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Pride Month: Meanings of "Queer"

Historically, “queer” was the slur used against those who were perceived to be or made to feel abnormal but beginning in the 1980s, the word was reappropriated and embraced as a badge of honor. Queer edited by David Getsy is centered on writings that describe and examine the ways in which artists have used the concept of queer as a site of political and institutional critique, as a framework to develop new families and histories, as a spur to action, and as a basis from which to declare inassimilable difference. The first post in our series celebrating Pride Month features an excerpt from David Getsy's Introduction to Queer

The activist stance of ‘queer’ was developed as a mode of resistance to the oppression and erasure of sexual minorities. Importantly, however, it was concurrently posited as a rejection of assimilationism proposed by many in gay and lesbian communities who aspired to be just ‘normal’. Since its formulation in the crucible of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, ‘queer’ has an ongoing political and cultural currency that continues to prove catalytic to artists and thinkers. It signals a defiance to the mainstream and an embrace of difference, uniqueness and self-determination. Still contentious today in LGBTI politics and culture, the defining trait of ‘queer’ is its rejection of attempts to enforce (or value) normalcy. Within artistic practice, queer tactics and attitudes have energized artists who create work that flouts ‘common’ sense, that makes the private public and political, and that brashly embraces disruption as a tactic.

While the appropriation of the term ‘queer’ coalesced in the 1980s, many had long understood the urgency of such anti-assimilationism before it became a slogan. It is an attitude of defiance that has arisen again and again in response to the operations of power that police difference and that exile the otherwise. My own awareness of this stance emerged before I knew it had a name (or a coalition). The first stirrings of my identification with it were tied up with an infatuation I had as a teenager with a book by Jean Cocteau. In the days before internet book stores, there was more of a reliance on chance encounters. I would travel to the small city near the town where I grew up and spend hours in one of its few used book stores. My favourite was the Paperback Shack in Binghamton, New York, with its tiny warren of floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with pulp fiction, random textbooks and discarded literature. One day, I found a copy of City Lights’ reprint of the infamous White Book, written anonymously by Cocteau. I’ll have to admit it was his sinewy and lingering line drawings that led me to bury it in the pile of books I bought that day, but reading it was transformative. Bound up with conflicted emotions and erotics, the book nevertheless offered a sense of possibility amidst the neglect, silence and I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty and prejudice that marked mainstream media’s accounts of queer lives in the 1980s.

In particular, it was the final words that stuck with me and, indeed, became something of a guiding principle as I turned to queer activism and scholarship in the following years. The main character concludes his tale with the lines ‘But I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty.’ This, to me, remains the core of queer defiance. Difference should be difficult. It should not simply be grudgingly admitted and sidelined, nor should the aim be for it to disappear in some fantasy of an expanded and more inclusive ‘normal’. To be intolerable is to demand that the normal, the natural and the common be challenged. To do this is not to demand inclusion, but rather to refuse to accept any operations of exclusion and erasure that make up the normal and posit compulsory sameness. Of course, I included Cocteau’s words in this book. How could I not? But, more importantly, these lines articulate a key theme running throughout this book and characteristic of the many different artists included in it. The aim is not to be admitted to the normal but to question its categorical centrality and the clandestine ways in which it is relentlessly enforced. All the artists included in this book have been, in different degrees and at different moments, deemed intolerable for the beliefs they demanded be witnessed.

Perhaps the best way to understand the stance that self-nominates as queer is to see that it is, fundamentally, adjectival. It does not stand alone. Rather, it attaches itself to nouns, wilfully perverting that to which it is appended. It is a tactical modification – this name ‘queer’ – that invokes relations of power and propriety in its inversion of them. That is, its utterance brings with it two operations. First, it appropriates and affects the thing that it now describes (a queer what?). Second, this attachment of ‘queer’ to a noun necessarily cites the standards and assumptions against which it is posed (the presumed ‘normal’ that it abandons).

To deploy ‘queer’ as a slur is to activate an apparatus of aspersion. The thing nominated as ‘queer’ is now looked at awry and with invasive suspicion. As well, the presumption that there is an already agreed upon ‘normal’ becomes reinvested as a silent authority through this calling out of its deviation. This speech act is performative in the strict sense. It inexorably alters the person or thing by proposing the mere possibility of its difference and divergence. This was its historical power as an allegation throughout the twentieth century, and it was used to imply abnormality, outsiderness and difference. To nominate something as suspicious, as unlike or as inauthentic is to produce an effect – regardless of the facts. That thing or person is, henceforth, actually suspicious, unlike and inauthentic in the eyes of witnesses to that slur. Evidence is sought by others to confirm their newly stirred doubts. Henceforth, that person, thing, text or image is, indeed, now inspected in detail for the degrees to which it achieves or fails to achieve the normal. The driving fear is that difference remains invisible and uncontrolled. This is the reason that, historically, the defences activated by the targets of this allegation so often turn aggressive or compulsive in their repudiations. These are responses to the real and powerful semantic violence enacted upon those branded as (or merely rumored to be) ‘queer.’

Beginning in the 1980s (in particular, in English-speaking countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom), the negative speech act was appropriated by those it had been used to defame. It became the basis of a broad-scale cultural and political movement and was embraced as a badge of honour. The idea of aspiring to be normal (and hence invisible) was rejected, and ‘queer’ became a self-declaration and a political stance. Such an insolent and collective embrace of queer and anti-assimilationist activist tactics allowed for an address to power’s workings, highlighting the policing of normalcy through self-exiling oneself from it. It is no surprise that this strategy emerged at the moment when ‘silence equalled death’. Governments’ inaction over the AIDS crisis and the wilful suppression of it in the media as something private, not public, demanded a reaction that was relentless and loud in its declaration of presence and its refusal to have difference erased.

These activists understood that to declare oneself ‘queer’ is no less of a speech act. It is a recognition that the fear of the un-normal is also a source of power. Such a defiant self-nomination disarms those who seek to use it to shame and silence. The adjectival mechanism of queer is turned outward to focus not on the covertness of difference but, more politically and polemically, to call out and to target the camouflaged workings of power and normativity. Similarly, for those who embrace this stance, the experience of seeing an object, a text or an act as queer produces not suspicion but affection. Once the performative force of queer is taken on with pride and insubordination, the veneer of enforced normalcy cracks. Sites of resistance, resilience, dissent and immoderation appear everywhere as possibilities for rebellion, for connection and for solidarity. Queer artists are exemplary of this. They see the experience of difference and dissent as replete with capacity, and they make visible the otherwise as a means of valuing it. The ‘otherwise’ is my term for those endless positions of apartness from which queer stances are posited. It is a term that positively signals alterity as a site from which to re-view the presumed normal. The ‘otherwise’, that is, is what queer attitudes and activism seek to defend, proclaim and propagate. Queer artists’ work is tied up not just with the important work of political defiance and critique, but also with visualizing and inhabiting otherwise.

  • Posted at 11:05 am on Thu, 09 Jun 2016 in art

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.