WHAT’S IN A “QUEER” NAME?
So, this post may not be for all of you because some of you weren’t bugged. But I got feedback after my marriage equality piece that some of you were thrown off by my use of “queer.”
This has happened to me before.
Picture me, a newbie to Iowa at my first lesbian party, having just been introduced to someone who was recently married. “So,” I ask, “was your minister a dyke?” Innocent. A term of empowerment among lesbians in NYC. As in “the Dyke March”—one of the most seriously fierce marches during the gay pride weekend every year. Picture the woman I was speaking to, looking like she had been punched in the gut. Picture everyone else at the table stunned to silence and looking at me like I had five heads. Not an elegant entrance into lesbian community in Des Moines.
Labels and names mean different things to different people at different times and in different places. This is true sometimes even among members of a shared community.
Things have changed a lot in gay and lesbian communities in Iowa since my 2004 faux pas. But I’m still careful when I use “queer” here. In NYC, people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities tend to claim “queer” as a term of empowerment (even there it’s not 100 percent). But, I’ve been told more than once here that it’s so closely associated with hurt and pain that folks aren’t sure it can be used that way yet.
So, when I use it publicly here, I try to be sensitive to and respectful about that even though it’s a label I claim wholeheartedly.
In that spirit, I share a few clarifiers for those of you (heterosexual or otherwise) who were thrown off by my use. If even after reading this, “queer” to you remains a “no, no” that’s totally cool. I’m not suggesting you use it. I just wanted to be clear about why I do, or at least about why it’s not a “no, no” for me.
One of These Things is Not Like the Other . . .
Check out the following sentences:
1. “Those queers are always . . .”
2. “For those of us who identify as queer . . .”
3. “Look at that queer over there . . . !”
4. “How can this church become a place of love and justice for all queer people?”
Do you see differences between them? I do.
Notice the subtle but powerful impact of using a word as a noun versus as an adjective. You can almost guarantee that “those queers” is going to be found in a sentence being put to very different uses than one containing “queer people.” In sentences 2 and 4 queers are “us” or “people.” Being “human” is part of both of these nouns. Not so much in “those queers.”
I would never use “queer” in the way sentences 1 and 3 do. I hope that difference is clear.
Caveat: Occasionally “queer” is used as a noun (sort of like how I used “dyke” as noun in my faux pas) even though the use is clearly intended to be positive. Usually such “noun use” is done by someone who identifies as part of the group themselves. That’s safer anyway. (E.g., though my soon-to-be friends were horrified I used the “d” word, there was no fear on their part that I was a threat to them. If a straight person had done what I did that might not have been so clear.)
Is “Queer” Too Derogatory?
Words hurled at people for the purposes of hate and oppression often have a more insidious impact as well. They create a sense of shame among the victimized group. As if the dominant group is right: they are “a queer,” “a black [a word African Americans did not use to describe themselves before the Black Power era],” “a chicana [a word that literally was a “bad” word in Denver when I grew up because whites had so thoroughly used it as a term of hatred].”
When these groups resist, struggle for rights, create unique cultures and, over time, loudly and proudly say “No!’ to their oppression, it is a very common and important part of their empowerment that they (we) begin to say “Yes!” “I’m Queer!” “I’m Black!” “I’m Chicana!”
The capital letter versions of these names and labels simply don’t mean the same thing as the small letter versions. The proud invocation of these identities not only affirms the struggle for justice. It also means they (we) reject the internal shame that being oppressed has created in us.
In other words, that “Queer” is not what anti-queer heterosexuals have said it is.
Turning “bad” words back on themselves is one of the most powerful acts of a liberation a group can do.
That doesn’t mean this all easy and clear-cut. For many people “queer” still hurts and the struggle for justice hasn’t been long enough or strong enough (yet) to change that. It was a valiant PFLAG mom who first questioned me about it in Iowa, so much did it still ring for her with the hatred that had been spewed at her daughter over the years.
But for many “queer” is a name of pride. It says we embrace, love and celebrate our “difference.” That we see in our difference, something good, something we don’t want to let go of, something that might even stand to make a beautiful contribution to lives of the non-queer among us.
Can Straight People Use the Word “Queer”?
Maybe. Obviously, straight people shouldn’t use it in the sense of sentence 1 and 3. (But if you want to use it along the lines of sentence 4, I say “go for it!”) Obviously, straight people–like non-straight people–should be aware that some gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, intersex people don’t like it.
It’s used most safely by those who consistently are public and unapologetic about their support for queer people and our rights.
(In fact, if you are straight and you publicly live out a commitment to queer rights, some queer people would say you’re queer too! In some understandings, “queer” means anyone who is different and proud to be so. And, straight allies are indeed very different from many straight people.)
Here’s a safe test. If using the word queer makes you at all uncomfortable, you shouldn’t use it. This discomfort suggests it’s still too loaded for you and you should honor that. You can choose to never use the word “queer” and still be a straight ally!
But, Why Use it at All?
The diverse experiences, identities and self-understandings of people who are transgender, lesbian, bisexual, gay, intersex, genderqueer and list can go on are, well, diverse.
That’s the main reason “queer” has emerged as a term many of us either embrace or at least can live with for now. Gay and lesbian doesn’t begin to cut it. Queer is just more inclusive (or at least tries to be) to those many, many things that makes our lives so divergent from the heterosexual and non-transgender among us while still signaling that even in our real difference we share important connections precisely because we aren’t part of the hetero-, non-trans norm.
So, there it is. I hope this helps. I want you to keep reading my blog. And so it’s really great when you tell me when my use of language makes that harder for you to do.
Let me know what you think.