Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Defining Desires and Dangerous Decisions

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.

My own queer desire for other women, and my queerer-yet desire for women who were men who were women, confounded me even more, leaving me deeply troubled and appalled about what it all actually meant. I was a radical then, a revolutionary, an activist. I was also a sexual deviant, living half my life outside the borders of the political values I believed in. This horrified me. I feared the consequences would leave me exiled from the activism I believed in, and which I had spent my adult life fighting for. My desires, which I understood then to be abnormal, also seemed irrelevant to the “real” issues that were considered momentous in the movements I belonged to. Those movements were framed by issues of race and class and the fight for biological females’ gender freedom; they were based on the overall battle for social justice, in all its ramifications.

Yet all around me I saw the consequences of that sexual void. Our movements were full of broken hearts and twisted spirits, people who were hurt, who had no tools to confront their own sexual ignorance or need for passion. Their erotic activities (or lack thereof) and partnerships were constrained by the boundaries of their new political values, and they felt that their own desires mattered only in the context of the movement in which we lived. In practice, this resulted in a small worldview, small politics. I began to hate myself there, to hate what I saw around me.

I thought the beginnings of “gay liberation” would fill that void and remove the limitations of revolutionary vision and action. And, at first, it did. Being openly queer was so marginalized then that the other radical ideas we debated about sex and desire, gender identity, non-monogamy, and our notions of creating a revolutionary, sex-positive, erotic culture, were conversations we took very seriously. It was an astonishing time.

But even then, we made people nervous. And even then and even in the queer leftist movements, we were generally seen as an unwelcome sexual minority. For us—the drag queens, stone butches, S/M lesbians and leather men, high-femme dykes and queer sex workers, radical fairy boys and bisexual activists, and others too strange to name or categorize—we were too outside the norms established even by “gay” standards to be included. We stood out! We represented what other, more traditional queer people feared. We weren’t exactly banished; we were passively tolerated. Because the other reality back then was that we all still had to go to the same areas of town, to the same clubs and bars, the same meeting places (except for those, of course, who were extremely rich). We all shared the geography of the sexual outsider. Sure, those of us who most explicitly showed our erotic desires and gender identities were seen as an embarrassment, but being queer then was frankly so despised that everyone, both inside and outside the zone, understood that, while there were queer and queerer-still levels of deviance, we were all swimming together in the same “homosexual” pool of depravity.

Still, for a moment there, sex and desire, and the idea that these issues were political, had its tiny second of credibility and power. Those of us who were radicals understood the ideas of revolution, of the need for fundamental, anticapitalist change, and we were dammed if we were going to be left out one more time. It was a brief moment full of brilliant discussion and passionate consecration of our most forbidden desires, and we were fierce in our attempts to hold and create new ground. This book is a result of that moment in time.

And then came AIDS. A tragedy, a devastation unlike anything we had ever seen or imagined; and it ushered in a time when desire and sexual acts became demonized, yet again, in ways we had only just begun to resist. I won’t retrace more of that history except to say that we were courageous, and we confronted the terrible anguish in our communities, and we helped one another. And even then, even while being made into sexual pariahs, gay men and drag queens and dykes and queer men of color and their sisters and brothers, and other communities of sex and racial justice warriors, spoke up and spoke out for sex, struggling to claim the right to desire even in the face of an epidemic and a virus transmitted through sex. We refused to be shamed or disowned because of our desires or our antibody status. This was a truly terrifying time. But through it all—although we were frequently wrong—we were also brilliant, and we were brave.

The epidemic continues today, of course, although HIV and AIDS are too often absent from the current lists of LGBT political priorities. But as the epidemic thrives now in this country through the vulnerabilities resulting from racism and the history of oppression in communities of color, those who struggle today with HIV and AIDS are often poor and queer, or transgender, or immigrants, or all of the above. For these members of our communities, the thrust of activism and radical political action has almost disappeared. Because now AIDS is about queerness in the context of poverty, of prison life, of drug use and addiction, immigration status, homelessness. The mostly white, middle-class LGBT movement of today does not see this as their issue or their priority. In the current LGBT equality movement, we fight to get married to each other in big churches, and to serve in the US military, because we think some sort of legislated equality will be enough, will be all that we have a right to ask for or get, and if we can finally attain the status of “normal” we’ll have arrived—well, almost—and that that will be enough for us. But then, of course, it becomes even more important to never, ever, seem too queer.

That is why this fight for sex and for the importance of desire matters now more than ever. The people who always pay the highest price for their desires are those of us who are the most queerly configured, whose lives are often trapped in poverty, ensnared in the rampant neglect fomented by racism and gender standards; those of us who are too old or too young, too sexual or too marginal, to count. It brings me back to the question of being alone and deserted in one’s own sexual shame, ignorance, and suffering. It is why this battle for the importance of passion and the freedom to explore sexual desire matters, why it is critical that, this time, we insist on struggling politically for the power and significance of the erotic as an essential component of our liberation struggle. It is why I believe that movements for human freedom must claim and fight for human sexual desire and for the hope which springs from eros.

Human liberation movements are embedded in the lives, struggles, and hopes of the people who are a part of them. The reality is that political struggles must include human sexualities and gendered identities, and understand what is done in and through those identities and erotic acts, as an important part of what will be fought for to create a new world.

Desire is inseparable from what we want, whom we seek out, and it often reveals who we are and where we have come from. When I look at pictures of my father and my mother and then of my lovers, I see myself, my partners, the ways I’ve combined and transformed the many different components of my reality into a unique sexual and erotic life. It is what I understood and then grew through so that I could travel beyond my parents’ erotic identities and failures. I am surely their daughter—a mixed-race, poor, white-trash, bio girl gone wrong—because even more than the transracial eros which marked them and me, I am their child: born of and to transgression, and containing within me a dangerous, life-altering, life-engaging set of choices about the possibilities and the price of desire. I live that history, their history, in my body, in what I want and what I do with my lovers, in whom I need to desire me and what I need them to do to me. I rest on their desires as they ride on mine, starting there but risking everything to go somewhere beyond. This is the framework; this is the resistance.

No political movement succeeds without desire: desire for justice, for democracy, for freedom, for the wild ideals of starting over again with a new set of values and possibilities. Our success will depend on how much of this vision we bring to the table this time. Let it be clear: it is essential that who we are as sexual people matters fundamentally to the world we seek to create anew in this vortex of transformation. Finally, let sex and desire be truly significant and alive in our politics, without compromise or condescension. Finally, this time, let us create a movement brave enough to let it matter. Perhaps this time, then, we can finally explode—with a vision and a power strong enough, bright enough, large enough, to change the world.

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