A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk by Del LaGrace Volcano and I thought I’d post my notes here.
Del LaGrace identifies as a ‘gender variant visual artist’ and has published several books about lesbian sexual subcultures, especially female masculinity and drag kings. The latest book pays attention to queer femmes.
Del uses the term ‘queer’ in the sense that it implies a ‘questioning’ (inquiry) and as a resistance to any imposition of ‘obligatory gender.’ Del started by talking about the gender binary and intelligibility. The first thing someone does when they look at you is decide whether you are male or female. If you’re not intelligible as either, your identity is illegitimate and you are pathologised. Del wants to question the whole notion of fixed sexual identities and explore possibilities for deliberately choosing beyond the parameters of male and female.
Del raised interesting points about gender and desire, describing showing images of masculine female-bodied people to groups of gay men who were very disturbed when they found out that the sexually attractive body belonged to a ‘woman.’ Likewise, lesbians would be disturbed to find themselves attracted to male-bodied feminine people. It made me think that we tend to associate this kind of sexual panic and insecurity with homophobic people and violent male responses to the discovery that a female object of sexual interest used to live as a man. But, to what extent are we all subject to the norms that create these insecurities?
Del argued that we need to think about the fact that we ‘cannot not believe that there is truth in gender,’ not least because who gets to produce knowledge/truth is very tightly regulated. As we know, only certain types of female bodies are allowed to take up cultural space.
Queer strategies of subversion focus on some basic questions:
Who am I?
Where do I belong?
Who is my community?
This interested me because I know I’ve been asking myself these questions since my teens and I suspect they resonate with most people who fall between binaries in various ways. I don’t have any firm or final answers to these questions in my own life, but I keep on asking them.
Del was resistant to the idea that some kinds of bodies are more transgressive than others. It is rather the case that some kinds of bodies are more visibly transgressive. Queer femmes are less visible than butches and drag kings and the latest book is an attempt to make them visible. This is also important because mainstream representations of lesbians tend to depict us as quite conventionally feminine women who do not threaten the gender order.
The ‘queer feminist methodology’ in making the images was based on a desire to make the subject feel empowered in the process of constructing the image. Del wants to create images with ‘speaking subjects’ partly because it is important to remember that the history of photography is the history of the violent exploitation of those who are considered marginal and disposable.
Del said that queer feminists tend to try and distinguish their feminism from the feminisms that exclude them. I would like to have heard more about what exactly this queer feminism involves and its implications for feminism, but the images got me thinking.
I felt that the images present an in-your-face femininity, edgy, sensual, and often composed through a juxtaposition of the materials and signifiers of conventional femininity with something unexpected that creates a defamiliarising effect. This image of Kathy Acker for example. I can see that this defamiliarisation of conventional femininity could be considered a feminist act.
The queer femininity in the images seems to be linked to the use of materials and technologies – clothes, jewellery, makeup, hair products, tattoos and piercings, for starters. As one questioner pointed out, this brings up some uncomfortable questions about the role of capitalism and consumerism in queer subcultures. To what extent is this kind of gender subversion possible without engaging with consumerism? Del said that the femmes tended to accessorise in an environmentally friendly way, but there’s still a problem here. Before we unquestioningly celebrate this gender subversion, we need to remember that a lot of people would lose their jobs on the spot if they turned up with green hair, big tattoos and obvious piercings. I am always anxious that we do not use queer theory to set up alternative gender hierarchies and expectations that become normalised or idealised. If certain kinds of queer looks become celebrated, wouldn’t that just reinstate the system we’ve been trying to deconstruct?
Still, it was interesting and it made me think about the importance of certain materials and technologies in my own gender presentation. I have a strong liking for certain materials, especially cotton, denim, velvet, corduroy and (sorry vegans) leather. I think I own about 12 velvet and corduroy jackets. These materials have become extensions of my sense of my own gender. This is why I never talk about gender being ‘natural’ or having a ‘natural body’ because I don’t think any of us have a chance of a non-technologically constructed body in this world.