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Thursday, October 25, 2012
Queer is a funny word: formerly having no reference whatever to sexuality, then in the late 20th century becoming derogatory slang for non-straights in general and homosexual men in particular, and most recently being reclaimed by young sexual deviants as a proud self-identifier. Its reclamation is similar to the reclamation of the N-word by young African-Americans in the past two decades (or perhaps longer?).
For purposes of self-identification, I favor queer over gay and similar terms because queer is a negative definition: rather than saying what one's sexuality is, it says only what one's sexuality isn't. Gay ambiguously refers to 1-exclusively homosexual men, 2-exclusively homosexuals, and 3-anyone who falls outside traditional norms of sex and gender. So, for instance, it's unclear from "I'm gay" whether I am 1-exclusively homosexual, 2-homosexual, or 3-identified in some other, less obvious way.
"I'm queer," on the other hand, just means "I'm not straight; I'm not hetero-normal." Queer defines nothing; it rejects a stereotype of human sex and gender, and stops there. This is useful in two complimentary ways. First, using queer allows one to skip over unnecessary, intrusive explanations of the specifics of one's identity. Using queer means you don't have to clarify in order to avoid misleading your listener. Whereas "I'm gay" might oblige disclaimers such as "But I was once married to a man, though it didn't work out" or "I mean, I'm occasionally attracted to the opposite sex, but rarely, and as a rule I don't act on it" etc. In other words, queer is clear, simple, and unequivocal: it clearly delineates what one isn't without implying anything else.
Second, queer puts the burden of proof on hetero-normativity rather than hetero-deviance. Bear in mind that language is inherently normative: in the same way that mankind implicitly promotes men as the norm of humanity and women as the deviation, talking about sexuality and gender as if conventional norms are too obvious to merit denotation (while deviations, like gay and lesbian and transgender get explicitly and exhaustively named) effectively reinforces the status of hetero-normal as normal. That is to say, specifying the ways in which one deviates from traditional identity implicitly acknowledges the normalcy of that very traditional identity. Queer, on the other hand, suggests that non-traditional sex and gender roles are just as obvious and normal as the traditional ones. It says, in effect, "You know the sex and gender roles you learned on The Brady Bunch? Yeah, I'm not that."
That's not to say that queer is without its drawbacks. Especially for older people, queer still carries its old connotations of straight-contempt. (And since language is fundamentally conventional, it's not like they're wrong and young people are right: words mean what we think they mean.) And of course saying "I'm queer" does not say what I am, just what I'm not. But insofar as your essayer can estimate, this latter fact--that queer is a negative definition--is perhaps its greatest strength: queer emphasizes the sorority between all people marginalized by conventions of sex and gender, and invites the breeders to justify their identity to us.