More than once, and at a growing rate, people ask me about my uses of the words queer and genderqueer, raising concerns that I may be encouraging appropriation of these terms. It is a fascinating topic and I’m always glad to discuss it, but I’ll admit that it pains me a little whenever it is brought up. Why would anyone not want to share the word queer? Now, you might be thinking “JAC, you know it is not that simple.” And yes, I know it isn’t a simple situation, but is complicated or just complex? Unexpectedly, as a response to a question someone asked me on Tumblr, I formulated a response that does a decent job at encompassing my thoughts on it, but I felt the need to expand on it more.
Queer is a word that, in the most general sense, represents a lack of normalcy and cultural recognition/legitimization – most often directly related to personal sexuality and/or gender identity and expression. When I say “almost everyone is queer”, what I mean is that despite the projected norm, the majority of people have/are non-normative behaviors, expressions, and/or identities. An easy example of this is found in the sexuality research of Kinsey and Kline (whose studies have been repeated globally with the same results). Their research showed that the average person was somewhere on the non-heterosexual (or “queer”) spectrum. Is it considered normal for two people with similar bodies to partner with one another? No. Is it more normal for two people of increasingly different bodies to recognize the legitimacy of variance? No. Gender thickens the plot because there is such an immeasurable variance within gender identities and expressions. Is it normal for someone to identify outside the binary or as something other than what they were assigned at birth? Is that more or less normal than a male assigned at birth, male identified person who really loves to shop, make crafts, and is inclined to cry? Who is less normal? Who is more queer?
Now, even though it is probable that most people are objectively queer in some, that doesn’t mean that they are subjectivelyqueer – and in when speaking about identity, subjectivity is all that matters. No one can define our identity for us. I think that people don’t own queerness either because 1) they don’t feel it applies because of their proximity to normalcy and/or 2) they don’t know it could apply because of our culture’s rigid use of labels and related negative views personal exploration/flexibility of identity. This leads us to the other half of your comment about levels of oppression in experience. You ask if someone can be queer if they haven’t experienced certain oppressions. My question is who defines what oppressive experiences are required to be “queer?” We all experience varying levels of oppression and privileges – some more of one than the other. I think the issue is not whether or not someone is allowed to claim the identity of queer based on experiences of oppression, but whether a person recognizes their own experiences of oppression and privilege based on their identities. If you are appropriating something then you are claiming something that is not yours. Unlike cultural traits/practices or community words like tranny or fag, queer has no real definitive property other than a lack of normalcy (generally applied to gender/sexuality, but not always). Difference is a spectrum that no group or person can exclusively own which means there are an infinite number of ways to be queer. Because of this, I feel that queer is a word that is rarely appropriated. There is no way to decide that someone is not the identity they claim. You can assume they are not, you can even decide they are not based on your own definitions, but that doesn’t change the other person.
I’ll be honest, I am not as saintly as I appear, always welcoming people to come under the queer umbrella. I have hang-ups about what queer “should be” too. To me, being queer is more than having a non-normative sexuality/gender identity or expression; it is also about personal politic. Queer is more than LGBT; it is radical, proactive, and socially just. If someone claims queer but I don’t think they fit the bill, I will totally be a secret Judgey McJudgerface about it but I will challenge myself to be open-minded. To that person, queer may not include personal politic and I have no right to tell them otherwise. Queer is about more than what I think it is, whether I like it or not.
Many people seem feel that if words are more widely used they lose meaning but I think, if anything, it puts more meaning into them. It’s like people are worried that if we aren’t careful, our language will spin out of control and go beyond our reach, but that fear is a little too 2nd wave for my comfort. As long as we use it, own it, educate about it, this language is ours. People will change words to mean varying things because that is what language does; it grows and changes to better fit a growing and changing community. And yes, that means that some more words may not always be used in the exact same way that applies to you, but community isn’t just about YOU, it’s all about US. Community has an I and a U in it. (It also has an O for OMG he just made a horrible 3rd grade”letter” joke.) No, I don’t want someone to ‘steal’ my communities’ words or misuse our language; some might say I’m pretty damn picky about it. I think that when people appropriate things they should be held accountable. This isn’t about allowing language to be misused, or to become some foreign, meaningless thing. It is about helping it grow into something that is truly useful for our community. We must be flexible: we must try to understand intentions and recognize privileges to promote the most inclusive and accessible community we can. Sometimes I want, no I need boundaries and safe spaces; somewhere I can go where I know everyone else there will be very similar to me. I want to listen and understand; I want to speak and feel understood. Closed spaces are very valuable, but they are not the only things we need. A community can not be a closed space.
I’ve been repeatedly told that I’m not queer enough, not trans enough, not genderqueer enough, femme enough, not ‘insert identity here’ enough… Someone else can’t define me; that’s my job. Their job is to listen and try to understand and in turn, I must do the same for them. Instituting hierarchies and requirements disempowers others and that is the opposite of what queer is all about. Boundary policing is one of the more significant inter-community oppressions we must overcome in order to obtain our equal rights and recognition in this world. We can not continue to separate each other out of frustrations that one may have it easier than we do. We are all scrambling for limited resources, but legitimacy is not one of them. There is enough for everyone if we are willing to fight for it. So, if someone tells me they are queer, I’ll take it; not just because I can’t prove otherwise (nor would I want to) and not just because there are not enough of us, but also because by using the word “queer” they are saying “I see the need for radical change and I want to be a part of it.” If I meet someone who thinks they might be queer, I will gladly state that queer could be for them what it has been for me; empowerment. I’m not just inclusive, I’m a fucking recruiter. I want as many queers as possible, and that is not just my Midwestern isolation talking. With so many people, even within our own “LGBTQ” community, counting us out, I want to be the one counting people in. That is why I say “most people are queer.” I believe that if you feel different and want a place to call home, if you want change and you are willing to fight for it, then you count. In this movement, if you are here, you’re queer.