I was asked to give the keynote at this year's Queer and Asian Conference (QACON)at UC Berkeley in May. When I panicked that I didn't have enough "queer street cred" to talk as an authority on queerness in the Asian American community, my vagina offered to give the speech instead. Talk about an "Opening" Keynote!
So you are probably wondering, why is a vagina giving a keynote speech at a queer conference? What does this vagina know about being queer and Asian more than a gold star queer person who can speak to these issues? And how will this vagina address queer issues like gender queerness, or transgender issues when this vagina's owner is obviously a cisgender female, and therefore, I am a cisprivileged vagina?
I will address these concerns. For while I am a cis-privileged vagina, I am also a serious vagina. That's right I'm a serious vagina with a serious side. I'm an Asian American vagina. I've been doubly the sight of curiosity, lust, conquest but also the sight of queer invisibility. If Asian Americans have been written out of the mainstream narrative you can sure as hell bet that our queer life-size genitalia has also been erased.
Here I am! Invisible no longer! As was mentioned in the introduction - Kristina Wong, who I belong to, and in many ways whose identity I have to find, was invited to speak today. And when she was invited to speak today she was shocked.
This is my impression of the face she made when she received the invite.
She literally said to the invitation, "Holy shit, the gatekeepers believe that I'm queer enough to give the keynote at the queer conference." You see, throughout her life, there have been people who have done a stop and frisk of Kristina's queer identity. The straight ones who say things like, "Wow, queer? Are you like bi-sexual then? Does that mean you are into freaky threesomes?" And then there's the "How are you queer? How many women have you been with?" And then there are the long-time queer friends that say,"What do you have to say about being queer? You're a straight girl. You dated men. Gay marriage doesn't even affect you."
For the record Kristina does not identify as a straight girl. If "being queer" is disqualified when a cisgender woman dates people who are not just cisgender men, well, then Kristina Wong was right in having her queer street cred revoked -- by internet trolls (some of them queer themselves) who would not engage her further.
But in defense of Kristina's gay street cred -- it's not that she isn't gay it's just that no one will be gay with her.
Here's the story. Up until age 22, Kristina didn't look at me. She refused to believe that her own vagina existed. You see, Kristina was raised by conservative third generation Chinese American parents in San Francisco and we are both convinced there must have been Chinese people on the Mayflower because our mother is a puritan.
Kristina was only allowed to date, boys at that, after she was married and she was to stay a virgin until after she was a grandmother. Kristina is convinced she was conceived via immaculate conception. So one day, Kristina had the guts to take out a mirror, pop a squat and take a look at me -- her vagina and understand what the big fuss was about in pop culture. She popped a squat in front of the mirror and this is what she said, "AHHHHHHHH!!!! THIS IS SO GROSS! THIS IS WHAT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN OBSESSING OVER MY ENTIRE LIFE?!"
My feelings were hurt as you can imagine.
So owning the word "queer" felt foreign. As did "bisexual." Any word pointing towards the act of sex, felt scary, revealing... freaky. Despite the "political definitions" for queerness that academics and activists have honed over the last few decades "queerness" was the still word of circus freaks and Girls Gone Wild videos.
Politicizing identity via the word "queer" felt foreign to young Kristina as "Sex and politics" was a foreign concept. Because sex was never something talked about in an unshameful context.
Here's the thing. It's not that the definition around the word "queer" isn't broad and wide encompassing. It is. In fact, so much of why we are here today is to understand just how broad the word queer is and to continue to define a word that refuses to settle on easy definitions.
It's that the rest of the world, heathens that they are, don't know what queer is. "Queer" is a word that is still invisible in mainstream media. There are gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people but what about these broader ideas of what queer is? Taking on the word "queer" becomes in way a constant political obligation to educate those who don't understand. Had her queer friend not taken the time to explain the broadness of "queer" to Kristina, she would not have embraced it in her identity today.
You won't often see Kristina using the word "queer" in her bio. As her personal choice, she sees the non-use of the word as an opportunity to engage the world outside of this queer conference on what "queer" can mean. She likes to keep people guessing. Have them ask the dumb questions like, "How can you be queer but have hardly dated women?" and then invite these civilians into a wider conversation about language, rather than have them settle into a narrow definition of that word is to further oppress their perspective of us.
To the world outside this conference, the word "queer" does not have the nuanced meaning that it has in settings like this. And so I feel that as a vagina, I have to put myself in front of you, conference attendees and ask us to keep looking for nuance.
Queerness doesn't just exist in gender or sex, but in the timelines of our lives. In the subversive ways we execute our occupations. In our activism. In how we hold space for marginalized bodies. How we stand up for other marginalized people on this planet.
Queerness is intersectional. Every moment that challenges the status quo takes with it queerness. Every time there is a disruption to the notion of what life is supposed to look like, and there is a fight for marginalized bodies to live with equal dignity and rights -- this is queerness.
But as a vagina, I want to tell you, and you probably already know this: queerness is not just about me. Queerness goes beyond genitals. I believe that queerness is about queering, bending, subverting and changing the narrative of gender and sexuality from what we grew up with. It's about defining yourself in a space that has been constantly dominated by a single white male narrative.
I think that by nature, every person who works to change the shape of the world, and not just works within the confines of the existing world is queer by nature. Queerness is about taking over institutions from the inside and re-centering that narrative, and welcoming new people to that space.
In the world outside of this or any other queer conference, most people can't get their heads around what "queerness" is or even what "queer liberation" is because they are so occupied with me. With genitals. With the technical "so how does this gay sex thing work?" (And by the way, the answer to that is, "Very well, thank you very much." I may be inexperienced but I've had enough experience.)
Look at Piers Morgan with his interview with transgender author Janet Mock a few months ago on CNN. He asked all these questions that focused her gender identity, again and again, and was hyper focused on her gender being defined by genitalia, and when did she chose to change that genitalia, rather than lead with how she wanted to focus the interview and how she wanted to talk about her identity, which is on who she always was from the beginning. Mainstream media shows us more trans faces, but still has framed sexuality in a limited way.
This limited framework for understanding gender and sexuality translates into institutions and even how mental health has been treated. There was a time when gays and lesbians were treated by mental health practitioners, and well, by everyone, as frankly having a disorder. For better or worse, gender dysmorphia has been labeled as a disorder which is stigmatizing to people who feel they are just living their truth.
As Asian Americans we likely have experienced how difficult it may feel to admit publicly when we need mental health help, let alone how to navigate public mental health services, let alone feel safe enough to talk to someone about queerness. We have an opportunity today to center and re-center queerness in the future.
Gender exists unfortunately as a binary, despite the fact that there are nearly 700,000 transgender people living in the U.S. today, 1 in 1,500 are born intersex. And many people now identify as genderqueer and nongender conforming people who are not officially surveyed.
It is this preoccupation with limited definitions of gender, with genitals, with the fear of encompassing what isn't popularly defined, and the inability that leads to the fear that initiates hate crimes, transphobia, and the "othering" of queer people.
And I leave you with these three bits of advice when moving forward from here:
1. While it sucks always being the marginalized one who has to educate the unmarginalized one about how you exist -- talking to you white people -- it has to be done. So find ways to make it fun. Maybe do it in a costume. Or turn it into a sketch or comedy piece. Don't let teaching those people get your down because this dismantling oppression thing is a long ride. So find ways to enjoy it and preserve your energy.
2. Keep thinking about ways to hold a queer space for people who may not be out or who may not even grasp the lexicon of queer language. Hold the space for people like 20-year old Kristina Wong who didn't even know she had a vagina. Hold the space, and keep the door open not just for ourselves but for other marginalized bodies. And while we will never all get along in this queer space, nor are we obligated to make it the happiest place on earth, we have an opportunity to find ourselves ten or twenty years down the road having a better understanding of the people we didn't understand when we first met them.
3. Here today and forever, we also have an opportunity in our liberation, to liberate our queer siblings in Uganda and Russia and in other parts of the world where being gay is criminalized and punishable by incarceration or death. Having listened to LGBTQ activists speak in Uganda, I heard them say that watching Americans celebrate so freely in Pride Parades here is a huge source of strength in their own organizing. We should not forget that in our definition of what queerness is, that there is a whole world out there to think of.
I am Kristina Wong's vagina, and thank you for listening to my first keynote speech.