Monday, October 20, 2008

Naming Lesbian, Claiming Queer

I met some queer-seeming women the other day and, when I asked if they identified as queer, there was this awkwardness about it, like, "Well, I guess I sorta-kinda am." And I said, "It's funny because the word 'queer' was meant to represent and include all the Sorta-Kinda people." One woman demanded, "Are you asking me who I fuck?" And I assured her, "No. I don't care who you fuck. I want to know how you identify."

For me, queer means a whole lot of juicy things, outside of the bedroom. Queer is a post-modern philosophy. It's a musical movement. It's a series of fashion statements. And more. It's how Ani DiFranco can have a beau and still be a lesbian icon. It's how a movie like Shawshank Redemption can seem just as homo as Brokeback Mountain. Queer is a gateway. Beyond those gates, the details are up to us.

Although she married and reproduced with a man, the poet Audre Lorde was fierce about naming herself lesbian. In 1986, during a public conversation with Astrid Roemer, Lorde explained that, for her, having sex with a woman was not the criterion for being a lesbian: "There are lesbian women who have never had genital or any other form of sexual contact with another woman, while there are also women who have had sex with other women who are not lesbian. A lesbian is a woman who identifies fundamentally with women and her first field of strength, of vulnerability, of comfort lies in a network of women..."

Maybe it's because I'm a poet, but I'm not afraid of words. Unless they are hurled as epithets, I think all words can be useful. Each word is a song worth singing, a beat worth grooving to. Language can be a gift and I love to open packages! I dig into shiny boxes and liberate their good intentions. Each word is an opportunity to unpack meaning.

We live in a society where labels are both obnoxious and helpful. Words like black, woman, lesbian and daughter do describe me, but they sometimes feel limiting or inaccurate. I wear them anyway, like a team t-shirt. Because I want "my people" to find me. For the budding dyke hungry for community, I will let my name come up in a Google search for black, lesbian and feminist. I will let myself be cited as her ally and kin. For her, I will carry and love the word lesbian.

Of course, I can be in love with words and still call them on their shit.

For example, "black" doesn't tell you that I'm Haitian-American or that my great-great grandmother was a Polish Jew. "Woman" may not make it clear that some days I wake up and feel genderless. "Lesbian" suits me, but not as snugly as "madivinez," "pomosexual" or "creole dyke." I'm your daughter, sure, but I've been parenting myself for years. I am feminist ― absolutely ― but womanist and humanist work just as well. I proudly wear the team t-shirt, but cut off the sleeves, cover it with buttons or dye it to express myself. Self-expression is the point.

I understand that terms become outdated. (Colored and Negro belong in the archives.) People change. Movements evolve. But I'm worried about word amnesia. Before we dismiss or discard a word, can we research what it meant to the people who first uttered, popularized or demonized it?

I'm curious: Do you feel represented, claimed and affirmed when you hear the word "queer" or "lesbian?" How do you identify? What are you wearing?!!