Day 2 of Pride: What Does it Mean to be Queer?

When I tell my father I’m pursuing a Master’s Degree in queer theory, he cringes. He prefers the term LGBT theory. My father is a member of the Baby Boomer generation, and his experiences with the word queer have ben connoted extremely negatively. Queer was once a term considered more vulgar and more verbally violent than words like faggot and dyke. He often tells me it feels like I am insulting myself when I label myself ‘queer,’ but I am attached to it. I feel empowered reclaiming a word so often meant to wound me.

The word queer, for most of its history, has been a benign word meaning odd, strange, and eccentric. As mentioned in my previous post, the word queer was given its one-two punch of negative connotation and connection to the LGBT community during Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality trial during the nineteenth century. The father of the man Wilde was accused of sleeping with—who believed Wilde was a predator who had taken advantage of his son—called his “predilections” queer. Thus, a slur for the ages was born!

The radical queer liberation movement that began in the late 1980s in response to failed gay identity politics and the AIDS pandemic first reclaimed “queer.” Identity politics as an organization strategy relies on stable, cohesive sameness that easily alienates even the slightest of difference. Radical queers wanted to capitalize on difference, that regardless of sexuality, gender, race, or class, freedom could and should be won. They chose the slur hurled at the community that best encapsulated that difference, a proverbial battle cry. They chose “queer.”

To call yourself queer in the 90s was to be making a very bold statement. To be queer was to be more than merely gay. It was to be gay, bi, trans, etc. in a way that did not seek to emulate heteronormative society. It was to be very political and very leftist. It was to be a force of nature.

Over the years, the word, as well as those she describes, have become normalized. Millennials often use it as a catchall term like “alphabet soup.” Gen Xers often draw sharp distinctions between those whom are gay and those whom are queer. Boomers, regardless of their political views and affiliations, get a little uncomfortable. The word, used either as a source of pride or benign description, has united us in ways we can’t fathom if we are ignorant of our history.

There are those—mostly those like me who wander the asscrack of the internet, Tumblr—who have begun to call for an un-reclaiming of queer as a source of unity and pride. For reasons I cannot figure out, they believe that a word once thrown in malice can never be embraced. If you, dear reader, understand this, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

For me, queer means that I am beyond comprehension. I am beyond labels. I am beyond man or woman, gay or straight; socially constructed binaries cannot hold me. I am political, but queer does not force to me to be so. One can be queer and be apolitical, anarchist, socialist, communist, Democrat, libertarian. I am queer because I identify as a man and want to carry a baby one day. I am queer because the type of genitals someone has does not dictate my attraction to them. I am queer because I am free. That’s what being queer means, above all, to me: freedom.

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6 thoughts on “Day 2 of Pride: What Does it Mean to be Queer?

  1. It is interesting, because Queer Nation was formed by late baby boomers – people in their late 20’s and early 30’s in 1990. We embraced queer as a way of showing solidarity – so that we could all share part of our identity with each other – regardless of whether we also called ourselves dykes, fags, lesbians, gay men, etc. We did not want to assimilate into the American Dream.

    1. This is true. There are also, technically, two separate “waves” of the Boomer generation. The second Boomer wave is responsible for a lot of queer liberation politics and that was an oversight on my part.

      Thank you very much for your comment.

  2. As someone who is studying queer theory, what are your thoughts on the gatekeeping of the word queer? You see that a lot online, especially Tumblr – people saying only certain people can identify as queer, and other people can’t (namely heteroromantic asexuals). Is this discussed by those studying queer theory, or is it too new of a issue?

    1. This is something that is often discussed in queer theory. Many queer theorists believe in queer heterosexuality, a heterosexuality that rejects heteronormativity. Gatekeeping the term queer, especially on Tumblr, is very indicative of desiring exclusivity, which entirely defeats the purpose of queer. It would, of course, be much more difficult for a heteroromantic to reject heteronormativity, but it could conceivably be done, and queer theory encourages it.

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