Queer is a word wrapped up in its own special purgatory; one direction leads to abuse and the weight of history, the other to reclamation and empowerment. Before I met my current partner I shied away from using it, seeing it as a Dante circle of hell that chained the receiver in all the negative stereotypes of being part of the LGBTQI+ community. My aversion was visceral, and it was ostracised from my vocabulary along with all other hate words. Maybe this is a British thing, but alongside much of British slang for being gap or lesbian, queer was never a positive word. Yet, today I used it as part of more core identity. I am compelled to dissect this, as it cuts across the notion of language use, and the ring fencing of terms by certain communities to uplift themselves by reclaiming the power of the word.
Power is the best place to start, as so often words such as queer are used by the majority to batter down and break apart those on the margins. My identity as a woman is shaped by my trans experience, with a lot of the vocabulary used in my youth now frowned upon or even outright viewed as shameful. It would be easy to go “in my day…”, but the truth is that English is an ever evolving language, and what was acceptable in my youth is now verboten in the here and now. As someone who learned their queer vocabulary from the internet and on Canal Street in Manchester, I was very much a neophyte when it comes to LGBTQI+ expression. Indeed, it was only in the last five years where my personal intersection with the community has been anything more than a yearly Pride or Sparkle march. And I think this is the key to my journey, immersion in other people’s perspective on language and identity.
It is very easy to fall back on our own personal ideas of language and identity. To accept and demand that the world revolve around our own personal idioms and vocabulary. For much of our personal existence we inhabit our lives shorn of influences that will challenge and provoke. Our social media feeds, friends, even work colleagues will generally filter out explicit challenges to our core world views, though on occasion someone or something may come along and probe at the edges. This is part of the human experience for all of us, and unless there is an external stimulus to explicitly shatter our perceptions, we sit cozy. That was what I was faced with in how I saw my gender and identity, and to a significant degree it is based on significant amount of personal privilege from my background and education.
My privilege allowed me to float on by, generally unaffected by the slings and arrows of abuse. Yes, there were moments when my identity got in the way, and I have faced abuse in the past. Not to downplay my own experience, most of my travails were due to my personality and magpie like tendency to get distracted by the next shiny thing. Mr Toad is very much my spirit animal. I have had the luxury to cherry pick my identity from the communal tree of queerness, yet others don’t.
This is where power smoothers, binds, and extract indentities from those on the margins. It boxes, categorises, labels and provides sanitised ways of expressing messiness. It makes things simple for those on the outside, while expecting those of us within the LGBTQI+ to adhere to strict ideas of what being gay, lesbian, bisexual etc is. The very fact that there is a plus in LGBTQI+ shows the fraying of this idea, as ever since 19th century Germans started to explore sexology there has been a growing plethora of labels we can stick on ourselves for the sake of the majority who must understand our complexity in as simple way as possible.
In turn it was this notion that somehow I must simplify my sexuality for others that threw me off. When I first transitioned I vocalised a staunch lesbian identity. Then as I passed through my twenties it became bisexual. Then pansexual. Then I-like-who-I-like. This last one really fits me the best, as on any given day my attractions and lusts flit and flirt across all genders, though usually settling on some variety of the feminine. To be succinct with my sexuality is impossible, for how does one convey the moment without all the caveats? Thus, when my partner talked about her queerness from an Israeli perspective, my ears pricked and a whole new way of looking at the world emerged from the frozen tundra where I parked queer.
My evolution and emancipation into queerness is intensely personal, and I am immensely privileged that not a single person has called me out on it. I mainly use it in online conversations and in my writing, as it allows for context and breadth without having to spend ten minutes expertly wrapping everyone else’s head around the idea. This path towards queer understanding is only just beginning for me, as many others have trod this long and winding road. It is not an erasure of all the other panalopy of the LGBTQI+ spectrum; each identity means something to each who embrace and externalise it. My drift into queerness is more personal and intrinsic that I expected.
Yet, there are many who view queer as a pejorative, an abuse to be heaped on anyone who is not straight. Queer still binds, still warps into anger, and still has the potential to send us from purgatory into a circle of hell of other’s making. By reclaiming queer from this wretched place, to make it Elysium, it reforges it and sloths away the taint. Not that we should ever erase the past, or forget the awful legacy that queer carries, but in empowering queerness we accept that sexuality can be messy and complicated. That there are those, like me, who cannot put an easy label on our attractions or romantic inclinations. This is our empowerment, and why I have embraced a more queer identity.
Of course, this can come across as glibness, as denying the cross of others. That to uplift myself into glory I ignore the suffering that language has caused. This is where my intersection must meet with theirs, to acknowledge that my personal identity could be a possible affront to their pain. This is an ongoing conversation, one which all LGBTQI+ generations must have to progress and break down the power structures that have held us back. By extending the plus we move beyond the easy, adding labels that the majority are still playing catch up with. It is a process, and like any other process requires dialogue, discussion, and understanding. Ours is to stand and help others find a way of articulating their own identities without rancour. For me, that is why the Q is essential to the conversation, as it allows for messiness and complexity within a digestable box.