Queer as an oppositional identity

I saw a great comment on a Bilerico post a day or two ago that really resonated with me.

I think this represents a fairly common and rather large misunderstanding of why a lot of (but not all) younger folks use words like queer ….  For me it’s not about neutralizing an offensive word, it’s about aligning myself with a radical political identity …. It’s really not young folks who are trying to change the  meaning of words — it’s participants in the assimilationist, mainstream gay rights movement who are fighting to transform the word gay into something indistinguishable from the word straight. That’s where the real language shift is occurring. But I want a word that won’t slide smoothly down anyone’s throat. Something that says, yes I am different for all of these glamorous and tragic reasons, and I don’t have, or want, any place in this violently racist, anti-womyn, queerphobic, culture we live in.

I love this, because it helped me see one of the reasons I’m drawn to “queer.” It’s true that I want to reclaim the word, in the sense that it’s quite a powerful word and I want its power to work for me rather than against me. I may even want to neutralize it, the part of it that people call on when they react to us with hate and violence, and make “queer” into a place of love and welcome and solidarity. But it’s a word with a lot of kick, and I’m not trying to neutralize that. I’m trying to make it my own.

And I love the idea that the real change in meaning is happening with “gay,” that it’s coming to mean “just as white and middle-class and conventional as any straight person, and ready to cast aside the less conventional and socially acceptable segments of my community to get there” when it, too, used to be a radical thing to claim, a political statement in and of itself. That’s what I want from “queer.” I don’t really want everyone to start using it. Broad and welcoming as it is, it means some very specific things to me. It means setting myself against what society expects of me as a soft-spoken white girl on her way from and most likely to the middle class. It means radical lefty politics, and standing against racism, sexism, class-based oppression, ableism, fatphobia, etc. as much as I can and ideally as much as I do against heterosexism, biphobia, etc. It means being drawn to queerness in others, and building a community of people who share those values and convictions with me. Placing myself in a history that has involved riots and marches and protests and angry people of all colors and genders who’ve had enough, not corporate-sponsored parades attended mostly by white people claiming to be inclusive. Fighting for immigration righs and universal health care and the right to decide who makes one’s medical decisions and inherits one’s property regardless of whether one is coupled, rather than a few more coupled people’s right to access those things through marriage. And it means all of that much more than it means being attracted to other girl-creatures, though that’s a part of it and part of how I got here. “Gay” used to mean some of those things, I think, but it doesn’t anymore. I’m glad we have a word that does.

16 Responses to “Queer as an oppositional identity”

  1. 8 February 2009 at 2:04 pm

    I wish “queer” meant those things to me; I’m glad it means those things to you. But to me it mostly means trendy jerks who identify that way first and foremost for the cache, with the secondary benefit of being able to look down on boring homosexuals like myself because our orientations aren’t transgressive enough. And I’m in the perfect demographic for the word: I’m nineteen, gender-nonconforming, already disillusioned with both the gay rights and the feminists movements because of racism, classism, ignorance…

    So, I do use the word for myself a fair amount for all the reasons you list above, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe all the people I know who identify exclusively as queer (“I hate the word bisexual!”) just happen to be assholes. Then again a lot of people I greatly admire and respect identify that way. So I don’t really know. I’ve just too often seen it used as a way to leave someone out — not because that group/person is assimilationist (please do leave those people out!), but because that group or person’s identity isn’t cool enough, isn’t revolutionary enough, even though it’s their most authentic expression of self. See, for example, transsexual people. Have you read Whipping Girl? Serano’s whole spiel on “subversivism” is exactly what I’m talking about.

  2. 2 Aviva
    9 February 2009 at 12:27 am

    Daisy, I totally sympathize on people using queer to mean that their boundary-breaking identities are superior to plain old homosexuality. I even think boundary-breaking identities are an important and wonderful thing, if they’re true to who one is and what one wants. But it sucks that people are using it to shut others out of their movement based on their orientation. I think that’s always the risk when you use a radical word to distance yourself from the assimilationist part of a movement; some people will take it so far as to shut out people with similar goals and values who aren’t, in their view, quite rebellious enough. And that’s both unfair and shortsighted of them. For the record, many of the people with whom I ally myself and whom I know to use the word queer also identify as gay/lesbian, the same way I also identify as bisexual. I’m sorry that people using it to be exclusionary have tinged the word with bitterness for you. I often wonder if my conception of what it means has far more to do with the circles I move in in NYC than any larger community agreement.
    I’m always a little suspicious of people who hate the word bisexual. Which I suppose will surprise no one. I don’t think anyone it doesn’t resonate with should choose it for themselves, but that total dismissal of it makes me wonder what about it they hate and why.
    And you’re absolutely right about Julia Serano’s piece on subversivism. It certainly applies to sexual orientation as well as gender identity. In this and many other circumstances, I can’t stand it when people set themselves up as the cool kids and insist that anyone who doesn’t rebel in exactly the same way they do is brain-washed or one of the enemy. What’s the point of fighting for, as you say, one’s authentic expression of self, when in doing so you denigrate that of others?

  3. 3 Kim
    9 February 2009 at 3:58 am

    I thought it was interesting that u didnt talk about the word bi in this blog. Especially considering that peopl talk shit about it so much. What do u think about the word bisexual in the whole “mainstream gay vs. Queer” language discussion? Is it assimilationist of us to use a word given to us by the medical industry? Is it a political statement to use it?

  4. 4 Nick
    9 February 2009 at 12:02 pm

    “[I]t’s quite a powerful word and I want its power to work for me rather than against me.

    Thank you for this brilliant addition! That’s an interpretation of reclaiming that I can get behind.


  5. 5 Aviva
    9 February 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Nick – thanks for inspiring me, and for dropping by!

  6. 6 Aviva
    9 February 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Kim, by in this blog, do you mean in this post? ‘Cause I talk about the word bi rather a lot in this blog. In this particular post I didn’t because I was thinking about the word queer, but you’re right, it could have tied in quite nicely.

    I think people use bi in different ways. I use it as a political statement; I’m deliberately queering the word bi by using it to describe my orientation, which goes far beyond liking “both” genders. I use it to fight the stereotypes that have grown up about bisexuals, things like us being confused, young and undecided, fickle, untrustworthy, etc. There are people, I think, who use it the opposite way and are quite assimilationist with it. Who use “bi” to mean “mostly straight but adventurous and extra sexy,” or use it as a way of staying closeted, and expect to get all of the straight privilege that’s coming to them. So I think the word bi is somewhere between gay and queer as far as the word choice being an act of subversion in and of itself. As always, it’s how you act that really carries your message.

  7. 7 whatilike
    12 February 2009 at 6:14 am

    This is off-topic and isn’t:
    This post really cleared up for me why some black lesbians/gays/bis use the term “same gender loving.” I knew already why, but the thought process behind it? You fully explained here, only in terms of “queer.” Interestingly both “SGL” and “queer” came about in usage around the same time–early 90s. I guess anyone who didn’t/doesn’t feel they fit an increasingly assimilated notion of “gay” took/takes it on. What’s interesting is who claimed what: some non-assimilationist white people choose queer, and some poc choose “same gender loving” since they saw “gay” and “queer” either as not speaking to them or silencing. I don’t have any particular affinity towards ID’ing as either queer or SGL…lesbian (or gay) is just fine for me. I guess if I were pressed, I’d say SGL.
    How exactly does your “queer” translate into being anti-racist, -classist?

  8. 8 Aviva
    12 February 2009 at 6:12 pm

    whatilike — That makes a lot of sense to me. “Same-gender-loving” doesn’t resonate with me, but I think that’s probably because it’s so clearly marked as an identity claimed by people of color that it would feel inappropriately appropriative (sorry, I cannot tell you how much pleasure it just gave me to put those two words together. Word geek, what can I say).
    It is interesting the way SGL and queer split along racial lines. It seems to me that even radical, politicized queer folks have often been racist and exclusive in their movements, and so I would totally understanding POC feeling like the queer agenda didn’t serve their needs, either. Maybe that’s how it happened.
    I’m not sure what you’re asking at the end. I don’t think that “queer” always translates into anti-racist and -classist, but for me it’s part of a whole radical anti-oppression politic, not just an identity based on sexuality. I think there are plenty of people who don’t use “queer” that broadly — and some, as Daisy says above, who just use it to feel more subversive than anyone else.

  9. 9 Sheena
    16 February 2009 at 4:51 pm

    this article sums up why I put your blog on my rss reader!

    I am definitely glamorous and tragic in a queer glam-gothic punk way…and I try to bring that politically radical queer identity to my club nights I dj at.

  10. 17 February 2009 at 5:31 am

    Aviva, I really liked what you had to say here and it sparked a lot of thought for me, as did the discussion in comments.

    I feel similarly about the word “queer”–that it means much more than attraction unbounded by gender, but also an unconventionality of identity as regards gender and sexuality, and an identification and solidarity with other queer folks of all stripes.

    I’m deliberately queering the word bi by using it to describe my orientation, which goes far beyond liking “both” genders. I use it to fight the stereotypes that have grown up about bisexuals, things like us being confused, young and undecided, fickle, untrustworthy, etc.

    Challenging the stereotypes of bisexuality is definitely one of my reasons for claiming bi identity. My main problem with the word is that it invokes a binary paradigm of gender and sexuality that is potentially offensive/oppressive to trans and genderqueer people. Is it possible to queer the word, as you put it? I’m not sure, but at the moment I do feel like it’s as important to use the word as it is to challenge the assumptions on which it is based.

    (Further response posted at my blog.)

  11. 11 Aviva
    25 February 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Sheena — thanks!

    And I must ask, in what city do you DJ? I totally want to go to political queer club nights.

  12. 12 Aviva
    25 February 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Rien — I’m glad what I had to say resonated with you, and that there are more of us out there.

    I agree that the “bi” of bisexuality is a problem. I just don’t connect with words like pan/omni/sapiosexual. And, while the word bisexual implies two, the bisexual-identified folks I’ve come across have been some of the coolest on gender stuff. I’m as outspoken about my gender activism as I am about bisexuality. As you say, it’s important to use the word and to challenge the language behind it. Part of what I’m hoping to do is model a bisexuality that not only not vapid, confused, or fickle, but also aware of and delighted with the spectrum of gender.

  13. 13 Sheena
    1 March 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Aviva, I’m in Portand, Oregon.

    my club nights aren’t targeted or marketed as “queer” but I bring that with me, but my nights are for anyone who loves to dance

    I wouldn’t mind doing a specifically political queer dance night, as most lgbt focus club nights tend to be more meat market oriented…and I want to start a riot.

    Feel free to contact me by email (I assume you can see it, as an admin)

  14. 28 April 2009 at 6:58 pm

    There’s a nice take on the “two” myth about bisexuality over on bisexualindex.org.uk, reminding us that it’s about “both” homo and hetero, similar and different, desire, not “men and women”.

    It always grates with me that the people most incensed by “bi” implying a gender binary never seem to expend the same amount of energy raging against the far more binary concepts of homo or hetero (even the most conservative interpretation of “bi” implies there must be three options rather than two).

    • 15 Aviva
      6 May 2009 at 12:45 am

      Jen, thanks for the link! I really, really like that take on the word; I’ll probably post about it here soon, once it’s had time to percolate. That’s fantastic.

      And I agree with your second point, too. Only being attracted to the same or (ick) “opposite” gender draws an even clearer line than a word with “bi” in it.

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