Queer Identities, Queer Descriptions

I read an article, and a long comment thread this evening about an editorial decision to rebrand a community blog as "Queer" instead of "Gay." From what I've gathered the rebranding was made in the name of inclusiveness since the contributors and content are not exclusively gay focused.

The article was written by a gay man, who finds the term Queer to be offensive. The original author made it his last post on that community blog because he didn't feel that he could contribute to a Queer community.

The comment thread was a predictable back and forth that boiled down to:

A: I'm gay and the word queer is offensive, so you can use it to describe yourself but I want no part of it.

B: By distancing yourself from "queer" you're letting your privilege show and you shouldn't do that.

C: It's good to be more inclusive, but it's also ok for people to not feel like Queer applies to them.

D: Yes, but maybe people shouldn't isolate themselves from the broader community because they don't like the term queer being used around them.

There was a lot more, but almost all of it boiled down to the above.

I have a lot of thoughts about this, and it got me thinking about Queer Witchcraft. It honestly didn't occur to me that perhaps some people who I consider to be queer, might not feel comfortable claiming that title. That's my privilege showing. When I use the term Queer I am encompassing and gathering all the outcasts and rebels. My definition includes gay men whether or not they like the term queer.

A part of me wonders if including them is a form of intellectual violence but I don't think it is. I don't think it is because of something so basic that I am almost embarassed to bring it up.

There is a difference between identification and description.

This is really important. Really really important.

Identity is how you describe yourself
Description is how you are described by others.

For example. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I live in Chicago. I identify as a Chicagoan.

If I move to New York City, I will still identify as a Chicagoan. But when I'm stuck in traffic the news will refer to me as "one of hundreds of New Yorkers stuck in traffic."

If I am visiting Germany, I will still identify as a Chicagoan. But the locals will consider me a Tourist, or an American.

My identity does not need to match how I am described, and in many circumstances expecting it to match is silly.

Now that doesn't mean that gay men who dislike the word queer have to put up with being called queer.

When visiting Germany I have every right to be offended at being labeled a tourist. I can distance myself from tourism centers and avoid doing touristy things to try and escape that description. I can learn about the culture of where I'm staying and pretend to like David Hasselhoff. I might avoid being a tourist by ceasing to be one.

And that analogy is where we can see why it's so frustrating and offensive when gay men distance themselves from the Queer community. The reason I don't want to be described as a tourist, is because I feel that tourists are crass. I think there is something wrong with being a tourist, so I don't want people to think that I am one.

And that is why the argument which comes up so often in situations like this is a problem. "It's fine that you self-identify as queer, but I find it offensive and don't want to be near it."

Swap that out with: "It's fine that you don't mind being recognized as a tourist, but I don't want people to think I'm one." It suddenly becomes obvious that the speaker thinks that being a tourist is a bad thing.

There is another important thing to consider though. Many of the voices arguing against the word queer in our story, are doing so because the word is triggering for them. The word Queer is a slur that has been thrown at them and paired with physical and emotional torture.

It's understandable that they would be sensitive to that word. If I was from a place where all the people around me called me a tourist and beat me up for displaying curiosity and an interest in local landmarks, I would probably want to avoid being recognized as a tourist even more than I do.

Note that I say "being recognized as a tourist." Gay men who reject the label Queer are still Queer in a descriptive sense. And most importantly, they know it. They are aware that the term queer is encompassing of their self-identification as gay.

They just don't want anybody to use that term because it holds really bad memories for them. I have a lot of compassion for that. I can understand the pain and distress that being thought to be Queer might cause them. I can't personally empathize because my traumas are of a different nature, but I understand it.

But understanding it doesn't mean I think it's right. I have the right to not think of myself as a tourist. But if I'm visiting a museum and get stuck in the gift shop, the news is going to describe me as "an american tourist." And that description is accurate, no matter how much it frustrates or rankles me.

And if I make an issue out of it I'm going to seem petty and small minded, because I'm taking an absolutely normal description and making it the important part of the story, when the focus should probably be on the lives I saved by figuring out how to get myself and the rest of the trapped people out of that gift shop.

Which is exactly what happens when gay men take umbrage to being described as part of the queer community. They steal the spotlight away from the community and focus it on themselves and their pain and frustration. And I'm really not OK with that.

All of this is making me think about a very similar argument that plays out in gender theory discussions. Inevitably, someone will interrupt a conversation and object to being referred to as cisgender.

The conversation usually goes down the same as the one above does. And ultimately, the discussion devolves into anger and hurt feelings. When fundamentally, the problem is that people can't understand that describing a body of people as cis does not infringe upon their right to self-identification. Just like me calling lgbtqia people (and others) Queer doesn't infringe upon the right of all those people to self identify as gay, trans, questioning, or unicorn.

When someone says they don't identify as cis, that's great. That doesn't mean people can't describe them as cis.

An important thing to note, however, is that this power of description is only ethically applied to groups. You can say that a group of cis trans-esclusionary radical feminists are holding a music festival in Michigan. You can't tell a person sitting across the table from you that they are cis and you're going to call them cis whether they like it or not. That doesn't make it untrue, but when I'm dealing with an individual, their right to self-identification is more important than the words I use to describe them.

Which is why I won't call the individual who wrote the article Queer. Even though the term as I understand it is accurate, they find it offensive. Even though I don't consider it a slur, they do. And as much as it pains me, the same respect needs to be given to people who don't want to be referred to as gay, bi, trans, cis, black, or white. Either our personal sovereignty to choose the words that refer to us is important, or it isn't. We don't get to choose who gets to make the choice and who doesn't