There’s a video going around social media this Pride month: the ABCs of the LGBTQA. It says “those six letters will never be enough…” while smoke in every color of the rainbow swirls around a multicultural dance troupe. The video, produced by an expensive gym franchise, is further proof that Pride has been fully co-opted by identity capitalism.
A is for ally, aka a straight person who identifies as woke. E is for exhibitionist. H is for heteroflexible. K is for kink.
What I learned from this abecedarian of narcissism is that LGBT didn’t include enough people, so we added literally everyone else. We are witnessing an interesting cultural trend of inclusion so radical that it demands a catchall (I know I don’t have time to list out those 26-to-infinity letters): queer. What this viral Pride season commercial illustrates is that queer identity is about more than who you love or fuck. There’s no requirement to be homosexual, just to be open-minded. This whole thing is less about “labels” and more about the lifestyle attached to sticking a “Love is love” sign in your front yard.
How did we get here? How did queer go from a slur, to a political slogan, to an identity, to this purposefully impossible to define denotation of the in-crowd? This marketing campaign? And where do lesbians fit? Do we get to sit at the cool kids table? Or should we return to our camper vans where we won’t inconvenience anybody with our folk music and our boring monosexuality?
Cara, the former etymologist at Autostraddle, writes that queer comes to us from Old Scots, and its first recorded use was in an insult competition. Before 1508, its Old High German antecedents referred to strangeness or eccentricity. She writes, “According to the OED, “queer” first showed up on paper in 1508, in a transcription of “The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie.” Flyting, very popular in early 16th-century Scotland, was a public entertainment in which bards “would engage in verbal contests of provocative, often sexual and scatological but highly poetic abuse.”
Whether as an insult or a synonym for not-normal, queer was only ever used to cast out those people deemed freaks, to bully anyone gender non-conforming, to rally the mob for a game of smear the queer. When the queer reclamation project began in the bullhorns and on the picket signs of gay liberationists, the purpose was to strike back against heteronormativity. “We’re here, we’re not like you, and we don’t want to be.” Or how about, “We’re here, we are what we are, and you don’t get to define normal anymore.” Judging by the mainstreaming of the term, queer is hardly considered derogatory to many in the LGBT family.
Reclamation projects are not always so swiftly accepted. Women who’ve tried to reclaim “slut” (eg Slut Walk, slutshaming) have not successfully ended rape culture or the virgin/whore dichotomy. The difference between unsuccessful reclamation projects like “slut,” and wildly popular projects like “queer” is the degree to which not only the word can be normalized, but also the people who it is used to describe. It reminds me of that Weezer song, “everyone’s a little queer…”
See “queer” as a term has become an umbrella that accommodates not only the type of sex you have and with whom, but also how you identify the sex you have, how you identify your personality, your aura, the ineffable je ne sais queer that may or may not be related in any way to your sexuality, or even the way you present yourself to the world, but simply some deeply held, internal feeling. You don’t actually need to share a common oppression or a common romantic or sexual behavior.
You don’t need to share the common experience of gay bashing, having your Christian parents disown you, or any kind of homophobia. You also don’t need to share the experience of getting sweaty palms and weak knees when Rachel Maddow is on TV, or when K. Stew shows up in your Instagram feed. You don’t need to weep all through Carol because it’s the first time anyone made a mainstream movie about lesbians where nobody died in the end. That’s cool; I mean there is no homogenous experience of being gay, and not every lesbian shares with me those experiences I just described, so why should I mind that I have literally nothing in common with the genderfluid individual marching next to me at Dyke March, other than we both have short hair and only wear eyeliner when the mood strikes?
The reason I mind is because queer, in functioning as a catchall, serves to obscure what it is about my life, my community, my partners, that I needed to learn to be proud of in the first place. Because for me and all the other lesbians I know, figuring out your sexuality is hard enough, but the real work is in accepting yourself, demanding acceptance from others, being willing to walk away when that acceptance is denied.
Lesbians are women, and women are taught that we’re supposed to be sexually available objects of public consumption. So we spend a lot of time saying “No.” No, we won’t fuck or partner with men; no, we won’t change our minds about this; no, this body is a no-man’s land. Lesbian, straight or bi, women are punished whenever we try to assert a boundary. Queer as a catchall term makes it really hard for lesbians to assert and maintain this boundary, because it makes it impossible to name this boundary.
The inherent boundary-less nature of queer as its meaning has morphed from an insult to an identity has not necessarily made more spaces for gay and lesbian people so much as moved the furniture around. I’ll give you an example. I recently moved to a new city and was hoping to start a group house to save on rent. I joined a Facebook group called Queer Housing. I made an ad looking for queer roommates, and what I got was a whole lot of messages like “I’m a cis guy and my nonbinary femme girlfriend and I are looking for a house where we can enjoy watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race with other queers.”
OK. I was kind of hoping for a house that looks more like the group house in Dykes to Watch Out For than the episodes of the Real World where the token bisexual makes out with a heteroflexible girl while the guys egg them on. One where we have a common culture, common interests, and common cause politically.
Meanwhile, lesbians (people who are, legal or not, discriminated against in housing, suffer with fewer job prospects and tend to make less money than straight men, will have one less cheap housing option because the str8s are in here taking up space. Oh but A is for Ally in Queer Land, right?). Yet again, space created by and for people marginalized by their sexuality is colonized by people who enjoy all of the benefits of heterosexual privilege.
It’s really hard to talk about privilege — who has it and who doesn’t — in the paradigm of queer theory, because one’s self-perception is the basis of one’s standpoint, rather than one’s membership in a broader social class like man, woman, gay or straight.
I witnessed a woman in a heated Facebook argument weaponizing her queer identity as the standpoint for why her word on queerness and queer rights should be the last. A gay man asked “does your queer identity include sleeping with someone of the same sex?” She responded angrily that her queerness was spiritual and deeply personal, and that she didn’t need to share the many ways in which she was queer.
That’s fine, although no one asked you for a play by play of how you reach orgasm. While my lesbianism is also deeply personal and spiritual, it’s impossible for me to hide behind “well I don’t need to tell you in what ways I’m a lesbian.” I can’t walk down the street without some man telling me that I look unfuckable. I can’t hold my sweetie’s hand in public without some man yelling “Why don’t you let a real man try? I could fuck you straight, girl.” It was a choice to come out, but I come out again every day. I could pass for straight if I would let my hair grow a little longer and stop wearing such practical shoes, but as soon as people see the way I interact with the women in my life, they know.
I don’t want to indulge in “binary thinking,” in setting up a dichotomy between homos and heteros. Of course I know for some people, sexuality is fluid, and for others, it is very fixed throughout their lives. Many straight people have confusing crushes or days of experimentation, just like gay people do. Lots of people find themselves all sorts of places on the Kinsey scale. Goddess knows I was all over the place before pitching my tent in Dykesville. Yet, queer is not exact enough for me. Maybe there have been parts of me that dabbled in polyamory and BDSM, but those parts are subcategories of my specifically lesbian experience.
So who cares if every letter of the alphabet is celebrated during Pride? What do I lose when lesbian is lumped in with queer? Well, for starters, political cogency. Last I checked it wasn’t the kink bars or the swingers parties that the cops raided in the 1950s, it was the gay bars, and anyone caught there could be roughed up, thrown in jail, raped or molested by cops and guards with total impunity.
When Mike Pence advocated for conversion therapy as a Congressman, he wasn’t targeting those people who like to be ball-gagged or beaten during sex. He and his cronies are coming for those of us who want to live that gay lifestyle (with and without ball gags). Theresa Butz didn’t get to explain the infinitesimal nuance of her identity to the man who raped and murdered her for having the audacity to live with her girlfriend. The violence that lesbians experience is specific to being lesbian, and the culture that lesbians enjoy is specific to being lesbian. Both ends of this, the good and the bad, are the stuff a movement is based on. Queer identity and queer culture both stop short of speaking to this lesbian experience.
These days when I hear someone call themselves queer, I just assume that their sexuality is too complicated to understand without a liberal arts degree. Honestly, I don’t care. I only need to know what labels you use if we’ve both swiped right, or when I’m sending out the invites to the potluck where we plot the overthrow of the heteropatriarchy.
It does annoy me though, that everyone who has ever watched “lesbian” porn, or had an asymmetrical haircut, or read The Ethical Slut is demanding a rainbow participation badge. It means the market for selling not-normal, edgy, cool-ness is bigger and more profitable to lifestyle brands. It means anyone who is not-normal, edgy or cool has something to sell.
It’s actually OK to let your freak flag fly without calling yourself queer or joining our parade. You can be proud of the fact that you’re not the kind of person who would slur a homo in public, the kind of person who wouldn’t bat an eyelash when you see Abby Wambach kiss her girlfriend in the stands. Ally, exhibitionist, heteroflexible, kinkster, and so on, your pride is not the same as my pride. It’s OK that I’m different from you. It’s OK that you have more in common with straight people than with LGBT people.
Then again, I probably just don’t understand the personal and spiritual aura of queerness you carry deep down.