In the time since I originally wrote this essay, it has become clear that I have to retract it. That realization does not come easily, as I have received a lot of positive feedback from people (LGBT and otherwise) who found it affecting and clarifying. But I cannot stand behind it.
The question of how we use the word “queer” is fraught. In the 1980s, gay and lesbian activists reclaimed this slur for themselves. “Queer” developed, in the course of a long and difficult conversation in the relevant communities, as a term of art describing lesbians and gay men ... and bisexuals ... and trans people ... and a range of other people with marginalized sexual and gender identities.
That conversation included a strand which saw queerness not simply as an alternative way to say “LGBT” but as a distinct quality of its own which overlaps significantly with those identities but is not congruent with them. “Being LGBT doesn't necessarily mean you are queer; being queer doesn't necessarily mean you are LGBT.” I know many LGBT people who advocate for this usage. This essay tried to explore some of the implications of using “queer” that way, as a response to seeing it fade away from contemporary use.
And therein lies the trouble.
Many other LGBT people have only encountered the use of “queer” in a sense synonymous with LGBT. For many of those people, this overlapping usage I talk about in this essay is not just unfamiliar, it is baffling. Bizarre. Outrageous. A disruption and violation of what they understand the word to mean. In that context, this essay sounds like me personally trying to demand a place in the LGBT tent, coöpting the credibility of communities who have struggled against terrible adversity for their place in the world.
I don't want to do that. I deliberately tried to avoid that implication. But I failed.
Hearing support from some LGBT people and outrage from others presents a certain navigational challenge. But I cannot wound and insult people whom I ardently wish to support. And so I cannot stand behind the words, and apologize to the people wounded by them.
It is tempting to simply delete the post from the blog, or to replace it with this retraction. But that seems irresponsible, an erasure of the paper trail of what I said, even though I no longer say it. Too often I have come late to a controversy and cannot see what was originally said. It is better that I am accountable for what I wrote.
So here is the thing that I no longer say.
I originally authored this retraction in March 2016; in July I edited it to make the apology and reasons for keeping the post up more explicit.
Wait, wait, WAIT — Cis heteros are trying to start using the word queer? What in the holy dagnabbit is that?
(For the uninitiated, “cis” means “not transgender or transsexual”. It's a witty use of a Latin root, if you're into that sort of thing.)
I replied, in a series of tweets:
“Queer” means non-normative sex/gender/sexuality. So yeah, that's a completely valid possibility.
Kinky butch hetero cis woman? Queer.
Poly dandy hetero cis man? Queer.
Russel Brand. Tilda Swinton. Dennis Rodman. Marilyn Manson.
This comes out of Queer Theory cultural politics from the late ’80s through the ’90s which framed things in terms of asking whether it was even desirable in the first place for non-normative sex/gender/sexuality to stake a claim to being “normal”, or whether a transgressive stance was actually desirable.
Queer identity says NO to normalization. It says, “No, being gay is not just like being straight with just one difference that doesn't matter. It is radically different, and that difference needs to be embraced and supported.”
So the queer sensibility is actually opposed to (or more precisely, radically disinterested in) gay marriage. To the queer sensibility, which is explicitly radical, becoming just like heteronormative straight people is dumb, a denial of the genuinely different character of gay life.
The queer sensibility lost the fight of the ’90s over the cultural politics of lesbians and gay men. Most embraced an un-queer politics. And in the trans community today, we are seeing a similar split. Are trans people meaningfully different from cis people? There are folks in the trans community on both sides of that question.
Britton replied to this Twitter rant ...
Please do blog about it. I think the world forgot.... which appeals to my Generation X vanity beautifully. Gather ’round, Millenials, as I sing the song of when I was young and cool, and had impassioned conversations in San Francisco coffeeshops about heteronormativity and Kathy Acker.
T. Thorn Coyle points to the animating principle of the queer sensibility:
Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently about the need to become “conscious pariahs” rather than parvenues, assimilationists. Attempts to assimilate to sick systems make us sicker. Breaking from our need to belong frees us to become who we really are, in touch with our core natures. This freedom enables us to choose. When we can choose, we can build what we desire.
This shows us two different ways of operating from what we would now call the oppressed position in identity politics. The assimilationist parvenu cultivates the approval of the social order which rejects them, trying to remake both themselves and society so that they are not seen as different. The conscious pariah refuses to evade society's rejection of them, instead challenging it directly. Every liberationist movement against bigotry and systemic injustice has some form of this tension between the two strategies, and it's typical for the pendulum to swing between the approaches being favored in the broad movement.
At the moment, the parvenu/assimilationist sensibility is ascendent in the culture politics of homosexuality. As a hetereosexual fella trying to be a good ally, it's not my place to question that choice by a group I don't belong to. And I've applauded the gains that this has produced.
But I have to confess that I miss the more forcefully “conscious pariah” school of queer theory that I cut my teeth on in the 1990s.
That school argues that one should not say, “Relax, we are not a threat to society.” Rather, say “Hell yes, we are a threat to society, and we should be, because society is wrong.” One should not say, “We are just like you, quiet and monogamous and sweet and safe.” Instead say, “Our very existence is a challenge to a world which deserves to be challenged.”
From that point of view, having bourgeois monogamous married gay couples on sentimental sitcoms is the opposite of what one should be fighting for. That is tame, in every sense of the word.
OK, there's some sheer rock ’n’ roll bravado in the queer theory stance, which is part of what appealed when I was young, but it's not only that. For there is good reason for cultural critique, is there not?
Which brings me back to the Twitter exchange which started this. The queer sensibility claims the word “queer” because it highlights outsider status. Not “normal”, which would require queer people to change to fit, to file off their rough edges. Which then takes us to seeing that queer cultural politics is not simply a different approach to advocacy for the rights of homosexuals. It represents a different set of allegiances, not defined simply by homosexuality.
I remember seeing a flyer for a queer San Francisco event years ago which said, “This event is not only for lesbians and gay men; it is for anyone queer. Not being gay doesn't mean you're not queer. Being gay doesn't mean you are queer. If you are, you know, so come join in.”
“Queer” claims a shared interest for all people whose relationship with sex and gender and sexuality is outside the “norms” offered by society. It includes not just lesbians and gay men but also trans people and intersexed people and sexually submissive men and butch straight women and polyamorous families and straight men who cross-dress and asexuals and countless other people who “don't fit” ... and who resist fitting. It's an unlimited, open-ended category which defines itself in part by its refusal to police its own boundaries, which is why in my tweets I referenced heterosexual celebrities.
Which brings me to why I'm posting about this today. I started writing it yesterday, for Coming Out Day, and I'm lagging a little late.
The core idea of Coming Out Day is that visibility is important. People who can claim their gay and lesbian identity should because it helps make the world better for the people in circumstances where they cannot yet do it safely.
I'm heterosexual and hesitant to shoulder my way in to that, for all the familiar identity politics reasons. I offer my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters my applause if they are out and whatever help I can muster if they feel they cannot be.
But the principle of Coming Out Day is to serve the community through visibility. It says there's a responsibility to be out if you can be. So while it would be irresponsible of me to “come out” as cis gendered and heterosexual, and the confessional personal narrative isn't really my thing on this blog, I'm thinking that it's also irresponsible for me not to come out as a bit queer in the broad sense.
I've been living a polyamorous life since before the term “polyamory” was coined, and I've been living in a triad for almost a decade. I'm what Dr. Charlie Glickman charmingly calls a “dainty man”. When occasion calls for it I'm a BDSM service top. A sweetheart who identified herself as a lesbian once gave me a copy of Leslie Feinberg's novel Stone Butch Blues because it reminded her of me.
Yeah, I'm kinda queer. And here I am. So, as they say: get used to it.
John Beckett writing on his blog Under the Ancient Oaks at Patheos uses this post as a springboard to talk about Responding to a Dysfunctional Society.
I’m not a queer radical any more than I’m a celebrity-worshipping materialist. But given a choice — and I do have a choice — I’m playing for the queer radical team.
Shon Faye offers a propaganda video on similar themes.
Jenna Wortham writing at the New York Times ruminates in When Everyone Can Be Queer, Is Anyone? and Hugh Ryan at Slate replies by objecting Why Everyone Can't Be Queer. I'm inclined to agree with Ryan, but your mileage may vary.