In a Queer Time & Place

Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives by Judith Halberstam

by N. A. Hayes

15 June 2005

 

In In a Queer Time & Place, Judith Halberstam proposes an alternative to a heternormative time, that is to say a time not based around the generation of families. In this queer time (although not necessarily a lengthening of adolescence) a greater arena of freedom is established since our culture is still very much bound to assumed importance of marriage and children. However the validity of this time is often questioned by those in the major heteronormitvity. But Halberstam is careful not to merely assert that heterosexuals are the dominant culture and, albeit with a hesitance places the assimilationist movement of the queer community in this camp since marriage and child rearing have been set as bench marks of the mainstream gay rights movement.

This small seductive book pours warmth as Halberstam confesses and connects movements of pop culture and high art to a deeper understanding of the potentials of the body. She includes us in her world and its privileged understanding of her subject. However to succeed, she sometimes does not allow any room for us to catch up to her assertions. For example, her long study of transgender martyr Brendon Teena at times loses the arc of her argument to her own intellectual relationship to the Teena history and cultural products (movies, books, new stories) that arose from it.

cover art

In a Queer Time & Place

Judith Halberstam

Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives

(New York University Press)

As a critic she takes an admirable position by revealing her prejudice, calling herself out, making her bias in favor of urban gay-lesbian culture known, but then she tries to build pathways around it in her attempts to understand Brendon Teena, the musician Billy Tipton and others. She allows the complexity and inconsistency of identity to exist while never trying to simply to explain away that which is not schematic. However, the frank positioning of the author in her cultural coordinates occasionally breaks down to an all too chatty style in certain passages, such as when she confesses “I tried singing in a punk band called Penny Black and the Stamps for a brief two-week period, thinking that my utter lack of musical ability would finally serve me well. But alas, even punk divas scream in key, and my rebel yells were not mellifluous enough to launch my punk singing career.”

The lively discussion of the appropriation of certain themes of gender reconstruction in Austin Powers and The Full Monty by the dominant heterosexual culture shows Halberstam’s fluid finesse in examination as well as a tenderness to those straights facing a crisis with the increased visibility of queers coupled with a loss a cultural authority. She carefully analyzes both Austin Powers and The Full Monty and their implications for both compromised and non-traditional masculinity (especially British.) But she never resorts to stereotype without a thorough examination of the morphology in space as well as time.

In a Queer Time displays Halberstam’s sophisticated understanding of contemporary culture in a plain and engaging tone. If the occasional passage contains an excess of biography it is easily forgivable amid the noble description and critique of identities and temporalities that are fluid and often resistant to definition.

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