In the wake of the recent massacre in Orlando, I have encountered significant online commentary about something I didn’t foresee as being an issue at this tragic time: the use of the word “queer.”
As a woman who identifies as queer, I occasionally encounter well-meaning people who don’t understand that the word, once widely used as a pejorative, has long since been reclaimed by the communities it was once meant to bring low. It is now frequently invoked as an umbrella term for sexual and gender identities that do not conform to the socially normalized, heterosexual and cisgender frameworks that dominate our cultural landscape. From time to time, such well-meaning people will express well-intended displeasure, confusion or even outrage at the use of a word they identify as being synonymous with bigotry. And at times, I get pushback from such people, even after explaining that many of us now proudly identity as being exceedingly queer.
Recently, a woman went so far as to challenge my explanation, telling me, “When I was younger, queer was used as an insult. I don’t understand why that term would be embraced.”
This brings up some issues for me, the simplest of which is that this woman doesn’t need to understand, and will likely never understand, numerous aspects of my existence. What she needs to do is respect my identity as presented, and make no effort to police my expression of who I am in a world that was never designed to accommodate my existence as a queer Indigenous woman. I could go into the long history of oppressed peoples reclaiming the oppressive terms that have been leveled against them, but I won’t, as I don’t feel I should have to. Our oppressive culture is littered with examples of oppression, degradation and reclamation. Reshaping the material and linguistic content of our oppressions to serve our own ends is a well established phenomenon that has frequently redefined cultural norms, both in and outside the margins.
To me, accepting the identities, pronouns and presentations of self that others bring to the table is a matter of basic respect and decency. I want us all to be free and self-determined. My own adherence to this principle will sometimes challenge me to open my mind or step outside my own experiential comfort zone, but all of that adjustment is about what I need to do to give others the respect they deserve.
Being challenged from a place of presumed righteousness by non-queers who don’t understand the word’s reclamation is something to which I have grown fairly accustomed. But when I encounter this debate outside the realm of basic confusion or distaste, the matter becomes significantly more complicated.
I have encountered gay men who feel that the term has been too widely co-opted by people they feel aren’t quite “queer enough” to own it — which I have only been able to interpret, based on their presented analysis, means that one must either be gay or present a curriculum vitae of their sexual qualifications to be eligible to use the term. I find this “papers please” approach to sexuality problematic, to say the least, but as a woman who is primarily partnered with a cis man, I know that, with or without intention, I enjoy certain hetero-presenting privileges. In my efforts to own that privilege, I have sometimes negotiated with these arguments much more than I should have. In years past, I have actually gone so far as to mention, in these exchanges, just how many women and non-binary people I have been romantically involved with over the years, as though there’s some sexual standard I must meet — at the behest of men — to own my own sexuality. This, of course, is nonsense, and I have since grown out of being baited into such conversations, which to my mind, in part stem from a longstanding tendency toward bisexual erasure in both gay and straight communities.
Having once identified as bisexual rather than queer, I know what it’s like to feel as though I am “too queer” or “not queer enough” for whatever space I may move through. In predominantly straight environments, I have been hypersexualized by men who see me as the potential fulfillment of their desire to possess some aspect or expression of lesbian sex — something they have been acculturated to fetishize. I have also experienced the aggression that is sometimes associated with that hypersexualization, which studies have shown has led bisexual women to be at a much higher risk of sexual and domestic violence than the majority of the population. I have also encountered people, in predominantly queer spaces, who assumed that my sexuality was wholly performative. My lack of total commitment to women as potential sexual partners caused me to be lumped in with stereotypes about young women who kiss and caress one another at college parties in order to excite men.
None of this is reasonable, but it colored much of my experience of what it meant to be categorized as bisexual. But in addition to being erased and fetishized, I was also faced with the reality that the word “bisexual” simply didn’t encompass the fullness of my identity. I am not simply attracted to both men and women.
I am attracted to women. I am attracted to men. But I am also attracted to people who identify as both and as neither.
“Bi” implies that my experience of sex and attraction factors out the varied identities of those who do not fall within this society’s narrow-minded spectrum of who we are and how we relate to our bodies, our attraction or lack of sexual attraction to others.
It is for this reason, amongst many others, that I must also lovingly disagree with those within LGBTQIA communities who believe that straight cis people should not use the word queer, even when referring to people and communities that have largely embraced the term.
Whether used in jest, affection or with disdain, some terms are the exclusive property of those most affected by them. But for some of us, the word “queer” — a term once meant to diminish anyone who wasn’t a beacon of heteronormativity — is now the means by which we easily and comfortably communicate the substance of who we are as sexual beings, or how we stand outside the realm of gender norms. That’s not to say that anyone should be comfortable with owning the term, if they prefer to be referred to otherwise (within or outside their own community), but that very sense of self-determination is at the heart of what I would ask of others: to be allowed to decide who I am, and how I want to be named in this world.
For many of us, using the word “queer” in an umbrella-like sense, to encapsulate the many ways that some of us do not fit into the terms that have been previously offered as containers for our complex identities, is a liberative act. There is freedom in our heightened ability to connect with others who have never felt at home with the other labeling options we’ve been handed. Rejecting the labels that do not reflect who we are allows us to build better and live better together, and for many of us, it is a well-established way of naming and being named. So to anyone who prefers that I never name your identity as “queer,” I am glad to respect your autonomy. I am open to negotiating our shared language and accommodating your personal preferences. And I expect the same in return. Because ultimately, I am living my life to get free, and I want you to be free too. But speaking for myself: I’m here, I’m queer, and while I’d like you to get used to it, yours isn’t the comfort level that truly matters.