My Complicated Relationship with the Word “Queer”

Even though it was half-a-lifetime ago, I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was a scrawny, 14 year old, newly out kid, walking down the hall of my suburban high school, wearing a fabulous pink shirt that a friend had loaned me. A blonde-haired jock shoved me into a locker yelling “queer” as I walked towards my algebra classroom during passing period. This pejorative was favored by many of the adolescent bullies of my youth, but for whatever reason this instance still stands out in my head. My story is not unique. For many people who do fit into the categories of heterosexual and/or cisgender, this taunt still stings just as badly in adulthood as it did during puberty. “Queer” was a way of letting us know that we were aberrant and not accepted. While I certainly wouldn’t say I was a normal kid, nor was assimilating into heterosexuality my objective, I enjoyed much of the same music, cultural trends, events, and activities as many of my peers, and did not see myself as the aberration that the queer slur suggested I was.

These days the term “queer” seems to be everywhere in LGBT+ physical and virtual spaces as a reclaimed, inclusive umbrella term for the larger non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, and/or non-gender binary community, and as the chosen identity of many people within the community. As I have gotten older and more “woke”, I realize that LGBT does not necessarily capture all shades of the rainbow, and many new letters have been added to the acronym to try and make it more inclusive. Nonetheless, I still strongly identify as “gay”, or “homosexual”. My attractions, and romantic/sexual history have exclusively been to and with other men. I have had debates with people about the proper place for “queer” within the community. I do not shun this term completely, and do use it occasionally when trying to make all people within the community feel included, but I still also use LGBT, and do not refer to myself, as an individual, as “queer”, though I acknowledge being part of the larger queer community, especially in the context of my social circles. As the title suggests, I have a complicated relationship with queer.

I hold an advanced degree, and work in higher education, so on paper I could float seamlessly through academic and elitist circles, but at the end of the day, I still view myself as being a pretty basic gay man. On the weekends, you will find me enjoying my morning Starbucks run, twerking in the club to Cardi B, affectionately yelling “yaaaasss queen” to my friends, and listening to the salacious hookup stories of my friends. I acknowledge that access to queer theory, and other academic topics on the matter, is largely a privileged one, and that for many LGBT+ people from less privileged backgrounds, is out-of-reach. “Queer” is a term largely used as jargon by academics well-versed in those subjects, who frequently dismiss those who choose to label themselves in more conventional ways. Yet, those who are dismissed are the ones who are often most in need of an embracing community.

The other concern I have is related to cultural erasure of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sub-communities. Queer theory espouses that these and other subcultures are built as a mechanism to cope with prevailing heteronormative structures within society. While these subcultures may have been built as mechanism to fight heteronormative and cisnormative assimilation, nonetheless, they have developed rich histories, vernaculars, spaces, political and social movements, and sexual practices. I often worry that these histories and cultures will be erased to assimilate into a larger queer movement. That is not to say that these various cultures shouldn’t come together, especially to unify in the fight against oppression, but I am not sure that leaving behind what has been built is the right answer either. I wonder if shunning labels like gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is a new form of internalized homophobia that has yet to be addressed. Many people have passed away violently as a result of hate crimes because of those identities, and I do believe that calling myself gay, in a way, honors the sacrifices that those brave individual were forced to make just for living their truth.

I do not claim to have all the answers, nor would I deliberately dismiss the identity of someone who wants to be called queer, or one of the many other labels that have come to the forefront over the last several years. Respect is paramount in any social situation, and especially in regards to historically disenfranchised and marginalized groups of people. That being said, I will continue to use LGBT when I see it appropriate, and I will choose to call myself a gay man. My relationship with the term “queer” is complicated, and while it is necessary in many contexts, it should also be respected that not everyone is comfortable with it for a plethora of reasons, many of which may not have been addressed in this writing.