Anatomizing Queerness

‘Queer’ is used to describe individuals who are not cisgender or heterosexual. Such individuals do not fit the ‘traditional’ ideas of gender or sexuality. “The term ‘queer’ itself is fraught with contradictions. Even as it is constituted as a larger umbrella category to understand non-heteronormative systems of gender and sexuality, it comes undone in the face of its own ruptures and this has both political and analytical consequences for what we understand as the ‘queer movement(s)”. This paper will dissect the meaning of queer and it’s different interpretations, discuss how these different meanings and contradictions affect social and political movements and explore the possibilities and limits of the word queer solidarity and queer movement in light of the given statement.

The meaning of the term ‘queer’ has changed over time. It went from being a derogatory term in the 19th century to a positive term for gender and sexual minorities in the 1980s. Activists began to reclaim the word in order to hit back at those who had previously used the term to insult them and today, the inclusive term is broadly used to refer to anyone who is not of cisgender or straight but is not without its own set of controversies. For some, the use of the word is still considered offensive. In March 2018; social networking site Twitter had banned accounts that had used the word ‘queer’ to describe themselves. The site came under heavy criticism for the move from people who had reclaimed the term. (Braidwood, 2018). According to Brian Lewis, author of British Queer History, the term ‘queer’ has three main uses today: “(a) as a marker in sexual fluidity in opposition to the heterosexual and homosexual binaries and identities,(b) as an umbrella term for all subgroups in the LGBT+ community, and (c) as an act of reclamation for homophobes.” (Braidwood, 2018).

(a) A study conducted by LABIA (previously called Stree Sangam), a queer feminist collective; titled Breaking the Binary, showed that the term ‘queer’ was ideal to represent the fluidity in the personal identity of Persons Assigned Gender Female at Birth (PAGFB). The word ‘queer’ evaluates gender as a social construct and it’s binary nature. It critiques how gender is assigned to an individual based on their external genetilia despite the fact that the individual in question might not always internally identify with the gender assigned to them. (Ameena, 2014). ‘Queerness’ acknowledges this fluidity of gender identity within such individuals (Breaking the binary 2013, 10).

(b) The term ‘queer’ can be used as an umbrella term for all subgroups in the LGBT+ community. It refers to “personal identities as well as political ideologies.” (Breaking the Binary 2013, 15). Individuals that are not heterosexual cannot plainly be categorised as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In that sense, the word ‘queer’ works to show the complex nature of sexuality. (Breaking the Binary 2013, 15). The participants of the study, while sharing the reality of non-heteronormativity; maintained unique identities for themselves. According to Justin Bengry, professor of Queer History MA, at University of London; “Some people don’t want to be identified by LGBT categories – they reject being categorised and being labelled.” (Braidwood, 2018). Terms like confused, transgender, fluid, androgynous and shifting from Male to Female fall under the bracket of the term ‘queer’, hence removing the need for conforming to labels. (Breaking the Binary 2013, 17). Thus, it helps recognise gender plurality by taking into account all genders and sexualities.

(c) Justin Bengry also says that “activists have reclaimed the term as an inclusive term that welcomes people beyond the LGBTQ spectrum or whose identities fall outside those categories.” (Braidwood, 2018). The term ‘queer’ was first used in academic and political contexts in the late 1980s in a bid to ‘reclaim the stigmatising word’ and to ‘defy those who have wielded it as a weapon.’ (Somerville, n.d.). Lewis in his book mentions that the term “queer” was reclaimed by “radical grassroots activists in organisations like Queer Nation and ACT UP in The United States and Outrage! In Britain in the 1980s.” (Braidwood, 2018).

‘Queer identity’ as such is dynamic in nature and involves many components. It is not of static nature and individuals need not ‘merely fit themselves into categories under the LGBT umbrella.’ (Breaking the Binary 2013, 54). A sense of solidarity develops among members of the community as is seen in the study conducted by LABIA. The ‘shared lived reality’ of the researchers and the subjects brings them together and encourages trust and support within the group. Each of the 11 members conducting the research shared the ‘socio- political location’ of being a ‘woman’ or a PAGFB. Even though they each sat on different parts of the gender spectrum, the common fact that they did not have a fixed identification label united them. They were a part of the same LGBT+ community while maintaining their uniqueness and diversity. Hence, Queer studies cannot be looked at objectively as it is a sensitive issue. In Breaking the Binary, factors like caste, class and economic standing did not affect their alliance as the need for unity and comfort was far greater, demonstrating ‘queer solidarity.’ (Breaking the Binary 2013, 20). In fact, researchers of LABIA stated that studying people similar to them helped because they were able to utilise their individual experiences. (Breaking the Binary 2013, 20). ‘Queer solidarity’ is thus extremely important for those identifying as queer and in establishing allies and it can exist only because a broad and inclusive term like ‘queer’ exists; and which represents such shared identity.

Queer activists believe that theirs is a distinct community because of their unique cultural practices. Many social movements of the LGBT+ Community use the term ‘queer’ to be identified like the Queer Youth Network in the United Kingdom, Queer Azaadi in Mumbai and the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. Queer people are often subject to discrimination on various grounds. This discrimination can be seen in all spheres, be it in the workplace or even healthcare. Many face homophobia and an aversion towards queer people is felt. Queer people cannot navigate public spaces with the same ease as heterosexual people or cis gender because these spaces are made in accordance to the two binary genders- male and female. These spaces are structurally built to exclude those individuals who do not conform to the binary genders, as is seen in the study undertaken by LABIA. Usually, only the fortunate few avail their class privilege and have access to councillors to sooth their mental trauma. Most people do not understand the issues faced by queer people and refuse to acknowledge it as a legitimate identity and try to fit queer people in either binary gender. In fact, it is seen in Breaking the Binary that some councillors in India prescribed ‘treating’ sexuality by getting married, and brushed it off as merely a ‘phase.’ (Breaking the Binary 2013, 64). This refusal to acknowledge queerness leads to further discrimination of queer people through policymaking. Take the example of a queer person filing for a complaint for harassment. They fall under the ‘political’ group of a ‘woman’, even if they do not identify as one. (Breaking the Binary 2013, 65). Therefore, by addressing queerness; one can understand and address the structural challenges faced by queer people.

Queer originally meant strange or odd. It was a negative term until the late 1980s and because of it’s original meaning, people still view it as an offensive term. It is thus contradictory in nature because the original meaning of the word starkly contrasts it’s fundamental, positive meaning today. The non-heterosexual community itself is conflicted and divided about the use of the term because while for some, the broadness of the term is appreciated, the rest feel that it is the very broadness in the meaning of the term that denies them the same rights as heterosexual individuals. They are in the opinion that this broadness of the term leads to lower ‘mobilisation’ because everyone might not have the same ‘shared reality’. For instance, lesbian women shared the same lived reality by virtue of being attracted to women. They, therefore, have greater solidarity and a label that fits their identity specifically. It is in that sense that word is ‘undone’.

Conclusively, we can agree with the statement that ‘even as the term ‘queer’ is constituted as a larger umbrella category to understand non-heteronormative systems of gender and sexuality, it comes undone in the face of its own ruptures and this has both political and analytical consequences.’ The contrasting nature of meanings of the term has created a divided among the non-heterosexual community as some people are for the positive use of the umbrella term, while the rest believe it does not do justice to their identities. The broadness of the term can be advantageous as well as disadvantageous. The term enables non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people to come together and encourages solidarity amongst them. At the same time, some people may be unsure of their own identity and might not readily conform to the ‘queer’ category.  The positive reclamation of the term was a step towards empowering the community. All in all, the term ‘queer’ plays an important role in giving people that do not conform to the two binary genders of male and female an identity and gives non-heterosexual persons a community to share their experiences and struggles.

References:

Ameena, G. (2014). The transgender struggle for freedom [TV].

Braidwood, E. (2018). This is where the word queer comes from. Retrieved 23 November 2019, from https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/04/19/what-does-queer-mean/

Somerville, S. Toomer, Jean. | Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition. Retrieved 23 November 2019, from https://keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/works_cited/toomer-jean/

Gamson, J. (1995). Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma. Social Problems, 42(3), 390-407. doi:10.2307/3096854

www.jstor.org/stable/3096854.

LABIA: A Queer Feminist Collective. (2013). Breaking the Binary. Mumbai: Impression Publications, 1-118. https://lms.flame.edu.in/pluginfile.php/76480/mod_resource/content/1/Breaking%20the%20Binary.pdf

Mehak Neel is a Sociology and Journalism at FLAME University. Her undying love for travel is rooted in her curiosity to learn about various cultures. She considers the knowledge of current world affairs a vital asset and is often found passionately discussing the same. Her hobbies include football, athletics and painting.