Does My Queerness Look Gay to You?

person in a skirt aiming a gun and smiling with text "not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you"Those not in the know tend to substitute the word “gay” in for queer.  Self-defined queers might be described as gay or lesbian in media profiles, for example, and queer struggles are often re-framed as “gay” or “LGBT.”  This pisses me right off.

What’s the relationship between gay identity and the queer movement?  Well, I would argue that the queer movement isn’t really about being gay anymore.  In a lot of places gay people are fairly accepted these days.  The degree to which this is true, of course, varies, and I don’t intend to downplay the seriousness of sodomy laws carrying death sentences, of homophobia in many cultures and communities, or of bullying in schools.  But to some extent, at least, there is an understanding that a certain segment of gay people–generally upper-to-middle class white men with traditional family structures and a dollar to burn in some Global North economy–are “just like you and me.”  Mainstream media outlets employ at least some respect when talking about the gays, and policy changes at every level make it easier and easier to be gay in this country.

Where, then, does queerness come in?  In my observations, I’ve found that the queerness is about something other than being gay, and that many queers have little in common with your average gay person.  Now, in some cases, a queer person comes to the queer movement because of same-sex attraction, but the impact of that attraction for a queer in the way I’m using the word is very different from the impact on a relatively privileged gay person.  Many queers are drawn to the movement, and to the term as an identity marker, because it emphasizes the role that privilege plays when we look at how being out as gay affects an individual’s life.  The queer movement tends to emphasize the role of family in the lives of queers of color, the intersection between the prison-industrial complex and the specific experiences of (usually) young trans women of color, the role economic advantage plays in whether a queer person has access to needed government services, etc.  Claiming “queer” is an act of defiance that says “this is about more than gay or straight, this is about the fucked up system and where I reside within it.”

I don’t mean to give queers a pass here.  A lot of people surely just like the word.  A lot of queers do fucked up racist, ableist, imperialist, classist shit.  The way I’m talking about “gay” and “queer” here doesn’t necessarily line up with how the words are used in mainstream parlance.  But I think there is something going on that’s worth looking into.

Last week, a friend of mine put up a solid piece on the Huffington Post, providing some historical and literary context around Barney Frank’s use of the word “Uncle Tom” to describe gay republicans.  Maya’s piece was straightforward and honestly shouldn’t have generated that much criticism.  Frank was wrong.  Slavery was a specific fucked-up thing that happened to a specific population, and no one else has the right to appropriate it.  Move on.

But, as is the case when it comes to the Internet, HuffPo readers were not inclined to move on.  They were inclined to comment, and comment they did, masquerading as reasonable rhetoricians but making disturbing arguments in fact that reveal a lot about what’s wrong with certain privileged gay folk.  In a word: entitlement.

Raise your hand all African Americans living in slavery nowadays:

Now, raise your hand all LGBT people being discriminated thanks to the GOP:

The idea that comparing the gay experience to the black experience is somehow “inappropriate” is true, but not in the way the author thinks: Gays have it worse:

You don’t have to come out to your parents as black.
You don’t get kicked out of the house when they find out you’re black.
You don’t have the school telling you to “act less black” when you’re bullied for being black.
You don’t have your children taken away from you for being black (anymore).
Nobody will try to “pray the black away.”

“But…but SLAVERY!” Yes, slavery was very bad. But let’s not forget that gays used to be summarily executed. Yes, slaves were killed all the time, but people had a use for them. Up until recently, gay people were simply killed outright.

And let us not forget, when we rescued the people in the concentration camps in the aftermath of World War II, the gays were sent to prison. After all, it was still illegal to be gay.

we get it African Americans were the only ones struggling for equal rights in america…will that make you happy?….now can you get out of the way?

“…the fact that the experience of slaves and the experience of gay and lesbian people in this country are not comparable”

True, at least slaves got to live. LGBT people were often just killed, and in many other countries we still are.

“Precious few things come close to matching the horrors and indignities of the practice of slavery”

What about torture and wrongful execution?

I agree with most of the article, but the old “black people had it worse than LGBT people” thing is bogus. We’ve all faced the same hatred from the same groups of people for the same old reasons. We’re on the same team in my book regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity, or whatever as we’re all part of the oppressed segment of humans.

Maya, it is almost as if you have not once stopped to consider that there are forms of slavery besides the African-American experience.

This piece is disappointing at best.

LGBT citizens do not have the freedom to live their lives with the full liberty of every other American citizen.

If I am not free, I am a slave. There is no in between.

Barney Frank, while I am loathe to admit it, was right on this one.

This is why I want the media, and society in general, to understand the difference between “gay culture” and the queer movement.  Because the queer movement cannot be reduced to gayness alone.  Because we have to wake up to the myriad of oppressions that are going on simultaneously all around us, or we’ll lose the bigger fight.  Because sometimes the “gay struggle” isn’t the only struggle, and our humanity demands that we recognize that. Because queer people of color exist, goddamnit.  End of story.



About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on September 18, 2012, in queer and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The difference between queers and gays is pretty much reflected in the debate of feminine gays vs. masculine gays. Feminine gays are representing a gender expression wich is outside of the binary , we combine masculine and feminine traits in our selves, while masculine gays are adhering to the traditional male gender norms. Queers are having a different gender expression, outside of “just male ” or “just female” , we are both,or neighter, androgynous etc. Aka. “the third gender” , we are in the cross sections on the spectrum. ,
    Masculine gays on the other hand are Cis-conformists. They adhering to hegemonic masculinity.
    “Because the queer movement cannot be reduced to gayness alone. Because we have to wake up to the myriad of oppressions..” Yes i would like to elaborate on that one. For example The gay issue is a “sexual Orientation” issue, while Queery-ness is a “gender expression ” issue. There are multiple cases where Gays can enjoy the benefits what “privilege of masculinity ” gives them. There are places where masculinity is more respected than femininity. They literally able to hide behind the facade of “toughness” , behind a masculine authorative image. While they think feminine gays are weak and whymps, thats misogny right there within the gays themselves! The mantainment of gender stereotipes within society relies on constant perfomance and cistormative gays are actulally perpetuating the problem. They have conformed to norms which were invented by heterosexuals. The original pride movement was started by queers, and not buy rich white cisnormative gay men, they just jumped on the bandwagon. Cis Gays are enjoying the benefits what ” traditional male gender norm” gives them. They have male sports, bars, clubs ,there are plenty of masculine “spaces ” out there, but there are very few “androgynous space “. My androgynous gender is under represented in culture, in media, in society, i rarely find an androgynous boy within gay websites too, i only see traditionally manly gays all over!

    • Very nice article and reply. I’ve always identified as bisexual as a female, but it’s more like I am a woman with a man’s mind but also the sensitivity of a female and struggle often to find the balance. More often than not, people are astonished by the words coming out of such a beautiful mouth… I wake up feeling like a different person every day, some days Uber feminine and some days super masculine. I wish body parts were interchangeable so I could feel complete without the commitment of one or the other for I am both… Does this qualify as queer I wonder???

  2. My understanding is that being gay and self-identifying as queer are not mutually exclusive. Queer, to me, describes a politically-defined subset of gay people. Therefore to talk of someone who identifies with the Queer movement as ‘gay’ is actually not necessarily incorrect, any more than it is to talk of a Feminist as a woman (if she indeed is one).

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