PSi25 University of Calgary, Canada
Panel: SEXING: protesting, performing, and experiencing limitations
Performing Bi Myself or How To Do Things with Nail Polish
I went to PRIDE alone this year (2019). Last year (2018), as has been tradition, my gender-fluid child, my husband, and I covered ourselves in rainbows. My son’s red wagon acted as a billboard for our homemade signs: “Love Makes a Family,” and a rainbow Puerto Rican flag. Without these markers, we look like a straight cisgender white couple with a child assigned female at birth (when he has long hair our son passes as a girl). As a bisexual light-skinned diasporican[i] (Puerto Rican in the diaspora), I am used to my identities becoming invisible at every turn, so in an effort to NOT pass as straight or white I routinely “overperform” my subjectivities. At Psi23 in Germany, I introduced this concept of “overperformance.” I explained how through overperformance I rewrite the scripts written on my body by the white supremacist cisheteronormative colonial gaze.
With no posters or signs to identify my queer Ricanness this year, I figured the least I could do was decorate my nails with a rainbow. Scanning my son’s nail polish collection, I decide that I should “flag” my sexuality more specifically. The bisexual pride flag, designed in 1998 by Michael Page, is magenta (signifying homosexuality), royal blue (signifying heterosexuality), and lavender (signifying an equal mix of both).[ii] There is some online debate about which color is the “top” and which is the “bottom,” but everyone agrees that purple belongs in the middle. According to the “rules,” the magenta and royal blue widths are to occupy 40% of the space each, with purple occupying 20%. I return to the shelf and select the colors closest to those hues: “Cosmo Pink,” “Purple Reign,” and “Soothing Sapphire.”
A 40/40/20 split doesn’t feel right, but I begin painting anyway. I start with pink, dip the brush into the bottle and then, I hesitate. How much space do I give to each color, each “identity”? Ultimately, I decided that four pink, four purple, and two blue would suffice; I begrudgingly allotted “heterosexuality” (as signified by the blue) the smallest space on my body. But even this compromise felt like an imposition. I do not use the words heterosexual or homosexual to describe myself, so to “represent them” on my hands felt ingenuine. And though I’m tickled by the name of the purple nail polish I was using—“Purple Reign—I do not imagine or experience my queerness as a product of equal portions of heterosexuality and homosexuality that mix together to create some kind of “whole” fully knowable subject. I am not aligned with the kind of visibility or representation projects that aspire to or imagine a “whole subjectivity” that is “forged through imperial and colonial projects”[iii][iv] (Leticia Alvarado in Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production). My politics are more in line with those of Antonio Viego, for example, who “imagines a mode of brown politics,” in his book Dead Subjects, “not invested in the narrative of a whole and well-adjusted subject.”[v] As an anti-colonial queer diasporican, I do not aspire to be “well-adjusted” under U.S. empire.
Pink and blue signify the ends of the woman/man or feminine/masculine gender binary—or what Maria Lugones calls “the coloniality of gender,”[vi] a Western imposition forced on my ancestors centuries ago. And the bi flag, unfortunately, reproduces this colonial imposition as it represents, “enables and consolidates a heterosexual/homosexual dyad.”[vii] In Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender, Clare Hemmings explains that the dyad functions within feminist and queer theory and community to firmly position bisexuality as middle ground on a sexuality spectrum with knowable and definitive end points. Reproducing this dyad in my choreography of self[viii] further situated me “in the middle” and that was the price of visibility at pride—an event that has shifted from protest to party, from radical revolution and collective deconstruction of majoritarian culture to a neoliberal celebration of individualism, consumerism, and homonormativity? Staring at my nails while driving to the parade, I thought to myself: what is on the other side of pink. The other side of blue? And when did painting my nails become so existential?!
Performing Beyond the In-Between: DiaspoRican Identity and Belonging
My presentation today derives from my book project, Performing Beyond the In-Between: DiaspoRican Identity and Belonging. Performing Beyond is a critical autoethnography drawing from Performance Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, Feminist Studies, and Queer Studies to examine how colonially imposed binaries (e.g. Black/white, Spanish/English, Heterosexual/Homosexual) limit diasporic Puerto Rican subjectivity. With a range in approach and intention that reflects the diversity of individuals gathered under the signifier “Latina/o/x,” scholars have offered a multitude of critical theories to characterize Latina/o/x subjectivity. Despite these interventions, Latina/o/x subjectivity is still imagined as a mixture of two static elements set in opposition to one another that resides in between rather than on its own. “In-betweenness” produces a spatial metaphor that positions Latina/o/xs within two framing narratives—thus, our visibility and belonging emerges only in relation to our proximity to each frame. As a bisexual Latina, my in between-ness is further regulated by a homosexual/heterosexual paradigm wherein my visibility is activated primarily by my partner(s): my queer subjectivity “snapped” back into an “invisible” middle when they’re absent.
In 2002, I wrote a paper called “Making Space for the White Woman of Color.” I wrote that “My identities are both present and absent depending on context. In a gay bar: I’m a dyke. With a man: I’m a traitor. In the kitchen: I’m Puerto Rican. On the street: I’m a white girl. In the academy: I’m a ‘woman of color.’” By making space for my feelings about moving between presence and absence, I approach the theme of “elasticity” in regard to gendered and racialized sexuality as a not necessarily desirable trait. The call for this conference stated:
elasticity involves the ability to be shaped by an external force and to return to an original configuration if that force is removed. It refers to the adaptability and plasticity of networked connections, and although elastic tissue has a snapping point, it is far more resilient than inflexible materials.
When I read the words “external force” in the call, I think: colonization, forced migration, dislocation. When I read the word “resilient,” I wonder about the cost of that resilience. While I feel generously toward words like “adaptability and plasticity,” I think bisexuals of color—and other minoritarian subjects—have to be careful when celebrating our ability to bend and shape shift. We have to ask: what are we adapting to and why? What is the outside force doing the manipulating? If we stretch bisexuality and Brownness to its limits for visibility, at what point do we snap?
I’ve distributed cut rubber bands. Please note that one side says “homosexual,” the other says “heterosexual,” and “bisexual” is written in the middle. On the other side, we have “white,” “Black,” and “Brown.” Now, pull them until they snap. Ouch, right? If bisexuals of color don’t stretch, we are left in the forgotten middle. Is that the “original configuration” we want to “return” to?
When the words of the call are applied to racialized and sexualized bodies, they feel essentializing; I’m betrayed by my attraction to them. I want my sexuality to be elastic in theory, but I wasn’t thinking about the forces doing the pulling, forcing the stretching. Alternatively, if I am the one pulling the band to its limits, or stretching it so it meets again at the ends creating a loop, does that change the dynamic of my desire? What if others in minoritarian culture are doing the pulling? After all, my desire to be “seen” is directed at my minoritarian comrades.
My desire to remain elastic, it seems, is firmly lodged within the queer epistemological dyad, where bisexuality and Brownness are always in the middle of binary poles where recognition is possible. By “foregrounding bisexuality” in my investigation of feeling limitations, I respond to queer feminist scholar Juana María Rodríguez’s provocation to “help redirect queer political agendas toward feminist social justice issues and more expansive community alliances.”[ix] Because bisexuals of color encounter these framing binaries as limitations to visibility, belonging, and justice, we must not only account for what the limitations do, but we must also imagine creative strategies for what we can do beyond them.
Limitations of Feeling Brown and Queer[x]
In “On Being a White Person of Color: Using Autoethnography to Understand Puerto Ricans’ Racialization,” Salvador Vidal-Ortiz shares a story about lying in bed with his lover, noting the color difference in their skin. He writes “This skin color has often materialized for me body image issues, because at times it renders how I see myself in the world, invisible.”[xi] Similarly, when I look down at my “white” body, I often feel disappointment. I feel colonization. I feel the rape and conquest of Indigenous, Brown, and Black ancestors that “did not choose me as a descendent.”[xii] I do not push these feelings away, I want to feel their residues. Aurora Levins Morales asks in Remedíos: “We who have rejected again and again the insidious voice of the conquistador and searched for our dark abuelas in the mirror, we who have managed to embrace our mestizaje, proclaimed our despised ancestry among the conquered and enslaved, how do we love what is pale skinned in us?”[xiii] I used to search my body for signs of Puerto Ricanness: is it in my eyes? My hair? My nose? I used to carry my birth certificate to prove that I was Puerto Rican to middle school classmates; young me thought that a piece of paper issued by the United States of America and the state of Massachusetts would give her the identity affirmation she needed and the belonging to Brown and Black peers that she so desperately wanted. Over the years, I learned that I could mark my ethnicity through how I choreographed my hair, clothing, accessories, attitude, etc. I learned that in performing my identity, I was performing a politic in and upon the world.
As a mother, one of the most important lessons I can teach a little body that will have white privilege, male privilege (folx focus on the sex/gender he was assigned at birth), and class privilege (he is the child of a college professor) is how to align himself with minoritarian culture against the pull of majoritarian.[xiv] Some would say this is contra-intuitive; that we want our children to “have what we didn’t have,” which usually refers to wealth, to power, to privilege. I want him to align himself with queer bodies, with Brown and Black bodies socially, politically, aesthetically, sexually. I want him to see queer, Brown, and Black bodies as fully human. When he looks at queer, Brown, and Black people, I want him to see beauty, family, to feel love, strength, creativity, and community. But the world, the world wants him to be white, straight, and cisgender. They want him to feel white, straight, and cisgender. To act white, straight, and cisgender. Majoritarian culture teaches him to feel queer, Brown, and Black bodies as dangerous. As excessively sexual. As lazy. As expendable. As unable to “act properly [which is to say, to act white] within majoritarian scripts and scenarios.”[xv] Instead, I teach him to act improperly, to act out his difference especially in the face of erasure. (you can find more of my writing about this in Performance Research.[xvi]) I cannot change how others see him, but I can influence how he sees himself in the world. How he feels: and I want him to feel Brown, as I do.
I take my cue on the importance of thinking about identity and difference through affect (feeling not being), from my late advisor José Esteban Muñoz. In “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s ‘The Sweetest Hangover (And Other STDs),’” he writes that when thinking through Latina/o/x performance, and Latina/or subjectivity, “we [must] move beyond notions of ethnicity as fixed (something that people are) and instead understand it as performative (what people do).”[xvii] I feel the tremendous amount of emotional, social, and political labor I exert resisting the push/pull toward whiteness on a Black/white binary.[xviii] “Light-skinned Puerto Ricans become ‘people of color’ in the U.S.,” Vidal-Ortiz argues, “because the term means more than ‘race’; it now incorporates racialization and displacement as Puerto Ricans.”[xix] I am a person of color not because of how I look, but because of how I feel.[xx] I feel my “Ricanness,” which Sandra Ruiz defines as “a continual performance of bodily endurance against US colonialism through different measures of time,” an endurance performance of “the often unwanted, anticolonial, racialized and sexualized” body.[xxi] That day at Pride, as I left my car and scanned my body to see if I was forgetting anything, I realized there was nothing marking my Puerto Ricanness. Because I know that passing as white is failing to be Brown, I pinned the Puerto Rican flag that usually hangs from my front windshield to my backpack and felt relief. As a white-passing bisexual about to march in a predominantly white pride parade I refused to pay “the price of community,” which Beverly Yuen Thompson articulates as a compulsion to “divide [myself] along identity lines and leave part of [myself] ‘at the door’.”[xxii] Writing about the experiences of white-passing bisexuals of color (mostly Asian women) trying to build community in “The Price of ‘Community’ From Bisexual/Biracial Women’s Perspectives,” Thompson claims that “the ‘appearance’ of racial identity is written more obviously upon the body [than sexual identity] for most – but, significantly, not all.”[xxiii] The limitation of feeling Brown in a white body is a result of how Ricanness is racialized, by outsiders (and insiders who internalize those outsider structures).
My desire to be seen by queer people of color as a queer person of color is a complicated one. Sometimes it feels like the closer I come to queerness, the more I move toward whiteness. Similarly, the closer I come to Brownness, the more I move toward heterosexuality. When my body is read as white or straight, I am separated from communities I hold dear, and I work tirelessly to stretch beyond these binaries to find a place where they meet, to not be limited by them—but I can’t do it alone. Living beyond binaries is a group project and it cannot be engaged with a vision of “inclusion” that requires obeying impositions; it must be expansive. Done with this in mind, bisexual of color performances of self have the potential to be minoritarian performances that (as Joshua Chambers-Letson describes in After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life), produce “a ‘we’ that includes but does not enclose; it is a form of being with by being ‘within’ and also ‘outside’ of ‘we.’”[xxiv]
Waiting to march down Main Street as part of the SUNY New Paltz Pride contingent, still reeling from the nail painting incident earlier that day, I turned to my friend and colleague Dr. Catherine Herne, an Optical Physicist, and asked: does a light spectrum have definitive ends? I gave her more information about the idea I was working on in terms of elasticity and the sexuality spectrum, and to my delight she said no, “the ‘ends’ are infinite.” After the parade, like any good etymology nerd, I looked up the word and discovered that spectrum originates from the Latin word “specere,” which means to look. The OED defines a spectrum as “used to classify something in terms of its position on a scale between two extreme points.” The limitations of “spectrum” language are activated when we rely only on this, its second definition. What happens if we utilize the first definition of a spectrum, the one that has to do with light and rainbows, frequencies, radiation, and energy?[xxv] Later that day Catherine sent an email with links to NASA’s page about The Electromagnetic Spectrum, explaining that “the descriptions say ‘one end of the spectrum to the other end’ […but] the actual ‘ends’ are undefined.”[xxvi]
Invitation to “Take Flight” or Stretch to the Infinite Beyond
In “Queer Politics, Bisexual Erasure,” Rodriguez employs a 2009 study by the Human Rights Campaign that “found that over 40% of those that self-identify as bisexual, also identify as people of color.”[xxvii] She uses Robyn Ochs’ definition of bisexual: “people who acknowledge in themselves the potential to be attracted romantically and/or sexually to others of varying genitalia, and/or varying genders, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”[xxviii] My favorite part of this definition is the word “potential” because it invites us to think about the infinite potentialities enabled by bisexuality in practice and theory; it also redirects us to those “undefined ends” of a spectrum. Because bisexuals “decenter attention to genitals as determinants of gender identity or sexual desire,”[xxix] we defy the imagined endpoints of the sexuality spectrum, which are of course built upon the “fixed coordinates”[xxx] of a colonially imposed gender binary. Rodríguez,[xxxi] extending Kenji Yoshino’s claim, writes that bisexuality “destabilizes” sexual orientation categories[xxxii] to the realm of gender categories. The potential of bisexual attraction and bisexual practices to queer theory, practice, and coalition building, is realized the moment we destabilize the fence structuring binary gender (and race). “In this formulation,” Yoshino astutely observes, “it is not fencesitting, but the fence, that is the problem; and it is not bisexuality, but the line establishing binary categorization, that needs to be erased.”[xxxiii]
Writing about the 1948 Kinsey Scale in the year 2000, which posits sexuality as continuum from heterosexuality (represented numerically as 0) to homosexuality (represented numerically as 6), Kenji Yoshino argues “this view encouraged us to think of the straight/gay binary as de-fining the ends of a continuum that could be stretched, accordion-like, to accommodate ever finer gradations of cross-sex and same-sex desire.”[xxxiv] By relying too heavily on this scale and the corresponding metaphors of inclusion such as “sexuality as continuum,” or “sexuality as spectrum [with extreme endpoints],” “we have divided the world of orientation into categories that tend to suppress the existence of bisexual desire.”[xxxv] The 3s, so to speak, are “harder to see because they are caught in the middle of a political struggle” between heterosexual majoritarian culture and queer resistance.[xxxvi] I take seriously the reasons that gay and lesbian people buy into the idea that “fence sitting” bisexuals are not “real” queer subjects: passing for straight, or “retreating to heterosexuality” are forms of privilege in a heterosexist world. But I also need my queer kin to recognize that by “occupy[ing] the parodic high ground of contemporary sexual culture,” they support the colonially imposed categories that divide our community and reinscribe “bisexuality as the undisputed middle ground.”[xxxvii]
Examining how both lesbians and gay men are invested in bisexual erasure in order to maintain their stake in authentic sexual identities, Yoshino writes “bisexuals are seen as flight risks—individuals who could at any time abandon the gay community to lead straight lives.”[xxxviii] Instead of running from the stereotype that bisexuals are “flight risks,” perhaps we should run away from those who can only imagine us on a fence, those who can only offer us partial belonging and community, fast enough to take flight. I agree with Muñoz’s contention that rather than rejecting the stereotype that Latinxs are affectively excessive “it seems much more important to seize it and redirect it in service of a liberationist politics.”[xxxix] If we take the premise that there are no end points, the sexuality spectrum doesn’t feel like a binary anymore. It feels like infinite possibility.
Taking flight (hat tip to Deleuze and Guattari) is one way to enact our imaginations otherwise.[xl] I want to think of the performance of sexuality, of desire, not as linear, not as flat, not as start to end, but rather as circles, cycles, and spirals. By taking flight from the middle, from the fence, and indeed from a spectrum with “extreme points,” we refuse to “assimilate to dominant, colonial categories of thought;”[xli] in that refusal we become free or at least can feel freedom. My freedom from binaries project is not only for bisexuals or Brown folx, folx in the middle. I want all minoritarian subjects to feel freedom,[xlii] but I believe that in order to do that we need to be pay more attention to that which we cannot see—the infinite points beyond binaries.[xliii] I am not arguing that we toss the language of a sexuality spectrum, nor am I trying to take away the identities of those who feel seen by and tied to binary points, but I am asking: do these points have to be ends? Can’t we take pleasure in the unknown ends and beginnings, to seek the colors and the desires before pink and beyond blue? Let’s not seek the power and privilege gained in proximity to defined ends but choose to imagine and inhabit a place beyond those “ends.” Because, “if it’s anything,” as Chambers-Letson states, “freedom is something that’s just beyond what seems possible.”[xliv]
If you still have your rubberband, I invite you to pull them until they take flight.
[i] Jill Toliver Richardson, “Writing Her Legacy: A Conversation with María (Mariposa) Teresa Fernández,” Centro Journal 28, no. 2 (October 1, 2015): 120.
[ii] Casey Hoke, “Michael Page- Bisexual Pride Flag (1998),” Queer Art History (blog), August 25, 2017, http://www.queerarthistory.com/love-between-women/michael-page-bisexual-pride-flag-1998/.
[iii] Leticia Alvarado, Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); 7.
[iv] In her book, Hemmings declares a “commitment to valuing bisexual subjectivity in its partiality,” but while I am not invested in any notion of wholeness, the idea of the partial subject isn’t that appealing either. Once again, we encounter the limitations of a compulsory dyad: part/whole. Hemmings, Bisexual Spaces, 191.
[v] For more on dead subjects, see Antonio Viego, Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007); Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down;” 680.
[vi] Lugones reminds us that “‘gender’’ does not travel away from colonial modernity.” See María Lugones, “The Coloniality of Gender,” Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise, On the Decolonial (II): Gender and Decoloniality, 2, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 1–17.
[vii] Clare Hemmings, Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender, 1 edition (New York: Routledge, 2002); 29.
[viii] In “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” Muñoz uses the phrase “choreography of self” in discussing racial performativity. José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Signs 31, no. 3 (2006): 675–88; 676.
[ix] Juana María Rodríguez, “Queer Politics, Bisexual Erasure: Sexuality at the Nexus of Race, Gender, and Statistics,” Lambda Nordica 1–2 (2016): 169–182; 171.
[xi] Vidal-Ortiz, “On Being a White Person of Color,” 184.
[xii] Levins Morales, Remedíos, 146.
[xiii] Aurora Levins Morales, Remedíos: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriquenas (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001); 10.
[xiv] Chambers-Letson, After the Party, “The difference between majoritarian and minoritarian being is not a question of statistical or numerical majority or minority; it’s a relation structured by proximities to power and alliance.” 17
[xv] José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect,” 70.
[xvi] Jessica N. Pabón-Colón, “Performing Queer Mamí on Social Media: Gender-Fluid Parenting as a Practice of Decolonisation,” Performance Research 22, no. 4 (October 2017): 71–74.
[xvii] José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s ‘The Sweetest Hangover (And Other STDs),’” Theatre Journal, no. 1 (2000): 67–79; 70.
[xix] Vidal-Ortiz, “On Being a White Person of Color,” 190.
[xxi] Sandra Ruiz, Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance (New York: NYU Press, 2019).
[xxii] Beverly Yuen Thompson, “The Price of ‘Community’ From Bisexual/Biracial Women’s Perspectives,” Journal of Bisexuality 12, no. 3 (July 1, 2012): 417–28; 419-420.
[xxiii] Yuen Thompson, “The Price of ‘Community’”; 421.
[xxiv] Chambers-Letson, After the Party, 19.
[xxv] OED: A band of colours, as seen in a rainbow, produced by separation of the components of light by their different degrees of refraction according to wavelength; The entire range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation; A characteristic series of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed by a substance; The components of a sound or other phenomenon arranged according to such characteristics as frequency, charge, and energy.
[xxvi] High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, “Electromagnetic Spectrum: Introduction,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Imagine the Universe!, March 2013, https://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/toolbox/emspectrum1.html.
[xxvii] Juana María Rodríguez, “Queer Politics, Bisexual Erasure: Sexuality at the Nexus of Race, Gender, and Statistics,” Lambda Nordica 1–2 (2016): 169–182; 171.
[xxviii] Rodríguez, “Queer Politics, Bisexual Erasure,” 170.
[xxix] Rodríguez, “Queer Politics, Bisexual Erasure,” 176.
[xxx] Chambers-Letson, After the Party, 45.
[xxxii] Kenji Yoshino, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure,” Faculty Scholarship Series, January 1, 2000, 353–461.
[xxxiii] Yoshino, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure,” 409.
[xxxiv] Yoshino, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure,” 357.
[xxxv] Yoshino, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure,” 359.
[xxxvi] Yoshino, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure,” 391.
[xxxvii] Hemmings, Bisexual Spaces, 34.
[xxxviii] Yoshino, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure,” 407.
[xxxix] Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect,” 70.
[xl] In “Latin American Decolonial Studies: Feminist Issues,” Sandra Harding writes that “’Otherwise’ is always used to contrast with the conventional modern Western insistence on conceptual binaries.” Sandra Harding, “Latin American Decolonial Studies: Feminist Issues,” Feminist Studies 43, no. 3 (2017): 624–36; 630.
[xli] Harding, “Latin American Decolonial Studies,” 631.
[xliv] Chambers-Letson, After the Party, 41.