Culture / Life

GLBT vs. Queer

I have a confession. I really loathe the term “GLBT.”

There are several reasons why. I think for me, the most annoying thing about it is its simplistic linear quality; its single dimension. You can pick one of those letters, but at no point do they intersect. This may be adequate for some people, but it doesn’t really doesn’t describe most of the people in my “village.”

When I Guangshui must tick a box, I tick “lesbian,” if always with a grumble. It took me a lot of painful effort to get from married-to-a-man-so-presumed-heterosexual to where I am now and for a while I was proud and happy to tick lesbian, because I had gone through hell to get there.

But once there, I looked around and realized I had not yet really quite made it home.

USDA-queerEventually I came to find myself in a smaller subset of lesbians which, for a while (and often still) I called “butch-femme” but even that designation isn’t quite right, since it mostly describes white people.

I got married again to a self-described butch, identifying myself at that time (about ten years ago) as a “bookish femme geek” somewhat tongue-in-cheek. We put flowers atop our wedding cake, because we weren’t two brides. And well-meaning as they are, people who default to describing my partner as my “wife” make me laugh to myself at best, or make my flesh creep at worst.

Wearing the label “lesbian”—even “femme lesbian”—has grown to feel more and more inaccurate over the years.

Here’s a recent example. I have a novel coming out in September of this year that is set in the 19th century United States. It features a main character who has chosen to be a boy in spite of his body, which would generally lead people to assume he is a girl.

It is very difficult to label this character, because the terms “lesbian,” or “transgender” are both anachronistic and not quite right anyway. But I am a lesbian and the character appeals to me (duh, I made him up) so I offered the book to more than one “lesbian” press. One accepted it (though I chose a different publisher in the end) but one declined, saying that though they all loved the story, it wasn’t a “lesbian” book because the main character identified as a man.

I kind of get it. (I don’t even have any hard feelings toward that press.) But I also don’t know where in the LGBT alphabet soup to put my book, which really, as writers will understand, is an extension of myself.

“Jack” (the main character of my novel) is queer. And so am I. And so is my not-wife spouse. And so is our family, not the least because it is interracial and includes the biological relations of my adopted children. And so are most of my closest friends—even some of the “heterosexual” ones.

Gender and race are probably the identity categories that matter the most in my own nuclear family and yet neither of those are particularly invoked by the term “lesbian.” So while I still tick that box when better options are unavailable, 99 times out of 100, when writing or speaking about us, I say “queer.”

To me “queer” is the magic word that can describe anyone who falls outside of a heterocentric social configuration either on purpose or by default. [pullquote] To me “queer” is the magic word that can describe anyone who falls outside of a heterocentric social configuration either on purpose or by default.[/pullquote] It works to describe a family with two moms, certainly (in our case, even if one of the moms isn’t really quite a woman). But I embrace it as an interracial family and a family with lots of chosen members, whether they arrived by biology, law or love. “Queer” works to describe people in our lives whose gender shifts, or whose sexual preference is open to multiple genders. It describes our extended families even when they are living what look like fairly standard hetero lives, because they are part of our family too.

I know that the word “queer” is hard for some people to use. It has a history of being used as a slur. But it has an older history than that, of course. And as a writer of historical fiction, I love to put it in the mouths of my characters to describe things being a bit out-of-sync with the bland and predictable world of those with the most power. And that’s a meaning I can embrace today and in the future, too.

What is perhaps the loveliest thing about “queer” to me is the way it welcomes anyone and everyone who want to claim it. You don’t have subscribe to a particular gender or a particular sexuality to be queer. As far as I know, it doesn’t have strong race or class implications. It brings everyone who does feel comfortable somewhere in “GLBT” truly together. Queers don’t have to say, “but what do we really have in common?” the way lesbians and gay men have sometimes done throughout our history. It doesn’t give any quarter to people who claim “those trans people” aren’t really part of “us” and ought to get out of “our” spaces and find their own. Queer acknowledges that an awful lot of us fit into more than one box, including boxes not on the GLBT list that are as, or even more, defining of our identities and it affirms those things.

So, welcome to the Big Queer Tent. And thanks for all that you bring us.

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  1. I loved this piece. Thanks!

  2. Helen Musselman says:

    You were the person who first taught me that I could think of myself as “butch”, and that that could describe a way of being feminine, not an absence of being feminine. It was very liberating for me to find myself on that spectrum. Thanks for articulating this so well and so often.

    • I always say there are as many genders as there are people walking around on the planet…and then some!

  3. I love this post, and I love the way it draws all these ideas together! Yet most of the reason I wanted to post this comment is because I think the picture is hilarious 🙂

  4. I can’t take any credit for the picture but thanks for the rest!

  5. So many initials, so little time. I much prefer an umbrella term we can all use than a cumbersome menu of labels that seems to get longer and longer every time I turn around.

    Big Queer Tent – love.

  6. BQT?

  7. I’ll go with Big Queer Tent unless I’m required to go camping.

    • Since it’s a queer tent we can define that however we like. Our Big Queer Tent can have air conditioning and wi-fi!

  8. Loved reading this piece. I am not a resident of the Big Queer Tent–I am a woman married to a man–but since I write often about equality and feminism (let’s not debate what ‘feminist’ means) I keep my eyes and mind open. I have often used GLBT in my writing because I thought that was the most respectful way to say what I was talking about. I can’t stand the phrase “the gays” or “the straights” because they are far too limiting (and somewhat offensive I thought) so GLBT seemed to fit. But I completely understand your point. I HATE being thought of as a particular kind of woman just because I say I am a feminist. Plus I am evolving. I hope I am always learning and evolving. Maybe the allies could have a picnic shelter near the bathrooms? We’ll bring chocolate.

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