By Irene Monroe
Underneath the controversy over marriage for same-sex couples is a query that has not been straightforwardly asked: Is U.S. culture witnessing the decline not of the institution of marriage, but instead the hegemony of heterosexuality in our lives? Once an unquestionable norm whose dominance reigned in the courtroom, the classroom, and our bedrooms, its grip is not only contested among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but now it is being contested among a new sexual identity group – the Q’s.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s when the term “queer” – denoted as “Q” – became popularized by the activist group “Queer Nation,” a collective of radical direct action groups across the country combating heterosexism/ homophobia. As a pejorative term that prior to the 1990’s was mostly scoffed by the gay and lesbian community, “queer” became an all-embracing self-referential term thanks to Queer Nation. With sexual and gender minorities like bisexual, transgender and intersexual people often excluded in the gay and lesbian struggle for civil rights, the term “queer” became an umbrella term to include all. However, much debate, needless to say, circled and still circles around the inclusion of transgender/ transsexual people in the struggle for queer civil rights. It’s a debate that is still alive in certain “orthodox” gay and lesbian communities. Nonetheless, when referring to “Queer” in my writings, the letters “LGBT” are synonymous and are often times used interchangeably.
Also, some sexual minorities like the term “queer” because it’s not gender specific (unlike the terms lesbian and gay) and it is also a less defining term socially, politically and culturally than lesbian and gay. It thus avoids the universalizing of the term that many gays and lesbians of color continue to struggle against as they try to be visible and heard within the larger white gay and lesbian community. But the ambiguity and amorphousness concomitant with the term “queer” is quite troubling for many older lesbian and gay activists. A younger postmodern generation embraces the term “queer,” however, and says it highlights the fluidity in naming sexual and gender identities, as well as the pros and cons of what happens in socially constructing identities. Much of these concerns are taken up in Queer Theory.
While many think the Q obviously denotes “queer” – especially in today’s media-saturated culture . . . the Q can also refer to “questioning.” Like LGBT people, this sexual identity group also transgresses hetero-normativity, because these people do not see or identify themselves as heterosexuals.
While many think the Q obviously denotes “queer” – especially in today’s media-saturated culture that unapologetically showcases LGBT people in television shows like “Queer as Folk” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” – the Q can also refer to “questioning.” Like LGBT people, this sexual identity group also transgresses hetero-normativity, because these people do not see or identify themselves as heterosexuals. However, they also do not identify themselves socially, politically, or culturally as LGBT because they are questioning their sexual identity; hence the letter Q. Often folks who are “bi-curious” fall under the “Q” lettering.
This group is getting a lot of television media of late. Just last month, The Boston Globe ran an article about sexuality on TV titled “Sexual identity getting difficult to keep straight,” in which television reporter Matthew Gilbert wrote, “These days it’s getting harder to hang sexual orientation labels on TV characters, particularly in the back roads of cable. . . This blurring of the lines of sexual orientation is a step beyond ‘Gay TV.’ The sexually indefinite characters aren’t closeted gay men and lesbians running from their true selves, struggling to accept the inevitable. They’re more curious-seeking than that, and less tortured. They’re ‘Questioning,’ as a number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations have put it. Yep, TV is beginning to include the LGBT and Q community in its electronic embrace.”
And with this embrace, will Q’s now be the new threat to the sanctity of marriage? And what arguments will Q’s ensue as they head to the chapel? Or is the belief that with enough time and maturity, this questioning sexual identity group will settle down as an L or G or B or T or even an H (heterosexual)?
More importantly, can a Q remain a lifelong Q without queries about the nature of human sexuality that do not disrupt the investment made in heterosexual marriage?
The marriage debate since its inception in this country has always been a lens – both historically and presently – through which to examine how the nature of human sexuality is controlled by the underlying biases of the institution. When enslaved Africans wanted to marry, the fear of “the collapse of the institution of marriage” that slaveholders vociferously argued was really their fear of the decline of American slavocracy. When whites and blacks dared to transgress America’s Jim Crow laws to consecrate their nuptials, opponents again spoke of the collapse of the institution of marriage, but their fear was instead in response to the beginning signs of the demise of white supremacy as it operated in people’s personal lives. Q’s, like LGBT people, neither disrupt nor defile the institution of marriage, but instead these sexual minorities and gender identity groups keep the institution alive and flourishing by unhinging its heterosexual mandate.
In a phone conversation with a professor of social work at Governors State University, just outside of Chicago, about the implications of de-centering the role compulsory heterosexuality has played in the institution of marriage with LGBTQ people fighting for marriage equality, Dr. Gerri Outlaw told me, “Once you mess with or blur the lines of male and female roles, you chip at the traditional understanding of marriage and it can’t do anything but dethrone and change our understanding of heterosexuality.”
A recent missive to me from the Bishop of Durham in the U.K., the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, asked, “Can you define for me – I suspect our British usage may be different from your American terminology – what is meant in your article by ‘Queer’ as opposed to the other four parties in the LGBTQ collection?”
But with this new identity group being aligned with us lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, confusion abounds. A recent missive to me from the Bishop of Durham in the U.K., the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, asked, “Can you define for me – I suspect our British usage may be different from your American terminology – what is meant in your article by ‘Queer’ as opposed to the other four parties in the LGBTQ collection?”
In my attempt to be inclusive of all sexual minorities and gender identities visible in this country, I use the label LGBTQ. However, when referring to “queer,” once a pejorative term, I employ it as an all-embracing self-referential and umbrella term to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and I use these two terms interchangeably.
In my writings, the letter Q, following the letters “LGBT” does not mean “queer” but instead “questioning.” I enjoy adding Q in my lineup, because it is another indicator of the nature of human sexuality and the diminishing hold of heterosexuality and heterosexism having dominance in our lives.
The Rev. Irene Monroe writes a regular online column, Queer Take , for The Witness . She may be reached by email at [email protected] .