Who is excluding who, now?
When I was a child, none of the words I knew to describe being a non-heterosexual were good words. Pussy, sissy, fag, queer, dyke, homo—they were all insults. Homosexual was both clinical and pejorative, at least the way everyone I ever heard use it said it. It was clinical, all right, and it was clear the people saying it thought it described a terrible sickness. The least insulting was gay. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t hurled as an insult, it’s just we were also told it was what those people preferred to be called. Though even the people who admitted that much were pretty angry about it. I actually had more than one teacher in school talk about how terrible it was that those perverts had stolen a word that used to mean not just happy, but a particularly carefree and whimsical kind of happy, and then used it to describe their sad, loveless, deviant lives.
And a lot of those words got used on me.
Throughout grade school I didn’t think that the sexual part applied to me. I knew that I said the wrong things and acted the wrong way, so that’s why everyone (except the nicer teachers and nicer church leaders) called me a sissy and a crybaby and so on. I wasn’t tough enough or whatever, but there was nothing sexual going on.
By the time I was in middle school and puberty had come roaring into my life I realized that all of those people had been on to something. And it terrified me. The worst thing I could imagine happening to me was for someone to get proof that the words fag, queer, homo, and gay described me in more than merely a metaphorical way.
So in my mid-twenties, the fact that I was finally able to say aloud to a friend, “I think I might be gay” was a giant leap. Overcoming the aversion that I felt to all of those words, equally, had been a titanic struggle lasting more than a decade. Over the next few years I was able to say I was “gay” a bit more confidently. I didn’t cringe inside if someone called me “gay,” at least if it wasn’t in an angry tone of voice.
I was actually starting to feel all right with the label by my thirties.
Which was when I started getting yelled at about it, again—but not by straight bigots. No, the people who were angry about my use of the word were lesbians. “How dare you call me that word!” and even more viciously, “How dare you assume that you can use that word as an umbrella term to include all non-heterosexual people!”
I was literally yelled at a few times, before I developed the habit of saying “lesbian and gay.” And almost right away people started growling at me not to leave out the bisexuals or the trans people!
I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of my fellow non-heterosexual got angry and yelled. It was clearly very important to them.
So I just about died laughing a few days ago when I saw some trans activists in my twitter stream angrily assert that it was people like me—cisgender, white, gay, and male—who were the ones that had excluded lesbian, trans, and bi people from the “clearly superior umbrella term, gay.”
We didn’t exclude them. They were the ones who angrily and emphatically told us that we couldn’t use “gay” to describe them. During the late 80s and 90s, just as I was starting to get mostly all right describing myself as gay, I was being told that doing so was exclusionary. I was the bad guy for wanting to have a simple term than encompassed all of us.
It was during that time that Queer Nation came into being. Queer Nation was one of many groups formed to make a more aggressive push against homophobia and specifically homophobic violence at the time when both the violence and the media’s negative portrayal of homosexual people was escalating. The AIDS crisis wasn’t just killing us in vast numbers, it was fueling even more hatred than we’d experienced before (which is saying something!) Just one of Queer Nation’s goals was to take back the word “queer”; to make it a label we embraced with pride instead of an insult.
I was, at the time, ambivalent about that. So were a lot of the gay, lesbian, and bi people I knew. At the time, I was only slightly acquainted with a couple of trans people (or so I thought, but that’s a story for another post), so I wasn’t sure how they felt about it. I certainly understood why some folks were leery of the notion…
Then I decided I needed to participate in a National Coming Out Day march. And I only discovered after I had arrived at the assembly point (and made arrangements to meet friends on the Hill near the end point) that it was sponsored by Queer Nation. It was later, while being teased by some of those friends, that I moved out of the ambivalent stage to being vehemently in favor or taking back the word queer.
I’m queer. I’m a cisgendered white man who sleeps with other men. I’m also a queer nerd who loves Star Trek and Star Wars (and I bet I can still beat anyone who cares to challenge me on a trivia contest based on the original Star Wars: A New Hope) and Lord of the Rings (alas, I am no longer fluent in Quenya and Sindarin, Tolkien’s fictional elvish languages). I’m a queer geek who majored in Mathematics at University and have worked for decades in the telecommunication software industry. I’m a queer Taoist who is a both a recovering Baptist and recovering atheist. I’m a queer man very happily married to a bi man. I’m a queer writer who is still dismayed at how many of my earlier published works didn’t pass the Bechtdel test (but hope I’ve gotten better). I’m a queer godparent and uncle who squees over baby pictures and keeps cheering on the mostly straight romances on my favorite shows. I’m a queer man who watches football as faithfully as my favorite sci fi and mystery series.
I’m a queer, fat, old, white-bearded guy who welcomes any gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, asexual, non-binary, poly, straight ally, pansexual, aromantic, and any other kind of human who thinks all of us deserve equal dignity and rights regardless of gender, orientation, and so on, to join me under this umbrella term. And if you prefer another label, that’s fine, but please don’t try to claim that I have ever excluded you. Okay?