Alphabet Soup: Labels and Empowerment

When a community is given a label such as “feminist,” “Christian,” “African American,” “gay,” “Muslim,” “queer,” “Hispanic,” or “Texan,” most of us tend to think that everyone who fits within that category carries the same characteristics. Identifying with a particular group can give one a place to stand, a political and social voice along with all the other members of that group, a sometimes powerful, monolithic identity. At the same time, these identities tend to obscure the multiple identities of individuals, individual voices, individual truths, and individual politics.
The difficulty in aptly naming a community comes from the fact any community is so internally diverse. A monolithic identity makes for a stronger voice, but how does a group work together to enact political and social change without silencing the very voices it hopes to amplify? A difficult problem when working in a community that is so diverse that its members often confuse themselves. How often have you heard someone say “Is it GLBT or LGBT?” “What does the ‘I’ stand for?” “Why can’t all of us just use ‘queer’?” I am going to attempt to answer these questions with some explanation of word origins, a little GLBTIQQA history, and some of my own observations. Because there are at least 8 letters, this will take more than a few blog enteries.

Why can’t all of us just use the word ‘queer’?

Queer is a contentious word, not only for heterosexual persons but also for some members of the LGBTQ community. In the past, this word, at least in a British context, has also been used to connote someone odd, curious, different, peculiar, strange or unusual–not necessarily in a sexual way. However, in America’s recent history, queer has been used in a derogatory, often hateful, usually hurtful way to describe someone with a same-sex attraction. In 1990, a grassroots action group was formed in New York to fight homophobia and hate crimes against LGBTQ persons. They named themselves Queer Nation as a way to take back the word queer and re-describe it as a politically meaningful and powerful term.

Because of the context in which it was reclaimed, queer has sociopolitical connotations, and is often preferred by those who are activists and by those who strongly reject traditional gender identities or reject distinct sexual identities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight. It is also used by people who see themselves as oppressed by the heteronormativity of the larger culture. In this usage it retains the historical connotation of “outside the bounds of normal society” and can be defined disrupting definitions of sex and gender.

While some people like to use queer as an all inclusive, umbrella term meant to unify the community, others prefer the word because of its political and social ambiguity, which allows queer-identifying people to avoid the strict boundaries that surround other identity labels. The point of the term queer is that it simultaneously builds up and tears down boundaries of identity. For instance, among genderqueer people, who do not solidly identify with one particular gender, once solid gender roles have been torn down, it becomes difficult to situate sexual identity. For some people, the non-specificity of the term is liberating. Queerness becomes a way to simultaneously make a political move against heteronormativity while simultaneously refusing to engage in traditional essentialist identity politics.

Obviously, the word queer has grown in popular usage. Today the term has import and impact, especially among younger LGBTQ persons who see it as a more expansive term to include a spectrum of sex, sexual, and gender differences. As well, since the early 1990s, queer theory has emerged in academe as an interdisciplinary study that challenges binaries such as male/female and heterosexual/homosexual, which do not account for the spectral nature and fluidity of sex, sexual, and gender differences.

In contemporary usage, several television shows, including Queer Eye, the cartoon Queer Duck and the British and American versions of Queer as Folk, have also used the term in their titles to reinforce their positive self-identification message. This commonplace usage has, especially in the American colloquial culture, has recently led to the more hip and iconic abbreviation “Q” as in Avenue Q.

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