A Case Against Using ‘Queer’ in Organizations
Posted by Roobs on April 18, 2013
For the past two years, I served as the Chair of the California Young Democrats (CYD) LGBTQ Caucus. When I began my tenure leading the board back in 2011, the caucus was named the CYD Queer Caucus. One of my first acts as Chair back in 2011 was to rename the caucus. Originally, I intended the name to be changed to simply the CYD LGBT Caucus. But surprisingly, there was a backlash among caucus members. Not necessarily at the renaming as a goal, but the complete drop of the “Q” or Queer. Ultimately, I compromised to include the Q in the acronym. But I still think this is the wrong way for a political caucus or an activist group to go. Here is why I don’t like to include the word “Queer”.
Before I begin, I understand that many people DO identify as queer and hold passionate views on this identity. I respect the use of the word queer by individuals and believe that everyone has the right to explore their sexuality in a manner that is safe and appropriate to them. I also hold no hesitance to use the term due to its previous use as a homophobic slur, which is more prevalent among the older generations of the community. However, this post is intended to focus on the use of the term by organizations whose purpose is to represent a larger group.
What does “queer” actually mean?
When we were meeting with members to vote on this change, the discussion became moderately heated and somewhat argumentative. I finally asked someone to define to me what “queer” actually meant. Here is a paraphrase of what I remember as this member’s description
Queer is a term used to describe individuals, usually younger, who are exploring or unsure about their sexuality and do not wish to be labeled as either lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Other definitions of queer are much more broad, using queer to encompass all LGBT identifying individuals, as well as many others (pansexual, omnisexual, genderqueer, etc.), or to identify a movement that seeks to change a binary view of sexual identity to something more fluid.
Whether you go by the first or second definition offered here, there are a few things that overlap. First, queer is used as a term that is used very broadly. Second, both imply a level of exploration in sexual identity. Meaning, a man who enjoys sex with men does not identify himself as being gay or of the gay community. Both of these present, to me, logical problems in the use of the term in political and activist organizations.
A label for those who don’t seem to like labels
When the member first gave me the definition of queer, I looked at her with someone confusion. I asked her to repeat the definition. I then said the following:
“So ‘queer’ is a label given to people who say they don’t like labels?”
This is not unique to those who use the term queer as I am often confused, if not annoyed, by groups who champion a view of the world where they say they don’t use labels, but are happy to label themselves and judge others for not following their non-labeled labeled view. Or to put more humorously, think of back in the early 2000’s and the irony of thousands of high-school kids who wore a shirt reading “Independent”.
Nevertheless, this odd logic brings me to the definition of queer that suggests an exploration, especially among a younger generation. I believe it is perfectly natural to be explorative with sexuality and recognize the need to be more open to that exploration as a society. Whether you are young or old and are beginning to question your own sexuality, you should feel safe and free to explore that for yourself. However, exploration means to search for something that you have not found yet. To use a word, almost any word, to identify this stage seems inappropriate, especially among political and activist groups.
Political and activist groups exist to represent a group and push forward a set of principles. Therefore, groups who include the term queer with that definition are giving a label – in essence, a final stage of development – to a group that is fundamentally unsure or uncommitted to that final stage. By using or including the term queer, we are establishing a set of principles that somehow tell a group what they want or need; an agenda, so to speak. We are telling this to a group that has yet to actually define where they are at in their sexual mobility; beginning to establish a pigeon hole to those who don’t want one. This, to me, is arrogant and irresponsible on the part of the organizations.
Overbroad and overburdened
Some may suggest that the broad definition of the term queer is actually strength. It encompasses everyone and embodies inclusivity. This may be fine in colloquial speech, but as someone who grew up in a lawyer family, I find that words matter very much. Especially when used by organizations. To that end, I find the broad nature of the term queer to be a weakness, at least from the perspective of trying to organize or incorporate themselves into an activist or political group. To paraphrase Plato, queer is everything, therefore it is nothing.
Queer being used to encompass all sexual identities presents, to me, another fallacy. Those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or even straight have already accepted the binary view of sexual identity; that is to say, they’ve picked a side. Also, to be LGBT almost implies the now accepted belief that individuals are born gay (one I share). Because queer, as a movement, can imply the belief in a much more fluid form of sexual identity, it begins to imply that individuals are not actually born gay but rather can chose to be attracted to same-sex individuals based on a particular preference at any given time. This goes against a very hard fought belief that “LGBT” rights groups have been pushing for decades. For queer to include LGBT individuals in its broad definition assigns two communities (if we accept LGBT as one community), with two fundamentally different views of sexual identity, making queer equally as arrogant and irresponsible as LGBT groups who try to bring in the Q. And political and activist groups who use that fundamental belief that to be gay is to be born gay and include the Q are risking the dilution of the foundation of their own cause.
Ultimately, I have little problem with individuals who identify as queer, though I may have an opinion (clearly). But for LGBT organizations to use the term dilutes the definition of their own cause while ascribing a set of principles to a group who is not ready for them or simply doesn’t want or agree with them. To that end, I do not believe it is appropriate for LGBT organizations to continue to use the term Queer. It has nothing to do with a lack of acceptance of the legitimacy of “queer”, but accepting the fundamental differences between the two and ensuring young people who are exploring their sexuality are free from outside organized pressures.
Roobs is an Urban Planner in Los Angeles and served as Chair of the CYD LGBTQ Caucus from 2011 to 2013. Roobs studied Legal Studies and Sociology at UC Berkeley, and Urban & Regional Planning at UCLA.