Transmission – In Defense of ‘Queer,’ It’s a Flexible Word
June 17, 2007
by Jamie Tyroler
In the Pride issue of Camp, Stephanie Bottoms wrote the Speak Out column “When LGBT Groups Embrace the Word ‘Queer,’ That Hurts.” I do understand and appreciate where she is coming from – “queer” isn’t one of my favorite words to use either. Unfortunately, living in a world where gender identity and sexual orientation grow more fluid and our traditional labels no longer seem to adequately fit, the word “queer” has become the default umbrella term for the LGBT et al. communities.
Part of this “queer” community includes those who identify as two-spirited, as in several Native American traditions, people who identify as neither male nor female, people who fluidly move their gender identity between male and female or who do not feel compelled to follow the gender binary.
Part of the problem is the limitations of our language – in English, the third-person singular pronouns are “he,” “she,” and “it.” Some gender activists are trying to have words such as “ze” and “hir” added to common usage for a gender nonspecific pronoun, but, because this is a relatively small community, these words haven’t gained widespread use.
Recently, I participated in a survey on race and gender for a student at the University of Michigan with the collaboration of the National Center of Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C. Among the choices that I selected to describe myself were: transgender, lesbian, gender queer, MTF, and queer. “Queer” seems to be one of the few all-inclusive words available – both for gender identity and sexual orientation.
Let me elaborate about my selecting both “lesbian” and “queer” as my sexual orientation. I am primarily attracted to women. Although I primarily identify as a male-to-female transgendered person, I have not had any genital surgery. I still have a penis and testicles – at least for the time being. There are quite a few lesbian women who would argue that I cannot identify as lesbian because I was born with a penis. The assumptions that are made are that I have an XY chromosome pattern (this hasn’t been tested), that my primary hormones are androgens (very low levels compared to the amount of estrogens in my body and that has been tested), that genetically, I am male, even though it is estimated that there are 54 genes that are involved in determining gender identity. Again, this is something that has not been tested.
I do know that according to some psychological tests, I tend to answer more like a woman than a man.
When we limit our “community” to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we are still not entirely inclusive of the diversity that we have. We still tend to look at gender identity in binary terms. We used to look at race in, excuse the pun, black and white terms, although we know that there are multiple races and ethnicities and that quite a few people are multi-racial.
The question becomes: How do we define ourselves when the existing language is no longer adequate? Do we start using terms that allow for more diversity, such as “pansexual,” which is kind of a catch-all term for sexual orientation that allows for gender fluidity? Should each of us come up with our own labels, regardless of how common the usage is?
Some of the labels that we use in our “community” are often protected by the members of each labeled group. As I mentioned before, would some lesbians feel ill at ease by my identifying as a lesbian because I wasn’t born with the correct genitals? Are lesbians who were once married to a man and bore children less of a lesbian? Can gay men be sexually attracted to women occasionally without losing the label of “gay”?
I know most people probably don’t give a lot of thought to what their sexual orientation or their gender is. It’s when people don’t fit into these standard, traditional categories that they are often forced to spend a lot of time wondering about where they fit in with the rest of the world.
The existential angst that many people go through at various points in their lives (i.e., who am I and where do I belong?) is exacerbated for those of us who do not fit in one of the most basic categories: male or female. It is very difficult to develop a self-identity when the words don’t exist to help define yourself.
For many people, the word “queer” becomes one of the only words that seem to work in self-identity. The use of the word is not to offend those who have better-defined identities. “Queer” has been a word of hate, as have many other words. The difference between “queer” and other words such as “dyke,” “faggot” or the “n-word” is that those people can claim several options, while those of us who do not nicely fit in with any of our more common categories need to find a way to identify ourselves. Perhaps other words are available, but not in common use. But right now, “queer” seems, for some people, the only word that allows the flexibility of having a fluid identity.