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Gay or queer: Xtra hosts town hall on the words we use

‘I don’t know if we’re a community, but we’re definitely a family,’ panellist says

Panellists Andrew Shopland (left) and Jen Sung discuss the words they use to identify themselves. Sung identifies as a queer woman of colour. Shopland uses both “gay” and “queer.” Credit: James Loewen

Xtra hosted a June 18 town hall called Who’s Queer Now on the words we use and why they matter. A live audience joined us at the Fountainhead Pub in Vancouver, while others watched the live stream, allowing them to participate in real time. (Thanks to Shaw community programming for generously streaming the town hall for us!)

Are you gay or are you queer? Participants in Xtra’s June 18 town hall at the Fountainhead Pub seemed largely divided as they tackled the questions of what words we use to describe ourselves and how we are evolving as a community.

After a rocky beginning plagued by technical sound issues, moderator Robin Perelle, Xtra Vancouver’s managing editor,  rebooted the discussion by asking the panellists how they identify.

Andrew Shopland, facilitator for YouthCO’s Mpowerment program for gay, bisexual and trans young men, told the audience he uses both terms.

“When I first came out, the word that was given to me was gay. I was a guy, I liked guys, and that was the word I was given. It was my only choice. But it never really felt like it fit completely,” he said.

“In my early 20s, I started to explore who I was and fell in love with some folks that made me question, ‘Am I gay?’ I found the word queer, and when I put it on, all of a sudden I could move around in it. It fit comfortably. It felt like me, and the people I saw wearing it, they felt like me, too,” he continued.

Panellist Reg Manning (Empress II Mona Regina Lee) cracked that because of the lengthy technical issues, his identity had changed and he was now a drag queen personified. He then said he would never use the word queer.

“To me, queer is a word that is derogatory, and people have used it on me in the past to bring me down, so that word sticks in my craw and I can’t get rid of it. The more the community uses the word queer, the more difficulty I have in accepting it,” he said.

“As time goes on, things change, and I know the word queer has changed its meaning. However, it still means a bad thing to me,” he continued.

Paul Therien, founder of Canada’s Q Hall of Fame, said he looked at all the different words that have been used to describe the community, before settling on the letter ‘Q’ for the hall of fame. “We did struggle with it. When we put the question to people from across the country, nobody could give us an answer. Who are we? What do we identify as?” he asked.

Ron Rosell, a member of the audience, likened the LGBTQ+ acronym to a constellation of distinct communities. “They are communities that touch one another at the point of civil rights or interacting with a world that is more heteronormative,” he said.

Manning delved into some of the history of the word gay, explaining that originally it wasn’t seen as gendered, so calling it the “gay community” wasn’t an issue at the time. “We are now fighting two things,” he said. “One: should we separate and go our own separate ways? Or should we stay together and protect what we have and not lose it? I think it’s important for us to stick together,” he said.

Panellist Jen Sung, program coordinator for Out in Schools, identified herself as a queer woman of colour. She spends a lot of time working in high schools in BC and says “queer” is the word she hears most among youth to identify themselves. 

“They use it strategically, they use it personally, and they use it as a very politicized, activist way of reclaiming a word which has been used so negatively,” she said.

Shopland pointed to the importance of listening to the experiences of older generations who still have negative reactions to the word queer. He also advocated for intergenerational mentorship — youth communicating and listening to elders and vice versa.

Perelle asked the audience how the community can evolve when some members embrace the change toward queer, while others feel excluded by it.

Molly, another audience member, said she remembers the negative connotations of the word queer but understands that it’s being redefined. She focused on the need for unity within the community. “The larger community’s biggest issues are freedom and human rights, and I think the only way that we’ve been able to achieve, and will continue to achieve, significant movement in human rights and freedom for all — we have to be a cohesive community.”

Some groups within the larger community may want and need their own terms, she continued, but the larger community also needs to identify as a whole.

“If ‘queer’ is becoming a more accepted word — and isn’t still conjuring up in people’s mind the old definition of the word — and it works for the majority, I see it as an all-encompassing word,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter to me what word we use,” audience member Pat Hogan said. “We can get really hung up on words, but I think we should be easy on each other and not get on each other’s case because we’re not being politically correct.”

Manning provoked a strong reaction from the audience when he said he is “married to an Oriental man” and is a “rice queen.”

“Do you really think the rest of the world thinks it’s wonderful that we’re queers? I don’t think the rest of the world is going to embrace us because we’re all queers. Now, it’s very nice to take old words and make them our own, so why don’t we just call ourselves the Ku Klux Klan,” he suggested.

After being challenged by several online participants, Manning said he chose those words intentionally. “I used them purposefully because I felt you all would have heard them before and you all know how offensive they are, and I wanted you to understand how offensive I find the word queer,” he said.

Another man in the audience said that he had come to the town hall to support the use of the word queer but his mind had been changed by the comments he had heard. “I would hate to say that I’m going down to the ‘Queer Centre.’ Wouldn’t that sound strange?” he asked. “Just think of what John Q Public is going to think.”

“Nobody should have words used on them that hurt them,” audience member Morgane Oger said. “Maybe we should come up with an inclusive word that doesn’t exclude others that we haven’t thought about already. LGBTQ-and-so-on is a limiting term. It talks about a specific set of people that seems to be always growing,” she suggested.

“I identify mostly as queer, because I’m anti-binaries,” another woman in the audience said. “We’re all on a spectrum, and I feel like gay and lesbian, homosexual, heterosexual, it sets up a false dichotomy that doesn’t actually exist, and it disappears a lot of people that locate themselves somewhere on that binary or outside of it. And it especially disappears our trans folks, as well as our two-spirited and our asexual community. Maybe queer is not the perfect term. I myself like rainbow glitter unicorns, but it’s kind of long.”

“I don’t know about you, but what I see is a community,” Perelle said, as she wound down the town hall. “I see a community with very different points of view, with very different experiences, coming from different places, choosing very different words to describe themselves and each other, but still a community that’s willing to come together and share.”

“Are we a community?” she asked the audience and panellists.

For Therien, the answer was a definitive yes. “Community is about finding and celebrating your differences and uniqueness to develop and create strength. From community you find safety, you find safe haven, you find commonality, and you are afforded the opportunity to enrich your life,” he said.

“I don’t know if we’re a community, but we’re definitely a family,” Shopland said.