Labels play an inescapable role in how we are perceived by others, and perhaps even by ourselves. Consider the act of "coming out." When we come out, we add another label to the preexisting collection that inform how others perceive us. In many cases hoping that this new addition doesn't override older labels like "friend," "child," or "co-worker."
Within the greater LGBT community there are many labels and ways of identifying. Some are broadly accepted and have widely, if perhaps not universally agreed upon meanings: gay, lesbian, and perhaps bisexual are the ones that come immediately to my mind. But beyond those three there is a swirling soup of labels whose particular meaning and acceptability are in dispute: transgender, pansexual, genderfluid, cisgender, queer, transexual, homoflexible, genderqueer, dyke, and even asexual, all carry with them some level or another of contention and debate.
This contention and debate is further complicated by the fact that some of these terms have ugly histories, which brings us to the particular label I'm focusing on today: queer.
"Queer" is a deliberately vague label, which likely accounts in part for both its popularity among those who have embraced it as a self-identity, and the aversion many people feel towards its use. Of course, that aversion is also informed by the history of "queer" being used as a derogatory word.
In the interest of clarity, allow me for a moment to elaborate on why this is the word I use to express myself:
I do identify as "queer." It has not always been this way. In the distant mists of my early teen years I briefly used "bisexual," which was followed by "gay" for much of my adolescence and early adulthood.
To understand why this has become my personal label of choice, it is first off important to know that I don't strictly limit my sexual and romantic life to men. I have quite a number of female identified people in my life with whom I play erotically, although men by far make up the overwhelming majority of my romantic connections. There are many gay men who will argue that you can't be gay and occasionally play with or date women, but I have always felt that "bisexual" carried with it an implication of parity of attraction that does not apply in my case.
I am polyamorous, which of course is a label in itself. There are poly people for whom it is a lifestyle choice they could take or leave, and I am explicitly not one of those people. Being polyamorous is as ingrained in me as who I am attracted to, and monogamy is frankly baffling to me. Today's marriage focused LGB(t) community, particularly as the fight for same-sex marriage has dragged on, is very fidelity focused, and elective non-monogamy or polyamory has become as verboten in parts of mainstream gay culture as it is in middle American heterosexual culture. My family has been told time and time again by "traditional" gay Americans that we are threat to the rights, and one might even say sanctity (in the eyes of the law at least) of gay and lesbian couples' relationships, and so owed it to our brothers and sisters to remain quiet about our own.
This brings me to the social and political aspect of my queer identity. The gay community (which is more realistically a demographic) has become increasingly dominated over the last decade by a vision of what it means to be an LGBT American that simply does not resonate for me. The popular narrative says "LGBT people are just like everyone else, except for slight differences in the bedroom or medical history." To me this represents a rejection of our unique culture and history, and places a burden of conformity on people who traditionally have been more free in their choices of self expression.
Don't get me wrong, I know plenty of LGBT people who live happy, normative lives, and I would literally lay down my life defending their right to do so. However, in the process of presenting a sanitized vision of the LGBT demographic to an unfamiliar and at times hostile nation, gay advocacy groups have marginalized the people who laid the early groundwork needed to make an open "mainstream" existence possible for LGBT Americans. When I see young gay men expressing their disgust or even hatred towards the more effeminate or flamboyant among them, I see a reflection of a paradigm driven by the mainstream gay advocacy groups and representatives. In the end, I chose to embrace, rather than fight that message.
Lastly, many of my close friends, lovers, and partners are trans*. The widespread and disgusting intolerance directed towards the trans* community only reinforced my lack of desire to be associated with the label "gay."
It is of course, important to note here that my reasons for identifying as "queer" are mine alone. I'm a gun-toting, flamboyant, polyamorous, kinky pervert, who almost always prefers men over women. "Queer" encompasses all of that for me, but it can easily mean something totally different to another queer person.
The label "queer" is a contentious one. It is a reclaimed word, one which is still indelibly tied in many minds to hatred and abuse. In a perhaps an all too human pattern, those of us who embrace it as our own identity often come in for some measure of the same from those who associate it with their own suffering. I have been called an "Uncle Tom," "homophobic," and informed that I clearly have never been the victim of a bashing or bias crime (which happens to be quite untrue).
This is a problem. "Queer" is not likely to fall out of favor anytime soon, and in fact is widely embraced among many trans* people with same-sex attraction, as well as by people who do not, for whatever reason, fit within the new and narrow definition of what it means to be LGBT that has come to dominate our discourse.
How then do we reconcile these two radically disparate views on what role this word should have?
Queer identified people need to be more sensitive to the history of the word. Simply because "queer" is a positive and even joyous word for us, does not mean that we have any right to discount the painful connotations it may have for others. In addition to being somewhat generational, acceptance of "queer" is also somewhat regional, which we need to be sensitive to. We should strive to carefully avoid using "queer" interchangeably with other labels that describe sexual orientation or gender-identity, particularly if I do not know how my audience relates to it.
On the other hand, I reject the idea that queer-identified people are in any way obligated to abandon the word because of its history and connotations. I often encounter people who cannot separate self-identifying as queer from implying that I consider others to be as well. This is born in part out of a misunderstanding that I use "queer" as somehow interchangeable with "gay," which is simply not the case. Identifying as queer is not the same as saying that someone else is merely because we share a romantic interest in our own gender.
Part of existing in a complex community/demographic is respecting that different people experience and express sexuality and identity differently. That is harder than it sounds, and none of us are perfect at it. We cannot police how other people experience their lives and concept of self. In a broader sense, this issue runs deep within our community. Sadly, the fault lines and rifts it opens up at times threaten to tear our fragile unity apart.
Diversity was once the watchword of gay life in this country, maybe all of us, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, queer, and beyond, need to remember that diversity is hard work but worth the effort. There is far more that unites us than divides us, and we should not let words and labels become the wedge that drives us apart.