Queer Theory and Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Honor of PRIDE Month

As a non-Queer practitioner trying to improve the care I provide to those who do identify as LGBTQ+, and while sheltering in place, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. One recent book that really resonated with me is Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele. It gives a fairly comprehensive overview of the development of queer theory, a sort of philosophic/gender studies area of thought, with lively illustrations. The authors identified their objective in writing the book “is to be useful to people in their everyday lives, as well as introducing the academic world of queer theory.”

Perhaps the main point I took away from queer theory is the limiting nature of binaries, of all sorts including gender. Binary concepts are often opposites, such as “near/far” and can be extremely useful. Imagine trying to describe locations without being able to use those terms. One significant difficulty comes, however, when we stop viewing them as relative concepts and make them rigid categories. Consider “up/down.” Upstairs in my house is higher than downstairs but relative to the cedar tree tops outside, upstairs is actually lower in height and therefore down. Imagine if I were to suggest that the upstairs of my home is an absolute, fixed “up.” The same can be said about humans. As an example, some humans are male and some humans are more male than female. There isn’t an absolute category of “male” (or “female”) but rather relative degrees.

It may be because I am an acupuncturist and one of the primary diagnostic paradigms is the “Eight Principles,” which are four sets of opposites, but I spent a fair bit of time pondering binaries. In acupuncture we use hot/cold, interior/exterior, yin/yang, and deficiency/excess for diagnosis. They may look like binary concepts but, in practice, they are treated as dualities: different but related and coexisting. Just because someone has “hot” symptoms does not mean that they cannot have any “cold” symptoms simultaneously. Yin could not exist without Yang; Yang could not exist without Yin. But not in the same way that Simone de Beauvoir explains that male is the standard and female is the “other,” rather they are dependent parts of a coexisting whole. You have undoubtedly seen the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a filled circle and can only be a whole with both the Yin portion and the Yang portion. Again, this applies to humans: there is no absolute “female” (or “male”) but rather they both co-exist in a single person, at varying degrees, simultaneously.

This brings us to another point in queer theory: process rather than static. Queer theory encourages us to look at HOW something is being DONE not WHAT something IS. In Chinese medicine an “excess” in one area of the body can, and often does, lead to a “deficiency” elsewhere in the system. Having an interior deficiency might make a person more susceptible to an exterior excess (a commonly experienced example of this is catching cold when you get run down). Just because this situation currently exists doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t change over time. To use our analogy, probably you have had a cold at one time but not always had a cold. So as practitioners we treat the person in front of us at the time; treatments might be similar from one visit to the next but usually they are not identical. In the case of gender expression, queer theory recognizes it can be a fluid process rather than a static fact determined based upon your sexual phenotype at birth.

The final piece of queer theory that I took away from the book was to question “normal.” This term often gets used to mean “majority,” but I can tell you I consider myself “normal” and I haven’t always taken a majority viewpoint or voted for the candidate with the most votes. Just because most people you know do something doesn’t mean it makes any more sense than not doing it or doing it differently. Which is more “normal”: wearing no eyelash modification, using mascara, or getting eyelash extensions? Maybe they are all “normal” options. This concept was brilliantly illustrated by my favorite of the many insightful depictions in the book: the Stereotypical North American Female asks of the Drag Queen “Why do you dress like a woman?” The Drag Queen responds, “Why do YOU dress like a woman?”

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