals don’t look gay, lesbian, bisexual, or such. They don’t appear to conform to the expected behaviours underpinned by sexual norms.

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Let’s make no mistakes here. This sort of dismissive and erasing view is inherently problematic, for several reasons:

Firstly, it feeds off the established controlling images (cf. Collins, Crenshaw, but also Steinem) that are constructed by media, social norms, and powerful key opinion leaders within societies. A straight individual could appropriate Queer behaviours without ever losing their straight identities – for the Queer performativity they exhibit is local and temporary – it is a “sound fashion game”, or a “really cool aesthetic”: its inauthenticity is emphasised and exaggerated, for it dissipates as soon as they resume their conventional identities. But for a Queer individual, for them to be recognised and seen as Queer, they must fulfill the ‘tickboxes’ imposed upon them by entrenched media narratives. A gay man must either be hypermasculine or emaciated and feminine – but never in between (as noted by Kenji Yoshino, the fluidity of a Queer individual feeds into the anxiety of heterosexual gazers, who find the fluctuation and fluidity threatening to their well-formed concepts of the gender binary as innate and non-alterable). A lesbian would only be ‘identified’ as lesbian when she fits into the stereotypes of lesbians (bullshit and offensive ones, by any standard – e.g. ‘promiscuous’ or ‘sex-fuelled’) that are socially endorsed. For individuals who are Queer but do not conform to these categories, they face a double-binding oppression (Crenshaw): firstly, visibility-independent oppression – oppression under heteronormative norms that alienate and patronise their behaviours, romantic partners, and gender attitudes (note: this oppression exists independently of visibility – even if nobody notices, the subjective experience of the Queer individual is still one of fundamental hurting); and secondly, invisibility-driven oppression – the perpetual questioning and/or assuming of their identities as ‘straight’. It makes it far more difficult for Queer individuals to come out – when they have to come out and affirm their authenticity nearly every five seconds (or conversation). Furthermore, it is cognitively exhausting for an invisible Queer person to consistently explain their existence in conversations such as:

“Are you gay?”

“I am!”

“You sure don’t look it!”

“…”

or

“I assumed you had a boyfriend, given that you don’t seem lesbian.”

“…”

Secondly, the erasure of invisible Queerness reinforces unhealthy policing norms both outside Queer spaces, but also within certain Queer spaces dominated by behaviour-essentialist voices – e.g. a sub-group within contemporary Queer literature that policies the authenticity of identities on the basis of their behaviours or self-identification choices. The case-in-point is Germaine Greer, who – in spite of her seminal works such as The Female Eunuch – have repeatedly emphasised that transfeminine individuals merely seek to escape their misogyny via identifying as another gender; that transmasculine individuals are opting out of their obligations towards their fellow women. Whilst Greer appears to actively renounce the role of controlling images with respect to female sexuality, it appears that her works – as with many others – noticeably reinforce the toxic, policing attitudes permeating sects within the modern LGBTQ+ movement. Such policing could become innately dangerous, when it contributes indirectly to problems of gaslighting – when Queer individuals themselves become unclear if they are acting as traitors or impostors, or if they genuinely do have the gender identities they have ‘failed’ to publicly express; of erasure – cf. the persistent framing of bisexuals as ‘people who want to have the cake and eat it or ‘over-promiscuous, sexualised individuals’ (see “Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out” – Hutchins and Ka’ahumanu, 1991), which indirectly discourage individuals who are invisibly Queer to fail to come out and inform the necessary authorities of the problems they face (both psychologically and economically) associated with the oppressive norms they confront. Note, once again, that one can be oppressed by Queerphobic norms even when no one else knows. But to the extent that some know and others don’t (of the Queer identity), the problem is only amplified – these individuals are told that they are inauthentic or not really Queer, and excluded from the otherwise Queer-friendly spaces they could access.

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Last but not least, to be publicly recognised and respected for one’s sexual identity is a luxury. To be authentic, and to be ‘flamboyantly out’ is a privilege that not everyone could have access to. To have the right to be Queer means so much more than to have access to civil and political liberties in spite of being a Queer person. It should mean that one, just as one’s cis-heterosexual counterparts, could be publicly recognised and celebrated for one’s choices without being forced to conform to certain controlling images or (self-)policing behaviours.

It is not equality when straight individuals can hyperbolise and appropriate Queer aesthetics for a drag show, for commercial entertainment, and for behaviours that end up trivialising the problems confronting the most vulnerable in societies.

It is not equality when cis-heterosexuality can strategically anti-essentialise, but Queer individuals must necessarily choose between disguising themselves to ensure that they are not endangered by oppressive norms, or preserving their identities.

It is not equality when we constantly – implicitly or explicitly – police Queer persons by telling them that they ‘should look more like X’ or ‘don’t really look gay/lesbian/bisexual/asexual/pansexual’.

Equality, and I will be free.

Equality, and I will be free.

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