BY CHLOE JENSEN ’20
One of the most pressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community issues has been whether or not to adopt the word “queer” as an umbrella term. Many LGBT people use this word because it is vague in nature. By definition, the word queer simply means to be deviant or unordinary. As an identity, the word means to identify as anything other than cisgender or heterosexual. While you are free to self-identify as queer, applying the term to the entire LGBT community reinforces it as a slur and inadvertently homogenizes the lives and experiences of the community.
The LGBT community first began reclaiming the term queer in 1990 during the AIDS marches, according to Queer Nation, an LGBT activist organization founded in 1990 by HIV/AIDS activists. During these protests, LGBT individuals chanted “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” These chants were intended to empower the gay community and raise awareness of AIDS. Now, among young, leftist crowds, the word is not just a reclaimed slur like dyke or fag, but also encompasses an entire vague identity and attempts to be a cohesive umbrella term. Many LGBT individuals fail to realize how “queer” has and continues to be used as a weapon much like the words “dyke” and “fag.”
Walking to my precalculus class on the first day of my junior year of high school, I distinctly remember a jock-like kid screaming “you little queer” to a younger, smaller classmate and shoving him into a railing. For the rest of the year, that same kid yelled “queer” and a slew of other homophobic and transphobic slurs at other students. Every time, I cringed and my stomach tightened.
Just two years later at Mount Holyoke, one of the most progressive, LGBT-friendly liberal arts colleges in the nation, I hear my peers reclaiming this word and applying it to the entire LGBT community. I know my fellow students mean well and seek to be as inclusive in their language as possible, but every time someone calls me a queer woman, I cannot help but think of the jock who used those words to demean me and other LGBT people.
My experience is not unique to students who attended rural, conservative high schools — many LGBT people have been called queer or have at least heard the term used as a slur. Although many LGBT people take pride in reclaiming slurs that were once used against them, many, myself included, can’t identify with a word that was used violently against us.
The word “queer” does not do the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community justice, nor does it help define us for all of our glory and diversity. By identifying as queer, many people feel as though they can escape heteronormativity and gender expectations. However, by defining a group of people as deviant and strange — much like our oppressors see us — we fail to see and acknowledge our different experiences. As a cis lesbian, I fall under the described category of the term “queer,” much like a transgender man. While we both fit under this umbrella term, using the term “queer” ignores the nuances of our experiences. Although we may have commonalities in our identities, we have differences that a broad blanket term cannot cover.
I have no interest in defining myself as my oppressors have. My high school pre-calculus classmate had no interest in understanding the intricacies of our experiences and identities — he wanted to humiliate us in any way he knew how. In his mind, we were not individuals worthy of respect or understanding. We opened ourselves to criticism by not adhering to social norms.
While I may have my reservations about applying the word queer to the entire LGBT community, I think that self identifying as queer is valid. If you feel like your identity is best understood by reclaiming a word that is intentionally vague in meaning, I will always support you. But before you refer to a Mount Holyoke student as a “queer woman,” think about the ways that word has been used against the LGBT community.