One of the things about the word queer that fascinates me is how many meanings it has. It can be used as an adjective, a pejorative, a noun, an identity, a sexual orientation, and as a gender identity (as in genderqueer). But there’s one use that we don’t hear as much anymore: queer is also a verb. What does it mean to queer something? There was a time when that phrase meant “to mess it up,” as in queering a business deal. While I’m glad that use has gone out of fashion, I like using queer as a verb.
To queer something, whether it’s a text, a story, or an identity, is to take a look at its foundations and question them. We can explore its limits, its biases, and its boundaries. We can look for places where there’s elasticity or discover ways we can transform it into something new. To queer is to examine our assumptions and decide which of them we want to keep, change, discard, or play with. This becomes a practice in transcending the habit of settling for pre-defined categories and creating new ones. And even when we leave something unchanged, we have changed our relationship to it.
In conversations about sexuality or identity, people often say things like “don’t make assumptions.” But I’m not convinced it’s possible for people to stop making assumptions. It’s a common human characteristic to try to fit our current observations into our past experiences. Without that, every moment of every day would be entirely novel and despite the Buddhist suggestion to try to find “beginner’s mind,” assuming that some things will be more or less as we have known them helps most of us get through the day, even when we don’t realize it.
Rather than trying to not make assumptions or beating myself up when I do, I find it’s more useful to learn how to be open to new information and to let go of assumptions that don’t match my observations. Of course, there are lots of things that make that difficult. Looking at deeply internalized messages that we’ve never challenged can feel threatening. Difficult experiences or shame can reinforce our beliefs. When our assumptions are rooted in our identities (“I can’t find him attractive. I’m straight!”), exploring them can bring up a lot of questions. Selection bias and confirmation bias tend to make us ignore information that contradicts our beliefs and look for information that justifies them. Plus, US culture doesn’t have many role models for this process. It tends to happen privately, so it often feels like traveling through a country without a map.
When we learn to practice defining, examining, and (when appropriate) shedding our assumptions, we discover new freedom and flexibility. In my experience, queering is one way to do that. Fundamentally, queering is an act of ongoing transformation, both within ourselves and in relation to the world around us. I like thinking of queer as a verb because it becomes something we can choose to do, in much the same way that bell hooks suggests making love an action and a choice, rather than only thinking of it as a noun. Each time we discover a new word or identity or category, we can queer it. And when we create new words or identities, we can queer them. It’s a practice, rather than a goal or finished product.
“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.” -Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”, Esquire Magazine (February 1936).
In my view, queer has less to do with who you have sex with and more to do with how you do it, why you make the choices you make, and how look at the world. I know some heterosexual folks who are pretty queer, and I know some lesbians and gay men who are remarkably straight. At the same time, the more one engages in acts that fit within heteronormative gender roles, the harder it is to queer them. A drag queen putting on makeup is a lot more likely to be queering it than a cisgender woman doing the same thing. But what happens when a butch woman puts on makeup? Or a faux queen? And does how she puts it on matter? I think it depends on why and how she does it, rather than the simple fact of her doing it. The act of queering makeup is shaped by her relationship to it and what it means to her, and she is the only person who can assess that.
Similarly, a lot of people have told me that when a woman uses a strap-on dildo on a man, it can feel really queer. But what about when he’s fucking her? Can that be queered? And if you watched them do it, how could you tell? I once had a conversation with someone about a sex party for queer people that they attended. It seems that many of the people were playing in male/female couples, which felt very un-queer to several observers. When I read some of the blog commentary about the event, several of the attendees said that, yes, they and their partners were queer, and yes, they felt queer even in the middle of penis-vagina intercourse. But the question of how an observer would be able to know that without having a conversation with them was never resolved. If more of those pairs had been using strap-ons, or been in drag, or somehow more visibly queering gender and sex, the impact might have been very different. Sometimes, the only way to know whether someone is queering is to ask them. Other times, it’s a bit more obvious.
The Myth of the Normal
“The thought manifests as the word. The word manifests as the deed. Deeds develop into habit. And habits harden into character.” – Buddha
The first one is learning to let go of the Myth of the Normal. If there’s one question that sex educators hear more than anything else, it’s “am I normal?” There’s a lot of pressure to conform to a norm, but really, it’s about conforming to a perceived norm. Given how rarely people talk about their sexual experiences and practices with anyone other than a sexual partner (if then), most of the folks who are worried about being abnormal are basing that on what they think is normal, rather than what actually is. This creates pluralistic ignorance, a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm while incorrectly assuming that most others accept it. For example, it’s not uncommon for teens to think that they need to act like they’re sexually active and enjoying it in order to fit in, even though many or even most of their friends might also be pretending. That’s hardly limited to young people, by the way.
The irony is that there are so many dimensions along which sexuality can vary (how often, how long, what you enjoy, whether you orgasm, how your body responds, what you think or feel, how often you want it, etc.) that it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be at the end of at least one bell curve on at some point in your life. In fact, if someone was never outside the middle of the range on anything, that would be so uncommon that it would be, by definition, abnormal. So letting go of the Myth of the Normal, the idea that there’s such a thing as normal sexuality is a good first step.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to start doing that: stop making all-or-nothing statements about sex and instead, use “some/many/most.” As in “most people like this” or “some folks try that.” While it may seem like a trivial change, it’s a great reminder that there isn’t anything about sex that everyone experiences in the same way. In fact, I can promise you that whatever you enjoy the most is something that grosses someone else out, and vice versa. There’s nothing wrong with that- it’s just how things are. So when we use language like some/many/most, we remind ourselves that the boundaries of many of the categories we create when talking about sex or gender are permeable and flexible. When we do that, playing with them and exploring them becomes much less threatening, and that makes it easier to practice queering them.
Another useful tool is “sometimes/often/usually.” When you start paying attention to how people talk about sex, you might notice that a lot of folks talk about it as if it’s always a certain way. That might be specific to them, as in “I like bondage,” or it might be more general. But just as I’ve found some/many/most to be a great practice in remembering that nothing works the same for everyone, sometimes/often/usually has helped me to remember that my experiences of sex can change over time. For most people, enjoying bondage (if they do) is probably contingent on a variety of factors including how they feel in the moment, their connection with their partner(s), what techniques they’re using, whether there’s sexual stimulation included, and similar factors. So saying “I often like bondage” or “I sometimes like being tied up” can help us remember that these preferences are not monolithic.
The more we use language like this, the more we remind ourselves and the people around us that there is no such thing as “normal.” We show that what kinds of sex we have can vary a lot. We make it clear that sweeping statements don’t include enough of the range of experiences that we and other people have. And that helps us practice queering because it makes it easier to remember that the categories created by language are not immutable.
Queering and Shame
One of the reasons that queering can be difficult is that it often results in shame. That’s because shame is one of the ways that we enforce social and cultural rules. Shame is the emotion of disconnection, and it exists on a spectrum from mild embarrassment to deep humiliation. It both causes and is caused by interruptions in or a breaking of the social bonds that connect us to other people. Shame is a powerful tool for policing rules, as long as the person receiving it wants to stay connected. Unlike many people, I don’t think it’s inherently a bad thing. Shame can be a powerful motivator when we need to change habits that harm ourselves or other people. The problem is that it’s like salt in cookies. A little bit makes them better, and a little bit more ruins them.
Since shame is one of the ways that rules are enforced (violence is the other common one), it’s easy to see how people who queer will receive shame from many of the people who feel threatened. That’s especially true when the rules that are being queered are not well understood, or when they are so deeply entrenched in our psyches as to be difficult to verbalize. It’s well-known that we start learning gender roles before we’re able to talk about what we’re learning. So when those rules are challenged, broken, or queered, it can feel as if it threatens something that we don’t have words for. As a result, reacting by shaming may seem like the only way to deal with the threat.
To give a more concrete example, it’s pretty common for people who are visibly homophobic to come out of the closet a year or two later. And while that’s a complex situation, one thread that often runs through that is that their homophobia can be an attempt to push away something that resonates with their emerging sexual orientation. The shame that they feel can prompt them to attack people who remind them of it, at least until they come to a place of being able to accept that part of themselves.
What that means, however, is that if you’re going to queer, you’re likely to be in situations in which someone will try to shame you. That can happen regardless of what you’re queering or how, but it’s especially likely when you’re exploring areas around which a lot of people have a lot of triggers, such as sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender presentation, and gender identity. Sometimes, their shame will trigger yours. Other times, you won’t feel shamed, but you’ll still be dealing with the other person’s reactions, which often manifest as anger, violence, withdrawal, or silencing. I think that anyone who wants to queer would do well to develop some shame resilience. Brené Brown’s description of how that works is one of the best I’ve read. Her book I Thought It Was Just Me is definitely worth reading.
Building a network of friends, allies, and communities of people who understand queering also helps. It makes it easier to get a reality check when you need it. It can be a source of support when you’ve been shamed, which goes a long way towards developing shame resilience. And having other people to bounce your ideas off of, and to offer your feedback to, can help you create new ways of queering that you simply wouldn’t have thought of on your own. This is not a project that exists in a vacuum.
When we queer something, we take a risk. Other people might not understand what we’re doing. Or they might get angry. Or they might blame us for how they feel in response to our queering. Or they might ridicule us. Or we might look silly. Or we might not get any kind of reaction. When we choose to question the definitions and categories that shape our world, we put ourselves into situations that can be uncomfortable or dangerous. That makes queering an act of bravery. It takes courage to lean into the fear and do it anyway.
When I see someone queering gender, sexual orientation, sexuality, or anything else, I know that I’m seeing a bold person. I know that they’re doing one of the scariest things people can do. I honor their willingness to blaze a trail into new terrain in order to make it easier for the rest of us. If I feel threatened or triggered by it, I try to hold onto my honor for them and remember that growth only happens at the edges, where the unknown meets our comfort zones. And I try to be grateful that someone else is showing me a new path, whether I decide to explore it for myself or not.
Ultimately, I think that much more of our growth as individuals and as a society are the result of someone queering our perceptions, our language, and our understanding. As I’ve engaged in this practice in my own ways, I’ve witnessed some amazing transformations in myself and in the people around me. It isn’t an easy path, but it can be incredibly rewarding. And I’ve met some amazing people along the way.