Jason Tseng

Reinventing the Wheel: Cultural Reproductive Labor and its cost on Queer youth

Filed By Jason Tseng | January 07, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: child care, gay youth, lgbt movement, LGBT youth, queer culture, Queer Eye, queery youth

Michael Crawford's recent post on the significance of Gus Van Sant's film, Milk, as an important tool in the retelling and solidification of queer history in the collective consciousness of our nation, reminded me of a conversation I had over the holidays with my cousin. He asked me how the development of technologies like the internet, television, and social networking websites have effected the development of the queer community.

I told him that the development of these forums for easy and individualized access to information, knowledge sharing, and networking amongst gay people, have surely re-written the laws by which queer people have been able to operate in our society. Of course, there is still a very real need for gay urban enclaves as a means for queer people to find each other from the disparate corners of our society which we call home. But the advancement of technologies that allows a gay teen to chat with, and therefore learn about queerness from someone on another coast surely helps reduce feelings of isolation and freakishness.

But this all got me thinking on how we learn to be queer, gay, lesbian, trans, etc. Who teaches us to be queer? I naturally thought about how I learned to be, and who taught me to be Chinese. It was my parents, my Chinese childhood friends, my seemingly endless network of extended family. But who taught me to be gay? Queer as Folk? Sean Cody? The Fab 5 (a la "Queer Eye")? As if self-identifying queer was hard enough. Now, I was burdened to figure out what being queer meant in the first place!

This has led me to the conclusion that, categorically, the queer community is burdened with insufficient cultural education. And that until we can figure out how to better address this problem, we will always be playing catch up with other identity communities, having expended years of our youth, just figuring out who the frak we are.

Because of the highly lateral dispersion of queer people in our society, (being that there are few indicators showing that queer people are more likely to come from one part of our society than the other), from our entrance into the world, the queer nation is constantly a nation in diaspora. With each successive generation, the new queer generation is mustered together by a collective sense of "otheredness," and introduced to a radically new culture to which we may choose to cleave to.

However this process is highly individualized and extremely informal, with very few opportunities for mentorship or leadership. What often occurs is learning through mimicry and trial and error. Queer youth learn to copy examples of queerness that they see in television, in film, the older queers they might see on misadventures into queer life. But most importantly, queer youth learn about being queer mostly from each other.

This isolationist model of developing a cultural identity contributes to a limited communal memory. This is evidenced by the continued rising rates of HIV/AIDS infection, the alarming rise in the prominence of unsafe sexual practices like barebacking, and a general lack of knowledge of the history of the Gay Liberation, LGBT Rights, and Queer Movements of young gay men.

Understanding the history of our community is essential in being able to build upon our past successes and learn from former mistakes. Even more so, I feel that since each successive gay generation takes at least its early cues on developing their personal queer identity from demonstrations of queerness they consume through mass media outlets, our community is plagued with a highly capitalistic, materialistic, and consumerist fixation which plays into an extended adolescence with no seeming end. If we are spending a good portion of our early years as queer people obsessing over celebrity gossip, chasing material possessions, and playing a media-generated caricature of ourselves, what kind of lost energy and resources have been funneled away from advancing our rights and standing in society?

So we are still left with the question: Who should be charged with the labor required to reproduce our culture. Obviously, we cannot emulate conventional models of cultural reproductive labor as found in ethnic communities, because the vast majority of queer children are not raised by queer parents; nor should they be. Does it fall upon more mass media products like Milk to create mass-consumed queer history lessons? Or perhaps we should push for greater, more diverse, and fairer representation in popular culture like out celebrities, openly gay characters in television, etc. Maybe educating all parents on how to raise their children in a queer-positive manner could ameliorate the situation.

In the end, it is doubtful any one person has a pan-ultimate solution to this systemic externalization of the cost of queer cultural labor onto children. Most likely, it will require a multi-pronged approach. So, I don't have any distinct solution to this problem... but I sure know that we need to solve it.

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As one of those 2nd generation queers, I can tell you that I learned from my parents how to be 2nd wave lesbian feminist (and the variations that they have become in the new millennium). But I didn't learn how to be queer from my parents, because in the strictest sense of self-identification, my parents aren't queer -- they're lesbian.

Okay, that's kind of a generational linguistics issue, but what that represents is the fact that each generation of LGBTQ folks, as you say, reproduces our own culture. Because most LGBTQ folks have to rediscover or reinvent our culture, we end up with huge generational disparities. Just as my peers have to learn for themselves what LGBTQ culture was like a generation ago, my parents had to learn for themselves (with help from me of course) what LGBTQ culture is like as a part of the younger generation.

History is very important, but having access to my parents lesbian history was only one part of preparing me for being a pansexual dyke (let alone a genderqueer and trans one).

Thanks for your comment Tobi.

Your experience is one noticeably left out in my article... that being the uncommon opportunity for queer children to grow up with queer parents. In your case, it seems as if more traditional methods of cultural matriculation (i use the word matriculation to connote the educational process that all social beings must undergo or enroll in to graduate into a full member of that social culture) may have been able to be applied to your budding queerness as a child.

I have another friend who was raised by a lesbian mother, and he had told me that he had a tremendous amount of anxiety coming out to his mother, for fear of fulfilling some kind of prophecy in being queer.

So it's clear that even despite having queer parents, not everyone in such a situation is able to have access to their parents queer history.

But your comment also reminded me that this constant cycle of death and rebirth possibly enables our queer culture to be relatively agile and adaptable. If with each generation of queers is not necesarrily burdened with the same parameters as the past, could it therefor mean that the evolution of our queer culture can be more rapid than other forms of cultural transformation?

I also realize that this whole argument hinges on the assumption that there is a "queer culture" to be had in the first place. Do we live a queer culture, or is it a white queer culture. A white urban queer culture? a white urban male queer culture? Since we come from vastly different spaces; pass through incredibly diverse interlocking boundaries of identity to meet at a center: can we even have a meta-culture that can viably contain all of our cultural differences under one roof? Again, more questions and few answers... :)

I think, Jason, that you missed something important in Tobi's comments. She said she was queer but her parents weren't, they are lesbians.

I didn't grow up learning to be queer. I grew up learning to be gay. I don't have a queer sensibility, I have a gay one. I learned it in the company of gay men. The world I became socially gay in no longer exists.

I have no idea if the world you became socially queer in will exist when you're my age. I don't know if I hope it is or it isn't. I suspect it won't be.

In any case, the only way to transmit it is to preserve it. Preserve it unedited. The "it" of course is the story of every gay man, every lesbian, every queer person who has ever been socially [fill in the blank]. Time is a wasting, there are women and men with stories to tell today that won't be in a few years.

What exactly is the problem that you are trying to solve? The fact that more glbt people don't become activists? There are tons of organizations devoted to glbt history and culture, but that doesn't change the fact that some people are just not that interested in culture and history. And, as you suggest, there's little agreement on what gay, lesbian, queer, trans, etc. even men, let alone a monolithic culture that we share.

The problem that I feel like we need to resolve is not the disappointing number of queer, gay, lesbian, bi, trans etc. people becoming activists... but rather the alarming hands off policy our community has in reproducing our culture. In ethnic communities there are very real costs to reproducing their culture. Jewish parents send their kids to Hebrew School to learn Hebrew and Jewish law. I can't count the number of times I was dragged to Chinese school as a kid to have the language drilled into my skull, along with the accompanying cultural education. Every culture that i know of which is based around kinship systems (i.e. married spouses + children) reproduces their culture in similar ways. Parents and their cohorts educate their children on the proper way to be X.

But in the queer, gay, les, bi, trans archipelago, our modes of social organization and acculturation are not organized around kinship systems. The burden of that cultural education is being placed on children, for them to internalize. And since we as a community have such a laissez-faire approach to guiding how each successive queer generation comes into being, we allow the future of our culture to be shaped by capitalistic forces out there which seek to capitalize on our DINC status (double-income, no children). They do this by encouraging queer culture to be materialistic, consumerist and frankly, pretty trivial. They encourage us to become hairdressers and accessories for fabulous women, or sexual objects consumed by straight men; instead of politicians, lawyers, doctors, teachers. Oh they hate for us to be teachers.

So what I'm saying is that currently our community is doing virtually nothing in carving out the path of our own future. We are completely docile in the brazen exploitation by the powers that be in transforming our extremely diverse and rich cultural community into a revenue stream.

While I appreciate your thoughts and the comment above (which clarified what you were getting at for me), I have to say I don't agree. You seem to be implying that there's one "official" way of being "queer," or that there should be, and we must embrace it and perpetuate it. Personally, I loathe the term "queer" and never use it to identify myself (I prefer "gay") -- am I to be re-educated? It seems to me that the "laissez-faire approach" is working just fine. If "queer culture" is materialistic and consumerist (and, I might add, celebrity-obsessed), it's because our culture generally is all those things. Yet that doesn't stop anyone -- queer, gay, straight, etc. -- who wants to from turning away from materialism or consumerism. And just because most of us haven't grown up with GLBT parents doesn't mean we don't form "kinship systems."

There are lots of gay & lesbian politicians, doctors, lawyers ... and teachers. (A few gay lawyers I know are about the most materialistic people I've ever met, so I fail to see how being any of those things necessarily means our culture will be any less materialistic.) A friend of mine just started a gay knitting group. When I lived in NYC, I was involved with the founding of the Pat Parker/Vito Russo Library at the GLBT Community center. Our own GLBT community center here in Portland has a smaller but burgeoning library. A friend back in NYC still has an active video club going, where a bunch of gay guys get together about once a month, have dinner and watch a movie (sometimes with a GBLT theme, sometimes not). These types of things are our "kinship systems," and they work just fine.

I would ask, not "how do we learn to be queer?," but "how do we learn to be the kind of people we want to be?" and what can the GBLT community to do to foster that process? There's a reason our symbol is a rainbow flag -- we truly are multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and we all have particular ways we like to identify ourselves. There's nothing wrong with that -- in my view, that's a great thing. Even if I bristle at the term "queer," I have no objection to you embracing it. There's no one way to be queer, gay, lesbian, trans, and so on.

Hi Michael M.

Thanks for your comment. And while you feel like you disagree with me, I don't actually disagree with much of anything you wrote!

Let me clarify my usage of the word "kinship." I use the word in its anthropological sense, as individuals related through marriage and descent. This is the traditional (heterosexual) way that kinship is defined. And you're absolutely right, gay people have been creating alternative and new ways of forming kinship organization... which is just one of the many ways I think our queer/gay/les/bi/trans community benefits the world.

I would argue that this creation of alternative kinship systems that are not based on marriage or blood descent, and rather postulated upon mutual agreement and benefit would be a cultural artifact unique to, or at least exemplary of the queer/gay/les/bi/trans community. We make our own families.

But these new "opt-in" kinship systems are only available to those individuals at older ages. All of us must inexorably walk through the fire of self-identification with gayness/lesbianness/biness/queerness/transness, coming out, and self-education and formation of our identities. These are all steps straight people don't necessarily have to go through because they have the benefit of very accessible and prescribed structures which streamline their acculturation process.

The reason I brought up kinship systems to begin with, was all of our normal cultural reproductive labor is currently structured around those kinds of relationships. Parent to child, Uncle to child, Grandparent to parent, Husband to wife, etc. Our kinship systems don't usually develop until far later in life, and so we still have not answered the question to easing the means for queer youth to mature into queer adults.

Also, I never denied the existence of queer lawyers, doctors, politicians, etc. But rather I was referring to a very blatant agenda in the media to associate queer people, especially men with jobs and positions which have little influence and ability to affect the status quo. The fact that there are as many queer people in those positions is a testament to our community's resilience and perseverence, not evidence of a lack of obstacles.

And I believe asking how we learn to be queer is indeed an important question. Even though our culture is highly diversified and can hardly be brought under one monolithic definition, there are trends in how we as a community come into being. I believe that we should be active participants in how this process happens, rather than just hoping, crossing our fingers, and congratulating each other for surviving those painful years of coming out. We're not addressing the larger problem of how to extend the communal memory of our queer history, reach out to queer youth who are struggling and internalizing a very difficult process of creating a cultural identity with very little support, and creating new ways to encourage cultural development that matches the new ways we organize as a community.

i really like this article. thinking about how youth form queer identities & who and where we get our cues from is really thought provoking. and i wonder how much of the fact that many queer people act stereotypically can be based on the images they saw of how to be queer. of course it's perfectly valid to act stereotypically but i've always wondered why so many lgb people do - maybe it's because of the media, or maybe because being queer allows us to break down rigid gender rules. probably a mixture of the two.
do you know any other sites or books that talk about this kind of stuff?


thanks for your comment! I'm not personally familiar with any authors/scholars/blogs that investigate this kind of cultural phenomenon, specifically (though I am positive they are out there. A search on Lexis Nexus will surely yield some results). And not be completely self-serving, but these kinds of conversations regularly are going on at www.belowthebelt.org, where I am a contributing editor. Feel free to check it out.

And if anyone else has any suggestions for me and Danny, I'd love to find more people talking about this!

I learned by watching my uncle and his partner and when my grandfather gave me the talk he point blank acknowledged that he had been with men and women and that he knew I was so inclined.
My son learned well by being my son and some of my students through the years have learned by being my students.

Hm. I don't know if I would agree with a project that would teach queer youth to be queer. Who would define what's properly queer and what isn't? Even a movie like Milk, which I've heard great things about, has been criticized for inaccuracy by some in the community because it cleaned up our history.

More importantly, I don't think that this would work because, unlike ethnicities, races, religions, etc., for most queer people there really isn't a community in the traditional sense. Like someone pointed out above, there are already plenty of resources for transmitting LGBTQ culture, but little interest from the community.

I also don't know if I'd start with the youth, but that's more just my personal bias since I don't think children are the future. People change and there are plenty of adults who need to be educated.

I understand that even if we take a hands-off approach to defining queer culture, there are others who'll do it for us and usually just to sell something. But I don't really think the problem is the youth themselves, and I see lots of folks using the stereotype of the empty-headed "young dumb and full of cum" gay boy to justify dismissing young queer voices.

This isolationist model of developing a cultural identity contributes to a limited communal memory. This is evidenced by the continued rising rates of HIV/AIDS infection, the alarming rise in the prominence of unsafe sexual practices like barebacking, and a general lack of knowledge of the history of the Gay Liberation, LGBT Rights, and Queer Movements of young gay men.

The lack of safer sex practices, at least to me, doesn't seem like it has much to do with a lack of communal memory, unless we throw a lack of individual memory in there with it. I know, I know, the older people on the site will beat me up over this one, but I've been with/seen just as many men over 40 and 50 bareback as I've seen younger people (and probably more since my dating/hook-up pool skews about 20 years older than I am). To me, it's not a generational issue. I don't really know what the issue is, though.

I guess this is all probably why I never got into the whole queer nation thing. Without a link through biological family, our sense of community and identity is fundamentally less stable than other groups of people. To me, there never was a queer diaspora - we start out alone and we live all over the country. A diaspora would imply moving from a concentrating location outwards.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | January 9, 2009 10:35 PM

You all have raised so many points that I feel a need to give them more time, to ponder and sift and expand. Hmmmmmmmmmm....