What Does the Word 'Queer' Even Mean Today?
How much does what we call ourselves matter when it comes to how and whom we love?
Photo Collage by Zoe Ligon
Teens are getting queerer. According to a recent trend-forecasting report by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, 13- to 20-year-olds (known as Generation Z) are even more sexually fluid than millennials—while 65 percent of millennials identify as exclusively heterosexual, only 48 percent of Generation Z does. The "trend" is unsurprising—increased legal protection, social acceptance, and media visibility of the LGBTQ community have afforded more opportunities for queer people to love in the open. That being said, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a national advocacy group for local LGBTQ communities, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for LGBTQ folks, and that's not counting the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.
As the purview of queerness expands and the need for political solidarity and resistance against LGBTQ violence becomes all the more necessary, how can we think critically and compassionately about desire, identity, and labels? I talked to Suzy Exposito, Ales Kot, McKenzie Wark, Whitney Mallet, Davey Davis, and Javier Nunez Cespedes, a group of individuals who deal with issues of identity in their personal and professional lives, about love with or without labels.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez: What's your relationship to questions of desire and identity?
Suzy: I am a bisexual woman in a long-term relationship with a bisexual man. At this point in my life, I refuse to date straight people. In my experience, they just don't understand certain fundamental things about my friends and me. That said, I could generally say the same about monosexual people. I have been on dates with cis lesbians and felt a similar lack of common ground. Because I wouldn't "pick a side," my sexual identity was always in flux to them and not to be trusted. I don't think my sexual orientation is in flux at all!
Ales: Before people used the word "queer" to describe me, they called me "weird." But when I moved to Prague and lived on my own for the first time, I slept with girls and boys, and had threesomes and group sex. I realized that people would have these impositions on what it means to be queer for them. I didn't want to narrow it down too much. If someone asked, I'd tell them I'm bisexual. Of course, I could see many people judging the shit out of me. But, even though I pass as a straight dude, the fact of the matter is that I am a fluid sex monster.
McKenzie: I am somebody who passes for a straight person. I am reluctant to be a spokesperson for queerness because I get to avoid all of the difficulties that are involved in that. I don't advertise, but if people ask, I'll them that I've had sex with men, and I will again.
Javier: I'm a transgender mixed-race Latino who identifies as bisexual. I like to joke that I've identified with literally every letter in LGBTQ at some point.
Ana: Has identifying—or not—as queer resolved anything for you? Or how has it complicated things?
Javier: Part of the beauty of "queer" is that it doesn't have a real definition and that it's open-ended, but that also can be a major drawback to it. By not having a concrete definition, people can use it any way they want, and it can and definitely has been co-opted. Also "queer" doesn't really say anything about someone's sexuality. When someone tells me they identify as either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, I have a better idea of who they date. To me, "queer" has always had radical anti-oppression trans-inclusive meaning behind it, but it's clearly not the definition everyone uses.
Whitney: I guess I would reluctantly identify as queer. I don't think of queer as an essentialist identity. It's about identifying with certain politics. It is a decision of what community I want to call my community. People still ask me if I am gay or straight. Sometimes I think, maybe it's on the way, maybe by the time I'm 30 I'll be gay. Or I'll always be slutty. In life, we're always becoming, so it's fine.
Davey: The amazing thing about being able to come out and find a name for yourself as a queer person is that you feel like you fought for it. My partner and I have both had family members who completely rejected us. So it's this thing that I've fought for, it's my identity, it's who I am—you get defensive and protective with it. And so I can see people's kneejerk reaction, Oh, are they really [queer]? The more compassionate me, and the part of me that has been in that position, knows that's bullshit, to be like, Oh, they're not really [queer]. And as much as we fought for our identities, at the same time, identity is fluid, and fluidity is challenging for most people. Even if you are gender fluid or your sexuality is fluid, labels are, by definition, rigid.
Ana: To me, labels seem imperfect, at times flattening, but politically necessary. Sometimes we need solidarity and shared identities. What do you think?
McKenzie: It's crucial to remember that there are a lot of men who sleep with other men that do not think they are gay. They aren't in the closet or in denial. They just have different categories. Some people don't think having sex with men is an identity. It's an act, and you might have other acts you do and other identities.
Davey: When I had just come out, I had an instinct to taxonomize: "I am a femme boy." But I've moved away from that because I've lived in the world long enough as a gender-nonconforming woman that visibility isn't exciting anymore. I've realized that being visible isn't that great. It's pretty scary, and most people outside of your community think you're gross, and it affects your chances of getting a job. Foucault said that visibility is a trap. We all want to be seen and understood and be known for what we are, but unfortunately, if what you are is queer or bisexual, they will hate you.
Ana: Visibility is a trap! Either you're legible in mainstream culture—you pass—yet you aren't seen as queer in queer communities, or you're visibly queer, and thereby a target for homophobic and transphobic violence.
Suzy: Visibility makes all the difference in how you experience queerness. Visibility makes you more vulnerable to attack. And it's a threat that not all queer people face equally. I'm a cis femme woman with long hair, and men harass me all day for being a woman, but absolutely no one knows I'm queer unless I'm with someone who more visibly is. On the other hand, my partner is a drag performer and very gender fluid, but on most days he presents masculine for his safety. On days when we're both femme, we're much more prone to harassment. Not everyone's queer presentation is so conditional, though, so we have to be mindful about how much space our voices take up and which experiences are simply not ours to claim.
"Even if you are gender fluid or your sexuality is fluid, labels are, by definition, rigid."
Javier: Disclosing being trans or bi is a choice I can make every day. What I can't choose is walking out of the house every day as a Latino man. I experience way more gender-based violence (mostly from the NYPD) in that way than I ever did before I started medically transitioning. It's something I wish I'd been prepared for. It seems like the people wrapped up with visibility around their sexuality are cis white people. It feels like a luxury that people of color and a lot of trans people do not have. I just want to go out in the world and not be worried about being attacked or killed. I don't care about the rest.
Ana: One way I've been trying to think about this is by shifting questions of queer authenticity—is someone really queer or not?—to queer accountability. Are there certain actions or values we can hold one another accountable for as members of a community?
Ales: I ask, How can I encourage a sense of safety around myself and my home? How can I contribute my own energy? On the most immediate level, I think about just listening. I think just listening to people and not comparing or trying to place them is crucial.
There is a level of performative allyship and people trying to ride on the wave of a higher social consciousness more than they actually care for others. I don't know what to do with that except to be sure that I don't do it.
Whitney: I think there are moments when checking is important. I was at my next-door neighbor's New Year's party, and there was a moment where I noticed there were a lot of straight people there. It's a predominantly gay and trans space, and I think it's worth thinking about how you literally are taking up space at parties. There was a line, and at a certain point, other people couldn't get in, and for some of the people, that's the only party that's welcoming for them.
Davey: This reminds me of who gets to be at pride. I do think straight people need to think three or four or five times about whether they should go to some queer event, even if other queers are bringing them. But, if the ultimate goal is liberation of some kind from white cis hetero imperialist Western patriarchy, it can't come down to "make sure there are no heteros at the party." Probably, straight people shouldn't be at pride, but if you're the kind of straight person who's going to march with us, and protect us, and work with us, we can work together on the larger political goal of liberation.
McKenzie: When you get to middle age, it's just not that big of a deal anymore. I'm into this or that, and I'm going to go and get it with whoever is up for it. It's so much easier. I get why it was important in my 20s and 30s, but now I am not worried about if I am or am not this or that queer being now. I'll just go find my friends.