Before we get started here, I’m just going to go ahead and rope off the perimeter of this column in bright yellow tape, clearly marking the area within as a Place Where Gay Stuff Will Be Discussed. I’m also going to put a little sign up that warns you that I’ll be using the word “queer.” See? I just did it. Not so bad, right? We good? Great. (I’m mainly doing this for Facebook’s sake, but we’ll get to that.)
“Queer” has been through a lot as a word; not least of all many, many wandering etymological walking tours that trace the word’s varying meanings, senses, and uses, veering across centuries and continents between the poles of neutral descriptor and nasty slur. Its offensiveness is the fodder for endless debate. The verdict? It depends.
Nevertheless, it’s become popular to chart the changing meaning of “queer” because it suggests a hopeful parallel narrative: Things, meaning we (meaning you) can change, too!
Meanwhile, full grown queer adults like me tout the reclamation of the insult flung at us every day of our adolescences in the halls, at the malls, at the Denny’s, at the movies, or in gym class (despite the fact that we were all wearing those shorts) as something like a power grab, even if saying the word still conjures the faint taste of blood in our mouths.
That bitterness is a reminder — each time we invoke the word and apply it to ourselves — that we captured your flag. Thus, calling me queer (or ostensibly worse, “a” queer) meant, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t like you. Fine by me, I taught myself to believe and eventually believed. That difference drove me forward (or at least, away from Fitchburg in the ’90s).
A recent BBC4 interview with Lea Delaria (a.k.a. Big Boo from “Orange Is the New Black”) went viral this week across social media. It finds the actress, activist, and reliably generous font of lesbian wisdom defending her own use of “queer” as an “all-encompassing” alternative to the “alphabet soup” of the more-accepted LGBTQ+ acronym (which increasingly feels about as communal as a parking garage).
“I think the alphabet soup points out our differences instead of our shared oppression,” she says. “And I think it’s part of the reason why we have become so disenfranchised.”
Part of the reason the clip went viral was because of the pushback. For some, the word erases those very groups it claimed to represent. For others, it triggers too closely the experience of hearing the word lobbed at you. For some the word feels like a signal to step back to a time when our various stripes of otherness were what defined us.
And they say this like it’s a bad thing.
Earlier this year I wrote about the sudden shuttering of potentially sexualized online spaces like the adult classifieds on Craigslist, as well as the bot-driven removal of adult content from the once porn-heavy halls of Tumblr. Both of them had large communities of users exchanging adult content, and both faced scrutiny following the passage of FOSTA and SESTA legislation, designed to stem human trafficking online by holding publishers accountable for services arranged through their sites. (Tumblr, for its part, chalked up the move to taking “the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”
And this past week, an update to Facebook’s content policy took similar steps to combat sexual solicitation on the platform, targeting not only content that implicitly and explicitly engages in sexual solicitation, but also “sexually explicit language that adds details,” “sexualized slang,” and “sexual hints such as mentioning sexual roles, sex positions, [yadda yadda] commonly sexualized areas of the body [so on and so forth].” Even naughty doodles will get the hammer under the new rule.
You might see these moves as the corporate Internet expression of the same policies and attitudes that prevent porn from screening on 12 simultaneous plasma screens at Best Buy — a.k.a. pretty normal regulation of content for public consumption. But to some of us, it’s frankly all a bit queer.
An Out magazine piece on the policy change cites it as creeping evidence of a growing “sex panic” on social media — a Puritanical thrust that directly targets queer subcultures. And while I don’t think Facebook is on a search and destroy mission for my Speedo enthusiast group (I like how they fit, OK?), I do think there is a more general corporate ignorance about what it does to queer people when you, in very uncertain terms, forbid “vague suggestive statements.” That’s kind of how we talk.
The Internet is only the most recent form of code that has sustained queer people when nowhere else would let us get a word in edgewise.
We’ve long made use of the back rooms of language — in the shadows of irony or around the corners of innuendo. In the 19th century a bunch of us picked up (and picked each other out through) Polari — a stealthy hybrid of Romani, Italian, several London slangs, and thieves cant. (A century later, I’d learn it through some Morrissey lyrics.)
In 1994, George Chauncey wrote this about the queer reliance on code for the New York Times: “The tactics gay people devised for communicating, claiming space and affirming their self-worth did not directly challenge anti-gay repression in the way the post-Stonewall movement would,” he said, “but they allowed many gay people to form a supportive community despite the larger society’s injunction against their doing so.”
He was referring to the 1930s (when undercover cops were being sent into gay bars to bait men into asking them home — which was illegal), but those tactics have evolved into our lives online: an elaborate system of codes and signals, mutual understandings and curiosities, all of which combines into a kind of cultural dynamism that, unlike anything else, has managed to define queerness. For many of us, virtual space feels more like home than home does.
Which brings me back to the “queer” thing. It’s a word that, like an old battleship, we may need to deploy into service again as social media defines what belongs and what doesn’t — essentially requeering us whether we like it or not.
“Queer” may erase our groups, or it may pull us together as a crowd and make us harder to miss (or get around). It may trigger that familiar feeling of being a target, but it may also put us into a fighting stance. And it may feel like a step back, but sometimes you need one or two of those to charge forward.