Even though the term “queer” has been used for many many decades as a pejorative term, and now has been re-claimed as a term of pride to deliberately dismantle its negative implications, there still are many folks that I encounter who are puzzled, mystified, and perhaps even revolted by the term. I can understand each and every one of these reactions, because over the years I, like practically everyone else who uses the English language, have had the full range of reaction!
One of the earliest encounters I had with the term after I realized my own lesbian identity was with my young son. He had been part of my lesbian social network throughout most of his childhood, but I had failed to “come out” to him explicitly, thinking that when he wanted to talk about it, he would ask. When he confronted me and I told him I was waiting for him to ask he said “Mom, you do not just ask your mom if she is queer!”
This was in 1980, when our now rich vocabulary was just beginning to emerge, and so started my personal quest to figure out what was meant by a host of terms, including queer. This was also just about the time of the height of the feminist movement in the U.S., and only about a decade after the Stonewall riots in New York City that launched the modern gay rights movement. It was not long before Women’s Studies in colleges and universities were shifting from “women’s studies” to “gender studies” and even lo and behold – “queer studies.” Today, queer is here – full tilt! The poster above is just one of hundreds of examples – it is advertising the 6th annual Genderevolution conference in Salt Lake City on November 15th, sponsored by the Utah Pride Center, the aims of which “are to deconstruct gender mythology, explore the implications of socially constructed gender norms, and integrate our many intersecting identities.” (See Utah Pride Center)
Many LGBTQI folks now prefer the term “Queer” to the alphabet soup that always excludes someone, and it is generally the preferred term of gender identity for young people who view gender identity as a restrictive and harmful social construction that should not be inextricably linked to sexual identity. The term is problematic for some feminists and others who are concerned about and sensitive to the huge gender inequities and gaps that privilege male persons and masculine values and behaviors, and disadvantage women and women’s traditional values and roles. From this perspective, the power of language to render women invisible remains a fundamental challenge at a time when huge gender inequities remain the norm. From a queer perspective, the path to destroying these inequities is to dismantle gender altogether.
You could probably get as many perspectives and definitions of the term “Queer” as there are people to ask, but here are common understandings of what it can mean:
- In the context of the acronym LGBTQ, the “Q” stands for queer, questioning, or both, and is meant to cover any person who prefers Queer as their personal identity, regardless of what that means exactly to them. Queer is not necessarily connected to one’s sexual identity.
- From a political perspective, it generally refers to an identity that does not conform to gender binaries and that values a chosen expression of Self that is not restricted by traditional gender norms based on sex of behavior, dress, or social comportment.
- From a philosophic perspective, “queer” points to the belief that gender is socially constructed, and that the gender norms that have dictated human behavior based on sex can be changed. From this perspective, each person, regardless of biological or assigned sex, should behave and live their lives as an authentic human being and not be restricted by gender norms that govern behavior, dress, interests, occupations or other expressions of Self.
When we take a closer look at the implications of the political and philosophic values that “queer” represents, it becomes apparent that this is a social phenomenon that has the potential to actually change the world! Even though the Queer movement has grown and flourished within and from the LGBT movement, it is not simply a phenomenon of the LGBT communities. “Queer” embraces all realms of life where gender has played as significant role – which in fact encompasses all of life.
So here’s to Queer! Please add your comments and questions below .. we would be delighted to have a conversation with you!
“From a political perspective, it generally refers to an identity that does not conform to gender binaries and that values a chosen expression of Self that is not restricted by traditional gender norms based on sex of behavior, dress, or social comportment.” So if I wear a dress and I was FAAB I’m not queer? Because I personally might “present” on any given day in a way that while not “restricted by traditional gender norms” happens to overlap with them. I think this is true for most people, making most people queer. Few conform full-time with absurd gender norms, that’s part of the universal ridiculousness of them. However, that’s not actually how the term is used. The way the term is used actually often reinforces the binary definition…because “queer” is often reserved for people whose presentation opposes their assigned binary role, rather than for those ignoring it.
And, as far as the philosophic perspective, it would be super-awesome if people lived genuinely, regardless of their biological sex, but no amount of “positive thinking” will accomplish that while patriarchy still rules, and obfusticating that fact with a lot of queer-theory language doesn’t get us any closer to achieving it.
Excellent points, Brooke! Your phrase “universal ridiculousness” is so apt!! And you are so correct that in the context of the patriarchy we still live in, it is impossible to even imagine alternatives to the binaries that dominate our lives. I especially appreciate the point you make about the fact that many folks do overlap gender norms, which makes many of us queer! But when I “dip” into worlds outside my own comfort zone (entrenched hetero-normative zones!!), those norms are alive and well way beyond what I experience in my own world, and when I hear and see the reactions of many in the public when they encounter queer folks, well, we have a long way to go don’t we? So each of us who realize the ridiculousness can only do whatever we can, to challenge it .. some folks do need to “do” queer theory (even though it may seem or be futile) and others need to live the challenge by how they present themselves to the world. But there is still the problem that you point out — the fact that “queer” definitions actually sustain gender binaries .. this is so true. In my experience, if someone cannot discern if someone they encounter is either male or female — it drives them crazy trying to figure out which it is … when in fact, the point of presenting in a way that is not gender specific is intended to overcome the binaries! What a conundrum this is!