Monday, March 26, 2012

On "Queer"

So lately I've been giving some ally trainings to various groups within UT and outside of it, and I've noticed that a topic that requires heavy amounts of discussion (and rightly so) is labels. It even made an appearance in my last PfP facilitation, so I figure it wouldn't hurt to take a look at the subject, and one word in particular- "Queer." I tend to slip it into both my trainings and my monologue, both out of habit and because it's simply so many less syllables than LGBTQ, and once that's been done it basically has to be followed up with an explanation because of the charge it adds to a room.

It's interesting as a presenter to be able to observe the audience's body language to see what interpretation of the word is in the room with me; sometimes there's no reaction at all, sometimes it's an involuntary twitch, sometimes it's a pained look. "Queer" has such a long and dynamic history that its reclamation really can be considered recent, so it isn't as surprising to me that older audiences seem to be more negatively affected by the word. The one I worked with was glad to know that Queer is losing power as a slur in favor of a self-empowering meaning today, but admitted that they would never be comfortable using it. Old wounds inflicted with the slur are hard to forget, even for allies of the community.

What somewhat surprises me is that some younger allies-in-the-making are also uncomfortable with Queer, sometimes on the same level as their older counterparts. I've noted less of a physical reaction to my use of the word, but the commentary that they themselves would never be comfortable using it to describe the LGBTQ community or any individuals within it is reminiscent of the older audiences. Suddenly, reclamation of the word seems much more recent, as though it were done just yesterday. My peers have experienced the use of Queer as a slur, even as the LGBTQ community has struggled to take the power to harm out of the word, and they understandably hesitate for it.

Yet within the LGBTQ youth and social justice communities it seems to catch on quickly, even though it certainly means different things to different people. For some it's a synonym for gay, lesbian, or bisexual; a non-heterosexual sexual orientation. For some it's a synonym for the LGBTQ community that's much easier to pronounce verbally. For folks like me, it's more complicated; it's the politics and actions that go with being a proud outsider, the idea of purposefully being vague and not really giving away one's sexual orientation or gender identity. It's difference, and it is our difference. And if allies aren't afraid to be interpreted as different, then by that definition they too can be Queer.

So even though it can be challenging and uncomfortable, I'm glad that we're having this conversation. Language and labels are a central piece to building bridges between different communities, generations, and potential allies, so it's important to have these discussions to better understand each other (in my opinion). We may not all use the same language, but I think we should attempt to understand why we use the language we do.

So if I refer to you as Queer, know that I'm giving you a compliment. Queerness is coolness in my world, and I enjoy surrounding myself with folks like you so I can revel in it. I hope you embrace it and love yourself more for it.

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