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Queer: What is it good for? Language and the LGBT movement
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2013-07-24

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The word "queer" has been around since the 16th century and at first meant simply something out of order, mis-aligned, with occasional references to mental disorders. Over the years, it gradually took on a term of abuse directed at those considered sexually deviant.

In more recent years, "queer" has been reclaimed by many as both a symbol of defiance and empowerment.

But the term is a contested one, with some segments of the LGBT community insisting that the word can only be a slur, a reminder of violent homophobia. Others use it as an umbrella term, in lieu of the "alphabet soup" that's often used to evoke a community so complex that no term seems capacious enough.

As Pride 2013 approaches, "queer" has been a part of the LGBTQ lexicon for nearly 30 years. Televisions shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk have been enormously popular, and it would seem that the word is well on the way to acceptance.

Yet, mainstream newspapers still don't use the term, preferring "gay and lesbian" or "LGBT." (If the Q is left in, it's explained as "questioning" and sometimes "queer.")

Windy City Times took a look at the use and re-uses of "queer," with an eye to understanding what it means for those who choose it as a self-identifier. Who's queer today? Does queer go beyond sexuality and gender identity? What does it mean for anything or anyone to be queer?

The origins of "queer"

The first uses of "queer" as a way to push back against its implied stigma came about in the early 1990s. A 1990 conference at the University of Santa Cruz was defiantly titled "Queer Theory."

At the same time, "queer" was a term used by various activists groups, including Queer Nation. Several members of various LGBT grassroots organizations, like ACT UP, also openly identified as "queer."

Still reeling from a devastating AIDS epidemic, AIDS activists in particular used "queer" to indicate their defiance of a homophobic political system that allowed the deaths of so many. They reclaimed the term to indicate that they would no longer be ruled and overwhelmed by the stigma that sought to push them underground.

One of the clearest expressions of this defiance was seen in a still-widely circulated and anonymously written manifesto, first circulated at the 1990 New York City Pride Parade.

Entitled "Queers Read This," the broadside was directed at the prevalence of homophobia and discriminatory medical practices that caused the AIDS crisis. It spelled out why the word "queer" was necessary in a segment titled, "Why Queer."

It stated, "Using 'queer' is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It's a way of telling ourselves we don't have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike GAY, doesn't mean MALE."

Acknowledging the darker history of "queer," it went on, "Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe's hands and use against him."

For many who came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic, "queer" helped to test the boundaries of desire, to contest the idea that sexuality was confined to or defined by the gender of one's sexual partners. For many, this dislocation of gender binaries was deeply connected to the larger political project of dismantling oppressive political structures.

"Queer" was, in every way, an emphatic middle finger to the eras of Reagan and Bush, a time of heightened political and cultural conservatism from which, many still argue, the country has yet to recover.

But historians caution and remind us that while the use of "queer" in public discourse is relatively recent, the political impulses it signifies have been around much longer. The political project that "queer" can signify has been around longer than the reappropriation of the term itself.

Alyssa Samek, 33, visiting assistant professor of rhetoric at the Department for the Study of Culture & Society at Drake University, researches lesbian feminist activists and their work in the 1970s. She points out that lesbian feminists were challenging heterosexual conceptualizations of the family.

Even the key feminist issues of today, including pay equity, were debated and discussed amongst lesbian activists, who pointed that these issues had different implications for lesbians and gay men. In a phone interview, she said, "Even the radical cry of 'We are everywhere,' that came out at the time, that was a recognition that sexuality often goes unmarked; the slogan was a way of marking it and making it recognizable. It was a really important queer moment."

Samek was speaking on behalf of the National Communication Association, which launched a Pride-month campaign to initiate a larger public conversation around the evolution of "queer."

Samek, like many who use the term, acknowledged that it still remains a painful term for those who've experienced it as a homophobic slur.

For her, one way to explain it to ask people to think of how "queer" provides a way to understand and move away from heteronormativity, a term even younger than "queer" but which has recently been circulating more widely. "Heternormativity," Samek said, "refers to the ways in which our society is structured around a gendered division of labor, and the relationship between men and women, masculine and feminine, into relationship dyads."

Pointing to the ways that people often try to refer to her partner as her "wife," despite her showing no inclination to use the term, she emphasized that heteronormativity can exist or be read into gay/lesbian relationships. In the current climate, mainstream gay activists often discuss LGBT life in terms of how normal and therefore acceptable it is. So widespread is this phenomenon that scholars have also begun to theorize "homonormativity," the idea that even non-heterosexual politics now takes on normativizing strategies.

For Samek and many others who identify as queer, the word allows them to consider what she called, "a way of engaging the world that challenges the automatic assumed binaries, and of radically challenging the structures of society."

That was clearly evident in the years of the AIDS crisis, as activists sought to make "queer" a way of radically reconceptualizing the world itself. But we're now in an age where that political energy has long dissipated, where AIDS work is now firmly ensconced in the world of lobbying, and where LGBT activism takes on issues like marriage and inclusion in the military.

So, who now identifies as queer and what are the cultural and political reasons they might do so?

Queer like us

Today, "queer" appears in both academic and activist contexts. Queer theory and queer studies are so pervasive that few departments are lacking in scholars who take on queer issues in nearly all disciplines.

Judith Butler's now-iconic 1990 work, Gender Trouble, is considered a founding text of queer theory, and has proven to be a key philosophical text on the anti-essentialist nature of identity. More recently, queer studies, which deploys cultural and sociological work in addition to queer theory, has yielded work like that of Margot Weiss, whose book Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, is an anthropological study of S/M communities (an interview with Weiss is soon to appear in WCT).

Because "queer" is often so identified with academic work, it's frequently dismissed as too elitist or removed from "real life."

But today's queers, spanning various generations, are less concerned with a rigid, textual understanding of "queer" and more interested in using the term and its meanings to craft lives and politics that most reflect the different kinds of fluidity they seek.

For many, like La Tony Alvarado-Rivera, 32, who also identifies as gender-non-conforming (GNC), "queer" was a way to move away from what they/he/she [preferred pronouns] saw as a more constricting and white-dominated form of gay politics.

The Chicago-based youth worker initially came out as gay, but "I quickly realized that was not a term that acknowledged my full gender spectrum; for me gender is fluid."

Alvarado-Rivera joined About Face Theater as a youth. There, adult mentors exposed them and their cohort to documents and documentaries about ACT UP and Queer Nation.

"For me, 'queer' was a term I needed to hear; 'gay' felt very boxed-in, with its connotations of whiteness and class privilege," said Alvarado-Rivera, who often speaks about what they and and many other LGBTQ people of color have criticized as the racism and classism of the mainstream gay movement.

They continued, "For me, 'queer was more radical and inclusive of multiple issues, whereas 'gay' speaks mostly to marriage equality rather than economic or racial justice."

Bending the rules of gender and gender presentation are also part of being queer for Alvarado-Rivera. They frequently conduct workshops and seminars in Spanish-only spaces, in a huipil, a traditional Mexican dress, with a full beard and nail polish.

While conventional gay wisdom assumes that traditional Latino/a spaces are likely to be hostile to such appearances, Alvarado-Rivera points out that their presence and presentation invokes both questions and dialogue. For them, queerness and gender-bending combine to create "beautiful, radical, and powerful" spaces.

Not everyone who identifies as queer can do so in their work and daily lives and Ramsey, 23, still finds it a struggle to be completely accepted by co-workers in their Michigan Avenue retail store where they work. A recent graduate, Ramsey—who uses "they" pronouns, and identifies as both queer and genderqueer—was born cisgendered and has known they were not primarily attracted to men since they were 16.

As they grew older, they found themselves attracted to people across a range of genders, including trans and genderqueer people. They began to research the term "queer," which they finally adopted because it had, for them, the most potential to also express a political perspective.

"Queer is probably more what I lean towards," Ramsey said, "Genderqueer is more about my body, queerness is about my politics." A queer theory class where they watched a documentary about different AIDS movements and the drive to take the term back made them think about the political uses of the term.

Like Alvarado-Rivera and many other queers, Ramsey questions the focus of the gay movement: "Marriage equality is important, but I'm more interested in addressing homelessness and trans politics." They work with mostly tolerant cisgender people who still have a hard time understanding their identity. A co-worker, told about Ramsey dating a trans person, said in exasperation, "I thought you were only attracted to women—you just don't know what you want, do you?"

This sense of not being readily understood by mainstream society, even one that's rapidly growing more accepting of gays and lesbians, is one queer-identified people know well.

Bonn Wade, 40, is the director of the TransLife Center, and also on the advisory board for the LGBTQ Host Home Program. They identify as genderqueer on the transmasculine side or, as they put it, "swimming with masculinity."

For them, queerness isn't only about their self-presentation but about creating and crafting a life and home that is intentionally non-heteronormative and outside the boundaries of "normal" family life. This often means living in unconventional family systems comprised of chosen family, people not only related by blood, and across generations.

According to Wade, they and their partner are often met with quizzical looks but, "we live our lives in very intentional ways. We think about our resources, our space, our money, who lives with us, in ways that resist the traditional heterosexual style nuclear family life."

In a gay community where such bonds are often frowned upon because of the stigma of inter-generational friendships, Wade and their partner think about queerness as a way to address issues of class, race, and economic justice.

Also in Chicago, Jaz, a twentysomething transqueer, sees "queer" disrupting and redefining both racial and political paradigms. They moved here from the South, the child of an Irish-German-American mother and an African-American father, and grew up thinking of "queer" as a derogatory term.

"I always thought 'queer' might be the last word I hear," they said in a phone interview, "and I only came to it when I was about 21."

Jaz has been a part of the anti-war movement, and links "queer" to their politics: "There is that association with queer in politics in a way that GLB isn't, there's a radical element to the queer community, but also an elitist side to it."

The elitism that Jaz refers to is what many bring up in critiques of the term, in accusations that it's too grounded in queer theory. Jaz refuses to let their queerness be defined by the more textual explanations of "queer" which, they said, "leads to a special snowflakism among the more privileged members, there's a self-indulgent nature to it."

Jaz said, "I'm going to take their shit and use it for what it does for me. I use 'queer' because I do in a sick sort of way relish what was theirs and making it mine and tweaking it."

For Jaz, "queer" is a means of fighting for change on the ground, and to challenge what they see as normative gay politics. Living on the South Side, "I often see cars pass by, with that equal sign sticker, but equality doesn't mean the same thing to everyone," they said.

They continued, "A trans, Hispanic woman living in this neighborhood has a wildly different life experience than most of the white, gay men in those cars. That word ignores the multiple layers of race and class privilege as far as organizing and activism go. Nobody gives a shit about marriage here, or at least it's simply not a pressing concern."

But "queer" is also contested and contentious territory, even for those who have or continue to use it as a key identifier. Some question how radical "queer" has remained, even as they seek to understand and articulate it.

Vincent Chevalier, 29, is a Canadian visual artist based in Peterborough, Ontario and well known for often autobiographical work which explores the themes of being HIV-positive and public sex.

Chevalier came to "queer" as a theater student in his early 20s, which was also when he was first diagnosed as HIV-positive. Over the following years, he found himself rejecting what he saw as a tokenizing impulse in the art world, to mark his work (and of others like him) as emblematic of queer work.

For Chevalier, "queer" can be another way to subsume radical politics, if it remains on the level of a label only. He works frequently in social media and especially Tumblr, and is interested in how people use #queer to mark their posts: "It's a very quick but not very complex way of communicating a lot. So, if you say, I am this thing [queer], you can align yourself with a whole social group and a history, which is important but people might also be tokenizing it."

Pointing to what politics on the ground could look like, he continued, "Having a sense of community is very different when you're marching in a parade or having sex with other men in the dark."

Chevalier doesn't dismiss the importance of what "queer" can be for people, but wonders, "Maybe the people that are screaming loudest that they are queer are not necessarily doing the radical work."

What Chevalier points to is echoed in a cautionary note struck by Samek. Asked what it would take to shift public discourse and newspaper reporting to include the word "queer" in all its complexity, she said, "This would be a turning point, to a realization that there was a way to think about sexuality, gender and radical politics at the same time."

She said, "The danger is that 'queer' could become yet another 'covering term,' a catch-all phrase that implies too many similarities within a number of issues."

But there are, she points out, benefits to that: "It would open up avenues to think about and see a more radical history. It would mean, for instance, that Stonewall wouldn't be read as a singular moment, led by gay men, but that the drag queens and the sex workers, folks who were abused and pushed back against police brutality, would be recognized. It would mean that everything that boiled up at Stonewall—class, race, gender identity and performance, would be seen clearly."

Approximately 30 years after "queer" first began to circulate as a defiant reappropriation, it remains a potent tool for many, even those who were not even born in the 1980s. Present-day queers are refashioning "queer" to think through issues like nationality, war, gender identity, class and race. "Queer" is likely to be a contested term for years to come, even amongst those who use it, but it may well be here to stay.


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