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.