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Is “Queer” A Useful Umbrella Term for Organizing?

This past weekend, I got into a discussion with a couple of friends at a gathering of mostly queer-identified, mostly female-identified folks.  We were talking about the problem with LGBT (or QUILTBAG, or any other acronym) as an umbrella term.  Two of us preferred not to use LGBT because of the tendency to exclude trans people and others not actually represented in the acronym.  One woman had an interesting argument, though, against the use of the word “queer” as an umbrella term for the movement.

She explained that she would include a lot of marginalized sexual identities under “queer,” including asexuals, kinky people, poly people, etc., but that she didn’t think trans and genderqueer people fit.  Her understanding of “queer” was that it necessarily refers to sex, not gender, and so it wouldn’t make sense to lump in gender identities.  She preferred LGBT because transgender people are a small enough group that some coalition-building is useful, and her take was that LGB priorities in many cases match up with transgender priorities.

Regardless of who is right in this debate, she does bring up an interesting point, which is that people tend to have an inherent sense of what any gender or sexuality term means, and often there are disagreements.  Since we don’t yet have set-in-stone language (and maybe that’s a good thing), reasonable people are likely to disagree on the meaning of terms.

I like “queer” as an umbrella because its original definition is odd or different.  I think it’s a good way to lump together all marginalized gender and sexuality identities when one wants to speak generally.  But I’m also conscious that when I say “queer,” some people may not be hearing trans and gender non-conforming under that term.  I’m also very conscious that queer people have different policy priorities.

When we’re talking about personal identity, of course, the best thing is always to simply ask a person for their personal identity terms.  When we’re talking about policy, I think it’s most useful to think about how groups naturally form around a particular issue.  When the same (or more-or-less the same) group forms around a number of different issues, then that group might be a unit that can work together and form organizations or a policy agenda.  But it’s also important to recognize that not all members of the group are going to agree on everything.

Even when we’re dealing in smaller units, we need to keep in mind that priorities may not be the same for everyone in the group.  For example, a lesbian organization needs to be aware that the priorities of its supporters of color in urban areas will differ from the priorities of white lesbians in a rural community.  Trans people and gender non-conforming people often act in coalition, but in some areas, they will have different policy priorities, and that’s okay.

Coalitions are a powerful tool.  Often, one small group will take the lead on a priority, but others can lend support when they agree.  This, I think, is what we’re getting away from with the “LGBT” idea, but it’s where its power could potentially lie.  My friend was right in saying that trans people are a relatively small group when it comes to making concrete legal and policy change.  Trans activists usually have to ally with non-trans people to get things done, and often gay and lesbian people are supportive of trans issues because there is a common thread linking sexuality-based and gender-based oppression.  But it’s important to respect the autonomy of each group, and not to use a coalition to dominate.  The best way to operate is under an “I’ll scratch your back, now you scratch mine” philosophy.

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