Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What is it? Queer

What is it? is one of several types of posts I have planned for Polyamorous Paganism. I hope to use it to outline the basics of an identity, concept, practice, or act that not everyone floating around the internet may be familiar with. These aren't 100% comprehensive posts, and they aren't infallible. I can only explain my personal views on what a subject is, and I don't speak for the entirety of any community. Additionally, I'm still learning. In many of these communities I'm still a student and in some of them I'm still new. What is it? is only meant to be an introduction to a subject and an invitation to start learning along with me. 

There are only two days left before the start of MBLGTACC, the Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Ally College Conference. While the word Queer doesn't make it into that title it is one of the largest queer events in the Midwest. It's also one of the two big events I look forward to every year for reaffirming and enhancing my identity (the other one is Pagan Spirit Gathering in the summer) so I want to include it as part of my blogging experience.

So what is Queer? How is an event or a space queer? Why am I so inconsistent with capitalization?

Despite being the only part of my personal identity that I've taken an entire college class on, Queer is still a difficult word to define properly, even more than Pagan. Most people have only heard it used as an insult aimed at someone for their actual or perceived sexual identity. A few of us have been exposed to it as a synonym for "askew" or "odd" and probably heard it spoken by someone with a monocle. There has been more mainstream exposure to the word as synonym, but not in an insulting manner, for Gay (usually in the context of homosexual men specifically) such as on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. If you're actually in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) "community" you may recognize Queer as an umbrella term for a whole mess of other letters that don't make it into the top four (I'll be talking about prioritization of those letters eventually on here)

So which is it? Well, they're all sort of right, except when it's being used to insult someone for their sexual identity in which case it's bullying. There is nothing right about bullying. Queer originally meant something long the lines of odd, askew, or "touched in the head" and you'll still find it defined that way in academically approved dictionaries. As anyone that has gone through an American public school can tell you, at some point this word became an insult synonymous with homosexual, probably drawing equally from the heteronormative (I will dedicate a full blog post to this word eventually, but for now let's leave it to Wikipedia for an overview) assumption that anything not explicitly heterosexual is odd and undesirable and from the erroneous belief that homosexuality is symptomatic of mental illness. In more recent years there has been a serious effort to reclaim this language (I'll also do a post on reclaiming language eventually. If I keep mentioning future posts here maybe I'll actually keep myself posting regularly) which is why you'll hear a lot of people using Gay and Queer interchangeably or using it to refer to the entirely sexuality and gender identity equality movement. A lot of this has occurred in academia, where it's discussed as Queer Theory (thanks again Wikipedia), and older members of the gay rights movement aren't all that thrilled with Queer after making such a strong effort to reclaim Gay. I can say that my generation has latched onto this word like a life-preserver.

Finally, the way I tend to use Queer comes from a specific understanding of it both inside and outside of LGBT groups. To be Queer means to be continually subversive, to dismantle, reshape, deconstruct, and repurpose systems of all kinds, but especially systems of oppression. Queering is used as a verb (queer with a lowercase q) to refer to the act of subverting an object, concept, space, system, or ideology from the purpose that our society has declared unilaterally it is actually for. To queer is to take a revolutionary action, reclaiming ourselves and all components of our existence from the people that make decisions on our behalves and deciding for ourselves just what, who, and why we want to be. To be Queer is a matter largely of self-identification, but for a lot of people it means being someone that wants to move beyond all other available labels, or to change those labels, because they're insufficient. So this word can refer to people that are Gay or Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, Intersex, Femme, Butch, Asexual, Kinky, Polyamorous, Pansexual, Omnisexual, or anyone else on Kate Bornstein's awesome list of acronyms (which sadly I can't seem to find in its entirety) but can also refer to people well outside of gender and sexuality spectrums. Can a graffiti artist be Queer because they make private spaces public? Is an environmentalist Queer because they help take people off the grid and out from under the control of the Capitalism over-system (The Pollinators certainly thought so, though they don't seem to have an online presence I could link to)?

I say yes to all of the above, and that's how I'll be using the word over the course of my blog. I should also note I tend to use queer as an adjective (queer spaces, queer ideas) and a verb (to queer) in lower case and as an identity in upper case. Hope that clears it up a bit.


  1. The first time I heard/saw queer being used as a verb was in my women's studies class this week (one of the articles I quoted on FB). it confused the hell outta me. I had no idea it was used as a verb, and it certainly didn't help that it was used in opposite ways-though still as a verb-in each article. so now I think I get that a bit more at least. also I'd really like it if Queer became the popular way to refer to all the not-straight, cis people. not that I get a vote. when my sister was getting the GSA at UW-FdL up and running we were joking about calling it the Alphabet Club because there are so many letters in the acronym now and I have trouble remembering all of them, esp with more always being added. Queer would just be easier since it's sort of an umbrella term. (Is this an ignorant-privileged-ally thing to request?)

    1. I'll be covering the Alphabet Soup aspect of the community in my next post. I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with using Queer as an umbrella term, but there is debate over whether it only applies to "gender and sexual minorities," whether Polyamory or kink are covered, whether various other identities can fit.. so it isn't ignorant to throw your opinion out, so long as you're acknowledging it isn't ultimately your decision to make. It just manages to be an incredibly complicated idea to work the bugs out of.

    2. The main issue with making queer the predominant umbrella term is that there are LGBT out there who rightfully have absolutely no love of the word. I've run into this issue with older gay men especially--including ones who aren't the stereotypical "gay guys are the only issue that matters" types--who strongly associate that word with the brutal ways they've been treated. I personally associate "queer" with a specific set of politics rather than as a universal umbrella, although I am aware it is used for both.

      But speaking of older gay men, we also need to remember that "gay" used to be used as an umbrella much like "queer" is now, so there will always be the possibility that "queer" will wind up with such a narrow common usage in the future that it will no longer be useful as an umbrella.

  2. Then I will eagerly await your next post and whatever I can learn from it.
    PS I really love your writing style.