February 22, 2006

Thinking about words, part I: QUEER

I know, a strange topic for a linguist, eh?

I think, however, that these words would have been on my mind lately even if I werent't a linggeek. I was at a meeting last week for my job as LGBTQ events coordinatrix (aka Queen of Queer), trying to find panelists for a workshop on being a queer ally to students of color (and vice-versa), and I tossed out a name of a prominent student leader who was not only a social activist, but also both gay and black. I said, "My Mysterious Sources (tm) tell me that he'd be a good person to contact for things involving the intersection of ethnic minorities and queerness."

My boss - a big ol' queer himself - flinched. I thought perhaps that my use of the phrase "my Mysterious Sources" had made him nervous. But no: he hemmed and hawed a little and then said, "[Person] isn't a very big fan of the word 'queer,' so I'd be very careful about phrasing with him, if I were you. I personally always say 'LGBTQ' when I'm talking to him."

Oh. Wow. I understood, in the abstract, that there are people who don't like the word "queer." I just never thought I'd meet one of them who was my age, or for that matter younger than me. To me, opposition to the word has always been the provenance of older gay men and lesbians (the type that might even call themselves "gay women"). And I understand that, for that generation especially, the Q-word has a lot of negative connotations. It was the kind of word people said at you, usually with a sneer and sometimes with a broken beer bottle or a gobful of spittle.

But we've come a ways since then, or at least I'd like to believe we have. After all, the Q-word is now so reclaimed it's almost mainstream. A bunch of gay guys get together to impose their fashion and dress sense on a straight man and don't get beaten up for their troubles? A bunch of gay guys - and, oh wait, a couple token lesbians - have wild dramalicious clubby sex every week on national television and actually get good ratings? A little stereotypical, perhaps, but the casts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer As Folk have brought gay men into America's living rooms, and I thought they'd brought "queer" with them.

Still, full mainstream acceptance of queerness and the word "queer" isn't quite here yet. But it's pretty established in younger LGBTQ circles. The University of Chicago's student LGBTQ organization is called Q&A: Queers and Associates; one of the biggest LGBTQ news sites calls itself QueerDay; OutProud's national resource database can be found at QueerAmerica.com. This is a word we use - but why?

For one thing, it's a good umbrella term for all the various groups which have staked a claim to membership in our community. Rather than deal with the alphabet soup of LGBTQQI (like the UCC's LGBTQQI Youth web page), it's just easier to say "queer" and have done with it. It can reference sexuality, gender identity and expression, and often a queer worldview or sensibility (so that straight allies who are exceptionally in-the-know are sometimes called "straight queers"). If you say "queer" to refer to our community, there isn't really a group you're excluding.

In addition to the group-umbrella, the Modern Queer Age has given rise to a desire to talk about and include people who might not fit into one neat lettered category. How else would you describe:

- a bisexual hipster femme who kings?

- a polyamorous transmasculine/genderqueer switch who partners with femmes and transfags?

- a faggy butch who sleeps with femmes, has sexual tension with other butches, and has been known to date gay boys?

- a femme-dyke who dates masculine people with female biology, be they butches or trans guys?

- a person whose sex is intersexed, whose gender identity is androgynous, and who is sexually attracted to two specific gender presentations (feminine and androgynous)?

- a polyamorous lesbian who is attracted to some boy-type-people and isn't entirely certain about being female?

- a person whose gender identity is femme (not woman), who will potentially date interesting people of any gender/sexuality except completely-straight men, and who identifies strongly as a bottom (for the right partner) but would also top the right partner, if the situation arose?

- a dapper butch and sometime drag king who has always thought of herself as a boy but still identifies as female, and who uses female pronouns but either a male or a female name depending on circumstances?

What can you call people like these (all of whom are real people, plus or minus an identifying detail or two), except "queer"? And how on earth would you describe a group that includes all of them?

Ultimately, it seems like balking at "queer" doesn't only send a message about discomfort with reclaimed negative language, but also with people who spill outside the margins of a "lesbian and gay [and maybe bi]" community. This may not be the intention of younger queers - er, sorry, LGBT folk - who reject the word, but insisting on LGBT-only labeling pays only the merest lip-service to bi and trans people, and creates an environment where people who don't fit into the alphabet soup simply don't fit in.

Discuss? *smile*


wannatakethisoutside said...

I guess I think it makes sense to note that the word "queer" is really used often by people who are in college. Particularly, it is uncommon among people in high school or who have just arrived at college.

I just wanted to note that in the discussion, while you were talking about generational differences, I think there is also an age and class difference as well.

icarus said...

eh, i like the word queer. but i know a lot of people, queer and not queer, who don't, for a variety of reasons, ranging from negative associations with that word being used pejoratively against them in high school, to feeling that "queer" is used by more intellectual, upper-class academics as a positive word, but don't see it as such in their own lives.

so, although i think it's a useful word (and the usefulness is the main attraction for me), and a word i often find best to describe myself, i totally understand and support those who don't feel that way.

wannatakethisoutside said...

Oh, I had one more thought about "queer" as an umbrella term, which is just that when I hear "queer" used by someone I don't know, I'm not always sure they are including trans, or even bi people.

I guess it's just that sometimes people mean gay/lesbian when they say queer so sometimes the explicit alphabet soup is helpful for some of us to know what people mean.

Of course, sometimes "LGBT" really just means white gay men anyway.

narcissusfemme said...

I'm glad wtto brought up the issue of class differences, because I think usage of the word queer often has to do with issues of privilage. Saying you're a queer activist means something different from saying you're a lesbian activist, for instance, and I think we (I say we because I Do use the word queer at times, though I find it problematic myself) often refer to 'queer community(ies)' or 'the queer movement' when we want to latch on to something larger than our personal identities.

tea cozy said...

umbrella terms in general are, though v. v. useful, problematic --- umbrella-ing is problematic --- there must be some people who don't want to be in the "queer" umbrella, don't think they belong in the same category as some of the other alphabet letters, etc. etc.

or in any umbrella situation, really. including academic ("well, I may be a philosophy major, but I'm not a pretentious douchebag like some other philosophy majors and I'm NOT going to law school so keep me out of your umbrella" or "well, I may be a wgs major but I'm not a crazy fucked-up pomo like all those other wgs majors..." or whatever).


just some thoughts.

icarus said...

did you spend a lot of time thinking up all those sexually/genderly diverse "queer" examples? i just realized that must have taken a bit, haha.

maudite entendante said...

Actually, no, Icarus; I kind of just did a mental poll of my friends. The Estimat reminded me of a few, but other than that...

maudite entendante said...

Ohhhhh, right. That's why I like Bear. 'Cause ze pretty much always says it better than I do.


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