Individual and collective forms of queer identity

Queer Spaces and Identity Expression


Pauli Rikaniemi

Growing up with a feeling of otherness forces one to negotiate personal identity with society’s expectations and the accepted norm from a young age. My otherness, being gay, lead me to take on a straight identity until I was ready to be openly gay. As a boy, not being ready to challenge the norm, a heteronormative society, I found ways of passing as straight until I gradually became open about my sexuality.

This conscious choice of expressing a false identity or the identity of somebody else, made me constantly aware of gender and sexuality. I needed to learn how the outside saw me and weigh it against the binaries of straight/gay and male/female. Doing this, I constantly questioned what it is to be gay and a man, in opposition to being straight and a woman.

My personal experience growing up, being a typical one in the LGTBQ community, is noticeable in the community’s ability to play with identities and to use this as a source of empowerment. As a response to society’s norms, it is a platform for critical thinking and non-verbal conversation. For example, Touko Laaksonen with his Tom of Finland drawings utilises a pointed imagery of identities. With Tom of Finland, Laaksonen manages to address issues of sexuality, gender, lust and the national trauma of being in war between Hitler and Stalin, all of which for him were personal.

Ball culture, which was started by Black and Latin trans and drag communities in the USA in the early 20th century, is perhaps the clearest platform for identity play. At a ball, one is able to play with self-expression, while in public it is not always safe or allowed to do so. These safe spaces are a possibility to change the rules of society and to readdress imposed gendered roles.

The same tools of identity politics are naturally used in everyday situations as well. Like RuPaul says, we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. The choices we make in expressing ourselves are choices of alignment and identity politics.

A safe space for experimentation allows an individual or group to express themselves without having to worry about the society’s norms i.e. the colonial matrix of power (CMP). A transformation between a learned identity and one’s own identity functions as a tool for knowledge production in the way that it makes the CMP visible.

A collective event, for example a club night, is a platform for shared identity play and a way of negotiating within your community. Gay bars and BIPOC events set their own rules of what is accepted behaviour, and in both, the white straight man is at best a guest. This collective play of identity expression has the same power to produce knowledge as the individual identity play has.

They are dependent on each other; the collective can’t exist without the individual and the individual can’t exist without the collective. The negotiating of a personal and a collective identity to and against society’s norms can help see otherness as an anchor point which allows one to delink from the colonized concepts of gender and sexuality.

Gay bars and the whole pride movement were started by trans women of colour, but many spaces, communities and often even the pride movement itself have forgotten them. Instead, they are yet another playground for white men. In many cities, techno clubs have started to provide an option for queer spaces. For example, Copenhagen has seen a wave of techno events and spaces in the past few years, e.g. Et Andet Sted, Ved Siden Af, Monastic, Endurance, Mainstream and Group Therapy. What they all have in common is that they make clear that the events are safe spaces for LGTBQ and BIPOC communities.