Some see it as hate while the youth find empowerment
by CLAYTON NORLEN
The power of words is something a dictionary can’t define; people give power to words and decide their meaning. “Queer” is a word of hate and empowerment, and the meaning of queer changes with context and intent.
Queer began as an adjective that meant strange, different, weird, irregular or odd. In the 1960s it became a hateful word that was used against members of the gay community. In 1969, gay, bisexual and transgender people in New York City rioted against police brutality in the Stonewall Rebellion. Queer took on a new meaning then, when it was adopted word was now used as a derogatory stereotype against the lifestyles of gay or transgender people.
“There are a lot of people today who are still offended to be called queer, but there are others who will say, ‘Thank you very much,'” said Melvin Nimer, who is the president of the Utah chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans and is openly gay. “It’s all in how the word is used. If it is used as a put-down, as a slur, then it is hate speech. But often enough I hear it used as a term of empowerment by the youth.”
In the 1890s, American scientists created the term “homosexual” to describe men who were attracted to other men. Gay men were first described as inverts, and science suggested that the reason why men were attracted to other men was because gay men had a “woman inside them,” said Bonnie Owens, a senior majoring in gender studies at the University of Utah and an intern for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center on campus. Shortly after homosexuality was defined, the term “heterosexual” was created to define what 19th-century society perceived as a normal sexual attraction. After homosexuality was defined as the act of men having sex with men, an identity began to be imposed on men that labeled them as “others,” and a sub-culture began to take shape soon after.
With large numbers of people moving into the cities during the Industrial Revolution, children became less useful to families who no longer needed their children’s free help to maintain a farm. Women postponed marriage and were entered the work force. As intercourse became less about reproduction and more about pleasure in large cities, gay bars, clubs and bathhouses sprang up across the country to accommodate a growing gay-male subculture, Owens said.
During World War II, a mass movement of young men overseas into single-sex, volatile environments where they were taught to depend on and care for one another instead of competing. New relationships were presented for men who had never heard the term homosexual before, and some began to explore them. Back home, women were encouraged to work and taught to be economic and social equals with men. This allowed women to embrace they idea of being independent from their male counterparts. These events allowed people who were already questioning their personal identities and the structure of their relationships to further explore their sexuality.
“In the 1930s and 1940s, we saw homosexuality being used as an empowerment term, so people were identifying as a homosexual,” Owens said. “Then in the 1960s we [saw] the term gay being used and replacing homosexual. Then Stonewall happened and sparked the gay rights movement that led to the queer movement we have today.”
After Stonewall, the gay rights movement grew and took shape throughout the 1970s and 1980s, allowing people to openly identify with any sexual orientation and explore relationships that society still scrutinized as deviant or unnatural. The reclamation of the word queer began in 1990 with the publication of Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble,” a book that explored and explained the numerous sexual and gender identifications that people were using to define themselves.
Now, in 2007, many teens and LGBT students on college campuses are identifying as queer-opting not to base their identity solely on their sexual orientation, but instead choosing to identify with the community included under the term queer. In academia, queer and gender studies courses have made queer identity and philosophy somewhat mainstream on campus, but these theories of inclusiveness haven’t become prominent among everyone in LGBT communities.
“Queer is a very liberating identity to me,” Owens said. “Queer is something that connects me to, and makes me part of, a community. The reason I identify as queer is because it encompasses my gender identity and my sexual orientation.”
Who is queer and who may identify as queer are perspectives that change depending on who is asked. To Owens, queer includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex peoples and their allies. Everyone is queer in an academic sense, because no one is truly normal or average; everyone has differences that make people queer. Sex beyond the purpose of reproduction is queer, Owens said.
The modern queer movement is only 17 years old, but because the new face of the gay movement is considerably young, there is an apparent generational disconnect between the youth and established LGBT communities across the nation. For many older LGBT individuals, their association with queer remains derogatory because it was a term that was used to divide and separate them from the norm on the playground and in the work place.
“I just don’t like the word queer,” said Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Utah, who is openly lesbian. “I can’t explain it, but part of it could be the history behind it. The word and use of the word queer, to me, makes it sound like you are goofy, that something isn’t quite right about you.”
Biskupski chooses not to use or identify as queer, but she said she knows people who do and use the term positively. She compared the LGBTQ youth’s struggle to reclaim queer to the black communities’ reclamation of “nigger,” saying that the same controversy applies. Many of the questions that arise out of these situations are, who can use the word? Who is part of the community? Whom is it empowering and whom is it degrading?
Semantics aside, Biskupski sees a growing number of youth identifying as queer instead of strictly gay or lesbian.
“I like queer because it is more than an identity — it is an ideology,” said Jose Rodriguez, and a junior majoring in social justice and policy at the U. “Anybody can be queer, and I like that you can queer anything-politics, society or culture, anything. Queer identity tries to reclaim spaces where LGBTQ people have been marginalized, so they can become safe again.”
The queer movement pulls away from identity-based politics and into coalition building through merging the LGBTQQIA community under one distinct, open title. Queer is a way for these diverse and separate communities to come together and stand behind one issue-human rights-while still being capable of supporting one another through synergy, Rodriguez said.
For these reasons of inclusion, Rodriguez doesn’t identify as queer because he sees it as a movement that is primarily white and devoid of racial and socio-economic consideration. Although Rodriguez recognizes many queer theorists are trying to overcome the exclusionary injustice toward communities of color, he instead chooses to identify as Xueer so his race, gender identity, sexual orientation and background can all be factors in defining him.
“As more and more identities start to get their own voices and as we move forward, we have to make that jump towards being inclusive-we have to open up ourselves,” Owens said. “We are so caught up on words and terms, and what we can say, but the point is that even if we didn’t identify under a single word, we’re always going to have to identify under the single term of ‘other.'”
The goal with the queer movement and identity is to make it so large that it will erase itself, Owens said. Her goal is to make every identity have the same value, so people don’t have to rally toward a certain goal such as equal rights. They could just assume that legislation would encompass everyone.
“I identify as a normal person. I’m gay, but that is normal to me, and I don’t look at myself in any other way,” Nimer said. “To accept the queer movement we have to realize we’re all different, and in a sense we are all queer. Everyone should be included in the queer community, but right now [queer] is just used to describe the gay and lesbian communities.”