What a Queer Word!?

This article is shared in response to the reaction to my frequent usage of the word “queer”–where many would expect to see “LGBT”–in my writing. It was originally published two years ago in Kairos, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s student newspaper.

The word “queer” has been seen and heard more in public discourse as of late and garners all sorts of reactions. Some are (for good reason) offended by its particular historical use as a pejorative against themselves or those they love. Many non-queers, uncomfortable by its current constructive use, leverage its historical usage against it being reclaimed. Nevertheless, here we have “The Queer Issue” of Kairos and a new student group, Queer Alliance, so something must be said about this queer word.

At its most basic level as an adjective, “queer” describes something strange or odd—something that falls outside of normative conceptions. In this sense, we live in a very queer world. Think of the platypus. And the rainbow. And Jesus, for that matter. He was a queer God-human, now wasn’t he? We have an affinity for queerness. We are curious about the platypus, delight in the rainbow, and worship Jesus. Yet, when it comes to humans (your not-totally-divine ones), the queerness of others frightens us—probably because we see in theirs, our own queerness. Yet we have faith in a God who honors queerness in creating the platypus, claiming the rainbow as a symbol, and becoming Jesus.

It is no surprise that “queer” has been adopted by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons whose genders and sexualities have been socially constructed to fall outside of heteronormative limits. But the word was first used to shame LGBT persons for their queer genders and sexualities. Its potential for carrying hurtful connotations must be taken into account and its usage carried out with sensitivity. However, many see this as all the more reason for reappropriation—the process by which a marginalized group constructively reclaims a label, redeeming its historically pejorative meaning.

The problem of identifying the queer community as LGBT, LGBTQ, or LGBTQIA, is that these acronyms continue to function out of a heterosexist methodology of categorizing and controlling transgressive genders and sexualities as they come into public consciousness. “Queer,” as an umbrella term, seeks to name all those whose genders and sexualities fall outside of heteronormativity, the image of the nuclear family of the 1950’s—a masculine man and a feminine woman in a disembodied, desexualized marriage with children. Rather than attempting to paint a new image that contains and limits lesbian women, gay men, bisexual women and men, transwomen and transmen, and so on, “queer,” in its elusiveness, seeks to resist normalizing any socially constructed people group.

“Queer” honors both our differences and commonalities. For example, to image lesbian women and gay men as a homogeneous group dishonors particularity. On the other hand, it would be a disservice to both groups to say they have no shared experience. By self-identifying as queer, LGBT persons are empowered by entering a linguistic space that is broad enough to honor their particularities in a community that defies categorization. While “the queer community,” names those specific persons whose genders and sexualities bring about marginalization, some encourage allies of queers to identify as queer themselves. By doing so those who identify as heterosexual recognize that even their genders and sexualities fall outside of heteronormativity.

This queers things up even further by blurring the lines between the long-accepted binaries of homosexual-heterosexual and female-male. Queer theory and its quickly emerging cousin, queer theology, identify these polarities not as ontological, but as socially constructed. Rather than seeing gender and sexuality in dichotomous terms, or even on a continuum, it may be helpful to think of each person’s gender and sexuality as existing somewhere unique inside a rainbow-colored, shape-shifting amoeba.

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