Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Queer" in retreat

Together with many of my contemporaries, I cringed in horror as the vogue of “queer” spread in gay circles (and even in some straight ones) during the eighties and nineties. Many of those in my generation had acute memories of how the q-word had been hurled against them in acts of public shaming. The earlier history of the adjective was no more reassuring, in as much as etymological analysis shows that in the eighteenth century queer meant “dishonest; fake” as in “queer money.”

The recuperation of queer has been sold as part of a larger campaign of detoxification of negative terms. Ostensibly, “black” is the model. Yet the term black never bore the negative charge of queer. In fact there are sharp limits to the validity of the detox principle. There have never been any attempts to sanitize such terms as “k*ke” and “c*nt” for such purposes.

In its heyday no such problems attended queer—or so its enthusiasts claimed. Among other selling points, the word was hailed as a unifying term, eliminating the potentially divisive character of “gay,” which could include lesbians, but often did not. In this sense the q-word was touted as inclusive. It also served to bring into the fold transsexuals and transvestites, who did not regard themselves as homosexual. And other eccentrics of various kinds could find shelter under the Big Queer Tent. Needless to say, gun-toting survivalists and Holy Roller evangelists were not welcome—though they too, by the lights of mainstream American society, are also queer.

Cobbled together from bits of Michel Foucault and American Social Constructionism, there was even supposed to be something termed Queer Theory, which gained a tenuous foothold in universities. On some campuses Gay Studies, formerly folded into Gender Studies, has now morphed into Queer Studies. A silence that speaks loudly, though, is the absence of departments of “N*gger Studies” and “K*ke Studies, even though Black Studies and Jewish studies are flourishing disciplines on American campuses.

Why this insistence on a term that, contrary to assurances, has not shed its negativity? It looks as if this is a matter of abjection, the embrace of disparagement. And that embrace looks very much like internalized homophobia. At all events, the term was mainly popular among academics and some movement types. Chapters of the organization Queer Nation, never very robust, seem all to have expired. The q-word never enjoyed much popularity among the gay and lesbian masses, for whom recourse to queer seemed, well, “queer.”

The subtext of the promotion of queer was a kind of PC disapproval of “assimilationism,” the tendency of many younger gay men and lesbians to adopt coupled, suburban lifestyles, little different from those of their heterosexual neighbors. As a proponent of free choice I welcome this development. By the same token, though it should not involved a historical and cultural falsification that denies the camp exuberance and nonconformism that gay men and lesbians have evolved over the generations as coping strategies. In that sense some element of queerness will always remain. What is objectionable, though, is the pars-pro-toto strategy that identifies this strand of gay tradition with the whole.

The touting of queer was a powerful instance of groupthink. Faced with the tidal bilge of such a term, it was probably vain to oppose it. Eventually the expression will collapse of the weight of its own contradictions, not to mention changing fashions. Fading will probably also afflict the cumbersome alphabet soup of GLBT, LGBTQ and the like.

In a wide-ranging survey, the Amsterdam scholar Gert Hekma observes that the word queer has come to seem dated. My friend Paul Varnell expresses the hope that 2007 will see the demise of queer. Maybe it will take a little longer, though, for this moribund status to be fully established.

It looks as if we are coming full circle. The term of choice in my youth fifty years ago, the word “gay” is back in style. In fact, it never left.


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