Saturday, January 03, 2009

Why Some Black GLBT Peeps Hate the 'Q' Word

While there are some people who refer to the GLBT community as the 'queer' community, as you probably noticed as you peruse this blog I'm not one of them. It's also a sentiment shared by some of my fellow GLBT African-Americans.

When I used to do the 'After Hours' radio show with Jimmy Carper back home on KPFT-FM, he'd use the tag line 'Queer radio with attitude'. It made me uncomfortable, but since it was his show and I was only a rotating co-host, not much I could do about.

Some of my personal dislike with the 'Q' word not only has to do with it being used as a derogatory epithet, but the dictionary definition of it as well.

1. Deviating from the expected or normal; strange: a queer situation.
2. Odd or unconventional, as in behavior; eccentric. See Synonyms at strange.
3. Of a questionable nature or character; suspicious.
4. Slang Fake; counterfeit.
5. Feeling slightly ill; queasy.
6. Offensive Slang Homosexual.
7. Usage Problem Of or relating to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, or transgendered people.

As a proud transperson of African descent, why would I embrace a term that doesn't describe me? I've heard many of the arguments that raged in the mid 90's about taking back the 'Q' word to strip it of the negativity, but I also heard the same parallel arguments about reclaiming the n-word, and I hated that reclamation project as well.

So why do Black GLBT peeps hate the 'Q" word?

As the Task Force's 2002 Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud report pointed out, the term 'queer' was selected by less than 1% of the respondents as an identifier in the 2000 Black Pride Survey that the report was based on.

Some of that dislike of the 'Q' word is fed by negativity to the racism that Black GLBT people found greeting them in 'queer' spaces. We also have our own created terms such as SGL (same gender loving) that became popular in the 1990's or the 'in the life' one that dates back to the Harlem Renaissance and some of us are more comfortable with because they reflect our cultural heritage.

'Queer' has also become in the Black GLBT community a synonym for white, wealthy, privileged gay male. You also have to look at the reality that many Black GLBT peeps live in the Deep South, which is not exactly the most welcoming area at times for a GLBT person.

Our discomfort with the term also has to do with the fact that Black people, whether we're GLBT or non-GLBT, are politically liberal but socially conservative due to our historic church ties. Those of us who grew up attending church, Sunday School and Vacation Bible School on the regular still struggle with reconciling our faith with who we are as GLBT people, and the 'Q' word doesn't fit.

So if you're wondering why most Black GLBT peeps use other terms to define themselves or get quiet when many of you start shouting at protest marches, 'we're here, we're queer, get used to it', now you know.


Oliver A. FP said...

Wow, that's enlightening - weird though, because I'm in the UK and the opposite almost seems to be the case over here.

A lot of people here self-define as "queer" because they DON'T fit into the white/wealthy/male/cis gay movement. "Queer" is also very often used by trans people and partners of trans people to describe their sexuality. So, in my circles, a trans woman of colour is far more likely to use the word than a white cis male.

Two nations divided by a common language...

Queers United said...

Thanks for this, I had no clue that POC were less likely to incorporate the word into their vocab. Although I have to say 'queer' being defined as odd, and being appropriated for use to describe LGBT people does not strike me as a bad thing. We are oddities, but not in a negative sense, we are just 'special' we are odd in the sense that we differ from the 'norm' or 'average' and we are sexual and gender minorities.

Alex said...

"'Queer' has also become in the Black GLBT community a synonym for white, wealthy, privileged gay male."

That's interesting, because almost every single white, wealthy, privileged gay male I've heard speak on the subject (like Andrew Sullivan, John Aravosis, Jamie Kirchick, etc.) mocks the word. Relentlessly.

They hate it, and usually just make fun of people who use it without giving any reason. To them, it's only those dirty hippies who'd want to use that word.

I'm one of those people that Oliver referred to above; some days I feel like just stopping identifying as a "gay man" and going with "queer" just because those same people have dragged the word "gay" through the mud with their genuflecting before the doors of straightness begging for the same privilege without questioning their own.

Thanks so much for this perspective on the word.


Hello there!

I think that post is SO IMPORTANT!

I have encountered many black GLBT persons who do not want to be referred to by others in their community as "queer".

In my mind, hearing the word "queer" DOES carry the conotation of "strange" and "abnormal".

Black people, in general, are NOT interested in adopting labels that put them in the same association as "strange". White privilege comes into play in interpreting the words that whites will use for themselves...they are NEVER operating against the "strange" and "abnormal" depictions so they can use those adjectives for themselves without reinforcing stereotypes about their race.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Tomorrow starts the voting for the Weblog Awards! Angel is putting up a list at her blog of all of the "peeps" who are nominees!

Megan said...

It is a really interesting perspective. Thanks for posting about it!

The reason I use the word is because I think it's an umbrella term for the entire GLBT community. (Which, arguably, may or may not be the case.) I have many GLBT friends who identify as queer, and I feel like when I use that label I'm more linked to them. I could call myself gay or a lesbian, and I do that too, but when I call myself queer I feel as though I'm identifying myself as part of the "GLBT community" instead of the "lesbian community". I guess it makes me feel more like we're in this together.

But I will definitely be thinking more about it...

VĂ©ro B said...

Thanks for posting this, Monica. I had no idea. I don't use the word a lot, and I'm careful about the context in which I use it, but I do use it. Around these parts, it even shows up in official stuff like the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

I kind of like it precisely because it says I'm different -- special, as QU said. I've always been queer in one way or another, and I'm fine with that. I think the reclamation was also prompted by the acronym becoming unwieldy -- first LGB, then LGBT, then LGBTQTIQwhatever.

Good to know that context matters in other ways too. I don't want to make my own peeps uncomfortable!

Unknown said...

I'm not enthusiastic about the word either. I'd never call my son "queer" in most situations, because it would give the grossly false impression that I strongly disapprove of his identity and orientation. But some people just don't fit in any of the LGBT catagories, a problem historically addressed by adding letters to the point of creating a cumbersome and often incomprehensible "acronym". But you really do need a phrase that is all inclusive. Personally I like "gender variant" -- it is comprehensive and non-judgmental.

delux said...

As Yeloson would say, Let me go get the wasabi, because Monica's bringing it raw!

Unknown said...

Like a number of folks here my experience (as a nonblack person who has never lived in the South) has been that "queer" is largely rejected by white rich GLBTQ folks--my understanding of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was that they were suggesting the "odd" stance of saying oh hell yeah we're not straight, and we're fabulous too (as well as some amount of appropriating a term of activist resistance for purpose of profit and entertainment), instead of being the "straight-acting" gay folks as many of the most visible "leaders" in the gay community have historically strived to be (the only queer-identified folks you'll see working at HRC are tokens). For many people, regardless of race/ethnicity, "queer" is a term of resisting assimilation--which is not necessarily the same thing as Queers United's comment about being "special" or different from the norm, but often about challenging why exactly that norm is.

Lisa says: "Black people, in general, are NOT interested in adopting labels that put them in the same association as "strange"."

I would argue that in many ways (although often for many different reasons) the majority of people in *any* group aren't interested in adopting labels that indicate being strange. I suspect the majority of GLBTQ people in spaces where "queer" is an identity term meaning GLBTQ don't personally identify with the term for this same reason--being in minoritarian space, it's often easier to survive by playing "normal" and assimilating or acting like the "good one" of the group (in this case, being the "good gay" instead of the "bad queer") than it is to resist and claim a term of resistance.

My experience with many folks, including but not exclusively black folk, has been that many identify as "gay" whose attractions aren't actually same-gender limited, but that the term "gay" is more acceptable in their primary social circles/communities/family/whatever than terms like "bisexual" or "queer"--that "bisexual" is also implicated here indicates an issue with something other than a term indicating divergence. Conversely, in many spaces where some folks openly don't identify, or at least consistently, with any particular traditional gender, my experience has been that many more people use the term "queer" as "bisexual" is for many people inaccurately suggesting only two genders of interest.

I'm specifically referring here to "gay" and not "lesbian" identification, as identifying as a woman who explicitly dates women is dealing with a different set of oppressions and is resisting many very different things from identifying as "queer" or "bisexual" or.. or...

anyway, yeah, it's complicated.

Unknown said...

Er, my experience is as a non-black person not in the South, and my experience of queer vs gay in terms of which is seen as one of white wealthy privilege is like the experiences of many people here. I don't know the location or racial background of most folks here.

nmw said...

Our discomfort with the term also has to do with the fact that Black people, whether we're GLBT or non-GLBT, are politically liberal but socially conservative due to our historic church ties.

I'm actually more uncomfortable with the lack of qualifiers in the above sentence. Black people, GLBT or not, are not a monolith, yet throughout this article, the implication is that we all share the same opinions on this subject.

I'm not socially conservative, and never have been. I was raised in a Black church, but I guess it doesn't count, because it was a relatively liberal Episcopalian church.

I tend to use "queer" in speech to describe myself because "GLBT" is cumbersome and awkward. So is "SGL" for me--I don't like acronyms. I primarily identify as a kinky bisexual woman married to a kinky lesbian, and "queer" works for me as a useful shorthand.

I also like queer because to me, it stands in opposition to the trend of insisting that GLBT people deserve rights because we're just like nice, normal heterosexuals. Those of us who aren't--the leatherfolk, the polyamorous, anyone whose gender expression isn't binary--are usually expected to get with the program and stop making everyone else look like freaks. I'm not just like the het family down the street, and I don't have to be--I deserve equal rights because I'm human, and that should be enough.

I always try to default to the term that the people I'm talking with use to identify themselves, which is why I don't automatically use queer when talking to someone else. But as long as the context isn't intended to be hurtful, I'm fine with "queer" being applied to me.

Monica Roberts said...

I'm quite aware of the fact that we aren't monolithic in thought.
On this subject, we pretty much are.

In this case, thanks to the BPS2000
Survey done at 9 Black Pride events across the USA (including my hometown) and my 15 plus years talking to various African-American GLBT peeps, I can say with reasonable certainty that the 'Q' word is disliked by many African-American GLBT peeps.

Go Go Jo Jo said...

Interesting post. Actually I identify black and also, at times, queer. The first organization I was ever involved with was for "queer students of color." It was more likely, from my experience, for SOCs to identify as queer than with a particular sexual orientation or as trans.

However, I also knew Black people in particular who had same sex relationships who did not want to identify with any particular label. And vehemently disliked the term "queer" but that wasn't the norm.

It wasn't really until I started venturing out into community outside my friends at (my historically white, liberal arts women's college in the northeast) that I realized that it wasn't as accepted in community. I have noticed since coming back to Houston and trying to get involved in community that it isn't used much here either.

Anyway, for me its like "the n-word." Everyone has strong opinions on it. But only people who are/have been oppressed by its derogatory usage have the right to really comment and we probably aren't all going to agree.

Like I said, I do use it to identify myself (though I use like a whole host of terms depending on my mood and the time of day). I used to get uptight about people being upset by that. But then I developed to really close friendship with a gay guy (of color) who chooses to refer to himself with the "f-word"--a word that I have an almost physical reaction. We talked about it. In the end, I'm still never going to call anyone that but I realized its his right to define himself how he wants.

Apparently I had more to say on this than I originally thought. :0)

Monica Roberts said...

Jo Jo,
Yes you did ;)

There's no right or wrong answer here. It's choose the word to describe you that you feel comfortable with.

I also think there may be a generational element in this as well.

Griffe said...

Well I am a person of color and I for one totally embrace Queer. I think its partially based on the fact I never was around many blacks, very little black church and because I was raised in a Upper-Middle class area near San Francisco. So the wrod carriers little stigma for me.

I think that Queer fits well for me; I identify as genderqueer and I find myself attracted to all sorts of people regardless of gender. I love androgyny and going against the assimilated white male dominated gay world (and str8 world). Kinda like a f-you to all the Market Street clone-queens still living around here, who craves for a sense of "normal" whatever that means.

Ariel Silvera said...

That was an interesting post, I was unaware of this issue happening over in the U.S.

Here in Ireland, the situation is a bit different. The main LGBT scene has always been known as the 'gay' scene. Many people still, confusingly for me, use gay to mean LGBT. Hence for those of us who are not gay males, or who fall under not just one of the LGBT letters, we choose to call ourselves "queer".

I especially choose it over using the term 'trans' too much due to the division there is between parts of the LGB and T communities. To me, Queer bridges it all. But bear in mind that I am not in the United States, and hence I'm living in a different cultural context.

Red Seven said...

I find that I don't use the word much myself - not because it sounds wealthy, white, and privileged (I'm at least two out of three there, wealth being relative), but because it sounds a little too "angry gay activist" to me. Which I can be, at times, but I try to take a grateful attitude toward life when I can.

However, it's interesting that you point to a dictionary definition of the word. Years ago, "gay" was used by everyone to mean carefree and happy-go-lucky, yet it was appropriated homophobes and later reclaimed by the targets of their derision and now seems to be the preferred term for homosexuals, or at least cis-male homosexuals.

And if one of the definitions of "queer" is "deviating from the norm," than how does that not describe GLBT folks? Again, it's not a word I tend to use myself, but I'm beginning to wonder if my reasons for resisting it are fully justified ...

Patrick said...

Sorry, but you don't speak for 'black people' any more than I speak for 'white people'. Really stupid post trying to equate your personal hang up around the word 'queer' with an entire people whose only commonality is a perceived shade of skin color.

I'm queer. I'm gay. My skin is pale in color. I'm poor. I have no connections. I know no one in powerful positions. I live in a backwards barbaric superstition infested southern state in the USA. Yep, I'm definitely queer here. Thank goodness.

While I might feel like an alien from Mars in this bizarre irrational environment, I take it as a sign of my own sanity. I am not like the bigots. I am not like the sheep. I am gay. I am queer. Gladly.

e^10 said...

I always thought it was mostly a generational thing and not so much a racial thing. Most of the people I've encountered who hate the word are over 30, and many of them are white and wealthy. The people I know who use the word queer to describe themselves use it because they don't want to be constrained by the words gay, lesbian, or bi. I also use it to describe myself for those reasons. The words pansexual and sapiosexual sound a little too pretentious to me and they just don't fit because there's a certain "type" that I strongly prefer, regardless of gender. There are some who also use it because they don't want to be associated with the lily-white HRC corporatized gays.

Go Go Jo Jo said...

Wow this was an evocative post. Though I'm not sure why the hostility from some places. :0)

I think you have a strong opinion on the subjectand there is *research* (come on now) to back up your claim. Of course there are going to be those of us who don't fit the stats (maybe part of the reason we choose to identify as queer yes?)

I don't get the feeling you were saying that there was something wrong with Black and brown people choosing that term to identify themselves. I think you gave your personal reasons why you didn't identify with the term and then reported on reasons that other people gave for not supporting it.

For example, Black people not feeling comfortable in "queer spaces" I totally can feel that. I remember (way back in the day) when my PRISM peeps and I would try to go out to gay clubs. And we were always looking for the queer hip hop nights because we were hoping to find more brown people (not always effective.) And most of the other queer orgs (that is the term du jour for us at my alma mater) were all white. I know this because I was often one of two brown people in any of the meetings most of the time. And the other was usually an ex (another story another time.)

I personally feel like I have every right to call myself whatever I want, and that people have the right to feel however they want about it. They can't tell me what to call myself and I can't tell them how to feel. So...we just have to agree to disagree.

Okay sorry, sorry clearly I need to just post about this on my blog.

Jackie G. said...

Hi Monica,

Thanks so much for posting about this.

One thing I think the usage of "queer" has done has been to wipe out history - at least in my case, the history of lesbians within and without the mainstream GLBT movements.

When I say I'm a Black lesbian feminist, I feel the weight of history behind me - both good and bad and I'm okay with that. At 43, I never felt constrained by the word 'lesbian' but that might be because I fell in with a multiracial group of lesbians in New York City when I came out. I can't wrap my mouth around 'queer' because it's something that I am not.

And like many other POC that I know, 'queer' does read as white - but not always male. As another poster pointed out, some of this may be generational.

Fun to be Me said...

This article really rang true for me. Before I go into why, I want to address a point made by Patrick earlier. I see your point, but you must realize that your stance comes from that of white privilege; you don't speak for all white people because the pedagogy of race does not define white people as monolithic in the same terms it does with everyone else, especially people of African decent. We all know that George Bush doesn't represent all white people/is their leader, but many black leaders throughout time are labeled as representing the black community as a whole even when not all of us agree with them. I think this article is representative of many of us... Mind those of us who view our black identity as a significant part of our identity and not in a caricature sort of way.

I appreciate this article and it's provocative in a good way because it encourages our community (the black community) to talk about how our identities as people of color fit into mainstream LGBT identity - which is heavily white. I never found "queer", a term which screams "activist gay", to be of use to me outside academic circles, and it in no way encompasses my identity. Many POC I know who use this word feel they have to sacrifice their identities as POC for "the common good" of all gays similar to how black women sacrificed their gender identity for the great good of all black people. Also, many of those POC don't identify as POC at all and use that term freely (I'm not saying that's a bad thing. For some people, that stream of thinking works).

Hopefully this article, as well as others, will force the LGBT community at large to address the blatant racism that exists within in and how it is portrayed in the labels we apply to ourselves.

Jovan said...

Personally I self identify as a black queer woman (word order is always intentional) As someone who is 26 I find that comfort level with queer is usually but not always generational. My aunt who is well onto her 40s ids as same gender loving or lesbian; she does not feel comfortable with queer or my partner's lack of gender pronouns. Growing up living in the Midwest most did not feel comfortable with it either, lgbt or not.
I am definitely a social justice activist and a queer organizer. In my work I come across so many people and commumities and i get the most flack about queer from white gay men.

fatima said...

in my experience, people's dislike of the word "queer" is more generational than anything. im a person of color that grew up in a very very VERY religious (muslim) household and i would much rather use the term "queer" than lesbian or something like that.

i'm also in my early twenties and when people have used derogatory terms to mock my or my friends' sexualities, they haven't used the word queer. i think that was definitely more negative a generation ago than it is now.

i think people use the word "gay" as an insult and in a negative way all the time but that doesn't stop us from using it in a positive way/for self-identification.

so i completely agree that people should be free to use whatever term they feel is most applicable and comfortable for themselves.

the reason i like the term queer is because i grew up in such a religious environment, it seems that using a term that is now used to describe a more flexible type of sexuality is more accepted than saying that im a lesbian (which is SO scary to religious folk) but beyond that, i think it is hard to label myself as a lesbian because even though i have only dated bio women since i came out, i still find myself attracted to trans men and so, "queer" is the easiest way to label myself without putting myself into a very strict box or whatever.

in any case, i think it is dangerous and harmful to make a case that all black people feel (insert opion here) because of (insert reason here). even if you have statistical evidence, welll im sorry stats are never 100% accurate and by saying ALL BLACK PEOPLE FEEL THIS WAY, you definitely run the risk of alienating people and also giving non-black people another reason to tokenize and assume things based on someone's race.

i really appreciated your insight in this entry but i hope that next time, you can try to not universalize your own experience (and try not to assume that all people with a similar background feel the same as you)