Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon


Laurence Coleman's take on the word "queer" in his exploration
of Dusty Springfield as a queer icon, has got me thinking that June
should really be "Queer Appreciation" month
rather than "Gay Pride" month!

The Wild Reed’s "Gay Pride 2011" series continues with an insightful exploration by Laurence Cole of how, conceptually, the term “queer” is different from other words used to describe sexuality.

This exploration is excerpted from Cole’s 2008 book, Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere, which, in examining the late British vocalist as a cultural icon, focuses on the “boundary-breaking, category-evading aspects of [her] iconography whereby binary positions like male-female, black-white and straight-gay were, and are, undermined, and assumptions about class, celebrity, even identity are questioned.” As a result, Cole contends that Dusty Springfield “functions as a queer, rather than a gay or lesbian, icon.”

All of which challenges me to think of the month of June as being more about Queer Appreciation than Gay Pride!


Like “quantum,” “queer” disrupts and destabilizes received ideas of fixity and normality, and wriggles out of being pinned down as yet another system of classification. In David Halperin’s view, “it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relationship to the norm. Queer is, by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Alexander Doty too sees queer readings or discourses as containing “a wide range of positions within culture that are . . . non-, anti- or contrastraight”; though it is not clear whether he equates “straight” with “heterosexual” or “normal,” the ambiguity itself serves queer purposes which are almost always shifting, multivalent and indeterminate.

Unlike gay,” “lesbian,” “straight” and “bisexual,” “queer,” as applied to sexuality, questions assumptions that identity can be described by means of labels and categories. Whilst the other words seek to name and affirm identity in terms of sexuality, “queer” troubles the very notion that identity ever stays still long enough to be positioned or given any name at all – in sexual, or indeed any referential terms. Thus, when Alan Sinfield enjoins us “to entertain more diverse and permeable identities,” he pluralises the word to raise the possibility of several identities for each person rather than a fixed one which is permanent and stable.

From queer perspectives, the very concept of identity becomes suspect; as Annamarie Jagose suggests, “queer is always an identity under construction, a site of permanent becoming.” The word “identity” presupposes that human nature is known, understood, and sorted [yet it can be that] the more we learn about our behavior and its unconscious motivations, the more unfathomable we become to ourselves. Does it make sense for any slippery and imprecisely delineated human being to claim and affirm a personal sexual identity? The fact that we believe we are in a position to do so, and are busily sticking this or that label on to ourselves and others, may be thought to conform the scale of the self-delusion.

. . . For much of the last century, of course, “queer” functioned as a term of abuse for homosexuals, and – like the use of “nigger” by black people – was rarely used outside camp, self-mocking contexts by those it disparaged. Although the word seemed to be dying out in the Seventies and Eighties, in the early Nineties – inspired by thinkers like Foucault, Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – it was recycled by a later generation f sexual non-conformists into a proud and defiant self-affirmation f how they regarded themselves and their positions in mainstream society. In the USA especially, “queer theory” developed credentials as a term for the academic study of dissident human sexuality.

Since the original meanings of “queer” connect with being “across” or “athwart” or “betwixt and between,” “neither one thing nor the other but floating here and there and nowhere,” the word fitted in well with deconstructionist ideas of undecidability and estrangement, gaps, fissures and discontinuities. In Suzanne Walters’ words, “queer” is “the perfect postmodern trope, a term for the times, the epitome of knowing ambiguity.” With its more recent negative homosexual connotations already associating the word with deviant forms of sexuality, “queer” has become, over the past twenty years, a resonant semantic questioner and subverter of what Michael Warner has called “regimes of the normal.”

Because “queer” is more inclusive of potentials and open to possibilities than “gay,” “lesbian,” “heterosexual” or even the more open-ended “bisexual,” as well as uninterested in promoting identity categories and disrespectful of boundary markers, it welcomes the broader crossings of those who feel they don’t easily fit into these types of socially constructed sexuality groupings – people otherwise ignored or invisiblised such as: transgendered, intersexed, asexual, celibate, and sexually self-contained people; those who sense they slip and slide – at different stages of their lives and in varying moods – from one thing to another but don’t consider themselves bisexual; or people who say they are “lesbian” or “bi” or “gay” for reasons of social expediency. Even people who are “straightforwardly heterosexual” in their patterns of thought and choice of partners may consider themselves as functioning queerly if they feel capable – even if only imaginatively – of moving anywhere along the sex and gender, or even class and race, lines of inquiry, and choose to align themselves with those who do so in practice. “Queer” and “straight” are not necessarily incompatible bedfellows.

In the end, we are all queer in some sexual way or other for, whatever our object of choice during sexual activity, there may be an incongruity between the events taking place in the bedroom and the pictures which form on our heads. About masturbation fantasy scenarios we know next to nothing. How many of us, indeed, are fully aware of what is happening in our psyches during any kind of sexual arousal, never mind in the shifts and turns of our emotional involvement with others? The inner realm of sexual fantasy – what is going on in our minds when we get turned on – is likely to be almost as queer as subatomic movements at the quantum level. And we probably know and understand as little, or even less, about the material scurrying around in those dark and inaccessible recesses of desire.

. . . Dusty Springfield never publicly defined her sexuality in any socially sanctioned terms; we look in vain for an unequivocal statement like “I am a lesbian” or “I am a bisexual.” Despite – or because of – her refusal to put herself into any box or wear any label, she has had boxes and labels assigned to her. . . . The more one reads the remarks she made about her sexuality, and sexuality in general, the more one sees how thoroughly she resisted being fitted into a standard-issue uniform on these matters – and thus the queerer she gets. The motivations behind her statements were, in all probability, defensive and sometimes made when she felt her back was against the wall. Nonetheless, her words told truths about her nature which may not have surfaced in less challenging circumstances. On an everyday, practical level, they could be viewed as the “half-truths” or “obfuscations” I earlier suggested they were; seen from the perspectives of this section, however, they read like words of wisdom from the mouth of a queer theoretician.

– Laurence Cole
Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere
pp. 97-101

NOTE: For the next in this series, click here.

To start at the beginning of this series, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A "Truly Queer Theory" on Sex
The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay But Definitely Queer
The Thorpedo’s "Difficult Decision"
Dan Furmansky: "Why We Have Pride"
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Quote of the Day – March 6, 2011

For The Wild Reed’s Gay Pride 2010 series, see:
Standing Strong
Growing Strong
Jesus and Homosexuality
It Is Not Good To Be Alone
The Bisexual: “Living Consciously and Consistently in the Place Where the Twain Meet”
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride

For The Wild Reed's Gay Pride 2009 series, see:
A Mother’s Request to President Obama: Full Equality for My Gay Son
Marriage Equality in Massachusetts: Five Years On
It Shouldn’t Matter. Except It Does
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Not Just Another Political Special Interest Group
Can You Hear Me, Yet, My Friend?
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride


brian gerard said...

Great post, Michael. Thought provoking.

buff said...

Dusty is for the ages.
As a gay man, I adore her.
She is the best contempory singer of the 20th century.
We all continue to miss Dusty.