Sex Panther: On “Queer”


Editor’s Note: Throughout the semester you’ll be reading articles from Middlebury students of different identities and experiences on all things sex and relationships. If you have a topic you’d like to see written about or you’d like to write, visit go/sexpanther to get in touch with us. 

Sex Panther here — and just so you know, I’m queer. And it sometimes throws people off when they hear me describe myself that way, especially people who aren’t in the community. “Can’t you just say gay?” “Isn’t queer a derogatory term?” “Are you reclaiming that or do you just want to be edgy?” 

The term ‘queer’ does have a varied and often convoluted history, and yes, historically, it has been used as a slur. However, it is also an academic area of study, a verb and an adjective. There is a lot to get used to, and to be honest, I myself am constantly learning and unlearning new things about how we as non-straight people exist and are perceived in society. It’s a process. There’s a lot to unpack, but consider this a crash course on queerness. So buckle up, sweeties! 

To start off, I’m going to give some background (skip this if you’re lazy or like, a GSFS person): the academic disciplines of Queer Studies and Queer Critique are heavily influenced by the works of two very famous theorists, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. Here’s a run-down just to give some context to the often-overwhelming world of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies and to show how these words have moved outside the lecture hall and become more commonly used terms. Many consider Foucault to be a poststructuralist theorist; he focuses on the way that discussions around things like power and sexuality have been formed more than the content of the discussions themselves. In a queer studies context, Foucault argues that the body is “the site in which discourses are enacted and where they are contested.” That means that identities are often simplified or essentialized and projected onto different people’s bodies and that the presentation (or the ways in which a person manipulates the expected presentation) allows the person to challenge or accept that identity within the larger context of society, like putting on different outfits to fit into different scenarios. 

Identities are often simplified or essentialized and projected onto different people’s bodies.”

Judith Butler also talks about the “performativity” of gender and the ways in which a “body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised and consolidated through time,”  in her 1988 essay titled Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. This means that the things our contemporary society associates with being a woman or a man (the clothes we wear, the way we cut our hair, the jobs we do, the pitch of our voices, the way we react to social situations) are all things which are not innate, but rather are created and mandated by the society in which we live. Basically, gender (and attraction to gender, which we call sexuality) are things that we as a society generally create and agree upon, but don’t necessarily consider to be made up. It’s a whole lot of self-delusion, really. 

We’re going to springboard from this revelation into the way that, as part of the male-female gender binary that society creates (and which most bodies perform), heterosexuality (ya know, straightness) is also part and parcel of this dichotomy. Butler says that “there are strict punishments for contesting the script by performing out of turn.” I know. What does that even mean?!?  “Out of turn” can mean anything which challenges what mainstream culture perceives as norms of gender or sexuality: people who aren’t straight, girls who shave their heads or dress like men, or people who don’t even fit into the categories of male or female. 

It’s a whole lot of self-delusion, really.”

This is where the word queer comes in. It is for people, and places, and things that are, simply put, contrary to “the norm” in a radical way. In academic circles (i.e. places like Midd’s classrooms where people throw around words like praxis, epistemological, and cis-heteropatriarchy like they’re self-explanatory things), one definition of queer includes any presentation, identity, or performance which actively challenges the norm of heterosexuality and binary genders. This is where Foucault comes back in. Sara Mills gives a super easy-to-follow summary of some of Foucault’s theories on sexuality. For example, she simplifies how Foucault suggests “counter-identification” or “counter-discourses” as ways to find empowerment in “stigmatized individualities,” which is just a fancy way of saying that people can use the ways in which society shuns them to find community and empowerment; it’s why some lesbians call themselves dykes, and why some people (gay, lesbian, bi, and everywhere in between) call themselves queer.

The very act of claiming the term queer is actively subverting and challenging the ways dominant social powers shape the way people can identify and what counts as socially acceptable. In this sense, queer is an active word, and it is possible in identifying as queer some people are pointing to and embodying the ways in which their performance of identity and actions dispute normative expectations of gender, sexuality and sex. Make sense? 

So, if queer is that which is  “out of turn” with “normal” performances of gender and sexuality, and by some definitions even any identity or performance that is not straight, cisgendered, white, abled or upper-middle class (which, let’s be real, is the demographic which has historically held the more power and social capital than any other). That means a lot of people could fall into the category of queer, but not everyone that might fall into that category feels comfortable claiming that word. And that’s totally fine; the use of words like queer, gay, bi, lesbian etc. are all depended on how the person using them (or not using them) chooses to interact with those identifiers.

TL;DR,  if you don’t vibe with the word queer because of the culturally loaded connotations it has for you, then it is your prerogative to not use that as an identifier! If queer isn’t a word that you use to describe you, your friends shouldn’t use it to describe you either! But it is important to know how and why the term came to be something that many people are proud to claim, as well. 

I always love to hear from you lovelies, so if you have a question or burning comment, head over to go/sexpanther and hmu, baby!

Xoxo, Sex Panther

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