Since the vast majority of folks who find this blog through a Google search land here on some variation of the question “what does queer mean?” or “what’s the difference between queer and gay?” I thought it might be fun to do a short series on why I use the term “queer” as an identity and what it means to me relative to other possible labels.
One of the biggest reasons I use queer is because it’s inherently intersectional. Queer has a political meaning to a lot of people, and wrapped up in that is the importance of considering policies and human rights issues that go beyond those narrowly focused on sexuality like same-sex marriage or the rights of gay and lesbian folks to serve in the military. Not all queer issues have an obvious connection to gender or sexuality, but they do all impact queer people’s lives, because no queer person is just queer.
In my experience, queer communities are particularly likely to recognize the importance of prioritizing issues that affect our most marginalized members–issues around poverty, immigration, prisons and policing, sex work, and racial justice to name a few. These things don’t just affect queer people, but they do affect queer people (and especially trans queer people) in unique and compounded ways.
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.