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Queer Theory

I've never been a big fan of the term "queer." It probably has something to do with its early adoption by some of the more radical members of the gay community. Today I sat in on a lecture and discussion about Queer Theory and how it differs in its approach from Gay and Lesbian Studies. I have to admit I'm warming to the term.

According to the speaker, Gay and Lesbian Studies is about reconciliation and tolerance: "We are more like you than we are different, therefore we deserve the same rights and responsibilities than you enjoy." Queer Theory, on the other hand, is less about establishing our sameness as it is about establishing that the whole idea of reducing sexuality into two categories, homosexual and heterosexual, is ludicrous and that any sanction of one over the other is as artificial as the construct upon which it is built.

Naturally there was some discussion about the use of the term queer. About the only objection anyone really has to the term is its confrontational history and its origins in pejorative language. There was the usual talk about taking back the term, owning it, calling yourself queer before someone else does, etc. One of the arguments I found most compelling is it is simply a good general term that can encompass many different sexual identities. LGBT has recently become LGBTQ in some circles. Q stands for Questioning or Queer depending on who you are talking to. How many more letters are we going to have to add to accommodate the many varieties of gender and sexual identity?

There was also some discussion about how many youth today do not wish to identify as gay. The best reason I heard expressed is that when someone says, "I'm gay," there are a set of underlying assumptions that go with that term and people go, "Oh, I see." On the other hand, if someone says, "I'm queer" people are taken aback. There are few assumptions associated with that term and people are forced to ask, "Well, what do you mean by that?"

I can appreciate the desire to have someone stop and question you about your identity rather than make assumptions about how a certain label applies to you. On the other hand, if you have a problem being associated with a particular label, that must mean said label carries some connotations which you find distasteful. I have long had a problem with people who attempt to divorce themselves from the word gay. In my experience, most often it is because they do not want to be associated with other labels that often attend—nelly, queen, fairy—which irritates me in more ways than one.

For my part I have never had a problem owning the word gay, in part because I have never felt like owning the word obligated me to some code of conduct or dress. Just because I'm gay it doesn't mean I have to spend my weekends at dance clubs, revving up on techno music while getting drunk and/or high. It doesn't mean I have to fill my closet with wigs, dresses, high heels and make up. I just means I'm a guy who prefers relationships with other guys to relationships with women. Anyone who doesn't take the time to get to know me and find out how the gay label applies to me isn't someone whose opinion I'm going to be overly concerned about anyway.

That being said, one gentleman on the panel, an Asian-American said that he never identified with gay because he felt it was too white. That came as surprise to me. I'd never considered gay to be a white term, nor have I ever heard any other people of color express that particular reservation. In fact, homosexuality is something I've always seen as something of an equalizer and no respecter of cultural and racial boundaries. But then, I'm white. I suppose it would be hard for me to have any other perspective, so I'll take him at his word and accept that some do not feel like gay adequately represents the color of their skin and their resulting position in society.

Another label I learned today is assimilationist. It's meaning should be fairly plain. Apparently it's seen as the opposite of queer theorist or even the opposite of queer. Where do I fall on this continuum between assimilationist and queer? I like to think I sit somewhere in the middle. I don't know that I subscribe to any particular point of view. If assimilation is what you want to do, by all means, assimilate. If conforming to social norms gets up your nose, then don't. I'm not about making my life more palatable to the predominant social structure, but neither am I very in your face about my sexuality. I guess, if pressed, I'd have to say I'm somewhere queer of center.

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  1. This post was very interesting. I’m going to have to do some research myself into queer theory. A few comments:

    The reason I don’t call myself “queer” is because it has always seemed like an activist’s term to me, an edgy, uncomfortable word meant to provoke a reaction. I’m much more comfortable telling people I’m gay and leaving it at that.

    I’m not very familiar with the intersection of queer theory and race/ethnicity, but I do know that some black “men who have sex with men” (the “down-low” subculture) avoid using the word “gay” to describe themselves, but my impression was that that had more to do with a prejudice against homosexuals than the word itself. I could be wrong, though.

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