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Use of ‘queer’ split largely by age in Vancouver

Older members of the discussion group still see it as a slur

By far the youngest member of the group, Jen Sung (left, with Kevin Dale McKeown) was also the only member to consistently use “queer” as her primary identifier. Credit: Erin Flegg

Eight people recently gathered in downtown Vancouver to discuss the future of the word queer and how best to describe our increasingly diverse community.

Born of talks between friends, the meeting was the first of several broader discussions that are expected to lead to a public forum in June. The original group consisted of Xtra columnist Kevin Dale McKeown, senior drag performer and Vancouver’s Empress II Reg Manning, black leatherdyke and self-described queer disorganizer Kona, trans performance poet Antonette Rea, retired teacher Pamela Leaman, whose 1969 transition may have been Canada’s first, and Gay Liberation Front co-founder Gordon Hardy.

New additions to the table were Pat Hogan, who organizes numerous events primarily within the lesbian community, and Out in Schools program coordinator Jen Sung. The group was diverse in some respects, though it was short on representation from the under-35 set. One of the few things upon which the group agreed was the need to remedy this going forward.

The two new additions opened the meeting with their perspectives on queer. Hogan said that, while she has more often identified with the lesbian and dyke communities, she also uses “queer” under the right circumstances and doesn’t find it to be offensive.

Sung, who, at 27, was the youngest member of the group by a fair margin, was the only one in the room who uses queer as her primary identifier. She said the word queer had played a huge role in her coming out and in her continuing process of self-definition.

Saying she sometimes feels silenced by people older and whiter than herself in the community, Sung shared a story about visiting a school in Maple Ridge with Out in Schools. When she arrived at the school with a 35-year-old white gay male volunteer, the teacher spoke to the volunteer rather than addressing Sung directly, despite her position of leadership.

She challenged the group members to think critically about words that make them uneasy. “I have my own triggers and words that make me uncomfortable, and I have to ask myself why am I uncomfortable, and perhaps that basic challenge and discomfort is the place where learning can take place most.”

Manning compared the community’s younger generation to the children of a family, deliberately defying and offending their elders by using the word queer.

Hearing the word queer is “like nails on the chalkboard,” he said. “It’s the ugliest fucking word imaginable.”

He thinks people who use it should consider it just as rude as swearing in front of their elders. “All I ask is that the younger folks realize that, when they come into the company of older people.”

While age was the most prominent factor separating those who use “queer” from those who don’t, the question of personal politics may also play a part. Hardy believes the use of the word queer is a deliberate and politicized rejection of mainstream values.

McKeown wondered whether trans people consider themselves queer? Leaman said unequivocally no, since she is attracted to straight men and doesn’t identify as gay at all. However, she said, she has lost jobs and faced discrimination for being seen as queer. “Every time I heard the word queer I just shivered. Seeing it more commonly in this generation, it just bothers me so much.”

It’s important to understand the word’s negative history, Rea acknowledged, but it’s also important to recognize the progression of language and to respect individuals’ right to self-identify.

The older members of the group said they could never see the word queer as anything but a slur.

By the end of the meeting, it seemed the group would never agree to use “queer” as an umbrella term, and indeed may never be able to settle on any term that would satisfy all parties. But everyone believed in the value of an inclusive community that supports everyone under the rainbow, and all agreed to push forward with the discussion.