Reprinted with permission from My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
The power of desire and its often dangerous consequences are among the most important human experiences, directing many of the choices we make throughout much of life. They mark and shape us, open us up in directions we never imagined possible, possess significance and hidden meanings we struggle with throughout life. Sometimes our desires lead to consequences we would never have chosen. But sex, and the ability it has to move and explode with a fierce power, is also one of the most precious and remarkable gifts we possess as human beings.
For those of us who have had to cross treacherous terrain in order to find and claim our desires, this valuable force remains a razor-sharp reminder, deep within our hearts, of who we really are—and of everything we truly can be. We have been shaped, deformed, and liberated by the forbidden sexuality that we have dared to claim, regardless of the cost. Because of that journey, because of paying that price, we know as a lived reality that sex and desire are political. As people shaped by forbidden desires and outlawed erotic practices, we were never allowed the luxury of forgetting this. And if our desires and gender differences are also entwined with a defiant beauty, we can also see the road ahead and the escalating danger it holds in store. We know we will have to survive that danger every time we enter a public space as sexual people.
This is one reason I am always surprised that liberation movements in our country and others fail to understand the power this political fact exerts on shaping the worldviews of their members, their definitions of oppression and freedom, and their sense of what is essential to the success of revolutionary vision. This blatant omission exists in leftist movements generally, as well as in the majority of feminist, labor and union, civil rights, and transnational freedom movements. Sadly, it is now becoming true of most LGBT movements as well, especially those seeking to render queer life “normal” in the eyes of the status quo.
I live in the world as a queer, high-femme, mixed-race, white girl, working-class activist … when I am in my own community. It is a place that allows me the identity, the essence, the distinction of being both lesbian and high-femme, and it is a place where those identities matter. It is a place where an erotic, self-configured femme individual is as intriguing, complex, gender-defying, and deliciously abnormal as all the other strangely configured, self-created, lived-inside-of-whether-you-like-it-or-not-mother-fucker identities that occupy our marvelously broad and bold queer universe. Because—like the rest of the clan—in order to survive we have imagined ourselves; we have built our sexual and gendered identities and formed our erotic activities in wondrously perverted and defiant ways: we have dared to create ourselves, and we have dared to live it out.
Let’s be clear. Sexuality, that terrain of body and mind combining to allow us ecstasy, can also contain brutality, abuse, absence, and profound ambivalence. I think of sexuality and desire as being as potentially magical and transformative as they are perilous. But this terrain is rarely easygoing; it is a place where our deepest fears come face to face with our most profound desires, personal histories, and the legacies of nation-states, swamping us when we attempt to enter and play, when we attempt to name ourselves, and to live out our passions with deliberate integrity.
Hell, it’s hard to even figure out what our desires might be! Where can you go to learn about sex and the possibilities of desire? How do you learn to understand the physical body and its transformative potential, to appreciate the erotic uniqueness of each individual—the knowledge and skill we can only gain as we feel, smell, and discover ourselves through sexual acts, giving ourselves to (or taking) a willing partner? Who will help us learn what we need to know in order to practice our desires with awareness and comprehension? Where in this culture can we discover what is erotically possible between ourselves and other human beings? Where can we gain sexual and gender knowledge without being ruthlessly punished? What do we value sexually, and with whom? Where can we be gender daredevils and explorers—or the people who love and desire them—and not pay a terrible price? What liberation movement will claim this—will claim us—as a fundamental part of its agenda?
I come from a history of sexual violence, of childhood and young adult sexual abuse, violation, desertion. So sex, or what I knew of it from where I started, had to do with power. It did not involve anything like choice. It was always for and about someone else, never for or about myself, and never contemplated or carried out on my own terms. I came to the politics of desire and the possibility of sexual liberation as a sexual cynic, an erotic atheist, a nonbeliever, a very skeptical, prove-it-to-me queer girl. But I was also given the gift of discovering my erotic and sexual needs when I became brave enough to follow the path of my own most dangerous desires. It was then that I was touched by a woman’s hands and felt my body explode. I repossessed my physical self then, and my being.
I had spent most of my youth on the downside of sex. When I found queerness and discovered butches, I started my journey through a new sexual geography, uncovering the exquisite gifts butch women had that could turn me inside out. I finally discovered elements of sex that were completely my own, which allowed me to claim my own body, my own heat, my own potential inside the matrix of sexual desire. It gave me back myself after all the damage and terrible despair, the loneliness and solitude and silence that had long surrounded my own nameless wanting.
But the impact of being alone and in sexual shame and confusion about my own desires was terrifying. Like being exiled and mute, that sexual silence embedded itself deep into my body and my hopes, numbing me to any sexual future I might dare to seek out. I could not fathom what people were describing when they discussed pleasant sexual experiences and physical attractions, and I stayed silent when asked about my own. Sex was work for me, not pleasure; and while I was good at what I did as a sex worker, I wasn’t confused about who it was for.