DEFINING QUEER


One of my essays, AM I GAY? recently attracted a perfectly fair criticism that ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ are not always seen to mean the same thing.  I have to admit to not having really looked closely enough at the word ‘queer’ until now. I’ve generally left it as a synonym for male and female homosexuality and all aspects of the LGBT lifestyle. In fact it's much more comprehensive than that. that I largely missed this seems  rather shocking to have to confess to as a lover of language and a gay rights activist. 


While the companion essay AM I GAY? Concludes that I’m not gay, the answer to the question of whether I am ‘queer’ points unreservedly to the answer, yes. So, what’s the difference? Or rather, what are the differences?


Both the words gay and Queer have multiple meanings. Many poets dislike the word ‘gay’ for its associations with homosexuality as opposed to its sense of just feeling happy and mellow.  Though it took until about 1950 for ‘gay’ to be applied so directly in accusation against suspected homosexuals the origins of the word being used in such contexts go back much further. As early as the 16th century Puritans associated gay with Bohemian and amoral free-spiritedness. Gaiety and pleasure were not for the Puritans. In their core beliefs, God hadn’t cast us out of Eden to enjoy ourselves, but to recognise our lives as harsh and pray for forgiveness.


Queer similarly has wider connotations. It immediately says something or someone doesn’t conform to expectations or someone’s idea of the norm. In its most negative sense queer implies something wrong. People still say they feel a bit ‘queer’ if they feel ill, or in a strange mood. The word seems to have fewer usages for unusually intense states of happiness. The word Queer began to be used as a sexual negative and pejorative term in the late 19th century, when the Marquis Of Queensbury used the word in relation to his son, Alfred (Bosie) Douglas, who was of course, in a relationship with Oscar Wilde, - a relationship that Queensbury used to destroy the writer’s reputation and freedom.


By the late 20th century, it was difficult to use the word Queer in a non-sexual context without causing the more immature members of an audience to snigger or make silly comments.


While gay is generally taken to refer to male and / or female homosexuality queer can be an umbrella term for all aspects of gender variance beyond the conservative sounding heterosexuality sometimes deemed as ‘straight’. Queer can cover male and female homosexuality, bi-sexuality, transvestism, Trans-genderism, auto-sexuality and asexuality, among others.  Some commentators will stretch the definition to arc it over all forms of BDSM activists, Queer theorists seem to put queerdom identifiers on all aspects of what conservative and puritanically minded people regard as perverted.


While initially an abusive word used against non-conformism by homophobes the word has been increasingly reclaimed by the queer, who recogniser that the word queer is so ambiguous that someone queer can be shrouded in enough mystery about their activities that they are safe from some of the scorn and contempt and possible violent reactions of the homophobic, and also allows the queer individual a greater range of sexual liberty, flexibility and sexual choice.


For many people, Queer is a label sufficiently stretched out of shape to no longer be a label as such, and it covers so may areas and definitions that it becomes impossible to pin someone identified as queer into a particular pigeon hole without further information to go by. (And in most cases, not even then). It would be like asking for ‘wine’, rather than a particular type, label, or vintage or colour of wine. Queers have reclaimed the word Queer, to make it a symbol of pride rather than a symbol of hate. (Of course, some homophobes will hold anyone not fitting their sense of normal in contempt regardless).


                                                WHY I’M QUEER


So, where do I fit into all this? Why do I see myself as ‘Queer?” My cult experiences (1981-85) taught me that my own mind was evil, and that life was best if I let my guru think for me. The intense meditations were designed to stifle thought, and I was made to feel guilty if my mind gave doubts that any of this might be crap so once I escaped and got out of the catatonic fog I was left in, I consciously set out to re-educate myself and strengthen my mind – I saw my philosophy and literature degree as a certificate of sanity, but I had over-compensated, becoming too cerebral and cynical / sceptical – more brooding than clever. I often think in fragments and tangents, coming at things from unorthodox angles. My sensual self struggled to catch up with my insomnia inducing relentless mental energy and still lags behind. My own sexual history is a troubled one. Though I don’t regard myself as celibate any more, following my escape from the celibacy imposing Elan Vital – Divine Light Mission cult (see BRAINWASHING), initiating and developing a relationship is not proving easy for me. I’m not entirely sure what kind of relationship I want. I don’t want one night stands or to commit to a stable relationship with the levels of responsibility that would call for. I seem to have gone to a desire for love over sex and have a head full of romantic chivalrous notions. If I just wanted sex I’d have no qualms about approaching prostitutes.


My self-esteem is shot to pieces and I put myself down too much. I am not in great shape, being overweight, and bald, so I rarely see myself as a good catch for any potential partner.  I rarely just try to chat someone into a date, preferring to become a friend first, and then fall into the trap of not wanting to jeopardize the friendship by trying to take the relationship deeper, so I often see dream partners go off with another guy before I dare to make my feelings known. I came to the conclusion some time ago that in terms of relationships the reason why I don’t get too far is just because I am crap as a potential lover. That is to many people not only intensely confessional, it’s also eccentric and unusual enough that had I told someone that in the 18th century, they would have regarded me as rather ‘queer minded’. (If not thinking of me as barking mad). In the general nature of queer politics, my queer nature carries forward to the present day too – I am textbook queer. I don’t conform easily, it’s very difficult for people to pin me to a map of what my gender situation might be, and yet, I have had some modest success as an erotica author. Sexuality remains highly important to me.


For many queer people, being queer is a way of being cloaked and keeping aspects of their gender and activity a mystery. All well and good, give the value of privacy. For me however, my queerdom is an enigma even to me and one I constantly try to make sense of – I am naturally intensely introspective – trying to ascertain what makes me who I am. The biggest question that haunts me is whether I would still be who I am and behave the way I do now if I had not been sucked into the quicksand that is a religious cult for four and half years. I wonder how much of the old me is lost, recoverable, or still a part of me.


In the States, I’d probably be thrashing all this out on a shrink’s couch at $50 dollars an hour, and while this may sound like a 47 year old screaming for assistance and advice from a kindly common sense agony Aunt or Uncle, I actually find my situation not without its comforts. My queerness gives me some sense of self-definition, and despite a large scale absence of sexual experiences, my life on the whole feels good. I wonder how much a relationship could and would change my parameters and redefine me, for others and myself. I see lots of nice guys turn into drunken wife-beaters within a few years of marriage – would I change so dramatically?  Part of me likes the shelter afforded by my queerness. Part of me wants the Hell out, and I wonder how much change would it take to stop me feeling or being seen as queer.









Arthur Chappell