Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What is the name of my community?

The collective names used by marginalized people get "used up."
As new generations rise in marginalized communities, they often reject the collective term used by the previous generation, seeing it as saturated with the negative connotations given it by the privileged majority. So they assert a new collective term. Asian American, not Oriental. "Disabled people" replaces "people with disabilities," which replaced "the handicapped." There's a period of resistance, and the new generation is energized by the feeling they're really changing things as they struggle. The privileged majority squawks: “Why are you people always changing your names and expecting me to care and keep track of it? Why is saying 'colored people' offensive when 'people of color' is not?” Some do get educated as a history of inequality is explained to them, and this energizes the activists.
This period of struggle over a new collective term is not limited to fights with the privileged majority. The older generation of people within a marginalized community can also resist giving up the term on the banners under which they fought. Hence we still have the NAACP—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When the Gay Community became the Lesbian and Gay Community, there was a lot of bickering. The struggle to expand that to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community was vigorous. Getting large organizations that spoke in terms of “gay rights” to add trans people and speak of LGBT rights was a substantial battle. And these struggles continue, with intersex people and asexual people and others trying to expand the community umbrella to cover them, and the experiences of cis gay men and lesbians still centered.
I've been through many of these struggles myself, having been involved in queer community activism since the 1970s. And so when I hear a new generation, full of fire, claim that a new term should be used because it will Change Everything, I feel a bit old and jaded. I've seen new terms get accepted, a number of times—after which things settle down—and some change has been effected, but it's slow and incremental, and the group is still marginalized. Then a new generation rises under these conditions, sees the current group name as weighed down with bias, and seeks a new collective identity term.
Not that I'm arguing against changing collective names. I think it's an important part of the struggle of marginalized groups. Consider the reclaiming of the term “queer” in the 1990s. People got excited about asserting an identity as queer for several reasons. Some saw it as signifying a more rebellious, activist philosophy. Others saw it as joining fractured communities with their own names—lesbian, gay, bisexual—into a united whole. Some embraced queer theory, and the idea of destabilizing categories and identities, exploding possibilities for identification and subverting troublesome institutions. And some saw using the term as a way to bring trans people and gender transgressors into the center of the movement. All of which are things people still care about, and still fight for.
But it seems to me the power of the term “queer” is getting used up. Certainly there's been progress in the last 15 years—especially for cis lesbians and gay men. A majority of young people in the U.S. support same-sex marriage, “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” has been repealed, and more and more institutions give some benefits to domestic partners. But as for progress for sex and gender minorities—intersex and trans people—not so much. I get quite frustrated going to events that are advertised as “queer,” attended by people who describe themselves as “queer,” and at which trans people are marginalized. As my trans woman partner said to me, “If I'm going to go to a 'queer' event and still be treated as a freak, then I need a term beyond queer.” If people draw the acceptable querity line at lesbians showing up to a party in mass-produced commercial stick-on moustaches, “queer” isn't particularly radical.
I know the label queer still has powerful meanings for many people—I still like it, conceptionally. But as a matter of practice, it's not doing what I want it to do. The needs of queer people like me are not being met.
It's hard to get those needs met with the collective names we use today. I've been at meetings for several LGBT organizations where I've tried to get the group to add an “I” for intersex people, since, as an openly intersex person in a world in which most of us are still hidden and treated as medically disordered, I consider it my duty to make our presence and needs visible. And in ALL of these conversations, people who identify with the LGBT label objected that it would confuse people looking up the group, and justify the complaints of the majority that we have too many letters in our name. Then, a person or group who identified as queer argued that the term queer includes everyone, and should be used instead, so future marginalized others could also feel represented. I pointed out that based on my experience as an intersex trans person, the term queer as it is actually used is not the panacea people claim it is. The majority then asserted the term queer was too radical to be accepted by the university/LGBT center board/funding sources, and since there was no consensus that making the group name longer was a good idea, each group declined to include the “I” for intersex.
No term is a panacea. But new community labels do have a beneficial effect for a time, in shaking up assumptions and giving people an opportunity to assert unmet needs. Trans and intersex people have a lot of unmet needs that I want to see addressed. So, anyone out there in the new generation of rebels and activists have a better term? One that explicitly centers sex and gender diversity? I'm all ears.
Meanwhile, in my own writing and teaching, I'm using the term “queer” a lot less, and speaking more often in term of sex, gender and sexual variance.


  1. thank you. i came to this blog post via kelly washburn and am glad to have read your thoughts.

  2. I've heard the term GSM (for gender and sexual minorities) suggested, to get to the heart of what connects us, and cut back on the "alphabet soup" effect. I use the word "queer" for my personal identity, as "bisexual" erases the fact that I am attracted to non-binary identifying people and "pansexual" is too jargonistic to use in everyday conversations with people outside the queer community. I find it works well as a personal tool in that way. I think though that might contribute to people thinking of "queer" as a sort of stylized "B" identity, so I've read trans people who find it unattractive, especially straight ones. Also the fact that it's long been associated with gay men exclusively doesn't help.

    I don't know how much language can centre the concerns of trans people and gender transgressors, though. I think actually focussing on these issues instead of say, relentlessly pursuing marriage and conceding protections for trans people to get workplace protections for cis LGBs passed, would do a better job of that. Inevitably, it doesn't matter what you call yourself if you're not genuinely living up to the name. If you do regressive things or ignore members of the community, the name gets tainted. I've read quite a few trans bloggers express bitterness at LGBT organizations that do nothing to justify the T in their name, to the point of implicitly distrusting organizations that rally under that banner. It's like the word homosexual. In and of itself, it's value-neutral, yet I've heard it used so many times by the religious right that whenever I hear someone use the word it sends up a red flag.

    Finally, a bit of an aside about the people who think the word "queer" might be too radical for funding sources: my university has a Queer Students Community Centre without much trouble. On the other hand, I do change it to the "LGBT Students Community Centre" on my résumé so there's that.