#1575 – Opening the Gates of “Queer”

After I commented on MyBeautifulMachine’s post “Allegiances, Language, and Space,” he asked me to write a guest post about identity policing and the term “queer”. I can only speak to my experience in the asexual community, but I hope I can share some insight.

[ A note: When I talk about the “queer community”, I’m using queer as an umbrella term for the entire community comprised of gender, romantic, and sexual orientation minorities (GRSM). While I prefer the acronym GRSM, it seemed more appropriate to use both of queer’s definitions in this post. ]

Opening the Gates of “Queer”

This post is a long time coming. If one thing can get my feathers in a ruffle fastest, it’s people policing who does and does not deserve to identify as queer. I see this aspect of identity policing most frequently in regards to people on the asexual spectrum. When I see people claiming aces, either as a whole or specifically heteroromantic ones, don’t belong in queer spaces… I’ll be honest, I immediately go into “angry mamma cat” mode.

Me when someone is mean to one of my baby aces.

99% of the time, the argument I see against asexuals identifying as queer is this: aces aren’t discriminated against, especially heteroromantic aces, and therefore have no claim to the term “queer” or to safe spaces for the queer community. I’m not going to call anyone out or screen-cap postings I’ve seen as examples, because a) I don’t support call-out culture, and b) they’re really easy to find, especially on Tumblr. If you want the evidence, it’s there for the picking. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of people who vocally oppose asexuals in queer spaces.

I could spend the rest of this post discussing how harmful this kind of anti-ace rhetoric can be for people on the asexual spectrum, but instead I want to pick apart the argument itself. Saying asexuals can’t claim queer spaces or terms because they aren’t discriminated against is flawed on a number of levels, which I’ll (try to succinctly) outline below.

“Queer” as a measure of discrimination

Many people argue that since asexuals have never had the term “queer” used against them, it’s a slur they can’t reclaim or use for themselves. This argument, either intentionally or unintentionally, defines “queer” as a measure of discrimination, not a valid identity. It reduces every person who identifies as queer in some way to a victim, someone who is defined by their suffering, not who they are as an individual.

While I am all for reclaiming slurs and changing them into positive community identities, in order to do so the term’s meaning has to change. Yes, queer has been and is still often used as a slur. However, by telling someone their positive use of that term is determined by how much discrimination they have faced doesn’t free the word from its dark history – it shackles the word forever to that darkness. We should always respect queer’s complex history, but that doesn’t condone the continued use of the word as a way to alienate others.

“Queer” as a fluid, not static, term

The meanings of words change. Language is beautifully fluid, influenced by time, history, culture, and in our current day especially activism. Understandably, queer has come to have many definitions which change from person to person. Queer can, and should, have many meanings; it can be used as an umbrella term for the greater gender/sexual/romantic minority community, or as term for those whose identities don’t fall under the current established labels.

When people rail against the use of queer as either of these definitions, or against the use of the term by certain groups, all I hear is fear. Fear of change. Fear of difference. Fear of compromise. Whether you accept it or not, queer is a fluid concept with different meanings based entirely on each person, or each community’s, experiences and understandings. That’s something to be celebrated, not stifled.

Appealing to (false) consequences

The argument specifically against heteroromantic asexuals in queer spaces often employs a certain amount of fear-mongering. People use the slippery slope concept to claim if heteroromantic aces are allowed in queer spaces, what’s to stop cishet people from invading the same space? This argument lumps heteroromantic aces in with cishet people, effectively denying not only their asexuality as a valid sexual orientation, but their personal experiences as well. What are the actual chances, though, that someone identifying 100% as cisgender and heterosexual will purposefully invade a queer space with the intent to do harm? Is preventing this unlikely scenario really more important than ensuring everyone who needs access to such a safe space can feel welcome there? Turning away a heteroromantic asexual because they are “basically straight” is not only discriminatory, it’s dangerous. Aces seek out queer spaces because they don’t feel safe or welcome in the cishet community – if turned away from the queer community as well, where do they have left to go?

Ignoring actual discrimination

When someone says “asexuals don’t face discrimination,” what they are actually saying is, “I haven’t bothered to look for any proof that asexuals face discrimination, therefore it doesn’t happen”. Because if you want to find the proof, it’s out there. A lot of brave asexuals talk about their experiences, both to educate others and provide support for other aces. So telling an asexual of any romantic orientation that they don’t belong in queer spaces denies experiences common to many aces: feelings of confusion, sorrow, and self-hate, self-harm, alienation from friends, family, and/or significant others, mockery, corrective therapy, and rape. You cannot possibly know what an asexual person, heteroromantic or not, has struggled with on their journey. Until you do, keep your mind and your heart open.

Everyone, regardless of sexual, romantic, or gender orientation, needs to remember one thing: you are not the gatekeeper of the word “queer”. You do not own it, define it, or determine who is worthy of its label. As we continue to reclaim queer, its definition(s) will continue to evolve. Embrace that change! Celebrate and support the various communities and people who fall under that term! We’re in this together – push your energy into healing rifts, not widening them.

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35 thoughts on “#1575 – Opening the Gates of “Queer”

  1. Elyssa, this is brilliant and beautifully written! There are so many points at which I found myself thinking, “Yes! That’s it exactly!”

    Thank you for your thoughtful, concise, and compassionate handling of this stuff (and for humoring my request!). I’m totally blown away.

    I guess I could go on gushing, or just hit “reblog” :D Thank you again!

    —Asher

  2. Reblogged this on my beautiful machine / danseur ignoble and commented:
    Recently, Elyssa Taperro of Only Fragments commented on my post, “Allegiances, Language, and Space,” in which I wrote about my ongoing wrestling matches with the notion of compassionate language and safe spaces. I thought she had some really important things to say about the question of identity policing and asked if she’d mind writing a guest blog (the first one ever!) so for My Beautiful Machine on the topic.

    The result is this lovely, thoughtful, and beautifully-written post, “Opening the Gates of Queer,” for which I am immensely grateful (and which also really uplifted what had turned into a rather tough day for me). It really needs no further introduction: this piece stands on its own.

  3. I literally had to plead ignorance here, and found myself researching terms in hopes of understanding your argument(s). It’s not that I have led a sheltered life, at my age (almost 63), it is simply beyond me as to why folks still find the need to label ANYONE when it comes to their preference(s).

    Personally the whole business of “Political Correctness” offends me. It has gotten to the point that I’m offended that I have to tred water and watch my every step for fear of making a mis-step. Case in point; my niece is severely, mentally retarded. That description raises the ire of the masses if used publicly. Yet, when I was growing up, being educated through all of my school years, that definition was the accepted norm, printed in textbooks and used in discussions. (My niece is 36 years old, cannot speak, walks a shuffled-style gait, and must be catherized nightly.). NOW I am expected to refer to her as a Special Needs individual, or I am being insensitive. At some point, someone will decide that label doesn’t fit and we will be tight roping to a “more appropriate” terminology. Where does it all end?

    Each of us deserves to be respected and appreciated for who we are. The world can make a mess of things when diplomacy and compassion are tossed out the window by those who walk around feeling superior. Sadly, they are unable to accept their feelings of inadequacy, and the world must appease them. It all feels too much like a fraternity or sorority hazing.

    Thank you for your well written post and for tolerating my rant.

    • I think the question isn’t whether a term is offensive in general, it’s whether a term is offensive to that person. If your niece doesn’t mind being referred to as mentally retarded, then with her approval the term can be used to describe her. If she has no agency to make that choice, though, I can understand where the gray area occurs. It’s the same with the word queer; a lot of people, especially in older generations, will always see that word as a slur, and so don’t want it to be used to describe them. I completely understand that sentiment. However, if someone says “hey, I like the word queer, you can use it to describe me” then it’s no longer a slur. It seems to me that it’s not so much “no one can use this word ever ever again” as it is “hey, what word are YOU comfortable with us using to describe you?”.

      • I think that sums it up pretty nicely. It’s not really about right or wrong – it’s about trying to be considerate of other people’s wishes. That gets complicated because different people have different preferences. If your friends are okay with the word “queer”, then using it for them, with their permission, should be fine. But since, as you pointed out, not everyone is okay with that word, using it as a blanket term for everyone, if you personally do not also use that word to describe yourself, might be inappropriate – gay or lesbian (or whichever specific term applies) is a better choice. Usually there’s at least general agreement in a community about what language it does and doesn’t like. I think it’s more helpful to think of these things as part of being respectful – if you are going to talk about a group that you are not part of, better to err on the side of being as polite as possible. Language and culture are always changing, and what’s okay now will probably be different in 10 years, same as what was okay 30 years ago might not be today. We do the best we can with the information we have. We ask, we listen, we learn. And we will ALL occasionally get it “wrong” – that’s okay, too. I think what matters most is that we try, and that we keep the conversation open.

      • It can be a tricky situation when we find ourselves out in public and strangers hear words they find offensive being used around them, especially if they are unaware of what is the accepted norm amongst friends.

        I’ll give a personal example. I have a mental illness and am not ashamed to discuss it openly with friends and associates that know me. However, I would jump to defend anyone being harassed if they were being bullied publicly. And of course, if someone came to me in confidence I would do all I could to help them come to terms with accepting who they are. Breaking down the stereotypes and stigma associated with the mentally ill is part of what allows me to accept who I am, what challenges me. It also empowers me to let others of like circumstance know that they have an advocate. Personally, shaming and berating people, who are different from us, is ignorance personified. As I said in my earlier post, everyone deserves to be respected and celebrated (unless of course they are terrorizing and killing innocent people).

  4. As Ann Richards once famously said, “I don’t have dog in this hunt,” but you asked some questions and raised some issues that could be discussed. Here’s a few thoughts on some of them.

    “When people rail against the use of queer as either of these definitions, or against the use of the term by certain groups, all I hear is fear. Fear of change. Fear of difference. Fear of compromise…” You left of what I think might be of importance to those doing the railing: Fear of dilution. They may well believe that once everybody can crawl under the umbrella, nobody will get spared from the rain. It seems to me that this might be a legitimate concern that perhaps should be addressed.

    “What are the actual chances, though, that someone identifying 100% as cisgender and heterosexual will purposefully invade a queer space with the intent to do harm?” Who else has been/is still the main source of harm?

    “Whether you accept it or not, queer is a fluid concept with different meanings based entirely on each person, or each community’s, experiences and understandings.” This made me think of the famous lines, “’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
    Discussing and deciding how one comes down on this argument might be interesting.
    I enjoyed reading this whole discussion and appreciate everyone who participated in moving it forward.

    • I think one other thing is that a lot of the policing, especially of heteroromantic aces, is the same thing that leads to a lot of biphobia from inside queer communities – the importance to some people of the term “queer” having meant to them “not attracted to ‘the opposite gender’ and yes attracted to ‘the same gender'”. People are so attached to queer meaning “same gender attraction” and don’t want to allow trans people or other types of people like aromantic aces under the umbrella…

      But I think it’s not a good cause to stand behind. Words evolve and queer certainly has come to mean those two definitions you said, onlyfragments. I truly believe that.

      • Yes yes yes! I totally agree, and I think there are a lot of similarities between acephobia and biphobia. Ironically enough, a lot of the discrimination in both groups comes down to perceptions of sex – that bisexuals want it all the time and from everyone, and asexuals want it never and from no one.

    • “What are the actual chances, though, that someone identifying 100% as cisgender and heterosexual will purposefully invade a queer space with the intent to do harm?” Who else has been/is still the main source of harm?

      I think the idea is that they might intend to do harm from the outside, but doing harm by claiming to be queer, identifying that way, etc? That seems extraordinarily rare. We may not have enough statistics one way or the other on this issue, but… but it seems like, from anecdotal evidence, heterosexual & cis people (who are also heteroromantic) pretty much never do this. They never seem to be claiming a queer identity when they’re not queer and then using it to hurt the people who really are queer from the inside out. This fear is unfounded, was onlyfragments’ point, and it’s a point I agree with.

      • “…from anecdotal evidence, heterosexual & cis people (who are also heteroromantic) pretty much never do this….They never seem to be claiming a queer identity when they’re not queer and then using it to hurt the people who really are queer”
        I’m very leery of relying on anecdotal evidence. One of the difficulties with doing so is that one person’s anecdote may contradict another’s with no agreed and tested standard by which to resolve the issue. I remember that pretending to be a queer in order to cause harm is exactly what happened to Matthew Sheppard.

        • So Matthew Sheppard was robbed, tortured, and murdered after two guys specifically pretended to be gay? I wasn’t very familiar with that story, and obviously that is a very horrible thing.

          I’ve also recently heard of the much less harmful situation where someone was pretending to be asexual too in order to be dated by someone they knew was ace.

          The thing is, these examples are quite different than an asexual person who is actually asexual adopting a queer label and being told they aren’t queer enough. The arguments against aces being allowed to be queer, especially heteroromantic aces, is that by nature of being a heteroromantic asexual person, they simply aren’t queer. It’s not that they suspect a heterosexual (cis) person is pretending to actually be a heteroromantic ace. It’s not that heteroromantic aces are pretending to be lesbians or gay men. No one’s pretending to be what they’re not. So it’s a pretty different argument…

        • That’s very true. However, like I said before, the chances of that kind of violence are far lower than the chances of someone who is forced out of a queer safe space being harmed by that bigotry. Yes, the cishet community can and does cause harm to the queer community. However, the queer community can’t use that as an excuse to overlook the harm it does within its own borders. If even one asexual teenager kills themselves because they don’t feel welcome in the cishet OR queer communities, that’s one too many. And I do not doubt for a moment that something like that has happened, or can.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. As to the umbrella thing, I think that’s the great thing about metaphorical umbrellas – they can stretch as wide as they need. Think of the term POC – that umbrella literally encompasses every non-white person on the planet. That’s a lot of different communities all sheltering under that umbrella, with probably their own smaller umbrellas underneath as well (I’m not sure how far this metaphor goes, haha).

      When it comes to harm against the queer community, yes, it’s mostly (though not entirely!) the cishet community. But my point was just that the chances of a cishet person, say, going to a queer youth group under the guise of being queer are very remote. Yes, cishet people can do harm – but they usually do that harm in the open, as opposition. The few who might, I suppose… stealth harm… are a much smaller group than the people who ARE queer but are forced out of queer spaces because of suspicion and discrimination. It’s like pit bulls – just because a few of them are dangerous doesn’t mean the entire breed, and anything that even remotely looks like a pit bull, should be immediately put down just in case.

      I like your point about which definition of a word will be in a sense the master definition, or the master of that word. I think that’s where linguistic evolution comes in – the master definition of queer was once a slur, but over time I truly believe the use of queer as an umbrella term will take over as the master definition. People may not like it, but that’s culture. Look at fag – in one area of the world it’s a slur, and in another it’s a cigarette. Language is so crazy weird.

  5. This is SO TRUE!! Society is full of label police. I have been struggling to identify my own sexuality: I don’t want to say “gay” or “lesbian” because I have been romantically attracted to men and had relationships with men in the past, but at the same time I don’t want to say “bisexual” because I’m unsure of how I feel about men and haven’t been sexually attracted to men in a few years. I tend to use “queer” for myself as a catch-all, or a term that means “non-straight,” but there is certainly a sort of culturally-imposed negative fog enveloping the word “queer.” Thank you for your thoughtful post on this matter – your perspective is much appreciated!

      • I think posting that whole response on tumblr may have made things worse Lol…. I didn’t tell the anon anything *directly*, but after posting to tumblr that complaint about the anon Archive of Our Own comment, I got another anon comment from someone now temporarily calling themselves “Pissed Off Queer” on the story, and two tumblr anon asks (because asks aren’t allowed to be long enough on tumblr) all with the same basic tone and almost definitely from the same person.

        All the new comments included “all caps” and angry complaints about how offensive my story was to queer people, and how I was fetishizing queer people somehow by what I wrote, and trying to make my characters “special snowflakes”, and OH also about apparently how it is not possible to be healthy if you have a low/no libido like only one of my four ace characters did (um, yeah like I do, too), that it’s usually a symptom of undiagnosed or untreated or under-treated depression, PTSD, or Anxiety… err I wish the anon would go away. They said they thought my queerplatonic relationship in my fic was “just a friendship” and that’s what ALL queerplatonic relationships are and it’s “sad that asexuals don’t have friends” or something ridiculous. Etc, etc.

        *Sigh* I’m just so frustrated. I don’t want to turn off anon stuff because really, I don’t usually have to. But this person won’t go away.

        • Oh jeeze. Fuckin trolls. This is why I don’t comment on things; because it somehow ALWAYS starts something. Anyone who denies the existence/validity of asexuals is no queer friend of mine. Asexuals are queer. Trans people are queer. NON-CIS/HET PEOPLE ARE QUEER. Why is that such an angering, frightening concept? What does my identifying as queer do to others? Nothing. Ugh. I’m sorry you’re having this trouble. ): You’re clearly dealing with someone who is prejudiced and unwilling to listen to the other side of the argument.

          • I’m not sure if you know what a FanFiction “Big Bang” is but I wrote my Glee fanfiction story Four Ace Faces that has so deeply offended this anon for the Out With A Bang Glee big bang, and now I’m getting an email with the subject “Re: Author Behavior & Comment Deletion” that said:

            luvtheheaven,

            We have received complaints from multiple readers about the content of your bang (specifically homophobic and transphobic elements), your responses to comments on your bang (again, homophobic and transphobic), and your deletion of multiple comments. All the works in any GleekMods collection reflect back on the bang and the mods, and by extension on the other authors and artists who have worked hard to create something positive for this bang, and as such, we simply cannot have writers deleting comments or responding with threats or hostility to commenters concerns about their work. If you cannot handle criticism of your work and feel you need to continue deleting comments and responding aggressively, we will have to ask you to remove your bang from the Out With A Bang Collection and ban you from participation in future activities with our organization. Consider this a formal warning from the OWAB mods and GleekMods staff.

            Thank you,

            The GleekMods

            After I replied, a subsequent email of theirs said:

            There have been six complaints to us. The complaints have been about your work and your responses being homophobic and transphobic, and that your responses were additionally hostile. Specifically, the transphobic complaints referenced your portrayal of nonbinary individuals. Multiple complaints have referenced that your other tumblr posts are somewhat threatening. We have to take these complaints seriously.

            Referencing your other email, we have had multiple people specifically state what comments they have left and where. They could not know details and be claiming them as a lie since you have deleted them.

            This is an unprecedented situation for us in four years of running bangs in the Glee community, to have a specific work called out as problematic by multiple readers. It is important to the GleekMods as a whole that our bangs be welcoming places, not a source of upset.

            The OWAB Mods

            I still believe all 6 complaints likely came from the same 1 anonymous troll. These OWAB Mods have not yet said anything to me to disprove the idea of that. I tried to explain that I never responded in a hostile manner and in fact my only responses to them were that one tumblr post that I didn’t expect them to read plus my new AO3 2-part comment reply today, which I just also linked you to. I think they are offended by me having made Kurt non-binary at all but I provided other people’s blog posts defending the idea of him being non-binary in my AO3 comment, and they think it’s homophobic, most likely, for me to “co-opt” the word queer for asexuals.

            Anyway the fact that all this may actually lead to me being penalized and not being allowed to participate in a bang I was looking forward to being a part of is really adding insult to injury and… *sigh*. I just wish I didn’t have to deal with all of this today.

            • What an incredible clusterfuck. I can’t believe it’s an unprecedented situation if it’s that easy to anonymously report something. No website is safe from trolls, though the mods obviously think theirs is. Which is a pity, and I’m super sorry you have to be on the receiving end of such ridiculousness. Is there no way for the mods themselves to see if you deleted comments? Or is it literally the anon’s words against yours?

              • I know, it’s kind of impressive that so far this has been unprecedented, considering they leave their anonymous asks “on” on their tumblr.

                It really is just the anon’s words against mine, I guess.

                I’ll live, even if I’m banned from these mods’ bangs. These mods have been rude and unfair at a few other points previously throughout this bang anyway — when I notified them that they were announcing a check-in date with a typo about what month it was, they got offended that I pointed out their typo and basically yelled at me, despite me trying to just be helpful. I got a few vidder friends of mine to sign up as an artist for the bang since they were desperate for more artists — they had too many authors, this time around, and not enough artists. And then one of them decided to drop out 3 weeks before the end of the bang because she’d been a bit confused about what was being asked of her and wasn’t sure if she’d have time to finish 2 fanvids in time. Fanvids are very time consuming and the mods were trying to give every author two artists — one more traditional form and also one fanmix or fanvid, if possible. So instead of even asking my friend if she might be able to do fanmixes or shorter, simpler vids, the mods posted a rude passive-aggressive post, here: http://outwithabangbigbang.tumblr.com/post/121070780777/of-course-were-sad-when-anyone-drops-from-the

                So idk, I don’t really like these mods anyway. Maybe it’s for the best that they now seem to actually believe I’m a hostile, homophobic, transphobic person who deserves to be banned from all future bangs they host.

                I can still write my fic and pretend I’m writing it for the Mary Sue bang even if I don’t get art. Lol. I can try to self-impose the deadlines/rules and whatnot.

                • Jeeze. ): It probably is for the best to distance yourself, given the turmoil it’ll cause you to continue to argue with people who refuse to see your side. But still, that’s shitty all around. It just goes to show that people can be harmful and still consider themselves allies. Being ally to some people and not to others doesn’t help anyone, and ends up causing situations like this.

                  Though so do anonymous commenters. :P

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