In defense of being called queer

The Huffington Post changed is Gay Voices page to Queer Voices, which is another step in removing the focus from gay men toward a larger, more diverse, complex, and messy group of people that don’t fit into what is deemed as accepted or normal. Obviously choosing a word like “queer” is risky because it may alienate a lot of people – including readers who cite the word as a slur, one used to denigrate, oppress, and even kill. But the word has also been a rallying cry and a word used to embrace the otherness, and the weirdness that comes from being willing to flout societal expectations in the quest for living one’s authentic self.

By embracing the term queer, we are cracking the confining shell of LGBT and allowing for so much more to spill out: when one is a member of the LGBT community, one is restricted to four choices: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And the “gay” in the abbreviation has often stood in place as a broader description of queer communities, and is still used as a catch-all for all non-straight identities in terms like gay pride, gay rights, or gay community. But the problem with the more-inclusive LGBT is the same problem with the reductive gay: it’s not enough anymore. There are folks who are heterosexual but gender nonconforming, there are folks who are homosexual and gender nonconforming, there are pansexual folks, assexual folks, gender-fuck, gender-queer, polyamorous – there are so many ways to mold and shape one’s identity, that it seems a bit quaint to tray and cram it all into “LGBT” or “gay.”

That’s why queer works. Because whether we like it or not, we’re not normal. And when I say “not normal” I’m not buying into the heteronormative ideals of normalcy, I’m just talking to societal expectations of gender and sexual expression. The vast majority of our society identifies as straight and traditionally gender conforming We deviate from that norm. It’s a wholly artificial norm created solely by a consensus, but there it is – it’s still a norm. So a deviation or something that’s “off,” is well, queer. We’re queer because each of us in our own way challenge the norm – we disturb it, we disrupt it. With queer, we have an umbrella term that encompasses all of those identities and because its label doesn’t favor one, two, or three identities, there is room for so much more – because as we progress, we discover more ways of identifying, more ways of self-expression – and those should not be shunted into a silent, “goes without saying” margin of a restrictive label like “LGBT.”

And I do sympathize with those who bristle at queer – the word can be a trigger for many. But a big part of self-expression is self. So if someone wants to reject the label “queer,” she should be able to do that without being accused of assimilationism or self-hate. But those folks should also look to more traditional nonstraight sources of news and culture, then, like Adovocate or Out.com, both of which align themselves with LGBT, Gay & Lesbian, or just Gay. Some hang these differences on a generational gap – Babyboomers and older see the word as a verbal truncheon (which often was paired with an actual truncheon or a weapon much like it) and want nothing to do with it. A nasty us vs. them narrative sprang out in which some older folks take on the mantle of pioneering forefathers, while the younger folks take on the role of gatekeepers – that’s nonsense. The older folks suffered unimaginable violence and discrimination, seeing friends and loved ones die of AIDS, working hard to ensure that generations after them can see things like marriage equality, the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a larger acceptance of nonstraight folks in society. But that’s just part of the story. Because activists younger than I are pointing out that these important victories and battles often left behind women, trans folks, disabled people, religious minorities, people of color, immigrants and undocumented workers, queer folks in other countries, the working poor, people of size, the homeless. We were handed a hard, oft-misunderstood, but absolutely necessary lesson in intersectionality. So no one generation can claim ownership of a movement, because it’s not something that is static or done.

And it’s because we still have so much left to do, that I think queer is such an apt title. Because it connotes a time in our history when folks were tired of a country’s willing indifference and hostility towards a community that was being decimated by AIDS. And I believe that anger and that rage is present again. The Black Lives Matter movement is a great example of how that anger is being directed toward social change – and it’s important to note that many of the leading figures in BLM are queer. Because of a larger, more omnipresent media (thanks in part to social media), the larger “we” are becoming aware of injustices that were being condoned for years. It’s time that we adopt the righteous, subversive attitude of groups like Queer Nation and ACT UP, because we are dangerously close to becoming complacent again: so much of our current mainstream gay culture, media, and politics is wrapped around neo-liberalism, capitalism, Western imperialism, consumerism, and triangulation. Part of that comes from the scrubbed image that queer folks present for straight consumption. In our quest to attain certain rights and privileges, we attempt to seem just like straight folks, with only that tiny difference – so on TV and in print ads we see suburban nuclear families with two dads or two moms. We’re normal! We see masculine athletes who happen to be gay! We’re just like you! We put out a safe and palpable image of queer life that is representational of only a part of our reality. Our trans heroines right now are Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, or Alexandra Billings, and part of their ability to attain a certain level of media exposure and a press following is their choice to present as heteronormative ideals of female beauty. And that’s wonderful, but we need more. We need trans women and trans men who play with gender who live their lives in a messy in between. Queer is as much political as it is social because it’s a metaphorical finger to regressive and oppressive standards that worked for decades to vilify and destroy so many lives.

So queer has become so much more than just a slur, it’s a rallying call and a blanket term for anybody who isn’t “normal,” but doesn’t necessarily want to be “normal” because what is “normal” is insufficient.

p.s. for a far more succinct explanation and celebration of the word queer, please read JamesMichael Nichol’s excellent piece, “Why I Love Being Queer.”

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Filed under commentary, politics, Writing

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