what the term queer means to me (unedited version)


What My Queer Identity Means to Me as a Non-Binary Trans Person

Queer theorist and activist Eve Sedgwick defined the term queer as, “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” It may be clumsy to start a discussion of queer identity with a definition, as queerness is meant precisely to elude definition. Take this entry, then, as merely a signpost.

In coming to know and recognize myself as a queer person, theory like Sedgwick’s has proved tremendously helpful. While my seemingly idyllic women’s college was fairly progressive on matters of gender and sexuality, there was a certain amount of monosexism (the belief that all people can only be attracted to one gender) and gender essentialism that I struggled to reconcile. I had a persistent feeling of disorientation, of difference. Queer theory helped me to understand that my interest in women didn’t necessarily have to limit my scope of attraction, that my desire to transition didn’t necessarily have to limit my gender identity and expression. I found that the interaction of my non-normative experiences of sexuality and gender, while challenging to navigate, could also be a beautiful site of possibility and exploration. This was liberating.

Queer theory has continued to guide me through multiple upheavals in my own identity. However, through my studies and through my political evolution, I have learned more about the history of the term queer, about the precise political moment from which this identity which is not one emerged. Queerness is not merely a theoretical lens or radical (anti)identity; it comes loaded with a rich political history that we would do well to call back to the surface.

It is hard to pinpoint the precise moment when people began reclaiming the term queer, a word which had once been a harmful slur. However, it’s widespread use finds its beginnings during the direct-action HIV/AIDS movement whose most vocal and visible arm was ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

The movement formed as a response to government inaction in the face of the fatal and growing threat of the spread of HIV. While HIV affected gay men at much higher rates than women, many understood the lack of response from the government and from the nation as a whole to be a result of systemic homophobia which threatened the lives and well-being of all gender and sexual deviants. In recognizing this fact, the movement brought together a diverse group of people who had suffered from experiences of homophobia. Lesbians with a long history of political activism became movement leaders and respected caretakers, a fact which undid much of the painful fracturing that had devastated the earlier gay liberation movement.

ACT UP formed unprecedented coalitions between queer and trans people, white people and people of color, men and women, IV drug users, incarcerated people, and the poor and working classes. The result was events like the Storm the NIH protest, where men (gay and otherwise) rallied behind women and other minorities calling for a change to the definition of HIV/AIDS that would include symptoms specific to women, and an end to the sexism that had limited the definition in the first place. The politics and the actions that developed from these allegiances, while far from perfect, were an incredible example of the power of intersectional activism.

Despite the heaviness of ACT UP’s mission, the spaces carved by the movement were full of fun, pleasure, and, of course, sex. One of the unique qualities of this movement was that in bringing such a diverse collective of people together in a space that was both erotically charged and where people felt they had nothing left to lose, people felt newly able to explore unique sexual identities and experiences. To be more blunt, everyone was having sex with everyone in a way that challenged previously rigid notions of gender and sexuality. It was from this actual practice that queer identity took shape. It was the politics and the practice that informed the theory, not the other way around.


Recently, I found myself in a heated argument with another transmasculine person about our respective identities and politics. What became clear throughout the argument was that he and several of his supporters, wanted to create a sharp division between himself as a binary trans person and myself as, to use his words, one of the “queers.”

But, the history of LGBT politics is also a history of divisiveness, of deviants and marginalized people being thrown under the bus. As iconic Puerto Rican trans activist Sylvia Rivera noted in her legendary speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day, the gay liberation movement was quick to give up on people of color, trans people, incarcerated people, and sex workers, many of whom had fueled the movement in the first place, in favor of a white, cis, middle class agenda. It is only recently that trans people have been acknowledged by this same mainstream LGBT movement. As recently as 2007, the HRC willfully supported a non trans-inclusive employment non-discrimination bill, an event which was merely the culmination of that organization’s long history of transphobic policy.

The recent increase in inclusion and representation has certainly seemed like progress. But, the gains of those who have a more normative or binary gender and sexuality, particularly those who are white, middle class, monogamous and heterosexual, have all too often come at the expense of further marginalizing the deviants, the queers who are critical of, resist, or fail to meet these same norms.

Ultimately, it is not an identification with queerness specifically that is important; many scholars and activists have critiqued and revised the implicit whiteness of queer theory (including Jose Muñoz and Jasbir Puar among others), and the limits of the word queer as a product of the (white, Western) English language. What is crucial to me, and I hope to others as well, is the ethos and the possibility that a queered politics and a queered world view can extend.

It is only through an expansive and inclusive political praxis, one that views issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class as interwoven and interconnected, a praxis much like that from which the queer movement was born, that we can unleash truly revolutionary political power, and create a world where everyone has the opportunity to safely self-determine who they are and how they want to live. And, that’s the kind of queerness I want to live, to be.


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