By Vanessa Chen || Contributing Writer
This past week’s Common Hour speaker was Kathryn Bond Stockton, the distinguished professor of English at The University of Utah. She is also the Associate Vice President for Equity and Diversity, and the Dean of the School for Cultural and Social Transformation. This past Thursday, she brought us her Common Hour topic—“I was a Queer Child, and So Were You.” Her talk links together seemingly disparate topics of words, sex, race, childhood, and queerness, the content of which is hugely fascinating.
A central idea Stockton expressed in her talk is that we are having sex with each other through words. By putting words and ideas into each other’s bodies, we penetrate each other. This can be illustrated by the process of reading. Stockton talked about how “reading isn’t like sex, it is sex, a different type of sex.” When we are reading, there is an initial point of contact with a surface, in this case, the surface is the paper with words printed on it. Our eyes make contact with the paper, and the words enter us in a mystifying way. How is it possible that the words on the page are now inside of us, so that when we take away the paper, the words still remain in us? Despite this mystery, our penetration by words has happened, so that some physical aspect of the author of these words have physically enter into us. The physical aspect of this makes sense when you think that some chemical reaction in the author’s brain has elicited some chemical reaction in our own brain. And if sex is defined as intimate, physical contact with another’s body, then reading is indeed a different type of sex. Thus, reading, conversations, or any exchange of words and ideas are powerful intimate acts of sex. Consider the plasticity of our brains, and humanity’s social nature (we are naturally influenced by those around us), we can see how our very being is constituted of what we allow to penetrate, and stay inside us.
Now that we see how influential words are over our lives, we can start to understand Stockton’s second central idea–that words fail us, specifically, the binary signification of words fail us. A word can be understood as a sign, with the physical sound-image being the signifier and the concept it invokes being the signified. For example, the word “boy” has a sound and image that invokes the concept of the boy, in this case, a concept that is opposed to the concept of “girl,” making these two terms binary. Stockton argues against the binary that we impose upon words, questioning if words like “boy” and “girl,” and “heterosexual” and “homosexual” really stand in clear opposition with one another.
Stockton uses the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” as examples as how the concepts we associate with them are incoherent. If “heterosexual” means having sex with someone different from you, and “homosexual” means having sex with someone the same as you, then what exactly constitutes “difference” and “sameness?” In conventional understanding, the measurement of “difference” and “sameness” is genitals. “Homosexual” means having sex with someone with the same genitals as you. However, Stockton points out, her genitals are not the same as her partner’s genitals. Even if they are both female, how can their genitals be the same? Furthermore, society had long approved, encouraged, and even enforced “homo” unions between people of the same class and race. Our society desires “homo” unions of race so much that we made it a law until 1967. Why is same-class, same-race “homo” union not considered deviant but same-sex union is? On the other hand, if “heterosexual” means having sex with someone opposite from you, what makes someone your sexual opposite? Stockton points out that gender is racialized throughout American history. There is no “man” and “woman,” but from the start there were “white men,” “white women,” “black men,” “black women,” “Native-American men,” “Native-American women,” and other categories. Who is the opposite of whom? In fact, it has been pointed out that black men stand more in opposition in the way they perform gender to white men, than to black women. So are white men more “homo” to white women in many aspects than to black men. To learn more about this, Stockton had recommended Soul on Ice, a book by the famous Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, in which he discusses this in depth. Stockton argues that the concept we associate with “heterosexual” and “homosexual” is incoherent, that there is really no way to determine if someone is truly the same as you, or truly different from you.
Despite being incoherent in what they signify, words like “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “boy” and “girl” have penetrated us. They shape our lives in powerful ways, forcing us to understand and see ourselves in ways that we may not truly agree with, thus alienating us from ourselves. Stockton talks about the word “lesbian” being a sign that estranged her from herself. For she did not quite feel like a woman sexually desiring another woman, but a man sexually desiring other woman. Despite this, the word “lesbian” has been forced on her. Accepting this word onto herself estranges her from who she really is.
Stockton talks about her childhood, about how she had desired the word “boy” for herself. She said she did not want a boy’s body, she is quite happy with her own, but she desired the concept that the word “boy” comes with, such as “boys play ball,” and “boys kiss girls.” Stockton said she can’t quite figure out if she desired the sign of “boy” because she wanted to kiss girls, or if she desired kissing girls because she felt like a boy and that’s what boys do. Either way, neither “boy” nor “gay” was available to her as a child. She did not know that girls can become boys, or that girls can kiss other girls. She had never seen anyone gay on television, let alone interacting with a live one, until she went to divinity school at age 21.
Thus, Stockton says that gay children are born backwards. Gay children can never say “I am a gay child,” but only “I was a gay child.” Because gay children did not have the word “gay” available to them growing up, they didn’t know how to make sense of themselves, and there was no role-model for them to see. Stockton mentions that this may be changing now, but for her generation, and other countless gay children, this was their reality. It was only after they found the word “gay,” could they now bestow that onto their past selves, giving birth to the gay child they never were by stating—”I was a gay child.” Gay children are also blocked from the sign “gay” by adults, who has a romanticized vision of children as completely nonsexual. To say that gay children exist seems to be saying that children are sexual. Stockton argues against the idea that children are non-sexual with her own childhood memories. Although she did not understand what sex was, she still had an idea of who she is attracted to and who she wants to kiss. In this way, gay children are already interacting with the concept of gay, without having the word available to them. But what Stockton had available to her, and what she was penetrated by, were the strict binary definitions of “boy” and “girl,” which dictate that she cannot kiss girls. These signs put her desires on hold, and estranged her from herself. Stockton says that these forms of estrangement happens to every one of us, and the queer child presents an intensified version of this estrangement.
Stockton says there is already an erosion of the binary of “men” and “women.” Each sign has expanded and overlapped so that it is impossible to define “men” and “women” as strict opposites. Since words have such a huge impact on us (we have sex with words! Stockton says), we should be careful when we let words penetrate us, so that they do not estrange us from ourselves. We have the agency, and the opportunity to bestow words with new and/or more concepts, so that they better fit and describe our reality.
Junior Vanessa Chen is a contributing writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.