Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Re-Reading Clothe Wounds

I am currently re-reading Kathryn Bond Stockton's Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where Black Meets Queer. In the text, Stockton is exploring the intersections between black and queer - melding queer studies and black studies through literary texts (i.e. Genet, Morrison, Feinberg). In the first chapter of the text, she examines the notion of clothing, in a sense, as a "second skin". This move is rather intriguing as often, when people compare the state of race and the state of sexuality, the argument is made that one cannot hide their skin color, whereas one can hide their sexuality because it is not worn like skin color. Stockton however argues that perhaps if we examine the notion of clothing, we will see a fascinating intersection - what she terms "switchpoints" - of blackness and queerness. She examines this proposition by examining various texts in which the queer body is understood/defined in part by the clothe that covers the body and how that clothe exposes psychic clothe wounds (Feinberg's butch/femmes, Genet's Querelle).

For instance, Stockton utilizes Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues to illustrate how clothing in the queer community has been something utilized by the homophobic community to ostracize and violate the queer body. Yes, it could be argued that queers could change their clothes and save themselves from assault, but by having to assimilate and change their clothing, these queers are violated - forced to assimilate into a world that has strict clothing restrictions based on gendered norms - restrictions that assault their selves on a psychic level. Of course, as one further explores this, it is perhaps problematic as the clothing of Stockton's examples are "white" bodies, neglecting how queers of color relate to clothe wounds and how clothing operates in different ways in different contexts - relating to class, race, religion, etc.

However, as I re-read this fascinating exposition on psychic cloth wounds, I thought about my own experiences as a (closeted) "gay" youth and as a (out) "gay" young adult, along with my interests in queer theory in education. Clothes are a powerful symbol, a symbol that can illustrate one's economic class, one's fetish for labels, one's desires, etc. But clothes are also raced, gendered, and sexed - as already alluded to. There are social stigmas and stereotypes associated with what we wear everyday. As a youth growing up in the rural Midwest, I tended to wear clothes that labeled me as a "preppy" boy, but also to some a "fag." I spent years, and at times even today, questioning my wardrobe and what it means to wear any particular outfit. How does our clothing, our second skin, portray us to those whose gaze we enter? What does that mean for that gaze when it is the gaze of students? Does it "out" us without having to make a speech act? Does it open us up to violence? Ostracism? Humiliation? Does it allow for the clothed body to play with "identity" and mess with how the gaze of the other can be troubled, confused, questioning "who" is behind the clothes...perhaps eventually realizing there is no "being" behind the clothes...but a "doing", deeds of wearing clothes that create a text of a body to be read?

As I study queer theory more though, these questions become more salient to me, but not from a position of fear, but from a position of performance. How do my clothes perform my "identities" and how do such performances 1) reaffirm the wounds of yesteryear when my second skin caused pain and suffering and 2) overcome those wounds to accept the "shame" that is associated with my second skin, making the psychic wounds livable or making reparations?

But, I cannot think about this solely from an individual perspective because their are queer bodies that do not have the same privileges and opportunities that I have had. The majority of my so called psychic clothe wounds occurred during elementary and high school. Therefore, how do we think about these wounds at the level of education? Do we institute uniforms so everyone conforms, so no psychic wounds because of clothing occurs? Or would "censoring" clothing preference create another psychic wound in which students are not allowed to express their performed identities? What statuses are "privileged" in school uniforms? Are they inherently heteronormative, white, middle class creations? Why do we grant clothing such power in detailing our identities and is our "second skin" that easy to hide in order to hide our sexuality, our queerness? What is the intersection of blackness and queerness in terms of the skin(s) we where? Is an argument against queerness as an oppressed category misinformed by the argument that it can be hidden...when for some, such hiding is nearly impossible and perhaps even deadly?

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