Friday, March 14, 2014

What Does "Queer" Mean To Me?

This is my first actual, honest-to-Gods #MBLGTACC2014 essay (and yes, I'm aware that that was a month ago).  It has to do with the discussions that were going on at the Queer Identity Forum, especially in the political quadrant of the room.  It was clear that people were all operating on very different but each very specific definitions of the word "queer," and that led to some statements that didn't make sense in the wider context of the discussion.  The two most common ones are:
  • "Queer" is an umbrella term that can refer to anybody within the community; it is entirely inclusive and therefore more useful than an acronym (like LGBT) to which we'd inevitably just wind up adding more and more letters.
  • "Queer" is "inherently" anti-authoritarian, left-wing-political, a specific subset of overall gender-and-sexual-diversity populated by people who want to fuck shit up.
These are two definitions which are both very common, not-necessarily-incorrect definitions of the word "queer," and they are absolutely some of the most contradictory things I've ever seen.  Using the first definition, everybody from a radical anarcho-queer activist to the most conservative Log Cabin Republican can use the word "queer" if they so choose.  And you know what?  There are people in both those groups that do use it (perhaps fewer in the latter, but they do exist).  Using the second definition, the vast majority of LGBT people could not use the word "queer" because they are either not on the radical left or are primarily interested in integration rather than liberation.

So you get twenty or so people in a circle with each having a definition of "queer" that is a spin-off of one of these two heavily-contradictory definitions, and it leads to a great deal of confusion.  People kept using the word "inherently," which is a word I'd almost love to banish from the English language.  I think the only time I use it is when I'm saying something isn't inherently one thing or another because especially when it comes to labels, "inherently" is used to connect these labels to things that literally aren't inherent to the term at all.  Case in point:  "Queer" is not "inherently" anti-authoritarian or left-wing and it baffles me that people would say that.  It has merely developed into a word implying that in some communities; these people distinguish between "queer" politics and "gay" or "LGBT" politics, the latter two being mainstream, centrist, or conservative while "queer" is more radical left.  This is certainly not the same usage as those who believe "queer" to be the ultimate all-inclusive term; these people inevitably include a lot of conservative and/or assimiliationist folks in that definition.  A conversation between two people in which that distinction is not understood will inevitably fail.

Personally, I don't think either of these definitions is "wrong."  It's just important that when we're talking about queerness as a movement or as a self-identity we all understand what we're talking about, and I think in that particular MBLGTACC identity forum that wasn't happening.  Not only was it not happening, for a while it was pretty clear that people didn't actually understand that they were using two drastically different definitions of "queer."  I think if I were to repeat this experience I'd have brought this up, but it wasn't something I was articulating very easily in the thicker-than-butter atmosphere of queer-identified-people arguing over things in which neither party is actually wrong.

But hey, I think I'll take this article and switch it up a bit because it's important to my own identity.  When I say "queer"--when I call myself that, or when I say "queer people" or "the queer movement" or the like--what exactly do I even  mean?  Hence the title of this essay.  And this is the answer to that.

"Queer" by its definition means something like "deviating from the expected."  In a world where people overwhelmingly assume romantic relationships to be monogamous opposite-sex relationships, eventually leading to marriage and babies, between one man who has as far as he can remember always identified as male and one woman who has as far as she can remember always identified as female; I and many others deviate from the expected.  Therefore, I am queer.

I am perfectly comfortable--in fact, I am quite proud--of the fact that I deviate from peoples' expectations of sex and gender.  Therefore, not only am I queer, I identify deeply with that term.

I like "queer" because when I think of that word, I think of the phrase "We're Here, We're Queer, Get Used To It."  This itself deviates from the more mainstream narrative of the LGBT community, which often seems resigned to "We're Just Like Everybody Else Except This One Little Meaningless Thing You Should Ignore."  The former community is more likely to not only accept but embrace the differing ways our community constructs families, enjoys sex, and overall revels in its uniqueness.  The latter is more likely to try blending in with expectations rather than express pride in deviating from them.

That's not intended, by the way, to be a value statement.  There are a lot of people who violently hate our deviance, and so trying to run from it and convince people we're not deviant at all is not exactly a strategy I can blame people for using.  And they can certainly use the word "queer" if they choose to, but I feel it has a very different "character" to it than when people like me use it (not to mention they're much less likely to use it as a central identity).

That is the main reason I use "queer" to describe myself, but there's another that is less soapboxy and more practical:  It's easier than the label soup I'm otherwise subjected to when it comes to describing my sexual identity.

When it comes to my gender identity, I barely feel queer at all.  My gender identity is in fact ludicrously simple:  I am a man.  A transsexual one, sure, but still a man.  Although I accept that my transsexualism is usually included in the inclusive version of the word "queer," I don't usually see it that way.  It's my sexual orientation that I consider "queer," and that's because it's the only way I feel I can suitably describe it.

There's a lot of label soup out there.  What I mean by that is that the labels we use to describe sexual orientation are subject to so much misinterpretation and confusion that people have been constructing newer and more specific labels nonstop for a long time.  Some people decided that bisexuality by definition must only mean desire for men and women, and started identifying as pansexual or polysexual instead (as a quick note, if you're one of the folks who continue to define bisexuality this way, please stop and let bisexuals define themselves instead, they don't need your help).  Then some people decided that the "-sexual" suffix in sexual orientations implied biological sex and started using "-genderal" ("heterogenderal," "bigenderal," etc.).  Then others misinterpreted the same "-sexual" suffix to mean sexual behavior rather than gender and started adding "-romantic" instead ("I am bisexual but only homoromantic").  That same issue extended to people creating sexual orientations to refer to things that aren't genders in the first place ("sapiosexual," "vegansexual").  This continues on and on, and these days it's not overly uncommon to find somebody express their sexual interest using a string of identity labels... "I am a heteroromantic bi-sapiosexual because I am sexually attracted to men and women I find mentally stimulating but I only fall in love with the opposite sex."  And other such things.


It's not so much that I think people should just quit trying to describe themselves.  Even if that were my concern, it's not something I have the power to do anyway.  It's just that the overabundance of labels meant to specify with extreme detail exactly who and how you like to fuck or cuddle (or NOT fuck or cuddle) is massively unappealing to me.  I don't feel the drive to be that specific because this is information that is not relevant to most of my interactions with people.  So I just use "queer" instead.  To me it just means "I am deviating from that which people expect of my gender and sexuality, and I'm totally cool with that.  Maybe you'll find out exactly how when our relationship deepens."

And the same goes for the community.  Whether I use "queer" to mean the radical contingent of the community or an all-inclusive term, what I'm saying is "within the context of the wider community I'm speaking about, these are the people who deviate from what is expected and are totally cool with that."  All of us deviate from what cishet society expects, "queer" as an all-inclusive is not inaccurate.  As well, radical queers deviate from the mainstream LGBT movement's expectations, as well.  So as a way of separating "queer" from "mainstream," it also works... provided that context is clear.