Ian Leach: Taking back ‘queer’

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 4:56pm

As a gay man, I’ve heard the word “queer” used as an insult since childhood. The best definition I can come up with is to say that it is used to describe someone who doesn’t uphold the same norms of masculinity as their straight counterparts. The word stung, but I think it’s time to have a serious conversation discussing the future of the word “queer” in spaces as it relates to lesbian, gay, bisexual and possibly transgender individuals.

In having this discussion, I understand that I am someone who has a lot of privilege in LGBTQ spaces; as a gay, white male, there are a lot of privileges that I hold in comparison to many of my compatriots. In making this argument, I will never try to say that all of my experiences are the same as people who fall outside of the binary or have a different sexual orientation than myself; however, in terms of activism, I see this as a powerful way to unite the community in shared goals.

In a lot of ways, we can see that corporate America has begun to be more accepting of sexual identity. A favorite store of millennials, Target Corp., has 76 items for sale under their “PRIDE” umbrella. A lot of people see this and assume the world has become more accepting of LGBTQ identities; in my mind, these products simply give companies another marketing demographic to exploit. If you’ll notice, most of them talk about “pride” but avoid the controversial topics about sexuality or identity, or fail to acknowledge the tough questions or advocacy that a company and organization should if they’re to engage in this kind of profitable endeavor. For example, here in the state of Michigan, I could be fired for being gay, and I don’t see Target Corp. directly protecting individuals against sexual-orientation discrimination. Millions of Americans are experiencing the same thing; we can see that this experience is shared among a variety of identities within the queer community.

These shared experiences are why I want to employ the word queer; despite the various differences in our marginalization and experience in the community, we should be fighting together to protect people from workplace discrimination, to make it obligatory for insurance companies to cover gender-confirmation surgery, for legal protections for polyamorous relationships and various other experiences.

I want to employ the word queer to show solidarity with other identity counterparts who might be experiencing marginalization in ways that I am not. The queer rights movement did not stop at gay marriage. And if I have it my way, it will never stop. A common misconception of the Stonewall Rebellion, according to Henry Abelove, is that the idea of liberation was to identify as homosexual or heterosexual. In actuality, it was to remove those titles. While I firmly believe everyone has a place to belong, I want us to aspire to foster a community where those identities can help us find a home both within that identity and outside of it, into the broader queer community and beyond. There may not be a path to this in the immediate future, but I think this argument of employing the word queer needs to be a larger focus in the discussions about the community. Trans-inclusivity into the LGBTQ community needs to be stronger and the issues of trans individuals need to be centered in these discussions, because I envision a community where the most marginalized can be the ones I stand in solidarity with and assist in any way I can.

As an aside, I’m not here to use the word for straight cis-peoples’ comfort. I don’t care if it makes one of those individuals uncomfortable in using the phrase. I’m here to be a gay man who identifies as being a part of the queer community. And I hope that many of us can aspire to do the same.

I can think of no better word to describe the community than the one which was employed when I was a kid. When I was younger, it would symbolize when someone was doing something outside of the gender norms that we follow on a day-to-day basis. I want to fall outside of those norms, though. I have no interest in being a part of the structures that have caused myself and so many of my peers to be marginalized. I aspire to reclaim the word queer in an attempt to show that we don’t need to fall in line with the negative connotations this word initially imposed.

Ian Leach can be reached at ileach@umich.edu.