What is a queer narrative?

The word queer meaning LGBTQIA+ was first a slur, then reclaimed, then it got hijacked in the 1990s. (Some) people stopped using it. Now it’s back. Again. But because gender, romantic and sexual minorities continue to experience bigotry, the words used to describe those identities will be under attack for as long as bigotry continues.

This week’s misinformation campaign: That the term queer “bobbed around” in academia and was only then adopted by activists in the last 10 years. This was an error published by the New York Times by an op-ed writer who knows dangerously little about LGBTQIA+ history.

In fact, the word ‘queer’ took off as an identity in the mid 80s punk scene, in tandem with the AIDs movement. Even then, the word ‘queer’ described more than ‘gay’. Academia started using it after that. Academia has been part of the continued spread and use of the word as a wide umbrella term.

A cursory look — at the New York Times itself, even — will provide evidence of widespread use of the word queer among queer communities dating from around the middle of last century.

Queer is a short novel by William S. Burroughs written between 1951 and 1953, though it wasn’t seen fit for publication until 1985.

Stanley comic strip from 1994 using the word queer
Stanley comic strip from 1994 using the word queer

But not everyone in the community likes the word.

Labelling issues are as old as the hills. Look back on twentieth century queer history and you will find letters dating from the 1940s. Gay men complain about having the word ‘gay’ forced on them. Nobody likes a label forced on them.

LABELS ARE NOT PRESCRIPTIVE

Sherronda J. Brown sums up why people shy away from identity labels and also cautions against using labels in ways that limit rather than in ways that free.

if ever i use a label, it is because that is the term—selected from the few available, established terms—that most accurately describes a complex set of experiences. i want more queer people to understand that labels do not exist to completely or neatly encompass who we are. […] use labels to find and build community, as avenues to better understand yourself and how you experience the world, not as tools of policing and staunch, hierarchal categorization. that’s some colonialist, carceral shit.

@SherrondaJBrown
USE OF THE WORD QUEER IN 2022

In October, well-known humourist David Sedaris ranted on CBS about how he is sick and tired of how labels keep changing. He rejects the word queer. He feels he shouldn’t have to keep coming out every time there’s a new word to describe him.

What bothers me is not that it used to be a slur. I just don’t see why I have to be rebranded for the fourth time in my life. I started as a homosexual, then gay, then LGBT and now queer. And for what? Why the makeovers? And what will it be next?

I read an interview with a woman who identifies as queer because she’s ‘tall’. That’s it. She’s never had a relationship with another woman — doesn’t care to, for all I know. So what does it mean that we’re both suddenly queer? … Is it just to make the parades easier?

I’m going for heterosexual, because like the words “Jewish” or “female” it rarely if ever changes*.

David Sedaris, declaring himself ‘straight’ in the name of comedy

*Sedaris has failed to keep up with the reality that pick-up misogynists and incels have weaponised the word ‘female’ as a slur to the point where it is no longer a good idea for anyone to use ‘female’ as a noun outside scientific discussions.

David Sedaris has made the mistake of complaining that other people’s use of the word ‘queer’ to describe themselves and their community is a compulsory demand and an imposition on him.

Dear queer community there are too many labels these days i am not a crackpot simpsons meme

One reason we’re seeing pushback on the use of the term “queer” from people like the former NYT book editor Pamela Paul and TERFs is because—for many (not all) of us who identify as queer—the word connotes not only non-normative sexuality/gender but also a more radical politics.

Not all queer people are satisfied with assimilation and many never wanted assimilation in the first place. For many, identifying as queer means being dedicated both to fighting for rights and to dismantling systems of oppression.

I am not here to tell anyone else how to identify. I am here to observe that overt fascism is ascendant and efforts to divide marginalized communities and to pit marginalized people against one another are only going to increase in frequency and intensity in the near future.

@leahmcelrath
PANSEXUAL AS HOLLYWOOD EUPHEMISM FOR QUEER

Also as of 2022, why are so many celebrities coming out as pansexual compared to the tiny number of non-celebrity queers describing themselves as pan? Hypothesis: Perhaps celebrities are being told to avoid the word queer for image purposes.

This imbalance was pointed out in a Gender Reveal podcast episode, Monday 28 November, 2022:

JS: I’ve been told this by enough people just because of my line of work. A lot of people are asked to play up on [their queerness] by their agents, casting directors. They believe that is what the market, specifically young people, are wanting. And so you need to be that. Because then we can sell you.

And that’s this very interesting dichotomy we live in, where celebrity culture has never been more removed from our everyday lives, because it is not the same for your everyday queer person in American right now, right? My advice is not to show up to your job interview and be like here’s my pronouns, here’s my gender. I’m trans and I’m queer. Like, to the everyday person it’s just not as safe to do. […]

TW: They do seem to exist in a different world just in terms of what language is used. I’m gonna say this and everybody’s gonna be like this isn’t true but I did do Twitter surveys about it so I feel [laughs] fifty per cent confident in it. I’m looking at celebrities who are not straight. Like, ninety-eight per cent of them use the word pansexual. And when I’m looking at just day-to-day people who not straight, like five per cent of them use the word pansexual. I did make those numbers up, but it stands anyway. I believe in me. [laughs] Somehow you’re in this little bubble where this is the word we’re using. Like, my reps said you can’t say queer cos it’s a slur, and like, who are you talking to? It’s not bad, it’s not wrong, but just like clearly different.

JS: You bring up such a good point. I think I’ve devoted like six hours of recorded podcast time to this very thing. Because, listen. This is my favourite thing to say to people. Just because somebody has a microphone, does not mean that they are intelligent or smart or know what they are talking about. Specifically if someone is in the movies, the chance of them being smart of intelligent does plummet. I’m not trying to be broad [laughs] I’m saying from experience…

Joan Summers in conversation with Gender Reveal host Tuck Woodstock

THE EVOLUTION OF WORDS TO DESCRIBE QUEER PEOPLE

The following three-step evolution of terminology mainly applies to the United States and its cultural sphere of influence (e.g. here in Australia as well).

Basically, words to describe gender, romantic and sexual minorities have passed through three, broad evolutions in the last century or so.

FIRST GEN: WORDS BASED ON BEHAVIOUR
  • “cross-dresser”
  • “sodomite”
  • etc.

We don’t use those anymore.

SECOND GEN: WORDS BASED ON SEXUAL AND GENDER IDENTITY
  • lesbian
  • gay
  • asexual
  • trans
  • etc.

Importantly, sexual and gender identity words do not describe behaviour. It is a common mistake to think so. If you know someone’s identity label, you know nothing about their sexual behaviour (or non-behaviour).

The word asexual has only referred to human sexuality since the end of last century, and has referred specifically to orientation more recently than that. Young people are increasingly disidentifying with the word ‘gay’, as exemplified by Peggy Orenstein in her 2020 book Boys & Sex in which she is interviewing a college-aged queer man:

Like many “not straight” boys I met, Zane referred to himself as “gay,” even though the word felt dated to him, as constricting and antiquated as “homosexual” to a previous generation. “The way I think of ‘gay’, at my school is the white boy who takes on the hetero ideals instead of questioning or undermining them,” he said. “He presents as ‘masc’ and has an aversion to the more ‘twinky’ boys and feels more entitled than ever, with the sexuality difference ameliorated, to blend in and embody the privilege of his straight brothers. So it’s strategic and political to call myself ‘queer’. It describes everything about me. I like the ambiguity. It feels safe.”

Boys & Sex, Peggy Orenstein, 2020, p120
THIRD GEN: CONTEXT DEPENDENT WORDS WHICH ARE DELIBERATELY FLUID
  • queer
  • gender, romantic and sexual minorities

This new generation of words avoids describing behaviour or specifying identity. Modern words describe only which groups are marginalized in any given time period.

Queer is the most succinct of these words, and it has caught on. A unifying term threatens efforts to divide the LGBTQIA+ community, which is the other reason it’s a great word. It also takes fluidity into account.

The chart below is useful because it draws a distinction between medical and community language. This is used to advise a medical community.

The word queer appears here much later than minority communities started reclaiming it (decades earlier). This chart instead shows when ‘queer’ achieved mainstream proliferation to the point where it attracted conservative pushback.

Etymology flowchart of evolving language relevant to gender-affirming care by Kloer et al, and appears in the GAS special edition of Journal of Gynecologic Surgery. (Shame about the spelling mistake, twice.)

WHAT IS QUEER NARRATIVE?

So what does it mean for a text to be queer? When used as a verb, what does it mean to queer a text?

Queer by definition is whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-a-vis the normative—a positionality that is not restricted to lesbians and gay men, but is in fact available to anyone who is or who feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices: it could include some married couples without children, for example, or even (who knows?) some married couples with children.

Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography By David M. Halperin

THE PURPOSE OF QUEER NARRATIVE

In this broader, more inclusive meaning of queer, to queer a narrative is to challenge expected social norms via storytelling.

The aim: Solidarity and visibility, leading to acceptance.

CAN A TALL WOMAN BE QUEER?

David Sedaris scoffed at the tall woman who considers herself queer.

Even if queerness refers only to gender, romantic and sexual minorities, if a tall woman lives in a culture where women are expected to be shorter than their male partners, and if her height leads to real, observable impacts on her settling into a normative romantic life, then yes. Within that culture, a tall woman is queer.

David Sedaris points out that he is short, meaning to make the point that his height has nothing to do with queerness. But because men are expected to be taller than women, if he were seeking heterosexual partnership, his shortness may indeed make him queer. Gay culture is not subject to the same conventions around hypergamy, which is partly the very thing that makes gay partnership queer.

The same romantic and sexual restrictions can apply to anyone with a non-normative body, hence the word ‘straight sized’ when talking about fat politics.

What unites the queer experience: Across different contexts, you feel like the outsider. You will (hopefully) find your people, but when you’re not with your people, you are never able to forget some essential difference between yourself and the dominant group. This feeling perseveres and is more than just a ‘feeling’. It is based on some immutable fact of your selfhood. You will have felt this way even before you were able to point to that immutable fact and name it. You are drawn to others who share this experience of navigating through life. Queer communities feel like your family.

QUEERNESS IS NOT A DIMINISHING GOOD

Diminishing Good: A good which decreases in value and benefit the more a person/persons use that good. This comes from The Law of Diminishing Utility, and comes from the field of economics. Anyone in the business of selling will be interested in this phenomenon, because when it comes to goods and services, customers seek alternatives elsewhere once they use your product a lot and start to receive less and less benefit from it.

But identity labels are not goods and services. They don’t work like that. The error of thinking at play: If more and more people start calling themselves queer, that makes my own queerness less valuable and less valid.

There is no such thing as Queer Enough.

QUEERNESS IS NOT MEASURED AGAINST CISHETERO NORMS

Aside from gatekeeping the term queerness, based on the error of thinking in which there is any such thing as ‘queer enough’, he is also falling into the trap of measuring queerness against cisheteronormativity. Since ‘a woman’s height’ has nothing to do with how cishetero norms are maintained, it makes no sense to Sedaris that something separate, such as tallness, could possibly be considered queer.

WHAT UNITES DEFINITIONS OF QUEERNESS?

One thing is clear: queerness is not (only) about who you have sex with, because studies have shown that even when queer people are not having sex, bias and discrimination still applies. (Look for the MacInnis-Hodson study.)

But does that mean someone has to experience bias and discrimination before calling themselves queer? Also no. A queer person who grows up in a queer utopia of acceptance would still be queer.

In their book Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens On Our Sex-Obsessed Culture, Sherronda J. Brown considers the ‘connective tissue’ uniting definitions of queerness.

All queer communities are facing the same enemy: white supremacist cishetero patriarchy and sexual, relational, and gender normativity. Exclusionary politics keeps us focused on fighting each other for space, connection, and resources rather than using our collective power to combat the beliefs and systems that oppress us.

Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens On Our Sex-Obsessed Culture, Sherronda J. Brown

Queer people are:

  • Fetishized
  • Hypersexualized
  • Considered aberrant
  • Considered perverse
  • Seen as sinful
  • Regarded as spectacle
  • Feared
  • Punished
  • Stigmatized
  • Othered

In Brown’s words, queer people ‘depart from cisheteropatriarchal gender and sexual norms’ in some way.

This builds on the work of bell hooks:

All of our lives we have experienced ourselves as queer, as not belonging, as the essence of queer … queer not as about who you’re having sex with — that can be a dimension of it — but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.

bell hooks

WHAT MAKES A NARRATIVE QUEER?

Extrapolating from the above:

  • A queer story features characters who don’t belong because of who they inherently are. There’s a disconnect between a character’s setting and who they are.
  • Belongingness is dependent on social setting (milieu) and era. What’s queer in one time and space may not be queer in another time and place.
  • Being queer is about power, and one’s refusal or inability to fit into power structures which seek to control.
  • A queer story does not have to be about sex and gender, though that can be a dimension of it.
  • Queer stories are subversive, shining a light on power structures and how they are applied to non-conformists.
  • Celebratory queer stories craft new possibilities for audiences, expanding upon white patriarchal cisheteronormative ways of being in the real world, whether the fictional setting is speculative or realistic. Queer stories can exist as a means of achieving queer euphoria.

WHO GETS TO TELL QUEER STORIES?

It just so happens that queer people are in the best position to tell queer stories. But it’s not as simple as that.

It always happens, unfortunately, that the hegemonic group co-opts small (tiny) numbers of members from marginalised groups to perpetuate hegemonic power structures and gives them massive platforms to perpetuate hegemonic ideas which look better when the messaging seems to come from a member of the marginalised group.

Since this is a thing that always happens, we must look instead at the actual messaging of a narrative, not at who wrote it. Authorship by queer people is less important than the effects a theory can generate when appropriated to serve political purposes.

Currently, authors of queer stories are under huge obligation to sell themselves as product. However, their story is the product, not the personal details and trauma of their own lives, including who (if anyone) they have sex with, how they experience sexual attraction and how they personally experience gender.

Queer works of art should be allowed to speak for themselves, and artists should be judged for their work.

Therefore, we should abstain from requiring authors (and actors) to explain and defend and detail their own queerness.

This also applies to actors. Actors should not be expected to explain how their own sexuality works before accepting queer roles. At the same time, actors with marginalised identities must be given every opportunity (and also priority) when telling marginalised stories. Those two things are both true at once, and is apparently very difficult balance to get right.

We are currently in a publishing/reading environment in which young actors are being told to reveal the details of their own sexuality before being ‘allowed’ to take queer roles. We are also in an environment where queer authors are forced to reveal their queerness, and scolded for writing about queer labels which are different from their own.

This is an absolutely impossible position to put writers in, not just for privacy reasons. Since queer people find other queer people in a wider community, and since communities are diverse, no single author can possibly share all the identities they write about when depicting the community of authentically queer characters.

Cf. The exhausting 2022 discourse around non-binary ace Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series adapted as a TV series by Netflix, and the young actors who played the main characters. A teenage actor was accused of ‘queerbaiting’ for not declaring his sexual orientation until pressured. Likewise, author Alice Oseman was accused of appropriating transgender experience despite being a non-binary (ie., transgender) person themself.