Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The UnQueering of Second Life

The following mini-essay was originally posted (with a few minor differences) on the SL Forums on the 14 April, 2011. It has since generated (and indeed, continues to generate) a fair amount of discussion there (nearly 400 posts and counting). The subject seemed appropriate to this blog, and will, I hope, generate some discussion among a new audience here.

There has been a fair amount of discussion, in an enormous variety of venues including academic studies, blogs, and forums, both recently and in the past, about the issue of “gender bending” and, in a more general sense, about identity in SL. It seems likely, in fact, that evidence of the social anxiety and, occasionally, moral panic that is evoked by the freedom with which SL allows one to shape one’s own identity independently of “first life” associations has been around for as long as SL itself. Broadly speaking, the debate is often reductively broken down to a conflict between “augmentationists” and “immersionists,” and the salient terms of the discussion – “dishonesty,” “freedom,” “abuse” to name but a few, signal the importance of what is at stake for many.

I want to try re-opening this discussion from a slightly different perspective. Although my own ideological biases will be very clear, I’m not interested in castigating one side or the other so much as I want to briefly highlight what I think is gained, in larger social terms, by the freedom to experiment with identity in SL. I want in particular to consider this in terms of the concept of “queering” identity.

“Queer” has long been, of course, a pejorative term thrown against the LGBTI community, but it is one that has also been re-appropriated by that community: “Queer” is now a term that is as often employed proudly as it is as an insult. From this re-appropriation has arisen the idea of “queering,” which has come to mean a way of challenging accepted perceptions of something with the intent of showing that those perceptions are built upon false assumptions and myths. “Queering” in this sense is really a process of “making strange,” a kind of shifting or even distortion of perspective that forces us to perceive anew, and in different ways, objects, ideas, and socially-constructed conceptions that we otherwise take for granted. I think that this is something that SL does very very well.

My own feeling, however, is that this side of SL is being threatened as never before. The newish focus of Linden Lab itself upon social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as a means to both disseminate information and network within the virtual world is an important instance, but so too is the advocacy for stronger and more transparent links between SL and RL identities that we are hearing from many commentators on Second Life. The spread of in-world groups that promise the “verification” of gender (generally by voice) of members is another manifestation of this.

By “unQueering,” then, I don’t mean that this necessarily threatens the LGBTI community in SL (although I suspect it may, in some ways). I mean rather that there is an increasing degradation of the way in which SL’s “strangeness,” and its disconnect from RL identities and significations, forces us on a daily basis to grapple with and question our own assumptions about the “naturalness” of gender characteristics and other aspects of our identity and interactions with the real world that would otherwise go unchallenged.

A case in point is a recent thread here, entitled “How can you tell if someone is male or female”? It’s a question that is nearly inconceivable in “real life,” but it, or variations upon it, has become, in Second Life, a classic articulation of the social anxiety and moral panic about the instability of identity here. What does such a question really mean? “Male” or “female” in this context implicitly refers to biological sex, rather than to gender: the question is really about what set of RL genitalia a person is equipped with. That the answer to this question is surely irrelevant in the context of a virtual world, where there is no access to, or conceivable use for, RL genitalia, is masked by a second assumption of this question: that there should be some correspondence with how someone represents themselves in SL – their culturally-defined gender -- and their biological sex. Behind this question is the need to assure oneself that the represented gender is “authentic,” that it is “true,” that it is “honest.”

Ironically, the weakness of this assumption is embedded within the question itself: if represented gender can be so “convincing” that the question needs to be asked in the first place, then there clearly is no necessary connection between gendered behaviour and biological sex. “Gendered” behaviour – how, for instance a “woman” talks, thinks, reacts, or even makes love – is arbitrary and unrooted; the success with which a new gender role can be assumed by those of a different biological sex underscores the degree to which it is a “learned” behaviour, assimilated from our cultural norms, stereotypes, and assumptions. Ironically, it is possible that those who deliberately adopt the cultural stereotypes, by role playing “womanly” or “manly” in a recognizable and accepted manner, may be those who are most readily accepted as their represented gender.

Those who are distressed by the lack of clear and intrinsic connection between RL identity and SL identity are making another fundamental mistake in imagining that it is only SL identity that is unstable and unrooted. We are all of us, in our everyday lives in the physical world, constantly performing, assuming different roles as is necessary, becoming, in fact, different versions of ourselves. All of these roles – professional, close friend, lover, and myriads of others – are aspects of ourselves; all are subtly or not so subtly differentiated, and all are authentic.

In SL, the most obvious manifestation of this aspect of our identity (or identities) is the much-maligned and often feared “alt.” There are of course many reasons to create and keep an alt, but one of the most common is to express a side of oneself that one wishes to keep separate, or can’t express for whatever reason, through one’s “main.” Alts can, of course, be used consciously to deceive, but the issue there is not the “alt” itself, but rather the inherent dishonesty of the typist. Most alts, even ones that seem to represent identities at enormous variance with our perceived RL identity, are in some sense expressions of who we are, of who we want to be, or how we wish to see ourselves: they are all authentic.

I don’t want to attack those who distrust SL identity, or who fear alts. Their questioning of the moral “rightness” of gender bending, pseudonymity, and alts does no more than echo assumptions about stable identities that are repeated, and almost enforced, in RL. In a strange – or queer – way, the very fact of questions like these underscores the power of Second Life to challenge assumptions about identity and gender even as it highlights our discomfort with the reality that our biological sex (to name but the most common anxiety) need have nothing to do with social behaviour

A final thought: SL makes us seem queer even to ourselves. It encourages introspection and self-discovery in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, as most obviously when we experiment with an aspect of ourselves that we would never dare or think to give expression to in RL. I was once asked if “I was bi in SL.” It was an interesting question, with its assumption that I might be something in a virtual world that I was not in “reality.” I decided, after some introspection, that I was not, but what was of value was the very fact that the question forced me to evaluate my responses.

The pressure is on, then, to reduce the distortion, the “queerness” of SL. And this, I am arguing, is a bad thing. Bad because, however comforted we might be by the illusion that there are no difficult questions and that our reductive understandings about gender, about others, and about ourselves are valid, it means that SL will cease to challenge our preconceptions, our stereotypes, and our comforting fictions.

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