“Queer” as in… what, exactly?

The spaces we invoke by using the term don’t always do justice to our imaginations.

“Queer” as in… what, exactly?

The spaces we invoke by using the term don’t always do justice to our imaginations.

At the end of 2019, I had the unique displeasure of encountering yet another essay about whether or not presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, was “queer enough.”

The piece’s author, to cheers from an army of Buttigieg fans and self-described “normal gays,” bemoaned how gay people seemed forced to meet a higher standard than their straight counterparts all in an attempt to satisfy what the writer called “polyamorous coastal queers” (personally, I’m neither polyamorous nor coastal, but I’ll take it anyway). Here, the gay/queer community is more like a dichotomy. On one side are the gays — normal, ordinary people with goals and hobbies. On the other are the queers — a coastal cabal of sex-crazed communists, sniffing poppers and fisting assholes, forever outside the realm of “normal,” the implied enemy of gays.

The imagined gulf between normal gays and radical queers is far older than 2019. In his 1999 article “Normal and Normaller,” the social theorist Michael Warner laid out how the assumptions and demands of the then-nascent gay marriage movement has cannibalized the more radical aims of the queer movement, from which it claimed legitimacy. “Until recently,” he wrote, “gay activism understood itself as an attempt to stave off the pathologization of gay life — by the police, by the McCarthy inquest, by psychologists and psychiatrists, by politicians, by health and sanitation departments. Now we are faced with gay activists who see the normalizing of queer life as their role.” Warner’s concerns centered on the notion of “normal” — who that category contains, who it excludes, and the kind of coercive mechanisms that make such a category possible.

But in the age of Buttigieg and Instagram advocacy, when it’s become possible for anyone with a social media account to brand themselves as a voice for the queer community, the political stakes associated with gayness (or, if you’d like, queerness) have become more important and contested.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not only because of the Buttigieg discourse, but because queerness always seems to be an open question online. I remember coming across the term on Tumblr in 2011, where it was initially defined as a sort of umbrella term, an alternative to the simultaneously too-broad and too-specific “LGBT+.” It was a welcome label for baby gays like me who still didn’t know who we were or what to call ourselves.

Yet, its meaning was always in flux. People, it seemed, were continually moving in and out of the imagined community contained by “queer.” If you were bi and dating someone straight, were you still queer? Some said yes, some said no. If you don’t have interest in sex at all, but weren’t opposed to dating someone of the opposite sex, were you still queer? If you were a cis girl with a trans boyfriend, were you still straight? Or were you, too, allowed into the broad tent of queerness? And most pressingly, if you can only get off from being flogged with a leather tassel while bound in ropes, is queerness for you?

These questions seem silly at best, and transphobic at worst. Yet they divided whole communities online, and they’ve enjoyed a strange longevity. Everyone from blue check-mark media personalities to random kids with anime avatars to famous actresses are obsessed with whether their relationships, politics, or aesthetics are “queer enough,” and with asserting themselves as queer despite appearances otherwise. The only people who seemed unquestionably queer were, well, gays.

But with Buttigieg in the mix — the paragon of all-American white normalcy, a corn-fed gentrifier and corporate shill, somehow simultaneously happily gay-married and thoroughly sexless — even this constant becomes an open question. Now that Buttigieg and his fellow “normal gays” are outside of it, where does queer’s center lie? The “queer” of my youth was confusing yet comforting, a big city where even the strangest of visitors could see themselves make a home. The “queer” of 2019, however, was a different beast — enticing but unwelcoming, a city with no citizens.

In November, a (now-deleted) tweet demanding “More queer bars, less gay bars” invaded my timeline. The framing felt strange: gay and queer are, functionally, synonyms. But I knew what the tweet meant in drawing that seemingly arbitrary distinction. This was the same message as the Buttigieg-fanboy essay, in reverse. It immediately reminded me of an i-D article from August, which proudly proclaimed “the gay bar is dead,” pinning its cause of death on the rise of “the queer space.”

The article is much more nuanced than the headline suggests on its own. Its author, André-Naquian Wheeler, rightly points out how the spaces parsed as “gay” tend to promote a very specific, very limited idea of what that gayness entails — white, cisgender, capitalist, male-dominated, generally normal in all the ways that Buttigieg fanboys imagine themselves to be, compared to their queer critics. Wheeler’s description of the intentionally inclusive queer spaces that he experienced in Brooklyn exemplified a much greater complexity and diversity than the “gay” spaces he encountered elsewhere in the city. Listing various Brooklyn venues, Wheeler writes that “people from all walks of life frequent the space — turning it into a safe haven for drag queens, trans people, and people exploring their sexuality.”

These were spaces of intentionality and community, where people felt the freedom to come together, away from the stigmatizing and normative gaze of straight, cisgender, white, and male society. There, people experimented with aesthetics, music, experiences, and connections that made them feel at home. On the street, they were outsiders; once through the doors, they were part of a community.

Later that same August, I visited the famously gay city of Provincetown, Massachusetts. There were fun moments, but it was hard not to feel out of place; at once, I felt a deep longing for the kind of queer spaces Wheeler described, not only in Brooklyn, but also in my own, not-coastal hometown. There’s a lot to love about gay bars, and not all of them are the same. Still, the most common criticisms — that they’re overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly cisgender, and overwhelmingly white — are undeniably accurate. And those accuracies are also why “queer” is an object of such resonance, such aspiration, and even such condemnation.

In a 2016 article for Cultural Anthropology, queer anthropologist Margot Weiss describes an argument over the nature of “queer” with her students, for whom the term was an identity. This is an interpretation implicit in the idea of a “queer space” or “queer community.” To Dr. Weiss, however, and to other queer theorists like her, “queer” is an analysis, a critique, a practice.

When I emailed her, Dr. Weiss pointed me to another useful definition, one offered by queer theorist José Muñoz, who in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia writes of queer as “a rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” Queer is imagined as a kind of political practice of “anti-normativity,” of striving against the norm and the oppressive structures that inscribe it as such. Thus, “queer,” is less of a thing one is so much as a thing one does — what Dr. Weiss described to me via email as “both a promise and a failure, and in any case, always located.”

I’ve been stuck on that phrase, “always located.” The way Dr. Weiss and her contemporaries were using “queer” felt different from how I’d seen it used more widely. When speaking about queer spaces and communities, whether in their defense or condemnation, it’s common to compare them to the normative world marked by the term “gay,” where the terms themselves become a kind of shorthand for a whole host of raced, classed, gendered, and embodied differences.

“Queer” is used to mean a kind of radical alternative, a necessary intervention, a path that leads not simply to progress, but perhaps even to revolution. But in order to make that vision a reality, a lot more must be done. And the problem, of course, is that the kinds of alternative spaces we rhetorically invoke with the language of “queer” don’t always do justice to our radical imaginations.

Our politics and our work must go beyond the assertion of difference, the demand for inclusion, and the desire to be part of something that seems important. It has to be motivated by a commitment to undoing the systems of political and moral policing that make “normal” possible.

Anyone who’s lived among self-described queers knows that our communities are often riven with racism and transmisogyny. There are many places in my city — and, if the conversations I’ve had with people in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, Baltimore, L.A., San Francisco, and Vancouver are any indication, in many others as well — that call themselves “queer” or “queer-friendly” that are still hostile to people of color, poor people, trans people, women, and those with physical disabilities. Similarly, there are many “queer spaces” where the majority of the clientele on any given weekend are white men, many of them predatory. Several of my lesbian friends have stories of dudes leering down their shirts at ostensibly queer bars or queer-friendly events, trying to offer them drinks or drugs, following them around all night, or even threatening them with physical violence.

For all its merits, then, merely labeling a space or body as “queer” doesn’t always translate to greater safety, community, or diversity in practice. What we talk about when we talk about a “queer” space, community, or experience — these havens of inclusion and complexity, these rebukes to a social system of totalizing normalcy — is not so much the space itself, nor the “community” that frequents it, but a kind of affect; a way of feeling, of being, an aspirational sense of possibility.

If you’ve spent any real time in nightlife, you know that the communities that it cultivates are, while undoubtedly meaningful, also somewhat ephemeral. They are inherently transient things. The degree of community that any one participant feels within them has just as much to do with what happens in them as it does with things that neither the space itself, nor individuals participants could account for — among them, class, race, gender, and ability, in much the same way as in the much-maligned “gay” bar, even though the affective difference between the two is, at times, undeniable.

“For me,” said Dr. Weiss, “queer's anti-normativity is less about its purported radicality, and much more about whether and how it lets us think about, see, [and] understand sex as an axis of oppression, one that is never deployed without race, gender, class, disability, [and] nation.”

Often, people use “queer” as a way of marking a kind of difference — a style of politics, a way of feeling, a type of community. It’s a way of claiming political virtue, of being adequately progressive, maybe even radical. And sure, maybe that’s a worthwhile goal. But I wonder if this usage simply reduces the many raced, classed, and gendered differences between so-called “gay” and “queer” spaces and communities to the terms themselves, rather than to the dynamics that produce those spaces and communities as such. In this sense, “queer” obscures as much as it reveals.

“Queer” cannot do the heavy lifting of actually creating communities of mutual aid, experimentation, and radical resistance. We can yell and scream about being queer enough as much as we want. But if people like Buttigieg and his army of normal gays are any indication, then our politics and our work must go beyond the assertion of difference, the demand for inclusion, and the desire to be part of something that seems important. It has to be motivated by a commitment to undoing the systems of political and moral policing that make “normal” possible.

Maybe, then, there is no such thing as a “queer space.” Instead, there is only us, together, now: an assemblage of people and ideas and practices, a reminder that another world is possible.

Alex V Green is a writer and critic based in Toronto whose work has been featured on them, Teen Vogue, Slate, This Magazine, and elsewhere.