In the academic arena of a liberal arts campus, there is nothing more provocative – at the very least, in my opinion – than an argument in class, particularly the type that leaves you dwelling long after the fact.
But certain arguments cannot simply be…dismissed – with class. There are some things that we say where we’ll always want to elaborate. We say them every day, but for the sake of this particular space, I want to take a closer look at the word ‘queer’ – one with an ever-changing definition, a word originally meant only as weird.
Today I think we hear the word and understand it mostly as in a homosexual context. As the umbrella term used to encompass the always-increasing number of subgroups within a contemporary gay rights movement, we apply it rather strictly to a connotation of sexuality. However, the word also serves as the title for an entire school of thought: queer theory. Not everyone who gets involved in any way with queer theory and politics practices or identifies their sexuality as different from the world’s majority of a hetero-normative model. In fact, I would not be surprised if it wasn’t a rather even mix these days.
So the word, its definition, and the people it refers to came up as a topic of discussion in one of my classes last week. My professor had explained that she’d known some women belonging to the feminist movement back in the nineties who had referred to themselves as queer in identifying with a rejection of the hetero-normative, monogamous model society follows. A student in the room objected to the notion as offensive to the LGBTQ+ community. We went on to debate as to who gets to call themselves queer and who cannot.
I don’t think we all landed at a consensus. I for one sided with the notion that queer has never been a word of limitation. We’ve used it in reference to gender, sexuality, and oppression. It has been a derogatory slur and a radically re-appropriated proud brand name. I myself identify most closely identify with the label gender queer, in a connotation of the term as performance plasticity, and in sporting an androgyny symbol on my wrist. Gender is not always related to sexuality…though mine does happen to correlate.
Yet a label, such as lesbian, that applies strictly to my sexual practice fails for me as a full identity. Does it really matter who I do or don’t sleep with? That is all the word lesbian will ever tell people. At NYC Gay Pride this past summer, I chose the word queer to write on my belly. I truly believe that the word speaks to more than just sex. I truly believe that what I stand for, as involved with the gay rights movement, speaks to so much more than just sex. An association to queer theory supports more than just sex…it seeks to revolutionize our gender binary.
To undo something as repetitively engrained in us as conventional gender roles are, the world would have to get on board with a queer mentality and thought. This is only to say that there are very serious problems still existing in our world, which revolve around a discrepancy between two genders – one male and one female. Perhaps blurring the line between some of our conventions a little further would help to promote a more homogenous feel to words like ‘humanity’ and ‘equality’.
I don’t think it would be wise within the gay rights movement to start telling people who can and cannot consider themselves true ‘members’ of the ‘club’. (I’m pretty sure that’s our beef with some club we aren’t in.) Queer has been a wandering term for as long as it’s existed. There is no reason we could not shift to understand it as a way of thinking and detach its direct reference to non-normative sexuality.
But it isn’t just that we could think of queer as the rejection of a certain normative standard, rather I would say we should. The whole point of any movement seeking to undo oppression is to prove how we are all the same beyond our surface level understandings of one and other. We are just people, who get taught in certain ways, and we’re always getting untaught those same ways too.
Queer theory seeks to teach and un-teach, to point fingers at what we’ve mostly assumed being a dimorphic species must mean for us at the level of the individual. I think anyone brave enough to take on the word, and in an effort to promote one’s own agenda, definitely deserves to use it as a label. It’s actually a rather hopeful thought knowing there are people outside of the LGBTQ+ community who have willingly done so.