An increasing number of young celebrities are labeling themselves "queer." But what does this mean for the queer community?
It's not easy being woke. Johnny Depp's 16-year-old daughter Lily Rose Depp tried to come out as a queer ally recently and accidentally just came out. She took part in an LGBT outreach project and said her sexuality fell somewhere on a "vast spectrum," which many took to mean she was announcing her sexuality. She has since come in again, clarifying that she was doing the exact opposite: "I was literally doing it just to say that you don't have to label your sexuality; so many kids these days are not labeling their sexuality and I think that's so cool."
Rose-Depp's fingers might be burnt, but she's far from the only young celebrity dipping into queer issues: Jaden Smith became the face for Louis Vuitton womenswear in January and now he posts Instagram photos of himself wearing dresses and standing on fire hydrants.
Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose have both out as genderfluid, 14-year-old Disney Star Rowan Blanchard tweeted, "In my life—only ever liked boys... However I personally don't wanna label myself as straight, gay or whateva so I am not gonna give myself labels to stick with—just existing;)... I'm open to liking any gender in future is why I identify as queer." Even rapper Young Thug has been photographed in a tutu, a Gucci floral lace top, and said he doesn't want to be viewed as masculine.
Being queer is not the same as being gay. Queer means lots of things to lots of different people. Its definition defies any meaning that is pinned to it. For many, it is a political persuasion as well as a sexual one. There are plenty of gays who don't identify as queer—who wouldn't subscribe to gay marriage, for instance. Writing "no Asians" on your Grindr profile and having mostly white pride lineups are other examples of gay culture devoid of queer thinking. You don't have to be queer to be gay, but do you have to be gay to be queer?
For someone who is homosexual and queer, a straight person identifying as queer can feel like choosing to appropriate the good bits, the cultural and political cache, the clothes and the sound of gay culture, without the laugh riot of gay-bashing, teen shame, adult shame, shame-shame, and the internalized homophobia of lived gay experience.
But because the word queer means something different to everyone, it's hard working out whether you should be angry at someone for using it in a way you don't expect them to.
David Selley is a rising star on the drag circuit, with shows at Soho Theater in London and this year's Vault Festival. Dianne Chorley, his alter-ego, is an ex-drug dealer and washed up club singer with a twinkle in her eye from Canvey Island, Essex. David, currently in a relationship with a woman, says that "sexuality is a relatively liquid ideology."
I ask him if he can see why members of the queer community might take umbrage with a straight man performing in drag. "People have gotten really angry with me for being 'a straight man' dancing in the gay arena," he replies. "Women also take issue for different reasons. I have this one friend of mine who sends me endless essays by Susan Sontag." But, he says, theater gives him license to become someone else and politics has little to do with it. "For me, Dianne is a character; the idea of gender is suspended. It just so happens that the character I create on stage is a woman."
And the distinction here is the one between the stage and the street. On the stage, Dianne gets applause—on the street, she risks abuse.
"Putting on a dress wasn't weird for me because sexuality wasn't a big deal," continues David, whose brother is gay. "What probably puts the majority of straight men off wearing dresses is the fear they might be perceived as gay. I couldn't care less about that and I think that's as a result of growing up around the gay scene."
I ask him what his girlfriend thinks of him as Dianne. "Jenny, what's your take on me dressing as a woman?" he shouts over at his other half. There's a pause. "Oh, she says it's great. She thinks it's sexy."
Perhaps this is it, a smudging of gender lines and a detachment of gender from sexuality. Cross-dressing has nothing to do with being gay. Women do not own femininity and straight men could sure use a dab of it. For Selley, performing as a woman completely changed the way he lives life as a man. Which can only be a good thing.
But does initiating straight people into queer culture dilute it? Should we lobby for a vetting system? Something like, you can only be queer if you have more than one album by Robyn, a wardrobe that is half denim, and a "strong female characters" recommendation on Netflix?
I ask Hollis Robin, drummer of queer feminist punk band Teenage Caveman, whether straight people can be queer. Hollis identifies as bisexual when talking to cisgendered, heterosexual people because, "it's easier to understand and keeps the conversation flowing." Hollis prefers the term queer and uses that "when talking to other queer people/people who get it."
"Queer is a very broad term that encompasses many aspects of sexual and gender identity," Hollis says. "Society needs to be deprogrammed, subverted, or queered, and that involves a process of unlearning and de-conditioning white supremacist, cisnormative, and heteronormative behavior and values. Straight and cisgender people engaged in that work could be considered queer but I feel it's not a label/identity cis and straight people are entitled to claim, more one that they need to earn. In the same way cisgender men can't just declare themselves feminists, or white people can't just declare their activism intersectional, they have to be held accountable to the people society places beneath them."
For Hollis, there is no such thing as gender blindness, and the danger of disregarding structural hierarchies and putting the word queer up for sale is that a cultural whitewashing, or pinkwashing, is likely to take place. If we fail to log difference, we also fail to see how much tougher it is for some people than others. It is the difference between sympathy and empathy.
So go on. Have gay sex, listen to Arthur Russell, and watch RuPaul, straight people. Paint your nails and eschew binary logic. Cross-dressing is not cross-dressing if dresses do not belong to women. It is dressing, which is always already performance. You are born naked and the rest is drag. Go forth and engage with the important and difficult issues happening to the queer people who you love. Be a good ally.
But if more people are going to call themselves queer, then maybe we need to think about another term. Recently Amandla Stenberg came out on Teen Vogue's snapchat. The post is tagged "I am very bisexual." Among other things, she discusses representation and rebellion, homophobia and transphobia, and talks about her identity as "a black, bisexual woman." She doesn't use the word queer. She doesn't talk about falling somewhere on a spectrum. There is nothing fluid in the words she chooses, nothing that can be read into or misconstrued. She has chosen to use the word bisexual, a word that has fallen out of fashion but in this context feels, actually, quite radical. It feels, actually, quite queer.