I’m 40 years old now, I’ve seen the endless debates over whether to reclaim the word “queer” or not. I don’t intend this to be much of an academic piece, so you’re not going to see an in-depth breakdown of how it came to be used. Others have already done a pretty decent job of that, so I will provide links to their writings at the end of this post. Rather, you’re going to hear about how the word literally helped me find a way out.
A Bit of Backstory
I was 19 years old and in my second year of undergraduate studies at Bowling Green State University when I first encountered the term “queer” not used as a slur. The year before, I’d legally and physically emerged from a family that had tried to enforce my conformity to heteronormative standards of womanhood. I’ve repeatedly referred to this in my poems and prose as the “Good Christian girl” image. Since I was convinced that playing along and pretending would help me at least survive until my 18th birthday, that’s exactly what I did. Meanwhile, I harbored a knowledge within—a knowing that I could not yet put into words—that I was not “straight” and could never be any part of what that image demanded: good, Christian, or girl. This inner knowing is what prompted me to conclude I was bisexual when I was 18 years old.
“I try on His Good Christian Girl
uniform stitched from Leviticus letters,
but it never fits.”
— “Leviticus Letters,” as it appears in Time Travel in a Closet
As I encountered other LGBTIQIA people on the internet, my world—a world constructed largely from having spent my junior high and high school years in a small steel mill town in a decidedly more Republican county in Ohio—started to expand. I chatted online with graduate students who studied queer history, as well as kept others informed about current events impacting us. During this time, I began to question whether bisexual was an accurate word for me while plagued with misgivings over the word “queer.” Just like when one of my cousins would drop the word “fag” every second breath, I also heard “queer” weaponized against men who dared to love other men to send a very clear message of hatred and brutality.
“Queer” Got Me Closer to Exiting the Closet
As many who know me are aware, I have been a lifelong fan of R.E.M. After the release of Monster in 1994, Stipe decided to go public about his sexuality, explaining that his romantic and sexual attraction to people encompassed more than one gender. In a 2014 Guardian article, he referred to queerness as an “all-embracing, foundational tenet,” full of nuances and shades. While I acknowledge that Stipe has been problematic in other ways, I wanted to call attention to what seeing him use the word “queer” meant to me as a deeply closeted 19-year-old transgender man who found himself mostly attracted to men. Besides encouraging me to finally come out nearly two decades later, it also encompasses the fact that I also love women—truth be told, people any gender. A person’s gender was not—and still isn’t—a deciding factor in my choice of dating or romantic partners. Though I did call myself a lesbian at one point in my life, I eventually decided that it made no sense to claim an identity that was not truly mine.
Not Gay as in Happy, Queer as in “Fuck You”
While I was navigating my own internal language and identity, queer studies curricula were being created and adopted by universities around the country. I took a queer studies course as an undergrad at BGSU, and while the first version of it was certainly not perfect, it began to help me understand the concept in greater depth. I remember being exposed to materials that revealed the radical nature behind the term. As I was reading the Wikipedia entry on “queer,” I came across this paragraph that reminded me of what I’d learned:
“Queer people, particularly queer people of color, began to reclaim queer in response to a perceived shift in the gay community toward liberal conservatism, catalyzed by Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 piece in The New Republic, titled Here Comes the Groom: The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage. The queer movement rejected causes viewed as assimilationist, such as marriage, military inclusion and adoption.”
Freedom to choose the life that one desires, and removing the legal and social barriers to doing so, is critical. At the same time, fighting only for marriage equality, adoption, and inclusion while forgetting access to basic needs and civil rights leaves many by the wayside: disabled individuals, racialized people, those who reject monogamy, childfree people, the poor, those who decline to participate in a capitalism-based lifestyle, and several other groups.
I also need to mention the concept of “queering” here: the application of queer theory to a subject, or the act of reinterpretation, reclamation, or re-evaluation of a concept or state of being. Hell, if you look at the very term “neuroqueer” (not to mention the ideology that’s behind NeuroQueer Books, the imprint of Autonomous Press for which I serve as editor), you see those meaning emerge, develop, and expand. Queering is not just limited to gender or sexuality. Queering can be applied to neurotypes and neurodivergence, aesthetics, academic interpretation, and a lot of other things. Queering can include acts of transformation, liberation, critique, testing, resisting, and certainly artistic expression.
A Few Last Words
The act of reclaiming a word can imbue it with different meanings, connotations, and intents. This is exactly what I witnessed with the word “queer” in my early twenties. This is also why I chose to adopt the word for myself, and continue to use it as a pansexual transgender (mostly) masculine multiple personality system. I understand that some people will not agree with me, and I’m not insisting that those who don’t wish to use it for themselves start doing so. But don’t ask me to stop using for myself.
In my evolution towards coming out, I needed queer to take my first steps in leaving my closets. I still need it, now, to include and express all the shades and subtleties of my genders and sexualities. And there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be alive if queer had not existed, and if I had not found it when I did.
To sum up: you’ll only pry it out of my cold, dead queer fingers.
“But what is NeuroQueer to me?…
It was an expression of the fact that my gender was in question,
and I was unsure of the implications of this and
the rediscovery of my tactile fetishes
when it came to my perception of my own sexual orientation.
When your gender is in flux and you’re attracted to both sexes,
there is actually the question of whether you’re in different states
and still feeling like a heterosexual, or if it’s more than that
and you spend much more time than you might like thinking on it,
and it becomes just another thing that interferes with the progress of your being.”