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.
In activisty Pinterest-land, I keep seeing memes about how queer identity is “not just a phase.” I get that impulse, and I do think there are places for the argument–when people assume that queerness is a phase, especially in the condescending way adults often do with young queer women, it’s just obnoxious. But also, I’d like to question why we’re so negative about phases in the queer community. In other words–what if an identity is a phase?
I think it can be really scary to claim one identity and then change your mind. Particularly if the change is towards an identity perceived as “less queer” (which, for the record, is not a thing) you might get written off and excluded from communities that meant a lot to you. Lesbians can be pretty cruel when one of their own decides she’s bisexual or pansexual, and trans folks aren’t always the nicest to someone who decides that transition isn’t for them, or who first comes out as a trans man or woman and then realizes non-binary is more correct. I used to be terrified that this might happen to me, but then I started thinking, so what if it does?
Fun fact: people change. And our access to rights, or community services, or recognition, shouldn’t require that we have a bone-deep permanent understanding of our sexuality or gender identity. You can identify as something for right now. You can try something out and see how it feels. You can even be pretty sure about an identity for ten years and then watch as it shifts and surprises the hell out of you. Some of my favorite things have phases–project management, the moon, human lifespans. So while it’s not “just a phase,” it might be a phase, and that’s okay too!
I saw a femme on the metro the other day, and for whatever reason, this person’s gender presentation got me thinking. They were dressed relatively simply, their clothing all sharp black lines, but the combination of hairstyle, eyeliner, and a bold red lip pushed them into the femme box in my perception. They also had this challenging stare that made me blush and look at my lap, and for some reason, start thinking about the way I do femme in contrast.
Femme is one of the few identities that totally speaks to me—no doubt in part because, as an identity, it’s so fluid and can be so many very distinct things all at once. FemmeCon 2012 was one of the few events where I really felt community. One of the best things about it was that, as an entire conference for femmes, there were so many varieties of femme representing, and your femme was taken as given by virtue of being present there. There was no femme bar to entry, and so I saw femmes like me (“lazy femme” or “blah femme”) alongside a million other different expressions. I didn’t need to prove myself, or think too hard about the difference between what I’m able to show the world physically, who I am, and what I might want to be.
To clarify a bit: my gender exists somewhere between squishy shy alien creature and calm, helpy robot. It’s not really something I can represent in physical space. I am drawn to things coded feminine and to queering them, so I experience delight in the color pink, in spoonie communities of care, in fannish frivolity. Many of the things I love can most easily be interpreted through a femme lens—except, I sometimes fear, for me.
1. A queer-identified person who is geeky about data and shares an affinity with other queer data geeks.
2. A philosophy or orientation towards data that focuses on (a) challenging the norms of a data-driven culture or the data industry and (b) approaching data collection, use, and maintenance a way that may seem counter to generally accepted principles
At a recent conference, I only half-jokingly encouraged people to Tweet about my talk with the tag #dataqueer because I kind of wanted to make it a thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about dataqueerness lately, and what it might mean in relationship to my work.
As someone who works in data with other queer people, and enjoys geeking out about data with fellow queers, sometimes just being queer and being into data is a social affinity that I can happily share with others. But I’m also thinking of dataqueer as an orientation or approach to data. Smushed with a prefix this way, queer is often used to imply critically challenging norms, destabilizing or decentering hierarchies and binaries, and applying creative redefinition to a particular area of focus. If we think of it this way, dataqueer could be an identity that signals a particular approach to data.
What Does It Mean to Queer Data?
One possibility is that dataqueerness is simply about questioning the central principles of a data-driven society or industry. In business, this could mean looking at how we can use data for something other than increasing profitability and revenue or reducing risk. In academia or policy or the technology industry, we might think about how we can both be data-oriented and also question the value of a data-driven society. Rather than thinking about privacy as an afterthought or an extra layer, following the core assumption that More Data Is Good, dataqueerness might mean always asking why we need data as a first principle rather than just how to collect more.
Being dataqueer might also be about focusing on data that is messier or less obvious to analyze, spending time on the unusual data points or outliers. It might mean thinking critically about established categories and instead looking for new and different ways to slice information. Why, for example, is it always 18-35? Why are gender categories in marketing data always male and female? (What is the value of gender as a marketing demographic in the first place?) Someone who is dataqueer might take risks in going beyond how the standard data professional would approach data, and instead think creatively, applying different values or looking for different outcomes. A dataqueer person might even use data to show the harms of collecting data, or work within data with the aim of destroying or complicating data.
These are just some nascent thoughts, of course. What does #dataqueer mean to you?
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.
Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and in half an hour “The Day of the Doctor” will premiere worldwide on BBC. I want to take this occasion to share just a few thoughts on what it means to me to be a queer Doctor Who fan, because in my experience there’s more of a connection than you might think.
The Doctor himself may be rather sexually ambiguous, but there is a certain queer ethos to the show that’s easy to see if you look for it. The Doctor values quirkiness and unpredictability. He jumps into new situations with both feet. He never takes himself too seriously. Personally, I think certain Doctors would be a fan of glitter.
In my experience, being queer is a lot about some of these same things. Being a proud geek and a proud queer go hand-in-hand for me, because they’re about embracing difference and letting your freak flag fly.
Though there are legitimate complaints and criticisms about Moffat’s misogyny and the role of women in the show that I don’t want to overlook, I do appreciate the fluidity of recent characters and plots. I will always have a soft spot in my queer heart for Captain Jack Harkness and for River Song. I’ve loved watching the Doctor evolve from a relationship I frankly found a bit ridiculous with the immature Rose Tyler to the utter glee of River and her teasing “Spoilers!” River is, in certain ways, very queer, and I love it.
The story of the Doctor is, like my own queer journey, a story of possibility. All the options are feasible if you go in with your mind open. Fish fingers and custard anyone? Bowties are cool.
Happy Day of the Doctor!
As organizers, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in law, policy, and discrimination and forget about the importance of culture. As I follow the #cc13 hashtag today, I’m reminded of how powerful diasporas can be and how strong my sense of Southern self is.
I grew up in North Carolina, and a big part of my identity formation as a queer teenager rested in opposition to my location as a Southerner. It was easy to dislike the South while imagining the big queer meccas awaiting me over the Yankee rainbow. But as a trans queer adult, I’ve learned that Southern culture has a profound and often positive effect on who I am.
Being a Southerner means instant nostalgic connection as you wax rhapsodic with others in the Southern diaspora about grits and sweet tea, biscuits and cream gravy, even those awful “salad molds” of Jello and pineapple and whipped cream. It means a shared language of “bless her heart” and “come to Jesus meetings.” It means ingrained traditions around generosity and creating family wherever you go. Being a queer Southerner means forging tighter bonds with members of this diasporic niche, and examining the relationship between queer and Southern identity.
As I read the Tweets from North Carolinians in Atlanta this weekend I feel a sort of hometown tug, and look forward to visiting my high school in a few weeks, where I’ll be doing a trans 101 program. Though I often feel envy for those who grew up in liberal areas with many resources, and thus learned how to describe their own genders and sexualities long before I did, I also often think about the surprising openness of conservative straight white parents who approached me after graduation and said they’d learned something from my speech on how discrimination forms and leads to anti-gay bullying. That moment is a touchstone that reminds me something very important: every group on this planet is made up of individual people. The power of a diaspora is both to spread culture outward and to return with new perspectives that might change individual minds. Queer Southerners are living examples of our region’s diversity and potential, as are those conservative parents who cast aside prejudice and upbringing for a moment and were willing to listen to a 17 year old who had something to say.
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.
Happy New Year!
As we dig into 2012, I have several exciting things to announce.
First, a href=http://www.queerfeminism.comQueerFeminism.com/a has officially launched! Focusing on areas where the feminist movement could improve, including queer/trans inclusion, anti-racism, disability, and decolonization, this is a collaborative site that welcomes contributions from anyone who has thought I wish feminism would do better with me and my community.
Second, Ive been very pleased with participation in the Sunday Twitter chats I launched in the fall. #transchat and #queerchat take place alternating Sundays, 2-4 pm. Anyone can suggest a topic by contacting me on Twitter or just leaving a comment here.
Finally, I have several cool workshops and talks coming up. At Creating Change, the nations premiere LGBT organizing conference in Baltimore, Ill be leading a workshop Friday morning, January 27th, on incorporating ambiguous identities in queer organizing. At Lavender Languages (Saturday, February 11th) Ill be facilitating a lunchtime workshop on the words used to describe non-binary identities and populations. At Momentum (last weekend in March, workshop date TBA) Ill be leading Workshopping Your Sexual Orientation, a unique experience that will break your sexuality wide open. If youd like me to speak on your campus or at your organization, let me know. I still have spring dates available.
Also, no details yet, but look for more coming from me at Gender Across Borders.
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.