While observing Xtra’s June 18 town hall on the use of “gay” versus “queer,” I was struck more by who skipped the discussion than who chose to participate. Where were the youth?
Granted, by hosting the event at the Fountainhead Pub, a certain subset below the age of 19 was automatically excluded. But, aside from two members of the invited panel, the 20-somethings who tend to embrace the word queer were absent. Earlier meetings of the discussion groups that led up to the town hall were also dominated primarily by people over the age of 40.
But many of the young people I’ve met in my communities, through LGBT youth groups, through university and through the reporting I’ve done for Xtra, identify strongly and passionately with “queer.”
One of the town hall’s panellists, Andrew Shopland, talked about the importance of intergenerational discussion — teaching and learning that goes both ways, between youth and elders. But that kind of discussion can’t happen when one party isn’t participating.
As participant after participant chimed in favouring the word gay or lesbian or some other as-of-yet-unthought-of umbrella term, I wondered where the “queer” defenders were. Their absence raised an equally troubling question for me: are we still a single community? Is the disagreement over what we call ourselves a portent of a deeper, growing rift, or is it just a symptom of a generational difference?
I didn’t grow up during a time where “queer” was used as the slur de jour; “homo” and “faggot” were the insults most commonly heard in the halls of my suburban high school. So, I readily admit to not knowing what it feels like to hear the ugliness of the word queer from the mouth of homophobic attackers, like many gay and lesbian elders have. And I sympathize with the idea that some words can’t or shouldn’t be reclaimed. As a mixed-race black man, I still refuse to use the N-word, aloud or in print, because of its abominable history.
I can’t speak for our gay elders and their lived experiences, and I understand the refusals of those who have rejected “queer” for themselves because they still hear the echoes of hate in the word. But, within those same echoes, I hear swells of pride and I hear myself.
I am gay, and I am queer. I am gay in that I am attracted to other men. I am queer in the way that I see the world and in the way that I want it to change for the better.
However, I certainly don’t think we should be forcing the word onto an entire community who may not feel the same way as I do.
To me, queer is political. Queer is loud. Queer encompasses the L, the G, the B, the T and every other letter and number within our communities.
When people self-identify as queer, I hear two things: first, that they are referring to their gender or sexual identities and that they are committed to fighting against homophobia and transphobia; but second, that they are just as committed to fighting racism, ableism, sexism, classism and all other harmful “isms.”
To me, it signifies a resistance to the overwhelming corporate presence at our Pride parade and a resistance to pinkwashing by businesses and politicians.
Rightly or wrongly, that’s how many of the younger generation see the word and why they are so reluctant to give it up. Maybe that’s why they weren’t interested in joining the conversation.