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Why I’m not an Essentialist Even Though I Think Evan Lysacek’s Totally Queer & Should Say So

This post is about figure skaters. Is there a connection to arts and culture? Maybe kinda? If not, hopefully Mr. Madera won’t mind.

Yesterday, after I posted a facebook item crying foul on Olympic figure skater Evan Lysacek’s sudden romance w/ gymnast Nastia Liukin (This USA Today piece later appeared, then People edited their headline and article from “dating” to “very close friends.” Mmm hmm) — my exact words were, “Nuh-uh, I don’t buy it, Nastia Liukin, you’re a beard” — my excellent gay writer friend (excellent writer, although he is perhaps also an excellent gay) Andrew Tibbetts called me out, saying, “Look who’s an essentialist!”

Andrew was poking fun at me because of my very vocal embrace of Queer politics and theory and reluctance to fully embrace the (socially constructed, historically specific) category of gay identity. I wondered — was Andrew on point, was I being a hypocrite? Calling for fluid identities on the one hand and seeming to criticize Lysacek for not “coming out” on the other?

Here’s the source of my initial concern: Coming as it did immediately after his gold medal win, and in the midst of his very public disagreement w/ silver medalist Evgeny Pleshenko — a disagreement that’s heavily gendered as feminized artistry (Evan’s focus on expression of details) vs. masculinized athleticism (Pleshenko’s quad jumps) — seemed to me suspiciously timely, convenient. So while on the one hand, I believe Lysacek can identify however he fucking wants, his strategic dishonesty, if that’s in fact what’s happening here, disturbs me. I’m concerned Lysacek — who as I understand it, has previously been assigned (and I believe actively embraced) a role as the great butch savior of the fagified sport of men’s figure skating — is complicit in, and perhaps actively supports, the homophobia, femiphobia, misogyny and gender policing currently on the rise in his sport.

But what of this gender policing? I’d argue it actually highlights some of my concerns with “gay identity” and its limitations.

Here’s master asshat Elvis Stojko talking abt his problem with feminine skaters:

People in the gay community have to realize they’ve got to take themselves out of it. It’s not against anybody. I’ve been getting heat for this, but there are people behind me saying that they appreciate it. It’s about what people can identify with when they’re watching the sport. It doesn’t have anything to do with gayness. Effeminate men can identify with effeminate skating. Masculine men can’t identify with that. When I watch it, I can’t identify because I don’t move like that. My consciousness doesn’t feel like that.

In way, Stojko isn’t totally off-base. Criticisms of effeminate skaters aren’t so much about sexual identity as they are gender expression. And male effeminacy is often just as frequently derided and condemned in many gay subcultures as it is in the mainstream.

Elsewhere, a commentator at Outsports questions whether Lysacek’s teammate Johnny Weir, who’s infamous for his disruption of gender norms, makes it easier for sportscasters to bash him (here’s some of the bashing) by remaining coy abt his sexual identity:

If Weir said publicly, “I am gay,” then any media person who called him a “queen” or mocked his costumes or manner would get immediate attention from GLAAD and other gay rights groups; he’d be officially one of us. People would be calling for public apologies and demanding action…And I bet a lot of these same media people would think twice about mocking a publicly gay man, fearing accusations of homophobia.

This commentator’s statement reflect a certain reality. In our current political system, rights and privileges are extended to groups with discernible boundaries who are able to lobby on their own behalf. But I feel this reality is far from ideal. Gender policing like what’s currently happening in figure skating is fucked up and ugly — and folks shouldn’t have to identify any particular way for us to denounce oppression. The limitations of gay identity, as I see them, are twofold —

~Identity categories w/ clearly-demarcated boundaries become constrictive, exclusionary. For instance, the dominant image of gay men has become increasingly white, middle or upper-middle-class and super-associated w/ consumption and mobility in capitalist systems. Over the long haul, this threatens to leave a ton of folks at the margins as some are assimilated into dominant culture.

~By uncritically accepting a political framework that extends rights and privileges to groups with demarcated boundaries, we only give additional power to new folks (usually those already closest to power), rather than systematically transforming how power is distributed.

We become less equipped to question and destabilize “normal,” to create space for the broad range of sexualities and genders that exist even amongst so-called heterosexuals. For instance — even if I’m totally off-base, and Evan Lyscacek loves pussy, he should still be able to skate artfully and rock the Vera Wang without getting challenged to a fucking dick contest.

8 thoughts on “Why I’m not an Essentialist Even Though I Think Evan Lysacek’s Totally Queer & Should Say So

  1. I’d say that posts, like this one, certainly fit into the dialogue here. I’d love to see more posts that explore the construction and politicizing of identity, of genders and sexualities, and the like.

  2. tim, this is a great post.

    when i was a kid i loved figure skating (probably largely due to the fact that in my sheltered upbringing it was the most female flesh i was likely to see). as an adult i don’t quite get it anymore. i’m impressed by the abilities, but find myself not feeling the engagement i feel in other sports.

    all that said, i have thought a lot about these questions of male figure skaters and their identities since the olympics started. in my experience many people seem to automatically assume most if not all of the men are gay, but if that were to be fact rather than assumption the same people would be uncomfortable with it. the amount of discomfort people have with themselves is astounding to be able to create such a paradox. “i can watch this even though these guys are probably queer.” versus “these guys are all queer i can’t watch this.”

    when i see someone like Weir who challenges people with his comfort in being himself i feel proud as a human. i made sure to watch his routines because i wanted to see someone who is unafraid of their place in the universe.

    there’s no reason people should have to state who they are, but when someone does there’s an inherent power in that, and the ability to do so is something i respect immensely.

  3. Figure skating’s an art, and a part of culture.

    Plus, the skaters write all over the ice. I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve spent examining ice rinks, trying to decode the messages written there.

    That the ice skaters leave for me. And only for me.

    …They’re there, I tell ya!

  4. I just personally find it much more pleasant when people who are gay walk around saying they are gay. It’s just a big relief. Some -very few in my nearly 42 years on this planet–people are bi and can be all fluid about their identities or whatever, but the vast majority of us have a preference and there should be no shame in that preference whatever it is, as long as its not children.

    The whole bearding is funny. It’s like a game of gaydar skills or something like that. My favorite one these days are the Twilght couple…

    So maybe that makes me an essentialist. But I’m not an asshole, I promise.

  5. I liked your post, Tim.

    This line got me thinking:

    “Criticisms of effeminate skaters aren’t so much about sexual identity as they are gender expression. ”

    There’s something about athleticism that is asexual, or, maybe more accurately, that is a harmony of both femininity and masculinity.

  6. hehe i was a figure skater when i was a kid.
    i was lead tea cup in alice in wonderland on ice at my rink.
    i’m also gayyz therefore, figure skaters are gay

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