Why “Queer”?

According to the subtitle I chose this is a “Queer Woman’s Blog”, but why? Even when looking only at the forty-one years since Stonewall, it’s apparent that lesbian and queer women have used many designations, and we’re far from finding a consensus on which one is best. This isn’t to say we’re embroiled in internal conflicts over which term is “right”, but it does mean queer women have a wide variety—perhaps even a bewildering variety—of choices when it comes to deciding which label to wear. I will not attempt to prescribe a label for other women, but I will try to explain what led to my decision.

The word lesbian is perhaps the most obvious alternative to queer woman. While I don’t find it significantly worse than queer, I do find it problematic. For one thing I generally take lesbian to mean woman who is attracted to women, whereas I am attracted not only to women but also to people who are genderqueer or intersex. More than that, I want to express solidarity with everyone who isn’t straight, regardless of gender. But the biggest problem I have with the term is that I associate it with the mainstream gay and lesbian rights movement. A movement that prioritizes giving queer people the opportunity to die in combat over giving queer youth the opportunity to receive an education in an environment free of bullying is not a movement I want to be a part of. As the protest chant goes, “Queer liberation—not assimilation!”

What other words might I use? A lot of women still use gay. I don’t begrudge them for it. Indeed I still feel a flutter when I think of the issue of Time with Ellen Degeneres and the words Yep, I’m Gay on the cover. Even so, most of my criticisms of lesbian apply to gay as well. Also, I associate gay with a time when women in our movement were less visible. Then there’s dyke. Like queer it often accompanies more radical politics, and on occasion I’ve called myself a dyke. However, I know some dykes identify as such to say something not only about their sexual orientation but also their gender identity—namely, that they were female-assigned at birth but are more male or masculine than that might suggest. I think it’s great that dykes can express themselves this way; the problem is that when it comes to me this meaning doesn’t apply. With the drawbacks of these other words queer takes the lead.

It is, however, a very narrow lead. One glaring problem with queer (and for that matter dyke) is that it was—and often still is—an epithet spoken out of prejudice. I understand that in the early 90s queer activists started to use the word to empower themselves. But after twenty years some bi, lesbian, and gay folks still get hurt when they hear the word. I sometimes hear, “It’s mostly the older generation that gets offended by the word.” However, mostly doesn’t mean only, and in any case the older generation is as much a part of our community as the younger generation. So why not abandon the use of the word altogether? Oddly enough, there is a virtue to be found in the fact that epithets hurled out of prejudice are hurled indiscriminately—namely, the word has a very inclusive meaning. It is a word for those of us who feel left out by lesbian and gay. If I may misquote Winston Churchill, I chose queer, because it was the worst word except for all the others I might have tried.

Before I close I’d like to mention a matter that was not a consideration for my use of queer. Here and throughout my blog I use queer to indicate a person’s sexual orientation, but some people use it in a broader sense to indicate sexual orientation or trans status. Though it might seem paradoxical, considering my previous comments on inclusion, I generally avoid using queer in this sense. It’s not that I’m worried people will think I’m trans; as a matter of fact I am trans, and I’m quite vocal about it when I’m in queer spaces. The trouble is that a lot of cis people (that is, people who are not trans) use the word without any attempt to disambiguate. So they might refer to a straight trans woman as queer, giving others the impression that she is not straight; this is a problem, because straight trans women are forever having to explain that their attraction to men makes them straight and not gay. Another problem I’ve observed is that cis folks will assume trans people will come to their events, simply because they’ve said, “Queer people are welcome.” If we feel the term applies to us at all, we know it’s ambiguous. Because some cis gay and lesbian spaces are very unsafe for trans people, we can’t test the ambiguity by showing up and seeing what happens. If people want trans folks to feel welcome, I recommend they say, “Queer and trans,” or, “TBLGQ.”

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One Response to Why “Queer”?

  1. Lika says:

    This is an awesome post, V. “Labels” (for lack of a better term), trying to figure out which word is appropriate, is a difficult, sensitive topic and you did a marvelous job wading through the confusion, implications, problematic natures, and history of them with astounding clarity.

    Thanks in particular for clearing up the misconception that being transsexual is a sexual orientation and why using queer to refer to both sexual orientation and trans status is misleading. I will definitely in the future remember to use “queer and trans” when I actually mean both.

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