Picture it: the Jersey ‘burbs, 1989.
I am in my early teens and, with no social life of which to speak outside of the occasional jaunt to the local strip mall for a movie followed by wandering around K-Mart (true story), I have stayed up late to watch Saturday Night Live. The musical performance is given by the handsomest boy I’ve ever seen. He wears a rather striking purple ensemble. I am not too enthused about that outfit, but I know one thing for sure:
k.d. lang is HOT. Those eyes, those lips, that croon!
Not knowing what to make of the discovery soon thereafter that k.d. stands for Katherine Dawn, not yet able to recognize a dapper butch when I saw one, I stuffed this newfound knowledge away until I made it to college, where, after roughly five minutes, I came out as bisexual. I had never found myself drawn to my heteronormative female classmates--there was nary a cute tomboy among them--growing up, so being anything other than straight really hadn’t occurred to me before then.
Also, these were days long before GSAs, so if anyone else in my high school was queer, I didn’t know it.
I had a few girlfriends and lovers during college; I like to joke that I majored in beer and girls, which I think makes me sound cooler than I ever actually was. And I got all excited about the lesbian and bi women’s club on campus--it was called Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Action, aka LABIA!--which was like a kind of brick-and-mortar, very-pre-OKCupid matchmaking site. (Technically, of course, it should have been LABWIA, but c’mon.)
After graduation I moved immediately to NYC, the promised land of butches in the 90s, and within a year discovered all that I loved about those stunning, intricately gendered creatures. I started calling myself a lesbian, and it felt undeniably liberating to openly proclaim my gayness--maybe because many people I knew insisted (or hoped) my bisexuality was a phase. You know, something I was adopting for shock value or attention, because biphobia.
But it turned out that calling myself a lesbian didn’t feel exactly right either, and a few years after that I came out yet a third time. Queer! Queer fit the bill quite nicely. I love that all-encompassing “umbrella term” because it takes not just sexual orientation but notions of gender identity and expression into account.
As someone whose romantic involvements are primarily with trans and gender nonconforming people, I find the term “bisexual” limiting. It seems predicated upon the idea of a gender binary that I reject, implying that everyone is either male or female rather than both, neither, or something else, like butch or femme, which some consider separate genders. It’s true, though, that because I’m in a committed relationship with a butch, I still sometimes use “gay” as shorthand when having brief conversations with people who won’t know what the hell I’m talking about if I get into dissecting genderqueerness and the limitations imposed by a dichotomous system of gender classification.
A few people I know use gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” and when I first referred that way to someone I was dating, my (straight cisgender) therapist looked at me, startled. “Uh, how many of them are there?” “Just one,” I explained, and launched into why they used "they." Other members of LGBTQ communities, in my hometown of Brooklyn and beyond, use “ze” and “hir,” like the late, brilliant activist and writer Leslie Feinberg. Language can and should evolve, but sometimes it doesn’t seem to evolve quite the right way: somehow “trending” is now a word while “ze” is far removed from the common lexicon and “they” is entrenched as a plural term. Why are we stuck with choosing from only two gender pronouns? (And can “trending” please go away now?!)
In any case, it may not be an altogether uncommon trajectory to come out in stages like mine; I know a number of other queers and pansexuals whose paths have been similar. A realization of the many nuances of and possibilities within gender and sexuality resonated deeply with them, too.
First Lady of NYC Chirlane McCray--who, like me, does not call herself a former lesbian, let alone a hasbian--put it simply and well when she said, “Sexuality is a fluid thing and it’s personal.” (Not personal enough that I don’t want to have a dialogue about it, though, of course! There are few topics I find as juicy as sex, sexuality, and gender.)
Of course, with its history of negative connotations, "queer" is still regarded as a slur by some LGBT folks, especially older ones. In fact, many of my gay male social work clients in their 70s and 80s prefer to be called homosexual--a word whose underpinning of pathology is generally considered offensive by Generation X-ers like me, as well as millennials. I understand that "queer" does remain in limited use as a pejorative, but I daresay it’s going to stick around as both an academic term and a reclaimed identifier.
I’m already imagining some readers’ responses to this: “Why do we have to label ourselves? Why can’t we all just be humans?” I have my own questions in response: Can’t we talk about and celebrate our many differences in addition to noting our commonalities? Is there a word that describes an a facet of your identity that you value but others have denigrated? If so, how did it make you feel to start using that word?
Even if not, maybe you can empathize with how good it would feel to embrace an aspect of yourself that you were erroneously told was wrong or undesirable. We humans certainly are a wonderfully diverse species, and I for one rejoiced in discovering language that made it easier to connect with others like me--friends, dates, chosen family, potential partners, other LGBTQ activists and organizers.
Ultimately, I believe that what we choose to call ourselves and how we find and form fellowship matters, especially when we are part of a marginalized population (or several). Realizing that I was a femme who likes butches was meaningful; I had never heard of those terms until college and I was incredibly excited to learn them.
Later finding out about phrases like “gender nonconformity” and “trans masculinity” was significant also. We can take joy and power in naming and recognizing the importance of cultural signifiers and identities, of language and visibility, as they relate to building community and the larger intersectional movement toward collective liberation. My queer life is worth celebrating. Your life is too.
By the way, k.d., if you’re reading this--that 90s Vanity Fair photo spread you did with Cindy Crawford made me believe in God. Thank you, k.d., I LOVE YOU.