As someone who wrestles daily with sexuality, identity and politics, I was upset by Jamie Kirchick’s column attacking the word queer (“Reclaiming ‘queer’ is not a worthy cause,” 2/14). Claiming to speak with authority that only a “normal” and conservative gay man supposedly has, Kirchick denounces “queer” as divisive and counter-productive, drawing on conservative politics. His reasons are troubling and offensive. Further, his depiction of a minority of angry activists holding him hostage in their “queer clutches” is absurd.
Kirchick is not wrong to find queer problematic, nor is he alone; many take issue with the term. For many older gays, the term is still derogatory. But queer has evolved, and become fraught with multiple meanings. It no longer only indicates someone whose sexuality is different. But Kirchick’s real reasons for opposing queer seem to have less to do with this misinterpretation and more to do with a fear of identifying himself as a member of an oppressed and disempowered minority.
Today, most people use queer to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Beyond just changing terms, however, queer is seen as a way of uniting a community often divided by its various identity categories. Unity around difference is an empowering concept to be valued, not derided. Such unity is necessary because queer people do in fact self-identify differently than a majority of Americans. But just because someone’s sexuality or gender expressed identity is different from the norm does not necessarily mean he or she is in other ways different from the rest of America.
Yet the history of discrimination and the oppression of alternative sexual and gender expression in this country has meant that to be queer in America is different than to be straight in America. Queer people have been psychologically damaged by a society that insists on a “correct” sexuality and makes any who differ from that “the other.” But what that personally signifies is up to everyone, and that’s the point. By uniting under queer, we undermine the idea that sexual difference is definitive of any individual, for there are all kinds of people in our community. Thus the queer movement is one that seeks not merely to win civil rights and privileges, but instead full cultural acceptance and equality.
Furthermore, one cannot deny that it is politically necessary, in terms of sheer numbers, to unite with others of different sexual/gender identities and expressions. Kirchick’s refusal to do this is therefore troubling, and makes me question his stated reasons for rejecting the queer label.
He mocks and excludes himself from what he calls the “ever-expanding panoply of the homosexual community.” But who does he identify as the “new” members of that community? “Bisexuals, polysexuals, transsexuals” — anyone whose sexuality or gender is not fixed and static — is someone who Kirchick does not want to find himself in solidarity with. That’s offensive because it suggests that you need to have a fixed sexual/gender identity in order to be a full person. You have to choose: gay or straight, man or woman. To go beyond these boundaries is, for Kirchick, untenable. What’s particularly offensive is the notion underlying this: that if your identities aren’t fixed, you will be dominated by them, and that you will be a less full human being.
But you can be a 22-year-old male who likes to write, perform in sketch comedy, read lots of magazines, obsess about British politics and is transgender, polysexual, bisexual or queer! No person has just one identity, and sexual or gender identity is by no means wholly definitive of a person; anybody who thinks this does not understand individual identity. Moreover, anybody who thinks that this is true of only certain oppressed groups and not others is denying these groups full humanity.
Nor does such a person understand the nature of oppression. It is not enough to demand your group’s civil rights or your “place at the table,” but rather, as black gay activist Keith Boykin put it, one must “demand a whole new table arrangement that welcomes all those who have been excluded.” We must fight “not to gain privilege but to challenge the whole concept of privilege itself.”
Boykin cannot stand the word queer. Nonetheless, Boykin has been challenging the LGBT community (including its major organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign which Kirchick so idealizes) to more adequately represent the interests of those in other oppressed groups which many of its members belong to; to fight for the freedom of all people. For everyone has been damaged by the pernicious effects of the intersecting oppressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. Any ideology that devalues a group of people for any aspect of their identity deserves condemnation. Until we eliminate the idea that certain groups and people are more worthy of social position and power than others, we will never achieve full equality of opportunity in America — and isn’t that what we’re all fighting for? Whether you’re gay or queer, I’d hope we can all agree on that.
Hugh Baran is a freshman in Davenport College. He is the coordinator of the Queer Political Action Committee.