Thursday, September 27, 2007

Parsing the "Q"

Hi Everyone!

Today's musing is about the "Q" in GLBTQ. Let's dive in.

"Q" is for Questioning. Good. It's important to include those in the process of figuring it out. For some of us, that's a long journey, and to be included in the community, and in the literature, is welcoming and reassuring in a world that can sometime seem to demand labeling you instantly and keeping you there forever.

"Q" is for Queer. Okay, but "Queer" has a lot of different meanings!

Gosh, I really wanted to avoid doing this (it's such a cliche, going for the 'definition') but for the sake of this discussion, I'm going to swallow my pride and desire to be always scintillatingly original and include the dictionary "usage note" from my imac's desktop dictionary (hey, at least it's not the definition - I trust you can all look that up on your own!) Anyway, I thought this would serve well as a starting point:

Usage Note: queer

The word queer was first used to mean 'homosexual' in the early 20th century: it was originally, and often still is, a deliberately offensive and aggressive term when used by heterosexual people. In recent years, however, many gay people have taken the word queer and deliberately used it in place of gay or homosexual in an attempt, by using the word positively, to deprive it of its negative power. The use of queer is now well established and widely used among gay people (especially as an adjective or noun modifier, as in: queer rights / queer theory) and at present exists, alongside the other, deliberately offensive, use. (This use is similar to the way in which a racial epithet may be used within a racial group but not by outsiders.)
So what does Queer mean?

"Q" for Queer is the catch-all term for everyone who is part of the GLBT community. This used to be the word "gay" but many lesbians felt excluded by how to them, "gay" stood for "gay men." Thus, over time, organization names changed to include "Lesbian", and later "Bisexual" and later still, "Transgender." So now there's a whole smorgasbord of titles, like the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (which, funny enough, is at and the "San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center" (at If you're not intimidated by acronyms, you end up with the clunky "GLBTQ" moniker, which feels inclusive, but doesn't exactly trip over your tongue easily. In fact, the amazing group of YA writers and kid lit professionals that I'm delighted to be part of, chatting in a listserve on yahoo, goes by "GLBTQYAwriters" which is quite an alphabet soup!

Now, what about schoolyard taunts? Is "Queer" the GLBT community's equivalent of the "N" word for the African American Community? Is it a word that only those of us "inside" the community can use, and that is still an insult if spoken by someone "outside"? Even if they're earnestly joining the discussion from an allied perspective? I would say that we've really changed the tone and meaning of "queer," largely due to groups like ACT UP, and chants like "We're Here! We're Queer! Get Used To It!" (Yup, you guessed it - that's what I'm riffing on for the title of this blog!)

While someone being nasty might still use the word "queer" in a derogatory way, I think it's been co-opted to the point that for an out and comfortable member of the GLBT community, the answer might be, "Yes I am!" Which brings me to Gary Coleman. Which is, completely oddly, a reference to "Avenue Q," the broadway musical.

Okay, so in "Avenue Q" (a show about recent college graduates trying to figure out life, told in a Sesame Street way with puppets and humans living together in a crappy area of New York City) there's a song sung by the best puppet friend of a closeted (gay) puppet. One part of the lyric goes like this:

If you were queer.
I'd still be here.
Year after year.
Because you're dear to me.
The music and lyrics are by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.

Okay, this is a show that won the Tony Award for Best New Musical. (Oh, and if puppet on puppet sex doesn't freak you out, it's a hoot!)

Now, Avenue Q is by no means a "family" musical. Let me digress to how the show's creators explain who Avenue Q is appropriate for:

Adults love AVENUE Q, but they seem a little, er, fuzzy on whether it's appropriate for kids. We'll try to clear that up. AVENUE Q is great for teenagers because it's about real life. It may not be appropriate for young children because AVENUE Q addresses issues like sex, drinking, and surfing the web for porn. It's hard to say what exact age is right to see AVENUE Q - parents should use their discretion based on the maturity level of their children. But we promise you this - if you DO bring your teenagers to AVENUE Q, they'll think you're really cool.

"Avenue Q" is a fascinating example of how the word "Queer" as a catch-all has come such a long way.

"Q" for Queer is for more confrontational, gender-challenging identities and presentations, such as Drag Queens, "gender illusionists" or our flashy sisters - think the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Now the Sisters may be men who identify as gay, but their role as heavily maquillaged roller-skating habit-wearing nuns has very little to do with being a guy physically and emotionally attracted to other men. I think it's more about shock value, about making people stop and think, about taking religious iconography and turning it around so we think of what it means to be holy - not what it looks like, but what are the actions that make someone on a journey to help others? (And they do help others! Check out The Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence here.) Okay, and they look fabulous, to boot. But what they're doing isn't about being men attracted to other men. It's very "Queer!"

What's wrong with just using the term "homosexual?" Well, think about it. It's all about the 'sex' then, isn't it? (amazingly enough, the failure of the word "homosexual" was explained to me by a wonderful straight woman I met years ago, the mother of a gay son, who was deeply involved with PFLAG (Parents, Familes and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) As she put it, once you've said the word "sex," even in the middle of a word, no one's listening anymore.

Look, we really don't want to think about what someone else does in bed, unless it's someone we're attracted to, right? (Does anyone want to think about their grandparents being sexual beings? Hell no!) Well, shouldn't we be able to have a discussion about members of this community without it being solely about sex?

And are "heteroSEXuals" (see? you've stopped listening and are thinking about SEX!) completely defined by their sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex? What about the whole universe of what makes up a person? What about romance? emotions? spirit? All those millions of other things that make us each unique and full of light?

That's why "homosexual" as a term doesn't work in a broader sense. So we're back to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender. Or Queer.


Hmmm. One little letter packs a wallop! (we should have known from it's high "10" point count in Scrabble, huh?)

Is "Q" something we should keep solely for "Questioning?" Should the word "Queer" be used as a catch-all instead of GLBTQuestioning? Should "Queer" be saved for other expressions of gender and sexual non-conformity besides emotional and physical attraction? Should the word "Queer" be used at all, given it's hate-filled origins? Should we re-consider the word "homosexual?" What about other words? Uranians, from the Victorian Era? (Though I think that sounds like we're from the planet Uranus, which is a bit too much of a set up for being mocked - I remember High School, thank you.) Do we need a brand-new term, without so much baggage? (Though in the field of made-up terms, Esperanto didn't do so well, did it? For an upbeat take on the 'international auxillary language', Esperanto, click here)

"Q" is for Questioning.
"Q" is for Queer.
And "Queer" is for...

Let me know what YOU think in "comments," and we'll have a dialog.




Hoss said...

Believe it or not, Esperanto has been quite successful.

Unlike the imperial languages that people the world over are forced to learn, Esperanto lacks the benefit of an army, an economy, or Hollywood. Yet in an age when minority languages are dying at a record pace, the community of Esperanto speakers has kept on growing — with now over a million people in more than a hundred countries.

After learning some Esperanto, I was able to communicate on an equal footing with new friends from Russia, Japan, France, Finland, Mexico, Croatia, Brazil, Vietnam... and get this: even Texas!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

You know, I didn't know that. Sorry to "slam" Esperanto. Glad you weighed in to share that info.

And by the way, if you know, what words ARE used in Esperanto to talk about the GLBTQQ community?


Anonymous said...

I've always understood the "Q" in LGBTQ to mean "Questioning." But if some interpret it as "Queer" that works fine, too.

I actually like "queer" as an all-encompassing adjective, mainly because lesbian / gay / bisexual / transgender / questioning, even in its acronym form, gets so cumbersome. And I think queer encompasses a lot more than just LGBTQ. I know some straight teens who identify as queer either because they were raised in the lesbian community, or because they are so closely aligned with the LGBTQ community themselves. I think Margaret Cho, for example, identifies herself as "queer" because of her strong affinity with the gay community. But I'm not sure she'd identify as LGBTQ.

Hoss said...

Good question. The generic equivalent for "homosexual" is samseksemulo, which simply means "one who is attracted to the same gender." Broken down into its parts, sam-seks-em-ul-o:

sam (same/like)
seks (sex/gender)
em (tendency/inclination)
ul (a person)
o (a noun)

As an adjective used to describe someone, it would be samseksema, or even samseksa — which is a bit more ambiguous, as it can mean "of both sexes". The latter might be a better general term, since it could be construed to include transgendered and/or intersex communities as well.

There's also malsamseksema ("heterosexual"), ambaŭseksema ("bisexual"), transseksa ("transsexual"), etc.

Shorter equivalents are gejo ("a gay (male)") and lesbo ("a lesbian"). I've also seen the root gej- used in the same gender-neutral sense that it sometimes has in English; you can then add gender with the affixes vir- (male) and -in (female). So geino would be a lesbian, for example.

Because the terms probably haven't carried the same negative connotations as they've historically had in the English-speaking world, I don't think there's been much of a desire to coin new terms to shed past bigotry. But I could be wrong.

There's a sizeable GLBTQ community that speaks the language, and I'm sure they could provide plenty of additional info, if you're curious. One place to start is the Ligo de Samseksaj Esperantistoj, the League for Gay Esperanto-speakers, at

lili said...

i always saw 'queer' as being a loose term that people who don't fit into categories like "gay" or "lesbian" or "transgendered" can use.

i am a girl, and if i'm doing intimate things, i generally like to do them with boys. but i have been known to do them with girls. a lot of my friends are gay. i have a lot of very strong ties to the gay community. i like to think i'm supportive of the gay community.

so i would call myself a little bit queer.

(and "homosocial" is a bit of a mouthful)

Mary Hershey said...

Great post, Lee! Like KT, I've grown fond of the term Queer for myself over the years, but will proudly accept just about anything coming at me from within the flock and from without. I think what one is comfortable is completely individual and morphs as we grow more at ease within our skin and our choices.

Language is so powerful! I'm going to hear Stevhen Pinker speak tomorrow night and hope to be further enlightened on that very subject-- he wrote THE STUFF OF THOUGHT - LANGUAGE AS A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE.

By the by, I've just started a Minimalist Guide to Blog Hopping on my LJ site and am going to list just one site per week that I recommend. You're my first!

Mary Hershey

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts so far.

Mary, thank you for the shout-out on your live journal site! I also loved how you signed off with "queerly,"

It reminds me of a mentor of mine, an elder, who signs off his letters with, "in faggotom spiritus,"

which I think is just amazing!


Mrs. Micah said...

I've sometimes seen two Q's put in for Queer and Questioning. But I guess it seems redundant so one can stand for both.

Your take on "homoSEXual" is key. I think some people get so upset about teachers talking about inclusive families because they equate homosexual with sexual. But really it's a family.

The kindergarten teachers aren't going to be telling the kids anything remotely sexual, any more than they would about hetero families.

Violet Vixen said...

I started using queer because I identified as a lesbian but then someone I was dating at the time transitioned (FTM) so lesbian wasn't a particularly accurate statement anymore, but bisexual didn't quite feel right to me. I use "queer" and "femme" to identify myself because they talk about me rather than about who I'm sleeping with at the time. But I don't think that's a substitute for LGBTQ (or, as the resource center at my college was called for a while (LGBTQQI) (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, and intersex)) because, as awkward as the alphabet soup starts to be, as soon as you unify into one term, that term starts to signify one kind of people (often white gay men) and the subsets (particularly bisexual transgender folks) get easily forgotten by the majority. Using an acronym, you're making a commitment to including the B and the T, even if we're not always good at doing so equally.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Doing some late spring (Okay, mid-summer) blogsite cleaning, I realized that while I received this anonymous post back in April on another part of the blog, I felt it belonged here as part of this discussion:

Hi Lee - I appreciate your analysis and the other comments as well. I can't help but feel that by accepting a negative term for who we are - we are allowing others to brand us. I refuse to be branded by people who have oppressed me. So - about the dilemma? Why do we need a special name for us? We're human beings. That's good enough for me.