Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Meaning of 'Queer'

I grew up in a very Catholic family at the turn of the twenty-first century in New York State. The periscope through which I perceived the world during the formative years of my life was colored by the Puritanical monochrome of what the adults in my life believed to be natural, decent, and necessary. Despite the best efforts of my guardians, a burgeoning rainbow lit up inside me (pun intended), present in even my earliest memories. But I was not queer until I began to express that rainbow, and so to push this already tortured allegory just a little further, it isn’t the mere presence of an internal rainbow that makes one queer, but what one does with it.

In “What Is This Thing Called Queer?,” Cherry Smith offers a brief history of LGBTQ community and activism, including the origin of the word queer as a sort of umbrella slur against the community, but now its meanings are still widely disputed and therefore open to infinite correct interpretations.

As a slur, queer was also used to describe illness or drunkenness, and was derived to describe us from these undesirable connotations. Smith guides readers to the conclusion that there is no universal definition of queer, nor universal acceptance of the term as reclaimable. Some of us happily describe ourselves as queer and some never will, and that’s okay. Queer has to do with structures of power, specifically those who live outside it; in its ambiguity, queer takes down boundaries and binaries and heralds in a “radical questioning of social and cultural norms” (Smith 280). Even in the most intimate settings, to queer or to be queer is radically political.

Despite the nebulosity surrounding the word queer itself, Smith does not lose focus of queer’s importance. She states, “Each time the word ‘queer’ is used it defines a strategy, an attitude, a reference to other identities and a new self-understanding” (Smith 280). Smith is telling us that we need to be mindful of how we use queer, so that its great power is not wasted; queer should be used to beget the main concomitant outcome that is natural to itself: the building of coalition and community.

Queerness can be found at the intersection between joy and otherness. In a sense, it does not have to refer to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity/ presentation at all. Many other facets of identity fall outside what Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm,” an idealized expression of humanity often held up as a default, which typically encompasses attributes like straightness, cisgenderism, whiteness, middle-class-ness/ wealth, able-bodiedness, maleness, education, neurotypicality, Christianity, thinness, never having been a sex worker, and having been born in the global north. In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” a chapter in her book of essays Sister Outsider, Lorde tells us that most, if not all people, fall outside the mythical norm at some point in their lives. Lorde states:

“Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ …It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising.” (Lorde 116)

What Lorde appears to be suggesting in this passage is that we all perhaps lean toward queerness in various ways. Queerness for Lorde could be seen as the simple doing away with hierarchy, the awareness that difference should not stop us from showing up and standing up for other people who face different oppressions than we do.

The seemingly boundless applicability of queer that can be deduced in considering Lorde’s “mythical norm” calls to mind one specific line in the essay Queerness as Horizon by José Esteban Muñoz, which has now challenged me for the space of a year. Muñoz argues, “queerness is not yet here; it is, in the language of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a potentiality” (Muñoz). Queerness should be a universal aspiration because it represents universal safety and signals belonging and cared-for-ness for everyone on earth. It is anti-capitalist and anti-meritocracy. We can get there; to do so, we only have to change the entire world.

Definitions of queer, of life at the margins of society, and of socialist revolution usually contain similar sentiments to so many other social movements from throughout history because queers of any persuasion are minorities. The Puerto Rican human rights organization the Young Lords stated it succinctly in their 13-Point Program: “We each organize our people, but our fights are against the same oppression and we will defeat it together” (Young Lords). The Young Lords were never alone in this philosophy, though their elegant phrasing helps drive home the idea that we are all Davids up against Goliaths, and our only hope is in each other.

As Audre Lorde herself put it in her poem “A Litany for Survival,” “we were never meant to survive” (Lorde). Queer is our ability to thrive in the face of the hierarchy that has tried so many times to kill us, body and soul. Queer is strength in coalition and community. To queer or to be queer is to insist upon joy among other human rights. Queer is a refusal to submit.


Lorde, A. (1984). “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider:
Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press. Freedom, CA.

Lorde, A. “A Litany for Survival.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

Muñoz, J. E. “Queerness as Horizon: Utopian Hermeneutics in the Face of Gay Pragmatism.” A
Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Edited by G. E. Haggerty and M. McGarry. 24 August, 2007. Blackwell Publishing.

Smith, C. “What Is This Thing Called Queer?” (1996). The Material Queer: a LesBiGay
Cultural Studies Reader. Edited by D. Morton. Harper Collins. New York, NY.

Young Lords Party, The. (n.d.). 13-Point Program and Platform. In University of Virginia. The
Sixties Project, University of Virginia. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from

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