November 25, 2009

Queer query

That’s queer.

You are a queer.

Queer pride.

Queer theory.

Q Bar. (The “Q” does not stand for quesadilla.)

What do we do about this funny little word that holds different meanings to different people? Its evolving history took an unfortunate turn during most of the 20th century, when it was frequently used as a derogatory term for homosexuals, rather than just meaning “peculiar” or “odd.” Many people have told me about a time when they remember an older family member or acquaintance using queer as an all-too-unloving epithet.

Since the 1990s, many gay activists have embraced the word as an umbrella term for anyone who doesn’t fit into the hetero norm (which itself is getting a bit blurry). Now the word has become prevalent in the academic world with branches of knowledge such as Queer Studies and Queer Theory. Whether you like the word or not, it is quickly becoming more popular, as it can evoke otherness in a positive way.

Many still feel the sting of the derogatory history of the word and feel uncomfortable with its use. But before we start saying “The Q-word,” as in “The Q-word as Folk” or “The Q-word Eye for the Straight Guy,” let’s explore some of our options.

For those of you who aren’t quite sure what to do about the word, let me clear it up once and for all. If you yourself are not gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, curious, questioning, asexual, pansexual, a hermaphrodite, Eddie Izzard, a fan of crisp Tuesday mornings, or from Wyoming, then there’s always the courteous route: Say “gay” (not to be confused with “happy” or “stupid”). This helps lessen your chance of offending anyone. Just make sure you hold your fist up in the air after you say it so there is no question of your solidarity.

If you are still unsure, try taking the “-er” ending off of queer and replacing it with an “-ah” ending to make the ultramodern and acceptable “qeeuah,” as in “Can a queeah get a pencil?” This not only softens the harsh or offensive “-er” sound with an endearing open-mouthed “-ah,” but it eliminates the subconscious reminder that comes with the cruel history of the original word. For centuries, “queeah” was heard only in the mating call of the red-headed woodpecker from the open woodlands. Wouldn’t you rather conjure up that origination than one of deep sociological significance that reminds us of a history of discrimination?

We live in a fast-paced world and rarely have the time to list all the identities that are prevalent today. Even “homosexuality” seems long, and certainly does not apply to everyone. Acronyms have become popular as an all-inclusive gesture to save time, such as LGBT (for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) or LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, questioning, intersex and ally). See how fast that was?

But what about those of us who spend too much time trying to force long acronyms into a fun, spontaneous word jumble? You can try all day — LGBT will not spell a thing. And a word jumble that does not spell anything is just plain queer (as in “odd”).

“We’re here! We’re LGBTQIA! Get used to it!” does not a catchy chant make.

If you identify as one or all of the aforementioned labels, or if you feel that you are not part of the heteronormative, I suggest taking the word queer and owning it like you mean it. Take that queer flag and run like a cheap pair of queen-sized pantyhose. Or walk slowly with your head held high. You can do what you want, and you do not have to let your loving sexuality or idea of gender be used against you. You, my friend, are part of an ever-growing, slightly dysfunctional but caring family of people who refuse to be boxed in. Many sociologists agree that when a word like queer is internalized by the group that it was used against, it weakens the negativity of the word. These days, if someone threw a mean-spirited “Queer!” at me, I don’t know that I would thank them, but I would certainly shake my head and smile.

When it comes down to words and labels, especially when dealing with sexuality, I think a lot of us don’t even know what we are. Sexuality is fluid, it changes with time, it can be one thing one day and something totally different the next.

I know that no one in the world can make this lesbian into a queer except my own gay self.