There is one word that drives me nuts.
It’s not a curse. Its timbre does not make me cringe. Rather, it is the way in which this particular word is used — often to describe me, and others like me, totally against my will — that I find to be so offensive.
The word, if you have not guessed it by now, is “queer.”
I do not mind the proper literary usage of the word, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric, in appearance or character. Also, of questionable character, suspicious, dubious.” I have a problem when gay activists and certain academics use the word in an affirming sense to describe gay people. There is certainly nothing “strange, odd or peculiar” about homosexuality, has existed, arguably, for nearly as long as human history itself.
The use of this word abounds. At Yale alone there is QPAC: the Queer Political Action Committee. The Yale LGBT Co-op e-mail list regularly solicits submissions for “Queer,” the “only undergraduate literary and cultural journal related to queerness.” The Co-op has also initiated a program, “Queer Peers,” to help questioning students by matching them up with an openly gay mentor.
What is a non-queer gay person to do?
Those who popularize the word queer — that is, gay leftists and some gay academics — will not let gay people escape from their queer clutches. Simply by being gay, you are a “queer” whether you like it or not, as its practical use implicates all gay people. When a gay activist or academic speaks of the “queer community” or “queer rights,” he, ipso facto, has labeled me a “queer,” regardless of whether or not I accept the label. I am a 22-year-old male who likes to write, performs in sketch comedy, reads lots of magazines, has an obsession with British politics and, oh yeah, I happen to be gay. I’m certainly not “queer.” Individual gay people and others associated in the vast and ever-expanding panoply of the homosexual community (the bisexuals, the transsexuals, the omnisexuals, the polysexuals, the genderqueers and so on and so forth) may be “queer,” but I — and I assure those queer activists who doubt this — along with the vast majority of homosexuals in this country would much rather be referred to as “gay.”
Most straight people I have asked (who by and large are wholly supportive of gay equality) find the word ridiculous and uncomfortable. They see little difference between them and their gay peers, and it is harmful to the gay cause when activists insist on using a word that symbolizes their outright rejection of mainstream culture and its institutions.
For those gay activists whose stated mission is to promote gay equality, it is hypocritical to use the word “queer.” If the whole purpose of the gay rights movement has been to convince heterosexual Americans that gay people are just like them, why go about using a word like queer to describe yourself? This is strategic stupidity.
Take a look, for instance, at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest and most respected gay rights organization in the country. While certainly liberal in its politics, HRC is a mainstream and professional group that regularly endorses pro-gay Republicans like Connecticut’s Christopher Shays. As HRC’s major purpose is to lobby Congress and advocate for gay rights in the mainstream media, it has wisely avoided language that radicalizes the demands of the gay rights movement or promotes the marginalization of gay people — dual purposes that “queer” serves. A brief search of the HRC website shows that the organization rarely, if ever, uses the word queer in its official communications and that it pops up mostly in reference to the television programs “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Queer as Folk.”
Unlike the organization fighting on the front lines for the rights of gay Americans and their families, those who use the word “queer” have no interest in having gay people perceived as everyday Americans. They wish to be perceived as part of a sexual vanguard, standing apart from “heteronormative” America, occasionally deigning to stoop down only in the service of “liberating” those suffering under our patriarchal and tyrannical society. Make no mistake: “queer” activists do not think that gay people are just like straight people and they do not want gay people to be just like straight people. They see straight — er, heteronormative — society as oppressive and, like any good radical, wish to remake it.
Gays who use “queer” often state that they are merely reclaiming the word from homophobes, just as some African-Americans have reclaimed one of the ugliest words in historical usage, a word commonly associated with slave masters and southern lawmen. That word, of course, is the “N-word,” too ugly to print in a newspaper. White people, and many black people, refer to it with this euphemism because it is so degrading, so rotten to the core, and carries such a distasteful history that it literally sends chills down the spine upon its very utterance. I vividly recall my black sixth-grade English teacher explaining the etymology of the “N-word” and how it has been used for hundreds of years to demean black people.
It is true that some segments of the African-American community have “reclaimed” this word. But notice how those black public figures using the word are not intellectuals, politicians or professionals. They are rap and hip-hop artists. Black writer John McWhorter observes, “After all, why are we not using ‘wop,’ ‘spic,’ or ‘kike’ in this way? Some might object that these terms are all now a tad archaic, but this only begs the question as to why they were not recruited in such fashion when they were current.”
“Queer” is old hat. It might have been appropriate in the early and defiant years of the gay rights struggle, but it has now become obsolete and, frankly, infantilizing. To those heterosexuals who feel pressure from noisy activists to use the word “queer” but are understandably uncomfortable doing so: not to worry. I’m gay, and I’d like to keep it that way.
James Kirchick is a senior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.