The Queer Umbrella19 July 2016
Even the Grade-A Straights among you should have come across the UMSU Queer Department, even if their actual office seems too much of a hike both from heterosexuality and up all those goddamn stairs. The Queer Department provides invaluable support and a safe space for anyone falling under the LGBT acronym, or the + sign that covers anyone else not straight or not cisgender.
The term ‘queer’ has been a subject of contention since it fell into use as a slur for those who deviate from sexual or gender norms in the 19th Century. ‘Queer’ has been flung at LGBTI+ people as an insult, a threat and an accompaniment to homophobic and transphobic violence in English-speaking countries the world over. It has fallen out of fashion somewhat, replaced by more hip and fresh ways to express bigotry, but in many places ‘queer’ is still a stone to be thrown.
Why, then, is it the name of UMSU’s Department for those whom that word targets? When questioned, UMSU Queer Officer Lotus explained that they and their co-office bearer are familiar with the controversy surrounding the use of the use of the term ‘queer’, and that “during official events [they] tend to use the phrase ‘LGBTI+’ due to [‘queer’s] history”. They also offered what seems currently to be the best suggestion; use queer for self-identification only and avoid imposing such a loaded term on someone without their permission. This conversation is being had passionately and frequently by those who could conceivably fall under the ‘queer’ umbrella, but there has been little information disseminated to others who continue to use ‘queer’ in the way it was intended when the Department was named.
In the 1980s, some in the LGBTI+ community began a process of reclamation. The first recorded use of the word as a neutral umbrella term for the sexual and gender identity-based communities was by New York activist group Queer Nation, who circulated a pamphlet at the 1990 Pride parade explaining their decision to use the word ‘queer’ over ‘gay’. “When a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning, we feel angry and disgusted, not gay.” Since then, ‘queer’ has been phenomenally successful as an umbrella term.
In a very practical sense, the proliferation of labels to help people pinpoint their gender and sexuality meant that the original LGBT acronym grew to the point of unwieldiness. Many people appreciate the ambiguity that ‘queer’ provides; people can separate themselves from traditional gender and heterosexual norms without getting technical about their genitals or who they’re keen on bedding. When curious questions to LGBTI+ people can feel like fetishisation, dehumanisation or simply a nauseating breach of privacy, ‘queer’ can be an identifier that doesn’t actually identify a whole lot while still placing a person firmly within the community.
The main issue with the use of ‘queer’ as an umbrella term is that however hard people have fought to reclaim it, it’s still a slur. It is still used to harm LGBT+ people. Its frequent use in the past means that ‘queer’ still carries considerable historical weight; it’s hard to argue that the term can be truly inclusive if it excludes those who, very reasonably, feel uncomfortable rejoicing in a word that has been used to oppress them. These people are often older or living in regional areas where ‘queer’ is still a popular slur and they are already some of the most ignored and vulnerable in the community.
Some of the push-back against the use of ‘queer’ has come from those who do not believe there needs to be a common identity binding together people who experience oppression very differently. The coalition of non-hetero and non-cis people in particular has been subject to recent scrutiny, especially as transphobia is rampant in some cis lesbian and gay circles. The structures of homophobia and transphobia function very differently and intersect with misogyny and racism in ways that makes any kind of equivalence of the struggles of different LGBT+ people a real issue. That said, however different we may be, solidarity is still the greatest tool this group wields for demanding respect and safety for themselves and for each other. Much of the world is still hostile, as we have been brutally reminded, and I feel stronger believing there is a community, however nebulous, to which to belong.
The word ‘queer’ has a well-established place in society and is unlikely to be usurped any time soon. The other contenders are deeply lacking in catchiness: MOGAI stands for Marginalised Orientations, Gender Alignments and Intersex; SGA means Same Gender Attracted, which is useful but excludes the gender variations covered by queer; ‘gay’ is fun and has the advantage of being misused already for things that aren’t exclusively gay (like ‘gay marriage’ and ‘gay pride’), but it’s specific to homosexuality. None seem like a great solution.
This does pose a bit of an issue for the Queer Department and hopefully in time it will be addressed, although personally, I feel that whatever its name, those in the Department do invaluable work. Catch me there on Wednesdays, eating pizza and taking refuge from The Straights™.