On queerness

Posters depicting Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in California. The quote on them reads: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” San Francisco, 2010 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

I identify as queer. By that, I am not simply referring to my sexuality, though I am indeed attracted to people of the same gender as me (that is, cisgender females; I’m also attracted to more genders than that). When using the term “queer”, I am referring to a way of being in the world. Queer is a way of positioning myself with regards to the mainstream, of loving, of existing. Queer to me isn’t simply about sex; it’s about every part of me and my positionality in the world.

For those of you who are confused by my use of this term due to teachings that claim it’s an insult: yes, it was indeed a pejorative word for many years and some people still use it as such. But for a number of decades now, folks in the LGBTQIA+ community have been reappropriating the term as a method of self-empowerment and it has come to mean so much. Many still don’t feel comfortable using it, which I understand, but I personally like it because a) it doesn’t linguistically limit my attraction to a particular gender; b) when marginalized communities take an insult and turn it into a celebratory term, there is a beautiful reversal of power structures (“we’re queer, we’re here!”); and c) because “queer” denotes so much more than sex.

Dictionary.com defines queer as “strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular”. In a very real way, to be sexually and genderly queer is to be strange from the conventional viewpoint of society. In my view, this is a very good thing for many reasons.

If we are brave (or woke) enough to admit that the conventional viewpoint of society is to see things through the lenses of patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism, etc., then anything that is considered “strange or odd” by the standards of this viewpoint inherently points to an alternate, more liberatory structure by which our society could function. Put another way, what is “odd” from the conventional social viewpoint is actually that which can guide us to the path of liberation from our oppressive social systems. Thus, if being queer is to be “odd” by modern standards, then to be queer is to have a unique perspective on social norms that can inform our communities on how to live from a more liberated place.

Deep down I’ve known I was queer since middle school, but I didn’t bring myself to embrace this and make it known to the wider world until just recently. There are many reasons for this, some of which are common experiences for LGBTQIA+ individuals: mockery or rejection from people who sense our queerness; the social pressure to be straight (or at least present as such); erasure (“you dated a man for years, you’re not queer (enough)”); internalized insecurity about one’s very being (“I’m different and therefore unworthy.”); etc. Queer beings are intrinsically counter to what current power structures ask of us; this is why many queer folks describe themselves as “countercultural”. There is nothing inherently wrong or erroneous about our orientation/existence, yet systemic social structures and policies state that there is. Thus, to be queer in this day and age is to run counter to the norm; to run counter to the norm is to be at the margins; to be at the margins is to experience marginalization.

Queer folks, like any marginalized group, are placed on the margins without our consent simply by virtue of who we are. This puts us at risk of harm and even premature death. Yet some of us have come to value and embrace this marginalized position, and I include myself among this crew. We do not embrace our marginalization because we celebrate a victim mentality but because, really, why would we want to be “at the center” when the center is built on oppressive systems (see my above point about patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism, etc.)? To be consciously at the margins is to be closer to the possibility of a different society grounded in equity, love, and the celebration of differences. In the words of Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Even with all of its hardships, the positionality of being on the margins is, to me, a far grander and more liberated existence than that of trying to force my way towards the center of current power systems (which ultimately amounts to a process of conforming to and furthering problematic norms).

One example that might clarify what I mean here has to do with marriage equality. While I am completely in favor of granting queer couples the right to marry and enjoy the benefits of such a union, the entire conversation about why queers should be allowed to marry has been centered on many bizarre assumptions, including the notion that “queers are really just like straight people, so let them get married!” I disagree: queer people are not “just like straight people”; our life experiences are different from that of someone whose orientation and relationships mimic a social ideal.

Marriage equality, in many circles, amounts to a method of bringing queer folks into the privileged position of straight people. While helpful in many respects, this has largely been an assimilation strategy that brings queers into the straight fold rather than celebrating the difference that is queerness. While the intentions of marriage equality might be noble, there’s also queer erasure going on through this process of assimilation. Such a strategy is very different from a practice of liberation that seeks to free everyone (queer, straight, everyone) from the grips of oppression such as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

Why haven’t we instead questioned the fundamental assumptions undergirding the whole marriage equality debate by asking: “why do we have this straight/queer dichotomy in the first place, and why does society go to such lengths to act on it? Why is the ‘straight way’ the best way, and why should queers be expected to conform to straight norms, including marriage? Why do we even require people to get married in order to have hospital visitation rights or tax benefits? Why are we even limiting marriage to two people?” Etc. etc. etc.

To clarify: I believe that working to transform “the center” by altering social norms through policy changes and other means is absolutely essential to providing marginalized populations with basic needs. And I won’t claim to have all the answers to the question of how to create a truly liberated community. My only point is that we can’t stop at mere assimilation strategies, and they definitely shouldn’t be the end goal. We must reevaluate the system in its entirety if we are to create a beloved community that uplifts and celebrates all people. Assimilation tactics have their purpose, but if we stop there it’s going to be a long road to freedom indeed.

A point about queerness as a practice of liberation that I’ve recently come to understand within myself has to do with patriarchy and sexism specifically. For much of my life, I was mostly attracted to men — though I knew I was also attracted to women — and I dated a man for nearly six years. (A sidenote: I’d be remiss not to mention that my history of male partnership and attraction to men grants me much privilege when it comes to queerness. I easily pass as straight in many circles and can slip into “straight mode” if necessary. Not all queer folks benefit from this straight-passing privilege.) Much beauty was found in all my romantic/sexual encounters with men. And yet, in all of them to date, there was a nagging fear that I had to do something about myself because I simply wasn’t enough in relation to the partnership. This, I have come to realize, was partly a manifestation of internalized sexism/patriarchy.

When I started going on dates with women, it took a while to notice that this fear of “not being good enough” wasn’t there and that I wasn’t constantly comparing myself to the people I was dating in the way that I had while seeing men. A lot happened on a personal level between when I broke up with my last male partner and when I started dating women, so at first, I thought the shift had to do with those changes. Eventually, though, I realized I wasn’t feeling the aforementioned insecurity simply because there wasn’t an unbalanced gender power dynamic between me and my female dates. We were approaching each other from a level gender playing field, if you will. This was very different from my dating experiences with men, which were inherently lopsided from a social-power standpoint. When I realized this, I felt a deep sense of joy and relief; I could now engage in partnerships with a lesser amount of social bullshit to sift through.

This isn’t to say that men themselves are to blame for the insecurities I felt; I recognize that the larger systems of patriarchy and sexism are to blame there, even if and when said systems act through people. I also don’t mean to imply that female-male partnerships can’t ever be grounded in justice; they absolutely can, and I know a number of straight partnerships that are very “queer” because of the healthy way each party navigates gender and sexual dynamics. And this isn’t to say that classism, racism, and other sorts of oppression don’t crop up in queer relationships; they obviously do.

What I’m getting at, rather, is that the practice of being queer in my choice of partners — that is, to see women — has been a beautiful, personal practice of healing from sexism and patriarchy. To embrace my queerness has, in very real and concrete ways, helped me to more intentionally walk a path of personal liberation. While I’m still attracted to men and imagine I’ll date men again, exploring my attraction to women and finding ways to tend to the wounds of internalized patriarchy means queer-female relationships (both platonic and romantic) are the more wholesome option for me right now. While this wouldn’t be the case for all, it is for me.

I am so happy to be queer for many reasons. One of them is that my queerness has helped me see alternate and more liberatory options for myself (and the world) than I ever knew were possible when I couldn’t embrace my queer nature. Even with all its complexities, my queerness is, therefore, a deep, deep blessing.

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