I have a confession to make. I am still a lesbian. Yes, I know this may come as a surprise. Even after the endless nagging and prodding of my more politically minded queer peers at an elite, private college in New England, I am still not a queer, but rather, a lesbian. To many in my beloved community, the term “lesbian” has fallen strongly out of fashion. I have even observed a measure of scorn in the way that some people say the word “lesbian.”
Perhaps it was the tragic misnomer that is “lesbian” porn, or maybe it was the oft transphobic, biphobic dykes of the 1970’s separatist camp who ruined it for everyone. Whatever happened, nobody told me about the changes in culture that swept “lesbian” into the metaphorical corner.
I came out when I was thirteen (I’m 23 now) and for all but one of those ten years I have identified as a lesbian, albeit a queered lesbian. Trust me, I am just your average hummus eating, processing session loving, Tribe 8 sing-alonging dyke. The community around me is undeniably queer: full of political events and unwashed activist funk covered by a thin layer of crystal deodorant. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish and am a part of queer community, it’s just that my sexual identity sparked my politics rather than the other way around. I was intrigued by the contrast between the way that my identity formed and that of those around me, so I asked four queers about how and why they came to identify as such.
For some people like my very best friend j.D., “queer” is the rightful title for their sexual/political place in the world because it acknowledges that identities are rarely neat and comfortable. During the interviews that I conducted, most participants noted that terms like “lesbian” and “bisexual” generally don’t encourage those around them to question and complicate their understandings of gender, sexuality, and identity. When I asked j.D. why the term “queer” was a better fit for them than “lesbian” or “bisexual,” they said, “What ‘queer’ allows me to do is figure out my identity while having people understand where I’m coming from, that I’m not straight, that there is something other than heterosexual about my identity.”
I never heard the term “queer” in any non-insulting way until my first weeks of college. I was the target of sexual harassment and physical assault because of my sexuality throughout my high school career, and the words “queer” and “dyke” often preceded some humiliation, some violence on behalf of my heterosexual schoolmates. When I found that the social spaces for same-sex/same gender loving people were queer rather than and often opposed to LGBT, I was prompted to reassess my deep discomfort with a word that had been used as violence against me in the past.
When I interviewed 21 year old R. I asked her what she would say to someone who, like me, had heard queer as an insult. She told me that queer can be a great example of “how words can hurt and take on a different meaning and who is using them. When a homophobic person uses the word ‘queer’ to hurt they mean a different thing then when a queer person uses it as a term of empowerment.” She went on to say that the discomfort that people have with “queer” can be helpful as “a starting point to think about words and language to talk about experience in a lot of different ways, such as heterosexual privilege and cissexual privilege.”
Of course, one can be both queer and a lesbian. But frequently the term “queer” is employed as a catch-all for identities such as gay, lesbian, and pansexual in a way that is unhelpful for understanding and respecting the key differences between these communities. When asked if she had ever identified as a lesbian, 28 year old D. complicated my question, saying, “Yes, but I think of the expressions as overlapping, I think you can be a self identified queer and a lesbian, and see elements of queerness as it pertains to yourself. I think all of the identities can be pretty flexible as pertaining to the individual.”
I hail from a community of Black same-sex and gender loving people in a small town in the center of New Jersey; most of the individuals that I spoke to were from large cities, and all of them were first generation Americans. Our diverse positions yielded equally varied responses to how Blackness intersected with sexuality. When I asked participants what it means to be Black and queer, j.D. said it was about “being mad sexy” and that among other similarly identified folks one doesn’t have to “explain that Black and queer are one word” and not separate ideas.
D. noted that it could point to being someone different than one’s community of origin may have expected saying, “It means trying to find the bridge between family cultural tradition and your proclaimed gender or sexual identity.” For certain, it can be difficult to reconcile multiple identities that seem disparate, but I know that this is also a fortunate facet of queerness; to queer something is to complicate it, to look at the seams that bind things to each other. What we call ourselves and who we claim as kindred are unbelievably complicated subjects, but as these words develop and evolve Black women will continue to find new ways to be their whole selves and build communities of support around their identities.
– Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.