Yours, Daniel
How Do You Mean "Queer"?

A Friend wrote:

A bit off topic from your question, but since you've used the term, I'm prompted to ask: What, exactly, does "queer" mean that is somehow different than lesbian, gay or bisexual? I've been curious ever since the renaming of FLGC, but have never found/remembered the opportunity to ask someone. [FLGC stood for Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns which became Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns in winter of 2002 on the Christian calendar. -daniel]

I loved that K- asked me about this and ended up writing for hours:

Not off topic at all. Thanks greatly for asking. You can see I enjoyed answering. I hope this is not too much for you.

It means different things to different people. I'll give you my quick answer, and then a bit of history that hopefully will illuminate it more, and then perhaps what we can call an inspired harangue.


Mostly "queer" is used nowadays as a possible catch-all term, hypothesizing that what unites the disparate experiences of gay people, lesbian people, bisexual people, transvestite people, transsexual people and other people like this group is our "queerness." What that queerness *is* has been studied now for several decades and there is now a formalized area of study called "queer studies," but not a lot of agreement on what "queer" is, as far as I know. The publications and university teaching of these theorists, which is quite the cutting edge, has popularized the term queer among a certain population of well-educated, somewhat leftist, urbane people of a youngish age. That's a stereotypical generalization, but a truism.

What is queerness? Most might agree that it names being outside the bounds or substantially different from the dominant society's norms around issues of gender or sexuality. This is also a useful way to point out that populations with "queer" sexual or gender issues, identities, practices or lives have often found ourselves living with each other, regardless of how different we are. Many people prefer to be called queer because it does not divide them from people who are part of their life but are not the same gender or orientation as they are, or because they prefer that folks not jump to conclusions about them when they are present at a particular place, such as presuming they are lesbian simply if they are part of a lesbian organization. Or because they haven't concluded where they fit exactly, but they know they belong in this class of people. In short, queer is a word that does not reference a particular individual's sexual orientation or gender. It describes a class or community of people organized around marginalized sexualities and genders.

Some history might illuminate what I mean. I apologize if you know any or most of the following. Please note the absence of women and others from the early part of this narrative.


It seems that the most visible of this class of oppressed peoples has been effeminate men who have sex with men and who live in or frequent the large cities of the industrial age. We also have relationships, but the sex is the observed element. About a hundred years ago, back when psychiatry was just beginning and around the time of the Oscar Wilde trial, a radical change in western society's conceptions occurred. Before that time, one could engage in sodomy but only after this time did there exist the concept of a person with a particular orientation, named then the sodomite. Those of us who are sodomites didn't like the term and sought another. (At one point someone was trying to get us to call ourselves "Urnings." I'm glad that didn't catch on. Can you imagine Urning Pride Parades? Sounds like a march of rodents.) Psychiatrists coined the term homosexual, which also has never been much liked by us, because of its diagnosis as a disease and because like the term sodomite it concentrates on our sexual behavior, which is not how we see ourselves. Sometime between the turn of the century and the 1930's, "gay" became an adjective used by those in the know to describe a particular kind of campy, urbane, effeminate, sophisticated, outrageous, almost hysterical gathering or time or person, what we would today recognize as classic queen behavior. The most common noun at the time in use by the society at large was "pansy" or "nancy" or "nance." So pansy became the term by which all men who have sex with men were known and ridiculed.

There has always been, and continues to be, a big divide among men who have sex with men. It is felt that there are those who are feminine and those who are masculine and that these two populations are distinct. Sometimes the masculine person wants to have relationships with a feminine person and sometimes only with another masculine person, a "real man," or, in a term used widely today, a "straight acting/straight appearing" man. These masculine folks coined the word queer to describe themselves in the 1930's or 40's. They did not want to be known as pansies. There was hatred of the term pansy, just as there is hatred of the term "gay" these days among many men who have sex with men because the word gay means effeminacy to them.

During World War II, this whole somewhat underground culture burst into general consciousness as men came off the farm, as it were, to become soldiers. First, they experienced the sophisticated culture of the large American cities for the first time in record numbers, and second, every soldier was asked whether he was homosexual by psychiatrists now employed by the U.S. military, which introduced the whole idea to the general public, that a man could be queer without being effeminate. By the fifties, "queer" was known widely and was an insult and epithet used by fag-bashers everywhere, which is well within the memory of those folks still alive today who were at the forefront of the Gay Liberation Movement twenty years later. Because of this memory, they do not like the word "queer" and often reject it as a possible catch-all term since they have such painful personal memories of queer-bashing in the fifties and sixties. When the Liberation Movement began in the late '60's, they chose gay as the term behind which everyone would unify for the freedom of all.

Importantly, many folks came in under this banner for the purposes of pursuing freedom who were themselves not effeminate men who have sex with men. The most obvious group missing from the title who were present for the movement were lesbians. They complained, over a long period of time, and eventually groups seeking to be inclusive began calling themselves gay AND lesbian. This happened to Friends for Gay Concerns, which became Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. The movement was growing and beginning to liberate folks. More folks began to demand that their presence be acknowledged. They were pointing out that the movement seemed to be only about and run by gay white middle-class men, which by this time was understood to mean all men who have sex with men, regardless of effeminacy or masculinity. The communities created in those large American cities had always included folks who were not white, not male, not interested in having romantic or sexual relationships with men. There had always been transvestites and transsexual people (often jointly referred to now as transgendered). Bisexuals began to insist on inclusion, though that was not accepted by many in the gay and lesbian communities at that time, mostly because so many who are afraid to affirm their homosexuality abuse the term bisexual as a dodge. So you can see that people were trying to name their experience and demand respect and a voice in a movement and a community of which they had always been a part, and that there was resistance to their inclusion. There were big divisions between gay men and lesbians. There were still masculine men who rejected the effeminate queens. Eventually, though, inclusion won out and then it seemed that each year, the pride parades added another word to the title, becoming a painful kind of joke: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, etc., etc.: how many more words? Folks began to seek for a term that described all of us. The theorists retrieved the word queer. Despite the fact that it also historically referenced homosexual men, it has come to be used as a much more widely inclusive term, perhaps because of its synonymic meaning as "weird" which is an experience we share in common with each other.


Many now like the term for different reasons. Because many felt that the gay community had come to be dominated by middle-class, gay white men, the word queer came to be used by those who wished to contradict that power elite and envision a radically inclusive group of folks across all genders, classes, races, ages and sexual practices. That utopian vision has been tarnished as the poor and people of color among us pointed out that queer theorists were usually white and well-educated themselves and so the concepts of queerness they were creating were not greatly different from old "gay" concepts also created by white well-educated people. As the theorists looked deeper into the history of so-called gay people in communities worldwide they began to see that the way we structure this human experience is particular to our history and culture, not always general to the whole human race. They began to examine how same-gender sexual behavior and variant gender behavior have been understood and structured into societies other than western industrial Christian ones and to seek what true human commonalities might exist. In response to this work, ongoing problems with racism, classism and the like in the gay community, and to ever-widening liberation movement, people have sought more words or phrases that more accurately describe their experience: for instance, some Afrocentric Black folks have started to organize around the term "Same-Gender-Loving"; some Native Americans are rescuing the term "Two-Spirit" and a French term "Berdache" as ancient ways their societies incorporated them healthily. As more such identities are discovered or formed, there are more who seek a place at the community's table under their own self-chosen names, and their testimonies affect all of our identities.

This diversity challenges unity, yet also seems to enhance the commitment to the vision of freedom and empowerment for all through a kind of radical inclusiveness. Many men committed to continuing gay freedom movement are finding that they must be more inclusive or face a damaging divisiveness. Queer is perhaps the best term we have right now for this forming diverse community. Not an assimilative process, there is a commitment to learn about each other, and to constantly welcome each other, and new others, and work to transform society from one in which gender and sex differences are feared and controlled to one in which they are celebrated and investigated. I definitely belong in this camp and so when I call myself queer I am referring to this commitment and recognition that my community is composed of many different kinds of people. When I call myself gay I am referring to my personal sexual orientation or gender identity. That is a change for me. Earlier, when I called myself gay I was referring to a community and a justice movement as well, as many gay men still do. But now I can't do that for it excludes too many whom I now recognize were there all along.

When Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC) came to unity on this new name there were a number of interesting ministries from individual Friends. A youth said that they did not identify at all with Gay. They are Queer. It was a generational welcome to include that word. A heterosexual woman who has been married to a gay man for thirty years said that "queer" included her, which makes a lot of sense to me. Previously, she had felt not quite excluded, but somewhat marginalized. Yet, there have always been so-called straight folks who have been part of our community. The straight women who are best friends with gay men, the so-called fag hags, can definitely be called queer in my opinion. If you've ever seen the TV show "Will & Grace" you can see what I mean. Grace is definitely not lesbian or gay, but quite queer for being part of the community, living a life filled with the cultural behaviors of that community (though frankly they are in my mind stereotypically bitchy behaviors which I don't like). In our own meeting there is a heterosexual woman who has spoken movingly of how she identifies as queer and treasures the queer presence at Northside because she believes another kind of meeting would not recognize and respect her romantic and sexual history as well as queer folks do.

So it seems to me that queer describes a way of looking at human sexual and gender behaviors which are decidedly outside the mainstream conceptions, or even contradict mainstream concepts. This is almost something which is felt rather than thought. A person will feel lost, alone or shamed by a sexual or gender desire or life and then find themselves in a group of people, radically diverse, who understand, welcome and help them structure that part of their lives, and among whom are individuals just like themselves. They have come into the constellation of communities one might call queer. And when we talk across our differences, sometimes that word is vital. What do I as a gay man really have in common with a lesbian? I'm a man and love men. She is a woman and loves woman. And yet, there is great love and understanding, and a common history, communities and set of commitments, and we need a word to name that bond. That word might be queer. My ex is actually bisexual, not gay, and it is important that I remember that, or else I'm denying an important part of him, yet we have something in common, something that binds us together. Not gayness; that's my experience. Though he can talk about the gay part of himself, why should he partition himself? Queer works as a concept that embraces us equally and names our commonality. It's a way I can show that I don't elevate myself above him as a gay man, which has historically happened in our community. Those who are heterosexual but enjoy sexual activities such as bondage find a home among us and can be included in the word queer. Other heterosexuals might be considered queer: what about heterosexual children of gay-headed households? Don't they know the culture and have a place among us even though they aren't gay, lesbian or bi? What about those heterosexuals who live so much with queer people that they begin to take on our attitudes and commitments? Shouldn't they be included as full partners of the community once they learn what that means? These are the questions that radical inclusivity prompts.

If this is what queer means, though, many people want nothing to do with it. As I find myself realizing that there are queer heterosexuals, I also realize that there are many straight homosexuals. There are many gay men who reject forms of sexual or gender expression which they find bizarre. They would probably reject the word queer. But those academics who study queerness might class them as queer in their sociological studies. Those men, then, might claim the word gay because it names their own identity and a community they wish to be part of, whereas a scholar might classify that same man as queer as well as gay, or queer by virtue of his gayness, despite his rejection of the term, because they are studying a sociological, historical or psychological phenomenon that this man fits. Some others of us, more politically inclined, might reject as queer a man who has always lived in the suburbs, found another man and married, gathered children into the household, and has mainstream opinions the same as a stereotypical straight heterosexual couple in the same circumstances. Wouldn't he be a straight gay man? You see, queer becomes a matter of history, community, experience, understandings, behaviors and commitments. Not about something called sexual orientation at all.

Many at FLGBTQC view this as a temporary name. We know that it is who we are right now, and importantly it is "Friends for ... Concerns," not "Friends Who Are ...." Either we will need to keep updating our name periodically or we will come in the future to some final unity. Many folks, I must say, refer to us as the Queer Quakers, but as I said this is very painful for folks who remember the hatred of the word queer being used against them and chose the word gay, and who are still committed to all that the many years of gay community and freedom movement has created, a word and a movement which set and claimed at the beginning many of the same things that folks claim about queer. There are also those who may not be ready yet to include all those who ask to be included in the gay freedom movement. And there are those who don't want to be swept up into the word queer when the community doesn't actually include them adequately. The issue of inclusion is perhaps central. As I said above, many of us use this term to describe a common love, a common commitment, a common life even across difference, but we are painfully aware that there are those of different lives, particularly of different races or classes, with whom we don't yet adequately share and therefore the desired community is yet unrealized.

I apologize for the length of this. I find it fascinating, names and discussions and the spiral of discovery. At [Yearly Meeting] one year I was asked to represent [Yearly Meeting] at Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. I declined. I did not feel the excitement of the Truth in it. As soon as we reached unity to call ourselves Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns, I sat in the silence afterwards filled with excitement to come represent these truths to Friends in Illinois. I'm not sure what it is, but as you've seen, the ministry seems to be coming through me.