This is The Queerness, but what is queerness, and who should be allowed to call themselves queer? Karen Pollock explores some of the thorny issues around queer identity
Within therapeutic circles there has been a move for some time for LGBTQ+ to be replaced with Gender and Sexual Diversities or Gender, Sexual and Romantic Diversities. It’s a move prompted by the fact that often many who are stigmatised or excluded from the mainstream by how, or who they love/have sex with are also excluded from the LG mainstream. Its understandable how this exclusion has come about. For a long time “just like you” seemed to be a winning argument. Those of us concerned this appeal to cis heteronormativity might feel validated by research showing that in fact change came about because of personal interactions, not respectability, but validation doesn’t take us very far. GSD/GSRD is an attempt to be more inclusive, and aware in an intersectional way of whose voices may be heard, and whose erased.
However, GSD or GSRD remain largely unknown terms, since the narrative that showing just how “normal” you are wins support is still deeply entrenched. Another alternative which many use is queer. Now queer is a word which was hurled as abuse, weaponized, used to hurt, and which has been reclaimed. Reclaiming a slur, especially so successfully that its even the title of this publication, is a powerful move. To reclaim you must have not only some form of power, even if it is one born from years of hurt, you also need community. It would be no good if I decided I wanted to reclaim puff as the term for someone assigned male at birth who was feminine, genderqueer or otherwise challenged gender norms. Without huge cultural capital, and a mass of other people who also wanted to reclaim the word, I would just be whistling into the wind.
Queer has become a term used by those who would, and perhaps still do, have it used against them. As such its a very open word, when I was growing up queer just meant gay, now its often said to indicate someone who steps outside of cis heteronormativity. Indeed queer is very often being reclaimed by those who historically it would not have been used against, since queer was largely a term of abuse heard by cis (ish) gay men. Many of the older generation still find it a triggering term, too laden with hate to be reclaimed. For a word which by its very nature suggests fluidity, it is very odd to see it becoming a new line in the sand. Recently I have seen people who identify as queer up in arms because someone who is poly, or into kink, wants to use the word. The desire for community is one of the most human impulses, as is the desire to belong to something, but should those who have themselves been excluded then go onto exclude?
queer is a word which was hurled as abuse, weaponized, used to hurt, and which has been reclaimed
Queer is a word which in its origins as a slur, and its reclamation speaks of being excluded, of not belonging to some imagined mainstream. I say imagined because the mainstream itself is constantly changing, part of why it is impossible to live up to the tyranny of the normative. If a poly person is excluded from the hospital bed of a life partner, or a kinkster arrested because their activities offend, are they not excluded from the current normative? Does it make sense that a married gay couple, who in every way conform to mainstream values, are allowed to access queer, but a non monogamous person is not? If queer is about who you have sex with, as determined by their genitals, then does it not become the kind of existentialist term which many of those who define as queer rail against? If you cannot be heterosexual and queer, many trans people, those visibly excluded from the mainstream, are excluded also from being queer. Then there are those without a sexuality, under the broad term of asexual. If queer is just determined by your sexual partners they are excluded completely from being able call themselves queer.
If queer is not about the kind of genitals the person you have sex with possess, then is it about how one looks? It is very much the case that those who are visibly non conforming are more likely to be on the receiving end of abuse from a society which still reacts with fear to those who show that boundaries of sex and gender are arbitrary. However, we must be careful if we are going to insist there be some visible marker of queerness. There are huge privileges around being able to be gender non conforming. Whether it be to keep a job, or simply walk down the street safely many prefer to “pass” although of course that is a loaded, cis sexist term. We cannot judge someone as not queer enough if the definition of queerness is another arbitrary standard of looking a certain way. We cannot demand some out themselves, lose jobs, risk violence, just so queer remains fixed as a fashion, not a state of mind.
For a word which by its very nature suggests fluidity, and is a slur which is reclaimed often by those who it would never have been used against, it is very odd to see it becoming a new line in the sand.
Perhaps part of the problem here is the concept of straightness. Those angry at the idea of heterosexual people who are poly or into BDSM using queer seem to have decided that heterosexual equals straight, as in, normative, mainstream, acceptable. They set queer up as the opposite, without considering that perhaps all binaries are false. Surely the moment someone says they are queer, they are stepping outside the usual norms? Yes, they may have privileges, although as Stephanie Farnworth argued here, we must be very careful not to assign privilege based on assumptions. But if queer means without any privileges, then it is a word no one can use.
There even seems to be a sense of “they are just doing it to be cool” coming from those who would be the gatekeepers of queerness. The accusation of adopting an identity because it is trendy, or cool, or the latest thing on tumblr has been thrown at queer people all too often. For queer people to then turn around and use it against others is not only heartbreaking but gives support to the idea that this is a valid criticism. It is no good to argue that your identity is not a trend, or a passing fad, and then go onto to argue that other peoples are.
At the moment of accessing queer, of adopting queer as an identity, one stops being straight, to deny this, to deny queerness because of how someone looks, loves, has sex, does relationships is to cease to be queer. For the least queer thing it is possible to be is a close minded gatekeeper. You become mainstream and normative the moment you say, this is my piece of land, and I will resist any attempts to open it up to others.
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