I’m seeing a lot of talk right now on the interwebs about who belongs at Pride. And most of it seems to be trying to address at least two separate questions, but mushed together. I’m going to try and disentangle them here a bit.
The first question is: Who gets to claim they’re queer?
This is a much broader question than what happens for a week in the summer. This is an identity war thing. There are skirmishes all over the place; often this ends up being about various groups trying to bring a sense of clarity or firmness to what’s always been an intentionally and inherently fuzzy border between queerness and not-queerness.
I want to preface this by saying I’m ambivalent about gatekeeping.
Part of me feels like it’s useful, in that queer folks do experience both pleasures and marginalizations that folks who aren’t queer simply don’t, and we need words to help us find each other and talk about those things. The particulars differ greatly, of course, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to push back against the wholescale appropriation of the term “queer” by, for instance, well-meaning but clueless heterosexuals who have lots of gay friends. I don’t think it’s wrong to ask folks to stop and think whether they know enough about the meaning of a word to accurately use it about themselves. To the extent that we gatekeep the idea of queerness as a way of saying “hey, pay attention, this actually means something and isn’t just a fun new way of declaring you’re hip when you actually have no skin in this game,” I think it’s justified.
Another part of me knows that gatekeeping can be done in another, and much more harmful, direction: that of shutting out people who are the most marginalized of the marginalized. People who are so queer they challenge complacent queers to expand their understanding and grab a broader umbrella. People who absolutely deserve to be welcomed into words and spaces that for many reasons they may have a hard time accessing because a monolithic idea of queerness shuts them out. I have no interest in further excluding people whose identities and experiences complicate queerness in productive ways. These folks have just as much skin in the game as I do, and quite possibly more. My job—our job—is to fling the door open wide and greet them with a smile.
With all this in mind, I’m ambivalent about discussing the politics of queer identification here. But I also recognize that it’s a topic of much discussion these days, and staying silent on such matters isn’t always the greatest way to be useful. So I hope my thoughts can help, in some small way, in this much broader cultural discussion.
To get started, let’s look at a bit of history.
“Queer” has roots over a century old. Drawing on the word’s early meaning of odd or strange, it was “essentially synonymous with homosexual,” and used self-referentially and in a positive way by men as early as the 1910s (read George Chauncey’s groundbreaking book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940 for a full history of the term’s early usage and much more). According to Chauncey, “queer” began to be used as a slur in the 1930s and 40s, leading men to eschew it and increasingly use “gay” as the term of choice in the postwar period.
“Queer” was picked up again in the 1980s and 90s by gay, lesbian and bi activists who claimed a set of radical politics that challenged an assimilationist approach and proudly embraced difference and dissent. For instance, the protest rallying cry “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” was popularized by Queer Nation in the early 1990s.
From there it was adopted by academics (often themselves from within queer activist communities) who wanted a broader way to talk about and theorize non-normative sexual orientations, lives and politics; a way of complicating the conversation and introducing a productive kind of uncertainty and undefinability. As such, queer theory was born in 1991 from a mash-up of various disciplines and activist pursuits. (Sometimes queer theory seems to have travelled awfully far away from its roots, but it does still have them.)
Today, some folks use “queer” as an umbrella term for all LGBT people, even if not all those people would use the term “queer” for themselves (it’s handy shorthand!); still others use “queer” to mean basically “gay” without recognizing or embracing the nuance in meaning that makes it so useful. In short: it’s complicated!
“But it’s a slur!”
Sure! Of course “queer” can be used as a slur; almost anything we call ourselves can be, depending on context and tone. (See: “That’s so gay,” just for example.) But to say it’s only or ever a slur is to ignore a history of positive, voluntary self-identification with the term that stretches back to the beginning of last century, has been instrumental in activism and academia, and has persisted to this day. If “never used as a slur” were our chief criterion for acceptable terminology, we would pretty much not have anything to call ourselves. So, use what you want in order to refer to yourself, of course, but understand that we gotta have some words we share, at least in that broad general way, or we’ll have a hard time being a “we” at all. “Queer” is probably the broadest, and therefore most useful, term we’ve got.
Okay. So does that mean everyone is queer?
No. For a term to mean anything, it has to exclude. Blue doesn’t mean yellow; they are mutually exclusive. This isn’t mean-spirited, it’s just helpful. So who does queer exclude? Ah, well, that’s where it gets complicated.
Let’s first make one thing super clear: It is okay to not be queer. Allyship is valuable. It’s not second-best, unless you’re trying to play oppression Olympics, and that’s just not a good look. Some of my best friends are heterosexual! My most deeply chosen of chosen family, even. (Including the ones I’m related to!)
If you’re not queer in the sense of homosexual, lots of people would like to say you’re not queer at all. I disagree, as you might imagine. So where is the line? It’s internal and individual. I have some guideposts in my thinking about this line, which I will share, but ultimately I don’t think it’s up to me to tell anyone else whether they count.
There are two categories of “who’s queer” questions I can speak to. One is about identities I share, the other about identities I don’t.
It so happens that I’m kinky, non-monogamous and queer, but the reason I say all three of those things is that I’m well aware if I say one of them it does not imply the others. They each mean different things; they don’t all collapse down into one idea. And even if many of us experience all three as being of a piece, we can still acknowledge that many others don’t. This isn’t a bad thing. The only bad thing is when we impose our version of this triptych on others for whom it might not fit. Or when we assume our experience with one or two of the pieces entitles us to speak with authority about the others.
Do kinky people get to claim “queer” by right of being kinky alone?
No, I don’t think so, because homophobic, right-wing, gender-normative, heterosexual, straight kinky people exist, and they’d be horrified to be associated with any of the possible definitions or meanings of the word. As such, kink alone, as a sole criteria, doesn’t put you under the queer umbrella.
At the same time, for some originally-straight people, their kinky explorations are exactly what push them to reconsider a whole lot of things about the preconceived notions they absorbed about sexuality and gender, and this questioning may push them across some internal line where suddenly “straight” or “heterosexual” no longer feel accurate, even if they don’t suddenly discover they want a same-sex partnership. On some level, this is exactly what “queer,” in the sense it’s been used since the 90s, is supposed to make room for.
The use of “queer” for such folks is truly not up to anyone but them to decide. I have quite a few kinky friends whose practices and attractions look awfully similar to one another’s, but who fall on either side of the queer line. Some avoid using the term even though they feel aligned with it, because they have straight-passing privilege and are not interested in same-sex relationships; they don’t want to centre themselves in queer struggles so they see themselves as politically queer heterosexuals instead. Others claim the term “queer” because they want to acknowledge the complexity of their desires and actively take the risk of self-labeling in potentially unsafe spaces as a way to put their skin in the game and push for progress. I wouldn’t presume to tell people on either side of this line what’s right for them. I trust they’ve done their own thinking on the matter, and that is good enough for me.
Similarly, do non-monogamous people get to claim queerness by virtue of being non-monogamous?
No, for the same reasons; the wide scope of non-monogamy includes some set-ups and people who are actually quite straight and even homophobic. However, similarly to the kink question, the experience of non-monogamy sometimes brings people to reconsider their ideas about sexuality, gender, and their own identities as a result; and it may also place people into relationship configurations that strain the boundaries of heterosexuality and fall so far outside a straight worldview that it’s not hard to see how “queer” would start to feel like the right term.
Are trans people queer?
Here, I defer to trans people themselves. The Trans PULSE study shows that only 30% of trans Ontarians identify as straight or heterosexual. So that means 70% identify as somewhere under the queer umbrella (including ace and questioning folks), which is massive! But that still leaves us with 30% that don’t. Some trans people feel no affiliation with queerness or with the LGB part of the acronym at all, and are quite keen to make sure trans issues are addressed without the requirement of a queer identification. Which of course is quite reasonable. You shouldn’t be obliged to take on a sexual orientation or identity label that doesn’t fit as a condition of having a gender identity label that does, especially one you’ve had to work awfully hard to see accepted and respected.
Do asexuals count as queer?
Once again, I defer to those who claim this identity. As I understand it, some ace folks feel really strongly that they do, while others are quite clear they’re not. I’ve read strong, coherent articulations of both positions; the “we aces aren’t queer” position could be homophobic, but from what I’ve read it’s often coming more from a place of logical argumentation. The “aces are queer” position doesn’t generally seem to be trying to say all asexuals must identify as queer, but it sure does present a compelling argument as to why some do. So it seems to me, as a not-ace person, that this one has to be up to the individual asexual, or to given specific groups of aces, to decide, rather than being a question of imposing queerness on a whole group that may not feel it fits or denying it to people for whom it does.
All this to say, even if “the queer community” is useful shorthand, nobody—including gold-star homos—is automatically queer as an individual. You get there by figuring some shit out and coming to your own conclusion about whether the word is meaningful to you personally. And that means the “who gets to call themselves queer” question is not really a useful one, because ultimately it’s not up to anyone to decide that for anyone else.
The ballpark is useful.
A lot of the outside world understands the word “queer” to mean “gay.” And while that’s a gross oversimplification, and often inaccurate, it’s also useful on some level. I don’t expect the average straight person to walk around with a huge level of nuance about the vast rainbow of our identities. That would be nice, but if all they grasp is “some sort of gay” and agree to treat us fairly, I’ll still call it a win.
Personally, I use “queer” because it covers so much ground that I would otherwise have to explain by getting into a long paragraph about the breadth of my attractions, my complicated gender, my politics and how all this intersects. “Queer” is a convenient way to encompass the whole package while skipping the explanation. I don’t expect my “queer” to look like your “queer.” They might in fact mean such different things that we don’t share any common ground at all in terms of who we’re attracted to or how. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a big umbrella. But if some random stranger thinks I’m a lesbian, I’m hardly going to be like “ew, no homo,” even if “lesbian” is not an accurate word for me.
The fence, however, not so useful.
Ultimately I don’t feel like it’s worth my time and energy telling people whether or not they are permitted to use this word about themselves. I don’t feel like playing border guard at the periphery of queer, telling people they can’t step into the fog or trying to blow the mist back over the fence I’ve set up. Sure, I can imagine scenarios where straight homophobes call themselves queer and use that as a way to directly undermine progress. But by and large that seems like a strategy that’s unlikely to get them very far, if only that their own homophobia will eventually get in the way—there’s only so long you could disguise yourself as a thing you hate before some of the hate blows back on you.
What we’re more likely to be dealing with is a kind of whack-a-mole, where we Real Queers appoint ourselves the people holding the mallets and come down on the heads of those popping up to say “I’m queer too!” And while sometimes we might hit a legit mole, so to speak, we also can’t help but hitting a few tender queer heads along the way. We’ve been bashed enough. I refuse to use my queerness as a weapon and turn it against my own.