A couple of weeks ago I got into a Twitter discussion about using the word “queer.” Usually when people ask me why I describe myself as queer, I explain that because I’m neither male nor female, none of the words for sexual orientation that reference the subject’s gender apply to me. And that’s true, but it’s only part of why I like the word queer.
Queer is a term that is both descriptive and vague. It signals that I am probably involved in some way with gender or sexuality difference, and it’s noticeably different–because it’s not lesbian, gay, or bisexual, it leads to questions. I like that because queer doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and questions are a good thing. My sexuality and my gender are hard to sum up in a word. Queer sex and relationships generally don’t follow a recognized script–communication is mandatory because there’s nothing to use as a default. I can’t see how this is a bad thing.
So, if you want to know, you have no choice but to ask.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed quite a few faux pas in headlines describing some segment of the queer population. My guess is that the writers didn’t really think their terminology through, so I’d like to offer a little guide that might be helpful, especially to those who are not part of the queer community, in deciding what language to use when describing us.
- Don’t use the whole alphabet soup to refer to a specific population. The term “LGBT” means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.” It’s appropriate when referring to those four groups en masse, and at no other time. Often, the “T” is simply thrown in, as in “today, LGBT New Yorkers gained the right to marry.” While the marriage law did affect many transgender people, I don’t think that’s what the writer means there. It’s okay to say “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” or “gay and lesbian” if that’s what you mean. Even better with marriage is to simply say “same-sex couples,” which describes the exact population. Throwing in transgender people just to be politically correct is actually harmful, because you’re not referencing that population. If you do include the T, then include it: don’t be the group that holds an “LGBT” event and then excludes transgender people at the door.
- If you want to refer to the whole population, then use an appropriate term. I like “queer” because it can be used to refer to a range of gender and sexuality minorities. It works well when you’re not referring to specific populations, but to everyone who’s marginalized in this way. Of course, keep in mind that the goals of each population under this umbrella are not the same (see #1). Some like LGBT, LGBTQ, QUILTBAG, etc., but I tend to find that the alphabet usually leaves someone out. Others use trans/queer or queer/trans. When I say “queer,” I’m including trans, but that’s a matter of personal choice.
- Don’t use one term as a proxy for another. Lately there has been a lot of discussion about websites requiring people to identify as male or female. This gets characterized again and again as a transgender issue. Certainly, some trans people would like to identify as something other than male or female, but many of those affected by this issue identify as genderqueer or some variation. Instead of using the term transgender, it might make sense to describe it as an issue affecting non-binary genders, gender minorities, or non-conforming genders (I don’t love that one, but that’s for another time). I’ve also seen many “genderqueer” communities that are all about trans issues. It’s important to understand that genderqueer is a specific term with a specific meaning, not a proxy for transgender.
- Describe subsets of a queer population accurately. This is a problem in pretty much every area of activism, not just the queer bubble. Don’t say, for example, that “gay people have more money.” The ones with the money are mostly white, cis-gender gay men. If you’re doing academic research and the population you’re studying is white, young, middle-class, students, or some other subgroup, say so. The queer population as a whole has been done a tremendous disservice because those of us in a position of privilege tend to ignore huge subsets of the population–particularly trans people, youth of color, homeless kids, etc. It’s important to be clear and take note when you are making a statement that does not including one of these or another group. Define the subset clearly, then make your point.