Nearly every time I write an article (or talk on the radio) about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, someone then contacts me to complain about my employment of the word "queer".
Typical responses include: "Nice article, but why do you have to use such a negative word?" or "I doubt you really are for LGBT rights, if you say 'queer'." or "You're obviously homophobic."
Since summer is the season for LGBT(Q!) pride events, it seems like the ideal time to que(e)ry the term "queer", and to think about why it seems to be a word that divides opinion.
I like the term "queer." It's an open word and it brings many of us together. I like how it encompasses all of us non-heterosexuals, whether lesbian, gay, or bisexual, as well as those who are transgender, whether they are heterosexual or not. I like that it can include other people as well: questioning, intersex, asexual, genderqueer, fetishist, sadist, masochist, and so on (there are simply too many too list). I know polymorous heterosexuals, asexual heterosexuals, and heterosexuals in master-slave relationships who use "queer" to describe their sexuality (likewise, I know, for example, asexual heterosexuals who would never describe themselves as queer; to me, calling oneself queer is all about choice).
For many of us, queer is anything non-norm (note: non-norm does not mean abnormal; it just refers to anything considered different from the standard one-man-one-women coupling). It connects a wide range of non-norm relationships and experiences together. It can also serve to challenge the norm.
I like that the term holds the LGBTQ community together, in part since it is a way of identifying ourselves without having to always break into smaller factions. Not all queers are alike, of course, but there is strength and power in having a joint term for us.
But I know that other people see the word very differently. I keep coming across two distinct views on the word, both of which I disagree with.
The first is an opinion I find quite frequently in the U.K. and in some other parts of Europe. Here, young people especially object to "queer," disparaging it as a word "old people" use. Some English and Welsh university students at an event heard me use it once and they looked at me and mocked, "How old are you, anyway?" It is outdated to them, and there is no need for it. They think the "queer rights" movement was decades ago, and now we've moved on.
They suggest we be more specific, rather than hide behind an overarching label, and just call ourselves gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans and be done with it. "Queer" is an ugly, overly general word and they'd rather we delete it from the dictionary. The "queer eye" notwithstanding, it's not a word that some LGBTQ youth of today recognise or use to identify themselves.
The other argument tends to come from older people. They argue that "queer" (like other terms of abuse, such "kike") has such negative connotations that it will always and inevitably be seen as pejorative. It's a harsh, thoughtless word. Often, it is these older people who write to me and accuse me of being homophobic; they say that the word was used against them so often that there is no way of reclaiming it and/or redefining it. They say anyone who uses it must be homophobic in some way (they don't ever seem to mention biphobia or transphobia).
As with the younger generation, these older folks tend to recommend specification. "Just say gay," they tell me, assuming "gay" covers both men and women, and also leaving off the "B" and the "T", not to mention many of the other letters in our alphabet soup.
I don't understand this desire for fracturing our community into ever smaller subsections. What's great about "queer" is that it's a broad, open term, welcoming any who choose to use it.
So we're left, as I see it, with two options. We can let "queer" slip out of grasp. We can decide that it is too old-fashioned or too negative, and we can forget it has anything to do with LGBTQ issues and people. Maybe it can go back to meaning "strange".
Or we can continue to use "queer", letting it bind the queer community - that is, the LGBTQ (etc.) community - even if it may not be the only label a queer person might use. I think that "queer" is a helpfully wide label, and it is a shortcut (constantly writing or saying "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, questioning, poly, etc." is exhausting). It is also a challenge to those who hold normative views, and it is a bold way of claiming space and language for ourselves.
So until someone comes up with a better suggestion than "queer," I'll keep using it.
Enjoy Queer Pride this summer.