what queer is or get off my lawn
September 7, 2015
Sometime ago, I tweeted something to the effect of ‘queer is a slur” and a bunch of younger people on here (and around) were upset about this. After watching the discussion unfold, it became pretty clear that there was a generational divide with how some people conceive of what ‘queer” means and is. This post is an attempt to – outside of discussing any individual or specific identities – relate some of the historical and political context of ‘queer.”
First. Queer is a slur. This is a fact. It isn”t up for debate. It is a slur. It remains a slur today, despite the fact that people are increasingly comfortable with its reclamation and broad usage.
Now… I don”t think many of the ppl objecting to this fact where abject to it as such, but rather the implications:
- if queer is a slur, then only some people can reclaim it (ie, those who it is used against – as is the general rule for all slurs).
- if queer is a slur, then anyone who isn”t queer (see implication 1) isn”t allowed to use it. This means both reflexively and in reference to other people.
- if queer is a slur, then it cannot be considered interchangeable with ‘gay” ‘lesbian” ‘bisexual” ‘asexual” ‘trans” or any other non-slurs used to name and identify certain communities.
The first implication is where a lot of people disagreed with me. Many youth responded with ‘isn”t queer about accepting everyone and not just about negative experiences” or some variation thereof. And the short answer is ‘no.” That”s not what queer is being about. It can never be about that. Because it is a slur.
Its funny bc this objection to Implication 1 actually turns the entire political project that queer originally was on its head. Because… when I first ID”d as queer, this was about denoting a certain political stance and a willingness to work with others who shared a certain experience of oppression (this shared experience being within the group of people targetted by this violent word). It was about signaling a resistance to the homonationalism and trans*nationalism of the mainstream LGBT movements. It was about reclaiming a slur.
Queer was about recognizing and acknowledging a shared experience of oppression in order to cut across the individual, atomic groups as a way to organize collective action. So yes, being queer is about whether or not ppl say this to you in hate. It is about the ‘negative” parts of your sexual identity. Because it is about oppression and a resistance to that oppresion.
Of course, things change. As they clearly have since, instead, I see youth expecting that there exists a ‘queer community” (there does not) and that this imaginary community is open and welcoming to any and all who chose to come to it. And perhaps, one day, this is what queer will become. But right now? It isn”t that. Because I”m not even that old and there are many people who conceptualize queer in the same way I do.
I actually think this is where a lot of the… disagreements are coming from. These conflicting (and ultimately incompatible) understandings of what queer is and what it means and what it should mean. Which runs us afoul of Implication 2, since not every can use ‘queer” to describe themselves or even other people. Because it is a slur. But… when you are coming from this perspective, and trying to discuss with a person who thinks it is an expansive, open term… they think you”re policing identities or gatekeeping. But the discourse on slurs is fairly consistent on this point. Only the ppl who it applies to can decided (for themselves) whether or not to reclaim a slur. This discussion has gone on a long time in various racial communities.
This conflicting (newer) sense of openness is where disagrements over Implication 3 come from. This is also where the sense of identity policing comes from, I think. But ‘queer” and ‘gay” ‘lesbian” ‘trans” ‘bisexual” ‘asexual” etc aren”t interchangeable. You can be gay and not queer. Indeed, I know ppl who are this. The same applies for each respective community.
In the politics of slur reclamation, you can”t decide for anyone else whether or not the slur is reclaimed. This means that make a quick equivocation with any gay man you meet (for example) as them also being queer is harmful and potentially violent. There are many people who have a traumatic history with the word. And some of them choose not to reclaim it. So calling them it anyway, because you think they are interchageable is fucked up. And wrong.
What this also means is that being part of one of the groups of people who could reclaim the slur, doesn”t guarantee automatic admission. It was supposed to be an intentional way to signal your politics re: teh movement as a whole. So, for example, a gay republican could reclaim the slur but I”d never actually consider him queer, because their politics (and praxis) do not reflect it. Heck, I don”t even consider most of the white cis gays in charge of many of the large LGBT orgs as ‘queer” and never would, because of their commitments to homonationalism. They could chose to reclaim the slur, but they”d never be part of my queer community.1
- I do want to note that the political aspects of 'queer" runs a lot of people into the area of ideological purity and the way this creates toxic communities. In fact, this exact reason is one of the main reasons why I don"t actually identify as queer anymore. Bc many white queers care more about performing ideological purity than actually doing anything. But this is a different discussion.... ↩