First appeared Feb. 9, 2000, in the Chicago Free Press.
NOT LONG AGO, I got an e-mail from a college student (how long ago college seems!) who wanted to know what I thought about the term "queer."
To be sure, having once contributed to an anthology called "Beyond Queer," I am more or less on record as thinking the term - and the concept - are not helpful.
I know I feel a visceral dislike for the word. Since it was long used as a term to demean gays it has strong negative associations I would prefer not to be constantly reminded of. I might have even preferred another title for the book.
But when I started mulling it over, I realized I had not given it much thought beyond my immediate reaction. So I suppose there are several things to think, and say, about "queer."
The general argument for "queer" is that it is a term of abuse that gays and lesbians should "reclaim" and use in a positive, affirmative way in order to disarm it. Further, it acknowledges - and embraces - our difference from others and asserts this as a positive good.
But this argument has little general appeal. Most Jews, after all, do not have much interest in reclaiming "kike." Most African-Americans reject "nigger." Few southeast Asians seem to be reclaiming "gook." And for similar reasons most gays continue to avoid the word "queer."
For a while some younger gays and lesbians seemed to be using "queer" but they often gave the impression they were doing so primarily to be linguistically avant-garde and because the language called attention to itself. Even among young people, "queer" now seems dated.
Equally to the point, despite a decade of "queer," "Queer Nation" (now defunct-significantly), and other "queer" assertiveness, sociologist Stephen Murray points out that there is no evidence at all that "fag-bashers or school children hear or use the epithet differently since it has been 'reclaimed.'"
The word is still meant as an insult and the concept is still an invitation to physical assault.
So insistently using the word for ourselves amounts to a kind of obliviousness or denial, a condition Jonathan Swift described as "the serene, peaceful state of being a fool among knaves."
Another argument sometimes offered for "queer" is that "gay" or "gay and lesbian" is too limited and "queer" is more inclusive of the broad community of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, etc. - virtually anyone divergent in terms of sexuality, gender or mode of self-presentation.
Whether there is, in fact, any real community of these various people seems doubtful. But in any case, the alleged benefit of inclusivity seems to be not a real benefit but more of a loss.
There are important differences between gays and lesbians on one hand, and transvestites, transsexuals and the rest on yet other hands.
Transsexuals say they only wish to correct a physical error in their bodies. Gays, by contrast, have spent countless hours trying to explain that they are not "a woman trapped in a man's body." Transvestites strenuously (and correctly) insist they are not gay despite dressing in women's clothing.
In short, each of these groups of people have a different self-understanding, a different origin for their situation, a different set of problems to cope with, and encounters occasional hostility because of different popular misunderstandings about them.
It obscures intellectual clarity and demeans the dignity of each to lump them together under one all-embracing term and dismiss as unimportant exactly the differences they say are so crucial in their own lives and their self-understanding.
A third argument sometimes offered for "queer" is that it underscores "our" oppositional posture toward mainstream American culture and society. As "queer theory" advocate Michael Warner explains it, just as "gay" is in contrast to heterosexual, so "queer" is in contrast to "normal."
It seems odd that any self-respecting person would accept as legitimate society's-or anyone's- definition of him or her as not normal.
Yet that is exactly what "queer" does. It accepts society's (now waning) assessment and simply tries to make a virtue of a necessity. It seems like sour grapes: "If you won't let me join, I don't even want to be a member of your stupid old club."
In the end, I suppose, anyone's attitude toward mainstream society is a personal matter for them, but I for one don't feel much hostility toward mainstream society. I feel pretty normal, thank you, and if someone does not think I am, that is their problem, not mine. I suspect most gays and lesbians feel the same way.
As writer David Link observed several years ago in an article titled "I Am Not Queer," "I have wrestled with myself over whether, as a gay man, I am queer. I have decided that I am not. Queer is the word of the other, of the outsider. I do not feel as if I am outside anything due to my sexual orientation."
To try to persuade gays and lesbians to think of themselves as "queer," to urge them to present themselves to society as hostile and unassimilable outsiders seems designed to do nothing more than inhibit, even prevent, progress toward equal treatment and equal social regard for gays.
"Queer" starts off claiming to reverse the effects of negative language, but only obscures its continuing impact. It pretends to offer the benefits of a more inclusive and tolerant community but ends by subverting our individual self-understandings in a viscous mash of sex and gender uncertainty. It pretends to be pro-gay but stands athwart the path to full equality and social acceptance, crying, "No, no, don't go there. Stay in your place. You are so useful where you are."
Useful to who?